Monday, December 20, 2010

Monorail Poll 2010, part 2

The results of this year’s Monorail Music albums poll have now been added to the comments of this post, many thanks to SP for that. If you prefer there is also a pdf, to print out and put up on your wall. Or you could just go and look at the one in the shop, not forgetting to buy lots of records while you’re there.

Pictured above: Dep and David Quantick on BBC 2’s Review Show last Friday.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

‘Fallin’ ditch ain’t gonna get my bones’

The Yummy Fur played one of their reunion shows last week in Glasgow. It sounded great, even if the band are a whole different proposition now with the de-geeked, rockin’ out John / Jackie McKeown. Maybe I’m mis-remembering, but I’m sure he used to rock in. Before the show I played The Fire Engines’ ‘New Thing In Cartons’ to A., and watched the same bemusement I felt when I first heard it a year or two ago. ‘It’s the same!’ she exclaimed, meaning that as well as ‘New Thing In Cartons’ by The Fire Engines, it is also ‘Sexy World’ by The Yummy Fur. As far as I know, it isn’t also a Captain Beefheart song, but it is certainly true that without him The Fire Engines (and Big Flame) couldn’t have sounded like they did. That guitar sound, regimented to within an inch of its life but in directions which make no obvious sense, until they get inside your head and take it apart. I hated Trout Mask Replica when I first heard it. ‘China Pig’ was funny, but the rest... there was nothing to hold on to. Annoyed at having shelled out £15, I thought I may as well use the damn thing for samples, which you can hear at the end of Planet Sunflower’s ‘The Black Hole’ (drums from ‘Ant Man Bee’, saxophone from ‘Wild Life’). A few years later I fell for Doc at the Radar Station, still one of my favourite albums, and worked my way back.

An image for you: Chris and I on holiday in Salzburg, at the end of the ’90s. A. had been surprised that he would want to read Hitler’s Willing Executioners on such a trip (which also took in Munich), and was herself a little embarrassed to be seen with Slaughterhouse 5, which she was reading for Uni. Bladdered on weissbier served by an over-doing-it Scot in a kilt at the backpacker’s hostel (he stood on one leg to pour, and made a big deal of swilling the dregs), we staggered across the city, bellowing the words to ‘Dachau Blues’, he dressed in a Remembrance Day wreath acquired en route. What he was really after, though, was the Austrian flag which flew high up on the bridge over the river Salzach. He could just touch it with his fingertips if he stood on tip toe on the hand rail. And – he didn’t die! Or get the flag. We already miss you so much, Don.

Many fond tributes (including that ‘Fallin’ Ditch’ quote) here.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Barry Lopez – ‘Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape’

A recommendation from Jay Griffiths’ Wild, Arctic Dreams gives a more balanced account of somewhat similar ground: the profusion of life in what appears to be wilderness, and the conflict between cultures when west meets north. Lopez does look with regret at what industrialisation has done to the wildlife and people of the Arctic, but he is careful not to dismiss everything that white man has done. Some statistics:
The Canadian historian W. Gillies Ross cautiously suggests that as many as 38,000 Greenland right whales may have been killed in the Davis Strait fishery, largely by the British fleet. A sound estimation of that population today [1986] is 200. There are no similar figures for the number of native people in the region who fell to diphtheria, smallpox, tuberculosis, poliomyelitis, and other diseases – historians have suggested that 90 percent of the indigenous population of North America is not an unreasonable figure. (p. 10)
Confronted with this, Griffiths’ rage does seem entirely reasonable. But Lopez refuses to ignore the point of view of the perpetrators:
The desire to understand what is unknown is great. And the wish to create some human benefit out of new knowledge, however misconstrued, is one of the graces of Western civilisation. Few historians can say precisely where the special interest of a [John] Barrow or a Robert Peary ceased to serve society and served only the man; or where plans for industrialization cross a line and become of greater service to a nation’s economy than the wellbeing of its people. (p. 357)
It’s not a ringing endorsement, but it is an attempt to understand the motives of explorers and entrepreneurs, and even to allow that they may include (alongside fame and fortune) a kind of altruism.

This moral complexity gives Arctic Dreams a novelistic feel, though there is no plot. Like Wild, it is divided into long, themed chapters which take a single aspect of the subject (the seasons, musk oxen, polar bears, explorers), which cross-pollinate to some extent, and which build into an overview. Lopez moves through environment and wildlife before he gets to people, and as with Wild, western cultural references (Rockwell Kent, Frederic Edwin Church, the Irish imramha) are dotted throughout: personal and artistic responses are almost as important here as the geography. ‘To grasp the movement of the sun in the Arctic is no simple task’ (p. 21) he says, then undertakes it by suspending time at the summer solstice, and taking an imaginary walk south from the pole, where ‘the sun is making a flat 360° orbit exactly 23½° above the horizon’. As he proceeds down the 100th meridian, the sun’s orbit tilts, until it touches the horizon (at the edge of the Arctic Circle), and ‘You would say, now, that the sun seemed more to move across the sky than around in it.’ He takes us right down to the equator, then back again. ‘Virtually all of the earth’s biological systems are driven by solar radiation’ (p. 29), he says, contrasting rainforest and tundra.

The musk ox (pictured above) and the polar bear get a chapter each. I was delighted to find that ‘oomingmaq’ is the Eskimo word for a musk ox, and dug out the Cocteau Twins’ Victorialand to give ‘Oomingmak’ a spin. These were my favourite chapters: lively, detailed descriptions of behaviour and physical characteristics, taking in the odd bit of personal observation. Lopez describes the musk oxen’s layers of insulating hair, their horns, their ancestry, their behaviour when rutting or when protecting their young. As no other species do, they sometimes form a ‘rosette, rump to rump, with calves and yearlings wedged between the adults’ (p. 61), which was a problem when zoos became interested – ‘the only practical way to secure a calf was to kill all the adults in a defensive formation’ (p. 74). Lopez doesn’t hesitate to condemn this, his fairness is not neutrality. Female polar bears build maternity dens of snow, designed to allow good air flow with an ‘upward-sloping tunnel’ (p. 89) for an entrance and a ventilation hole in the chamber. They keep it warm (-ish – 32°F) by ‘radiating a small amount of heat, about as much as a 200-watt bulb’ (p. 90). When the cubs are three months old, they and their mother will emerge – she to hunt and eat for the first time since entering the den. And here they come, from a den way up on a slope:
They learn to imitate their mothers, who slide down rump first, looking over their shoulders and braking with their claws; or on their sides, leading with all four feet; or headfirst on their bellies. Mothers at the bottom catch cubs veering out of control. (p. 92)

Monday, December 06, 2010

Monorail Poll 2010

I don’t think it’s just me being lazy with my record buying. This year it seemed as though almost every once great band was great again. The Vaselines and the Television Personalities put out brilliant singles, Tender Trap were better than they’d ever been before, and Edwyn Collins was properly back. I’m still making my mind up about the guest vocals on Losing Sleep, it’ll be March before it hits, probably. I believe there were new bands too, but I didn’t really take to the Dum Dum Girls, and in general there seemed too many records with boring four four beats pushed to the fore, like a fringe and a pair of shades. This made Directorsound’s wonky Two Years Today all the more delightful, you could see the whites of their eyes and their flecked irises. Three four lurching is where it’s at in their world, and they have refined it beautifully in the years since Redemptive Strikes, there is no one quite like them. Crooked feels like the record Kristin Hersh has been building up to for a decade, and Grinderman 2 is everything Grinderman and Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! strove (too hard) to be but (therefore) weren’t. She & Him made a record Nancy & Lee would have been proud of, but they were never going to steal The Sexual Objects’ crown. ‘There’s ice cream on the tissues / Get your ponchos out’. Filth.

Thanks to Monorail for a) being Monorail and b) asking for our votes again. Here is my list:
  1. The Sexual Objects – Cucumber
  2. She & Him – Volume 2
  3. Vic Godard & Subway Sect – We Come As Aliens
  4. Directorsound – Two Years Today
  5. Spare Snare – Victor
  6. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
  7. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  8. Kristin Hersh – Crooked
  9. Bill Wells / Annie Whitehead / Stefan Schneider / Barbara Morgenstern – Paper of Pins
  10. Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’

Jo Mango – The Moth and The Moon / The Black Sun


Charles Douglas – The Lives of Charles Douglas


And here is Chris S.’s list:
  1. The Sexual Objects – Cucumber
  2. Oneone – Aoooo *
  3. Real Estate – Reality
  4. Beach Fossils – Beach Fossils
  5. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows
  6. Nikasaya – One Summerheim *
  7. The Liminanes – The Liminanes
  8. Pantha du Prince – Black Noise
  9. Dum Dum Girls – I Will Be
  10. Directorsound – Two Years Today
* Two of these records were, strictly speaking, 2009 records, but I didn't get them until 2010... I'm not sure what the rules are or how tightly you're applying them... if Oneone / Nikasaya have to go, then please add in:

To Rococo Rot – Speculation
Moon Duo – Escape


Deerhoof / Oneone – Sealed With A Kiss / Oneone Theme


Spare Snare – Live at McGonagalls, Dundee, 28.10.95

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