Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tchotchke Table 3, Christmas Edition

Without wanting to get all het up and meta about years-end lists being arbitrary and unrepresentative, because what are records even for if you can’t use them to listen to years other than the one you’re in... Here are some things I liked this year which may or may not be from 2011.

  1. The Orchids – The Lost Star. Damn. I wasn’t going to put this list in order, but The Lost Star kind of demands it. It seeped into my bones over the course of several months, and is head and shoulders over their earlier comeback effort Good to be a Stranger.
  2. Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. More New Order than I had really been expecting (see ‘La Danseuse’), and with songs unexpectedly familiar via Kristin Hersh (twice, with ‘Coo Coo Bird’ and ‘Drunkard’s Special’), Bob Dylan and Nick Cave (‘Stackalee’), there was some serious underpinning here to the folkier side of all that I hold dear.
  3. Jon’s recommendations. However bookish this blog may get sometimes, the best thing about it has always been people getting in touch to say ‘I like The Pastels too’, which tends to lead in interesting directions. In the picture you can see some Django Reinhardt CDs, and one by Noël Akchoté. From this year he pointed out Azita’s amazing Disturbing the Air and from the ’90s, East Village, furthering the Dolly Mixture / Saint Etienne seam nicely. Thanks, Jon! (See also: the Brogues’ and Anneemall’s recommendations).
  4. Tenniscoats – Tokinouta. Told you these numbers were stupid. Pared back and extended, it never breaks the spell for a second.
  5. Laser-cut LP sleeves, specifically Bill Wells’ Lemondale and Muscles of Joy’s self titled debut. Beautiful objects, both. I don’t know either very well yet; it was only yesterday that S. said, of Lemondale’s title track, ‘“Lemondale”... “A Whiter Shade of Pale”’, and I felt daft for not getting it. The Muscles record has a great sound, not entirely un-late-Slits; the songs feel even less song-like than they do live, some interesting shapes going on.
  6. The Slap. I watched quite a lot of TV this year, and despaired of British series (apart from The Crimson Petal and the White, which was great), but from abroad, The Killing was utterly addictive, and The Slap was the kind of psychological, social, inter-relationship drama that the BBC can no longer do. The Hour and The Shadow Line were OK-ish in isolation, but very poor in comparison. Spiral was bonkers, and great too.
  7. Fairport Convention – Unhalfbricking. Like the Harry Smith box, a tributary of Joe Boyd’s book White Bicycles. I was shocked how much I liked this, having dismissed the band years before on the basis of one pop-free album from later on. This one is so free and warm. Nico’s Desertshore (another Boyd production), so constrained and cold, can share the number seven spot.
  8. Insides – Euphoria / Disco Inferno – The Five EPs. It’s actually DI’s Technicolour on the table, but The Five EPs finally got a real release this year. ‘The Last Dance’ is one of the best songs ever. I’d heard parts of Euphoria before (on a Guernica label sampler), but not the whole lot. These two were prompted by Neil Kulkarni’s wonderful ‘A New Nineties’ series of articles at The Quietus. Nostalgia as they used to do it in the good old days.
  9. The Beach Boys – SMiLE. After one listen, but, y’know. There’s a hissy 15 minute cut of ‘Good Vibrations’ I have on a tape somewhere, and the 8 minute version at the end of disc 2 has at least some of those transcendently laid back moments which didn’t make it into the single. Incredible to hear it all cleaned up and shiny.
  10. The A-Lords, Veronica Falls, Kate Bush, Brown Recluse – Evening Tapestry, Momus’ ‘Precocious Young Miss Calloway’, Viv Albertine – Flesh, Rozi Plain – Humans, Hong Kong in the 60s – My Fantoms, Vic Godard – Blackpool, The Middle Ones – It is the Rehearsal That Will Make This. That last one should definitely be higher up, actually, such a joyful, unaffected record. I nearly left it behind in the shop, too.

Monday, December 05, 2011

‘Lawrence of Belgravia’ and ‘Take Three Girls’, Glasgow Film Theatre, 4th December

In the old days the greatest thing in the world to be was a movie star. Today the greatest thing in the world is to be a pop singer. There will never be a great star unless the greatest thing in the world to be is that kind of star. (Orson Welles, in this 1974 interview.)
‘There were a few scenes that were... set up’, said Lawrence at the Q & A afterwards, on being asked why he hadn’t kept wearing the hat he’d chosen in a charity shop to replace his old, permanently affixed baseball cap. He and Paul Kelly, director of both of Sunday’s Monorail Film Club selections, were discussing the ways in which they’d avoided the pitfalls of the talking head documentary, all those old men reminiscing about how wild it used to be. They’d used interviews Lawrence happened to be doing anyway as a kind of substitute, with great lingering shots on the bemused faces of the interviewers. One with a blogger whose site he promised to check out once the interview was up: ‘A few weeks... well, I’ll have a look in general, to see what it’s like. If you write down the address we’ll have someone in the office bring it up.’ And then: ‘You’re a teacher? You don’t get paid for this?’ [Pause for the 21st century to sink in] ‘I knew the internet was shit.’ The idea of a Lawrence office is pretty ridiculous, it’s as though this was the moment he realised that things had opened up since the days of the charts: that anyone can do what they want, and probably someone, but probably not millions, will be interested. It should be the ideal climate for a man who makes novelty rock with provoking lyrics about African wars (‘Drinking Um Bongo’), cheap drugs (‘At the DDU’) and grim cities (‘City Centre’, ‘Building Site’). The fascinating thing is, he can’t see it that way, he still thinks he’s on his way to ’70s style megastardom.

Paul Kelly said he’d thought of doing six films about overlooked bands, but had run out of ideas after two: ‘Debsey [of Dolly Mixture] is my girlfriend, and I know Lawrence well, which made access easy...’ That’s the self-deprecating way of putting it. More realistically, he may well have had enough after the Lawrence film ended up taking eight years to make. There were scenes right up to 2011 in there – Lawrence’s spot on Domino Radio, and the development of the artwork for the forthcoming On the Hot Dog Streets (almost inevitably, ‘I’ve changed it since’). Lawrence said he might like to try acting in a film after this, and Paul said, laughing, ‘I’m not directing it!’ The Dolly Mixture film, Take Three Girls, was presumably a walk in the park in comparison. More conventional in that it did opt for the talking head format, with separate interviews with all three members intercut, it had source material on its side. Little video footage of Felt exists, but Dolly Mixture were on TV (doing ‘Baby, It’s You’), and someone ‘followed them around for two years’ with a 16mm camera, as luck would have it, so you even got to see them busking for their train fare home after a £25 gig fee got reduced to £5 for ‘sound, and lights’, at £10 each. Their story is an incredibly sweet one, of naivety backed up with hard work (200 gigs a year for several years); a hostile music press; a sympathetic Undertones (who took them on tour); a big box of Dolly Mixture sweets which made Debsey ill, because it was all she lived on for a while (not through choice, they had no money); a sympathetic-ish John Peel, an unsympatheic John Waters, meaning that their Peel session went un-repeated; getting fit with a military regime, starting (of course) with the outfits; getting on to Top of the Pops with Captain Sensible, the death knell of any kind of credibility. Oh, and fading out songs by playing progressively more quietly! ‘We hadn’t realised you can do that in the studio’, said Hester. It seemed a strange decision to play out on a song by someone else (this one), but overall, it was a beautiful evocation of the poppiest of all post-punk groups, and towards the end, there was even a hint that Debsey hasn’t given up on songwriting. Yes please to that!

Given the theme of under-recognised bands, it makes sense that money should be a concern in both films. Debsey’s comment that ‘I haven’t earned my living yet – I’d like to try that’, echoed through Lawrence’s experiences. He is surely right to stand firm on the issue of not re-forming Felt, though what this actually means was brought home in a casual, sad scene when he went to an instrument shop to sell an old guitar – it had ‘FELT’ stencilled behind the bridge and under the strings. He was clear, as he tends to be, about what wealth would mean for him, talking with disgust about rich people who use the tube to get around, slumming it for a sense of connection. ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to see anyone, ever’. He is Garbo on the dole, just as unable to grasp his own context as the biggest, most shielded star. Q & A compère Stuart Murdoch asked him about times in his career which had felt good, and he mentioned signing to EMI (actually EMIDISC, Bob Stanley’s imprint), and getting a new flat after being evicted from the old one for running up arrears and – against his own legend – not looking after it properly. This extreme un-idealism made me wonder about, y’know, artistic achievement – wasn’t listening back to ‘Primitive Painters’ a good moment, for example? He talked in the film about creativity, and produced a Scooby Doo script he wrote at the age of eight. But what is it, exactly, that Lawrence wants to express through his creativity? I’m not on board with all his post-Felt output by any means, but I do like Tearing up the Album Charts a whole lot, with its flights of pretty keyboard sounds, its gentle melodies alongside the immaculately weedy pub rock moments. The soft, precious, classic sound of Felt is misleading in a way – it appears to be far more literary than it is. They were always about pop product, more about The Velvet Underground than any of that band’s bookish leanings. And more about Warhol than The Velvet Underground (I had never realised that the cover of Felt’s The Splendour of Fear is stolen from the poster for Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, until I saw Lawrence thumbing through a poster book in this film). Go-Kart Mozart can sound bafflingly ugly, but they are not vulgar, because they are out there on their own, copying no-one, waiting for all seven billion of us to come around to their marred aesthetic.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

As also my Monsters, both wet and dry

[More from the second book down, a footnote from the essay ‘On Will-Making’. It is attributed to the Tatler, vol. iv. No. 216.]

The Will of a Virtuoso.
     I, Nicholas Gimcrack, being in sound Health of Mind, but in great Weakness of Body, do by my Last Will and Testament bequeath my worldly Goods and Chattels in Manner following:–
    Imprimis, To my dear Wife,
        One Box of Butterflies,
        One Drawer of Shells,
        A Female Skeleton,
        A Dried Cockatrice.
    Item, To my Daughter Elizabeth,
        My Receipt for preserving dead Caterpillars,
        As also my Preparations of Winter May-Dew, and Embrio Pickle.
    Item, to my little Daughter Fanny,
        Three Crocodiles’ Eggs.
        And upon the Birth of her first Child, if she marries with her Mother’s Consent,
        The Nest of a Humming Bird.
    Item, To my eldest Brother, as an acknowledgement for the Lands he has vested in my Son Charles, I bequeath
        My last Year’s Collection of Grasshoppers.
    Item, To his Daughter Susanna, being his only Child, I bequeath my English Weeds pasted on Royal Paper,
        With my large Folio of Indian Cabbage.
    Having fully provided for my Nephew Isaac, by making over to him some years since
        A horned Scarabæus,
        The Skin of a Rattle-Snake, and
        The Mummy of an Egyptian King,
I make no further Provision for him in this my Will.
    My eldest Son John having spoken disrespectfully of his little Sister, whom I keep by me in Spirits of Wine, and in many other Instances behaved himself undutifully towards me, I do disinherit, and wholly cut off from any Part of this my Personal Estate, by giving him a single Cockle-Shell.
    To my Second Son Charles, I give and bequeath all my Flowers, Plants, Minerals, Mosses, Shells, Pebbles, Fossils, Beetles, Butterflies, Caterpillars, Grasshoppers, and Vermin, not above specified: As also my Monsters, both wet and dry, making the said Charles whole and sole Executor of this my Last Will and Testament, he paying or causing to be paid the aforesaid Legacies within the Space of Six Months after my Decease. And I do hereby revoke all other Wills whatsoever by me formerly made.

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