31/12/2012

Books 2012


December

It Shouldn't Happen To A Vet by James Herriot (1972)
I've never read these books, although I seem to recall my grandparents had most of them. Why I should have skipped them I don't know. For some reason, this tatty copy in the book exchange at work appealed. Enjoyable, snack-sized vignettes of country life.
Summer Of Love: The Making Of Sgt. Pepper by George Martin (1994)
Despite buying this book several years ago, this is the first time I have read it. A fascinating record of what happened, and no-one can doubt its veracity. Apart from the bits he can't remember, as he himself points out in the introduction! Very interesting.
The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon (2003)
An excellent and understandably famous book. Although I'm not quite sure why it qualifies as a children's book. I won't be showing this to any of my kids until they're in their early teens.
The People's Music by Ian MacDonald (2003)
MacDonald's Revolution In The Head is definitive, but this collection of magazine articles is indulgent. Clearly a highly intelligent, widely-read, erudite and articulate man, MacDonald nevertheless consistently mistakes his own prejudices for objective truths and is a canonical example of a rock snob. There is much of interest here but too often MacDonald merely comes across as an overly verbose grumpy old man. The title piece is several thousand words long but could be summed up in five: "I don't like modern music."
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland (1995)
I first read this ages ago but now I actually work in software product development it makes more sense. (Not that where I work is like Microsoft or a start-up, really.) Very accurate about some details.
Thunder, Flush And Thomas Crapper: An Encycloopedia by Adam Hart-Davis (1997)
Amusing, mildly diverting and occasionally enlightening selection of snippets about toilets. Ideal for reading on the toilet. Although the fact that my copy is second-hand makes me wonder about how hygienic it is.
The Top Gear Story by Martin Roach (2011)
Ludicrously uncritical attempt to cash in on (new) Top Gear's success. Contains fleeting insights into the history, development and rationale behind the series but wastes too much space on simple recounting of old programmes. I'm not sure why I bothered or persevered, to be honest.
Reelin' In The Years by Mark Radcliffe (2011)
A characteristically witty and engaging book. The pop anorak in me likes the concept very much: a song for every year of your life, with added trivia. The reader in me finds the result a little fragmented.

24/11/2012

Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Sigur Rós
2008

Over lunch a few days ago, we pondered the question: is it necessary to be able to understand lyrics in order to enjoy a song? One of my friends argued that it wasn't; the enormous success of Western pop music in Japan proves this, happily sung phonetically in a thousand karaoke bars. In any case, he continued, most pop lyrics are banal substructure for important things like melody, phrasing and the like.

On the face of it, this makes sense and I should agree with it. I rarely listen to lyrics, and I don't think they're important at all. Often, lyrics are cryptic to the point at which they might as be in a foreign language. Right now, I'm listening to one of my favourite songs, "John Cope" by Talk Talk. The lyrics are minimal and meaningless to anyone who isn't Mark Hollis. It doesn't stop the song being brilliant.

Despite this, I regard it as fact that, for a song to be a success, it must have lyrics and they must be in English. In support of this, I present this, the fifth album by the popular Icelandic "ambient/post rock" (it says here) beat combo Sigur Rós. I found it to be very enjoyable, pretty music, well constructed, full of interesting melodies and accomplished playing. Yet, even though I've listened to it several times, I couldn't hum it to you now. Why is this? Could it be that it's mostly sung in Icelandic?

I think it might. Without identifiable linguistic pegs for the notes, it becomes a bit formless; effectively, instrumental music. Not that there is anything wrong with this - see my favourite instrumentals - but a song without lyrics needs to be superb to succeed, and I don't think any of the songs on this album work quite well enough.

22/10/2012

Passersby

Skyway 7
2004

For an album bought on the decidedly shaky premise of an interesting cover, this hasn't worked out too badly. I literally knew nothing about Skyway 7 before I bought this, had never even heard of them. I don't know much more now, beyond the alleged fact that it is a nom de studio of one John Roberts (source: last.fm).

It's a gentle, doodling sort of album, with hints of a whole lot of different ambient-y artists like Zero 7, Air or Lemon Jelly. "Forgotten Ones" sounds like Mr. Roberts has been listening to The Durutti Column. "Good Friends" reminds me of The Beta Band. The more noodle-y sections remind me of Ed Shearmur's musical inserts for Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel And Laurence (a superb film and a good soundtrack too). So, since I like all the cited references, this works out as a decent-ish sort of album for me.

However, it's difficult to pick a favourite track from this album. None of it is unpleasant and much of it is a perfectly nice way of passing the time. I can't imagine it becoming anyone's favourite album, though. And with so much other, better music to listen to, I can't imagine coming back to it. Sorry, John.


20/10/2012

Back At The Chicken Shack

Jimmy Smith
1960

A classic? Pleasant and inoffensive, sure. A lovely mellow Hammond organ sound - just what you'd expect from Jimmy Smith - and some nice playing on the sax. The guitar is too polite, both in content and tone, surprising from someone as legendary as Kenny Burrell.

If this is what popularised the Hammond organ and led to its use on countless classic rock tracks, then that ensures its place in history, I suppose. But listening to it now, it's underwhelming. Nice background music (unless jazz improvisation sets your teeth on edge).

19/10/2012

Ellington At Newport

Duke Ellington
1956


It's worth remembering that, whatever the excesses, law-breaking or general high-living normally associated with rock, jazz generally got there first. Sex, drugs and degeneracy, all well documented, my favourite book on the subject being Bird Lives.

So, if you thought that riots at gigs didn't happen until The Beatles, well think again. This concert, Duke Ellington playing at Newport in 1956, went so well that the audience wouldn't let it end and had to be calmed by the Duke himself and placated with several extra songs.

And if you thought that fabricating a live album was the province of something like Thin Lizzy's Live And Dangerous, well, sadly, Ellington At Newport proves that wrong too. It turns out the five-track album was predominantly a studio concoction. The concert did happen and it was recorded - just not released until over forty years later.

My fifties music project isn't concerned with such trivia though. The original album is a classic, and that's good enough for me. This is one of my favourite discoveries so far - all five tracks are gems. It's the epitome of swing and big band music.

On "Festival Junction" you can hear the train starting out, gathering speed and then riding the rails out through the night. "Blues To Be There" has not one, but two false endings. The first (~ 4'30") is followed by some delicious piano chords before restating the theme; the second (~ 6'20") deceives the crowd enough to have them clapping, before the horn section comes back in with a gorgeous big band riff. "Newport Up" is a faster, slightly more generic jazz track and my least favourite of the five. "Jeeps Blues" is sultry, late night listening. And "Diminuendo In Blue and Crescendo In Blue" is a jazz tour-de-force, combining tightly arranged big band music with small band improvisation, notably the legendary 27-chorus saxophone solo by Paul Gonsalves (full disclosure: I'd never heard of it until I read about it in 1001 Albums ... and on Wikipedia).

The complete concert is interesting listening, although possibly a little too much of a good thing for me. I love the original album though, great stuff.

18/10/2012

Blackbird

Alter Bridge
2007

I love the sound of a heavily distorted guitar as much as anyone, whether it's punching a heavyweight rhythm (think QOTSA's "Go With The Flow"), carpet-bombing a song with compacted layers of sound (MBV's "Only Shallow" a winner here), squalling on the edge of feedback (try "Down In The Woods" by Richard Hawley), shrieking unearthly squeals (Smashing Pumpkins' "Stand Inside Your Love" being a notable example), or just plain wailing ("Safesurfer" by Julian Cope is one of my favourite solos ever). But whatever it's doing, it must exist - as these examples do - in the context of a superb song.

Mark Tremonti - widdler-in-chief of Creed and Alter Bridge - gets lots of mentions in Guitarist magazine and although I find their coverage pretty well balanced compared to other titles, usually this would mean that he's another metal man, noted less for his song-writing than for his ability to execute ear-piercing 64th-note runs above the 20th fret on his signature PRS while driving those Bogner Shivas into meltdown. What distinguishes him is that, last year, his solo on Alter Bridge's track "Blackbird" won a Guitarist poll for the best guitar solo (ever!). I'm sure there was some fan forum mobilisation, but still, it makes it worth a listen, eh?

I have to say I've been very pleasantly surprised. There is some jaw-droppingly astonishing playing here but, more than that, the songs stand up to repeated listening. It's good hard rock - big crunchy guitars, heavy rhythms, tunes you can actually sing along to (an all-too frequently forgotten ingredient), all good stuff. The icing on the cake is Tremonti's ability - he sounds like he can make his instrument do just about anything.

My current favourite track - I've had a few since I started listening to the album - is "Brand New Start". In structure, it's a dead ringer for all-time axe-classic "More Than A Feeling"; the quiet start with clean picking, building to a huge chorus that also contains a hint of Bon Jovi. The solo is stunning - starting slowly before working up to a fantastic, wah-driven climax, with some really nice tricks thrown in for the guitar geeks out there (hi!). Album opener "Ties That Bind" is cool too, a crushing, speeding, double-time riff (in 12/8 - bit of a bitch to play, I'll tell you) breaking to a flag-waving chorus. Lyrics are typical teenage self-realisation "I'm going to be all I can be" bollocks, but hey, nothing's perfect.

And what of the "best solo ever"? Well, "Blackbird" is nearly eight minutes long and consists of several sections but never outstays its welcome. And in fact it contains two guitar solos, the first by singer Myles Kennedy, showing that as well as possessing a fine, warm voice, he's no slouch on the guitar either, the second by Mark Tremonti. The difference in styles is really interesting; Kennedy's is a slower, more bluesy, richer sound, while Tremonti's is more technical and somewhat shriller - which isn't to say it's all 100mph though, it's nicely constructed.

There are several other very enjoyable songs too. All through, the guitar playing and tones are superb. A couple of the songs towards the end of the album could have been dropped without loss, but that's a minor quibble. Overall, a real keeper for guitar lovers.

01/09/2012

Birth Of The Cool

Miles Davis
1957

I first came across Miles Davis in the mid-eighties, when I saw the video for "Decoy" on the Video Jukebox (an awesome six and a half hour broadcast by John Peel and John Walters which introduced me to many other artists too, including Donald Fagen and Tom Tom Club) - although right up until just now I would have sworn blind that the track they played was from Tutu, which shows how unreliable memory can be.

Then when I was about eighteen I went through a brief period of "liking" jazz - before I realised that none of it moved me like rock and stopped being so pretentious (in this respect, anyway).The little I knew led me, inevitably, to Miles, one of the few jazz musicians known to non-aficionados. Having decided that I should like jazz, he was where I started, and Birth Of The Cool was in the shop, so I bought it - on vinyl (we're talking about pre-CD days here). So, of the thirty-six albums that make up my music of the fifties project, this is the one I have owned for the longest.

Birth Of The Cool is actually a compilation album; the individual recordings were made about eight years prior to this collection's release. They were, as the title suggests, the beginnings of the cool jazz scene, and some of those involved made careers out of it, notably John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Gerry Mulligan. Miles, predictably unpredictable, never played cool jazz again. By the time Birth Of The Cool came along he had made - amongst many others - four acclaimed hard bop albums (Cookin', Relaxin', Workin' and Steamin) and was starting an excursion into orchestral jazz with Gil Evans that produced classics like Sketches Of Spain and Porgy And Bess.

OK, we can throw around all these terms like "cool jazz", "hard bop", "orchestral jazz" ... you know what? Unless you're well versed in the micro-classifications of jazz, you'll be unlikely to hear the differences (just as someone unfamiliar with rock would have trouble making the distinction between indie, AOR, stoner rock, NWOBHM, thrash or any other sub-sub-sub-divisions), but that doesn't really matter. What's it like?

Well, it's jazz, so it swings and grooves. But the swing is more subdued than, say, Duke Ellington's "Festival Junction" (which actually is "swing", if you're keeping track) and the groove more subtle than something like Charlie Parker's "A Night In Tunisia" (bebop). It's a very considered, deliberate, muted and understated sound and seems more arranged than most jazz, which is founded on improvisation. It is also very cool.

Depending on your attitude to jazz, it's not hard to listen to, but I do find it tricky to distinguish between the tracks. They are clearly different to each other, but there isn't one that stands out or one that, if I heard it out of context, I could name or place. The first track, "Move", is one of the most up-tempo tracks and most recognisable, while "Jeru" has a really interesting riff at the beginning. "Moon Dreams" - the final track on the LP, although not on the CD which, oddly, has a completely different running order - is a dreamy arrangement that I would liken to chamber music (and in fact there is another sub-genre called "chamber jazz" which was influenced in part by Birth Of The Cool).

I've bought quite a few of Miles Davis's albums over the years, on the general principle that they'll be good for me, and although I've quite grown to like some of them, they are all works to be admired rather than loved. And so it is with this. Occasional listening for the right mood; a superb example of what it is.

29/08/2012

The "Chirping" Crickets

The Crickets
1957

Despite being of a similar vintage and style (in the broader scheme of things) as Johnny Burnette, this seems completely different. Burnette played rock 'n' roll, inspired rockabilly and probably remains a minority interest. Buddy Holly played pop, inspired The Beatles and is a legend.

That's not to say this album is particularly good, sadly. The classics - "Oh Boy", "Not Fade Away", "Maybe Baby" and "That'll Be The Day" - are fantastic, whereas the remainder of the album tracks are filler. In particular, the slower songs on this album drag, which is odd, given that Holly was capable of such gems as "Everyday" or "Words Of Love" (neither of which are on this album).

Realistically, this reflects the attitude to albums at the time, a decade away from considering them as worthwhile artistic artifacts in their own right. Why this album then appears in the 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die is a bit of a mystery to me. Buddy Holly - with and without The Crickets - is an artist that really needs a Best Of to appreciate properly.

25/08/2012

The Complete Collection

Robert Johnson
Recorded 1936 & 1937; this collection released 2008

A long time ago I read Charles Shaar Murray's excellent Crosstown Traffic, his biography/cultural analysis of Jimi Hendrix, and this was the first time I really came across Robert Johnson's name. As a black man playing blues-driven rock, Hendrix was obviously influenced by Johnson, and the book goes into some depth about the older man's legend - his original incompetence, his mysterious disappearance for a year, the legendary deal with the devil, his spooky re-emergence as a towering genius and finally his death at the hands of a jilted husband (maybe). And of course, the music - described as a soul-rending cry in the wilderness, an eerie evocation of loneliness, horniness and the personification of the blues.

Hendrix - and Clapton, Page, Beck, etc. - probably discovered Robert Johnson in the early sixties on a compilation: The King Of The Delta Blues Singers, issued in 1961, about 25 years after the songs were recorded. But 1961 is 51 years ago. Over fifty years ago.

That's a long time and popular music has changed almost beyond recognition, which probably explains this: I don't get it. Whatever it is that the Surrey stockbroker belt guitar heroes heard in these brief, primitive, badly recorded tracks with odd time signatures and uncertain rhythms, it's not audible to me now. They sound far too insubstantial to take the weight of the hyperbole heaped upon them. And surely this is in part due to those very men who were so influenced. I, for one, can't listen to "Cross Road Blues" without hearing Cream's "Crossroads" and thinking how much more energy and power the cover version contains.

So, sure, Robert Johnson was limited by technology. The electric guitar was barely invented (the Rickenbacker "Frying Pan" was available from 1932) but no-one took it seriously yet. Recording technology was its infancy. But "a whole band on one guitar", like Murray claims? Um ...

It's a bit like cars, isn't it? (The Davison Auto Analogy Rule: when having trouble explaining technology, use a car analogy. Never fails.) The Ford Model T was revolutionary, but you wouldn't want to ride in one now, would you? (And you definitely wouldn't want to drive one, you'd kill yourself. Did you know that the middle pedal engaged reverse gear and the brake pedal was on the right?)

So it is with these tracks. They were revolutionary; everyone tells me so. Clearly they influenced generations of guitarists. But those influenced have moved guitar playing and guitar music on so far that these tracks sound like they come from the middle of the nineteenth century. Remembering that the recordings are contemporary with such delights of harmonic sophistication as Duke Ellington's "Caravan", Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" or Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" only serves to make them seem even more dated.

This particular collection, albeit complete (Johnson having only made two recording sessions in his life), has too many alternate takes of interest to obsessives only. In order to pare it down, I listened to the tracks from King Of The Delta Blues Singers, but it only helped marginally. File under "glad I've listened to it but unlikely to bother again".

07/08/2012

Why You Should Join The Socialists

Paul Foot
1993

I was lent this book by a colleague and since I've had it for several weeks, I felt I should put some time into it. Not that it takes much time, containing a mere seventy pages. At what point does a pamphlet become a book?

Nevertheless, this really is an admirably concise summary of the socialist position: what is wrong with capitalism, why socialism is the answer, why parliamentary socialism has failed and why the Socialist Workers Party has the right solution. Despite the brevity, there is plenty of information packed in and I learned a lot - although possibly this is because I've never looked into socialism before and am therefore deplorably ignorant.

The criticisms levelled by Paul Foot at the ineffective, undemocratic and exasperatingly pointless nature of parliamentary politics are not unique to the left wing - they are mirrored remarkably closely (albeit at much greater length) by Jeremy Paxman in his book The Political Animal (2004), which I also happen to be reading. I would venture to suggest that they are shared by most thinking people (where "thinking people" are defined as anyone who shares this view, obviously).

What differs is the opinion of the cause of these shortcomings. Foot - and socialists generally, I assume, from my limited exposure - believe that our current political system has been deliberately created by the "ruling class" to quash dissension, divert debate and create an illusion of democracy, all the while reinforcing the grip this ruling class has on power, property and money. He sees nothing less than a conspiracy to con the working class out of the fruits of their labours.

I'm not convinced. For this to be true would require an astonishing amount of intelligence, forward planning, understanding of human nature, and a supernatural ability to predict the future. The world and its environments - natural, economic, political, you name it - is insanely complex. It is a chaotic system, in the same way as the weather is. Even though it is deterministic, it is fundamentally unpredictable. Therefore, any attempt to consciously control it - either by some secret cadre or by a socialist planned economy - is doomed to failure. The evidence of this is all around us at the moment.

It's easy to look back with hindsight and see a pattern. Foot provides us with evidence (albeit with no citations at all, which dents his credibility somewhat) of ways in which things are getting worse. And you know what? I agree with him. There clearly is too much power in the hands of multi-national corporations and their bosses and the trend is not for this to be reduced. But to ascribe this to anything other than sociological drift is to credit too many people with too much intelligence.

I subscribe heartily to two maxims - I might even call them axioms - of human nature. The first is known as Hanlon's Razor: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity." The second is from Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman's fantastic book Adventures In The Screen Trade: "Nobody knows anything". (Goldman is explaining why you should be wary of anyone claiming to know what will produce a hit movie, but it applies universally.) People are stupid and ignorant. They are stupid in a myriad of complicated, clever, selfless ways and ignorant in another multitude of well informed, well researched and clever ways.

So, although I broadly agree with his analysis of what is happening, I don't agree with his claim for its cause. What about his contention - the point of the book - that the answer is socialism? Well, you won't be surprised to hear that I don't agree with that either.

Socialism seems to me to have a central paradox at its core. If you believe that the reason we are in our current mess is because humans are selfish, greedy and lazy, then how can you simultaneously believe that making everyone decide things together will magically cure this? It doesn't matter how much you try and demonize the "ruling class", they're still human. They behave the way they do not to protect their class but to protect themselves, individually, because that's human nature.

Socialists believe that somehow they can square this particular circle. Foot only alludes to it in this book but I'm sure there are lots of very detailed plans for making it work. But the key word here is "believe". You can't know this will work, only believe, because you can't prove anything. It's a cult, like any religion, like believing in aliens or that the Apollo moon landing was faked. Any evidence - however small - in favour of their pet theory is grasped wildly and trumpeted out of proportion to its significance. Any evidence against their beliefs is dismissed for any number of reasons, or even claimed to be further evidence of a conspiracy.

Worldwide, no society has successfully implemented socialism and many have provided gruesome evidence of how it would fail. Foot spends some time explaining that the former USSR or modern day China are not socialist states, but neglects to explain why they stopped being socialist. I'm sure there are many worthy theories for this that conveniently attribute the causes anywhere but at socialism itself, but surely one of the most basic requirements of any system is stability. If it can destabilised by rogue individuals, it's not actually much good, is it?

Socialists are probably fed up of critics waving Orwell's Animal Farm in their faces, but I can't really put my critique any better. Socialism isn't "self-government" because there's no such thing in any society of more than about fifty people. Someone is doing more of the governing than someone else - even if they're only "facilitating" decisions, choosing what information to publish to support that decision, or choosing how to implement a decision. How long before this person chooses to implement a decision in a way that suits them personally more than it suits someone else - even unconsciously?

And anyway, why would trusting the general public to make decisions on, say, economics or foreign affairs produce any better results than trusting them to vote on, say, X-Factor? Most people wouldn't be interested anyway. Those who were would be biased, prejudiced and under-informed. How would you make them otherwise? Force them to read? In no time at all, you're back where you were - with decisions being made by the people who want to be the people making decisions, with axes to grind or with personal gain in mind. And that's not tenable - as one of my favourite writers observed:

"The major problem - one of the major problems, for there are several - one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. 
"To summarize: it is a well known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. 
"To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job. 
"To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem."
Douglas Adams, The Restaurant At The End Of The Universe (1980)



I don't have an answer. I don't think there is an answer. And I'm very suspicious of people who claim to have an answer or (worse) know the answer. If there's one thing I would change about our current political culture, it's the way that uncertainty is seen as weakness.

"The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt."
Bertrand Russell, "The Triumph of Stupidity" (1933)


One can only respect the dedication that people like Paul Foot have, but I can't help but regard it as misguided.

26/07/2012

Flesh + Blood

Roxy Music
1980

Ever ahead of their time, Roxy Music released this quintessentially eighties album right at the beginning of the decade. It's the audio equivalent of glossy magazines like GQ, a wide-screen production tastefully swathed in reverb, delay and chorus (the definitive eighties sound effect) - in summary, many of clichés of the music to follow.

However, since this is Roxy Music, it is all done with style and restraint. It sounds wonderfully organic rather than processed. The piano introducing "My Only Love" has just enough delay and modulation to broaden the sound out, the bass interlocks subtly with it and the drums and the strings echo the keyboard hook. It sounds so luxuriant.

Maybe it's because I've just finished reading Guy Pratt's My Bass And Other Animals (a most entertaining read from a well known session bassist), but I was particularly aware of the bass on this album - yet another way in which it foreshadowed one of the key sonic elements of the decade. Whether it's providing bubbly funk in "Same Old Scene" (Pratt says that once you've mastered the bubble, it's all you want to do), anchoring and driving the whole of "Over You", winding rubberily through "My Only Love" or playing more traditional counterpoint in "Oh Yeah", it's always upfront.

The four songs mentioned so far are easily the best, a quartet of absolute classics anyone would be proud of and making this album easily worth the entry price. Listening to the start of "My Only Love" or "Same Old Scene" on my newly setup speakers at a decent volume is my new favourite pastime.

The rest of the album is not quite at the same standard. Some songs are perfectly acceptable - a smooth lounge-funk reading of Wilson Pickett's "In The Midnight Hour" is nice, the title track has a decent enough melody and "Rain Rain Rain" had a nicely minimal feel (relatively speaking; we're not talking as minimal as, say, Mark Hollis). But the cover of The Byrds' "Eight Miles High" does no-one any favours and the other songs are forgettable.

24/07/2012

Just call me Neo

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"
 - Arthur C. Clarke
I had a fun experience the other day. I got to be a magician.

We moved and transferred our cable broadband account to the new house.  Two engineers came to install it, one about my age with a seen-it-all demeanour, and his junior partner, a gawky young apprentice. They  pulled out their toolboxes, prised the covers off the existing boxes on the outside of the house and started testing connections with some neat-looking devices. I asked some desultory questions and got convincing answers about signal strength.

So far, so hardware, it's all a bit over my head. Or rather, under my feet - I've never really had much interest in low-level infrastructure.

They connected up a shiny new cable modem/router and waited for it to boot properly. It didn't work. They got another out of the van and tried again. It looked like it was working this time, so they asked if I had a computer. "Several," I answered, "what do you need to do on it? Does it need Windows or can I use Linux?"

"Linux?" the older guy asked, looking confused. "I just need Internet Explorer." OK, we can do a browser without having to resort to Windoze (or <deity> help us, IE), so I got out my Ubuntu laptop and fired up Chromium. After struggling for a minute or so, he handed it back to me and asked to go to a web page. Nothing. No connection.

They got another hub from the van and tried it. Looked good, so we tried the web site. Still no response. They were just about to go and see if they had any more in stock, so I asked them to wait a moment. "Let me just try something," I said. "It looks like the DNS isn't resolving."

I opened a terminal window and typed a quick command in. Here's a screenshot of what I did.


"Looks like it's resolving now," I said, "let's try the web site again." Sure enough, it worked this time.

The engineers were absolutely flabbergasted. "Did you see that?" said the older man, "he's like Neo in The Matrix! We've been sending these hubs back as broken and it just needed this guy to sort them out!"

I tried explaining that we'd just left the router long enough for it to sort itself out, but they weren't having it. As far as they were concerned, I'd employed strong tech-fu to make it work. They were still talking about it twenty minutes later when they left.

I guess if you've never seen a command line before, it's all like ... magic.

23/07/2012

Third

Portishead
2008

It took me a long time to realise that Portishead didn't produce sampled-up, slowed down [tr|h]ip hop, but latter-day sixties film noir soundtracks. That's not my field of expertise but the influences are more Lee Hazelwood and Ennio Morricone than Public Enemy.

Third makes this more explicit than their previous two albums, to my ears. The atmospherics are, if anything, stronger than on Dummy and certainly colder. The album as a whole feels bleak, cold and negative.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The quality of arrangement is consistently superb, a scarcity of instrumentation emphasising the emotions and making the occasional changes more stark.

A good example is "Magic Doors", the penultimate track and probably my favourite. The verse is all on one chord, mainly drums and bass, with noodly keyboards way in the background for atmosphere. On the chorus a simple piano crashes chord changes and the contrast really highlights the melody. Then pretty much everything stops for a honking, free-form saxophone solo that seems too fraught to find itself before resolving to an almost vocal texture. Fantastic.

Other highlights include "The Rip", which wouldn't be out of place on Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man's Out Of Season. It starts off very pastoral, but I like the way that after each chorus it artificially sustains Beth's voice, the organ starts throbbing and the percussion kicks in. Very cool.

"Machine Gun", which was the first single if I remember correctly, sounds like a deliberate attempt to alienate all but the most committed listeners. It is so uncompromising, consisting mostly of a primitive, jarring drum machine and the vocal. The shame of it is that when, for the last 30 seconds, the keyboard joins in, it is vastly improved.

The sole foot wrong is "Deep Water", a faux-folky thing with a ukulele, which I could do without really, and in which Beth pretends to sing out of tune. Unnecessary.

Overall, not easy listening and only for very specific occasions, but an accomplished album all the same.

18/05/2012

Standing At The Sky's Edge

Richard Hawley
2012

Some albums take time to really appreciate or understand, but some are very immediate. It only took a couple of listens to know that I wasn't going to listen to The Incredible String Band's pretentious nonsense again any time soon. And it only took one run through to know that I was going to love Richard Hawley's latest album.

I was always going to get his new album, regardless. After being five years late to Coles Corner, I've been making up for lost time and have been working my way through all his albums. I've yet to find one I don't like; his brand of deceptively simple song writing and marvellously restrained, slightly retro style has been a revelation. When I read that Standing At The Sky's Edge was something of a departure and he was going all psychedelic, well, I was intrigued. I immediately pre-ordered it on Amazon (this is before we found out they pay no tax, the gits).

It arrived a week ago and I've listened to it almost exclusively since. It is magnificent. The straightforward acoustic strums and clean, tasteful, reverb-laden solos on previous albums give way to a wall of sound and wailing guitars. There's a couple of beautiful, more reflective songs - although even these are decorated with lashings of echoing guitar - but most of the songs are rocking hard.

There are hints of many different influences but the mark of greatness is that although I can name some, I can't think of anything that sounds quite like this. There are definite hints of the more way-out end of Britpop; some Oasis perhaps (and in many respects this is the album Noel Gallagher has been trying - and failing - to make since 1995), Hurricane #1, Dark Star or The Music. But mostly, it is its own music.

All of the songs are excellent and, as Stuart Maconie said in a review in The Word, another sign of a great album is that different songs emerge as favourites over time. But three in particular have grabbed my attention.

"She Brings The Sunlight" is the first track and begins as a slow, dirge-like churn that breaks out the Beatle harmonies on the chorus before exploding with a fantastic, overdriven guitar solo laden with effects (wah-wah, phaser - or possibly a Lesley cabinet - and delay, to my ears). It's hypnotic and increasingly intense, leading up to an even better final solo that suddenly cuts off. I could have done with another several minutes of solo, but that's Richard Hawley - as much as the song needs and no more. Utterly fantastic. "Down In The Woods" is a driving, pounding rocker washed in washes of feedback and a solo that proves you don't need more than a few notes to achieve a memorable effect. And finally, "You Leave Your Body Behind You" is another rocker, a little softer this time.

Standing At The Sky's Edge is a proper guitar album, and I don't mean some guitar-wankery like Steve Vai or Joe Satriani. It literally has guitars all over it - other than the beautiful cover image, all the rest of the booklet's pictures are close-ups of vintage guitars. The variety of textures and sounds Richard Hawley (and his co-guitarist) creates is astonishing - and my point here is that this is what guitar virtuosity really is, not the ability to cram six bazillion notes into a solo. Having stunning songs helps too.

All in all - the kind of record that is the reason I still listen to new music. An instant classic.

10/05/2012

69 Love Songs

The Magnetic Fields
1999

This was recommended to me by my friend Paul, and I can understand why he likes it. Paul is a firm subscriber to the "more is more" school of thought, a sentiment he clearly shares with The Magnetic Fields. Sixty-nine songs over three CDs requires a fair investment of time to give it a fair play, and I was a little concerned that it wouldn't be worth it - double albums are rarely without filler, let alone a triple one.

As it turns out, it's easy listening and hasn't needed many goes to get to grips with. Many of the songs are memorable after a couple of listens, and there's lots of good material here. However, it's still too long. There's enough filler to repair the whole field after a demolition derby. You could ditch a dozen songs without affecting the overall quality and still keep the needless consistency of equal numbers of tracks per CD.

My overall impression is of immaturity (69, hur hur) and lack of effort. It sounds like a collection of demos. Some of the songs are more complete than others, while some are barely more than sketches. The arrangements are all underdeveloped and amateurish too; for example, "Let's Pretend We're Bunny Rabbits" is almost, but not quite, like a Beach Boys song. With a bit more effort, it could have been a brilliant pastiche. As it is, it's gently amusing.  Too many of the lyrics are incomplete and apparently first drafts, and although there is plenty of clever clever word-play, there's also too much making-do with cliche, and jarring rhymes that sound like they're the first thing the writer thought of, and later used his cleverness to justify leaving rather than improving.

I haven't read any reviews, but no doubt someone, somewhere, has described this as The Magnetic Fields' "magnum opus". But I think this album is a wasted opportunity. With more effort and better quality control, the most cringe-worthy of the lyrics could be excised, the music vastly improved, the best bits combined and you could easily have two excellent, normal length (15 songs or so) albums.

As it is, you could make a decent single album with the best of the existing songs. Here's my track-listing for it:

  1. I Don't Believe In The Sun
  2. All My Little Words
  3. I Don't Want To Get Over You
  4. Sweet Lovin' Man
  5. When My Boy Walks Down The Street
  6. No-one Will Ever Love You
  7. If You Don't Cry
  8. You're My Only Home
  9. Busby Berkely Dreams
  10. I'm Sorry I Love You
  11. Yeah! Oh, Yeah!
  12. The Night You Can't Remember


In overall sound, much of it is strongly reminiscent of The Divine Comedy, largely because of Stephin Merrit's deep voice but also due to the wordiness and some of the arrangements. There is quite a lot of stylistic variety (albeit too much ukulele for comfort) and a number of different singers, which is just as well as Merrit's voice would be very tedious over this many tracks.

There are a few egregiously bad songs. "Love Is Like Jazz" is a single micro-joke extended for 3 mins and played by people who don't actually know or understand jazz. "Promises Of Eternity" has woefully weedy synthetic strings. "Punk Love" is a complete waste of time (and not very punk, either). "Experimental Music Love" is pointless, even as an art experiment.

So, overall, an interesting exercise, with much to recommend it but fatally flawed - confusing quantity with quality and the sanctity of inspiration with the need for hard work.

However, this doesn't seem to be the general opinion. This is a cult album and inspires a fair amount of misplaced devotion (I say misplaced because anyone describing 69 Love Songs as flawless - as one person does on last.fm - needs to get out of their little indie rut and listen to some real classics). There's a book explaining all the songs, a whole wiki dedicated to it, and a work-in-progress attempt to illustrate the whole thing (for which Paul has submitted one of the most inventive illustrations - yay Paul!).


26/04/2012

Hurry Up, We're Dreaming

M83
2011

Why carry on listening to new music? I've got so much, I've got firm favourites that, at my age, are unlikely to become displaced by anything new. Is anything ever going to match the stripped down, oiled up elegance of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy The Silence", or the compressed punch of QOTSA's "First It Giveth"? I highly doubt it. So what's the point?

Well, I enjoy tracing the influences down the decades, listening to how innovations get adopted and adapted, subverted and perverted down the years. I like understanding what floated the boats of previous generations. I want to try and hear what other people hear when they acclaim a classic. I get a kick out of being a trainspotter about the production details.

But actually, all this just time filler. The real reason I listen to new music is because, once in a blue moon, some combination of factors gels perfectly and knocks me out. For a day, a week, that track becomes all I want to hear. When this happens, it makes all the gold panning worthwhile.

Such a track is "Midnight City". I heard it for the first time less than a week ago. It is now the song I've listened to the most number of times over the last 12 months. (I'm can't be the only person doing this, either: it has significantly more plays than any other M83 track on last.fm.)  It's a fantastic collision of The Human League recast as stadium rock and Flesh And Blood-era Roxy Music as covered by My Bloody Valentine. It contains wonderfully crunchy, analog square wave synthery and a two note riff that sounds likes it's being played by an hysterical gnome, all drenched in M83's trademark OTT reverb. And just to cap it all, it comes complete with a saxophone solo at the end that is So Eighties It Hurts.

In fact, the first three songs are all good; they are "Intro", "Midnight City" and "Reunion".  They alll stay close to the same template - you could say that M83 are formulaic and I wouldn't disagree, although luckily it's a formula I like. It's obviously indebted to the 80s; it's there in the nods to Hugh Padgham production sounds, or of Peter Gabriel on So. It reminds me in some respects of Neon Neon's Stainless Style, but instead of being a deliberate homage, it uses the influences as a jumping off point.

The keyboard sounds are immense, bigger even than my previous benchmark for high quality synth action, Will Gregory's on Goldfrapp's Supernature and Head First. There's a bit too much surface sizzle but it's so dazzling I don't mind the lack of depth. As well as "Midnight City", I also like "Claudia Lewis", which includes Tony Levin-esque bass slaps for added 80s flavour, on top of everything else; "Wait", a much slower version of the formula which builds very satisfyingly; and "Raconte/Moi Une Histoire" which is like M83 does Lemon Jelly.

All of the songs mentioned are from the first CD. The album is too long, as most double albums are (I can only think of three off the top of my head that don't need editing: London CallingOut Of The Blue and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) but overall, good. And worth the price of entry for "Midnight City".

21/04/2012

The Wildest!

Louis Prima
1956

It's difficult to know how to classify this album. It's a real curiosity. There's some jazz, some blues, some standards, some Jordan-esque boogie. It all begins to make a bit more sense when you learn that Prima was always an inveterate entertainer and, at the time of this recording, was playing nightly in one of the biggest venues in Las Vegas. So the mix is representative of a show band at the peak of its powers - something for everyone, we're here all week, try the veal.

There's a real sense of energy and humour running through the whole thing. Most indicative of this is the track "Just A Gigolo/I Ain't Got Nobody", later covered pretty much note-for-note by Dave Lee Roth and suiting his party animal image perfectly. Not bad for a (then) thirty year old recording of a sixty year old tune. But there's plenty of other things to enjoy. The standard "Body And Soul" starts straight but appears to be derailed and starts speeding up more and more, before crashing to a halt and resuming at a more sedate speed. Well, I find it amusing and I think it's supposed to funny.

Other picks would be "Jump, Jive An' Wail" which I thought could easily be a Louis Jordan song but is a Prima original, and "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You", which is fun. And that's the feel of the whole album - fun. Prima's a decent trumpeter, distinctive singer (he sang "I Wan'na Be Like You" in The Jungle Book) and excellent entertainer. Again - not what I expected from the fifties.

20/04/2012

Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs

Marty Robbins
1959

If I had to lay bets about the genre of music least likely to appeal to me, it would be country and western. Both kinds. And this album seems to embody all the aspects that irritate me: maudlin balladry, overwhelming sentimentality and an inexplicable obsession with a distant (and brief) period of history. Don't most people grow out of playing cowboys and indians by the time they're twelve?

So it comes as a complete surprise to me to find that I have heartily enjoyed this album. In fact it's probably my favourite so far of the albums from the fifties that I've listened to. I should learn to get over genre classifications. Or remind myself that, as Louis Armstrong said, there are only two types of music. This is the good kind.

My most common complaints about some of the music I've been listening to recently is the lack of proper tunes. This is not a charge you can level at Marty Robbins. Every single track here has a super, straight-forward, whistle-able tune that actually stays with you, accompanied by simple guitar, bass and drums. It might be simple but it is mightily effective.

Favourites? "Big Iron" starts the album and is a song of a ranger and an outlaw having a shoot out. The acoustic guitar strums in an insistent rhythm while the double bass thumps satisfyingly underneath it, while the story unfolds over it in a wonderfully singable tune. And so we find for the whole album. The songs are mostly stories: "El Paso" is the story of a man who kills and runs, but returns for his woman (and gets killed); "The Master's Call" tells of a boy who becomes an outlaw but is rescued by a vision of God, or Jesus, or something. All are blessed with superb melodies.

So, C&W, eh? Bring it on. Next stop: Hank Williams.

19/04/2012

Outlandos d'Amour, Regatta de Blanc, Zenyattà Mondata

The Police
1978, 1979, 1980

Many online reviews of The Police's first three albums are faintly derisory, acknowledging the quality of the musicianship but questioning the authenticity of the songs. The suggestion is that The Police were somehow fake; that they deliberately engineered their image and sound to suit the times but that their hearts lay somewhere else.

This is, of course, classic inverse rock snobbery, but, for some reason, it persists. Only last month, an article in The Word could describe Zenyattà Mondata as "overrated" and add, "surely, no-one listens to this any more". Yet the notion that, say, The Clash or The Ramones were in any way less artfully conceived or more genuine (whatever that means in this context) than The Police is clearly bollocks.

I think that, over thirty years later, we should be able to get past this and appreciate the albums for what they are. In this age of inflated artificial celebrity, instant fame and naked ambition, can we really fault a band that wrote and recorded such classics as "So Lonely", "Roxanne" or "Can't Stand Losing You" (all off Outlandos d'Amour), "Message In A Bottle"or "Walking On The Moon" (from Regatta de Blanc), or "Don't Stand So Close To Me" and "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (Zenyattà Mondatta)?

And that's just the singles. Many of the album tracks are just as good. My favourites would include "Hole In My Life", "Truth Hits Everybody", "Masoko Tango", "Bring On The Night", "The Bed's Too Big Without You", "Driven To Tears" (fantastic guitar solo), "When The World Is Running Down, You Make The Best Of What's Still Around" ... I could go on.

What still shines through is the sheer expertise on display. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, Sting is a brilliant songwriter. Even if you don't like the songs, surely you can see the craft. Andy Summers is an astonishing guitarist, his unassuming manner and nonchalance disguising true mastery of his instrument. And Stewart Copeland is generally acknowledged as one of the world's best drummers; again, the lightness of touch masking the skill.

I really enjoy all three of these albums and I think they're all underrated, if anything.

13/04/2012

Tapestry

Carole King
1971

As well as being another on the list of 1001 Albums (tick!), this was a favourite of an old friend of mine with whom I have since lost touch (i.e. I got fed up with being the one who always called him). Despite this, and it being widely recognised as a classic, I've never really been motivated to seek it out.

Coming to it now, the initial listens felt very unbalanced; four of the tracks are very well known while the rest are completely new to me. However, several runs through sorted this out and the whole record is a pleasing, consistent whole, both thematically (with one exception) and in sound.

The outstanding tracks are, inevitably, the famous ones. "It's Too Late" and "You've Got A Friend" are lessons in the strength of simplicity - of sentiment, of melody and of arrangement. The same approach gives a interestingly different interpretation of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow"; The Shirelles' original sounds like a nervous teen worried that her boyfriend will still respect her in the morning, while the version here is an adult woman concerned about the next few decades.

The less known tracks are also enjoyable, particularly "So Far Away" and "Way Over Yonder".  The only track that grates at all is "Smackwater Jack", which seems out of place - not stylistically but thematically, not being about personal feelings.

The sound mix on my CD (which was secondhand and is probably the original CD release and not the newer "Legacy" edition) is a little muffled, which makes some of the drums, particularly, distracting on, say "So Far Away" (or maybe it's just my AKG headphones which are admitedly quite bass-heavy).

I'm glad to make this album's acquaintance now - a very pleasant album that will no doubt hit the spot on occasion.

31/03/2012

The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter

The Incredible String Band
1968

I wish I'd heard this album when I was 18. I would probably have been impressed with it: the brave exploration of vocal microtones, pioneering extended song cycles, primitive instrumental skills on an eclectic variety of ethnic instruments, and existential lyrics (the hangman represents death and his daughter the afterlife, apparently) are all guaranteed to go down well with a young, impressionable, pretentious mind and a few joints.

However, with the benefit of age and a much broader musical experience, I now hear it differently: out-of-tune singing, an inability to write a simple, solid tune, inept musicianship and hippy babble. It really is painful to listen to.

I know I've said that some albums require several listens to really know, but I think it's fair to say that sometimes you just take an instant dislike to an album. I've listened to this about three times now and I'm very reluctant to inflict it on myself again.

It's very much of its time, a kind of acid-folk that reminds me, at its most whimsical, of the previous year's Piper At The Gates Of Dawn - albeit without the same knack for a tune or musicianship. There are echoes of other folk music, of course: parts of "A Very Cellular Song" remind me of Simon & Garfunkel's "A Simple Desultory Philippic", although the latter was intentionally amusing. And talking of comedy, are we absolutely sure that "The Minotaur's Song" is not actually Monty Python doing an early prototype of what became "The Lumberjack Song"? The only song I can vaguely stand is "Swift As The Wind" because it has a tune I like a bit. Only a bit though, and the title just reminds me of Spinal Tap ...

All in all, badly dated, hippy folk rubbish of historical interest only. Still, that's another one ticked off the 1001 Albums project.

29/03/2012

Hercules And Love Affair

Hercules And Love Affair
2008

This is a curious mix of an album.  In too many respects, it's a fairly pedestrian modern disco (or would that be "nu-disco" these days?) collection, with some house flavours.  What occasionally raises it above also-ran status is the presence of Antony Hegarty on a few key tracks.

"Time Will" wouldn't sound out of place on I Am A Bird Now if the instrumentation was changed from the sequenced bass and drums arrangement.  It's a slow song that reminds me of some Zero 7 pieces - except for Antony's unique voice, which sounds far away from the identikit soul vocalists used elsewhere on the album.  He also does his best Sylvester diva turn on "Blind", a fantastic slice of disco which was the reason I bought this album (and which rockets in at #93 on my "Best Of The Noughties", fact fans!)

His wonderfully overwrought vocals on these two tracks make them really stand out and they are, by some distance, my favourites on the album.  Of the rest, only "Hercules Theme", a slice of mid-pace Philly soul, appeals at all.  The other tracks are OK, being a mix of some house-y, garage-y influences, and a couple of tracks that sound very like Remain In Light-era Talking Heads.  Overall, only really worth it for those two songs.

22/03/2012

Out Of Season

Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man
2002

What attracted me to this album was not just Beth Gibbons' headline name, but the knowledge that Rustin Man is an alias for Paul Webb. "Who?" you may ask. Only the bass player for one of my favourite bands of all time - Talk Talk.

The short and lazy summary of this music would be that it sounds like a folky version of Portishead. But that's only by assuming the broadest sense of "folk music", that includes, say, Nick Drake and John Martyn, influences reflected in songs such as "Sand River" and "Drake" (the title's a bit of a give-away here). However, this categorisation doesn't give you a clue to songs such as "Tom The Model" or "Romance", which sound more rooted in the Bacharach & David classics of the sixties.

In some ways the overall feel is of a cross between Portishead and Talk Talk. That this should be is perhaps not as obvious as it might seem. It's generally acknowledged that from 1986's The Colour Of Spring, Talk Talk's sound was largely driven by Mark Hollis and Tim Friese-Green. However, Beth Gibbons has similarities in vocal style to Mark Hollis - that intimate, whispered, quite dry sound - and some instrumentation is the same - Lee Harris, Talk Talk's drummer appears, as does Mark Feltham, harmonica player to the stars and the man responsible for some remarkable solos on The Colour Of Spring.

My favourite song is "Show", in which Beth weaves plaintive verse, bridge and chorus melodies across the same, simple, unchanging four bar piano and double bass refrain. The aforementioned "Tom The Model" has a great chorus, and wouldn't be out of place on more recent retro-sixties efforts from the likes of Amy Winehouse. Overall, an enjoyable album and a worthy addition to the discographies of both Talk Talk and Portishead.

11/03/2012

Breaking Free

Vanessa Hudgens & Zac Efron (& Drew Seeley)
2006

I really like High School Musical.  It crept up on me.  I was originally dismissive; to someone of my generation, any musical set in an american school has to compare with Grease - and the squeaky-clean sensibilities of Disney are never going to come out well against that.  But repeated exposure (thanks K - I've probably seen it more times than just about any other film now) has allowed it to work its charm.  Yes, it's fluffy, lightweight and contains several times the RDA of movie cliché.  But it's full of knowing winks, little touches and winning performances.  Remarkably, for a film with such relative lack of ambition - it was made as a Disney TV movie - it survives being watched multiple times.

And the songs bear repeated listens too.  There's nothing ground-breaking or, indeed, particularly remarkable about them, but they are masterpieces of craft.  They work best in the context of the film, but this, for me, is the pick of the bunch and stands on its own.  It has such a lovely melody and builds perfectly from a simple beginning to a crescendo before ending on a boy/girl harmony that's a dead ringer for that of "Summer Nights" - just another deliberate nod, in my opinion.

It grates slightly that the producers felt the need to replace Zac Efron's voice; it's him singing the first few bars but then the rest of the male performance is Drew Seeley, who probably has a better range but has a less distinctive voice.  And did no-one notice that the cover of the single is a shot from much earlier in the film than when this song appears?  I know, I know, I should get out more ...


Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties

08/03/2012

Greetings From L.A.

Tim Buckley
1972

I bought this album on our shopping trip a while back, mainly because it's on the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, which I am very slowly working my way through (although I'm a little out of sequence here, I haven't made it out of the fifties yet). There must be something special about it to warrant its presence in the book. Unfortunately, I can't figure out what it is.

It is quite a short album by modern standards, at just under 40 minutes - classic vinyl album length, of course, before all the extra bonus track nonsense afforded by CD - so I can listen to it twice on the way to work and twice again on the way back. I've done this for a few days now, so I think it's fair to say I've given it a good go.

Still, all I hear is perfectly pleasant seventies rock & soul. Even after a dozen listens, none of the tracks really stand out to me. I quite like the slower "Sweet Surrender" for its sense of late night regret, heavily effected rhythm guitar and strings, but that's about it. "Make It Right" is nice enough. Tim Buckley's voice is incredible, although I don't get any real sense that he's stretching it here. The instrumentation is pretty standard soul - swirling hammond organ, scratchy guitar, funky bass - but used to less effect than, say, Bowie's take on the same inspiration a few years later with Young Americans.

Overall, I'm not sure why I had to hear this album. Maybe it's just Tim Buckley - I've tried other albums of his and never really gelled with them. Oh well. Love the cover though.


28/02/2012

Biophilia

Björk
2011

On first listen, I thought this was pretentious, arty nonsense. There are no obvious tunes, the instrumentation is mostly tinkly, plinky and irritating (although not as offensive as the unpleasant clouds of noxious drum 'n' bass farted randomly over several tracks) and Björk's unique vocal tics are as much to the fore as ever. Listening to her sing reminds me of a small child reading from a book; stopping at the end of every line, regardless of whether that is the end of a sentence or not.

Some of my favourite albums have needed several listens and while there's a place for music that has a real immediacy, it would be very tiring if no music had depth too. So I was determined to give it a chance, but I have to say I wasn't looking forward to listening to it again.

Having persevered, some tracks are beginning to lodge in my mind. "Cosmogony" is a sweet description of different creation stories with lovely backing from ethereal voices and what sounds like a muffled and heavily treated brass band - and benefits from a a discernible structure. "Thunderbolt" has some nice crunchy sounds and, again, a melody that you can remember.

However, too many of the tracks are kind of tone poems, the kind of songs that make me wonder how anyone remembered them long enough to record them. They sort of meander around but go nowhere.  There are plenty of very beautiful moments but only a couple that last more than a few bars. The introduction of what is apparently "breakcore" (honestly, ffs) into three of the songs is just horrible, inappropriate and unnecessary. And "Crystalline" contains the line "blinded by the light" which is unfortunate because it reminds me that music can be much better.

Obviously there's some sort of concept. Before I asked the interweb to teach me all about it, my impression was that it was the story of the development of life itself. "Biophilia" means love of life or of living things. Reading it up, there's all sorts of things going on and, in particular, the album is also available as an iOS app which visualizes it all for you.

As someone who owns no iThings (or has any current intention to), my question then is: does it work as music? Mostly, yes. Do I want to listen to it again? A couple of tracks, yes. Most of it, no. Overall, a disappointment.

23/02/2012

The Everlasting Blink

Bent
2003

I purchased Bent's first album on a previous shopping trip so the thematic link involved in getting their second album on this jaunt appealed to me.  However, whereas I quite liked Programmed To Love, this is a bit of a disappointment.

It's mostly ambient, modern easy listening such as that produced by Lemon Jelly or Zero 7.  It drifts past your ears without leaving much of an impression.  It's all very well produced but I'm not sure what the point is.

A couple of tracks distinguish themselves amongst the overall wash of sound.  "Moonbeams" has glistening lap steel pealing out over a fairly generic backing, while "So Long Without You" is a nice song.

If I was after something inoffensive to have on in the background, then this would be fine.  But that's about it.

22/02/2012

If 60's Were 90's

Beautiful People
1994

I've owned the single "If 60s Were 90s" for ages now, after picking it up cheap somewhere.  It's one of my favourite unknown curiosities - a lazy, dance-y, very obviously of-its-time track built on the shuffling Soul II Soul "Keep On Moving" beat that indie-dance (over) used in the mid-nineties.  In overall sound it's very similar to Moodswings' cover of "State Of Independence" (which features Chrissie Hynde, trivia lovers!).

I call tracks like this "dust bunnies" - those efforts lost under the bed, if you will, of Time itself.

Ahem.  Anyway, here's the unique concept: "If 60s Were 90s" is constructed from a whole slew of samples from Jimi Hendrix - all officially sanctioned, at that.  The guitar samples all come from "Voodoo Chile", while "If 6 Was 9" provides the vocal samples.  It's very, very well done - just like, to use the artist's own description on the video:
... sort of Enigma meets Jimi with 10cc bvs round at The Orb's house ...
That said, I was a little sceptical about the idea of a whole album based on the same idea.  Sure, there's plenty of Hendrix material to work with (particularly if you have the multi-tracks available); and let's not forget that Jimi was so, so far ahead of his time that his music could easily fit into any subsequent decade. But nine tracks of it?

Certainly, the title track is the most cohesive as an overall song, but the album as a whole has grown on me.  The other tracks are more exercises in a groove, without a song structure as such.  But the samples are all well chosen and well woven into the overall feel.  I'm not familiar enough with Hendrix's output to recognise all of the samples (although there's a handy samples chart included) and since the credits include "additional guitar" on some tracks, I can't say for certain what's been added.  It does all hang together though.

Other than the title track, stand-outs for me include "Feel The Heat", which samples the intro from "Long Hot Summer Night" (Electric Ladyland, 1968) and loops it into a really funky riff; the first track, "Coming To Get You", which contains some fantastic guitar; and "Sock It To Me" which weaves the samples around some atmospheric synth sounds and an overall sound that reminds me of nothing so much as Flowered Up's "Weekender"*.

As an overall exercise, it's not an unqualified success, but enjoyable and good fun.

No excuses for the cover art though, it's dreadful.


* While we're on the subject, take a look at the video for "Weekender" - I'd never seen it before.  Here's part 1 & part 2.

20/02/2012

Joan Baez

Joan Baez
1960

I bought this as part of my grand plan to listen to lots of classic albums from history (starting in the fifties) and realised that I already knew it.  My parents own this album and I listened to it during my teenage years.  The cover is different for some reason (I think - I don't have my parents' copy to hand) and so this threw me, but as soon as I listened to it again, I recognised every song.

If you haven't heard it before, then the first song, "Silver Dagger" is as representative of both the album and Baez's unique voice as any.  Accompanied only by her own guitar playing, her voice ranges from beautifully soft to ice-clear stridency and back again.  The melody is a traditional one, but you might recognise it because Saint Etienne used it for "Like A Motorway" (from Tiger Bay, 1994).  The other reason I like "Silver Dagger" is that, unlike a number of the other songs, it is sung from a woman's perspective.  When the song is written from a man's point-of-view, that's how Joan Baez sings it (for example, "East Virginia"), which I find slightly jarring.

Other favourites: "The House Of The Rising Sun", which is sung from a female perspective (unlike The Animals' version) and makes much more sense like this (and is the original sense); and "John Riley", a song which I think is very touching.  But all of the songs are good, and worth a listen even if you don't like folk.

Packaged with this album, in the edition I bought (called Songbird) was a version of the album Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square (1959), which was the very first album on which Joan Baez appeared.  It isn't a Joan Baez album, as it contains songs from various singers.  For some reason, only the tracks on which she features are on this version, whereas the original contained more songs.  They all sound a bit bloodless compared to the performances on her first solo album - nice enough but not worth going back to again.

Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading
1976

I've owned Track Record, Joan Armatrading's first "best of" collection from 1983, for a long time - in fact, I have it on vinyl, so it must be since the mid-eighties.  When I revived my record deck from its decade-long hibernation a couple of months ago, it was one of the first platters (as no-one actually says) that I played, and full of goodness it is too.

Thus inspired, when I found her first album second-hand on our shopping trip, I snapped it up.  It's a very nice album and definitely worth repeat listening.  I like the slower tracks better, which sound more delicate and better produced.  "Love And Affection" stands out, because you can't argue with its classic status.  But "Down To Zero" is excellent too, and I rather like "Somebody Who Loves You", even though it has a chord sequence very similar to parts of "Love And Affection".

None of these sound dated at all, but the same cannot be said of the more up-tempo tracks, which have a definite seventies singer-songwriter-mild-rock sound to them.  I find them very reminiscent of Tim Buckley's album Sefronia - that laid-back groove and tastefully restrained lead guitar.  It is a good sound but less convincing here than on Tim Buckley's album.

13/02/2012

The Suburbs

Arcade Fire
2010

I first heard "Ready To Start", the second track on The Suburbs, when I was waiting for re-runs of  Scrubs to come on E4.  It was in a trailer for Skins, and I had to google it to find out what the music was because I didn't have a clue and it didn't sound like anyone I knew.  Since then I've loved the track but haven't listened to the parent album, so I thought it was about time I corrected this.

There's plenty to enjoy on the album - my favourite tracks are the driving, very rhythmic ones such as "Ready To Start" (of course), "Half Light II (No Celebration)" and "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" - but there's also too much filler.  The whole thing is over an hour long and could use some editing.

There's also clearly some grand unifying theme - you don't have tracks with roman numerals after them if there's not some concept lurking around - but it escapes me.  Perhaps it's something to do with life in the suburbs?  I'm just guessing of course.

11/02/2012

For Richer, For Poorer

Victoria Coren
2009

For some reason, this seems to be the second in an unintentional sequence of books I've read about subjects I have no interest in.  First I read one about whisky, now this, about poker and gambling.  I don't understand poker and can't remotely be bothered to put the effort into working it out - mainly because, if I understand correctly, it's not worth playing without gambling.  And gambling is something I really just don't get.

Anyway, I doubt I would have picked this book up if it wasn't written by Victoria Coren.  My dad was a long time subscriber to Punch and I always enjoyed Alan Coren's writing.  When I first came across his daughter's book Once More, With Feeling I was intriuged, and then amused.  Since then I've always enjoyed seeing her on telly.  So this book definitely seemed worth a shot.

In fact, although the book is very much about poker, it's not just about poker.  Victoria Coren is engaging and very frank about her likely reasons for playing, and what it's taken her from and to.  Maybe it's not just about risking money on the turn of a card, but about community and friends, about finding your own paths.  I can't say I'm much the wiser about how poker works after reading the book, but that didn't stop me enjoying it very much.

Raw Spirit

Iain Banks
2003

I like a lot of Iain Banks's books - and those by Iain M. Banks, come to that.  Enough to name two of them in my top ten favourites.  But although I'd vaguely heard that he'd written a book about whisky, I'd never felt the urge to find it.  I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's mostly to do with the fact that I can't stand whisky and cannot even understand the appeal.  So what would a book about something I'm not vaguely interested in do for me?  Still, £1.40 in a charity shop and it was mine - I'm a sucker for a cheap book.

And it was very interesting.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised.  Along with, I'm sure, many other non-football fans, I really enjoyed Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch despite knowing little and caring less about the game.  A good writer can really animate a subject, and no-one's doubting Iain Banks is a superb author.  After reading about the complexities involved in producing the stuff and the varieties available, I'm  definitely wondering about trying some of the whiskies named in the book.  Maybe I've just never had a good one.

It's not just about whisky though - there's plenty of personal history in there, most of it pretty entertaining.  The book does start to drag towards the end, but there's plenty to enjoy before that.  It doesn't answer one question though: he was commissioned to write a book about whisky, and presumably by a person or organisation connected with the industry.  But who?

21/01/2012

Shopping 21 Jan 2012

In years gone by I - with various like-minded friends such as Paul, Stuart, John and Brian - would go into London on a weekend and, well ... go a bit mad.  Back in those days, see, if you wanted to get a fix it wouldn't come to you.  You had to get out there on the streets and put the effort in.  Took a real toll on your fingers, I can tell you.

Music.  That's what I'm talking about.  CDs, mostly.  Searching through a load of secondhand or discounted CDs for that gem you didn't even know you wanted is always good fun, almost as good as sitting down at the end of few hours with a decent pint and talking about it.

Berwick Street, as seen on the cover of
some obscure album. Selectadisc can be
seen on the left.
Brian and I decided to have a retro, off-line shopping spree.  It's been a few years since the last visit and Berwick Street isn't what it used to be, but Sister Ray is still there, now in what used to be Selectadisc. Reckless Records survives.  The Music & Video Exchange has hardly changed in decades.  And Fopp has arrived since we first started the Soho beat, a little way away and perhaps not as good as it was when I first encountered it in Edinburgh - betraying its HMV ownership somewhat maybe - but a worthwhile visit nonetheless.  Brian and I did them all.

And we finished it off with a few pints in the Duke Of Argyll, a Sammy Smith's pub with surprisingly good wheat beer.

Here's what I got:
The Suburbs by Arcade Fire (2010)
I heard "Ready To Start" on a trailer for Skins, the Channel 4 drama, and I thought it sounded fantastic. Skins wasn't bad either but I grew up with Grange Hill, so nothing's going to be quite as good, is it?
Joan Armatrading by Joan Armatrading (1976)
I dug my old record player (actually my grandparent's old record player) out of the loft a few months back, and one of the first records I played was Joan Armatrading's Track Record - a superb collection of songs. Seeing this secondhand seemed like a good opportunity. It has "Down To Zero" and "Love And Affection" on it.
Folksingers 'Round Harvard Square by Joan Baez and others (1959)
I didn't want to get this, but it came "free" with Joan Baez's first album in a package called Songbird.
Joan Baez by Joan Baez (1960)
This is the first album from the sixties in 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, which I'm very slowly working my way through.
If 60s Were 90s by Beautiful People (1994)
A long time ago, I bought the single with the same name as this album. I rather like the single; it's somewhat dated now, being a fairly generic mid 90s dance beat strewn with samples from Jimi Hendrix, but is perfectly pleasant nonetheless. I'm curious to know what the album is like. I've seen it on Amazon for nearly £80 secondhand, so the £3 I paid seems pretty good.
The Everlasting Blink by Bent (2003)
I bought Programmed To Love several years ago on another shopping trip (in Selectadisc, IIRC).
Biophilia by Björk (2011)
It's got good reviews. I avoided the "Collector's Edition" for £12 and bought this for a fiver. Excellent value.
Greetings From L.A. by Tim Buckley (1972)
Another one from the 1001 Albums .... I think.
Out Of Season by Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man (2002)
Anything involving someone out of Portishead and someone out of Talk Talk (Paul Webb) should be decent.
Hercules And Love Affair by Hercules And Love Affair (2008)
"Blind" is one of my favourite tracks of the noughties, so I though the parent album would be worth a listen.
The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter by The Incredible String Band (1968)
Another one for the 1001 Albums project.
The Complete Collection by Robert Johnson (2008)
I feel my collection should include someone so legendary.
Tapestry by Carole King (2009)
And another one for the 1001 Albums project!
Hurry Up, We're Dreaming by M83 (2011)
It's been well recommended and I like other albums of theirs.
69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields (2004)
Paul was raving about this ... er, some years ago. I thought it was about time I had a listen.
Third by Portishead (2008)
Been meaning to get this for some time.
Back At The Chicken Shack by Jimmy Smith (1960)
Yet another of the 1001 Albums.
Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust by Sigur Rós (2008)
I've seen good reviews and it was a good price. Again, I turned down the special edition (£18, this time).
Passersby by Skyway 7 (2004)
I found this secondhand and bought it solely because I liked the cover.
I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too by Martha Wainwright (2008)
"Jesus And Mary" is one of my top tracks from the noughties.
Want One by Rufus Wainwright (2003)
I really enjoyed the episode of "Secrets Of The Pop Song" in which Rufus writes a song with Guy Chambers. But I have no Rufus Wainwright in my collection. Now remedied.
Beginner's Guide To Salsa, Vol. 2 by Various Artists (2006)
K has been learning salsa at school and wanted to know if I have some. So now we have. And, as it happens, this is the exact album they've been playing at school! So that's nice.

Here - have a Spotify playlist on me.