30/09/2021

Watching - September 2021

Ghosts (Season 3, 2021)
Ghosts has been a firm family favourite since Season 1, so we were happy to see another series. I think they're doing a superb job of slowly revealing the back stories of all the characters, while moving the overall story arc forward. Very funny in places and great fun overall.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)
An old favourite that I hadn't seen for years, and so was happily able to enjoy it all over again. John Cusack does himself, but very well, and Minnie Driver is cute - although it's not clear why she'd be so ready to get together with him again so quickly. The juxtaposition between the romcom aspects and the violence can be quite abrupt, but I suppose that's what makes it more unusual.
The Hunt For Red October (1990)
Classic cold war thriller that, Sean Connery's accent aside, seems very believable. Compared to the book, the plot is simpler and fewer of the motives are revealed, particularly about why the Russian captain decides to defect. It also has very little of the novel's gung-ho US patriotism, which is no loss. Instead of the sprawling sub-plots of the original then, we get a taut story that kept me interested. I'd never seen this before, despite having had it for ages.
Quiz Show (1994)
First thing that struck me: don't they all look so young? Yeah, I'm getting old, particularly since they are about the right age for the characters. Ralph Fiennes does a particularly good job of someone who has been tempted down a path he didn't really want (the real Charles Van Doren finally broke his silence in 2008); Hank Azaria (in the second film of his I've seen this month) and David Paymer are wonderfully sleazy TV execs; and I love Rob Morrow's Brookline accent (which I assume is authentic ¯\_(ツ)_/¯). Apparently the film strips a lot of detail from the real story of the 1950s quiz show scandals in the name of a clear narrative, but this does make for a compelling film.

Reading - September 2021

Guitar Magazine (Sept 2021 / Issue 396)
Guitar Magazine (Oct 2021 / Issue 397)
September's issue arrived late for some reason, so I got to read two, back-to-back. Joe Bonamassa on the cover of October's issue, yawn. Some nice kit reviewed though.
You Got An Ology? by Maureen Lipman and Richard Phillips (1989)
K starting her A Level course in Sociology this month triggered a memory in her grandma's mind, and so she very kindly gifted this book to K. Unfortunately, pop-culture references from nearly forty years ago are kind of lost on a seventeen year old, and this tie-in from BT's ad campaign was disposable at the time. Most of the book is taken up with pictures from the ads themselves, but there's some interest and amusement in the forwards from Lipman and Phillips about how the ad came to be.
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005)
I somehow acquired this book, along with the other two in the trilogy, for free, from various sources, but for some reason I have never quite been in the mood to read them. Then suddenly I fancied starting it and, having started, I couldn't stop: it's a compelling crime drama, no question. However, I'm not comfortable saying I enjoyed it. Larsson is obviously trying to make a point about violence against women (there are stats quoted at the start of each section) but the extent of it in the plot is beyond my level of tolerance in a book I am reading for (supposedly) pleasure. I finished it because I wanted the resolution of knowing how it ended, but I've read the synopsis of the other two books on Wikipedia and I'm not sure I will bother reading them any time soon.
Not The End Of The World by Christopher Brookmyre (1998)
I have about four books on the go right now, all of which are very interesting but which are either slightly heavy going or require a certain amount of brain engagement. So for temporary respite, it's nice to go back to something I'm as familiar with as my favourite albums. The combination of Brookmyre's superb characterisation and tight plotting make this as entertaining as ever, and the fantastic skewering of religious idiocies just adds to it.
A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre (2001)
I am reading other books but most of this was read on the train to and from London for our shopping trip. This introduces Angelique de Xavia, one of my favourite Brookmyre characters.
The Hunt For Red October by Tom Clancy (1984)
I was reading something about submarines and that inevitably reminded me of this superb thriller. What struck me this time is the portrayal of the contrast between the US and Soviet Russia: western (or specifically US) culture is free and produces smarter, better people and things, while Soviet culture is shown as hide-bound, class-ridden and hopelessly mired in political wrangling. Basically, the US is better in every way, according to this; it's a theme that runs right the way through the book like words through a stick of rock.
The Perfect Neighbour by Nora Roberts (1999)
One of my favourite Silhouette romances. Sweet and touching.
The Bride Test by Helen Hoang (2019)
As with her first novel (The Kiss Quotient), the characters are of Vietnamese descent and autism features in the story. The setup feels a little queasy; the phrase "mail-order bride" occurs a couple of times. That the characters then do actually fall in love is of course a completely idealised version of what happens in real life, but nevertheless the story is sweet and satisfying, and I finished it quickly.
An Abundance of Katherines by John Green (2006)
I first came across John Green in the Mental Floss videos, which are edutainment of a very high order. It seemed a bit of an unexpected departure, from my point of view anyway, to next encounter him when wondering what book was making K cry. And that's how I came across The Fault In Our Stars (which I have read but not logged for some reason). This isn't quite the same; it's a nice, entertaining, YA romcom that ends happily. I don't really care that I'm at least thirty years older than its target audience; I can still remember enough about what it felt like as a teenager to relate to it.

27/09/2021

First Impressions 3: Tin Machine II

Tin Machine (1991)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

This was not the US cover
I've always had a bit of soft spot for Tin Machine, ever since I saw their live promo film in the cinema as a supporting feature to some film and really liked it (although the girl I was with was deeply unimpressed). At the time, it was a very deliberate break with Bowie's tradition and of course I bought that first album straight away. So I suppose it tells you everything you need to know about the extent of my alleged soft spot that I didn't buy Tin Machine II until (ahem) thirty years later. Was it worth the wait?

Well, I'd hate to leave my single reader in suspense, so let me say straight away: no. It's never going to be one of my favourite albums; it's not even one going to be one of my favourite albums of 1991.

Still, it's not a total loss. It's got the same feeling as too many of Bowie's later albums, of trying a bit too hard to get something new, pulling seemingly disparate elements together without quite making them gel, and forgetting the tunes, but there's plenty of interesting moments. I could do with fewer of Reeves Gabrels' "far out" (i.e. tuneless) solos, but the rhythm section is rock solid and it's all very cleanly produced. I do find the juxtaposition of straight-ahead rock and Bowie's unique, very mannered phrasing a little jarring, but it's interesting to note that when Hunt Sales sings (e.g. on "Stateside"), it fits the style of music better but instantly becomes more generic

Any standout tracks on first listen? "Amlapura" strikes me the most, more for being a decent Bowie track instead of a Bowie-playing-at-rock track. "Sorry" works well as an overall performance, with the various parts coming together well. I'm sure other tracks will emerge when (if?) I listen to the album more, as there's plenty of interesting moments. Absolutely non-essential but nice to have all the same.

20/09/2021

First Impressions 2: I Can't Believe You're Gone

The Webb Brothers (2000)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

I didn't realise this was a single when I bought it, but at least it's a nice easy way into my first impressions series, with only three songs to concentrate on.

My first impression is that it is heavily reminiscent of Jason Falkner's Can You Still Feel?, that  kind of sophisticated post-Jellyfish power-pop that is so often gets critical adulation and little sales. It's got a great chorus melody, some nicely hook-y arrangement and a well-though out structure. I'd listen to it again. The acoustic version of "I Can't Believe You're Gone" is the third track here and is in some respects nicer for being less overblown, but the song stands up to the two different treatments well.

"Blame It On Yourself", the second track here, separating the two different versions of the single, is clear B-side fodder, a slightly weaker track that nevertheless makes me want to go and listen to the source album Maroon - which I suppose is the point!

19/09/2021

First Impressions 1: The Seeds of Love

Tears for Fears (1989)

[First impressions of albums bought in my September 2021 spree]

The cover has not aged
as well as the music
The first album I'm listening to for my first impressions of those I bought during my outing yesterday, and already I'm cheating. I know this album very well. It's a sumptuous, warm bath of a record, a miracle of late-eighties record production that I have enjoyed for decades and find myself returning to again and again.

This is the 2020 remaster, so, given that I know it well, I have to restrict my first impressions to what differences I can hear. I'd say it's mixed slightly louder, which is a little surprising given that the loudness wars are over, but thankfully, on an album so full of dynamics, there's no evidence of these being sacrificed. The songs are full of little touches that are sounding clearer, I think. There's power and weight in the bass at the beginning of "Woman in Chains", followed by a surrounding cloud of ambience as the track gets going. "Badman's Song" ebbs and flows through its mood changes as gloriously as ever, and I am reminded again what a good singer Roland Orzabal is.

I didn't really need to do a first impressions of this album, of course, but I having somehow failed to buy this before now, I wanted to hear it properly through my system at home. It sounds great.

Shopping: 18 September 2021

Brian and I were wondering how long we've been visiting Berwick Street for our music fix, and neither of us can really remember. But, looking back in my archives, I can see that I was bemoaning the loss of record shops almost ten years ago, so clearly we had been coming some time before that!

Still, so what if what used to be a trawl through the myriad secondhand music emporia has long ago become an excuse to meet and catch up over a few pints, with a little shopping in between? We had a great time, marvelled at how busy Soho is these days, and even brought home a few albums.

There was nothing in particular I wanted (with one exception) and no plan, so what I have consists of covers, artists or titles that caught my eye at that moment - and all for a smidge over £50!

The View From Half Way Down by Andy Bell (2020)
I loved Ride, and Hurricane #1 produced several of my favourite singles of the Nineties. It's always pained me that such a great guitarist was reduced to plodding away on bass in some obscure pub-rock band, just to pay the bills. So when I saw this album on display in Sister Ray as one the "best albums of 2020", I couldn't resist.
Pleasure by Feist (2017)
Have heard the name but not the music, was cheap.
Rabbit Fur Coat by Jenny Lewis with The Watson Twins (2005)
This album rings a bell from back in the day when I actually read the music press, so thought I'd have a punt.
My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful Than Yours by McLusky (2003)
I bought this entirely on the strength of the title and primarily to amuse K, who listens to lots of songs with depressing titles all in lower case (as it is on this album cover), as exemplified by the Spotify playlist idk. However, this probably isn't her type of music: Wikipedia tells me that McLusky are a "post-hardcore band", and although I have to admit to not being quite sure what this means, I'm pretty certain it's not acoustic. Although acoustic guitars would be very post-hardcore.
Looks even better in the cardboard
Summer 08 by Metronomy (2016)
Bought purely on the strength of a very attractive embossed cover.
Slanted and Enchanted by Pavement (1992)
Brian and I used to do a version of "Trigger Cut" with our band, but I've never owned the album until now.
Bankrupt! by Phoenix (2013)
I have several Phoenix albums, although none I like as much as their debut, United. This deluxe, limited edition version might be worth a bit more than I paid for it.
Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star by Sonic Youth (1994)
I've been meaning to get into Sonic Youth since I was a student. I might have left it a bit late.
Amazing Grace by Spiritualized (2003)
My interest in Spiritualized was piqued by the amusing autobiography of their former bass player Will Carruthers. Need any other reason to purchase? Not me.
The Seeds Of Love by Tears for Fears (1989)
This is the one album I was looking for, although I didn't remember that until I actually saw it on the counter at Sister Ray for £2.99. I suspect this disk actually came from a deluxe reissue, but since I don't care about the extra material, I am just happy to have what is a superb album at a good price.
Tin Machine II by Tin Machine (1991)
At first I was amazed to find this long out-of-print album available, and thought perhaps I'd bagged myself a bit of a rarity. However, on closer examination, it turns out to be a 2020 reissue from a Dutch label called Music On CD. Hardly essential listening, but I've always had a soft spot for Bowie's hard rock, "I'm just the lead singer of the band" phase.
Poses by Rufus Wainwright (2001)
A bargain at £2? No idea, but I like most of his other stuff.
I Can't Believe You're Gone by The Webb Brothers (2000) 
I've just re-ripped their album Beyond The Biosphere and this has a cool cover. Turns out it's a single, though, so teensy bit annoyed at myself.

15/09/2021

Challah recipe

Four-plait challah
 Making challah was one of the reasons I started making bread by hand, after having had a bread machine for six months or so. However, I struggled for ages, not so much with the form but with the taste, which was always a bit bland - like normal white bread in a challah shape. I persisted with complicated recipes that required me to separate egg yolks and whites, for some reason, and also in the belief that real challah has honey in it. None of these were very satisfactory, so eventually I gave up.

I was inspired again years later by my nephew, who was making bread - and challah - and so this time I went and found a much simpler recipe. I've adapted it slightly; I'm not one for lots of experimentation, and once something works I stick with it, but I found this still wasn't giving me quite what I wanted. What I have done is to combine a technique from other breads of creating a starter the day before, to allow the initial batter to ferment a little and add some taste and texture. It seems to work quite well.

Thursday: the starter

On Thursday, ideally in the morning but in the evening if you forget (I do, often), make a simple starter.

Ingredients

  • 125g strong white flour
  • ¼ tsp (approx 1g) dried yeast
  • 150g lukewarm water

Method

  1. Mix the flour and yeast together.
  2. Add the water and mix well to a smooth batter.
  3. Cover and leave until Friday morning. If you want to have a peek a few hours later, you'll see it bubbling nicely.
  4. Optional: give it another good mix on Thursday evening.

Friday: the bread

On Friday morning, make the bread, which should be enough time to be ready for kiddush in the evening.

Ingredients

  • 375g strong white flour (plus a little more for the work surface)
  • 7g dried yeast
  • 60g caster sugar
  • 1 whole egg and 1 yolk (plus another for an egg wash)
  • 45ml sunflower oil (plus approx another 15ml for kneading etc)
  • 10g salt
  • 50g lukewarm water (plus a little more if needed)

Method

  1. Mix the flour, yeast and sugar together in a large bowl.
  2. Make a well in the middle of ingredients and pour in the starter from yesterday.
  3. Gently combine the starter with the flour, keeping it in the well in middle, to make a sponge. You're trying to get the batter a little thicker but still leave dry ingredients round the edge.
  4. Leave the sponge for about half an hour.
  5. Mix the remaining ingredients (egg, oil, salt and water) in a jug.
  6. Add the wet ingredients to the sponge and mix it all together into a dough. It should be firm but not too dry, so add a little more water if needed.
Here's where my laziness creeps in. If you prefer (some people say it gives a better result), you could now just knead the dough for 10 minutes. Kneading dough for ten minutes is a pain, so here's what I do:
  1. Shape the dough into a rough ball, cover the bowl and leave the dough for 10 minutes.
  2. Put a little oil on the work surface, take the dough out of the bowl, wipe the bowl clean and oil it.
  3. Knead the dough for about 30 seconds and put it back in the bowl.
  4. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.
  5. Knead again for 30 seconds, then back in the bowl.
    • You might want a bit more oil on the work surface if necessary to stop it sticking too much.
  6. Cover and leave for 10 minutes.
  7. Knead again for 30 seconds, back in the bowl.
  8. Cover and leave for 30 minutes.
  9. Knead again for 30 seconds.
Then the process is the same:
  1. Cover the dough and leave to rise. The time varies, and the recipes usually say "until doubled in size", although I have a hard time telling what "doubled" is, so usually I just leave it for a couple of hours.
  2. Put some flour on the work surface.
  3. Take the dough out, press the air out and make it into a rough ball again.
  4. Divide the dough into 2 pieces, as equal as you can (you can weigh them if you want).
Each of these pieces will become a challah, so do the following instructions for each:
  1. Get a baking tray out, and cover it with baking parchment.
  2. Divide the dough into 4 pieces, weighing if you want to be precise.
  3. Press each piece into a rough rectangle, then roll it gently into a sausage shape.
  4. Lay each piece out on the work surface, so that one end of each piece is joined together and the other ends are fanned out.
  5. Gently dust the pieces with flour.
  6. Plait the pieces.
    • There are lots of ways of plaiting and the best thing to do is watch a video - there's loads out there!
    • I usually do a four-plait challah, as shown in the picture at the top, as it's easy to split the dough into four pieces.
    • You can also do round challahs for Rosh Hashanah, as shown below.
  7. Put the challah on the tray and cover.
  8. Leave the challah to rise.
  9. Heat the oven up to 180C (fan).
  10. Prepare an egg wash with a beaten egg.
  11. Bake in the oven for about 30 mins, until golden and firm on the bottom.

Two round challahs, one coiled (left) and one plaited (right)




07/09/2021

Honey Cake recipe

Honey cake is a traditional item for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and I've made one for probably the last ten years or so. In simpler times I would make two every year: one for the home and one to take into work, as it's always been popular with my colleagues and I still get comments about it even though the last time I was actually able to provide some to them was September 2019!

The recipe I use is from my wife's mum, and she's not sure where it came from but it looks very similar to Flo Greenberg's; it doesn't really matter of course, as this is now our family recipe! One of the odd things is that this doesn't actually taste of honey much - the ginger and spices are much more obvious. I haven't tried it without honey to see what difference it makes, but I've used various different types of honey and that definitely makes no difference!

I rarely bake cakes, and I only make this once a year, which means it has taken a long time to refine my method. One thing I have learned is that although you can use an electric mixer to cream the eggs and sugar, after that you should mix all the ingredients together by hand.


Ingredients

  • 12 oz (340g) plain flour
  • 1 tsp (generous) baking powder
  • 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 2 tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp mixed spice
  • 6 oz (170g) caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 8 oz (227g) clear/runny honey (plus about 60-70g for glazing)
  • 2 tbsp oil
  • ¼ pint (142 ml) warm water

Method

  1. Prepare a floured and greased (or lined) tin. I use a 2lb loaf tin.
  2. Mix the dry ingredients together, apart from the sugar.
  3. Cream the sugar and eggs, using an electric mixer.
  4. Add the honey, oil and water to the egg mixture, mixing gently by hand.
  5. In a new bowl, alternate adding the dry and wet mixtures, mixing well but gently, by hand.
  6. Pour the combined mixture into the tin and put in the oven.
  7. Bake for about an hour, until it's done (i.e. the usual test: a knife or skewer comes out clean).
  8. Gently heat 60-70g more honey and brush it onto the top of the hot cake straight after it comes out of the oven.
  9. Leave in the tin for about half an hour before taking it out and allowing to cool on a rack.