Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Momus with Germlin, Stereo, Glasgow, 27th July

He’s laying out pom poms on the floor. Not on the stage, on the space in front of it. First he put down a silk handkerchief and smoothed it out, diamond shaped; now he’s arranging pom poms on it. Later on he will crouch in the same spot and lob some of them into the audience, his machines going crazy behind him. I wonder if he spends his days on the tour bus winding wool around cardboard hoops, replenishing his supply. Then I remember that Germlin isn’t playing the whole of Momus’ tour, only tonight, when they are to debut some of the songs they’ve been collaborating on long distance. Momus probably doesn’t have a bus either: a glove compartment would be sufficient for the microphone, lyric book and iPod that constitute his musical equipment for the show. But then he hates cars, so maybe he brought them in a knapsack, on a train with WiFi, blogging the whole time about the promptitude and cheapness of German public transport in comparison with Britain’s random pricing model, indicative of our willingness to put up with things, and their capacity for getting things done.

I don’t have the right frames of reference to describe Germlin’s music. The closest I can think is that it spazzes out as randomly as Max Tundra, with the energy of µ-Ziq’s Tango N’ Vectif. But I don’t know if that really does justice to the energy part. Germlin is all over the place during his set: jumping up on his equipment table (laptop, heavily taped up boxes with knobs on, a Stylophone), howling into a microphone, dancing around in his intense little space between the front of the stage and the handkerchief, hunched, possessed by this beat then that, battered around like a canoe in a tempest, or a moth at a My Bloody Valentine gig. The howls get heavily treated, are never identifiable as vocal sounds, and he fucks them up further with feverish scribbles on the laptop’s touchpad. Between songs he shouts unamplified as though in pain, ‘Thank you!’, ‘You can move closer if you want!’ and ‘This is the last song! Then I’m going to be doing some with Momus!’ It’s not even as if there aren’t any tunes – there are loads. Smashed around, and doubly thrilling for it. What’s not to like?

Every so often during Germlin’s set, a figure in clogs, a dress and an eyepatch hops politely from the shadows to take pictures, and it’s so strange to see him in the flesh, this electronic presence, the curious man, the modern Scheherazade, with his one man campaign to make the internet an intelligent place. He’s new to me, Momus. I don’t think I’d come across him before he wrote about Scott Walker’s The Drift a couple of years ago. Or was it when A. played ‘The Hairstyle of the Devil’ at his DJ spot in the place that had no CD decks, and he gave S. a copy of Tender Pervert when she asked him about it? That would have been around the same time. And here was this guy who took the Pet Shop Boys’ sound and was so free and erudite with it, not that they weren’t erudite, but… why hadn’t I heard of him? I was so chuffed. There was so much to discover. I got some of the records, became addicted to Click Opera. Circus Maximus and Hippopotamomus were the ones I really liked. Ocky Milk, his latest, is fab too. The Ultraconformist, the fake live album, is the one that the real live show most recalls, Momus’ delivery at its most energetic and Brechtian. Add this low down knockabout cabaret to Germlin’s perfectly formed headfucks, then chuck in some mime as Momus drapes himself around and around a pillar, and you have something of a winning formula. Can’t wait for the record.

As if this wasn’t enough, which it easily could have been, we then got eighteen songs spanning the whole of Momus’ career, one per album. Highlights were ‘His Majesty the Baby’ (really grotesque delivery on that one), ‘Hairstyle of the Devil’ (the alternative ‘It’s A Sin’, that sound at that volume… oh my!), ‘What Will Death Be Like?’ (inevitably recalling Brel’s ‘My Death’, Momus just stopped himself from breaking into Del Amitri’s ‘Nothing Ever Happens’ at the end, ‘because he’s [cousin Justin of Del Amitri] here tonight! And that is what death will be like – nothing ever happens!’), the wonderfully stately ‘Nervous Heartbeat’ (Momus saluting its entrance and exit), and, and, and… It was some show. A blast for a new convert like me, significantly stranger for long term fans – A. said it was like watching his youth slip past him, year by year. The relentlessness of Momus’ output shortcircuiting the usual experience of seeing old bands, when you recall their few productive years vividly, maybe there’s a gap and then there are some new songs, and that makes some kind of sense, there’s a connection to a fixed and manageable past. Nostalgia, in fact. This rigid progression (literally too – that iPod wasn’t stopping for anyone), the use of backing tracks from the actual records in some cases, and the fact that there wasn’t a gap, emphasised the passage of time in an unnervingly linear way. Even if you weren’t listening to him in 1986 – that was twenty two years we saw just peel away, song by song. The effect was a kind of Proustian overload: madeleine after madeleine.

Though Germlin had packed up his equipment long before the encore, Momus sang along to his collaborator’s version of Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, wearing one of his pom poms around his neck (hinting at the clown costume in the video), miming the injection of junk, but changing the line that refers to it to ‘We know Major Tom’s a monkey’, whilst swinging his arms like an orang utan. Mime was a big part of the whole performance. He described it himself a few weeks ago, you can see him there with a cloth over his head; this time it was a translucent plastic sheet, large enough for him to crawl completely under. At other points he was running across the stage and back as though in a jousting contest, vigorously shagging an empty space, and serenading us in falsetto from Germlin’s table (it was at this point that he hastily removed his laptop). I’m divorcing all this from its proper context because I can’t remember which action went with which song, but it all made fairly literal sense at the time. For the second encore he let the crowd choose a song and we got ‘Bishonen’ (‘It’s a long and serious song, but OK…’), Momus smiling as he sang ‘Surprised at 48 to find myself so late / Turning from a boy into a man’. Now there’s something which will never happen. More exhausting than any child, but so often exhilarating in his creative hyperactivity, long may Momus tell his endless tales, and sing his amazing songs.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Daniel Johnston and Friends, Glasgow Old Fruitmarket, 23rd July

We arrived late, to the yelps of Scout Niblett reverberating around the large and bizarrely posh Fruitmarket, which used to be murky and cobbled, and is now comfortable and carpeted, with a new entrance more suited to operas than indie gigs. This didn’t feel quite right, but it emphasised how much Daniel’s fortunes have improved since the last time he played in Glasgow. It was unbelievable five years ago that the man whose songs seemed to lie behind so much of the city’s music could attract only a pub full of fans. Very enthusiastic fans, rooting for Daniel through his nerves and cheering his every song like he’d just won a marathon (or a boxing match), but still. Only a pub full. The film The Devil and Daniel Johnston would appear to have swelled his following by a factor of five or six, on this showing. He’s edging closer than anyone would have thought possible to being a one-man Beatles, because there’s no such thing as a casual Daniel fan: you either don’t get it at all, or you get fully fledged Danny-mania, and this large crowd was no less rapturous than the smaller one at the old Stereo.

The players in the band played short sets of their own before the main event. We missed most of Scout Niblett (and all of Jad Fair, dammit), but caught Norman Blake and Mark Linkous. Norman assured us that we had a great set ahead of us, and played ‘Everything Flows’, which is always nice. Linkous played slow and delicate, and you were just starting to think that maybe this is quite affecting when on walked Daniel, who stood at a mic to the left, arms shaking, and once the cheers had subsided he sang with Linkous on the second half of the song. ‘The widow was beautiful’ he sang over and over, knocking your heart out flat each time, and then ‘The widow was the most beautiful girl in town’. I’ve never seen anyone conjure up so much feeling so quickly: the guy has a remote control to your heartstrings, people. All you have to do is love him back.

Norman was right about the set. Last time Daniel played mostly new stuff with a couple of old classics (including a jazz version of ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’): his focus was on the last album, and on songs he hadn’t recorded yet. This was totally different: a carefully curated set, drawn largely from his early tapes, which are of course the best things in the world. The arrangements were tasteful but not too tasteful, and not over-crowded even with the three guitarists. Stage left was a light blue chord organ. Used to good effect on ‘Casper the Friendly Ghost’, pattering drums livening up the insistent organ chords. Centre stage in front of the main kit was Jad, with a drum to bang and a mic to sing into, looking so much the tanned beach bum we didn’t recognise him (no glasses, see – it’s like trying to recognise Harpo Marx without the wig). Two songs in, Daniel asked, ‘What’s the song you all want to hear?’ before cranking up ‘Speeding Motorcycle’. Maybe someone had tipped him off that the song might be quite a good one to play in Glasgow, although his remark later on that ‘It’s great to be here in... Scotland’ made it sound as though he didn’t know where he was. Also early in the set was The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, which made the most perfect pop sense, just beautiful, shining bright. Daniel was almost apologetic playing ‘The Story of an Artist’, saying ‘This is a really old song,’ before telling us that he wrote it on his way to pick up some mail after one of his mother’s (perfectly understandable) rants about his laziness, and that the tune is based on some jingle he happened to hear from a TV advert whilst walking out of the door. That was beautiful too, and updated for his new success: he’s now ‘half a millionaire’, apparently.

The hits kept on coming: ‘Hey Joe’, for Christ’s sake. What did we ever do to deserve to hear Daniel Johnston singing ‘Hey Joe’? ‘There’s a heaven and there’s a star for you’. There is now. And ‘Go’! The single most touching celebratory love song in the world: ‘So I think that you should go / Go on ahead / Take her in your arms / And be wed’ – the one time in the whole Daniel catalogue that marriage isn’t something unbearable that only happens to undertakers. And though most of ‘Go’ had me welling up and welling over, the chorus struck an odd note; or rather, Scout Niblett struck several odd notes during the chorus, and it had me thinking about a Kristin Hersh gig eighteen months ago when she encored with ‘The Letter’, and the cello arrangement curbed it, held it back to the point where it was just another song. This was the obvious danger for Daniel’s tour: that the all star talent on display, modest and lovely though these particular stars may be, would overwhelm the songs’ emotional charge with proficient musicianship. To a point this actually is what happened. It wasn’t like watching Daniel do Hi, How Are You? live: it was far lighter, touching without being depressing. The songs I’ve mentioned were interspersed with newer and rockier ones: ‘Mountain Top’, ‘Rock This Town’, a great ‘Rock ’N’ Roll / EGA’, which also balanced out the feel of the set. And just as Daniel has always wanted to draw in a large audience, it also made sense for him to have a large backing band: the source of the songs may have been sad and personal, but that was twenty five years ago. Now they are for everyone, and the band helped to turn them into the spectacle they always deserved to be.

More of Chris’ photos.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Michael Bond – ‘Paddington Here and Now’

It’s a risky business, revisiting books you read as a child. A few years ago I picked up a copy of Down the Bright Stream in a second hand book shop, and was appalled by how badly it had deteriorated between childhood and adulthood. A magical, Borrowers-gone-wild tale of little folk on a journey downriver to find their friend had become tedious and uninvolving, and all because B.B. hadn’t thought to put in any characterisation. You take things on trust more when you’re younger, I suppose. It was less of a risk to read the new Paddington book, partly because comebacks are allowed to be rubbish, but also because the older books had sharply defined characters: Mr Gruber, friendly and sensible; Mr Curry, mean and devious; Paddington, curious and clumsy. Stick to those, and how far wrong can you go?

Not too far, thankfully. The ‘Here and Now’ business is a little strange, particularly during the episode in which a journalist takes Paddington for an immigrant worker and questions him about any exploitation he may be experiencing. There are some good lines, though:

‘Changing the subject, do you have any complaints about the way you have been treated since you arrived in this country?’

Paddington considered the matter for a moment. ‘Well, it wasn’t Mrs Bird’s fault,’ he said, ‘but my boiled egg was a bit runny this morning.’ (p. 108)

The interviewer latches on to this failing in Mrs Bird, and in the newspaper article she becomes a ‘Gang-master-in-chief’:

Notorious for her dumplings, and wielding an iron bar, she so terrifies those around her [that] the subject of the interview is forced to hide his marmalade sandwiches under his hat. (p. 121)

The London Eye makes an appearance, and there is a mention of a mobile phone, but otherwise not much has changed. Paddington gets into some good scrapes: his shopping basket on wheels is towed away by the police and he causes them much confusion by describing it as his ‘vehicle’; he attracts a crowd (and a manager) miming to a pianola in the front window of Mr Gruber’s shop; he attempts to buy an exotic holiday for six with a single Air Miles voucher; Mr Brown asks him to paint his house’s drainpipes in ‘Miracle non-dry, anti-burglar paint’ (p. 33), at which he is surprisingly good, until Mr Curry offers him ten pence to do his house too. The late appearance of Paddington’s Uncle Pastuzo is supposed to give the book its climax, as he whisks the Browns off for a Christmas treat, but his go-getting energy is a little out of place here: it is the opposite of Paddington’s slow charm, which (give or take a chaotic backdrop) is always the point of a Paddington book. There is more than enough of that on display to forgive the odd lapse into modernity.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

My Bloody Valentine, Glasgow Barrowlands, 3rd July

Shields-spotting used to be fun. Tracking down those remixes on the off chance that he might pull out another ‘If They Move, Kill ’Em’, at least. Another Loveless has been off the cards for some time now. Maybe it’s unimaginative to want one. And maybe Kevin has taken the clamour (is there still a clamour?) a little too literally, given his recent-ish Soft Focus interview, during which he promised a new My Bloody Valentine record made up of various failed sessions from the ’90s. We won’t even get that, don’t kid yourself. But don’t listen to me grumble. I didn’t go to see them the other week, for whatever reason, though I love the records more than most anything. Chris did, and emailed to tell me what I’d missed:

They were incredibly loud. It’s difficult to grasp, or even rationalise, in terms of normal concert sound, but there was a tangible difference between this sort of loudness, and, say, an Acid Mothers Temple-type loudness; and it related to the frequencies that MBV were playing with, I think. Although the mix was very well balanced, there were two dominant features: Colm’s drumming, which is pretty snare heavy at the best of times (and live he beats them like a motherfucker); and a fuck-of-a-lot-of-fuzz. So they weren’t just loud because they had a PA that a small country could take to war; they were loud because the frequencies they were playing with are in a range that the human ear finds difficult to tolerate. Over a 90 minute set, the perception was of increasing volume, even although this was not the case, because after about 30 minutes most eardrums in the room had been beaten into a whimpering, bruised submission. The earplugs were a great piece of PR, for sure, but, actually, when I looked around after an hour or so, 85% of the audience seemed to be wearing them. Perversely, as an experience, it brought to mind one of Kawabata’s quieter drone records, where pitch changes unsettle, rather than the more obviously loud AMT records.

And it was fucking great. I grinned like a chimp thoughout. And jumped up and down, and pointed and grinned, and whacked my chum Neil in the arm repeatedly, all the time gooning at the hot 32 year old girl in front of me, imagining we were fifteen years old and she was coming round to mine, later, to be blown away by my Royal Trux records. And as absurd as that was – I was only three pints of Barras-issue lager to the worse – it was no more ridiculous than seeing, finally seeing, MBV, and in the Barrowlands of all places.

I’m sure I must have told you, in maudlin times, that I was supposed to go and see them, there, on the 15th of December 1992, supported by Teenage Fanclub, but I didn’t make it. And yet here I was, in that same hall, where 6 years later I’d be slain by Ian Svenonius, where 10 years later I’d give Iggy a slap on the back, and here was Norman Blake at the bar beside me; and there was ‘Sueisfine’, and I’d forgotten – perhaps hadn’t realised – how much I love that song; and there was Neil – not coping with ageing, or hearing those songs, or having his expectations met – welling up beside me. And there was me thinking that I’ll take ageing (and attendant deafness) if all my regrets resolve themselves like this.

Even the holocaust – dull as it was – worked, in its own way. At the end of the sludge, the final verse of ‘You Made Me Realise’ kicked in, and it was absolutely fucking beautiful. And that’s my abiding memory – damaged ears straining against noise, grabbing at the melody, just to make that moment last a little longer. It was incredible. I wish you’d been there.


And thanks to whoever uploaded this recording of the Manchester gig. Is ‘Only Shallow’ like that on purpose?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Elizabeth Gaskell – ‘Sylvia’s Lovers’

I don’t know. You read a book by Herman Melville about a perfectly calm journey in a paddle steamer, not a whale to be seen. You turn to Elizabeth Gaskell, hoping for some more of the wholesome small town good sense of Cranford and Wives and Daughters, and this is what she comes out with:

I stands up, right leg foremost, harpoon all ready, as soon as iver I cotched a sight o’ t’ whale, but niver a fin could a see. ’Twere no wonder, for she were right below t’ boat in which a were; and when she wanted to rise, what does t’ great ugly brute do but come wi’ her head, as is like cast iron, up bang again t’ bottom o’ t’ boat. I were thrown up in t’ air like a shuttlecock, me an’ my line an’ my harpoon – up we goes, an’ many a good piece o’ timber wi’ us, an’ many a good fellow too. (p. 99)

This is Daniel Robson, Sylvia’s father, reminiscing with Charley Kinraid about his time as a specksioneer, or chief harpooner, aboard a whaler. The novel is set in Monkshaven, a fictionalised Whitby, in the last decade of the eighteenth century, when Greenland whaling was the town’s main trade. The use of a historical setting reminded me a little of Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, in which social unrest forms the backdrop for the romance that its opening page denies is in store. There is social unrest in Sylvia’s Lovers, too: press gangs prey on the community, forcefully recruiting whaling men for the navy. It’s a very disruptive set-up: not only do a great many of Monkshaven’s working men spend half the year away, out of touch and employed in a dangerous occupation (and the other half at a loose end, with nothing to do but exult in their status as returning heroes), but there is also the constant threat of kidnapping hanging over the same group. Yet only rarely does the novel stray from Monkshaven: it is about the people who are left behind.

There is a lot of unrequited love in Sylvia’s Lovers: Charley Kinraid loves Sylvia, who loves him too, but it is Philip Hepburn she will marry, when Kinraid disappears and is presumed drowned. There are other layers too: Hester, with whose mother Philip lodges, loves him, and Philip’s partner in the running of the shop, William Coulson, loves Hester, at least for a little while. There are also echoes of past loves: Jeremiah Foster, who with his brother John owns the shop and also Monkshaven’s bank, tells Philip about his brother’s love for Hester’s mother Alice:

As he could not have her, he has lived a bachelor all his days. But if I am not a vast mistaken, all that he has will go to her and to Hester, for all that Hester is the child of another man. (p. 221)

The main focus of the novel, though, is Philip’s love for Sylvia. The reader’s sympathy is gradually drawn on in favour of this serious and awkward man. He is not easy to like early on, especially in contrast to his glamorous rival Kinraid. Philip gives Sylvia lessons as a way of spending time with her, but her only enthusiasm is for geography, and within that only for knowing where Greenland is, where the whaling happens. There is a New Year’s Eve party, at which Philip is in agony watching the way Sylvia favours Kinraid. He is anxious about what might have happened when they both disappeared to the kitchen at the same time: obviously, they kissed. But Philip reasons his way out of this conclusion with some heartbreakingly decent logic:

He could smile now, after his grave fashion, and would have shaken hands again with Kinraid had it been required; for it seemed to him that no one, caring ever so little in the way that he did for Sylvia, could have borne four mortal hours of a company where she had been, and was not; least of all could have danced a hornpipe, either from gaiety of heart, or even out of complaisance. He felt as if the yearning after the absent one would have been a weight to his legs, as well as to his spirit; and he imagined that all men were like himself. (p. 154)

While his love builds like this, Gaskell is on strong enough ground. Later, when things get bleaker, and we get to the loveless marriage of Philip and Sylvia, I began to wonder. The comparison with Shirley started to look unflattering, because you always know with Brontë that passionate personal feeling lies behind what she writes. The immense effort of trying to hide this is what gives us her wonderful novels. Gaskell is far more down to earth, and is better when the scope of her writing is broader (which is why, with Cranford, she was able to write a whole novel about old women gossiping – this would have been quite beyond Brontë). With Sylvia’s Lovers, it seemed as though she rather lost her way with the emotional stuff once Philip and Sylvia were married: both characters are slightly too generic to sustain the book on their own for so long. His only characteristic is his love for her; hers is her love for Kinraid. It becomes apparent that Gaskell is striving for effects that don’t quite come off, though a glimpse through the chapter titles is enough to reveal her intention: ‘Loved and Lost’, ‘A Rejected Suitor’, ‘Deepening Shadows’, ‘Retaliation’, ‘Brief Rejoicing’, ‘Coming Troubles’, ‘A Dreary Vigil’, ‘Gloomy Days’, ‘The Ordeal’ are chapters XX – XXVIII. Which excludes my favourite, chapter XXXV: ‘Things Unutterable’. She wants this book to have quite a wallop. And actually it does, despite the shortcomings of Philip and Sylvia: the story, as it plunges from disaster to disaster, is moving in its own right, and it is beguiling to watch Gaskell manoeuvre it away from Brontë territory back to values which one suspects were closer to her own: a less demonstrative constancy.

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