Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Henry Fielding – ‘Amelia’

Classics (and sub-classics) can lead a strange afterlife. I thought that Amelia had been neglected, because my Penguin Classics edition, from 1987, lacks the usual list of reprintings. A quick look on Amazon, though, reveals that it did get reprinted, once, in 2001, but also that editions from other publishers came out in 2003 (Wildside Press), 2006 (Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan Library), and 2007 (three times – from BiblioBazaar, Dodo Press and in a large print edition from Another is due, from Broadview Editions, in 2010. No other editions from the ’80s or ’90s came up. It could be coincidence, but it could also be that this novel about doggedly protecting what is precious in a time of avarice and moral chaos is more relevant now than it has been for a while. When was the last time we had a government suggest that spending is a duty, for example? In his introduction to the Penguin edition, David Blewitt says:
readers from the moment Amelia was first published have sensed a loss of the narrative unity that the continual authorial presence of Fielding in Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones gave to those works. But the change of voice is deliberate; Fielding is adjusting the tone to fit his more pessimistic vision of life in mid-eighteenth-century England. His point is that public and private evils are connected […], and he bends all his narrative resources, including satire (the characteristic expression of moral indignation in the eighteenth century), to showing the impact of public evil upon private virtue. (p. xi)
This combination of the public and the private makes for an energetic, unsettling novel that is, indeed, much darker than Tom Jones. It tackles – and links – infidelity, poverty and corruption, and it proposes Christian morality as the solution to these ills. I was reminded at various points of an article by Rana Dasgupta in the latest edition of Granta which describes a society in which culture and refinement are on the wane. His version of modern Delhi is not very far removed from Fielding’s 1730s London: laws are there to be bent to advantage, money is all that matters, there is no respect for education. Worse still, in Delhi’s case, the whole thing can be justified by its own religion:
Hinduism is very pliable. It rationalizes inequality: if that guy is poor it’s because he deserves it from his previous lives, and it’s not for me to sort out his accounts. Hinduism allows these guys to think that what they get is due to them, and they have absolutely no guilt about it. (Tarun Tejpal, quoted in Dasgupta’s article)
In Amelia, Justice Thrasher’s attitude to the defendants brought before him is remarkably similar to Tejpal’s complaint against Hinduism: if they are rich enough to bribe him, he lets them off; if they are poor, he convicts them. He doesn’t believe that virtue would dress itself in rags, because virtue and wealth have come to mean the same thing.

Amelia is both a satire on selfishness and a polemic which attempts to show how things could be, if people were more considerate towards each other, and if society / government was more considerate towards them too. The selfishness and acquisitiveness on show are sexual as well as monetary: there are several rich, powerful and lascivious characters (Colonel James and the sinister ‘my lord’, who is never named) who prey on Amelia, attempting to engineer situations in which she can be seduced, or worse. Morality is deliberately compromised and muddied at every turn: Colonel James and ‘my lord’ both use pimps, and both enjoy an evening at a masquerade, which here is invariably used as a cover for anonymous (or not so anonymous) seduction. It is a society constituted of snares, though which Amelia and Billy Booth must navigate. He is such a bad judge of character that he requires a lot of help with this, and doesn’t always succeed. Several times the clergyman Dr Harrison has to get him out of a debtor’s prison. He is at the moral heart of the book, arguing for family values, Christianity and ‘learning’ (by which he mostly means reading Homer in Greek) as the correct way to combat avarice and lust. The sections in which he does this are a little dull, and do not represent the feel of the book as a whole, which is vibrant, if troubled. Amelia herself is slightly too perfect, though capricious enough not to become dull herself. The morality is pretty black and white, but the novel’s strength comes from the strong sense that Amelia and Billy’s family unit is in danger, and that this happens with society’s unthinking blessing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Monorail Poll 2009

I spent quite a lot of this year vacillating over whether Camera Obscura’s My Maudlin Career was the best thing I’d ever heard, or the worst. It wasn’t just the occasionally sloppy lyrics; a more serious flaw was the masochism of the songs, which saw Traceyanne goading herself ever deeper into unreciprocated affection. They didn’t seem to be part of any healing process, they were there to prolong the hurt, pick the scab, deepen the wound. This rang a bell I would rather had kept quiet (mostly, except...), but there was no denying the record’s power. I’ve put it as near to the middle of my list as possible. I love it, I hate it. Those peaks in ‘The Sweetest Thing’, oh my.

In contrast, the other records are all anti-inflammatory. They are like taking a hot bath on a cold evening. Maybe the Frànçois record is more like a Turkish bath than the others. The Eddie Marcon bath looks out through plate glass on to a frozen lake, upon which wild cats prowl. Gok’s bath is in a gentleman’s club, and Jeeves is on hand with cocktails. There is a television with windscreen wipers showing Tom and Jerry cartoons. Bill Callahan’s bath is at home, to which you have just returned after recovering from a car crash (this is his best since Red Apple Falls, right? I haven’t been paying too much attention). Directorsound’s bath is in a field, as a starry night turns slowly into dawn, complete with chorus. Spare Snare have never had a bath, do not be ridiculous.

These are records which refuse to be hurried by the century in which they find themselves, and of course Pastels / Tenniscoats come out top, how could they not? This year, slow slow slow didn’t suck.

My votes in the poll (results ‘To be announced at our late night shopping event / belated birthday on Monday evening’):

  1. Pastels / Tenniscoats – Two Sunsets
  2. Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle
  3. Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains – Plaine Inondable
  4. Eddie Marcon – Wata No Kemuri No Syotaijo
  5. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
  6. Bill Wells and Maher Shalal Hash Baz – Gok
  7. Directorsound – Minstrels for Sleepless
  8. Spare Snare – I Love You, I Hate You
  9. Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – ’Em Are I
  10. Pants Yell! – Received Pronunciation

Kristin Hersh – Flooding


Kraftwerk – The Catalogue

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Tree That Never Flew – Hookers For Jesus & Panda Su, Westport Bar, Dundee, 29th November

Last Sunday it was surprisingly cold. Too cold, perhaps, and too far from pay day for the people of Dundee to venture out to see a gig by relatively unknown bands. Maybe they were tired out from Winter Light Night, too. Maybe it was the Westport Bar’s fault – never the most competent of pubs (but often endearing on that account), downstairs was completely deserted, and upstairs were the remnants of a party, almost comically bleak in the cold, empty room. Across the ceiling in front of the stage was a silver banner with nothing on it, and either side of this were some black balloons (who even makes black balloons?) Across a mirror on the side wall was another, smaller banner, which mocked: ‘Congratulations’. An engagement cake had been left behind, untouched. Sometimes it actually is grim up north.

First on, to a small but enthusiastic audience, were Hookers For Jesus. AKA Andy and Graeme, who I should say I have known for years (if objectivity is your bag, you’d best scarper), but this did not prepare me adequately for the thirty minutes of unwitting genius they produced. ‘Unwitting’ sounds patronising, doesn’t it? Maybe I am. This is the chorus of their first song:
Earth people, New York and California

Earth people, New York and California

Earth people, New York and California

Earth people, I was born in Jupiter
Over an insistent Stylophone backing somewhere between Suicide and The KLF, Andy rapped his Sci-Fi tale: ‘my skin is green and warhead looking mean’, and it was the funniest thing I have heard all year. All week I have been listening to my recording of it, grinning from ear to ear. And there was a shift between listening to it for the first time (‘what the fuck is this?’) to realising that I really did like it a lot – not just that song, the whole set, which was nicely varied and equally literate-dumb the whole way through. I can’t shake the feeling that what it reaches for and what it achieves are violently at odds, though there are fairly obvious pointers that this is not the case (e.g. the caricature Sci-Fi / boxing story lyrics). It’s like The Shaggs, except I don’t like The Shaggs nearly as much. It’s like The Fall, but more coherent. Graeme kitted himself out in a white ladies’ overcoat with fake fur trimmings, saying that this was cool in Japan – it went a treat with his leather trousers and bat-shaped guitar. Preposterous! But utterly great at the same time, the only way he could have topped it was with a costume change. His backing for ‘Drift Into Unthank’ was a pretty, cotton-wool-pulled-apart confection over which Andy read out a list of sad things: ‘This is the tree that never grew / This is the bird that never flew / This is the fish that never swam / This is the bell that never rang’, but he kept getting it mixed up, and there was a bird that never swam and (S.’s favourite) a tree that never flew amongst the underachievers. So all week we have been imagining flying trees – hers, for some reason, in the style of Quentin Blake’s drawings. It was a really great set.

Other bands played too – a couple I don’t particularly care for, but it is worth saying at least that the recent implosion of Saint Jude’s Infirmary (prompted by the recent fake accent exposé on this site perhaps?) resulted in a stripped down set which seemed, to the non-fan, an improvement, and the general, understandable desolation of their stage chat went well with the black balloons. Kid Canaveral were more enjoyable than I had expected, though they suffered the most from the small audience, with their good time pop songs which could really have done with some clamour and some jumping around to set them off.

Panda Su, on the other hand, were barely phased at all to be playing under these conditions, and unexpectedly headlining at that. There was no panda face paint this time, as there had been at their lovely EP launch gig a month or two ago, but everything else was right: five songs stretched out to the length of a full set, filling the time and filling the space, completely at ease. Slow slow chords on guitar and a keyboard organ drone setting the scene for the keyboard to drop away and ‘I am not what you want’ over and over, moving on to ‘I am nothing if I don’t have this’, opaque fragments of loneliness which written down look ever so teen angsty, but this aspect is balanced by the measured sound and the charm of the performance (head gig organiser Mike Pop Thrills notes their ‘easygoing stage presence’). Su’s voice is so far from shrill it is almost a narcotic. ‘And there’s nothing I admire / Except I can make you smile’ is a great non sequitur. Those lines are all from ‘Moviegoer’, but the other songs feel like a part of the same piece. The line ‘the salt water stings my eyes’ reminds me of Meursault, whose sound is more frayed and fraught, but there is a certain kinship of warm melancholy there. Su introduces ‘Eric is Dead’ saying it has just been picked up for use in a film about ‘lesbians coming out to their parents.’ There is a pause. ‘Not that there is anything wrong with lesbians coming out to their parents, it’s just that I think it is used in an erotic bit.’ The room fills with six minutes of shining sullen defiance, Su banging a bass drum along to her guitar while the subtle accompanist gets busy with a cute miniature red accordion. It must be a bittersweet erotic bit, not that there is anything wrong with that either.

Update: ‘Earth People’ is a cover! Oh no! Doesn’t mean it wasn’t genius the Hookers For Jesus way.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why Don’t You Sing In Your Accent?

Here is an example of what I was talking about with accents. Saint Judes Infirmary do American ones, even though they are Scottish. I suspect I am not going to be able to get past this. I just put their new album This Has Been the Death of Us on, to see whether it was going to change my mind. The first song is kinda New Order-y, which I am usually a sucker for. The third song is called ‘Tacoma Radar’, and Tacoma Radar, whose guitarist I used to play in another band with, are one of my very favourite obscure things. Not because of that connection, which made me if anything more likely to be cynical about their own blatant Americanisms (specifically their Galaxie 500-isms), but their one album No One Waved Goodbye is one of the best records you never heard. Must get around to writing about it one day. Saint Judes Infirmary take their cue not from Galaxie but from The Walkabouts, and they don’t really do it for me. I just don’t see the Pop in them. And Kid Canaveral – I can hear the tunes, but that isn’t always the same thing (credit where it’s due though, they get their own accent right).

Those are the reasons I politely declined a request to give this gig a plug. Not that it would make the blindest bit of difference to attendance either way, but that isn’t the point. Then on the way to St Andrews last week Andy was telling me about all the things you have to do to promote a gig, and it sounds a right pain. So what the hell? There are two good reasons, as far as I can see, to go along: Andy’s own outfit, Hookers for Jesus, which I am excited about because, having missed their debut show back in April, this will be the first time I’ll have seen him and Graeme strut their stuff for years. With their final shows as The Candy Store Prophets in 2000 / 2001 I remember them stripping back their sound and achieving a rawness that suited them well – there can be something reckless and liberated about a band on the verge of collapse. Here’s hoping they haven’t ditched the recklessness along with the collapse (the new names suggests not). The other reason to go is Panda Su. They have a massive Pop head start over the others in the fact that they wear panda face paint onstage, and they played a lovely set under dimmed lights at Drouthy Neebors a month or so ago. Laid back, an acoustic amble down painful memory lane, they have this line: ‘The problem with myself is that I long to be someone else’, which puts another spin on the face decoration. How can you not love that line? I want to hear more.

Saint Jude’s Infirmary, Kid Canaveral, Pandu Su and Hookers for Jesus play the Westport Bar in Dundee on Sunday 29th November. Sing local, I dare you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Frànçois & The Atlas Mountains and Rozi Plain at The Barron Theatre, St. Andrews, 19th November

It is a rare privilege to watch someone’s talent grow. Maybe it is a trick of exposition, but this seems to be the reward for keeping up with Frànçois’ music over the last few years. ‘Hold on Twice’ would have been the first song I heard, on a 7” split with Ray Rumours, and it was lovely, but there was nothing about it to indicate that its creator was capable of ‘Swimmers / Drifters’, a stunning and stunned lovelorn lament that seemed to break all the boundaries of lo-fi recording and was quite the best single of last year. Or it seemed to be until December and his Brother EP, which upped the game again with a leap from bedroom audio pottering to full band arrangements that deepened and broadened and exploded and put his music back together again. A note in the EP explained that it was an abandoned album, and this did seem a limitation, even amongst such a great clutch of songs: perhaps he couldn’t cut it over the length of an album. The only one I’d heard up until then was Les Anciennes Falaises, a CD-R which came wrapped in an oil painting (‘Hold on Twice’ came in a watercolour) and contained some lovely Pastels-worship in ‘Katrina’ (‘she likes the frogs when dancing in the rain’, apparently) and ‘Byres Road’, but which otherwise felt lacklustre. Catching up with 2005’s delicate The People to Forget scotched this notion, but it didn’t really get totally confounded until the new one, Plaine Inondable.

The Barron Theatre is a tiny (60 seats!), university-affliated theatre with a proper angled platform for seating, divided by stairs. The stage area is bordered on the left by a large black curtain, from which theatrical things can magically appear. The mixing desk is hidden amongst its swirls. On the right of the seats is the entrance and a corridor with a ticket booth and, last night, watercolours from the new animated video to ‘Be Water (Je suis de l’eau)’ on the wall. Order something directly from his site and it’ll probably arrive wrapped in one. Though self-distribution may be on the way out: Frànçois is newly signed to Fence, where he joins his partner Rozi Plain and tonight’s other performers: The Balky Mule, who played an opening set (which was nice enough but a bit outshone), and The Pictish Trail, who did nothing solo but added vocals and playful drums to one of Rozi’s songs.

Rozi Plain’s set was quietly stunning. Her album Inside Over Here, so charmingly evoked over there, puzzled me initially. Rozi’s singing voice is quite affected, nothing like her posh-with-a-hint-of-Bristol speaking voice. It is crone-like, a witch captured on wax and played back on 78. Usually I hate people singing in affected accents, but at least this one wasn’t obvious, she wasn’t trying to sound American or anything. Still, I didn’t trust it: what was it trying to do? It seemed to want to crawl into cracks and frighten the spiders … maybe not frighten, maybe tell them ghost stories before bed. The music I was fine with, all underplayed, acoustic, animated not with energy but a dreamy wellbeing. But her voice. Face to face it made a lot more sense, though. She wasn’t trying to cultivate a mystique, her between-song interjections were down to earth, chatty (‘I told a lie today, in a shop. Said I was a student. Got a 10% discount. And I’m not!’), she would smile a toothy smile and then close her eyes to sing, and somehow there was no divide between the chat and this becalmed spookiness that her songs create. Almost a year on I now get what Daniel was talking about: ‘if you took away the world, Rozi would deliver you more or less the same sort of song as she does with the world and all its distractions very much in place’. The set seemed to be mostly new, too – at least, the only song from Inside Over Here was ‘360°’, sung last ‘so you can buy it on my album at the shop’, indicating the ticket booth which doubled as a merch stall.

Back in April, Frànçois played with Ray Rumours in a similarly sweet, diminutive venue and, whilst he was brilliant, it was a brilliance which was short-circuited somewhat by Ray’s casual, breezy worldliness. Where she looks endlessly outwards, suggesting how easy and interesting things can be if you are sufficiently friendly and outward looking yourself (a seductive enough vision, but what if you actually aren’t?), his extroversion all comes from within. I said then, ‘he could as well have been on another planet’, and it was meant as a criticism, but I think now I would defend him and say, everyone is on a different planet from everyone else, and few performers can bring their own internal landscape to life as vividly as Frànçois, especially when he has The Atlas Mountains in tow. So he came on, in a cardigan and socks, played a song, walked off. ‘Encore’, I heckled, encouragingly. Remember those curtains? He emerged belly down on an office chair with castors, going full tilt right across the front of the stage area, to be stopped on the other side by an incongruous ’70s wardrobe where maybe costumes are kept. He marched up the steps between the two slim sections of seats and announced that as a boy he had learned to play harmonica with the aid of some steps, like this. Up and down them he skipped, playing harmonica as we clapped in time – a syncopated rhythm, no less (try doing that in a venue big enough to have an echo). Then he disappeared briefly, past the ticket booth and through the door, before bursting back in, running, and skidding on his knees to the point where he had left his pile of white fairy lights. He plugged them in and kissed them. You know what? I think Pop may not be dead after all.

What did he play? ‘The Way to the Forest’, announced peremptorily, leading Rozi to clarify: ‘It’s a song, not an instruction’. ‘Do You Do’, ‘Be Water’ and ‘Years of Rain’ from the new album. Drummer Amaury Ranger played standing up using one tom tom, one vertical and one horizontal conga (the latter placed on a chair), and a dome shaped thing which I think was a water drum. Not forgetting, too, the shaker attached to his left leg. All of this kept him in perpetual motion, his whole body swinging as it played the drum area, limbs and head moving in circles. Out came the wonderful rich percussive sound of the record, stretched further and riffed upon, Frànçois warbling more Bolan-like than ever over the top (I wonder if he would consider covering ‘Electric Slim & the Factory Hen’? That would be good. Though the sound I’m really talking about is ‘Debora’). Plaine Inondable switches between this sound and a sedate but tension filled incursion upon Tindersticks / Lee Hazlewood territory, though neither comparison occurred to me before Andy made them. Frànçois seems to have arrived there naturally, under his own steam, and at the moment it seems as though this is the music of his life, but I’m almost certain that he will confound this reaction a good few times yet.

More photos
‘Be Water (Je suis de l’eau)’ video

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Kitted Out

This week I’ve been taking photos of my musical instruments and associated equipment. There is quite a lot of it, and much of it hardly ever gets used, but all the same, it is nice to have around. There is something about the physical presence of a drum machine or a portastudio which a computer can’t replace – though maybe it’s more about the absence of the big bright multi-tasking monitor, the necessity of peering at small grey LCD displays and muddling through the over-complex functions which have been squeezed into too few keys, which forces your attention back to the sound. For me, anyway. I always want to know How Things Work, and whilst it is quite possible to absorb over a few months all the tricks and foibles of, say, an SR-16 drum machine (these are brilliant, by the way), the same just is not true of computers, which are complex enough in themselves, and furthermore have access to all human knowledge within a few clicks. Too much information! With Linux audio, which is such a great undertaking, I found myself spending more time on the Linux than the audio, and even less time playing guitar (though I still have a Pure:Dyne memory stick for emergencies). So – back to the boxes.

A note on the guitars pic: I used to keep them like this in my old flat sometimes, where the sofa was – not unnaturally – against a wall opposite the telly. S. would wonder what they were watching, eventually reaching the conclusion that it must be tennis, because of the strings.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Cormac McCarthy – ‘The Road’

Nick Cave-related, in that he and Warren Ellis have done the score for the forthcoming film, but there is also a similarity in the way this and And the Ass Saw the Angel treat readers with suspicion – and treat them to words they’ll never find elsewhere. The silent, sinister protagonist in Cave’s book addresses ‘you silent and most sinister sitters’, and The Road’s prose slips on occasion from bare bones description to something more enigmatic:
What time of year? What age the child? He walked out into the road and stood. The silence. The salitter drying from the earth. The mudstained shapes of flooded cities burned to the waterline. At a crossroads a ground set with dolmen stones where the spoken bones of oracles lay moldering. No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small pen knife to scribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt. (pp. 279-80)
There are a few of these passages. You’re tramping along at the end of the world through the fallout dust with dead trees and suspected cannibals around every bend, inhabiting every derelict building. But at least the pages are falling away quickly. And then, like a thick trunk blocking the way of the shopping cart stacked with everything you own, comes a paragraph that brings you to an abrupt halt, which needs chopping up before you can continue. There is some help to be found here with the word ‘salitter’: ‘It is the essence of God which is “drying from the earth”’. ‘Spoken bones’ is tricky, because objects can’t be spoken (as opposed to spoken about). Only words can be spoken. So the bones must be words: they communicate mortality to future generations, and part of the reason they are mouldering is that future generations are fast running out. ‘The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion’ (p. 93). The passage moves on to consider its own readers, and the likelihood of their hostility to a narrative which comes ‘to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt’, and which, being what-if fiction, has no good reason to do so. It is scarcely possible that this account could be written, and wholly impossible that it could be read afterwards, with mankind all but wiped out. We are not reading it afterwards, though, but beforehand.

The two man characters are a father and son, travelling from somewhere north to escape the harsh winter there. It is America, the road of the book’s title is an interstate road, and they follow it to the sea. Maybe there are several roads. The father and son are not named, they are mostly ‘he’ (the father) and ‘the boy’. Sometimes the father is ‘the man’, and this serves to distance him, to push him further into this world of unimaginable bleakness. This is appropriate to his character because he is over-cautious, seeing himself as a survival machine. He trusts no one, and has a strong sense of purpose in the protection of his son. The boy does not share this, he sees far more clearly that there is no point in merely surviving: ‘I don’t know what we’re doing’ he protests, and the father concedes: ‘There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see’ (p. 261). But this is just to placate the boy: he doesn’t really believe it.

Is The Road a cautionary tale? If so its message is a little on the obvious side: Mankind, do not destroy yourself in a nuclear holocaust. You will not like it. The plants and the animals will die, the sun will become pale through the debris in the atmosphere. Most of you will die too, and those who live will have to survive on whatever canned food they can scavenge, because new crops will not grow. Others will turn to cannibalism. Eventually there will be no cans or people left, and that will be the end of everything. But the end of everything is not what The Road is interested in. Who cares if the human race is wiped out? It wouldn’t be such a catastrophe, because there would be no one left for it to be a catastrophe to. Everything – everybody – depends. This is the real point of the book. It is pretty obvious too, really.

More words from The Road: transom, gambrel, blacktop, windrow, piedmont, obsidian, meconium, sapper, catamite, phalanx, kerf, chert, isocline, stanchion, clerestory, bindle, pampootie, travois

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Daniel Johnston, The Wave Pictures and Laura Marling, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 4th November

‘Are you going to call him a dick?’

‘Do I have to?’


‘But I’m not sure he is a dick.’
Excuses, excuses. He’s ill, many of the decisions about this concert will have been made for him. He wrote the best songs that ever were, he can do what he likes. He can push an old lady out of a window, crash his father’s plane. But if he tours with a set which is stone cold, then what was the point of it all? And still the fans go wild, still give him a standing ovation. Are they cheering the fact that a man with his mental health problems, so heavily medicated, can stand up and sing at all? Fuck that. Do you hear, Daniel? We don’t love you for the illness, but for the fight. Do you think that we can’t tell the difference?

The bus to Edinburgh had quite a few people on it going to the same gig. The people behind us and the people behind them, at least. It was tempting at first to turn around and say, ‘Hi, how are you?’, join in with the chat about how many songs he’d play (not which songs, curiously), and how best to make it back to the bus station in time if he finished late. The first time the louder of the pair sang ‘Speeding motorcycle’ and his companion chimed in ‘Won’t you change me?’ it was funny. But soon they were talking too loud and too much about local venues and doing sound for gigs and how everyone but them was too cliquey, and I disappeared gratefully into my iPod. They persisted with the ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ line – just that one line – eventually irritating S. into singing ‘Funeral Home’ back at them. A whole bus singing that would have been worth hearing.

The start was delayed. Arriving twenty minutes after the doors were supposed to open we found a long line of people outside the Queen’s Hall. Last time we were here we saw The Magnetic Fields. It was the week John Peel died and Marc Almond nearly did, and Claudia Gonson inaugurated the least respectful, most rushed minute’s silence I’ve ever sat through. The songs were great, but – way to alienate a British crowd. So, another excuse: a spooked venue.

How long can I put this off? Last year Daniel was so great. This year’s show followed the ‘& Friends’ format too, but the friends this time weren’t Jad Fair and Mark Linkous but The Wave Pictures and Laura Marling. The latter kinda hilarious in a New York 1960 coffee house folk style, two parts Joni Mitchell, one part Karen Dalton, but seriously undermined by a fake American accent, daft self-important lyrics and an off-the-shoulder pullover. Wish I could remember some of the lyrics. The first line of the first song on her website gives an idea of the sort of thing: ‘I woke up and he was screaming.’ Dynamite. The Wave Pictures, on first, were really enjoyable. If it had been their gig I would have come away impressed. Last year I loved their song ‘Strange Fruit for David’, specifically the lines: ‘A sculpture is a sculpture / Marmalade is marmalade / And a sculpture of marmalade is a sculpture / But it isn’t marmalade’, which are genius. And about marmalade, which is under-represented in indie rock and in songs generally. But.

They did not work at all well as a backing band for Daniel. Theirs is a dimly lit sound, bass heavy with ornate mouldings of guitar, designed to accommodate the wordy, literate sleaze of their lyrics. It should have occurred to someone that this was as likely to complement the damaged purity of Daniel’s voice as... I dunno, as The Magic Band would be likely to bring out the subtleties in a performance by a cathedral choir. ‘Silly Love’ was done as cod reggae, ‘Fish’ as cocktail jazz. Killed outright, both of them. ‘Rock ’n’ Roll / EGA’ was relatively un-messed around with, but there was none of the punch that last year’s band brought. To make matters worse, and as if to make a mockery of the earlier set’s sublime take on ‘Rain’, there were three Beatles songs: ‘Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’, ‘Come Together’ and ‘Revolution’. The latter as un-rock as ‘Rock ’n’ Roll / EGA’, and prefaced with the remark, ‘Vive la revolution’. ‘What does that mean?’ demanded Chris, getting more angry with each passing song.

There were a few great moments: after Daniel’s short solo spot and before the band set proper, an acoustic guitarist came on (I don’t know his name) to accompany ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Hey Joe’. Played straight they were simple, overwhelming, everything Daniel can and should be. Next time, someone just give him a piano and leave the friends to the support slots. Bring the boxer out of retirement. Keep punching, Joe.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Nick Cave – ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel’

In August 1935 Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, to a ‘dominant’ mother with a ‘fondness for drink’. His twin brother Jesse (or Jessie) was stillborn. In April 1936 a tornado hit Tupelo, killing at least 216. Wikipedia further records that ‘A very young Elvis Presley and his mother were two of the survivors’. It doesn’t say why Elvis’ father wasn’t with them (a jail term is mentioned, without dates), but they were together again by 1948, when they moved to Memphis, partly because he ‘had to escape the law for transporting bootleg liquor’. Nick Cave’s song ‘Tupelo’ re-imagines some of these events, making liberal changes. The tornado is replaced with a flood, which is brought together with the birth; the disaster isn’t a freak natural event, but divine retribution. For what? Well, that would be telling: like ‘The Mercy Seat’, ‘Tupelo’ is a song which likes to keep its options open. It mentions ‘Tupelo’s shame’, and says ‘you will reap what you sow’ without ever mentioning what the sin was. Clearly it can’t have been committed by the newborn child, but this is an Old Testament setting in which the sins of the fathers (and mothers? Communities?) are visited upon their offspring. ‘Come Sunday morn the firstborn dead’ is another close-but-not-identical detail, and the surviving twin ‘carried the burden outa Tupelo’. So you have references to Noah (the flood), Jesus (the ‘cradle of straw’, the carrying away of sin) and the plagues of Egypt (‘the firstborn dead’) in there too, crammed together with the Elvis stuff in a celebration of the power of myth which simultaneously robs it of meaning.

And the Ass Saw the Angel is ‘Tupelo’ writ gigantic. The action is moved to Ukulore, ‘Death Valley, State of Mourning’ (p. 237). Euchrid Eucrow, the mute born with the aid of ‘a bottle and a box and a cradle of straw’, is in this version of the story a young boy by the time the black rain comes. The rain lasts for three years, and this is how it starts:
It thundered. It did. The skin of the sky ripped open, spewing forth its burden into the valley’s basin. Corrupt and putrid and unrecanting, it came in slashes of bilge and sheets of swill – vile and poisonous waters, as if all the welkin bile had been pumped from the sewers of Hell then vomited in a black and furious torrent down upon the shack and the cane, soaking me through to the bone before ah even thought to raise mah head. (p. 48)
Euchrid’s narration is the most interior of interior narratives, slimily energetic and black as anthracite, delivered by telepathy of some kind as he slips forever into the quicksand (‘The Sandman’s mud! The Sandman’s mud!’ – ‘Tupelo’, again). The third person narrative with which this alternates is more erudite, but it is a weird, bloated, Biblical erudition – just take a look at its vocab. It is this voice which tells how the women of Ukulore vainly try to meet the storm on its own terms:
Into the early hours of the morning they had performed their weird piacular rites, each in deep and delirious potation with her own pain, each a single hump of convulsions unto herself and each in a self-effacement as determined as the tempest, inflicting brutal rebuke upon her own person, for these were the dues exacted by a collective shame. (p. 51)
Ostensibly they are trying to placate God, but they also also derive pleasure from their pain (‘potation’ is to do with drinking, and ‘piacular’ with atoning for sin). Again shame comes up with nothing specific attached to it: the ritual is all. The ritual is not nothing, though: Cave clearly finds the language of the Old Testament beautiful, but whereas most go to Christianity for comfort and consolation, he revels in the contradictions it throws up, the things it makes people do. What could be more terrifying than a God-less world in which disaster happens arbitrarily? One in which the disasters are meted out for a purpose you can never know. But what benefits to self-esteem and social position if you can convince yourself and others that you do know.

This is where Abie Poe comes in. Previously ‘a salesman selling silver cutlery sets door to door’ to ‘young wives […], bullying them with soft nothings’ (p. 79) (a pre-emptive nod, so it seems, to cocksman and salesman extraordinaire Bunny Munro), he rides into town as a gun slinging preacher and pretends to explain the curse of the rain to the people of Ukulore. ‘Not a soul among you is clean. You are all steeped in filth’ (p. 85). Well maybe, but there is more filth going unpunished elsewhere – see the quotation on Toad Morton, below, for example. Euchrid himself quite likes the rain, because it narrows the gap between himself and the Ukulites: ‘ah concluded that suffering was, in general, a comparative sensation felt most keenly in the face of felicity’ (p. 97). There is not a little irony in the fact that Abie Poe proceeds to lead them from the church to the wetlands for some kind of symbolic cleansing which, owing to the rains, just ends up making them all literally filthy: ‘Clambering aback of him came the multitude, like a grand parade of clowns, tripping and tumbling their way to a sloppy, fully slapstick salvation’ (p. 87). The satire cuts both ways, targeting the crowd for their credulity as much as Poe for his pomp.

Euchrid is a pathetic creature. At least, that is how he begins. Early on he admits, ‘nothing ever happened that was a direct result of mah doing’ (p. 71). At this point it seems that, in contrast to Bunny Munro, there is no danger in Euchrid’s lust. Gradually this changes, and it is his blood lust which has the ascendacy. He gets it from his parents. His mother, whom he loathes, is Jane Crowley, AKA Crow Jane. There is a song about her on Murder Ballads, in which she kills 20 miners for taking her whiskey. The details of the story shift with every re-telling: in And the Ass Saw the Angel the community is attached to a sugar refinery rather than a mine; Jane’s bootleg liquor (inspired by the real Presley Senior?) is rather less than whiskey, coming in the three varieties ‘White Jesus, Apple Jack and Stew’ (p. 29); and it is her husband Ezra who is more likely to go on killing sprees, coming as he does from a family of serial killers. He changes his name for fear of persecution after his brother Toad Morton is caught red handed, in this horrible passage:
Found in a small stone cave bitten from the roadside, stitchless save for his great outsized boots and a plague of flies, fat on the human scrappage of dinners long past, Toad squatted in the slitted stomach of a warm child, eating loudly the face of her hapless, headless father, who sat a good foot off the ground impaled up the ass on a pointed post. (p. 24)
In fact he doesn’t just change his name, he moves – again in an echo of the Presleys – and finds domestic misery with widow and sot Jane Crowley in Ukulore. She drinks herself insensible and bullies her son mercilessly; he spends his time building and setting cruel traps for animals, designed to maim rather than kill. He takes his mule on a daily round of these traps, and tips the live animals from sacks into a disused water tower in his back yard, where he watches them kill each other. But at least he is not mass murdering people, like his brother.

While his parents are alive, Euchrid is an observer only, affecting nothing. But they both die, horribly, and he comes into his own having buried Paw in the back yard and taken over the running of the compound, which he renames ‘Doghead’. Hitherto he has been a reasonably sympathetic character. Born mute, to the worst parents imaginable, he is understandably introverted and isolated. Utterly friendless, aside from the angel he imagines, he spies on the Ukulites but doesn’t do any harm, and it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that if he could speak, he would be accepted. True, he does invoke their wrath during Abie Poe’s soul-cleansing operation, when he lets off the brake on Wilma Eldrige’s wheelchair and she plunges ‘headlong into the shallows of the abysmal, baptismal bilge’ (p. 92), but they are soon more interested in battering the prostitute Cosey Mo, led on by Abie Poe, who convinces them that she is responsible for the plague of rain. Poe loses his influence when he is proved wrong: Cosey is badly beaten, and banished, and still the rain comes. Euchrid idolises Cosey, he loves to spy on her pink caravan up on Hooper’s Hill when she is at work inside. Cosey is a tragic figure: doomed to die in a ditch not long after the beating, having deposited a newborn babe on the doorstep of Sardus Swift, who brings her up. Ukulore looks upon this girl, Beth, as a blessing, because when she arrives, the rain does finally stop. Beth is more cipher than character, but she has a dual meaning: for the Ukulites, she is holy; only Euchrid knows, through his spying, that she is Cosey Mo’s daughter.

The climax of the book comes with Euchrid’s realisation that he must kill Beth (he hears voices, God passes on the instruction this way). Time has passed: he is 28, she is 15. Wilma Eldrige has developed an unhealthy obsession with proving that Beth in a virgin, in the hope of a virgin birth. Euchrid has been spying at her window, as he did at her mother’s, and she leaves him notes, thinking for some reason that God has come to call (probably the Ukulites’ talk regarding her blessed, holy status). By this point Euchrid has become substantially less sympathetic: he has picked up where his father left off with the animal traps, and though he doesn’t have his prey fight each other, he keeps them in cages barely bigger than the animals themselves, in a state of constant hunger. Having lived his life without company, he is now King of Doghead, the dogs and other beasts are his subjects. It is strongly hinted that Euchrid doesn’t notice when ‘mah dogs’ die of starvation. There is a lot he doesn’t notice, or remember. ‘Have ah told you about deadtime? Yes? No?’ (p. 114). And: ‘Ah’m no killer, no. Well, yes ah am. OK – so ah killed a few hobos last year’ (p. 213). All of this is reminiscent of Bunny Munro’s constant haziness about detail, and the one moment when he forgets himself and admits to using ‘roofies’ to sedate the women he has sex with. Although And the Ass Saw the Angel doesn’t have this disturbing sexual angle, it is bleaker in that there is no redemption. Bunny Junior shows no signs of following in his father’s footsteps (though Bunny is clearly damaged by his own father); he loves him, but the signs are that he won’t emulate him. His character lends a balance to The Death of Bunny Munro that And the Ass Saw the Angel totally lacks – to its benefit: it works entirely on its own warped terms, the 3 year tempest is caused by the author, not by any of his sick characters. Euchrid, who is connected to Bunny Junior through a shared eye condition, conjunctivitis, is drawn as though inevitably into the cruelty and madness exhibited by his father and uncles, and when he is gone, when Beth is gone, Wilma Eldrige has her bogus virgin birth and the Old Testament world keeps spinning and reeling and spitting as it has done all along.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Menaced by cachinnations of the corvine kind

Just waiting for a photo to go with the forthcoming post, but in the meantime, here are some words from the book it is about:

paludal, quitch, bibulous, purl, fremitus, subfusc, cynosure, erumpent, aureate, epizoon, piacular, potation, reboant, sabbat, funest, eidetic, hyaline, scotoma, versant, phocine, nuchal, murine, extravasate, cicatrix, veridical, tonitruate, atramental, cachexic, anhelation, cloacal, catropic, lamina, hyalescent, eudemonia, mussitation, sorority, sorghum, scoriac, conceptus, gravid, choof, ictus, monostich, nutant, fulgent, saltation, cachinnate, corvine, caducous

Saturday, October 03, 2009

The War is Over

Things I didn’t write about over the last month or two, for one reason or another. Mostly connected with the La Terrasse war season, which you may or may not have noticed (in fact, I seem to have forgotten to write most of it).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’

A novel based around the Nigerian-Biafran War. Split into sections set in the early and late 1960s (before and during the conflict), it follows Odenigbo, a lecturer at Nsukka University, husband of Olanna, whose parents are rich and corrupt with commerce. Olanna’s sister Kainene has an English partner, Richard Churchill, who makes a name for himself writing journalism on the war. With the addition of Ugwu, Odinegbo’s ‘houseboy’, and Kainene’s military friend Madu, a cross section of society is achieved. The intellectuals who want change, the establishment who want to keep making money, the military who want power and the poor in their villages who don’t really consider that they have a choice; although Odinegbo has Ugwu educated, and he finally becomes the writer Richard fails to be. The factions in the war are Igbo and Hausa, the main characters here all being Igbo. The massacre of Igbo civilians in 1966 is the point at which the novel kicks into gear; the descriptions of atrocities witnessed by Olanna and Richard in chapters 11 and 12 are brief, but shocking. Half of a Yellow Sun is as much a history as it is a novel: interesting, impressive and informative, its characters work insofar as they give you an impression of what it might have been like to be there, as this arbitrarily created post-colonial state, Nigeria, trembled then re-asserted itself. When the subject is this big, perhaps that’s all they need to do (would be unfair to mention that Pierre Bezukhov does so much more?)

Lipmann Kessell – ‘Surgeon At Arms’

From my mum, who buys this out-of-print book whenever she sees a copy. Her father features as the character Shorty, and although I read his own (private) war memoir years ago, I never got around to this before. It centres around the involvement of Kessell and Shorty as surgeons during the Battle of Arnhem, and it’s pretty incredible stuff. The long opening chapter finds them in an operating theatre in St. Elizabeth’s hospital, part of an area which sees heavy fighting, and which changes hands several times. When the Germans are in control they wander the wards, shooting the odd patient. When an SS officer tries to move the surgeons out mid-operation, this happens:
Shorty’s obdurate blue eyes looked the interpreter up and down as though he was inspecting a defaulter, and he remarked: ‘I’ve never heard such rot!’ Very deliberately he put back his gauze mask. ‘Tell your officer I protest most strongly.’ (p. 34)
Isn’t that just exactly the kind of thing you want to discover your grandfather did in the Second World War? The German officers’ manner is nicely characterised as ‘a frigid playfulness’ (p. 45). There is also the following fabulous piece of surgeon-geekery. Kessell, planning an escape attempt from Apeldoorn POW hospital (this is after nearly everyone else has gone – they stay for as long as there are casualties), can bear to leave behind everything except:
the specimen of a traumatic aneurysm of the popliteal artery which I’d removed the previous week and preserved in a jar. (p. 66)
This is a vibrant, matter-of-fact account of a campaign the author acknowledges to have been ‘a disaster and a military fiasco’ (p. 136). The book starts in the white heat of battle, and cools gradually through POW camps, escape and the hiding places employed by the Dutch resistance. Kessell’s tone is gregarious, he captures the characters of those he encounters briefly but effectively. He doesn’t even seem to notice his own accomplishments, blithely falsifying the extent of injuries in order to keep men in hospitals from which it was easier to escape than from POW camps; falsifying, too, the identity of a brigadier (they dress him up as a private to escape, though his severe abdominal wound makes walking almost impossible), and also the total number of prisoners. The men stand still but never in the same place for very long when they are being counted. Brilliant.

Tim Footman – ‘The Noughties: A Decade that Changed the World, 2000-2009’

By Tim out of Cultural Snow. In fine contemporary fashion with not just a double but a triple title, this is a zip through the last ten years for anyone who was there but somehow felt that they missed it, like a Guardian Weekly for an entire decade. Taking us neatly from 9/11 to the credit crunch, by way of the War on Terror, climate change, US TV drama and social networking, The Noughties glides swan-like through something that feels a lot more coherent than the decade itself feels / felt. It is useful to have events prioritised and summarised, but the fragmentation of the media which is a theme of the book make this process itself seem a little old fashioned. Not that it should be old fashioned, necessarily. The conclusion talks about the shift in culture over the twentieth century, when popular culture took over from high culture, and describes where the democratising influence of the internet has taken this. And not just the internet. De-centralisation seems to touch everything: war is de-centralised by being waged upon a noun (what causes more terror than war, exactly?); news is de-centralised by being taken away from professional journalists; wealth is de-centralised by the shift in the global economy towards Asia (and de-stabilised by becoming an abstraction of an abstraction); music is de-centralised in one sense by being taken away from the music industry, and in another by its increasing disconnection from fame; even truth is outsourced to something identified here as ‘truthiness’, which is ‘the quality of stating concepts or facts one wishes or believes to be true, rather than those known to be true’ (p. 160). It is right that we do this, it is right that we do that. Some of this de-centralisation is bad, but by no means all. Either way, it is here to stay. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Repeat Until Funny

A year ago I posted Planet Sunflower’s The Escarpment EP here. It gathered the songs we had put together at odd times over the previous few years, whenever there was a family meet-up with a guitar handy. We weren’t really trying to make an EP, it was a continuation of what we’d always done, since the point in the mid ’90s when we found that chucking together an Elastica drum beat with some Barry Adamson bass and topping the whole thing off with Catriona’s voice drenched in reverb made Kylie Minogue’s ‘Turn It Into Love’ into this whole other thing. Was that really the first song we did? Or just the first worth remembering? The Elastica connection always makes me think of her coming back from a gig of theirs in Stoke, mega excited that their new bassist had spoken to her, and that David Bowie had stood next to her in the crowd. ‘Are you sure? In Stoke?’ ‘It was!’ Absolutely no way.

The more recent songs were supposed to be us continuing work on the Planet Sunflower album, which when it reached the mythical length of 40 minutes would be finished, and that would be that. The reason it had to be 40 minutes was that any shorter and it would look ridiculous on a C90 cassette. By 2008 this wasn’t really a concern any more, and the five songs which made up the EP made sense as a set. So here is the rest: everything else by Planet Sunflower that is any good at all (including, incidentally, three songs which also appear on Long Vacation albums).

Planet Sunflower – Repeat Until Funny

  1. Turn It Into Love
  2. Welcome In
  3. The Black Hole
  4. An Affair
  5. No Frills
  6. You Say You Don’t Love Me
  7. Self
  8. In My Eyes
  9. Wind Sand And Stars

Recorded 1996 – 1999. Songs by Catriona and Chris except for ‘Turn It Into Love’ (Stock, Aitken & Waterman), ‘You Say You Don’t Love Me’ (Pete Shelley) and ‘Self’ (Fuzzbox). Thanks to Dad for having a home PC so ridiculously in advance of everyone else, and for very kindly equipping it with a sound card.

Listen below, or download it here (go for the vbr zip).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Nick Cave – ‘The Death of Bunny Munro’

Cover your ears and watch this:

Now close your eyes and tell me that the middle of these three covers for Nick Cave’s new novel isn’t the best by a million miles:

It isn’t censorship: as the cover’s designer W.H. Chong explains here, it is normal practice for books to have different covers in the UK, Australia and the US (the order in which they appear above). It isn’t as if rabbits aren’t a theme, either. Bunny, a beauty product salesman for the two bit operation Eternity Enterprises of Brighton, takes full advantage of his peculiar name when attempting to seduce his customers (which is all the time). Even late on, when he has lost the plot completely, when his death is almost complete, this habit sticks. Here he approaches three women sitting in a café:

Bunny starts to hop up and down, waggling his hands behind his head, and says, manically and with great urgency, ‘I sell rich, hydrating, age-targeting lotions that soften the skin and exfoliate surface cells for a younger, smoother look!’

‘Excuse me!’ says the blonde, who has stopped laughing, but Bunny is screaming now, under the thundering sky and with all the rain coming down. (p. 251)

Fans of And the Ass Saw the Angel will be pleased that despite the modern setting of its successor, when the going gets fraught, it pisses down here too. The rabbit stuff, though, is just a means to an end. The Australian cover fits best because Bunny Munro is totally, delusionally, sex obsessed. He is interested in women only as a way of assessing how amazing their vaginas are going to be when he gets around to fucking them (and somehow it is the vaginas he fucks, rather than the women). But that means he is interested in them plenty. One more time:

Groups of scissor-legged school-things with their pierced midriffs, logoed jogging girls, happy, rumpy dog-walkers, couples actually copulating on the summer lawns, beached pussy prostrate beneath the erotically shaped cumulus, loads of fucking girls who were up for it – big ones, little ones, black ones, white ones, young ones, old ones, give-me-a-minute-and-I’ll-find-your-beauty-spot ones, yummy single mothers, the bright joyful breasts of waxed bikini babes, the pebble-stippled backsides of women fresh from the beach – the whole thing fucking immense, thinks Bunny. (p. 19)

Bunny’s conception of what he is seeing feeds on his libido as much as it does his eyes. A ‘junkie chick’ selling Big Issues becomes a ‘famous supermodel at the peak of her success’, then morphs back into a junkie chick again when he realises that ‘junkies give the best head (crack whores the worst)’ (p. 20). Whatever is going to give the biggest lift to the hard-on in his leopard skin briefs, that’s what he sees.

This is a novel which revels in its own bad taste. Bunny drives his wife to suicide with his philandering, then sneaks out of her funeral service for a wank because one of her friends looks hot in mourning gear. The man is out of his mind. What is scary is how it all somehow makes sense to him. It is exhilarating, too, much in the way that Cave’s most epic murder ballad, ‘O’Malley’s Bar’ is exhilarating. Half the fun in his writing is this sense of goading: ‘look how low I can make my characters sink and still have you sympathise with them.’ You wouldn’t defend Bunny’s actions for a second, but you get drawn in to their catastrophic inevitability nonetheless. You don’t even want him not to die, but he is never less than enthralling. The bad taste on display is very definitely Bunny’s and not Cave’s: he underpins the mayhem with, of all things, a strong moral sense. This is brought across in the character of Bunny Junior, Bunny’s nervous, encyclopedia-clutching ten-year-old son, who sits in the Punto outside while Bunny is selling beauty products by appointment (and letching / stealing / getting his nose broken). His is mostly a passive role, but by merely resisting what is going on around him, he reaches this insight (which includes himself as much as the girl), far beyond anything his father is capable of:

He remembers with a quickening of the heart the girl on the bicycle, and he wishes he could tell her that this is what she was – just a little girl – and as she grows up maybe she doesn’t have to turn into one of them – cock-a-doodling up the street all the time. (p. 229)

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Pastels / Tenniscoats & Veronica Falls, Stereo, Glasgow, 2nd September

This is the only way I can think of that Foolin’ Around #4 was ever going to be able to live up to Foolin’ Around #3, a Tenniscoats show which raised the roof without ever raising the volume, joy unconfined. And how appropriate for it to come so soon after Edwyn Collins’ Edinburgh shows, because he’s the one who started this. More than anyone else, more even than Jonathan Richman. Equal with James Kirk. Can you imagine what would have happened had Orange Juice’s classic line-up stayed together beyond their first LP? If they had continued to be that alive to the possibilities of sounds made with friends, guided by delight in the fluidity and fragility of it all? What if they’d continued with that past youth into adulthood proper, never losing what intuition told them? Or if The Chills had done the same thing, exploring further the textures of ‘Pink Frost’ instead of jetting off into heavenly pop hits? There are few things I like more than a good Chills tune, but part of me always wants their records to be more home made. After Wednesday’s show, Andy said about all those references to Mingus and Coltrane in Pastels fanzines from way back, that they had never been gratuitous, and that here they were fed back into their sound. Chris said: ‘When did Katrina become a jazz drummer?’

Before the main event of the evening came a fine, short set from Veronica Falls, the band who have emerged from the ashes of Sexy Kids, who did likewise from The Royal We. More rockin’ than either of those bands, but still with an ear to the ’50s, their ambition seems to be to become The Saints’ cover of ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’. There were high harmonies and smart, compact tunes. Like The Royal We two years ago, when they also played with Pastels / Tenniscoats (or The Pastels and Tenniscoats, as they then were), Veronica Falls blasted us with brief brilliance then scarpered, neither set touching the twenty minute mark. One song’s bass line was from Pixies’ ‘Debaser’, which seemed a bold move; another sounded like my faded memory of Talking Heads trying to sound like Joy Division without having heard them. Nothing seemed quite as monstrously catchy as Sexy Kids’ ‘Sisters Are Forever’, but they were, for the third band name in a row, a breath of fresh air.

Much needed in the basement of Stereo, which got to be stifling before the night was through. This despite the loud blasts of air conditioning which someone in the background tried to keep to a minimum during the music’s quiet moments, not always successfully. ‘Hi, we’re Pastels / Tenniscoats, we come from Glasgow and Tokyo. This is the first show we’ve played with Tenniscoats, and – we’ll just get it underway and give you a nice smooth journey.’ Your flight attendant, Stephen Pastel. Maybe he meant it was the first night of the tour, or maybe he meant this is ground zero. ‘We will achieve a third great sound, I’m sure we will’ he said, after those earlier concerts, the ones I slated, a little unfairly. In truth the sound was already there, it was just the songs which were missing. New album Two Sunsets – out on Monday – sets that straight. As with many a recent show, they started with ‘Charlie’s Theme’, that gentle, loping, falling away, built around a trumpet line that divides like cells. On after an air conditioning solo into ‘Two Sunsets’, Saya radiant and just the most amazing performer to watch, she fills your heart just by smiling, just by singing. Just! I wondered whether the confidence and stage presence of the Mono show would carry over, given how reticent she’d been in a group context before. Yup.

(In fact, the Tenniscoats showed their character most of all during the first encore song, which they played as a duo. After a staggering ‘Baby Honey’, played for the first time in many years, fresh as a daisy, rockin’ as clockwork – complete, even, with fluffed intro – they came back out and did this slap guitar ’n’ shrieks thing, Björk meets Gary Lucas, Saya having to restrain Ueno’s happy fretwankery with a hand damping the strings for much of the time. What a fabulous response, they are unstoppable.)

It struck me during ‘Song For A Friend’ that it contains an almost-steal from Orange Juice’s ‘In A Nutshell’: the ‘sh sh sh shu do’ bit, transposed to trumpet. Goodness gracious, so audacious. As of now, this is my favourite Pastels song. Stephen gives a bit of background to it on MySpace. ‘Vivid Youth’, which one can only presume will be #1 on Sunday, if they still have #1s and charts and Sundays, cranked up the pace to an amble, John Hogarty’s Les Paul the most muscular sound on stage, contrasting wildly with Ueno’s dreamy guitar loops – both equally frantic, at times of lift off. Which were frequent: on ‘Boats’ his playing was brilliant, shivering and shimmering all over a song which was made from indistinctness in the first place (it is the least immediate song on Two Sunsets, its foggy-morning charms take a while). His trousers were brilliant too: pale jeans with wide horizontal painted-on stripes. Presumably these inspired the visual theme for the evening, almost the entire band wore stripes of some sort. There weren’t costume changes or anything, but that seemed quite glam, for The Pastels. ‘Start Slowly So We Sound Like A Loch’ occupied similar sonic territory to ‘Boats’, but it’s evening rather than morning, the loch so calm and clear you can see the opposite bank reflected without a ripple, all the way to sunset. Tom took over on drums so Katrina could stand to sing, a jazz singer as well as a jazz drummer, husky and clear-eyed, such a beautiful sound. Not a re-tread of Illumination but a development from it: nothing happens quickly, each hit and note, each clunk and twang is weighted, placed, the listener suspended between them, wanting to be nowhere else. If this isn’t a great sound, I never heard one.


Update: Brogues has made the exclusive fanzine available to 50 attendees a little bit less exclusive by putting it online here (content, by him, S. & I) and here (style, by him and J.).

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Garen Ewing – ‘The Rainbow Orchid (Vol. 1)’ / Goscinny & Sempé – ‘Nicholas’

At school, T. and I used to write an Asterix fanzine. We didn’t call it that, not having heard of fanzines, but that’s what it was: photocopied, with such news as was available at the time (the publication of Asterix and the Magic Carpet, a theme park opening in Paris... I’d never thought of this before, but could the whole magic carpet thing have been an excuse for a theme park ride?), padded out with various enthusings and even Asterix comic strips we made up ourselves. It went from being mostly T.’s thing to being mostly mine, which was fair enough, as he preferred Tintin anyway. When he grew up he got a job with the people who publish Tintin in the UK, and last year he switched from marketing to publishing proper. In a move which is enough to restore one’s faith in the fitness of things, that we are living in the best of all possible worlds, etc., the first book he has been involved in publishing is a comic album which is exactly the same as a Tintin book. Every last little detail, excepting only those curly movement lines Hergé would do when people were fighting or woozy from being drugged by bad guys (perhaps that will be amended for Vol. 2). Think I’m kidding? See for yourself.

I don’t mean to be cynical. For one thing, attempting to live up to Hergé’s art is actually a pretty ambitious undertaking, and this is a beautifully drawn book. Transportation-wise particularly: boats, trains and planes sit just so in the landscape, awash with detail. For another – did you ever think that Tintin was a little anaemic at times? That Asterix was better because there were more fights and better jokes*? The Rainbow Orchid isn’t anaemic at all. Tintin is an unrealistically straightforward kind of reporter, of the Clark Kent variety. He doesn’t do anything underhand: behaving correctly but inquisitively is enough to get him into exciting situations, and he can file reports on them if he feels like it (which is not often). William Pickle, the reporter in The Rainbow Orchid, is the opposite: he’ll do anything to get a story. Media is the story, to a large extent, which may be why it is set in the 1920s, allowing it to feature a film star (the fictional Lily Lawrence), who attracts reporters in droves. Pickle’s tenacity and goading wisecracks actively drive the plot.

Lily is to open the ‘fifth British Empire Exhibition’**, at which her father, Sir Reginald Lawrence, will enter the ‘world famous orchid competition’, which he won the previous year. This time, however, his chances look bleak because of a rare black orchid, to be entered by the splendidly named Urkaz Grope. Which matters because Sir Reginald has gambled his entire property on winning the competition: it is hinted that Grope might have drugged him to get him to agree to this, though he is something of an old soak so it could just have been the drink. Pickle irritates Julius Chancer (the story’s protagonist, a kind of antiques investigator) into admitting to the possibility that a rarer and more beautiful orchid exists – the rainbow orchid of the title. This becomes a challenge in the following day’s Daily News. Julius and Lily are prompted to mount an expedition to find it by Pickle’s story: it is not enough simply to know about the rainbow orchid. Things become real only when reported in a newspaper. This works rather well as an allegory for our own times, as a lament for the importance of the newspaper, but also as a comment on how the rapid turnover of published information affects events. More importantly, it also serves to make things happen really fast: The Rainbow Orchid is rip roaring stuff, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Also included in the parcel with The Rainbow Orchid was a new edition of Goscinny & Sempé’s Nicholas, which T. did lend me once before, but as that would have been slightly over twenty years ago (gulp!) I can probably be forgiven for having forgotten absolutely everything about it. The new edition might be something to do with this film (merci pour l’info, Anne), though it doesn’t say so. It is completely brilliant, anyway, a sped-up, primary school version of Jennings, and it comments on almost nothing except the tendency of small boys towards fighting, eating and being messy. Here is some, it is all like this:

Finally, when we got round the corner, Alec took a cigar out of his pocket. ‘Look at that!’ he told me. ‘It’s a real one, not a chocolate cigar.’ He didn’t need to tell me it wasn’t a chocolate cigar because if it had been a chocolate cigar Alec would have eaten it instead of showing it to me. […] I wasn’t all that sure that smoking a cigar was a good idea, and I had a feeling Mum and Dad wouldn’t like it, but Alec asked me whether my mum and dad had ever told me not to smoke this cigar? I thought about it, and I had to admit that Mum and Dad had told me not to draw pictures on the walls of my room, not to speak without being spoken to at meals when we had guests, not to fill the bath to play with my boat, not to eat biscuits just before dinner, not to slam the door, not to pick my nose and not to say rude words, but Mum and Dad had never said anything about not smoking this cigar. (pp. 75-76)

Thanks, T., and – congratulations!


* More numerous jokes, at least. To give Tintin its due, there aren’t many better jokes than the Thomson Twins’ ‘Those tracks can’t have been made by us: there are two sets of them, and we are alone’, when they are walking around in circles in Explorers on the Moon.

** The British Empire Exhibition was real, it says here, but ran for only two years, 1924-5. So The Rainbow Orchid must take place in 1928.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Edwyn Collins, Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 22nd August

He took to the stage, tall and thin in a dark suit, sporting a black walking stick. Leaned against a large amplifier which didn’t look like it was amplifying anything, but it was cooler than sitting on a stool. Within reach of his good, left hand a music stand with a book of lyrics, and in a semi-circle around him no fewer than three acoustic guitarists and a drummer with a set of congas. It was half past midnight on his 50th birthday, so really it was the 23rd. Later on there were be two rounds of ‘Happy Birthday’: one scheduled, after the last song of the encore, with a cake and candles brought on stage by his son William; one initiated by the audience, fond but less tuneful. The applause died down. He said, ‘“Falling and Laughing”. Now’. And there it was, interjected with mixing expostulations from Edwyn: ‘Up! Drums, up!’ God, I love ‘Falling and Laughing’. More even than ‘Poor Old Soul’, which followed, and with which he really hit his stride, his singing voice miraculously powerful and fluid, compared to his fragile speech. Not perfect, but when was it ever that? When was that ever the point?

In her book, Grace says that old friends took time to adjust to Edwyn after his stroke: second meetings were usually easier than first meetings. Marking the transition, I suppose, from thinking, ‘How he’s changed,’ to ‘Has he though?’ and ‘Upwards and onwards.’ Even as a fan, I remember being terribly upset, hearing him for the first time since his recovery on a Front Row in 2007. It was a good interview – with Grace’s help, he talked about his situation, his newly completed album (recorded before the stroke, of course). He sang a burst of ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’, a genuinely new song, which was a joy to hear. Coming to it cold, though, it was unbearably sad, hearing this once eloquent man struggle to put simple sentences together. Though it was not really the point that he was once eloquent, it was more that he once wrote ‘Falling and Laughing’ and ‘Louise Louise’ and ‘In A Nutshell’, and this could still happen to him. I wondered that if a ten minute radio interview was too much for me, what would a gig be like? That book, though. So generous, so practical. Disarmingly blunt, it snaps you out of it. ‘Suffering is ordinary’. Get used to that, and get on with enjoying this.

Talk about a greatest hits set. To my delight, it was weighted in favour of the glorious You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever / The Glasgow School era Orange Juice. As well as ‘Falling and Laughing’ and ‘Poor Old Soul’ were ‘Dying Day’, ‘Consolation Prize’ and even ‘Blue Boy’. From later on were ‘Rip It Up’ and ‘A Girl Like You’, and two songs from the Hope and Despair LP, which I have been coming around to recently and belatedly. The wall of acoustic guitars attacked them all with a verve which belied the homogeneous instrumentation (band intros were funny: ‘on guitar... on guitar... on guitar... and I am on... me’). It made me think of the video for ‘You’ll Never Know, My Love’: Edwyn in his studio, surrounded by a collection of guitars he can no longer play (there seem to be hundreds of them). Except that here, they were being played, he’d just got other people to do it for him.

The special guests were mixed, but mostly a blessing: the first of these, improbably called Romeo (from The Magic Numbers, apparently), took a verse and made it worse, his singing too precious by half. Malcolm Ross did a better job, on ‘Consolation Prize’: ‘He wore his fringe like Roger McGuinn’s’. The third guest, Ryan from The Cribs (again apparently – I don’t seem to have heard of anyone these days!), introduced ‘a brand new song – the three most exciting words in the English language’. Written by Ryan and Edwyn, it was about sleeplessness. As with ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’, wordplay had been replaced by something simpler, more direct. An obvious effect of Edwyn’s diminished language skills, but not a bad songwriting direction either. Then they did another new song.

‘A Girl Like You’ concluded the main set, pretty epic. He came out for the encore and we sang ‘Happy Birthday’, which was followed by a shout, ‘You’d better play “Breakfast Time” now!’ ‘I’m sorry,’ replied Edwyn. ‘It’s the dysphasia, you see.’ No unrehearsed songs. Generally his speech varied according to what he was doing: announcing songs, he was stilted, but responding to the audience he was more spontaneous and fluid. Someone shouted out indistinctly after Edwyn announced ‘One Track Mind’, and he made him repeat it. He had to ask a couple of times, but the man eventually explained that he’d thought he might mean the Heartbreakers’ song. ‘No, it’s my song,’ said Edwyn, firmly, to laughter. It doesn’t sound like much, but it showed he was in control, it was a nice moment.

After the ‘Breakfast Time’ comment he went into ‘I’m Searching for the Truth’: light, understated. ‘I will always be lucky in my life.’ What an amazing thing to sing. We’re lucky too, Edwyn.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Grace Maxwell – ‘Falling & Laughing: The Restoration of Edwyn Collins’

About halfway through reading it I wrote: ‘The Edwyn book has become less upsetting since his condition has stabilised (though this is relative to earlier chapters which are Very Upsetting Indeed). He still has MRSA to go, it is coming on, has caused the postponement of language / mobility therapy. I don’t know how much I’m actually enjoying it, but it is gripping. Far more in depth than the TV documentary, which only showed the latter stages of therapy, and triumphant goals achieved – rehearsals for a gig, climbing a large set of stone steps to a view of a tempestuous sea, “Leviathan” playing in the background. Grace does such a good job of conveying her shock, and the determination with which she counters it. There are moments when she expresses horror at what Edwyn has lost, but she never considers for a moment that he himself might be gone. It is as though she is dragging him back to the surface by sheer willpower – matched, she emphasises, by Edwyn’s own.’

I’m not sure how much I want to add to that. Looking back over the book for quotations it is upsetting all over again. But in the best sense. It disrupts and it re-affirms. At the end of the ‘Coping’ chapter, Grace notes how common their situation is, and that ‘we in the West have conspired to hide away from unpleasantness to hermetically seal it off from our perception of normal life.’ (p. 87). Our hero concurs:

Edwyn found his flow one day and said to me: ‘Suffering is ordinary. Suffering is the understanding.’

He knows too. (p. 89)

Though the situation is common, I don’t know about the reaction. S., who works with people who have brain injuries, says that the level to which he has recovered is ‘awesome’, it is not something she expected from her experience of similar cases. An unsympathetic doctor paints a gloomy picture:

any progress we see could plateau and finish at any time. As for his speech, his cognitive powers, well, not much going on there, I’m afraid.

David and I pass silent judgement on this charmer. (p. 102)

For him to be talking, walking, singing, drawing, performing, writing one of his best ever songs... it is incredible. Grace records with satisfaction that this plateau was never reached, that improvements continue. This book, like the Home Again album booklet, has Edwyn’s beautiful drawings of birds scattered throughout. It has the most perfect title, the most perfect cover. Nearly every page will make you cry, one way or another. Thank you, brave people, for sharing this.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Pastels / Tenniscoats – ‘Two Sunsets’

It’s been quite a while since there was a Pastels album. I remember the week Illumination came out, standing in Ashton Lane, Glasgow, being informed by one of my sister’s friends that the The Verve were the best band in the world, and knowing that this could not possibly be. In nearby Byres Road green vinyl copies sat proudly in Fopp, but I probably bought it in John Smith’s, where Stephen had his proto-Monorail record section (a whole floor! In the middle of a book shop! How did that ever come about?) At the time Illumination seemed a continuation, rather than a culmination, of the incredible records which preceded it. The joy and abandon of Truckload of Trouble fed into Mobile Safari, on which Stephen’s ‘feeling of excitement when I plug in my guitar’ (thanks Brogues!) built into such an unstoppable run of wonderful songs. Illumination was more ambitious, more concerned with assembling a coherent texture which reflected the band’s mindset. So it was beautiful, gentle, wide-eyed. It was modest and muted in the way it didn’t set out to grab your attention, but epic in the collaborative instrumentation it used to get to being modest and muted. Just as Chekhov gradually dispensed with the melodramatic gunshot in the final act over the course of his plays (it went completely with The Cherry Orchard), so The Pastels grew out of that ’80s indie pop production technique of playing a single clanging chord to emphasise each first beat of the bar over already compressed drums. It was still present (just about) on Mobile Safari, but by Illumination they were sure enough of themselves to leave it behind and go stratospheric.

Having said that, I’m not comfortable with the way Domino refer to Illumination as a masterpiece at every opportunity. More than most bands, The Pastels are about momentum, process, collaboration. Their song ‘Yoga’ starts: ‘It might not last, so we’re gonna record everything’, but recording is a double edged sword: it captures, but it also freezes. Maybe this has something to do with the long silence. But whatever. It doesn’t matter now.

And Two Sunsets? I think I’m going to struggle. It is, as it had to be, so tall I can’t get over it, so wide I can’t get around it, so deep I can’t get under it. It washes over every border, drowns every boundary. It is alive in ways a record from twelve years ago just can’t be, masterpiece or not. Opener ‘Tokyo Glasgow’ is a development of the music they did for the play Do I Mean Anthing To You Or Are You Just Passing By?, with added ‘ah’s sung by Katrina and Saya, and what appears to be a panpipe (perhaps it is actually something more Japanese, signifying the ‘Tokyo’ part?), which had me worried for a while because how can a panpipe be acceptable after muzak appropriated the instrument? Alison’s trumpet and the slow tempo make it sound like something from The Blue Nile’s Hats, but flecked with details ‘moulded by human hands’, as Jon Dale puts it. It is also the closest the record gets to the Last Great Wilderness soundtrack sound, and it sets up the flow of songs which constitute the first half of the record.

‘Two Sunsets’ itself is the most Pastels-like Tenniscoats song here: slow and tender, lit up by Saya’s fresh melody and that incredible confidence in the delivery it was such a revelation to see at their recent show in Glasgow. She can knock you to pieces and put you back reinforced with that voice. She leads with the singing on ‘Song for a Friend’, too, but one verse in Stephen takes over: ‘In the places we would be / Thoughts of you come back to me’, which is the kind of simple, affectionate song it is. Later on, back with Saya, comes the song’s most arresting image: ‘Your guitar still where you left it over by the willow tree / Sometimes when the wind is blowing, it plays your song for me’. Makes me think of Nagisa Ni te, for some reason. This song is where Saya’s, Katrina’s and Stephen’s voices come together to best effect, and the collaboration is at its strongest.

‘Vivid Youth’ is the second in an occasional series of Pastels songs about The Vandalism We Used To Do When We Were Young, following on from the as-yet-unreleased ‘Don’t Wait Too Long’, which is about graffiti-ing gravestones. With this one they turn their attention to burning trees, or at least that’s what I picked up from the line ‘We’ve tortured a tree and the smoke swirls back to me’. And then: ‘Paper mill, there’s a firework on its way / Epicurean arson its heart’s in flames again’. ‘Epicurean’? Wikipedia reckons:

In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquillity and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life.

Virtuous and temperate arson?* What do you mean, Katrina? Gorgeous song, though. Her voice smoky and relaxed, backed by a minimal, tripping Gerard Love riff. Not a song by someone trying to out-masterpiece her masterpiece, and all the better for it.

There is much else to love: Stephen’s reading of The Jesus and Mary Chain’s ‘About You’ (frustratingly, the only song on which he sings lead, apart from a verse and a chorus in ‘Song for a Friend’), his voice caressing the words in a way which seems new, singing ‘the raindrops beat out of time’ deliberately out of time. There is the Tenniscoats’ old (great, noble, beautiful) song ‘Mou Mou Rainbow’ reborn, with less of a freakout ending, hypnotic like ‘Dark Side of Your World’. ‘Boats’ revisits Illumination territory with its Aggi-imitation bass (slightly too many notes!) and ‘G12 Nights’ ending. Saya’s songs on side two help to vary the pace, her ‘Sodane’ is the most goofily fun thing here (it’s been a while since The Pastels did goofy fun, they used to be so good at it), and is that Ueno on backing vocals? Closer ‘Start Slowly so we Sound Like a Loch’ is the refracted Scotland of my childhood holidays, my grandmother’s paintings. It is sea anemones in rock pools, barnacles on boats. Before I heard it I wondered whether Two Sunsets could possibly live up to expectations, but it doesn’t try to, and therefore it does. A new Tenniscoats record is always a cause for celebration, but more than that, this time, it is so great to have The Pastels back.


* My dictionary gives a different definition for ‘epicurean’ with a lower case ‘e’: ‘devoted to sensual pleasures’, which makes more sense.

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