Saturday, January 31, 2009

When You Disappear (Encore)

Anne Bacheley says: ‘Ma décision est prise, j’arrête ce blog’, and her blog is gone. Bang goes my plan to get to the point where I could read Proust in French by reading there in the meantime about comics, indie rock and knitting, though to be fair this might have taken several hundred years. I started reading it because of her songs, and continued because it was a nice place to be: the book and music recommendations, the excited updates on how her album Headquarters was doing (the recent ‘“Headquarters” dans les tops!!!’ being my favourite of these – I was so proud to have had something to do with letting her know how good it is in my end of year list). There weren’t as many drawings as you might expect (hopefully there will be more now?), but there was plenty of superior uncategorisable blog fluff: there was a post about ghosts in different rooms of her house, which struck me as a) hilarious and b) oddly comprehensible, for someone who couldn’t read French. Here are ‘Les fantômes de la cuisine’:

All gone. And so the January blues get hiked again. This has the advantage of making the Tenniscoats and Eddie Marcon records Chris just gave me seem ten times more beautiful, but all the same, I’d rather have her blog back. Thank you, Anne, for lots of things, and I hope you don’t mind if I salvage the Planet Sunflower review you wrote. There aren’t too many of those around. Come back soon.

Planet Sunflower

Dans ma boîte aux lettres puis sur ma platine, le Escarpment EP de Planet Sunflower. Il s’agit d’enregistrements maison d’un duo constitué de Chris de The Long Vacation et du blog La Terrasse, et de sa soeur Catriona. Si j’ai du mal à décrire leurs morceaux, c’est que j’aurais l’impression de ne ré-utiliser que des mots que j’ai lus à propos de ma propre musique (genre “charmant”, “frais”, “lo-fi”, “mélodique”…). Ceci dit, le 2e morceau, une reprise de Kate Bush très réussie (je connais mal l’original mais ça sonne pas du tout pareil) joue plutôt la carte sombre et psychédélique. Allez donc écouter et/ou télécharger tout ça ici.

25 octobre 2008

Places from which Anne hasn’t disappeared: Main site, MySpace.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Wildhouse – ‘Poet:Saint’

I was going to write about this once I’d thrown off the January blues, but it does quite suit them. Probably it’s all that low-end guitar for which the lack of bass leaves room. A morass to cushion, absorb, contain. Mark, who kindly sent it after I saw them play in December (and who isn’t in the band, but runs their MySpace site, if I have that right? Message him there for a copy), says that the bass guitar on ‘Imaginary Party’ – which doesn’t sound like a bass at all – is ‘the only time the band ever used one’. What they do use are two guitars and some stand-up drums. The album is gentler than the gig was, by only a notch, but it’s enough to sort out what’s going on a bit better: Paul’s voice is at the centre, clean and fluid, brightly expressing weariness. Moving from one note to another he seems weighted down: the melodies slide around, never quite on the beat, as though something is dragging them back. On the opening ‘All Encompassing Positive’ he sings: ‘Hope flows / Hoping to cope’, the rhythm stately, the two chord riff detached, until everything speeds up and goes blurry, almost exactly like Joy Division’s ‘Insight’, except that the high pitched synth drum is replaced by yelping. The sound of what happens if you can’t cope, perhaps.

There is a tension between the gloom of the guitars and the rattling-along drums which seem to be from a poppier place entirely. It’s a great balance to have, of course: I remember how crushed I was on first hearing the Dub Narcotic Sound System, Calvin Johnson’s incredible booming warmth totally tamed by the presence of a conventional rhythm section. His voice needs the space Beat Happening give it (OK, so it’s also great on Heavenly records). The Wildhouse need this space too, for their guitars. But they sound strangely unlike their most obvious influence, The Velvet Underground. Poet:Saint is full of VU, it could be a concept album about them: there’s the pretty ‘Doug and Billy’ (‘smile at Lou Reed’s jokes’ – is that Doug Yule and Billy Name?)’; there’s ‘Imaginary Party’, with its left / right split of music and talking, just like ‘The Gift’ (this works really well – it’s a list of all the things that would or wouldn’t happen at a perfect party); there’s one song with the word ‘factory’ in the title and another with ‘stars’; there’s an epic rock out thing near the end (‘DC3’) which is one note away from using the ‘Sister Ray’ riff (and didn’t the Velvets drop that note themselves on the amazingly languid versions to be found on The Quine Tapes?)

You could obliquely link in ‘When Beatles Were Liars’, too, at least if you’re going with the theory (I think Vic Godard said this) that it was The Beatles put the weirdness into pop, but The Velvet Underground who influenced all the bands you’d actually want to listen to. It’s a song about being let down by The Beatles, and contains this jarring lyric: ‘Some empathy with David Mark Chapman / No sympathy for guns and those who use them’. You can see what they’re trying to do here, but it falls flat – it’s a nasty sentiment immediately qualified, so it ends up not being nasty enough (see Manic Street Preachers’ line ‘I laughed when Lennon got shot’ for an example of how to do this properly). Still, there is also ‘T-Rextasy only could console me’, and I love the idea of a moment so bad that only a blast of ‘Metal Guru’ can bring you back again. Another line, from ‘Doug and Billy’: ‘History will be kind’, suggests that The Wildhouse see themselves as pop curators, and this is a slight problem for their music, which can seem over-reverential. But that’s no reason not to enjoy the sounds, or the live onslaught.

The Wildhouse play Nice ’n’ Sleazy in Glasgow on 29th January.

Billy Name has a Goat Clinic.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Kelly Mark – ‘I Really Should’

A white room at the back of the main gallery, to the left. Actually more an alcove than a room, there is no door. Its twin on the right is lit in yellow and has hi-fi equipment laid out, playing jazz. This ‘reflects the possible music that the artist’s mother may have encountered whilst pregnant’, says the programme. Really? It wouldn’t mostly have been advertising jingles and TV theme tunes? What a cool mum. I hate that, when there is no way you can guess what a piece is about without reading notes*. The language they use can be so ugly. The programme says of Kelly Mark that she ‘utilises minimal and conceptual art strategies to hone in on the mundane details of daily life’. I’m so glad I didn’t read that before entering the white room.

I really should cut down on my caffeine

I really should watch my money

I really should stop pawning my stuff

I really should leave my body to science

There was nothing there except for a speaker, also white, through which came this list of things someone thought they really should get done. In a monotone voice, blank but not down, the format unvarying: ‘I really should...’ a thousand times. The things mentioned were often banal (‘I really should get my watch band fixed’) or hopelessly general (‘I really should listen more’). A lot you could agree with, but some were silly – ‘I really should start collecting fridge magnets’ was a good one (appropriate, too – there is a version of ‘I Really Should’ written in marker pen on a fridge). Some made no sense out of context (as they were) – ‘I really should wait it out’, ‘I really should have marinaded that a bit longer’. It seemed to be a mix of things which would genuinely improve the speaker’s life, and things which wouldn’t make the slightest difference. A gentle mockery of aspirational society, where everything has to improve all the time otherwise it’s a failure.

I watched as people came in to the room, saw the speaker, cottoned on to the idea of the piece after two or three repetitions. Some walked straight out again, but others leaned against walls, sat down, tilted their heads, closed their eyes. An elderly couple in the corner, a man in walking clobber to the right of them (40-ish), and a younger woman to the left who only managed to leave the room by degrees: having sat for 15 minutes or so, she stood up looking a bit restless, but every step she took towards the exit she paused to listen to another four or five items on the list. It was compulsive listening, leaving you unsure exactly how you’d been undermined – perhaps ‘I really should stop making lists’ was the biggest clue. January was the perfect time for it – if you were short on New Year’s Resolutions, there are plenty of suggestions here.

I Really Should’ is currently showing as part of Dundee Contemporary Arts’ Timecode exhibition, and is also available for free on Ubuweb.


* Actually, the more I think about this piece (Douglas Gordon’s Something between my mouth and your ear’), the more I like it. There is no reason why the artist’s mother shouldn’t have spent her pregnancy listening to jazz on Technics decks, and the way the record player, amp and speakers were laid out – in a straggling line – does in retrospect suggest a floating foetus. If Loveless had been playing I might have twigged.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Tove Jansson – ‘The Summer Book’ & ‘Finn Family Moomintroll’

I can’t remember where I read that the Moomin books are based on Tove Jansson’s own family life, but it seems to be true. In the 1950s comic strip story ‘Moomin Mamma’s Maid’ (from the second Drawn and Quarterly volume of reprints), the prim Mrs Fillijonk sits down on a bed – presumably for lack of a settee – and is surprised at the noise (‘Bing! Bjong!’). Moominmamma explains, ‘It’s so much tidier keeping dirty dishes under the bed. Until the next time it rains...’. The Summer Book has something extremely similar:

It was a fisherman’s cat and it grew fast. One day, it left the cottage and moved into the house, where it spent its nights under the bed in the box where they kept the dirty dishes. [...] When the box got too full, the cat would howl and someone would have to wash [them]. (p. 66)

That ‘someone’ would appear to be the weather, because later on during a cloudburst there is a reference to ‘...the dishes that were washing themselves’ (p. 124). The book is a novel that feels like a memoir: the narrator gives us the thoughts of the two main characters (a child and her grandmother – based, so the notes say, on Jansson’s own mother and niece), but it is quite possible that there is nothing else fictional about it. There is no plot beyond the passage of time on a small island, from spring until autumn, when its only inhabitants (Sophia, Grandmother and the mostly silent Papa) leave to live in town for the winter.

Instead there is a series of episodes which add up to a portrait of the island and its inhabitants. They occur in roughly chronological order according to season, but not all in the same year. There is usually some sense of collusion between Grandmother and Sophia, and their closeness is really the point of the book. In the chapter ‘Dead Calm’ they sail to The Cairn, ‘the last island out in the Gulf of Finland’ (p. 59), and Papa leaves his mother on an air mattress with a parasol so she can relax whilst he and Sophia go exploring (separately). She waits until he is out of sight, arranges some clothes on the mattress to fool him, then sets off on her own exploration. It is not long before Sophia finds her, having a ‘smoke in secret’ (p. 61), and they have a chat – a chat which, one feels, wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying if they hadn’t been hiding from Papa. Grandmother reminisces about her own sailing days, and Sophia wonders who the ‘he’ in her anecdote is.

‘Your grandfather, of course.’ Grandmother said. ‘My husband.’

‘Are you married?’ Sophia cried in astonishment.

‘Bloody nitwit,’ Grandmother muttered to herself. Out loud she said, ‘You better ask your father about generations and all that. Ask him to draw it on a piece of paper. If you’re interested.’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Sophia amiably. ‘I’m a bit busy right now.’ (p. 63)

Their closeness doesn’t equal automatic interest in what the other person is saying (but when does it? Closeness isn’t hero worship). The grandmother is aware of this, and worries that she is losing the inclination to talk about her past life, and that it might therefore be lost. It is all done so lightly you could almost miss the fact of the dead husband, just as the recent death of Sophia’s mother gets only a single mention.

Papa eventually emerges from the shadows somewhat in ‘The Robe’ (chapter 15 of 22), which is about his sleeping gown. It is old, torn, faded, burnt, smelly (it ‘smelled of good things, too – of smoke and the sea’ (p. 107)), and it has survived being thrown into the sea by relatives who came to tidy the place up (the tide brought it back again). Papa still doesn’t speak in this chapter, but where previously he seemed far removed from the book’s action and sympathy, his attachment to this sorry garment indicates that he is a good sort, after all. A Moomin, rather than a Fillijonk. The Summer Book is fiercely partisan: living on an island may be an act of celebration (of the earth, the sea), but it is also an act of segregation (of this family from the rest of society). The grandmother’s reaction to a new house being built on an island nearby is downright hostile: she and Sophia row to the island, and she is so incensed at the notice outside (‘Private Property – No Trespassing’ (p. 96)) that she moors the boat to it, takes her penknife, and:

‘Are we breaking in?’ Sophia whispered.

Well, what do you think?’ her grandmother answered. ‘But of course normally we would never do such a thing.’ (p. 98)

Unfortunately the owner chooses this moment to return, and the two intruders crawl through the undergrowth in a forlorn attempt to escape (Sophia: ‘Did I tell you they had a bloodhound with them?’ (p. 100)). Grandmother does quite a lot of crawling through undergrowth – it has the advantage over walking that it can’t be interrupted by her dizzy spells. Cornered, they accept an invitation to have a drink with the owner, Mr Malander. Sophia is shy and will hardly say a word. Her grandmother reflects (with breathtaking arrogance, given her own behaviour):

We’ve got to teach her some manners. We’ve made a mistake. She has to spend more time with people she doesn’t like, before it’s too late. (p. 102)

Generally, it is quite easy to draw parallels between Grandmother and the Moomins. Both are in favour of a free, independent life, lived according to impulse rather than convention. But in Finn Family Moomintroll, Moominmamma shows herself to be a good deal more tolerant than Grandmother:

‘Oh!’ said Moominmamma with a start, ‘I believe those were mice disappearing into the cellar. Sniff, run down with a little milk for them.’ (p. 108)

One might even say idiotically tolerant. Finn Family Moomintroll is structured in a similar way to The Summer Book: there is a plot underlying the whole thing, involving the Hobgoblin’s search for the King’s Ruby, and his lost hat which can turn eggshells into clouds and rivers into raspberry juice. For much of the time, though, this too is an episodic book in which the adventures are there to help illustrate the characters and the landscape. Both books follow the seasons, from spring to autumn* – whereafter the Moomins hibernate, having first eaten a meal of pine needles. Both also include trips to a cave and an island, and a storm, so they feel geographically similar too. Moominmamma’s character is fully formed by this, the third book in the series, from 1948 (The Summer Book is from 1972). Moominpappa, though, seems more of a stock figure than he becomes later on. He defends his family when danger is near (e.g. the Groke, who freezes the ground she walks on), but not with quite the ridiculous and adorable relish he develops later: here his precautions are sensible and necessary. Sniff is as he should be: shallow, proud and greedy. Snufkin too is exactly his own calm self. This follows the Hattifatteners’ retrieval of their barometer after the Hemulen steals it:

The Hemulen, moaning piteously, thrust his nose into the sand. ‘This has gone too far!’ he said. ‘Why can’t a poor innocent botanist live his life in peace and quiet?’

‘Life is not peaceful,’ said Snufkin, contentedly. (p. 67)

Like Moominmamma, he is more placid and tolerant than either Sophia or her grandmother. Perhaps this is the point: Snufkin’s character is idealised, it is something to aspire to (it would be great to be Snufkin). And his old, battered hat has something of Papa’s dressing gown about it. But what of the Snork Maiden? If she hasn’t quite developed into the two-timing minx of the ’50s comic strip, there are still powerful conflicts within her:

Out on the point the Snork Maiden was clambering about on the rocks. She [...] was searching for something that would surprise all the others and make them jealous. When they had admired it she would give it to Moomintroll, as long as it wasn’t something she could use to make herself beautiful. (p. 76)


* Coincidentally, the book I read this time last year, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, does almost exactly the same thing: there is a period of summertime liberation spent on an island, followed by a constricted winter spent in town. In excluding winter from her accounts, it is as though Jansson never wants to admit to the importance of any state other than being awake, alive, free.

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