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.

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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!

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* 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.

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