31/12/2013

Reading - December 2013

The Week (30 November 2013 / Issue 948)
The Week (7 December 2013 / Issue 949)
Round Ireland With A Fridge by Tony Hawks (1998)
Read to B over 3 months, with a little judicious on-the-fly editing. He loved the silly humour, but was puzzled by Tony's constant pursuit of women.
How To Talk So Teens Will Listen And Listen So Teens Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish (2006)
A simple guide with useful advice. It is essentially the basics in non-judgmental, non-confrontational discussion, applied to a specific relationship type; that of a parent and child. Good to be reminded.
Guitarist (January 2014 / Issue 376)
The Week (14 December 2014 / Issue 950)
The People's Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records by Stuart Maconie (2013)
The Week (21 December 2013 / Issue 951)
Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner (2009)
The Week (28 December 2013 / Issue 952)

29/12/2013

Perfecting Sound Forever

The Story Of Recorded Music
Greg Milner
2009


Perfecting Sound Forever (the title is taken from a Pavement track) is a look at the technological history of recorded music, from wax cylinders to software codecs. It's fascinating to revisit the analogue vs. digitial debate in the context of similar debates down the decades: cylinder vs. disc, acoustic vs electric recording, 33 vs 45 - there's always been people prepared to swear blind that their method of sound reproduction is better. (More amazing is that there are people who will defend the original acoustic wax cylinder - and even more still that they might, according to the author of this book, have a point.)

What is also interesting to any student of rock and pop is the detail of how the advancing technology has shaped the sound of the music we listen to. It's well known that the advent of multi-track recording enabled more advanced and creative uses of the studio in the service of music production (as opposed to merely music recording). However, what I hadn't appreciated was how the increasing number of tracks changed the music; both by reducing fidelity - 24 tracks on a 2 inch tape is less accurate than 16, for example; and by changing the practice of recording - why bother getting a perfect performance when you can piece it together from several takes? This latter is taken to extremes now that software allows an infinite number of tracks, but was also responsible for the sound of late seventies rock - that dead, dry, pristine sound perfected by Steely Dan, and caused the separation of instruments required to allow the editing to work.

There's a very interesting chapter on the way that the "loudness war" has further deteriorated the fidelity of what we listen to as a direct result of the greater dynamic range available with CD, and a discussion of how even more technology allows us to reduce fidelity yet again by tricking the brain into hearing what's not there - the era of the lossy compression algorithm (MP3, Ogg Vorbis, AAC and so on). It's difficult to avoid the ironic conclusion that all the advances have failed to advance anything with respect to the accurate preservation (that is, the other sense of "record") of sound.

Well worth reading. Oh, and bonus points for featuring Tony Bongiovi fairly prominently without mentioning his more famous second cousin once.

16/12/2013

The People's Songs

Stuart Maconie
2013

When I was five, I had my tonsils out. This entailed a two night stay in hospital, and without parents staying over, either. Not a fun experience, particularly, but the silver lining was that, as a reward for being good, I got a record player (an old, portable, valve-powered Dansette type), a handful of singles from that week's top ten ... and a lifelong love of pop.

I loved those records, and still do. The intro of David Essex's "Gonna Make You A Star" always gives me an anticipatory shiver. I will go toe to toe with anyone who dares argue that "Love Me For A Reason" by The Osmonds isn't one of the best pop ballads of the last forty years. "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" sounds magnificently odd even today and remains a career pinnacle for Sparks. And, oh, best of all, one of the finest number ones of the seventies: "Sugar Baby Love", instant time travel in vinyl, plastic or bytes, a song that whisks me effortlessly back to my bedroom in Kenton where I would beat the purple carpet and dream of playing drums for The Rubettes.

I can hold my own with any rock snob but anyone lucky enough to have caught me in the right mood or with enough drink inside me will know that my passion is pop music: cheap, disposable, sentimental, trashy, exploitative and glorious pop music. The best pop marks a moment, a mood or a memory like nothing else, and it's intensely personal. What the songs above do for me, they don't do for you; what they mean to me, they won't mean to you; and what I hear, you can't. But what they do for me, nothing else can; what they mean to me is ineffable; and how they sound is utterly unique.

This is what pop music is really about and why, ultimately, it is far more important than the orthodox canon of classic albums and iconic artists that appear in weighty lists and turgid books. Which is why I like the idea of The People's Music so much. It operates from exactly this point of view, and picks fifty pop songs from the last sixty years that encapsulate a period in time or summarise a cultural shift. Maconie's introduction articulates much better than I can why pop history is social history, so central is it to so many people.

The radio series - sorry, landmark Radio 2 series (it says here) - is essential listening for any fan of pop. The book, introduction aside, is a little lacklustre by comparison. It consists of the scripts for each programme - as entertaining as you'd expect from Maconie - but, without the interviews that are the programme's raison d'etre (it bills itself as an "aural history", after all), each individual piece seems too short and somewhat disjointed. And of course the book can't include any music at all. Thank goodness for Spotify, eh?

30/11/2013

Reading - November 2013


The Week (2 November 2013 / Issue 944))
The Mysterious Affair At Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)
Agatha Christie was probably the first "grown-up" author I read (my mother's influence, I expect) and I come back to her books every now and then. A classic mystery. I read it online thanks to Project Gutenberg.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (2012)
The Les Paul Guitar Book by Tony Bacon (2009)
Third edition of a very nicely presented history of the legendary guitar. The printing is excellent quality and the pictures are lovely, but I don't like the house style of alternating two pages of text with two of illustrations, although I can understand why it's done. I could also have done with more technical details about the guitar as well as the history.
The Sacred Art Of Stealing by Christopher Brookmyre (2002)
One of my favourite books (this is the second time this year I have read it). I really like the characters.
The Week (11 November 2013 / Issue 945)
A Snowball In Hell by Christopher Brookmyre (2008)
The sequel to The Sacred Art Of Stealing, with Angelique and Zal returning, and Simon Darcourt reappearing. Sick in places - in, um, a good way - and highly acerbic. Part of the satire involves the hypocrisy of the "general public" who profess to despise the celebrity shennanigans but buy the newspapers that report it by their millions. We, the readers of this book, are of course above this - as we read a book that uses such (albeit fictional) shennanigans as plot points. Anyway, very funny.
Guitarist (December 2013 / Issue 375)
The Week (18 November 2013 / Issue 946)
A Field Guide To The English by Sarah Lyall (2009)

29/11/2013

Introducing ... (Selected Works)

UNKLE
2006

Introducing ... looks like a promo-only album, since it appears in no UNKLE discographies (and it says "for promotional use only, not for resale" inside ...). I found it secondhand in our Berwick Street trawl earlier this year. UNKLE has been on my radar for a long time but what particularly sparked my interest was that they made a track with Alice Temple (of Eg & Alice, um, "fame". Well famous in my head for their peerless album 24 Years Of Hunger - but that's another review).

Sadly that track doesn't appear here. This album is a selection from their work up to 2006 and consists of two disks. The first contains UNKLE originals and is pretty good. My current favourite? I'm torn between "Reign", featuring Ian Brown, a first cousin of his track "F.E.A.R.", which features string parts over a good beat; and "Eye For An Eye", a nicely apocalyptic. spooky mix of spoken word samples and the sung refrain from The Temptations' "Ball Of Confusion" - "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, run run run but you sure can't hide". "Blackout" is heavily reminiscent Massive Attack circa Mezzanine - no bad thing, of course. Another Ian Brown collaboration, "Be There", is good too.

Other tracks feature Richard Ashcroft and Thom Yorke and, in each case, sound like their respective bands with some more beat-oriented production. Overall, I like all this material. Time to get the released albums, probably.

The second disk is made up of UNKLE remixes of various artists, including Massive Attack, Robert Plant, QOTSA and Ian Brown's aforementioned "F.E.A.R." Generally I'm no fan of remixes, regarding them as unnecessary arsing around with perfectly good songs that do nothing to improve on the originals. There are some notable exceptions, of course, but none of these songs feature in that list. Disposable.

25/11/2013

A Field Guide To The English

Sarah Lyall
2009

There is a surprisingly popular and populous sub-genre of non-fiction that attempts to analyse and categorise the English. Some represent a serious attempt to understand the unique cultural and sociological factors that distinguish Englishness. Some use the excuse of defining "the English" as a way of pedalling their own prejudices. Still others are happy to play off stereotypes for comic effect.

Despite its almost serious title, A Field Guide To The English fits firmly in the last category. Notwithstanding occasional references to the "research" she has conducted for various New York Times pieces, Sarah Lyall - an American journalist - has clearly used the standard journalist practice of using her friends and other people within easy reach to support her own preconceived ideas. Accordingly, English people are afraid of intimacy and sex (the men are all borderline homosexual, apparently), we all have bad teeth, the aristocracy are completely mad (and ludicrously mean with money), we have incomprehensible enthusiasms about trivial things like hedgehogs ... and so on.

This portrait is of course unrecognisable to any real English person - or, at least, only recognisable as a small but prominent part of our society. What is obvious to anyone is that Sarah Lyall has married into a comfortably upper-middle class English family (she lives in Kensington and weekends with Earls, for goodness sake) and has been happy to draw over-broad generalisations from the narrow section of society she has been exposed to. Her observations are generally shallow and cover surface manifestations only. This is all the more odd when you consider that she mentions (and has therefore hopefully read) Kate Fox's peerless Watching The English and should therefore have acquired some understanding of the deeper causes.

To be sure, she manages to score a few points against the more obvious targets: yes, the conduct of politicians in an out of the Houses of Parliament is just embarassing; of course our tabloid "news" papers are a disgrace to journalism. No-one with any sense disputes this. No country is without its peculiarities. Lyall is a good writer and the book is amusing in places. I just would have liked more observation and fewer stereotypes.

22/11/2013

The Circle Game

Tom Rush
1968

The Circle Game is somehow both endearingly of its time and yet surprisingly timeless. Helping the latter attribute is the presence of several classic songs; Joni Mitchell's "Tin Angel" and "The Circle Game", and "No Regrets", better known in The Walker Brothers' version.

But these tracks are - and this point is of course of prime importance to rock snobs and pop anoraks alike (I leave it to you to decide where I fit) - the originals. In 1968, Joni was an unknown and struggling songwriter, and Rush was trying to promote her. As a result his version predate hers. The contrast is interesting: "Tin Angel" here is a measured, autumnal reading. Joni's own version (from 1969's Clouds) is a brittle, slightly callow version, shrill by comparison.

Nor was Tom Rush any slouch himself as a song writer. Two of the best songs here, "Rockport Sunday" and the now standard "No Regrets", are his own. Again, the difference between the gently acoustic and melancholic original here, and The Walker Brothers lushly orchestrated 1976 cover is primarily one of subtlety. Tom Rush has a nicely understated touch on all of the songs here, even the more upbeat (and slightly less memorable) songs here.

An enjoyable find (thank you, The Mojo Collection) that hadn't registered with me ever before. Worth finding.

10/11/2013

How To Be A Woman

Caitlin Moran
2012

The book is partly an autobiography, but Caitlin Moran uses the stages of her life as jumping-off points for discussions about issues affecting modern women. For example, the onset of puberty leads into a discussion of why it is now considered necessary for women to shave all pubic hair. Ageing sparks a debate about why so many women attempt to stall their years at the late thirties with extensive cosmetic surgery.

The whole thing is both very entertaining and thought-provoking. As a fellow left-ish liberal, I find little here to disagree with or anything that doesn't just seem like common sense. One of Moran's central observations (I think) is that modern "feminism" seems to have split into a dichotomy of extremist man-haters and the successors to the "new ladettes", for whom freedom is the freedom to flash their knickers or knockers at whoever they want. Her point is that, inevitably, the truth lies somewhere in between; her repeated question is "are the men doing this too?" - and, if not, why not?

The only thing that doesn't strike quite true is the way that she describes "all women" as being subject to a series of pressures - to look young, to get a Brazilian, to slim down, to get married. Now, obviously I am a man in his forties and so miss much of what pressures are applied to teenage or young women (although I expect to find out in about three years when my daughter reaches that age). However, I really don't get the sense from the women my age that they feel the pressures mentioned here to that degree. All of them are well able to distinguish between the simplistic, sensationalist and stupid attitudes of the media ("Get this season's must-have trousers! Don't let your man see your wrinkles!") and real life. I'll have to get one of them to read it and comment.

Anyway, very enjoyable and only made slightly disconcerting by the fact that in her picture on the cover Caitlin looks exactly like my friend Ruth.

31/10/2013

Reading - October 2013

Wonder by R.J. Palacio (2012)
100 Great Guitars edited by Owen Bailey (2013)
Get Fit Running by Owen Barder (2005)
The Week (5 October 2013 / Issue 940)
Build Your Own Electric Guitar by Paul Balmer (2013)
The Week (12 October / Issue 941)
Guitarist (November 2013 / Issue 374)
The Week (19 October / Issue 942)
Build Your Own Electric Guitar by Martin Oakham (2006)
The Italian Next Door by Anna Cleary (2011)
I wanted a sweet romance but I got a ho-hum Riva pot-boiler with a pathetic heroine and the occasional eye-wateringly clumsy simile: something about being attracted to the hero "like a fridge magnet" sticks in the mind.
The Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan (1995)
The Week (26 October / Issue 943)
How To Train Your Dragon by Cressida Cowell (2003) [read to Z]
Good fun for children of all ages; a strong story and funny characters.
Guitarist Guide To Effects Pedals edited by Owen Bailey (2013)
Some useful information about types of effects, how to combine them and how to build a pedalboard, then a very dangerous (to my wallet) run down of the "best" 101 effects pedals ever. MXR Carbon Copy on its way ...
No Holds Barred by Cara Summers (2012)
Thriller/romance cross, with plenty of suspense, quite a lot of sex and little romance. No real character development but at least the heroine wasn't a complete wimp.

24/10/2013

The Demon-Haunted World

Science As A Candle In The Dark
Carl Sagan
1995

I am so relieved to have finally finished this book - it's taken me over twelve years. I have started it regularly about once a year, but never made it past the first few chapters. It's not that I don't agree with the subject matter: I couldn't agree with it more; the absolute necessity of continued investment in science and scientific approaches, not just to technology but to life, religion, politics, education and everything else. It's vitally important that we equip our people and our children with the ability to distinguish between science and pseudo-science, between fact and fiction, and to question what they are told.

Unfortunately, the book itself is much, much too long and needlessly repetitive. It's audience is not - or shouldn't be - people like me. I don't need Sagan telling me, at length, that there are a host of plausible, rational, earthly explanations for the host of "alien abduction" claims. It needs to grab the doubters of science, the gullible, the blinkered. They're not going to read such a long book. It's arguable whether they would pick up anything that challenges their preconceptions, but if they do it needs to be short and to the point.

20/10/2013

Build Your Own Electric Guitar

Martin Oakham
2006

Contrary to the identically titled Haynes manual, this book really does cover building your guitar from raw blocks of wood (although it does assume someone else has cut the tree down for you). From that point it has detailed steps of just about everything you need to do, including clear, colour photos nearly all of them. In this respect it would be, I expect, an extremely valuable guide to have around.

I have only a couple of minor gripes: firstly, it goes from start to finish with one guitar, a bolt-on (neck) with two humbuckers, and although there a couple of pages on different construction methods, it isn't much. Secondly, it makes a tiny, passing reference to finishing the body and neck. Granted this is a fairly specialised subject but you can't leave the wood untreated. Still, a superb companion piece to the other books I already have.

10/10/2013

Build Your Own Electric Guitar

Paul Balmer
2013

I've been planning on building my own electric for over a decade now. I still haven't managed it, but I feel like I'm getting closer to having the time and space. So I've been stocking up on some more books about guitars. Plus I like books about guitars anyway.

I've read the Haynes Fender Stratocaster Manual and I really like the format - nicely bound, good quality pages, plenty of big, colour pictures. I also love the way that Haynes have so imaginatively branched out from automative manuals (there's even a Wallace & Gromit Cracking Contraptions Manual!)

The format hasn't changed here, and there's lots of interesting detail. I particularly like the in-depth look at "Red Special", the guitar made by the godfather of all home builders, the awesome Brian May (who also provides a foreword). There's a section on installing a piezo bridge - not that I expect to do this ever, but it's nice to know. The book is well structured and the illustrations are very clear - always a bonus, since I've seen too many fuzzy, monochromatic pictures that tell you nothing.

However, this book is not really about building an electric guitar. It's about assembling a Strat. No other types of guitars are covered, and in any case the sample guitars are assembled from ready made bodies and necks. Now, this is an excellent way of starting, and I'm sure my first guitar will be made like this, so in that respect this is a very useful book. But there's a lot more to building an electric guitar than that. So this doesn't really replace the classic of the genre, Melvyn Hiscock's "Make Your Own Electric Guitar" (which also has an introduction from Dr. May).

Other gripes? The binding, while excellent quality, means that the book doesn't stay open by itself, which would be a pain if you wanted both hands free to actually do some work on a guitar. And finally, why oh why does it persistently refer to "S-type" guitars throughout? Myriad other books have no problem referring to Strats, Stratocasters, Teles and many other trademarked instruments without having to resort to such footling around. Call a spade a spade and a Strat a Strat! A minor but persistently annoying aspect of a generally good book.

08/10/2013

British Steel

Judas Priest
1980

From what little I know about Judas Priest (and I tried not to prejudice myself before listening by reading lots), they mark a junction between "rock" and "metal". Certainly you can hear both in the music on British Steel. "Living After Midnight", for example, could be Whitesnake - a big, stadium-friendly anthem about staying up all night (like a proper grown up and everything!), with big chorused guitars and a medium widdly but forgettable solo. On the other hand, opener "Rapid Fire" is, appropriately, a very fast metal chug, and much more interesting.

I think the real point here is that this album significantly pre-dates both the stadium rock of Bon Jovi or any other hair metal bands, and the more thrashy bands like Megadeath, Anthrax and so on. So although this album might sound slightly dated now, it was clearly very influential. And if that's so, I'm just grateful that it was tracks like these that proved so, rather than the, frankly, over-pompous "Red, White & Blue" or the comedy lyrics of "The Rage" (no surprise to find that singer Rob Halford came out many years later).

I'm no expert on all these micro-genres, because I find metal in general a bit juvenile. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of loud guitars, but metal's posturing, "attitude" and shrieking puts me off. British Steel, though, is surprisingly listenable. The songs mostly have memorable tunes you can sing along with, and Halford mostly stays in a lower range (although he can hit the high notes too), which I definitely prefer. The twin guitars of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing are big, crunchy and wild. Good fun for a while, but probably superseded by later artists.

06/10/2013

Get Fit Running

Owen Barder
2005

This is a short version of a longer book, Running For Fitness, which is rather nicely available for free online. I'm not even a beginner yet, but this strikes me as a good guide for a beginner. It's short and easy to digest; it has detailed suggested training programmes, including a "getting started from nothing" that covers the first six months; and it discusses elements of training programmes and nutrition.

I could have used more detail on some aspects, particularly how to combine running with other activities; for example, I would like to include swimming in my routine rather than just running, and so some information about how that might affect the routines would be useful. However, I'm sure I can work this out for myself over time.

05/10/2013

100 Great Guitars

Owen Bailey (editor)
2013

A Guitarist special edition, this occupies a curious position half way between a magazine and a book. It's more of a keeper than the monthly version (not that I throw mine away, ever) but still has adverts.

I rather like the fact that it's titled as a selection of great guitars rather than claiming to be a definitive list, which is of course impossible. All the usual suspects are present, plus a few more recent and unusual choices. Obviously we'd expect to see several versions of Strats, Teles and Les Pauls, but I was pleased to see it includes those as functional as my main guitar, a Gordon Smith GS2-60, as well as some more outlandish choices, like the astonishing Gus G1 Purple Special.

The photography is superb throughout and really has made me think of which guitars I still "need": possibly a Gibson 339, ideally and Explorer, possibly a Dan Armstrong Plexi ... hmmm ...

04/10/2013

Wonder

R.J. Palacio
2012

B was given this by his reading group at the local library; he enjoyed it and I thought I'd find out what he was reading. I was slightly concerned, because a (somewhat lazy) review on the cover compares it with Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time, which I don't consider to be a children's book. However, this is; older children, certainly, but still simplistic enough to be understood.

That's not to say it's a simple book, or even that it's been written down. It's a good story, well told. I thought the use of different view points was excellent, and I cared about the characters. The turnaround is a little sudden and the ending somewhat clichéd, but it's a happy ending and I like those.

02/10/2013

A Donny Hathaway Collection

Donny Hathaway
1990

I'm a bit of a snob about compilation albums1. Most artists recording after about 1970 conceived their albums as complete artistic statements, or at least they aspired to, and a compilation tramples all over that. It's like taking your favourite bits from all of Picasso's paintings and making a collage of them. It might be striking, but it won't be a coherent whole.

Of course, my view is probably hopelessly outdated in this era of downloading individual tracks. The kids are busy creating their own unique compilations and not giving a monkey's about the artistic compromise involved. And, truth to tell, compilations have always had a place. My first Bowie album was ChangesOneBowie, on cassette, and the 13 year old me loved it without worrying about what sense it made. I have all the proper albums now, of course, but it served a purpose as an introduction.

I heard about Donny Hathaway on the Great Album Showdown, when Martin Freeman and Danny Baker competed to out-enthuse each other over one of Hathaway's albums. I'm pretty well read about music (albeit less so about black music), but his name wasn't one that instantly rang a bell. So when I came across this compilation for pennies on our shopping trip, it seemed a good opportunity.

As it turned out, I already owned some of these songs: "Where Is The Love" and "Back Together Again", wonderfully harmonised duets with Roberta Flack, both appear on Flack's Softly With These Songs (yes, yes, a compilation), which I've owned for years. Hathaway's solo material is generally much slower and deliciously moody: I particularly like "Giving Up" and "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know", both of which have a real late night, soulful, mournfulness that you can just wallow in. His voice is a classic soul/gospel instrument, reminiscent at times of Stevie Wonder ("The Ghetto" in particular reminds me of Wonder's "Living In The City" - no bad thing).

Donny Hathaway only recorded four albums, including one of duets with Roberta Flack, and so having had my introduction - and thoroughly appreciated it, too - I will definitely be going for the proper albums now. Anyone want a third hand compilation?


1 Note for non-British English speakers: in this context, "a bit" means "a lot". For further education about understanding British English phrasing, see this handy guide.

30/09/2013

Reading - September 2013


Everyday Maths For Grown-Ups by Kjartan Poskitt (2010)
Does exactly what it says on the tin. It didn't tell me much I didn't know - the maths goes up to maybe the first year or two of secondary school - but it covers a number of techniques that are taught now, as opposed to those I was taught, so it was useful from that point of view.
Lori's Little Secret by Christine Rimmer (2006)
Romantic consequences arising from a fairly unbelievable premise, although no less likely than other books or films. I thought the hero was a bit mean sometimes and I didn't like that.
The Week (7 September 2013 / Issue 936)
The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1906)
An amusing and occasionally very sharp, cynical take on a dictionary. I read Project Gutenberg's online edition, using my mobile phone in spare moments, most usually (TMI alert!!) when on the loo at work. Full of excellent quotes, such as the definition of a dentist: "A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket." Additionally, a great source of band names; see the definition for "regalia". I bagsy "Sons Of The South Star".
The Firm by John Grisham (1991)
An old favourite. Grisham was company during the long, lonely weekends in Boston during my stay there in '98 (actually it was only about 8 weeks and it wasn't that bad; I don't mind my own company, although you can have too much of a good thing). I'm not quite sure why I like the story so much, but it is well told.
The Week (14 September 2013 / Issue 937)
The Week (21 September 2013 / Issue 938)
Guitarist (October 2013 / Issue 373)
The Chariot Makers by Steve Matchett (2000)
A useful primer on the inner workings of the modern Grand Prix car, written by a former Benetton mechanic. Despite being thirteen years old - more, presumably, if you take into account when it was written rather than its publication date - it is only dated in details, which says something about the ossification of Formula 1. I'm not sure about the narrative structure placed around the technical details, but it serves a purpose, I suppose.
Dilbert And The Way Of The Weasel by Scott Adams (2002)
Amusing but over-long exposition of how most people get through their days in pointless office jobs. A charity shop purchase which will go back now I've read it.
Get Fit Cycling by Dave Smith (2005)
Excellent introduction to cycling, and, while brief, manages to contain useful sections on stretches and weight training too. I would have liked a little more information at times, but overall, helpful.
Guitar Electronics For Musicians by Donald Brosnac (1983)
This began life as a ring bound, privately published, amateur publication, and it shows. Brosnac has a good reputation in guitar circles, and there's lots of useful information in the book - somewhere. Unfortunately it is obscured by an atrocious structure, so that descriptions of similar aspects of circuitry are in completely different chapters. It reads more like a scrap book of notes, clippings and articles that the author assembled over several years and then published as-is. It is also very out-of-date, although this matters slightly less because guitar electronics has moved on little, in general, in the thirty years since this was published.
Life In The Fast Lane by Steve Matchett (1995)
An insider's view of the 1994 season at Benetton Grand Prix - the year Schumacher won his first world championship - written by one of the team mechanics. This was Steve Matchett's first book and originated as a diary, and the fact that he was not - at the time, anyway - a writer is sometimes quite clear. It is unfortunately a little fragmented in places, and some of the detail will be dull unless you are really, really interested in Formula 1. Luckily, I am.
The Olivetti Chronicles by John Peel (2008)
The Week (28 September 2013 / Issue 939)

27/09/2013

Sail Away

Randy Newman
1972

One of the things I really like about listening to albums from the seventies is that they are so short. None of that fifteen songs, 75 minutes of "value" that we were cursed with from the mid-nineties on. Sail Away is half an hour of excellent songwriting that hasn't taken me several weeks to get to grips with.

Randy Newman has a number of similarities with Bob Dylan: both known for their songwriting skills, and frequently covered by other artsists; both possessed of, um, unusual singing voices; and both lyrically some way away from "moon/June" lyrical laziness. (Not that I really care about lyrics, as I've said a number of times before.) However, unlike Dylan (who I can't stand), Newman hasn't made the mistake of assuming that good lyrics (for some definition of "good") can carry a poor song. Newman is an accomplished musician and all the tracks here have good tunes, superb arrangements and distinct identities. I also rather like his singing voice, despite its obvious limitations.

I'm surprised by the number of songs I recognise - in particular "You Can Leave Your Hat On", which I only knew from The Full Monty (I know, a pop anorak really should be better informed), but is better here. Alan Price covered "Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear" and "Political Science", is on an Old Grey Whistle Test DVD. All are good. I also rather like "Last Night I Had A Dream", mainly for its tune and atmosphere.

26/09/2013

One World

John Martyn
1977

Having previously nominated 1977 as a year zero for modern rock music (and not because of punk, I hasten to add), I've been listening to some of its other releases. Obviously, my theory doesn't stand up to any rigorous analysis, but that's OK because I wasn't planning on analyzing it.

Despite having owned One World for several years I've never properly listened to it before. It shows obvious progression from Martyn's previous albums, particularly his classic trio of Bless The Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out - each getting more experimental, less obviously folk-influenced and less song-based. Here, the songs are mostly reduced to languorous, liquid grooves, over which he weaves his distinctive vocal and guitar. "Big Muff", "Dealer" and "Smiling Stranger" all work like this, and very satisfactorily so; the tracks are built from some wonderfully organic sounds and feel nicely rounded. In fact, the most conventional song, "Certain Surprise", is probably the weakest.

We're also offered a fascinating chance to compare the progress of production techniques with "Couldn't Love You More". Here it's typical mid-period Martyn acoustic ballad, all growling double bass, delicate finger picked guitar and decorative chimes. Four years later, he revisited it on the album Glorious Fool, where it is "treated" to a Face Value-era Phil Collins production, in which you can almost hear the Armani jacket sleeves being rolled up as the fretless bass winds its rubbery way around the gated drums.

Anyway, back to 1977 and One World, which finishes with the beautifully insubstantial "Small Hours", recorded outside apparently (and accompanied by a few roll-ups, no doubt). The album sets a very agreeable mood overall and if it doesn't reach the heights of previous works, is still superb. Ooh - and another knocked off the 1001 Albums list!

25/09/2013

The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society

The Kinks
1968

For rock music, I think the key decade since the birth of rock'n'roll is the seventies. The developments in style and recording techniques during that time mean that while anything prior to it sounds irrevocably dated, anything post about 1977 (stylistic considerations aside) sounds almost, if not actually, modern.

As a case in point, here's The Village Green Preservation Society; all tinkly, faintly awkward English sub-psychedelia, it could not have come from any other time than the late sixties. It was even released in mono, for goodness sake! A mere nine years later and you can choose from the air-brushed, silken sheen of, say, Rumours or Aja, either of which sound like they could have been released last year, or the professional punch of Never Mind The Bollocks or News Of The World, guitar rock that has been constantly referenced since.

Anyway, this is an album of its time, then, and very reminiscent of others of its era. "Do You Remember Walter" sounds like the more whimsical bits of early Floyd. "Big Sky", probably my favourite track, could have come off Ogden's Nut Gone Flake or Jack Bruce's Songs For A Tailor. As  you'd expect from Ray Davies, decent tunes are in good supply, although a few sound somewhat contrived. The Village Green Preservation Society is a concept album, clearly (anything titled "<band name> are <something else>" can't be anything but) but I'm struggling to detect the concept. Musically, it sounds like a collection of pop songs - nothing more, nothing less.

As you might gather, I haven't been blown away. Nice enough, very evocative of a certain period, but I'd rather listen to Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.

13/09/2013

Here Come The Warm Jets

Brian Eno
1974

Somehow I have managed to avoid hearing Eno's debut album before, although several friends have mentioned how much they like it. I'm not so convinced. It has a certain playful and whimsical charm in places, but it's a dated curiosity, full of self-consciously quirky songs, singing, playing and subjects.

I like the title track, which is a Neu-esque blast with harmonising fuzz guitars, and was clearly an inspiration for one of my favourite instrumentals, Teenage Fanclub's "Is This Music?". Other tracks have some pleasant melodies, some silly lyrics and some ear-catching moments, but nothing that really stands out.

11/09/2013

Hymns Of The 49th Parallel

k.d. lang
2004

This is, I think, k.d. lang's second album consisting primarily of covers, the first being Drag (1997). Such an undertaking strikes me as unusual these days, where much value is put on originality, and harks back to past times, when Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra earned their reputations as interpreters of classics. Given lang's ability to transform an established song - "So In Love" on Red Hot + Blue is a masterpiece - and the incredible control and power of her voice, it makes absolute sense that she should choose this route.

The theme here is Canadian writers. In some cases, the songs are very well known, such as Neil Young's "Helpless", or Leonard Cohen's "Bird On A Wire". Covers of classics are always going to suffer from comparisons. In the first case, CSN&Y's original version is (almost) definitive; in the second, there are already superb recordings to compete with. And anyone who covers a Joni Mitchell song ("A Case Of You") does so at their own risk.

Risky it may be, but in all cases, she claims the tracks for herself. Perhaps we could have done without yet another version of "Hallelujah", to which she can add little (or improve on Jeff Buckley's recording), but "After The Gold Rush" is a much improved listening experience over the original. The ebb and flow on "Fallen" (Ron Sexsmith) is immaculately executed. The touch of desperation as she sings "you're chickening out, aren't you?" on Jane Siberry's "Love Is Everything" brings tears to my eyes.

Hymns Of The 49th Parallel is a masterful, beautiful album, understated and tasteful. It develops gradually over repeated listens (it's taken a solid two weeks for me to really appreciate it); the layers of orchestration and arrangement reveal themselves slowly. It is a very grown up, controlled record, and some would probably consider it the epitome of supper club blandness. I think the perfectly judged accompaniment raises it above this; but most of all, the supreme majesty of k.d. lang's superlative phrasing astonishes anew each time through - her performance is in a league apart.

The Olivetti Chronicles

John Peel
2008

The short article is a difficult form to master, or even manage tolerably, if the evidence of books in my collection is anything to go by. Reaching the economy of expression of Clive James' wonderful columns of TV criticism in the 70s takes practice, and if it's not your main occupation, you won't achieve it.

I think it's fair to say John Peel was not a natural writer. Margrave Of The Marshes is good - or, at least, the first half is, which is the bit Peel wrote - but it's clear that he developed slowly as a writer. Some of the later pieces here are fine, and there are amusing one-liners from all periods; he nails my opinion of Springsteen, in 1975, by observing that he "[...] offers us an enjoyable supper-club pastiche of rock's brief history, served up in West Side Story-styled tat". However, too many of the articles are rambling and inconclusive. Still, an easy read and enjoyable in parts.

31/08/2013

Reading - August 2013

A Point Of View by Clive James (2011)
This is a collection of 10-minute scripts written for Radio 4, rather wonderfully also available in their entirety, for free, in text on Clive James's web site and in audio through the BBC iPlayer. The book adds an introduction and a postscript to each piece, slightly undermining the author's statement in the introduction that his principal aim was concision. Nevertheless, each piece is a little nugget. Now that I have listened to a few, I prefer the written versions, because, such is the author's skill at compression, I can't comprehend the messages in real time. Or possibly I'm just too slow.

30/08/2013

Roots

Curtis Mayfield
1971

This is a grower, a tasteful, impeccably played and produced soul/funk delight. It didn't grab me straight away - I thought it was a bit too polite. In this respect it reminds me of the classic Steely Dan albums such as The Royal Scam, Katy Lied, or Gaucho, all of which I was non-committal about on the first few listens. Eventually, the sheer quality of the musicianship and melodies sunk in, just as it has with Roots.

However, it still doesn't really do it for me, even though I like it. I think this might be partly to do with Curtis Mayfield's voice, which is light and pleasant, but lacking the kind of emotional phrasing that Stevie Wonder has made his own (say, on "Living In The City") or the basso growl of Issac Hayes. Mayfield just doesn't put the songs across with the same force, and so the tracks are in danger of being background music.

27/08/2013

Upgrading a Squier Strat

Not Strats
In which I attempt to put a case for spending money on a cheap guitar, and document the process itself.

Rationalisation for spending money

I've had an old Squier Strat for a little over a year, given to me for free by a guy at work. I took it because I couldn't resist the idea of a free guitar and because part of me still regrets selling my Strat Plus. It's not really correct to say that nothing else sounds like it, because the design has been copied so much that in fact plenty of other guitars sound like it, but there are certain tones you just can't get with a Tele or a humbucker-equipped model like my Gordon-Smith GS2-60, much as I like them both.

Dating an old Squier is a little approximate - in fact, Fender won't commit themselves for any pre-1993 instruments - but going from other information on the 'net, not least the Wikipedia page, the indication is that mine was made in 1991 by Samick, and thus is a fairly early Korean Squier. It has a very acceptable maple neck and a red painted body which is probably "laminate" (otherwise known as plywood); that is, it's a collection of bits of wood glued together. It's not possible to tell because it is entirely painted, even inside the control cavities.

10/08/2013

The Mighty Quinns

Marcus, Ian & Declan
Kate Hoffmann
2006

If you think that romantic fiction is all hearts and flowers and other soppy stuff, then you've not read enough - category romance has something for all tastes. Generally, the more rosy pink the cover, the more purely romantic the story, while more intense colours indicate racier content.

These three books, in one volume with a dark purple cover, are very explicit - bordering on erotica. (And it's definitely the first time I've seen furries or plushies mentioned in one of these kind of books!) There are still the emotional journeys required of any romance, although you might miss them in amongst the constant sex, and a hint of drama in a couple too.

I enjoyed them, but the men are too assertive for my liking; there's a difference between taking advantage of a moment and taking advantage of a woman, and characters like this are open to the standard critique that "Mills & Boon"-type romance diminishes women and their right to choose.

31/07/2013

Reading - July 2013


The Week (6 July 2013 / Issue 927)
The Week (13 July 2013 / Issue 928)
Writing A Romance Novel For Dummies by Leslie Wainger (2004)
I don't read as much romantic fiction as I used to, but I still enjoy the occasional novel now and then, and this (which isn't about writing for dummies, by the way) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the mechanics of such books. They aren't formulaic, as anyone who has actually read more than a couple knows, but there are standard - required - components. Having them articulated is an interesting exercise and I'm going to have fun looking out for them in the next romantic novel I read. The book also has plenty to say that applies to novel writing generally.
Where The Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre (2011)
I love Christopher Brookmyre's books but on this evidence "Chris" Brookmyre isn't going to work for me. Gone is the comedy and satire and in its place is a routine police procedural. Speculation in the Amazon reviews section that it was deliberately written with at least one eye on TV serialisation may be a little unfair - after all, a man's entitled to change and he's gotta eat - but it's too dull for me. I didn't finish it.
The Rancher And The Redhead by Allison Leigh (1998)
I've read this before and enjoyed it (which is why it's still with us rather than back at Oxfam), but this time I was reading with an eye on technique, as described in the For Dummies book (see above). This is a Silhouette Special Edition, that is, it's a category romance, written to specific guidelines and word count. The romantic tension and emotional conflict is generated primarily through the hero's distrust of commitment (caused by his mother's early death and a betrayal by a previous girlfriend) and the heroine's lack of belief in her ability to survive life on a ranch. The emotional journey feels a little forced at times and the heroine's sudden illness towards the end appears to be there in order to achieve the required word count. But the characters are engaging and believable and you want them to end up together. I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I tell you that it ends happily!
Bad Boy by Olivia Goldsmith (2001)
This is a reverse Pygmalion story, reversed in two ways. Firstly, that the woman (surname Higgins) is remaking the man (surname Delano - hey, close enough). Secondly, the remodelling is to change a perfectly nice man into the title's Bad Boy: a heart-of-ice heart-breaker with a series of notches on his bedpost. A romantic comedy with most of the expected components but with some twists, not least that it is the woman who takes longest to realise she loves the hero (romantic convention is the opposite). This may be why the last few chapters don't really work for me.
The Week (20 July 2013 / Issue 929)
Heiress Apparent by Kayla Daniels (1993)
This is another, earlier Silhouette Special Edition (from when they used appropriately illustrated covers instead of generic photos). The heroine is a free spirit who doesn't ever want to settle down and who is secretly afraid to love; the hero never did settle down as a child and values steadiness above all. Mostly it is a gently comic romance but it takes a sudden, brief swerve into drama towards the end, which is less believable. It's sweet and funny though - and, like most category romances, a short, easy but satisfying read.
Guitarist (Summer 2013 / Issue 371)
The Week (27 July 2013 / Issue 930)

19/07/2013

Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

Wu-Tang Clan
1993

I've said before that I rarely listen to lyrics. So something that is all words is not my ideal kind of music. My normal osmotic listening approach (have it on in the background, try to absorb it) doesn't work with rap and hip-hop because it's so word-heavy. And anyway, I haven't listened to nearly enough hip-hop to understand the nuances.

This is twenty years old and in hip-hop terms is probably like early fifties rock 'n' roll to someone who is properly immersed in it: influential at the time but now hopelessly primitive and outdated. As someone who knows very little of it, and who isn't listening in the right way anyway, I'm a little unsure what to make of it. What I can decipher of lyrics is of no interest to me - I can't relate to it, even as a fantasy - while the musical aspects are appealing, but very, very repetitive. It's got a good beat which I do enjoy tapping along with but harmonically it is neolithic. And it goes on for aaaaaages. Back on the shelf it goes. Next!

01/07/2013

Kenya

Machito
1957

The title track doesn't sound particularly African to me; rather it sounds like a fairly typical lounge jazz (in fact what it really reminds me of is Murph & The Magic Tones). In this, it's atypical of the rest of album, which is rather fine salsa-flavoured jazz - or is it jazz-flavoured samba?  Either way, it's good stuff, like Basie with some Latin spice.

The up-tempo tracks, like "Frenzy", are wild and infectious, an inspired combination of swing and salsa. Although they do also remind me of a chase scene from a sixties madcap caper movie, or maybe from a scene in an exotic nightclub - in fact, I'm sure there's Bond scene that uses music very like "Wild Jungle". Other tracks are slower but nicely atmospheric; "Blues A La Machito" is a good example. It is all a touch lounge but the South American flavours make a nice change from straight-ahead jazz. Excellent for the right occasion.

30/06/2013

Reading - June 2013



Syrup by Maxx Barry (1999)
One of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time. Ostensibly a satire of marketing, it is actually a rom-com with a happy ending (I'm always a sucker for a happy ending), in the same way that The Office was actually a love story with a surface sheen of documentary. Nice and short too. Thanks Nat!
The Week (8 June 2013 / Issue 923)
The QI Book Of The Dead by John Lloyd & John Mitchison (2009)
This compendium of fun-sized biographies of the great and the good (and also some of the bad) is very much like its parent programme; choc-full of facts but a little bit wearing after a while. Interesting but more for dipping into than sitting down for a long read.
The Week (15 June 2013 / Issue 924)
Terminally Single by Katie Jenkins (1991)
Every now and then I like a book with a bit of romance and a guaranteed happy ending. For this, you can't beat a proper Mills & Boon. Sweet, unpretentious, feel-good fiction.
Memoirs Of A Fruitcake by Chris Evans (2011)
Breathless ride through the second half of Chris Evans' life so far. Very readable and good fun. You can't help feeling, though, that he really does have the most outrageous luck. Sure, he works hard for it, and is probably the pre-eminent broadcaster of his generation, but, really ...
The Perfect Neighbour by Nora Roberts (1999)
Pulp fiction? It's easy to regard genre romance novels as disposable, formulaic mush - much is - but if The Perfect Neighbour was made into a romcom, it would be a smash - even if it is a little reminiscent of Caroline In The City (I used to love that. But then who doesn't love Lea Thompson?) This is lovely; a proper plot, clear characterisation, no clunky, overly fact-filled dialogue (you know the type: "have you spoken to your brother the sculptor who just broke up with his girlfriend?"), and a good ending. But then Nora Roberts is a proper author and not just a housewife feeding the Silhouette machine.
How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World by Francis Wheen (2004)
Francis Wheen's definition of "mumbo-jumbo" gets broader the further he gets into the book. By the end it encompasses any viewpoint he disagrees with. In general I am sympathetic to most of his views and he puts his points across with concision and passion, but a more honest title would have been "How Political Opinions I Consider To Be Incorrect Have Achieved More Widespread Acceptance Than I Am Comfortable With".
A1: Portrait Of A Road by Jon Nicholson (2000)
Mildly diverting for half an hour, this collection of photographs doesn't seem to capture much of the sense of the road itself. Potentially an interesting concept fumbled, somewhat, I feel. And I'm no expert, but I don't rate the composition of the pictures much either.
The Week (22 June 2013 / Issue 925)
Guitarist (August 2013 / Issue 370)
The Week (29 June 2013 / Issue 926)

13/06/2013

Hands

Little Boots
2009

I have a vague association in my mind of Little Boots with the eighties synth revivalists, and given how much I enjoyed La Roux's debut album, I dug this out. Turned out I've actually had this album for a while but somehow never listened to it before now.

Once again we have all the obvious electropop influences: nicely tinny drum samples, buzzing synth tones and glistening echoes; songs with big singalong choruses. However if you didn't know any better you would be more inclined to categorise this with contemporary pop/dance. It illustrates just how much influence the giants like Depeche Mode or The Human League have on music today, and it doesn't need a self-conscious decision to revive them. "New In Town" or "Click" could easily be Girls Aloud (although I'm fairly certain you won't find Phil Oakey guesting on one of their albums any time soon, as he does here on "Symmetry"). "Remedy" or "Stuck On Repeat" wouldn't be out of place on Eurovision (and would have won, no problem). It's all very, very polished and very, very commercial.

It's important to understand that this isn't a criticism at all. I ♥ Pop. Done well, it's my favourite kind of music by far. Hands is packed with soaring tunes, great tones, cool hooks and superb production. If it feels a little more shallow than La Roux then that's maybe due to more immediacy and a little less variety. Still great stuff though.

05/06/2013

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan
1963

David Hepworth once wrote that if you're under 50, you probably don't get Bob Dylan.[citation needed] I think his point was that the way Dylan approached music making was more influential - on both musicians and listeners - than the music itself. If you are old enough to have been influenced directly, then you are more likely to appreciate it. On the other hand, a younger person will - can - only judge him by his musical legacy.

I think this is very plausible and goes some way to explaining why I've always considered Dylan to be really overrated. For me, the music does not stand up by itself. I've never been interested in lyrics, particularly any that are cryptic or pretentious. It's supposed to be pop music, not pop poetry (and yes, Bob Dylan is pop). Musically, Dylan can be really tiresome: his voice is an acquired taste at best (infernally grating at worst), the harmonica playing is horrible and most of the instrumentation sounds like an afterthought.

The more I learn about Dylan, the less I like. He is such a fake. The whole persona is a construction. The protest singer who made his name in New York isn't any more genuine than the folk rock revolutionary of the mid-sixties or the hillbilly from Nashville Skyline. Not that this should matter at all: I rather like Nashville Skyline, as it happens, because it has good tunes and decent musicians; and Bowie made his career out of alternative identities. What rankles is that at no point does Dylan admit that it is a construct. Sure, the mystique clearly works for him. It just annoys me.

Anyway, this is his second album. The best songs have a proper tune, even if Dylan's voice is only barely up to carrying it: "Masters Of War", "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (I think it's significant that, uniquely, covers of Bob Dylan songs tend to be better than the originals.) However, too much is affected, "rootsy" folk: "Bob Dylan's Blues", "Down The Highway" and "Talkin' World War III Blues" are all rambling tedium over rudimentary backing. It's probably good of its type but it's not enjoyable music.

Despite all this, I like Freewheelin'. I only bought it this year but I've known it since I was sixteen or seventeen, when my friend Josh got a copy on second-hand vinyl. He played it to death, and listening to it now takes me straight back to those winter evenings spent smoking dope, talking pretentious bollocks and writing our own songs. Even the rubbish tracks are evocative and heavily influenced Josh's own writing and performances, which, for personal reasons, I love. It does mean that I won't listen to this album very often. Those memories are among my most precious; I don't want to risk losing the ability to summon them.

31/05/2013

Reading - May 2013




Chocolate Shoes And Wedding Blues by Trisha Ashley (2012)
Clunky but enjoyable romcom. Junk food for the mind.
The Week (27 April 2013 / Issue 917)
Q: The 100 Best Record Covers Of All Time edited by Andrew Harrison (2001)
This is more of a special edition of a magazine than a book. It features some ... unusual choices (for example, Elvis's Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite might be the epitome of kitsch but it's still a thrown-together mess). The book is 12" square though, so the reproductions of the covers are full size. Which is nice.
The Week (4 May 2013 / Issue 918)
Under The Duvet by Marian Keyes (2002)
I picked this up hoping it would be an insight into how she approaches writing (in the vein of Stephen King's superb On Writing), which the blurb implied. There's about a page of this; the rest is throwaway newspaper magazine articles. Dispensable and disposable.
Guitarist (June 2013 / Issue 368)
Walking On Water: The West Pier Story by Fred Gray (1998)
Brief, interesting but ultimately somewhat sad story of Brighton's West Pier, once a thriving resort highlight but now a skeletal relic. We were lucky enough to be able to go on it, supervised and in hard hats, at around the time this book was published and it was in a terrible state - but at least the buildings were mostly intact and there was a very real hope that it could be restored. (Here are some photos from a tour around the same time.) Now this seems unlikely, given that all that remains are the iron pilings, as you can see in a number of superb studies by Chris Wright.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok (1966)
One of the most moving books I know, although I'd be interested to find out if a non-Jew felt the same. I was taken to see the film by my Grandma when I was about 12 or 13, and although I've never seen it since (it's not easy to get hold of), the book is a firm favourite.
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
Classic Brookmyre romp through school reunions.
The Week (11 May 2013 / Issue 919)
The Week (18 May 2013 / Issue 920)
100 Best Album Covers by Storm Thorgerson & Aubrey Powell (2001)
Another interesting collection of covers, spoiled by the inclusion of not a little art school pretension (nobody can seriously pretend that Bob Dylan's Self Portrait artwork is anything other than incompetent) and by a layout that reduces the printed size of the very item under discussion and sometimes completely ruins it by printing it across the binding.
Thelwell Goes West by Norman Thelwell (1975)
Gentle horsey humour for a spare ten minutes.
The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way) by The Timelords (1988)
Badly dated in places, timeless in others, very funny overall. Essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in pop music.
The Week (25 May 2013 / Issue 921)
Guitarist (July 2013 / Issue 369)
Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo (1998)
Common sense masquerading as mystical claptrap. No doubt it stimulates and inspires some people to consider the connectedness of all things and to ponder the sound of one hand clapping and all that bollocks, but not me. What this boils down to is: keep practising, be patient, keep learning. And now you don't have to read it.
American Gods (author's preferred text) by Neil Gaiman (2011)
This is a very long book and I only made it half way through. It was reasonably enjoyable but I got distracted after about a week and didn't really feel compelled to come back to find out what happened. I felt like the story was supposed to be about something important but I couldn't decipher what. And I have a suspicion of "author's preferred text" versions of anything anyway; authors are rarely their own best editors (e.g. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix) and a novel that is 12,000 words longer than the original edited version isn't a good sign.

29/05/2013

Almost Blue

Elvis Costello & The Attractions
1981

Country music is and has always been unfashionable in the UK, but it doesn't sound like inverse cultural one-upmanship was the driving factor in Elvis's choice to record an album consisting entirely of covers of country songs. All the cliches are present and correct: the swooping pedal steel, the sweet background vocals, the two-step rhythm; but it all seems to be done with genuine feeling, and I can understand the attraction, for a songwriter, of the classic melodies and story telling tradition in the music.

Costello's thin, reedy voice is unexpectedly suited to the slower ballads; the prime example being the peerless "A Good Year For The Roses", but also heard to good effect on "Sweet Dreams", "I'm Your Toy" and "How Much I Lied". He's less convincing on the rockier songs. "Honey Hush" is particularly anodyne compared to Johnny Burnette's version (and, as a prototype rockabilly tune, it's an odd inclusion here), while the opener "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" is mercifully short. Why someone capable of a track as powerful as "Pump It Up" should falter on the harder-edged tracks here I don't know.

Country music isn't my favourite but any album that includes something as superb as "A Good Year For The Roses" can't be all bad, it has some very memorable tunes (often the way with country), and it hangs together better as an album than Armed Forces. And it has a wonderful cover, even if it is a (deliberate) rip-off of Reid Miles's seminal sixties work for Blue Note.

14/05/2013

Armed Forces

Elvis Costello & The Attractions
1979

I've found this a little hard to get into, despite the presence of heavy-weight Costello classics "Accidents Will Happen", "Oliver's Army" and "Green Shirt" (plus CD bonus track "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding"). It's very close in feel and sound to the previous album, the excellent This Year's Model, except not quite so memorable.

Other than the singles, tracks I've enjoyed are, um ... well, there was the one that sounded a bit like "Night Rally" ("Goon Squad") ... oh, and I quite liked the song that reminded me of "Alison" crossed with Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" ("Party Girl"). The only track I can remember the name of is "Moods For Moderns", which is a decent melody.

This being Costello, I'm sure the lyrics have some meaning but none that I can penetrate. Not a classic.

Update: I've just listened to This Year's Model again and it is so much better than Armed Forces.

08/05/2013

American Beauty

Grateful Dead
1970

So, what do I know about Grateful Dead? Not much. They were going for ages (still are, in some incarnations); they played extended, heavily improvised rock; they were best live; and they were one of the world's biggest cult bands ("a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac"). So far, so hoopy, and therefore, armed with my minimal knowledge, I wasn't expecting this: a hokey, countrified, ballad-heavy album, with gentle, mostly acoustic instrumentation and camp-fire harmonies.

My first impressions of this album were that it was a poor copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash's first album (from 1968); the harmonies aren't quite as precise, the playing a little more sloppy. This is thrown into even more sharp contrast by side-by-side listens with CSNY's far superior 1970 album Déjà Vu. It's just not as accomplished.

Perhaps that's an unfair comparison. Déjà Vu is a timeless classic, whereas American Beauty sits very much in the late-sixties, combining a "hello clouds, hello sky" kind of hippy-ness with a bluegrass feel that I guess was becoming very current, what with the Byrds and Gram Parsons. This could be a bit wearing but thankfully it has plenty of pleasant tunes, and after a few plays they've started becoming memorable. Opener "Box Of Rain" has a slow, plaintive melody and keening guitar that reminds me a little of that in Richard & Linda Thompson's wonderful "When I Get To The Border". "Operator" reminds me of a Monkees song, unexpectedly, although I can't place which one right now. "Sugar Magnolia sounds a bit like Little Feat.

All of these things I'm reminded of are, for me, better than this. I'm a bit lukewarm about American Beauty. Another album whose place in the list of "greatest" is not justified, in my opinion.

01/05/2013

Supernature

Cerrone
1977

This is an odd mixture, an album of two halves.

The first is dominated by the reputation-forming title track, which is worth the money all by itself. It's ground-breaking synthesized proto-house, in the mould of Georgio Morodor's classic productions for Donna Summer - more machine-like than the standard disco template of Philly soul strings and four-on-the-floor beat, but more human than Kraftwerk. It's a fantastic groove. Fun fact: the eco-aware lyrics were by Lena Lovich!

The following two tracks, "Sweet Drums" and "In The Smoke" (sometimes included as part of the "extended version" of "Supernature") both remind me of Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygène (from the same year and country as Cerrone); analogue synthesis in excelsis. It all sounds futuristic and surprisingly undated.

The second half is very different, being much more typical disco in the Salsoul vein; strings, prominent bass groove, female chorus, songs about love. Fun in a cheesy way (it's very well executed, and I do love disco), but it puts me strangely in mind of half-remembered Seaside Special performances, particularly "Love Is Here".

30/04/2013

Reading - April 2013


My Booky Wook by Russell Brand (2008)
I'd heard this was good but I abandoned it about three chapters in. Affected and boring if you're not actually interested in Russell Brand.
The Law Of Delay by C. Northcote Parkinson (1970)
Despite being published later than In-Laws And Outlaws, this collection of magazine pieces is much more dated. While occasionally offering valid points about bureaucracy (the Law Of Delay: "delay is the deadliest form of denial") it loses goodwill by postulating that working women are responsible for a lack of respect from youth. Dispensable.
In-Laws And Outlaws by C. Northcote Parkinson (1962)
What starts as a tongue-in-cheek but very out-dated manual for success in the world of business (the would-be executive is advised to determine his - always his - prospective employer's capability by the attractiveness of his secretary) becomes a surprisingly current comment on corporate behaviour. I could quote many passages but here's one towards the end of the book:
Executives are broadly of two kinds, those technically capable of starting something new and those merely able to administer the organisation that exists. Which is the more important - a new product or a smooth procedure? There is usually some lip-service to innovation and progress but the real scale of values is expressed in the salary cheques. Who matters more, the engineer or the accountant, the chemist or the clerk? [...] Where the highest value is placed on routine competence, the process of decay has begun.
This passage reminds me of something - I'll remember what soon, I'm sure ...
May Week Was In June by Clive James (1990)
For some reason this installation of the autobiography took two months. It's still fascinating and the writing is as immaculate as ever, but it becomes a bit breathless. I'm in awe of how much he managed to learn and read while at Cambridge though. It's also a salutary reminder of the benefits of going to Cambridge - he clearly met many, many future contacts there.
Casual Day Has Gone Too Far by Scott Adams (1997)
Funny and easy to read over breakfast.
Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook as told to Scott Adams (1998)
Amusing and too accurate satire of inept management. Contains my favourite Dilbert cartoon. "Did our core business change? Or are you saying that every reorg prior to this was a misdirected failure?"
The Effluent Society by Norman Thelwell (1971)
Interesting to see that many current ecological concerns were already in place forty years ago.
Belt Up by Norman Thelwell (1974)
A bit hit and miss, and reflective of its time, particularly so in the jokes about women drivers. Great pictures though. I used to love copying the cars.
Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch (2010)
An utterly fascinating and incredibly frustrating recounting and debunking of many of the prime conspiracy theories of our times. Fascinating because of the range of ludicrous notions entertained by idiots down the years; frustrating for exactly the same reason. That otherwise intelligent people are prepared to believe, and continue to believe such arrant nonsense makes me despair.

Happy Sad

Tim Buckley
1969

Almost twenty years ago I came across Jeff Buckley's incomparable Grace in a secondhand record shop in Manchester and it's been one of my favourite albums ever since. Inevitably, any fan of Jeff is going to want to hear more, and that is bound to lead to his father Tim. The result is that I now have quite a few more albums by Buckley Senior than by Buckley Junior; the irony is that, so far, I've never really connected with any of them. I quite like Sefronia (which includes "Dolphins", my favourite Tim Buckley song so far) but that's about it.

Happy Sad is from a few years earlier and I think the most I can say about it is, again, I quite like it. Not loads, just some. As a whole, is has a lazy, hazy late-summer, late-sixties feel which I find appealing. Although notionally "folky" and primarily based on acoustic instruments, it has electric touches here and there, and there's a jazzy influence hovering over most of the tracks too. It's only six songs long, although two of them are over 10 minutes long, so it isn't a short record.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would be "Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)", which is a deliciously languorous, melancholic lament for a lost love. I also like the opener, "Strange Feelin'" which reminds me oddly of the "Stairway To Heaven" theme from A Matter Of Life And Death, while "Buzzin' Fly" has a nice little rhythm going. Unfortunately, "Gypsy Woman" is grossly over-indulgent and, at 12 minutes long, dominates and spoils the album for me.

All in all, another mixed bag as far as I'm concerned.

29/04/2013

Shoot Speed / Kill Light

Primal Scream
XTRMNTR, 2000

Primal Scream are the chamaeleons of indie rock. Is there a band that can claim the same range, from blissed-out baggy on "Higher Than The Sun" and "Loaded" to brain-melting trance with "Swastika Eyes"? Probably not. Unfortunately, neither can Primal Scream. Their only musical successes are due to having the foresight or luck to choose capable collaborators, and the wisdom to then leave them alone to do what they do best. On their own, Primal Scream revert to a cartoon caricature of a "rock band", complete with parody "attitude", and playing bad rip-offs of early seventies Stones - apparently unaware that the Stones have reserved that right to themselves for many decades now.

I first heard "Shoot Speed / Kill Light" over a pint in The Jekyll & Hyde in Edinburgh, when my friend Keith fished a Walkman out of the depths of his coat and told me, "You'll love this." (Keith, a man with impeccable taste in music, never despaired of improving mine.) He didn't tell me who it was. My first impression was that it sounded like New Order abusing My Bloody Valentine in a Glasgow fetish dungeon. As it turned out, I wasn't far wrong. Recruited for the XTRMNTR album, MBV guitarist and sonic guru Kevin Shields was joined for this track by Bernard Sumner. Whither Primal Scream? I can't hear any evidence that they played on the track, nor are they missed.

The track is superb, a howling, screaming collision of krautrock, Hawkwind and techno, with a classic New Order bass line (presumably played by Mani. I suppose), gusts of patented squawling Shields guitar, topped off with a minimal, heavily processed, vocoder lyric that just recites the title over and over. It is utterly compelling, hypnotic and driven. It's also pretty much unlike anything else on the album.

The rest of XTRMNTR is patchy: "Swastika Eyes" is excellent (in both versions, although I prefer the Jagz Kooner mix), and "Blood Money" is a fun combination of John Barry, sub-Coltrane free jazz and Neu, but too much of the rest is just their default sub-Stones riffage played while doing a Stars In Their Eyes take on The Stooges or MC5. And Bobby Gillespie's voice is probably the most annoying in rock. Yes, even more than Bob Dylan's.


Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties.

18/04/2013

Hope There's Someone

Antony & The Johnsons
I Am A Bird Now (2005)

I heard this via a recommendation from an acquaintance. She'd discovered the album by accident (well before its Mercury Music Prize success), but despite being captivated by its unusual sound (Antony's voice is probably an acquired taste), she couldn't persuade any of her friends that it was any good; mostly they laughed at it. In desperation to find someone else who would appreciate it, and knowing my reputation as a man of catholic musical tastes, she almost forced the CD on me one day. Happily, I loved it too.

This is the first track and captures the atmosphere of the album as a whole; a mixture of hope and despair, fragility and strength, uncertainty and courage. It still sounds unlike anything else I can think of and the opposite of most pop or rock, containing only simple, sparse instrumentation. It sounds more like chamber music than pop. And Antony Hegarty's tremulous voice floats over it, also providing an eerie choir of backing vocals. Thought-provoking and beautiful.


Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties.