Let There Be Lists

[10 Dec 03] The one-off has become a habit: here's my fourth end-of-year list. I should wait to see where Return of the King ends up, and to give myself a chance to read Quicksilver, but it's not like either of those need my personal seal of approval. Better fill in the gaps, though...

Intolerable Cruelty was widely reviewed as a weaker Coen film, but I loved it. (But then, where most critics rate Fargo and Miller's Crossing as their best, I'd have The Big Lebowski and Barton Fink.) Screwball comedy in the finest 1940s mould, with George Clooney looking more like Cary Grant every day. Catherine Zeta-Jones is an unusual presence in a Coen movie, but perfect for this role, not a million miles from her Chicago turn; and Wheezy Joe was a classic Coen character. Four out of five.

Another movie with dodgy marketing was Peter Weir's Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, which is much better than its trailers and billboards suggest. A nautical period-piece played completely straight, with none of the winkingness of Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander was suspenseful and convincing to the end. Or perhaps it was just me: my friends thought Russell Crowe was hard to take as Captain "Lucky Jack" Aubrey. Me, I can think of bluffer sea dogs. Another four stars.

I caught Finding Nemo and American Splendor in Oz, and The Quiet American on the plane over, and liked them all; Spirited Away was strange and sometimes hauntingly beautiful, even better than Princess Mononoke; and Bright Young Things was a successful between-the-wars yarn, with Stephen Fry a perfect director for Waugh's material. Three and a half or four stars apiece.

On the music side, my Britpop leanings have rarely been more obvious. Blur's latest was reassuringly assured, and Catatonia's final album and the much-maligned Manics were excellent bargain finds. The fans' response after Elliott Smith's death led me to his pre-Dreamworks work, which has made me one too; and seeing Alfie at the Flaming Lips concert prompted me to buy all their albums in a fit of retro-'60s-and-Madchester madness—definitely one to watch. The one huge omission from this list, when I recall my fifteen-year Musical Obsession, is MO's 2003 remake of his first and most successful album. But even though it's a polished performance with a few pleasant touches, I can't really recommend it to anyone but a fellow obsessive—not least because I had to order it from Canada to get an un-screwy CD version.

Of all the tech-related non-fiction I've ploughed through this year, Gelernter's and Lessig's books stand out; the former, in particular, demands re-reading. Of the general non-fiction I haven't already mentioned, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe III was a timely continuation of an excellent series, dealing as it did with the rise of Islam and its impact on the West, and James Woodford's The Secret Life of Wombats a fascinating overview of some of my favourite animals and the people who study them. Fiction has been hit-and-miss this year, with a few exceptions: everything I've read by Jonathan Coe has been excellent; David Lodge's Nice Work was a Rummidge return-to-form after Small World; and Sue Townsend's Number Ten was a far more satisfying political satire than The Queen and I. Also worth a mention: Erik Durschmied's The Hinge Factor: How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History (which conjures up any number of what-if questions); Michael Moore's Stupid White Men (which explains where half of Metafilter's members get their arguments from); and Ben Elton's Inconceivable, Douglas Adams's The Salmon of Doubt, and Tony Hawks's One Hit Wonderland (all better than I expected).

More introspective retrospectivity coming soon.


[ 2 Dec 03]

Radiohead, Glasgow SECC, 30.11.2003

Ten years of listening to Radiohead; ten years of listening to other people's opinions of Radiohead. 'Creep' is a one hit wonder. The Bends is nothing special. Kid A is baffling. Hail to the Thief is lacklustre. Radiohead are overrated. I don't like their new direction. I'm not here. This isn't happening.

Well if other people had been at Glasgow SECC on Sunday, other people might have changed their minds.

I'd never seen them live before—never been to a concert this big before—so it was hard to know what to expect. After the upbeat performance of the Flaming Lips I was worried this might be too downbeat. The opening drums of 'There There' put paid to that. What a band: what a tight, driven, compelling band. We are accidents waiting to happen.

And what songs: '2+2=5', 'Lucky', 'Fake Plastic Trees', 'How to Disappear Completely'. They played most of the new album, and tracks from all but the first. The old favourites ('Karma Police', 'My Iron Lung', 'Paranoid Android') got the crowd singing, but seemed almost too familiar, too easy; whereas the new, 'difficult' songs opened up and shone. Seeing them live made clear how well their work hangs together collectively; the complete Radiohead songbook dwarfs the albums, making quibbles about Amnesiac or Hail to the Thief disappear.

And what a show. Thom Yorke can dance. And the lights and video screens complemented their fractured, glowing music perfectly. It reminded me of a perfect Radiohead-listening moment: Kid A and Amnesiac played back-to-back while driving down the Hume Highway at night, headlights and brake-lights passing in the darkness.

My only regrets were that they didn't play 'Pyramid Song', probably my favourite—and that the giant electronic letters spelling out 'FOREVER' at the end of the show didn't actually mean how long it would last.


[11 Nov 03]

The Flaming Lips, 9.11.03

Introducing the Band Balloons in Usher Hall Wayne Coyne Strobin'

The Flaming Lips may not be the biggest band in the world, but the critics sure love 'em, and so do half the music fans on the Web. I liked Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and The Soft Bulletin just fine too, so I was looking forward to the Edinburgh instalment of their UK tour. It was a real show and a half, as Jane's photos show: dancers in animal costumes, giant balloons bouncing across the crowd, and a string of strange but infectious songs sung by a dapper gent in white suit and beard. As well as the best tracks from their two most recent albums, the show featured their '90s hit "She Don't Use Jelly", covers of the White Stripes and "White Christmas", and (my favourite) the new Chemical Brothers collaboration "The Golden Path". All of that, and two good support acts (we were all copying the lead singer of Alfie's dancing afterwards), made for one of the happiest gigs I can remember. Who wouldn't like spending an hour and a half punching balloons up to the ceiling?


It's Time for Something Biblical

[10 Oct 03] I suppose I'd been settling into mid-30s acceptance that my heavy rock days were over: too little subtlety; too much that sounded like everything I'd heard before; too many elderly neighbours to complain about the noise. But this week the Rock was back, as I cranked up album number three by Muse, Absolution.

Having spent 2001 in the thrall of album number two, I figured it was too much to hope that this one would match it; last year's b-sides/live compilation Hullabaloo was pretty forgettable.

But within sixty seconds of pressing play, I knew that pessimism was misplaced. Within sixty seconds, Matt Bellamy was wailing It's the end of the world over an apocalyptic background of drums and bass and thudding piano, and it was clear that the audacity of Origin was still there: if anything, Muse were now even more breathtaking, even more bombastic, even closer to the bounds of parody. Even as I was thinking, "This is totally insane; this is Spinal Tap," I was hooked; and the rest of the album only confirmed it. The invention; the fearlessness; the complete disregard for what anyone says about rock and its long-predicted demise.

From the graceful strains of "Blackout" to the swirling noise of "Hysteria", from the suffocation of "Stockholm Syndrome" to the desperation of "Thoughts of a Dying Atheist", there are sounds here that remind you of rock's most commanding acts, and sounds that remind you of nobody else. The Radiohead comparisons, even the Queen comparisons, are beside the point now; from now on, there will only be Muse comparisons.

Absolution is so packed full of energy and exhilaration that it's hard to believe there'll be anything left for album number four; but it was hard to believe they could top Origin, and they have, oh yes; they've over-the-topped it. Muse are the kings of the high-wire, thrilling the rock and roll circus as they go higher and higher. Here's hoping they never fall.



[ 7 Sep 03] Album of the weekend has been a recent BBC album of the week, Elbow's Cast of Thousands. (To think, I bought an album after hearing it over the Internet... but only after checking first that it wasn't copy-controlled. Cc: Eric Nicoli, Chairman, EMI.)

It's a real slow-builder, in the night-music vein of Coldplay and Doves; after the first tentative listens I've had it on constant repeat, so Jane's lucky she's away. Hints of early '70s prog, too, with flashes of gospel choir reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon. And for any of you Floyd-is-passé cynics, that's a good thing. Go and listen to Dark Side of the Moon again, then write out a hundred times, "I must not dismiss classic '70s albums just because they spent years on the Billboard charts and The Final Cut was rubbish".

But back to Elbow, who deserve to be considered on their own merits, not as imitators. Lines about "the sunshine/Throwin' me a lifeline" and "keep[ing] your blues on cruise control" are an early indicator that this is uplifting, life-affirming stuff, even if it's cloaked in slow tempos, sparse pianos and droning guitars. By the penultimate track, 'Grace Under Pressure', they have the entire audience of last year's Glastonbury concert chanting behind them "We still believe in love so fuck you," and it sounds glorious.

There's a time and place for downbeat; I liked Radiohead's Hail to the Thief just fine, even if it wasn't the revelation their previous few albums were. But I seem to have spent most of the summer listening to a compilation of old Madness singles, the latest Dandy Warhols, and the cheekily-named New Pornographers. Their Mass Romantic and especially Electric Version are packed full of upbeat melodic rock: stuff that nowadays gets called 'power pop', implying an affinity with S Club 7 rather than the Strokes; but the drums kicking off 'The Electric Version' spell r-o-c-k to me. Tracks like 'The Laws Have Changed', 'The New Face of Zero and One', and 'The Mary Martin Show' are just fun, whatever the label; a word you'd never attach to Elbow's 'Crawling With Idiot'. If you like Matthew Sweet, Semisonic and, I dunno, Owsley (where is he now?), you'll almost certainly like this.

But my favourite upbeats of recent months remain Lemon Jelly's EP-compilation ky and debut album Lost Horizons, two hours of pure musical bliss. Maybe I was primed by five years of listening to lounge and samba and hefty doses of Air and Röyksopp last year; if so, I'm glad, because to these ears nothing sounds happier than 'Nervous Tension', 'Page One', 'The Curse of Ka'Zar' and 'Ramblin' Man'. The finest cheesy instruments and incongruous samples are all blended together with a chillout night-club sensibility to make an oh-so-satisfying whole; so satisfying that I hunted down all their singles just for the b-sides, something I haven't done in years. Upbeats of the year, no question.

Big thanks to Bill and Paul for turning me on to the New Pornographers and Lemon Jelly respectively.


All Things Must Pass

[ 7 Sep 03] I had plans for Saturday night; oh yes. Had the place all to myself, and was going to write, write, write. Not read, oh no, because as I told myself, reading is the enemy of writing—a line from Robert Pirsig I should tattoo backwards across my forehead. I was going to finish making this banana cake, listen to Elbow one more time, and then write.

Five hours later, I put down The Beatles Anthology, rose from the couch, and stumbled off to bed.

Well, it had been sitting there unread for eighteen months. But on the other hand: I already knew almost every single detail in it.

I used to read anything and everything about the Beatles. Their albums weren't enough for this nascent rock obsessive; I needed more. And their story had it all: the rise from rags to riches, from anonymity to staggering fame; the initial rejections, the proving the doubters wrong; the explorations, the discoveries, the making it up as they went along; the daunting peaks and the painful descent. All recorded with such a wealth of fanatically preserved trivia that their entire lives could be recreated in the test tube.

I read Hunter, of course, and Philip Norman's Shout!; and Ray Coleman's Lennon and Chet Flippo's McCartney; and every other Lennon and McCartney bio I could find (but not the traitorous Goldman, boooo); and I Me Mine, and In His Own Write; and Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Recording Sessions again and again. I even read Coleman's bio of Brian Epstein—although I drew the line at Ringo. By the time the anthologies came out, I could just about write their track listings from imagination.

It's strange to think back to what it all meant to me in my late teens and early twenties. A crash course in rock history, sure; but also a crash course in growing up, whose nuances I perhaps didn't fully grasp. Couldn't they have held it together, I wondered; what if they'd melded Plastic Ono Band and McCartney; Imagine and All Things Must Pass and Band on the Run? Now, at 35, reading once again about the acrimonious, exhausted end of it all, all I could think was, "of course". Four men in their late twenties drifting apart to live their own lives, after achieving so much together; what's more natural than that? The wonder is that it took the rest of the world so long to accept it.


It Was All A Frame

[12 Jun 03] I've been scattering comments about copy-controlled disks far and wide lately, mostly at Graham's place, and s'pose I should round them up into a single post here.

It's all been brought to a head by the release of Mike Oldfield's 2003 remake of Tubular Bells. What's that, I hear you cry? A remake of one of the biggest selling albums of all time? A remake to go with the orchestral version, the quadraphonic version, the 7" single version, the live version, the alternate live versions on video, the sequel, the numerous singles from the sequel, the live video version of the sequel, the sequel to the sequel, the CD-S techno remixes of the sequel of the sequel, the video of the concert of the sequel of the sequel, the DVD set pairing the concerts of the sequel and the sequel of the sequel, the tangentially-related millennium-themed addition to the whole series, the concert DVD of the millennium-themed addition, the remaster of the 1973 original, the SACD of the original, the remaster of the orchestral version, and the remastered best-of version of the entire series?

But of course.

And like the sad die-hard fan that I am, I want to hear it, if only to satisfy my lingering curiosity. After all, I once doubted the need for a sequel to the sequel, and it turned out to be Mike's best album in almost a decade. I don't particularly want the limited edition with bonus DVD, or the 'complete' box set with the sequel, the sequel of the sequel, and the remake of the original, but what's a tenner or so for the CD itself?

Except it hasn't been released on CD; it's been released on copy-controlled disk, a format I'd sworn to avoid. Dilemma. A dilemma made worse by knowing that Mike approved this crippling of his recording, with the result that an album recorded using G4 Macintoshes can't be played on them. (Guess what I use at work. Guess where I would have been listening to it, given that my wife doesn't like Oldfield's music.)

Things have been heading this way all year, though. With apprehension I've been awaiting each new release from EMI (which has sworn to uphold its reputation by treating paying customers like potential criminals), watching out for one of the copy-protection stickers they've been slapping on new releases in Australia. I'd reluctantly avoided new disks on other labels from Massive Attack and Spiritualized, but could I resist the lure of the Dandy Warhols, Blur, or Radiohead?

Those albums duly appeared, free of warning stickers, and all of them played on my home iMac and work G4; the fateful day had been postponed, it seemed. And then: the remake of the prequel of the prequel of the sequel of the sequel stabs me in my multi-instrumentalist-loving heart.

Luckily, the Canadian release turns out to be unprotected, and I've now ordered it; saved by the Internet once again. But how much longer before everywhere in the world succumbs to this blight? The multinationals are trialling the technology in small test markets like Australia, and as soon as they figure they can get away with it, they'll roll it out everywhere. It already looks like some of those unprotected UK releases I've bought are actually just unlabelled protected ones (ineffectively protected, but still). And so I'll be reduced to looking for a second-hand copy of the remake of the sequel to the orchestral version of the b-side of the 7", just so the record companies don't get a penny for it. While music still comes on physical objects that can be sold and bought second-hand, that is...

We're all screwed.

[Further ranting reading: comments at VM; more comments at VM; prequel to the comments at VM; sequel to the VM comments at MeFi. Or read the handy edited version.]


Tangerine Dream

[16 Apr 03] More and more of those copy-controlled I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-a-CD!s have been turning up in record stores here, and I've been trying to think what they remind me of—apart from the thousands and thousands of dollars (and now pounds) that I've given to short-sighted record company executives over the past twenty years.

In fact, they remind me of twenty years ago: of the first year I properly listened to pop music. If it had been up to record company marketers, it would have been the last year I listened to pop music, because I got sick of the Top 40 pretty quickly. But thanks to friends with good record collections and access to evil copyright-infringing technology, I discovered a whole world of albums to explore, by the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Who, and so on, all lovingly hand-recorded onto magnetic tape. Albums I've long since bought on CD in order to have a 'proper' version, an authentic artifact, with a proper cover and the sweet smell of permanence.

But it's not the tapes that copy-controlled disks remind me of.

At around the same time, I was into RPGs, when RPG meant 'geeky pastime involving funny-shaped dice' and not 'heavy weaponry used in Iraq'. Role-playing games involve a lot of books and booklets, all of them exactly the right size for a photocopier, and in those penniless student days a fair bit of copying and swapping went on. It would be hard to argue that we were depriving the publishers of money, because my friends and I already spent all of our pocket money on new manuals and modules; all we were doing was fuelling our obsession even more, fanning its flames enough to burn up all of our cash and whatever advances we could wangle out of our parents. Teenage obsessions far outstrip teenage income.

But publishers in the early '80s saw the advent of cheap plain-paper photocopying as the End Times, and some of them took measures to prevent it. The most memorable was the Tangerine Game. It wasn't actually called the Tangerine Game; this was a game with a manual printed on tangerine-coloured paper. Which photocopies as a sheet of solid black.

This masterstroke was, unfortunately, self-defeating. Tangerine paper is incredibly hard to read, and rules that can't be photocopied are hard to share with friends—the same friends you want to play the game with. So we never bought or played the Tangerine Game, and now I can't even remember its name.

As friends moved on, our game-playing circle broke up, and I switched my pocket-money allegiances to music. My friends and I educated each other by sharing tapes of favourite albums, and our names were forever associated in each other's minds with those albums, long after the tapes were gone and replaced. The music wasn't just music, it was social glue. Music was our never-ending game.

Now I stare at these copy-controlled non-CDs and think: corruptions of long-established manufacturing standards are not 'proper'; crippled versions of proper CDs are not authentic; data that can't be reliably accessed by high-end stereos and digital devices is not permanent; and the people who would sell these fruits of paranoia to their customers of the past twenty years are not my friends.

A copy-controlled disk is a Tangerine Game.


In tha House

[13 Apr 03] Speaking of friends online and off, James has posted one of his songs on his site. Go and listen to it before he signs a major label contract and in the excitement forgets to read the electronic rights clause and their lawyers rip into him for ripping his own stuff. [File under: indie/electronica.]


Girls Who Love Boys

[12 Apr 03] If you spent the mid-'90s listening to Dog Man Star, Parklife and Elastica, you'll definitely want to read this story about the love triangle behind Britpop from today's Grauniad. Who'd have guessed that Brett Anderson was initially headed for a life of town planning and cosy domesticity?


The Jean Genie

[ 7 Mar 03] Spent last night in the giant bronchial ward that is Edinburgh's Usher Hall, fuming at the inconsiderate concert-goers who chose the carefully placed moments of silence in Sibelius' Seventh Symphony to clear their lungs, rather than coughing during the loud sections when no-one would hear them. "Listen to me! My hacking noises are so much more beautiful than the greatest symphony ever written!" Gahh.

Fortunately, Sibelius' greatness transcended even the irritation of somebody's digital watch beeping at precisely the wrong moment. (For God's sake, who wears a digital watch any more? And sets it to chime on the hour?) The Tempest Suite was fun, Andante Festivo pleasant, the Sixth Symphony wonderful, and the Seventh simply the most perfect 25 minutes of orchestral music there is. I'd never heard it performed live before; the crescendos sounded impossibly overwhelming, all the striving and yearning of human existence wrapped up in their few brief minutes. It wasn't a perfect performance, but it confirmed once again that this is the music I want to hear when my soul wanders up the tunnel towards the light, or at least dissipates into nothingness. But then I've already mentioned the mighty Jean S. here, so you know all that.


Sound Advice

[ 6 Feb 03] Go forth and read Paul's verdict on Lemon Jelly's Lost Horizons. Get ye to the nearest CD store and purchase forthwith. Listen and enjoy. My favourite album of the year so far, no question.



[ 6 Feb 03] Been going out a bit over the last week or so. We took advantage of a mailout offer from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to see Sir Charles Mackerras conducting two Schubert symphonies last Thursday. I'd never heard either, as far as I could remember. The first was pleasant enough, though nothing remarkable—'The Tragic', written when Schubert was 19—but the second, composed seven years later, was great; and named, appropriately, 'The Great'. Full of melody and drama, and well performed by the SCO.

Surrounded by grey-haired patrons and matrons and watching young violinists and cellists, I couldn't help thinking back on what I was doing at the ages of 19 and 26. Not quite in the same league as writing a couple of symphonies. But it's hard to imagine too many teenagers or twenty-somethings tackling a symphony, given the educational demands of today. Now that everyone is encouraged to stay in school until 17 or 18, in university until 21 or 22, and even in graduate study after that, when will anyone find the time to sit down and score a hundred instruments? How many could-have-been Greats are there—or aren't there?


<<music posts for 2002

Front · 2002 · Walking West · Dr Komputor · Detail · Found · Rory Central · Textuary · Grinding Noises · Cartoon Lounge · The Stand-Up · The Twisted Bell · Pacific Politics
©2003 Rory Ewins · Est. 1999 · Powered by Movable Type speedysnail