Thursday, August 28, 2008


I've just finished reading Homage to Catalonia. It was excellent, as Orwell tends to be. Aside from when he's inspiring citizens of western democracies to reduce every piece of bureaucratic legislation thrown at them to 'just like 1984'. But that's not his fault. Or theirs, really. Modern approaches to government are just confusing and crap.

It's similar to when a caretaker manager is dumped in charge of a football club with the understanding that he's just keeping things ticking over until a guy with actual ideas shows up. Except the guy with ideas is never actually found so the team plays ill-conceived, reactionary formations every week resulting in a series of 5-0 drubbings and half the fans taking to posting braying hate-screeds about gypsies appended with YOU COULDN'T MAKE IT UP!! all over the internet, along with the gradual death of all idealism ever. That's not a government being 'like 1984', that's just 21st century politics being monumentally wearisome.

I'm sorry this introduction has been waylaid somewhat. I suspect it needed a holding midfielder.

a holding midfielder, yesterday


The book has a number of contemporary parallels, which are thoroughly disheartening in nature but useful for expressing the continuing relevance of history. I've bullet-pointed them in order to give the list an unwarranted sense of scientific objectivity.

- National media reporting on foreign wars is complete bobbins. The simplistic narrative (Spain's civil war was a conflict between lovely wholesome defenders of the democratic republic and pesky fascists) wins out over the complex reality (multiple left-leaning parties and unions with differing aims and objectives, a semi-completed workers revolution, the rising influence of the Russian-backed Communist party, and on and on) every time. It is unhelpful to the media story for Spain to be in the midst of a revolution, so it is not mentioned. The dots don't need to be joined too clearly to spot the modern equivalence here.

- Fear-based propaganda spread by a powerful party is alarmingly effective. When the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification) are blamed for civil unrest in Barcelona and accused of being in the pay of Franco, it is eagerly gobbled up by Communist partisans and quickly spreads as truth to other areas of society. Even though the POUM had been holding parts of the front line for months and own about twelve guns between them in the city. Today, it's even easier to dispel rumour and innuendo, but many still seem to find it beyond them. It is pretty simple, for example, to remove any concerns about Barack Obama being a baby-killing terrorist monster by applying some rational investigation to the topic. Yet such defamatory tactics still work a treat, because there are enough people happy to buy any bullshit that confirms their own prejudice. It's even possible to hold two completely conflicting views at once (he's a pinko Commie / he's a secret Muslim extremist) without any concerns about how those two beliefs may possibly conflict just a little bit. Not to mention the implicit racism.

- The Daily Mail has always loved fascism. The twats.

correctly labelled for once

History is important, kids.

All of which, really, is just a preamble for my attempts to launch a splendid new music scene; because I'm pretty sure that's the primary role of influential blogs like this one. Bands definitely make it through internet exposure these days. Unless that concept is a cynical marketing illusion engineered by record labels in order to create an artificial mystique as a selling point. But that would be unthinkable. Social networking is truly vital and pure (ps - join the Rocktimists facebook group).

Nu-rave is dead now, right? Great. Because historical rock is on the way, which I've obviously decided to re-package as Historock. It sounds clumsy AND stupid so it can't fail. Nothing can stop Historock! Except the worrying tendency for it to be misheard as hysterectomy, I suppose.

What are the defining aspects of Historock, I hear you wearily sigh? Well, I'm glad you asked rather than just giving up on this post completely. It is bands who love old stuff that happened before today so much they just have to compose entire albums about it. I don't actually have too many examples of this, because despite writing about music quite often my breadth of knowledge is akin to somebody you may wish to refer to as a horrible fraud. A couple do spring to mind though: intense, railway uniform wearing funsters iLiKETRAiNS (whose last album was unfortunately recorded in a cholera swamp) and Piano Magic's WW1 correspondence-fest Artists' Rifles. Hey, it's a blossoming phenomena. Which brings me to Clawjob.

Actually it doesn't quite, because first I'm going on a tangent about Stylus. One of the many things I loved about the site (yes, sorry, this blog bangs on about Stylus a lot, but some of us really liked writing for them) was the absolute creative freedom. It didn't really matter if an album was a bizarre avant-garde fartcore reissue from 1972, if it was interesting and there were 500 or so words to be said about it, it was a goer. Which is how I was able to review a love-triangle space rock-opera about crackers. Bringing me back to Clawjob again.


As this is a similarly easy-going space (unless I call Nick's cats nasty names), I can revisit Clawjob in their new-found Historock glory. That's right! You see, it all ties together. Loosely. Very, very loosely.

The latest edition of Clawjobbery, Manifest Destiny, welcomes us all to 19th century America. It's pretty grim there, apparently. Either you're being operated on by inept surgeons or you're being 'relocated' to a reservation for your own good. The message is clear throughout: accept the misery of the human condition and acquiesce to events and circumstance, or attempt to break out through illegal means. In (mini) album terms, that's six tracks of cynicism and good-time guitar licks. Hurrah.

Each plays out as short, self-contained tale, largely delivered from the point of view of naive characters unaware of the dramatic irony of their situation and doomed to failure. The unfortunate sap of "This Glorious System" expresses an eager, wide-eyed expectation for the magnificent dawning of the industrial age, where merry workers will abandon their fields in favour of pushing buttons and pulling levers for a few short hours per week. His vision is outlined by conveyor belt rhythms, sliced through by the foreshadowing reality of spiky, oppressive tones - forcing a musical spanner into his utopian works. Elsewhere, the Jefferson Airplane style haze of "Ether Frolic" is a neat enough gag, until the bad trip thrash-fest coda carries it over into an even better punchline.

When the protagonist is not a tragic figure they are instead a con artist or crook. The excitable rabble-rousing of "Diamond Hoax" is uncannily reminiscent of a used car salesman waving his hands around in astonishment at the incredible deal he is about to give away. A fair warning about finance and credit deals which are too good to be true - another of the slices of wisdom served from the Manifest Destiny meatloaf. It's educational, it's raucous and it takes less time to digest than a Ken Burns film.

Historock. You heard it here first. And probably last.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Zeppelin Peril

A few weeks ago I splashed out a considerable amount of moolah on a B&W Zeppelin, which, if you don’t know and couldn’t compute from that link, is just about the fanciest, highest-fi iPod speaker dock available to man. I bought it for Em, honestly.

I’ve been accused in the past of being an audiophile, a descriptor I find both pejorative and a little inaccurate; I am well aware that real audiophiles would find my ears sorely lacking in many directions, for one. But it is more than fair to say that I care about how things sound (although I’d venture that I’m better at judging how a record sounds than how a particular model of CD player sounds).

I will venture that the Zeppelin sounds fantastic though; so much so that for the moment it’s usurped the rack-mounted, protractor-angled, tape-measure-positioned hi-fi that sits alongside it in the livingroom. That now pretty much does DVDs and nothing else.

The main reason for buying the Zeppelin (when the house is full of other hi-fis and stereos, literally), is that Em didn’t like listening to new records on the main system in the livingroom. Given that my headphone rig is in the backroom, it seemed fair that Em have something she could enjoy in the livingroom; a friend we stayed with a couple of months ago had just bought a Zeppelin on my advice (I’d been lusting after one since first seeing reviews earlier this year), and within a fortnight we had our own, such was the impression its sleek form and formidable sound made.

But all we had to provide music for it (sans running an optical toslink into it from a DVD or CD player) was an 8gig iPod Nano, sleek, beautiful, and… lacking in capacity. We have over 2,000 CDs in the room the Zeppelin sits in, and reloading the iPod every time one wants to hear an Electric Soft Parade b-side on a whim seems like unnecessary labour. (Said ESP b-side is called “Broadcast”, btw, and is by some distance the best thing they ever did – cue 500 words from Louis about how I’m wrong.)

So over the weekend I ordered an 80gig iPod Classic (engraved with the damn cats’ names), and later tonight I’ll ebay the Nano to claw some of the expenditure back. Indulgent, yes, but someone has to fight the recession.

(Not my hi-fi.)

The iPod’s due to arrive tomorrow. Which means that tonight, and probably the next few days, are going to be spent frantically re-ripping CDs to my hard drive at a frankly ludicrous bitrate – I’ve never had more than about 20gig of music on my computer (well, at least not since the bad old days), and the combination of numerous minor OCDs, and a compulsion to “make the most of” the Zeppelin’s considerable sonic abilities, means I’ve wiped the contents of my iTunes. Completely.

I could be precious about this – there’s a lot of stuff on there that I don’t own on CD, rare and downloaded stuff that the librarian in me ought to try and save. But, as promised a while ago, I’m going to be blasé about it. Not quite giving up listening to music in favour of fishing (although there are several nice spots along the river and canal barely ten minutes’ stroll from our front door), but being at least a little gung-ho about it.

It’s not dissimilar from a conversation I keep having with my mum; it’s now nearly a year since Em and I bought a house together, and there’s a pile of my old belongings still at my parents’ house. My mum asks if I want it, and my reply is that if I’ve not needed it in the last 12 months I’ll never need it again, so it can all go. My mum, a hoarder, finds this astonishing. My dad, not a hoarder, is itching to hire a skip.

All those little defenceless MP3s currently sitting in my Trash… there might be dozens, or hundreds, or even thousands, which I don’t own on CD. If I really cared for them, I’d have hunted them out. I’d have them physically. I’d be able to re-rip them at 256VBR AAC. But I’ve not got them, so they can vanish. Call it musical Darwinism; survival of the un-compressed.

Bloc Party's new album

Thoughts here.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rocktimistic Top Five #1

Cave – Hunt Like Devil LP
The debut longplayer from Chicago’s Cave treads the same lineage as Wooden Shjips great self-titled debut of last year—one chord, two note swing from The Stooges to Krautrock to Spacemen 3—but trades the ceaseless reined-in precision for heavy whump. Way in-the-red motorik drums countdown to the apocalypse whilst gtr solos sound like a freezeframed video of a shattering car windscreen. Thankfully Cave know that to peak you also have to know how to roll back the intensity, whether through gloopily dripping synth, vocoder hymns or, most beautifully, the sound of an echoed gtr dizzyingly chasing its own tail. My ‘rock’ LP of the year so far.

The Filmography of Sady Baby
In the pre-BitTorrent era there were hundreds of films that I’d read about that I was dying to see—Italian thick-ear thrillers, horror flicks slashed to ribbons by UK censors, arthouse abstractions—but now that I can download a thousand hard-drives full I can’t be bothered. Except for the bizarre 80s Brazilian hardcore porn flicks of the mysterious Sady Baby. These watch like the desperate run-on descriptions of a twelve year old trying to convince his schoolmates that he’s seen an cert 18 movie: the man was walking through the woods and then he attacked a woman and then he joined a gang of mercenaries and then someone wanked off a pig and then they had an orgy and then a punk ran in with a chainsaw and then…. And all this is to a totally pirate soundtrack of 70s and 80s radio hits, so if you’ve ever wanted to see diseased looking street-whore types fucking and sucking to Elton John and The Cars you’re in luck. Just don’t expect to be able to watch one all the way through in one sitting and certainly not for the reasons you usually can’t with porn.

Recommended: In the Heat of the Hole (1985), Sexual Emotions of a Donkey (1986)

The Rolling Stones - Undercover of the Night
I remember hearing this as a kid first getting interested in pop when it came out in 1983, and it sounding like grey stodge compared to the records that were exciting me. Never being a Rolling Stones fan it’s taken hearing Dan Selzer play some remix of it at his recent London DJ appearance to get me to listen again and, fuck, it sounds amazing; possibly the best Stones song after “Stray Cat Blues”. Jagger crying diamond crocodile tears about the global geo-political situation over a hip-hop heavy drum beat and dub fx. The post-Thriller expensive and ‘controversial’ video is great too—aimed at gobbling up MTV airtime whilst also taking the piss out’ve the perceived viewer. The wtf vid for “Too Much Blood” from the following year is a must-watch too.

V/A – Network: the Box Set
One thing the unceasing flow of free music from the internet has almost destroyed for me is the joy of a bargain. Scoring a promo copy of an anticipated album for a couple of quid is kinda meaningless in the post-Rapidshare age, and unexpected charity shop gems just don’t seem to exist anymore. Anybody’d be fucking churlish to cock a snook at this 5 CD box set of classic house and techno for less than nine quid though. This spans the late 80s to mid-90 output of pioneering UK label Network and running from Detroit techno and NY garage to Northern English bleep and orbital rave. The enthused and funny booklet is a joy too. (Its pop at pop crit: “like trying to knit a gas jumper”).

Autistic Daughters – Uneasy Flowers LP
I know everyone else can hear the echoes of late-period Talk Talk in Shearwater’s excellent Rook but I remain resolutely deaf. Where I can hear the spirit of Spirit of Eden is in this second album by Autistic Daughters (feat. long-time NZ experimentalist Dean Roberts). It’s there in the three-dimensionally open sense of space, the clang of the guitar, the non-macho feedback and the unafraid quietness. The beautiful “Bird in the Curtain” reaches back even further into Anglo artrock, sounding like a flaming galah referencing Robert Wyatt.

Mike TD rocks, but gently.

OK, so it's been a while since I did one of these - as evidenced by the somewhat fractured diction and a tendency to speak to close to the microphone - but, what the hell, have an inaugural Rocktimists podcast.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Capsule Review #1: 'Vantage Point'

Never watch 'Vantage Point'.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


Concerned thoughts directed at the various people who make Drowned In Sound work, because there's some serious dream bubble-bursting happening there. Big media is a scary place, and does not always jive well with thar intarnetz.

Writing Nice Things Is Hard

I’ve written approximately bugger-all, anywhere, about what are pretty much my two favourite albums of this year; Rook by Shearwater, and The Devil, You & Me by The Notwist. (Polar Bear I have managed to write about, though.)

I’ve spent ages trying to express quite what I don’t get about Radiohead though – but can’t motivate myself to express what I do get about The Notwist. Why is this?

Sometimes I wonder whether I do in fact love, say, The Notwist’s new album all that much, because I have difficulty in remembering individual tracks, or moments within tracks, when I’m not actually listening to it – I couldn’t tell you how any of the songs go, for instance.

The positivist in me says that I’ve just heard SO MUCH music in my life now that unless things are amazingly super catchy they’ll never stick (I can hum / sing along with all The Notwist’s album easily while it’s on; and Shearwater’s, and Polar Bear’s too for that matter) unless I play them a billion times and play nothing else. Simple ratio of quantity of music to time dictates that I can never listen to The Devil, You & Me as much as a 29-year-old as I listened to Misplaced Childhood by Marillion as an eleven-year-old.

The nasty cynic in me says “you don’t actually like these records, you’ve just found a consistent aesthetic which you find ideologically acceptable and these fit it, so you make yourself like them”. Luckily, I don’t listen to that voice much, or I’d be Patrick Bateman. (He is becoming an alarmingly recurrent figure in this blog.)

I do know that there’s something (forgive me, Ian) phenomenological I love about listening to them… I did a little philosophy at university, but nothing on phenomenology. I could look it up on Wikipedia but that would be crass and reductionist, and I figure that a blinkered, fifth-hand understanding of the word is worse than just… reinterpreting it for myself. So I’m using the term as someone who likes the sound of it and what it might mean in the context of music; a meaning which I take to be about the process, the contact, the phenomenon of listening. The term appeals to me because of its connotations of sensation and physicality over abstraction. It’s not the philosophy of mind or religion or etymology, but the philosophy of phenomena, of experiences, of life. tells me that 'phenomena' means

a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable: to study the phenomena of nature.
something that is impressive or extraordinary.
a remarkable or exceptional person; prodigy; wonder.
an appearance or immediate object of awareness in experience.
Kantianism. a thing as it appears to and is constructed by the mind, as distinguished from a noumenon, or thing-in-itself.

So I’m taking 1 as my definition here, aware that 4 seems to contradict me a little, because maybe I mean noumenon, because I’m trying to talk about the thing… but my experience of the thing is all about how I run it through my mind, my consciousness, how I experience it, and I am indistinguishable from my mind. So, yes, I’ll use that word, and await a bewildered and bewildering exegesis of whether it makes any sense to a genuine philosophical mind from Ian in the comments.

But anyway, two minutes into “Where In This World” when the rhythm gallops but the tune dissolves into whirrs and pulses, Markus Acher’s calming, beta-blocker of a voice absent and the record (and the world it creates) just… continuing… unabated. Unconscious of his presence or of his absence. As if the sound would be there whether he was or not. Much like one minute into “Alphabet”. And the detail, the texture, is rich enough to be real, even though it is a strange, unreal, digital sound. But it is… the opposite, almost, of Radiohead’s strange, unreal, digital sounds, which accentuate their unrealness, and which hold little or no tangible joy for me.

Then there is Shearwater’s album, Rook, which makes many obvious nods to Talk Talk’s latter day material, and is thus some kind of catnip to me, and the fact that I fell for it so deeply is example of just how much of my own target-market I am, how much of a sucker for a certain kind of product. But then… the INTERJECTION – here is a madness alert – I have the CD case ON MY DESK in front of the monitor and the vinyl sleeve literally within arm’s reach, and still I was surfing towards Amazon in order to see a tracklisting; how broken am I, how lazy?! I now recall a time I downloaded “Groove Is In The Heart” rather than walk eight paces and pick the CD off the shelf, a moment which inspired the writing of this.

Interjection over. Shearwater. Rook. When the second guitar fires-up in the left-channel during the start of “Century Eyes” and the two together suddenly become raw, raggedy-edged, tactile; the desolate, lonely, tiny piano to close “I Was A Cloud”, a sound of which the physical, sonic, phenomenological qualities reflect the ethereality, the ephemeral-ness, of the song title. Countless moments when Jonathan Meiberg’s voice does something extraordinary, and, because of the lack of reverb added to it, phenomenologically bizarre, surreal because it is all too real. The bent atmospherics of “South Col”. The moment the trumpet sears atop the tumult of “The Snow Leopard”, and ends it, sunders it. The whole tone of the album, which makes mystical things seem real, makes real things seem mystical, makes me fear for the environment and also fear the environment, because it is a thing bigger than us and it will survive us by becoming unrecognisable to us.

That’s why it’s hard writing nice things; half the time they come out as ridiculous nonsense.

Get a room already

Dom'n'Steve throwing enough heat up in this motherfucker to vaporize the ocean that separates them. (Actual.)

But I checked on YouTube and Dom is tripping balls here.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Night At The Ballet

Saturday night involved something a little different from the usual (bottle of red, DVD, pile of kittens); Em and I drove to Plymouth to see Matthew Bourne’s new ballet, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s infamous The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is one of Em’s favourite books.

(Raw Patrick, the wag, when I threatened to blog about this, suggested it was “The old send the sports correspondent to do something cultural routine eh?” – I used to act, daaahling.)

I’d be lying if I said I knew anything about ballet, but I gather from Em (and Google) that Matthew Bourne is quite the man when it comes to bringing ballet to a modern audience while still retaining favour from the classicists; his Swan Lake, with male swans, is the one depicted at the finale of Billy Elliot for example. His last new production before this was an adaptation of Edward Scissorhands. Having seen Dorian Gray, I now want to see that, too.

Because, frankly, it was pretty awesome; I’ve not read it either, but I’m assuming Bourne’s interpretation takes its lead from Will Self’s recent literary adaptation (simply titled Dorian) by contextualising the vain, beauteous, sexually ambiguous (or, in this case, ravenously bisexual) anti-hero / monster / poor little misplaced boy with a magical visage, in the world of the 80s fashion industry. Cue (balletic) homosexual romps with rock-star-attired photographers, five-in-a-bed orgies, cocaine, and the ‘picture’ being a perfume advert (“Immortal pour homme”). Oh, and a little (heterosexual) rape too. And some murders, gotta have the murders.

So Dorian is a lackey at a media company who finds himself spotted by a lusty photographer and then thrust into the limelight, his lusciously sharp visage plastered everywhere, his every whim not just catered for and indulged but sodden with satiation. There was an amusing sequence where he guested on a thinly-veiled Jonathan Ross Show; laughs was not something I was expecting from ballet.

Neither was a sense of spontaneity, which Bourne’s choreography, and his excellent company, managed to imbue the performance with. Clearly tightly blocked and rehearsed (I know how tightly stage-managed walking and talking is, and can barely imagine how much further choreography for something like this must go), perhaps it was the (live) music that added a sense of improvised unpredictability to proceedings – I guess I’d expected something vaguely classical in nature, but what I got was a thumping 80s/00s rock/dance/avant soundtrack that had more in common with Battles or Underworld than Tchaikovsky.

I also didn’t expect a giant disco-ball in the shape of a skull, a vicious bathtub murder, a lead who had a touch of the Justin Timberlake about him (particularly when suited and leading a non-more-pop dance routine in the second act), or overtones of American Psycho (either book or film). Which made me think; is Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman a Dorian-esque figure, fastidiously maintaining his appearance while part of him decays into bloody fantasy out of sight? Is Batman? Certainly readings of Batman & Robin’s relationship as homoerotic are well established now…

One thing that Em commented on, though, was that the homosexuality depicted in Dorian Gray was defiantly heterosexual in nature – positions assumed by the dancers did not insinuate anal sex but rather a more missionary familiarity, which was interesting. For all the camp cache of ballet (I’m reminded of Bale-as-Batman quipping “oh, so you’re into ballet” as a slight against Harvey Dent’s masculinity early in The Dark Knight) it's actually a very masculine, testosterone-scented phenomenon – there’s nothing effeminate about the strength and discipline demonstrated by the male dancers.

An interesting article in The Times sees Bourne comparing the late Heath Ledger with his own Dorian; a nervy young man thrust into a celebrity world, with a million people trying to help him adjust, help him get through it. Bourne’s Dorian, though, merely finds himself replaced by a younger model, despite his murderous attempts to stay at the top of the beauty game. Ledger had, with films like Candy and Brokeback Mountain, stepped towards the edges of the circle of celebrity, on his way to being an actor rather than a star. But he still ended up dead.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Final Thoughts on Forth (I Promise)

Bar perhaps “Judas”, there’s nothing new here; and for a band, well a frontman, so obsessed with being important and superior, that’s pretty damning. Take “Numbness”, for instance, which stands at the centre of the record; it’s little more than a meandering Pink Floyd imitation. So many old formulas and tricks are trotted out again – just witness Ashcroft’s opening line to “Love Is Noise”, which finds him once again stealing words from William Blake, and from the most obvious parts of Blake’s output; his source now is “Jerusalem” rather than “London”. Next album (if they make one, which is massively unlikely given recent onstage spats), maybe Richard will try and find a clumsy metaphor or allusion to squeeze “Tyger, Tyger” into. Someone once said of The Verve that “the original bits aren’t good, and the good bits aren’t original”. They’re actually a very conservative group.

It’s Ashcroft who’s the problem; it’s his voice, his lyrics, his guiding hand, and his persona, that I don’t like. In “Appalachian Springs” he sings “solitude / my sacred mood”, and I want to slap him. His snarling and growling is exciting when couched in the context of the exhilarating finale to “Noise Epic”, but in the middle of anything more delicate or tuneful, it’s almost completely out of place. He doesn’t sound romantic or emotional or spiritual, but aggressive, threatening. Or else in a not inconsiderable amount of physical pain.

The failure to title “Noise Epic” with any more imagination is ominous, actually, and perhaps suggests that the band couldn’t get out of the studio (and into the lucrative summer festival schedule) fast enough. A Parlophone executive recently revealed, romantically (in Music Week), that Forth’s release has been timed to coincide with the start of the football season in order to capture a motivated and hungry 24-35-year-old male demographic. Nice. It’s not quite how you’d imagine a band so preternaturally obsessed with ‘soul’ would go about making and selling a record.

Further evidence of The Verve's lack of desire to spend much time in a room together, if it's needed, comes from the fact that much of the album sounds like portions of jams stuck together perfunctorily and sung over by Ashcroft – most obviously “Columbo”. For many people, me included, this is actually a bonus (my favourite Verve song is probably the near-instrumental “Brainstorm Interlude”, which is all about the stormy, psychedelic spontaneity), but I doubt it will do much for the football crowd.

What else is there? The title of “I See Houses” puts me in mind of the chorus to “One Of Those Rivers”, one of the better songs from the laregly execrable Free Peace Sweet album by Dodgy. The song itself is nice enough, with a pretty piano line and stereotypical McCabe swooshing, but again, Ashcroft’s repetitious lyrics and cod-soulful growling brings it down.

It’s this band’s troubled internal dynamic, the antipathy that sparks into aggression, that the football crowd love, though. Just look at the recent press photo above, and you can see the problems – Ashcroft and McCabe clearly told to sit next to each other in order to visually reaffirm their relationship, only Ashcroft dominates the entire bench, legs astride like an alpha-male ape desperate to lord his superior testicles over his subordinates, his sidemen squeezed uncomfortably around him.

Friday, August 15, 2008

No Escape: Blurgatory

The main single had the refrain "Blow me out, I am so sad, I don't know why". The second single was a National Lottery happy-clappy terrace anthem about a Substance D-type drug used by the government to pacify its people. Months later they were recording "Essex Dogs".

Many accused Blur's fourth studio album of harbouring all the trappings of Britpop excess, from garish over-production to tastelessly pompous songwriting. It was also claimed that the band had failed to progress from their "epochal" state-of-the-nation report Parklife. My argument is that not only did they progress significantly to produce a far superior album, both musically and in sentiment, but that they used excess for their own magnificently twisted ends; any excess that can be heard in The Great Escape represents the lurid race against mortality for material self-improvement that this fine album completely skewers.

The key to this achievement is, as it can only be, the music itself. Parklife for all its troubled message centres, harmless lows and denuded civil servants was at worst a cautiously optimistic record, whose truly hedonistic sympathies were betrayed by the upbeat, major-key emphasis throughout, relatively uncomplicated song-structures, and joyous, kinetic front cover. Blur grew up a lot over the next couple of years. Once the willing triers, now they found themselves atop the throne, their absolute desire to innovate in conflict with the necessity to give the bawling masses what they wanted. Another Britpop record was mandatory. The manner in which it was delivered, however, would both undermine the flagrantly blind optimism of the shallow "movement" (which Parklife was in part guilty for), and ensure that Blur would never have to make another Britpop record again.

But, the music. It is garish. "Stereotypes" opens with some of the ugliest, most needlessly flashy keyboard chords ever committed to disc. Many of the songs have big brassy horn sections, and Albarn is at his snarliest. It sounds aggressive. Many believe it sounds tacky. I dispute that; a song like "Fade Away" isn't so much tacky as fabulously diseased. The minor-key or even off-key ska cycle repeating into grand ad nauseam, with those ghastly vocal harmonies. It's horrific. Even the nominally upbeat songs like "It Could Be You" or the brilliant "Dan Abnormal" are nakedly ironic and jeering. They're just too garish, too rich. The arrangements in these songs are actually pretty dense and complex. Coxon complained that his guitar-parts weren't inventive or interesting enough on this album. That's because by and large this is Albarn's mission to destroy Britpop from within, so that his band might express themselves a little more freely on later records (he even named one of the tracks after himself, as you may have just noticed, taking his persona down with the ship). I know I'm reading a narrative into the whole situation from the comfort of retrospect, but that's certainly how it seems to me.

And I haven't even mentioned the openly depressed songs on this record. "He Thought Of Cars", "Entertain Me", "Yuko & Hiro". The former is notable for some sonic interplay that genuinely conveys illness, the rot of sweeping horrid keyboards against harsh guitar bombs. The second is the final nail in Parklife's coffin, taking that album's flagship tune and doing desperate things with it, only to end up a vastly superior song. And the final one of the three is one of the best songs Blur ever wrote, flat-out. It's a delicate, heartbreaking ballad to loneliness in the modern age, underpinned by a sense of subservience to an inexorable system, and graced with broken-sounding yet beautiful keyboards, a trick Grandaddy would later attempt with similarly spectacular results.

There are other songs I'd love to speak about at length, like how "Mr. Robinson's Quango" doesn't appear to know what a verse-chorus structure is, let alone making its mind up on whether to be a laddish Britpop-boogie singalong or a minor-key lament, or how "Best Days" is the sliest dissection of numbing middle-class panic (replete with ornate pianos and subtly harsh processed drums) to emerge from the era. I feel I've made my point, however. The signs are all there that this is both Britpop (as we knew it)'s apotheosis and melting-point. This is the suicide-note of a lottery winner. The bank-statement of a 5-minute celebrity. OK so they got Red Ken to narrate a track. What gives? In this hell-ride, even chummy endorsements from prominent social figures get blasted into space by sickly melodicas. It is perhaps intended that nobody actually gets out of The Great Escape unharmed. Even Blur. Fortunately for Albarn, there was no cell to go back to, no ball and mitt to endlessly hurl against a wall in the name of Britpop.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ain't no Cure for love

I am an occasional goth. It says so right over there in the bios. To prove it, I'm going to waffle on about The Cure - some infamously occasional goths. Unless they're not goths at all. But let's not get into all that.

So yes, The Cure. Lovely, cuddly, wooly-jumpered Cure. They've just released "The Perfect Boy," the latest (and final) in a steady trickle of pre-album warm-up singles. A decade ago when I listened to nothing but The Cure* this would've felt tremendously exciting. It's been just four nimble years since I was being rather too kind to their lazily self-titled effort over at Stylus. But between my gaping-mouthed joy at being able to review a new Cure record (at last ... at last!) you can just about detect the subconscious reality: a few decent songs, Robert Smith far too loud in the mix, too much retreading the past, Ross Robinson a malign influence. I suppose the difference of four years is that I can recognise these things clearly now.

Which in a way is a bit shit. The me of four years ago would've wrung so much more out of these new singles. I still have the slavish desire to hear, consume, assess and categorise (not to mention write about) new Cure material ... but some of the resulting enjoyment has ebbed away. Maybe that means my opinion is now more 'trustworthy' or 'honest'? Not really, because I'm just sat in the 'slightly jaded fan' bunker instead. I still love these guys, I just know they're never, ever going to give us another Disintegration. Robert Smith has no more tricks left inside his massive white sneakers. Unless the band go nuts and record a concept album of freeform jazz-techno fusion, I know what to expect from this point on. Mostly the words 'dream' 'sky' 'hands' 'cats' 'rain' 'mouth' rearranged in different orders.

'She said'

Actually that's not quite true, because when it was announced that Porl Thompson was returning to the band I didn't expect him to come back looking like a bald old lady. But there you go.

His guitar still works and that's what matters.

Now! Watch along with the terrifically boring studio-shot videos as we delve into those aforementioned singles ...

The Only One / NY Trip
If they'd played this first one any safer you'd hear protective padding brushing against microphones. It's one of those sparkly, sky-reaching love songs we know Smith can probably dream up while gazing at the back of cereal packets by now, because he's put at least two of them on every album since 1985. 33% of it seems to be rather forward references to sucking and blowing and there are some nice glockenspiel-ey noises floating around if you listen hard. The b-side is a much soupier wah-wah beast with some undulating Smithicisms in the chorus and more 'you and I in love against the world' stuff. Or it may just be about a pleasant evening spent ice skating, I dunno.

Freakshow / All Kinds of Stuff
Much more like it. Herky-jerky social awkwardness and Smith sending his voice on a fun expedition to parts of his range that haven't been visited for a while. In classic contrary Cure style, "All Kinds of Stuff" is even better - with a big fat trundling bassline and a sandbox of Porl Thompson effects. His presence is turning out extremely well. Sure, it makes almost everything sound like it might've belonged on Wish, but at this juncture '92 vintage Cure is something to be clung on to and cherished.

Sleep When I'm Dead / Down Under
... Unless you can have Head on the Door-era Cure as well. This one was left in a dusty attic in the mid-80s and has been brought out for a second chance. Or something like that. It sits happily amongst all that strange stuff Smith was coming out with in his post-Top hangover, though not quite so vicious (compare and contrast "slit the cats like cheese" with "give it to the chicken and see if it clicks"). Having just praised Thompson, he sounds like he was recorded in a cardboard box here, but perhaps that wasn't his fault. The rest has much more swoop and sheen than the looser, quicker live version. I haven't decided whether I prefer that or not, yet. Our b-side here has been thoroughly analysed and found to share its genetic code with "A Pink Dream" and the Wild Mood Swings flip-side dynasty in general. Which is nice enough.

The Perfect Boy / Without You
Best of the lot. Best since "Cut Here." With the worst name. "The Only One" was already mining near self-referential territory, but this title's already been directly occupied by "The Perfect Girl," "The Exploding Boy" and (at a slight stretch) "Boys Don't Cry." Shoddy stuff. This is the other sparkly, sky-reaching 'us against the world' love song that .... wait a second, no it isn't. The male portion of this duo is fantastically cynical and laissez-faire about the whole love angle. Hurrah! Well, not hurrah that he's just using her for a good time, but hurrah that it deviates from the expected narrative. So there's dual perspectives, a super-splendid chorus with some over-processed shenanigans on Smith's voice (but damnit they WORK) and a picture of forthcoming disappointment presented so sweetly it may as well be a gerbil with a hidden wasting disease wearing a cute bow. Oh yes, and the b here is an acoustic-backed number with some mildly offputting vocal gymnastics. Moreso than usual. Instead of 'all' and 'choose' he belts out aaaaaLLLLLLLLLL!! and chooooooOOOOOOOOSSSSEEE!!!! which takes a fair bit of getting used to, to be quite honest.

Abusive relationship

More reasons to be cautiously happy: splendid persons 65daysofstatic are involved with a remix EP of the singles (so are some other pricks, but let's ignore them). Another song named "Underneath The Stars" keeps popping up which sounds ready to continue the tradition of solid-to-amazing Cure opening tracks (assuming it does open). Aaaand ... ooh, I dunno, the artwork should be alright too. Overall, I am quietly rocktimis ... no, no I really can't say that. Optimistic. I am optimistic. Quietly.

*Really. This sentence represents my listening habits at the time: Cure Cure Curey Cure Cure Cure, Cureity Cure Cure Siouxsie Cure Cure Some Random Radio Bollocks.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Hmmmm - The Verve

I've just been supplied with a copy of Forth by The Verve. Initial thoughts in approximately 70 minutes.

Edit 1
Five tracks in and this is certainly much meatier and more rocking (in a Verve stylee, natch) than any of Ashcrofts risible solo material. However, Ashcroft is still far, far from being the all-time melodicist he evidently thinks he is, and thus the best bits are, as ever, when he shuts up and just lets his band play. "Rather Be" might as well be a solo Ashcroft track, but is about the only one of that ilk so far.

There are LOTS of guitars, but many of them are the tasteful, tricksy, widdling-in-the-wings two-steps-from-George-Michael guitars that infected much of Urban Hymns - presumably because Big Dickie refused to let McCabe along unless he played nice. However, saying that, McCabe does get to let loose at times, which is nice, and there are some long, low-key grooves.

Almost all the songs are 5-6 minutes long; it'll be interesting to see what people make of that in these attention-deficit times.

They should stay away from piano. Most people (in rock) should.

Edit 2
OK "Noise Epic".

Edit 3
Oh dear "Valium Skies".

Edit 4
OK then. What we have here is a big, long, dense, foggy modern rock album. Portentous. Pretentious. Nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. Or as talented. Aesthetically, sonically, it's somewhere between A Northern Soul and Urban Hymns - no surprise there, then. More muscular than the latter album, less... psychotic than the former. Despite what some have said, there's not much of A Storm In Heaven about it. It's more balanced than Urban Hymns, or feels it - the second half certainly doesn't fall as far into tepid balladic hell as that did.

Some of the guitar playing is awesome, although I've not yet noticed anything as beautiful as the bent string two and a bit minutes into "Drive You Home" or as brutal as the opening riffs from "A Northern Soul" or "Let The Damage Begin". There's nothing as offensive to my ears as the woeful "Sonnet" (much beloved of rugby-boy footballer-fan date-rapists across the country), although some of the "I wrote these on my own, look at me" ballads get close ("Rather Be", "I See Houses", "Valium Skies"). "Noise Epic" seems pretty glorious, the kind of pumped-up, streaming, unpredictable groove-jam-psychosis I adored about this band when I was 17. (I'm now 29, for reference. I spent the morning listening to 70s Miles Davis.) "Sit & Wonder" is, rubbish title aside, also pretty good. "Columbo" too. It all needs more time, though.

"Love Is Noise" doesn't, though. It sounds like the more muscular tracks off Embrace's last album, only sans McNamara's way with a melody. I do not, and never have, rated Ashcroft as a melodicist. I also don't rate him even 10% as much as he rates himself as a singer. And definitely not a lyricist - especially when he gets a slogan like "valium skies" into his head and thinks he's coined a poetic turn of phrase. Some of his... intensely soulful groans simply make me feel... a little threatened and uncomfortable. That looped vocal sample is still, while nagging and catchy, annoying as all hell. That 4/4 indie-rock-does-muscular-disco bass & drums pulse sounded new and exciting in 2004, perhaps, almost, from a distance, but now... I've had enough of it. It turns up a few times here.

It's not helped by the sonics... I'm only listening on satellites and sub at work, but one can tell straight away, and is reaffirmed by looking at some wave forms via Audacity, that this is pumped up. It's not horrendous, and bits of it (parts of "Noise Epic" for instance) do work some degree of subtlety and excitement into the mix, but... then you get the opening bass notes of "Appalachian Spring". Of course, this may just be down to this copy of the record (on repeat listen, some files, particularly "Appalachian Spring", are just royally fucked up and corrupted - I hope), but even so, the bass sound, the drum sound, is a modern rock bass and drum sound - that big, flowering, pumping bass sound that hurts your head almost on a subconscious level. And isn't actually deep.

I suspect that The Verve think of themselves as elemental - they certainly demonstrate a sneering enough attitude towards the likes of Keane, who they evidently see as beneath them - the problem is that they've confused what elemental means. They think it means big, noisy, bloated, arrogant, a little pompous, crashing and puffing your chest out. It doesn't. Earth, air, fire and water are none of these things. Concrete often is. There's no doubt that what they do is often exciting, maybe moving if you're in the right frame of mind, but... they're not really that far away from the slew of bands who've evolved in their decade-long wake, not that superior to. OK so McCabe streams the shit out of anyone else who touches a guitar in this genre, but Jones and Salisbury don't sound half as unusual to me as they once did. The Verve don't sound half as unusual, as elemental, as meaningful, as exciting to me as they once did.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

And this is me.

Hello, I'm Mike!

Current mood: all excited at being bounced, albeit somewhat unwittingly, into a NEW MOVEMENT!!! (even if vaguely plagued by worries that this might all turn into the rock-crit version of Stuckism).

Current stance: to no small measure of personal surprise (due to a hitherto deep-seated wariness of all that proclaims itself as Big and Important), opting for Elbow, Shearwater and British Sea Power over Katy Perry, Jordin-n-Chris and the chuffing Saturdays any day of the week, pal. So that's, like, a sign, isn't it?

Further evidence of emergent rocktimist tendencies: a pronounced preference for live over recorded music. (Hell, where else do you get to hear analogue?) I hate listening to MP3s over decent sound systems (which is why my stats are fucked; don't even go there), and Autotune bugs the living shit out of me.

Background: have been diddling around on my blog since 2001 (placing me at the tail end of the First Wave, or at the vanguard of the Second Wave). This led, one way or another, to assorted writing gigs with Time Out London, Slate magazine, the late lamented Stylus (and I see I'm in good company on that score), and ultimately to the glittering apex of my journalistic career to date: regular freelance work for t'local paper. In this guise, I get to attend roughly a gig a week; I get to talk to early 1980s synthpop has-beens on the phone for fifteen minutes and pretend that they're my friends; and I get to expound lots of energy trying to blag promo CDs without having to actually write about them, because it's the toughest trade of all and I can't generally be arsed.

(You also might have spotted me hanging out on ILM, but in a very low-key sort of way. They are all so very clever, and I know my place.)

Proposed modus operandi: for me, accepting Nick's kind invitation is all part of a process of re-connecting with hit-and-run, first-draft-is-the-only-draft blogging, as opposed to serving up neatly turned professional-looking pieces with all the rough edges, pointless parentheses and superfluous adverbs bled out of them. So I'm going to be approaching this venture by opening up the posting window and splurging stuff out more or less as it enters my head. I hope you're all cool with that. (Authenticity and immediacy over painstakingly crafted second-hand approximations of emotion; how appropriate is that?)

Any other comments: I've got a working theory that the woozy, sun-drenched, oceanicaly inspired, wowed-and-fluttered sketches that comprise Lone's Lemurian album (out Monday, and the best release from my adopted home town in flipping yonks) are an uncannily precise aural representation of Cy Twombly's Poems to the Sea series, currently on display at Tate Modern - but it's a theory which I feel disinclined to develop. At this stage.

Is that alreet fer yuz?

Wall•E (& A Word On “Rocktimism”)

Thanks to The Sunday Times, we managed to see this for free on the Saturday before it was fully released. At 10.30am. In a cinema full of toddlers. Some of whom made noise all the way through. So perhaps not ideal, and certainly not tinged with cultural excitement and reverence in the way that our first viewing of The Dark Knight was. But, y'know… first, and for free.

I think I WANTED to like Wall•E more than I actually did. Parts of it are absolutely astonishing. Other parts, not so much. The much-lauded near-silent opening thirty minutes or so are photo-realistic in their animated detail and rendering, the use of fake lens flare and traditional cinematographic virtual camera work taking the level of Pixar’s achievements in animation up yet another spectacular notch. More than technically terrific, they were also lovely – Wall•E himself imbued with enormous charm and humanity, far more than his predecessor Johnny Five from the Short Circuitfilms. But 00s animation is always going to trump 80s robotics for that.

Even though I found EVE a little too… pristine, and slick… and, to be brutal, Mac-like (he types, on a Mac), their relationship was also disarmingly sweet. Andrew Gaerig, former colleague at Stylus, summed up Wall•E’s charm with a beautiful deconstruction of the scene where he takes EVE back to his trailer, an observation which sadly until now has been trapped in private webspace;

There's never been a purer distillation of a boy taking a girl into his room for the first time:

“I have some things! I hope you like at least a few of my things. Please don't break my favorite things though.”

The use of real human actors as the archive footage explaining humanity’s flight away from a polluted Earth was jarring, though, especially when juxtaposed with the chubby, detail-lacking forms that humankind is meant to have evolved into over the course of 700 years of hover-chairs and robot slaves. The final frontier of CGI is presumably the ability to make believable people; the Final Fantasy film certainly failed. Interestingly, I didn’t mind the use of Hello Dolly! footage, and didn’t find the Axiom sequences as heavy-handed or off-putting as I know many others did.

Aside from EVE’s disinfected aesthetic and Fred Willard’s non-animated presence though, Wall•E ticks almost all the boxes: it looks amazing; the sound design is terrific; the socio-ecological message of the film is one so powerful as to be primal (and it is happening now – every single thing illustrated as leading to humanity’s downfall is already in place or else developing fast); it also says brave things about mental health care as an aside; the jokes and visual humour are cross-generational in appeal. But it still leaves me a little cold. Perhaps it was the context of the screening, early morning, surrounded by kids. Perhaps I just wanted Wall•E the film to be 70 minutes of Wall•E the robot exploring a deserted Earth, Terence Malick or Godfrey Reggio style, all slow upwards pans through trees and repetitive soundtrack. I need to see it again to judge fully, but at the moment my feeling is that it lags a long way behind The Incredibles in my affections.


I feel like I should explain what Rocktimism is. It’s certainly not an affront to Poptimism, firstly. Secondly, this blog arose from a tossed aside comment by Paul during a round of emails between him, Henry and myself, about how “I feel like there's a bunch of us who, for various reasons including picking pointless fights, went along with a certain early noughties pop philosophy but then got off the bus.” I joked that we should start a blog called Rocktimists. Henry and Paul said it was stupid. I’d been thinking about starting a collaborative writing forum for a while, so I started it anyway.

At the moment, clearly, it’s not much – a handful of potential contributors and a vague idea that, actually, there’s nothing wrong with preferring Elbow to Rachel Stevens, or The Dark Knight to Mamma Mia (on one hand, or Goodfellas on the other. Or The Piano Teacher on some kind of weird third hand.) But maybe this will go somewhere. Maybe not, obviously, but let’s have some blue skies thinking. For now, if one of us has something we want to write down and throw out there to the infinite wilderness that is the internet, this might be where we do it.

My top ten - Chord sequences

Hi, I'm Louis, and in lieu of being able to construct a cogent and original argument for my Rocktimists debut, I'm creating a big boring list. It's the first of maybe several Top Tens, and unless I somehow forswear being such a terribly unimaginative lazybones in future, you'll have to put up with my numerical witterings. Anyway, the flipside is that compiling big lists of things like favourite chord-sequences is an awfully Rocktimist thing to do, so who's complaining?

Maybe a little on chord-sequences first. I don't have formal musical training, but I like to think I have a sense for harmony. Great chord-sequences, in my book, come when a harmony moves in a manner that is oblique, creating newly tangible sound-shapes, often completely unexpected, and always thrilling to the ear. They may occur once in a song, they may occur fifty times, but what binds them all together is that they etch themselves indelibly into the consciousness long after hearing has finished - what Russell called the "acoleuthic sensation", the diminishing yet lingering delayed-action instantaneity that cumulates musical enjoyment throughout the many different phases of a successful song. The ten examples I list here are all sequences that come out of nowhere, and completely possess the song they inhabit.

10) The Beatles - A Day In The Life (verse, guitar/piano)
One for the rocktimists out there! Ah no, in truth this is one of the first pieces of music that captivated me purely through its chord-sequence, and few have had such a stunningly stop-what-you're-doing effect on me since. I hadn't actually heard the recorded version of the song, but when a friend of mine started playing the verse chords on a small upright piano at a summer camp we were both attending, I was genuinely stunned. On record, coming out of Sgt. Pepper's punky racket, it is no less transcendent, but my first encounter with the chord-sequence was the most memorable. Both homely and spacey, joyful and melancholy, it carved through layers of incomprehension and spoke to my young mind like a seer.

9) Brahms - Requiem Mvt. II (opening theme, orchestra/choir)
When I first heard this, I didn't know what it was, but I was similarly awestruck. The foreboding, majestic push-pull sequence sucked me in then and still does now. The softer counterpart, an ascending 1-2-3-4 pattern, merely pads the blow and sets you up for the next emotional assault. The requiem contains lots of different themes, some sunny, most dark, but this particular section floors me. And they're singing "All flesh is grass"! The human fate, set to music that would bring Tigger to his knees! Magnificent.

8) Super Furry Animals - Blerwytirhwng? (outro, guitar/synth)
A band fixated with complex and often highly experimental pop/rock music, they busted arguably their best sequence in this early single. Much is made of SFA's Britpop connections, and indeed the businesslike guitar, vocal harmonies and chord-happy first three minutes of this song (forgetting the fact, momentarily, that it's sung in a language hardly any of the Britpop elite could understand) earmark it as a highlight of the movement. Unlike most Britpop artists, however, SFA always had an extra trick up their sleeve. After the final verse, the riff leaps into a different key, and an otherworldly synth bursts in as the boyos go all astral on us. The sequence itself is beautiful and skyward, brought back to earth at the end of each cycle by a knowing guitar swagger, the last earth-connecting remnant of Britpop as the song is blasted into space. At this point, with the ground-sky dichotomy whirling into the infinite, there is nothing else for SFA to say, so they fill the song with raucous lasergun noises and spin it out for a further six minutes. It's probably the only way they could have resolved their wonderful melodic crisis.

7) Gary Puckett and the Union Gap - Young Girl (whole song, strings/vocals/horns)
This is a fantastic song, tainted in the minds of those who conflate an awareness of underage sexual attraction with actually going through with it. As for my own underage experiences with Gary Puckett, I first heard this when a toddler, and the tune stuck in my head until I turned 21 and decided to seek out this "old-sounding" pop song that haunted me so. It turned out that not only was Puckett's astonishing vocal performance a catalyst for this memory retention, but that the swelling orchestral section, both sexy and authoritative, as well as the backing vocals, created an unimpeachable succession of chord-sequences, granting the song what many term "pop immortality" and what a few describe as "sick-headed perversion". Guys, he's telling her to get out of his mind. He's confronting his evils. While the tune makes them look even more tempting. The best kind of moral dilemma: a musical one.

6) My Bloody Valentine - Loomer (verse/chorus, guitars/guitars/more guitars/Bilinda's voice)
Can chord-sequences have tremelo bends? I think they can! Also, can they incorporate vocals? Yusss! Actually, in terms of chords, the root strum isn't exactly thronging, but the little bends and extra layers of noisy goodness turn what's probably quite a boring song (ha!) into an experience. I used to hum an approximation of this to myself whenever I played in goal at school, just to keep me sane. Probably didn't work (as my coaches would probably tell you) but it was always fun how each approximation was a little different. I don't actually know what this chord-sequence is, it's that good!

5) Catherine Wheel - For Dreaming (chorus/outro, guitars)
Kick-ass hard-shoegazer-rockists Catherine Wheel were from Norfolk. This song, however, is from hard-shoegazer-rock heaven. After a quiet, glockenspiel-plinky verse, with near-whispered lyrics, this track from seminal 1997 record Adam & Eve explodes into a Brian Futter-enhanced mega-chorus, bittersweet and skyscraping, that just for good measure gets turned into a psychedelic freakout deluxe in the closing stages, keyboards weeping dolefully as the chord-cycle spins into oblivion somewhere off the Great Yarmouth coast.

4) Oceansize - Savant (intro, keyboards, then throughout song on various other instruments)
I love Oceansize, a band far more sublime than both the post-rockers and the avant-metallers they're so often compared to. Perhaps their most sublime moment, Savant begins with a poignant keyboard burr, before playful drums and ringing guitars begin to elevate the trajectory into something truly ornate. By the time it ends amid modern-classical strings and trilling effects-pedals, the whole movement has built into a summery peaen to the open air, grasping for truths that its endlessly unresolved chord-sequence cannot quite find, until the whole thing is simply cut off in mid-flow.

3) Orbital - Out There Somewhere? Part Two (outro, synths)
This is the cheesiest selection in my top ten. What makes this sequence so impossibly plangent is what surrounds it: countless layers of outer-space bleeps and bloops playing a symphonic elegy to human loneliness. The chords themselves, played on string-set synths, underpin the whole event like the final strains of a Disney movie score; what ingrains them are the various alterations to the pattern, which transport it from gloom to uncertainty and finally to an emotional resolution, that occur at 10:08 and then, gloriously, at 10:38. The final 4:50 of the song, in truth, is about as perfect an ending to an album that I've ever heard, and on its own stands as a remarkable achievement.

2) Cardiacs - Jitterbug (Junior Is A) (outro, synths)
It could have been any one of about twenty Cardiacs songs. I'm not going to say much about them, because I cannot rationally explain Tim Smith's genius without saying "listen for yourself". These guys are probably the most harmonically complex lot working under the guise of pop or rock that I've certainly heard, and better still, their experiments work more or less every time (it boils down to Smith's philosophy that all he really makes are "nice tunes"). This song, from their later 1999 album "Guns", happens to contain perhaps Smith's most jawdropping experiment of them all, a four-minute synth outro played in about seven different keys and three different time-signatures. Helped by the amazing bass-playing of brother Jim, Smith's concoction sounds like it was genuinely conceived of by angels. Mere words do them no justice, though. I suggest you consider making a small financial outlay.

1) Talk Talk - Desire (verse, organ)
The single moment of revelation that shaped my musical growth, is the moment Hollis utters the word "Desire" to begin the first verse of this song, from Talk Talk's similarly revelatory Spirit Of Eden record. Already two astonishing songs have been and gone, but this, the third, is the crowning glory, and what makes it so is the organ that accompanies Hollis into proceedings. This all occurs after a lengthy build-up, with a menacing bass-pulse and shaker providing a steady backdrop to piano chords, horn washes, and fretboard swipes. The bass-pulse itself has two different resolutions at the end of each cycle, and it is after one of the upbeat resolutions that the organ (and Hollis) enter the fray, transforming what had been a tense (and, as I say, menacing) situation into an instance of pure concrete certainty. The sequence starts high and descends in stages, like a pair of climbers successfully and strategically negotiating their way off K-2, impervious to the distant thunder of avalanches (or, in this case, the low-in-the-mix kettle-drum ruckus that threatens to disturb Hollis' peace, before the chorus actually comes along and does so, spectacularly). Among the moral and musical chaos that attempts to tear the song apart, we have this one chord-sequence keeping us on the ground, endlessly resolved and perfectly final.

Monday, August 11, 2008

The Dark Knight

On Batman, and My Relationship With Him

I’ve been umming and ahhing about Christopher Nolan’s record-breaking second Batman film since first seeing it at a preview screening on Wednesday the 23rd of July, spilling my thoughts in chunks on messageboards and wanting to write something coherent, cogent, for somewhere more permanent. Something all-encompassing. Something that captures the essence of the film as well as the film captures the essence of the… comic book? Character? Universe? Idea? Myth? Of course, I’m not going to write that (no one is, I suspect, because everyone’s reaction is unique), and every time I’ve c&p’d a chunk of a messageboard post into a gigantic Word document and sat down to ply it into something more, I’ve written myself and my feelings about the film out of the prose in an attempt to do something too big.

So let’s strip back.

The other night I watched The Dark Knight for the third time. I watched it in my living room, on my laptop, via a grainy bootleg .avi file seemingly recorded from a Mexican cinema’s projection room (I posit Mexican because the subtitles to the Hong Kong sequence were in Spanish rather than English; I imagine, though I know not why, that the whole film would have been dubbed for a Spanish audience – admittedly, as I type, I’m now thinking “was it a version specifically for Latino cinemas in America?”). My second viewing, after the preview mentioned above, was at a local, near-derelict Odeon on the Monday following its release. It was busy, uncomfortable, and populated by people drinking exceptionally large and lurid frozen sugar beverages.

The cinema experience at the preview screening was something else entirely; a full house again, but hushed in reverential excitement, a flurry of Batman t-shirts of various denominations, at least one young man in full Ledger-as-Joker regalia (and very few women at all); the sense of being part of a cultural happening, a shared experience. I remember seeing the audience cheer as Legolas felled an oliphaunt in one of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings installments, but other than that my cinema visits have been… more inclined to feature me shouting at noisy teenagers during an X-Men film than feeling a frisson of cultural excitement.

After that first viewing I was left with a jumble of emotions and conclusions, pretty much all of them positive, and a strong desire to see the film again, as soon as possible. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that before at the close of a cinema screening; maybe Children of Men, which I will say now is my favourite film of this decade thus far, for context.

Much of the discourse I’ve seen or been involved in has involved talk of political allegory – specifically suggestion that Batman is analogous (in a positive light) to George Bush, that Nolan is a conservative film-maker with a conservative message. The thought hadn’t struck me, because I’m neither a crusading liberal nor a guilty conservative, so I’ve given it little thought. Mark at K-Punk, however, has torn the idea apart expertly, as he is wont to do – read his piece here.

Where to go now? The purpose of this blog is to enable me, and hopefully some other people, to write freely about whatever we want, as long as it is… cultural.

I had initially wanted to avoid writing about The Joker, and therefore necessarily about Heath Ledger, because many reviews of and think pieces on this film have taken the form of eulogies, reviews of the man, rather than reviews of the entire, fantastic spectacle that is the film. I was going to write, and in fact did write, a long, rambling, autobiographical introduction about my relationship to both cinema and comic books, and about the nature of comic book films (first film as origin, universe-establishment and training exercise with tacked-on villain & peril; second film as actual complete film; third film as overkill). But actually, who wants to read that? Even the vaguely interesting bit, the section about the arc of multiple-film comic book franchises, is self-evident to anyone who has watched all three Spider-Man films. Unless your name is Brett Ratner.

I will say, however, that though I love the idea of comic books, and have a shelf full of graphic novels from Grant Morrison’s New X-Men to Art Spiegleman’s Maus, the actuality always seems to disappoint. Todd Hutlock, former associate editor at Stylus and tame comic book geek overlord, may feel a little ill around about now.

I’m not sure what it is; maybe it’s Jim Lee’s fault – his spectacular seizing of X-Men in the early 90s, with it’s tiny-ankled, massively-mammaried heroines, and disgustingly muscled heroes (even Cyclops, who is a wimp!), has perhaps made me used to spectacle over plot or character, thusly making me crave plot and character all the more? More likely it’s the inconsistency with which I might buy a comic (i.e. never), meaning that my mode of consumption is the graphic novel by default, compounded by the graphic novel itself being an odd format. Watchmen works the format well, but was conceived with a strict arc and length in mind – well over 600 issues of Batman, plus dozens of other titles about the character, over more than 60 years, with countless reinventions, deaths, resurrections, replacements, etcetera, etcetera… how the hell does one keep up?

I love the idea of Batman, I love the aesthetic; pissed billionaire wreaks revenge on fallen city scum while dressed as a bat and doing ninja tricks and driving a huge, black car. But the graphic novels I’ve read – all the canonical works; The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, Arkham Asylum, The Long Halloween – have left me feeling that something is missing. I want the platonic essence of the character conveyed to me, the ultimate story told, the ultimate aesthetic embodied, in a nice, neat package, and so far they have failed me. Arkham Asylum looks fantastic(al) but it is all atmosphere, no… narrative, all attempted insight with nothing to look inside. The Killing Joke is, as Alan Moore himself so perceptively realises, “not saying anything much”; what asks more questions is Brian Bolland’s excellent short story that is packaged at the end of the deluxe edition. The Dark Knight Returns relies on you liking Frank Miller’s artwork (and personality) which I don’t, particularly. I’m not sure who’s artwork I do like. The Long Halloween has a bit more meat to it, but still… wasn’t quite there. The artwork perhaps too flimsy, the supporting cast of villains, as ever, ridiculous – The Mad Hatter? Come on – and the plot itself too in thrall to other things and too lacking in its own actual substance. I have Miller’s Batman: Year One in the post; maybe that will do it.

Which is why I think I’ve invested so much in Nolan’s films. I’ve refrained from buying Burton’s original movie on DVD for years, a niggling doubt at the back of my mind saying “even at 12 you thought it was rubbish”. This suspicion was borne out when I finally succumbed and bought it second-hand via Amazon the other week – we watched it once, were dismayed at the pulpy campness, the unintelligible plot, the frankly daft Jack Nicholson performance, and the slightness of it all, that I sold it on the next day (for a profit). My memory of Batman Returns is that it seemed empty, like a soundstage Gotham City, like Dogville. I suspect, plot and villain wise, that it would eclipse the prior film; I’ve added it to our online rental list. I never watched the Schumacher films.

Christopher Nolan got me with Memento eight years ago; Insomnia I’ve only seen once, late at night, tired, but enjoyed it – but it’s a cover version, isn’t it? A training exercise to my pop-music-trained faculties. Batman Begins got me though, despite the fact that, surely, a comic book adaptation is also a cover version… Oh, what the hell. It had… the right ambience, the right approach, a smattering of realism and a smattering of physicality, and a smattering of psychological motivation, enough to make it seem… not real. But Platonic.

But this is all the kind of long-winded preamble I was trying to avoid.

I was going to write about the nature of The Dark Knight as a film very aware of both its status as a film and also of its status as a film derived from a comic book; and I still will. I was going to write speculation about Harvey Dent’s demise, about a third film, about Catwoman, about how much better Maggie Gyllenhaal was than Katie Holmes at crafting a three-dimensional, gutsy, gleeful, sexy character who didn’t simply exist as a catalyst for the men in the movie, even though, plot-wise, that’s kind of all she was. I was going to comment on Morgan Freeman as being, once again, little more than the ‘magic negro’, but doing it with such wit and charisma that he transcends that nasty little meme. I was going to talk about flipping trucks and exploding hospitals. Maybe I still will. And I was going to try and avoid talking about The Joker too much. But I can’t. Several people have told me that I’ve said perceptive things about The Joker. So… here… we… go…

The Film As Film, The Film As Comic Book
Actually, let’s talk about the nature of the film first.

While the reception to The Dark Knight is generally favourable, bordering on ravenously positive, there are voices of dissent; many of these opine that the film is too dark, too long, too moral, too brutal (bordering on sadistic), and not quite as ‘intelligent’ as it posits itself as being. Much of this talk revolves around the idea that The Dark Knight is a watershed moment in “comic book films”, the instance when the genre comes of age, matures, transcends itself. I disagree, strongly.

Firstly, I don't think the film is anywhere near as brutal and sadistic as some people have made it out to be; yes moments are frightening and shocking and made me flinch, but... there is no gratuitous blood, no gore, no horrifically-prosthetic injuries (with one notable exception). A big part of this is the fact that the film is (in the UK) only certificated as 12A (PG-13 in the US), and the lack of gore is a pragmatic way of keeping an ostensibly ‘adult’ film available to (almost) all; in order, of course, to keep ticket sales up. But also because… Batman is at root a comic book character, and the vast majority of comic books, with some notable exceptions, are universally accessible and also universally acknowledged as unreal. The drama, the action, the violence portrayed within them has no pretensions to express reality; comic book art, whether by David Gibson, Jim Lee, Dave McKean, Frank Miller or anyone else, in any number of styles, has never strived for photo-realism.

This is because comic books are at their very essence unreal. Mutants do not exist; invulnerable flying aliens with laser eyes do not exist; giant green muscled gamma-ray-afflicted hulks do not exist. Even Batman, famously lacking in super powers; even Batman, just an ordinary human being, does not exist – a billionaire playboy dressed as a bat who happens to be an orphaned ninja with an array of technological devices and infinite resources at his disposal and who beats up criminals and solves crimes. As ‘brutal’ and ‘dark’ (there is also the question of what ‘dark’ means, and whether it has any point as a descriptor at all; but I don’t have the muscle to investigate that here) as some writers and artists (and directors) have made him over the years, from Kane to Miller to Morrison to Loeb to Burton (although, truth be told, Burton’s Batman was more camp, more theatrical, than some remember; and more flimsy, too), and now to Nolan, none of them have ever made him phenomenologically real, or even grounded him in reality; all his incarnations (caveat: that I know of) have had him patrolling a fictional city, even if that city has its roots in New York (or Chicago).

Films are also at their very essence unreal; even documentaries are mere portrayals of real life, moving images captured on film and edited to someone’s whim, without actually being real, never mind feature films. Citizen Cane is not real. Even films that strive to show things with as much realism as possible, be they directed by Ken Loach or Michael Haneke or anyone else, are, at heart, not real; unreal.

The Dark Knight, despite much talk of its gritty realism, is very aware of its unreality, in both its lineages, cinematographic and illustrative; from the physics of flipping an articulated truck tail-over-cab in a busy street to the idea of reprogramming mobile phones to operate as sonar devices to, importantly, critically, the fact that, for instance, in the scene where Batman interrogates, or perhaps brutalises, The Joker in a police interview room, one never sees a punch fully land, one never sees a drop of blood spilt or a bruise bloom on a cheek. OK, so perhaps the make-up prevents that last observation…

Three instances jump to mind to further illustrate the film’s awareness of its ontological nature; The Joker’s ‘trick’ with a pencil, Sal Maroni’s broken ankles, and Harvey Dent’s carnaged face. Each of these incidents is horrific, or would be if it were played with any amount of realism. In the hands of Haneke, for instance (I mention him because of Ned Raggett’s excellent essay), The Joker’s pencil trick would result in blood, in brains, in visual trauma. In the same hands, Maroni’s fall would result in splintered bone and torn flesh. But Nolan shows us nothing, and not because violence in his film, in his world, is childishly and irresponsibly without consequence; but because such pornographic use of blood, of pain, of human suffering, is unnecessary to the drama. The brutality, the horror, the drama of the violence in The Dark Knight comes not from how violent and how graphic they are, but from how dramatically they are played, from what we expect to be shown as an audience; from what we want to see, and flinch away from in case we do.

Take Harvey’s face; the final reveal of his burnt features is horrific and shocking, but it is a comic book horror and shock. In a film more concerned with aesthetic realism (rather than emotional, motivational realism) there would be blood, pus, leaking sores and nastiness; instead it is portrayed like a Jim Lee illustration – anatomically fascinating but very obviously unreal. Compared to Heat, a film which Nolan obviously admires, and pays homage to at various points in The Dark Knight, this Batman film is tame; there is nothing even touching the unpleasantness of the discovery of Danny Trejo’s character beaten and tortured so badly that he is glued to his apartment’s floor with his own hemoglobin and entrails. When compared to a film like Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible or Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, The Dark Knight is revealed as… not very brutal at all.

The combination of the particular approach to the CGI for Dent's face, the lack of blood (even the lack of exposed flesh – bar one early shot of Bruce’s bruised back, there is none), the clever cutting to prevent the audience seeing the impact of punches, etc, makes The Dark Knight one of the best translations of the comic book medium to film, and without needing the gimmickry of shots framed like comic book paneling or montages of illustrations throughout the title sequences. The Dark Knight is, though shot through with a degree of psychological realism, a fantastical film about fantastical things – costumed heroes and psychotic villains destroying cities. Watching it isn’t so much about suspension of disbelief, as it is about embracing the spectacle. It is a comic book movie, and it doesn’t need to “transcend the genre” – a comic book movie can be a great movie in just the same way that a Western, or animation, or comedy can be a great movie.

The Joker

The Dark Knight isn’t The Joker’s film; it’s about Harvey Dent and Bruce Wayne, each wanting to be the other but unable to be. Perhaps The Joker is a third path for how to deal with… whatever extreme circumstance caused him to be like he is, but really, for the purpose of The Dark Knight, he is little more than a narrative catalyst, a wanton, unchanging whirlwind that sears through the plotline accelerating the changes at the heart of other characters’ arcs without ever having an arc of his own. The most interesting thing to discuss about The Dark Knight, for me, beyond the moral quandaries, beyond the film’s place in the Batman canon, beyond allusions to Bush’s tenure, beyond technical achievements and box office records, is speculation about what The Joker’s arc might be, about what might motivate him

Ledger was awesome, this is a truism bordering on cliché at this stage; the timing of “Hi” as he sits at Dent’s bedside; the way he washes his hands before detonating the hospital; his physicality throughout; the lip-licking tic; the toss of his greasy hair as he stalks towards Rachel at Dent’s fundraiser. But beyond individual moments, the reason he was awesome, in my eyes, is that, despite the lack of back story for the character, he managed to make me believe that The Joker was a real human being, albeit one so monstrously damaged and frenzied that he exists not as a process, like real human beings, perpetually changing and evolving and forgetting and dying, but as a static moment of personality caught in time forever. Specifically as a death wish.

You see, The Joker lies, all the time – he lies about how his face was scarred (twice); he lies about Dent and Rachel’s whereabouts; he lies to Dent about not being a schemer (all he does is scheme); he lies to Gambol about being dead. I suspect that almost everything he says and does in the film is a lie or a scheme one way or another. The only three moments of truth, or of specific and personal emotional purity, that come from him in the film’s duration are, firstly, around the table with the mobsters during his introduction scene, when, accused of being mad, of being a freak, he says, a mixture of hurt and conviction in his voice, “I’m not; no I’m not”. Secondly, the suddenly quiet, seemingly slow motion shot of his escape in a squad car from the police station with Lau, as Rachel dies, and Dent burns, as he hangs from the window and closes his eyes to the freshness of the breeze, to freedom, to a split-second of the sublime, looking for all the world like a dog tasting the wind. Thirdly, prior to that shot, but more explicit in his motivation, is his utterance as Batman speeds towards him on the Batpod – “C’mon, c’mon, I want you to do it, I want you to do it, c’mon hit me”. My only conclusion is that whatever made him like this, whatever brutal event or tragic history or horrific realization, has left him wanting to die, but feeling incapable of killing himself. And so he projects that hatred outwards, and tries to destroy the world around him, each person he kills actually a brutally misjudged metaphorical suicide. But in that moment hanging out of the car window, like a dog, he’s free of whatever demons taunt him.

And he is like a dog; in the video with the fake Batman he literally barks the phrase “Look at me!” with the surprising ferocity of a dog turning on the savagery unexpectedly. Dent describes him as a mad dog, and aims to take down those who set him loose. Dogs are important to the whole film, actually, something I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere; at the start Batman is mauled by a dog, triggering his need for a new suit; at the end The Joker guards himself with dogs; at another point he threatens to feed the Russian to his own “pooches”. Unless it’s a canine buddy movie, dogs don’t tend to feature in your average film, so what do they mean here? All I can think is the adage trotted out whenever a domestic canine turns on a child – there is no such thing as a bad dog, only bad owners. If The Joker is a dog, and imagery and script suggest we are meant to think of him this way, then who or what is the owner that made him bad?

The answer, of course, is Batman.

So much written, and the big question, “what is The Dark Knight about?”, left unanswered. Barthes would say “it’s about whatever you think it is about”. Nolan himself has said it is about “escalation”, about moral choices. Many have said it is about Harvey Dent, held up as a beacon, as a symbol, as something he resolutely is not, and held up so much, invested in so strongly by fearful, panicked men (Batman and Gordon) that he breaks (with a little help from his friend).

I think it is about Batman, about taking the ideas and aesthetics that compose the character and his universe, which include all of the above, and more, and making them… as near to concrete as they can be. Platonic. Or nearly. Good enough for me.

RIP Isaac (and Esbjörn)

I first bought Hot Buttered Soul many, many years ago, probably early university years, following an article in the back pages of something like Uncut. I’m on my second copy now, having bought a remastered version (which thankfully didn’t smash the dynamics away) a couple of years ago. I seldom get all the way through it as an album, partly because of that nine-minute spoken-word introductory preamble to “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, which, really, one only needs hear once in a lifetime, and partly because of the meandering-towards-tedious “One Woman”, but mostly because, by about nine-minutes into “Walk On By”, I’m generally rolling around on the floor wailing along, and simply can't take anymore. It needs to be played at inescapable volume. Phenomenal. “Theme From Shaft” is pretty good, too. What also needs to be mentioned is that Isaac wrote some 200 songs (in partnership with various other back-of-house staff) at Stax prior to going solo, including many BIG soul standards, including “Hold On, I’m Comin’”, and “Soul Man”. In all the talk of South Park, Scientology, and Hot Buttered Soul that will doubtless surround his death yesterday, that early silent songwriting career mustn’t be neglected.

As someone else so nicely put it, “Xenu needed a Thetan”. RIP, Isaac.

Also RIP Esbjörn Svensson, pianist and bandleader of e.s.t. (Esbjörn Svensson Trio), a genre-leading Swedish jazz group. He actually died in June, due to a scuba-diving accident, but I only found out yesterday when I spotted the cover of Jazzwise in Zavvi. Tuesday Wonderland, the trio’s last studio album, was one of my favourite records of 2006, and only a few months ago I’d given it some serious listening again. Isaac Hayes may be the more iconic and the more mourned recent musical death, but Svensson, 20-years Isaac’s junior, is arguably the biggest loss to music – he was still making excellent records and playing lauded shows, and seemingly had years of his career left.

the ten commandments of rocktimism

1. you do not talk about rocktimism
2. you DO NOT talk about rocktimism
3. no capital letters EXCEPT FOR EMPHASIS
4. poptimism is NOT our enemy
5. no one is our enemy
6. we’re NOT rockists
7. thou shalt not be nasty to kittens
8. wearing fur is never excusable
9. don’t you eat that yellow snow
10. now wash your hands


and welcome.