Friday, December 31, 2004

Long Was The Year

This is what 2004 meant to me:

My new Apple iBook G4.

Julius Emmerson, aged four, as a kookaburra in the Hughes Pre-School 2004 Christmas concert.

McSweeney’s No 13.

Two boys riding bikes without training wheels.

New Yorker subscription.

A whole world of previously unheard music (much of which has previously been mentioned in these pages).

Making only one late-night visit to Canberra Hospital’s emergency ward for the entire year.

Carl Emmerson’s (now aged seven) great progress with both swimming and reading, although not both at the same time. His excellent taste in music is also a never-ending source of surprise and delight.


Gillian Welch and David Rawlings @ the Playhouse, Canberra.

The feeling that, after almost six years in Canberra, we now have a solid circle of friends up here (even if some are away on foreign service) and that, even if we haven’t yet earned the right to call ourselves “locals”, we can at least call Canberra home. Which is not to disregard all of our loyal friends in Melbourne and elsewhere, with whom we have been in much less frequent contact than we would like.

"Knock knock." "Who’s there?" "Cowsgo." "Cowsgo who?" "Cows go moo, not who." And other jokes told by four-to-seven-year-olds.

Adrienne’s uncanny ability to think in three dimensions. (And, ahem, her seemingly limitless patience with my frequently erratic and unhelpful behaviour throughout the year. There, I’ve said it.)

The continuing allure of Santa Claus.

Construction Site: The i(Po)diot

Or: I went through the living hell of undertaking extensive renovations to both ends of the house while struggling to live in the middle as workmen crawled around and amongst us for six long months and all I got was this lousy iPod.

Thursday, December 30, 2004

After the News

Unsurprisingly, Christmas Eve seems to have been a slow news day. But what about this, the main headline in that day's Melbourne Age, under the banner "Exclusive", usually reserved for significant exposes of a corruption or nepotism nature: "Underworld Recruiting in Prisons". Well, as we used to say at Foster High School circa 1979, der.

Meanwhile, coming soon to a weblog near you: 2005.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

World of Echo

Like magpies, Stereolab have made a career out of borrowing bits of other people's sounds and building their own newfangled nests out of them. What I didn't expect was to be strongly reminded of their song "Emperor Tomato Ketchup" when listening, for the first time, to Harry Nilsson's "Jump Into the Fire" (thanks to Spoilt Victorian Child). The rhythmic structure, drum fills, and propulsive bass lines all have their analogues [ahem] in the Stereolab song. What the groop didn't borrow was the Stones-y guitar riffing and the Robert Plant-style echo on the vocals (two of the few recogisable musical tropes yet to be employed by the 'Lab). For which we are grateful. Although both suit the Nilsson song just fine.

Postscript: a fraction of a second after hitting the "Publish" button on this entry it dawned on me that there is a Stereolab/Nilsson connection: the soundtrack to "Midnight Cowboy", best known for the Nilsson recording of Fred Neal's "Everybody's Talkin'" (but personally loved for the mournful harmonica-driven title track, by John Barry), contains not only two songs by something called The Groop (by which moniker Stereolab have long described themselves) but also a seven-minute epic called "Old Man Willow", performed by Elephants [sic] Memory, which in many ways can be seen as a template for all that Stereolab have done.

Quiet Is The New Loud

Respect to the artist Agnes Martin, who has died aged 92. By all accounts she was still painting up a storm at least up until last year. I don't, as they say, know much about art, but I know what I like. For some time now the National Gallery of Australia has had two of her paintings up, which I have been drawn back to time and time again (except when I was momentarily distracted by the recently acquired Gerhard Richter, mentioned here a while ago). Both paintings are so minimal as to be almost blank canvases, and yet they have a power all their own. I had never heard of Agnes Martin until Adrienne's mum mentioned her in conversation one day. Then she kept appearing wherever I turned. Isn't that always the way?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Construction Site: Careful With That Axe, Eugene

In an ideal world, I would never be left alone in the house while builders were around. Here it is, 5 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, Adrienne has taken the boys to the pool, you would think I would be pretty safe. But no. As I look out the window, a dirty great semi-trailer backs up the street, with a forklift on the back. Soon the forklift, and its operator, are in the backyard. I sit here at the computer looking like the pathetic excuse for masculinity that I undoubtedly am. He knows I'm in here. I can see him staring at me as he sharpens his power tools. (Is that what you do with power tools?) I can run but I can't hide. Keep away from me. Keep away ...

The engineer

Not everybody who makes a mark on the culture ends up a household name. You may not, even if you have dub coursing through your veins, have much of an idea of who Errol Thompson was. But, as this obituary of the man shows, he worked on so many cornerstone reggae discs, and with so many superheroes of the genre, that it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge his passing.


It’s probably about time something was said about a few acquisitions.

It took a long time to convince myself I needed to hear Stereolab’s “Margerine Eclipse” and Belle & Sebastian’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”. Apprehension abounded. Stereolab’s recent output has been about equal parts struggle and joy. Each of the last three studio albums had their share of downtime. Three songs might profitably have been chopped off the end of “Sound-dust”, while the middle part of “Cobra and Phases” remains hard work, if an admirable attempt at matching minimalism with pop music. So why is “Margerine Eclipse” such a breath of fresh air? Beats me. It just is. It’s less longwinded, for a start. There is also the use of the kinds of sounds employed in their work with Mouse on Mars, circa “Dots and Loops”. Somehow there seems, as much as anything, to be more space for the groop [sic] to move around in. Inevitably they sound different given the loss of Mary Hansen, with Laetitia’s vocals doing all of the harmony work. It may not be “better”, but it is, in its own way, different.

Then there’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”. For a long time I didn’t know if I could “go there”. The admirable-in-theory “democracy at all costs” approach had led the band to lose sight of their strengths (mainly, Stuart Murdoch’s songwriting), and had also caused some unfortunate juxtapositions: the deeply affecting “The Chalet Lines” into the hyper-twee “Nice Day For A Sulk”, for example. (You could, if you were so inclined, burn an extremely good single CD-R from the best parts of the last three albums.) And the thought that they were now to re-work their sound via Trevor Horn, while throwing Murdoch back into the foreground, had me thinking that they may be one step too far removed from their roots for salvation to ever take hold. Of course, I was wrong on all counts. It’s not all Murdoch, and that’s no bad thing. The songs are, to a man, wonderful. The production is brilliant. The entire history of the English pop charts is in here somewhere, down to Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town”. Even a song with the unhopeful title of “Piazza, New York Catcher” gets an unambiguous thumbs-up. How could I ever have doubted them?

Meanwhile, Stephin Merritt is back with this year’s Magnetic Fields, “i”, the first on a major label. “No synths”, they loudly proclaim, and while some of us doubt that this is entirely true, it produces a setting wherein the hitherto self-consciously “retro” 80s sound can no longer inhibit, as it does when one is feeling less charitable, enjoyment of the songs themselves. Merritt will one day make a fortune as people with voices more friendly to the masses than his own discover the universality of his songs about love. Above all else, Merritt should be treasured because he is the first real lyricist that “we” (by which I mean anyone born after the Second World War who takes any more than a passing interest in popular music) have had. Merritt seems to have absorbed everything that he has ever seen, heard, or read, and to be able to squeeze little pieces of it into songs that are somehow able to turn the most unlikely material into something witty, clever, profound, or all three together. (Nobody else that I’m aware of has applied the Pantone colour system to the pursuit, or loss, of love.) Your grandparents were lucky enough to have had Cole Porter and Irving Berlin. We are lucky enough to have Stephin Merritt, but, as yet, too few of us know it.

And, of course, there’s Nick Cave, who gives us not one but two albums, a wordtorrent even by his standards, supported as ever by the shambolic majesty that is the Bad Seeds. Blixa is gone, Mick Harvey steps up to the plate in the way that only he can, and an organ has been thrown into the mix. It will take time, as Cave records always do, to absorb, but for now it is an unexpected pleasure to set either disc spinning. We had our doubts upon hearing “Nocturama” about the pursuit of a nine-to-five ethic in the world of creativity. We may well have been wrong. Who said all work and no play would make Nick a dull boy?

But wait, there’s more. Thanks to the mantra of “free downloads before 7 am”, and no less thanks to the generosity of my work colleague (for one year only) Sarah, who had the good sense to put me onto folks like Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart, M Ward (saviour of the universe, notwithstanding that the “M” only stands for “Matt”, which is not quite as romantic or mysterious as, say, “Miracle”, or "Manfred"), songs:ohia, Iron & Wine, and others of that ilk, I have spent much of the last few months drowning in great music of all hues. And yet, even with such a steady and varied diet of diverse, “new”-sounding music (even when much of it also sounds “old”), do I find myself reaching more often than not for two albums of unashamed old-fashioned pop music - you know, the kind with guitar lines you can play along to, and hooks that you can’t get out of your head - Snow Patrol’s “Final Straw” and A C Newman’s “The Slow Wonder”? I’m not even going to write anything about these records (there’s really not much I could say, beyond “I don’t know why I like them but I do”), they are not particularly "cutting edge" or otherwise startling, they simply brighten up a dull existence. For that I say, thanks, fellas.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Memories Can't Wait

Some very interesting things float to the top, occasionally, at This morning I noticed that they had posted a song called “Spooks in Space” by the Aural Exciters. Gosh, that rings a bell, I thought to myself. On listening to it, I realised that I failed to remember anything at all about the song itself, but also, on the other hand, that I had a clear and vivid memory of the voice of Mac Cocker, latterly outed as Jarvis’s long-lost father, back-announcing the very same track over the airwaves of the old 2JJ back in 1979 or 1980. I can recall every inflection of his voice as he said “blah blah blah by the Aural Exciters”. The mind is a strange and unfathomable thing.

I was at the same time trying to place “Spooks in Space”. All I could come up with was, it's a bit like what the B-52s were doing, and something about it suggests the first Madness album (a long shot), but that it has an overall sound strongly reminiscent of a lot of what came out on Ze Records. And then a search of the Internet revealed, to my delight and amazement (and if I had ever known this it was long forgotten), that the Aural Exciters were, in fact, a side project of the guy who ran Ze Records, and most of the people who appeared on the label were in some way involved. You can find out more here and you can, at least for now, download the song (which has a certain charm to it, and presumably a James Chance cameo on sax) here.

Happy Sad

Happy: taking last Friday off work, and finding the New Yorker’s annual Cartoon Issue in the letterbox. Studying closely the beautiful cover by R. Crumb and wondering whether he might be the first New Yorker cover artist ever to insinuate a picture of himself into a cover drawing (he’s the beardy old guy with the cloth cap, on the right-hand side of the cover); opening up a seemingly innocuous fold-out Johnny Walker ad, only to find four pages of new work by Seth lovingly wrapped inside its covers (marred only by that horrible word “advertisement” at the top of each page); noticing that Dave Mazzucchelli and Paul Auster’s comic-book adaptation of Auster’s “City of Glass” has been reissued by Picador. If any book is able to demonstrate the utility of the phrase “graphic novel”, this would have to be it.

Sad: going into a bookshop yesterday morning and reading “Michael Rosen’s Sad Book”, written by Michael Rosen and drawn by Quentin Blake. I had heard a bit about this book, made by two of the kings of British children’s books. But I wasn’t expecting to be reduced to silent tears on the floor of Paperchain Books in Manuka. I had to take myself off to a nearby cafe for a while to compose myself. I knew I had to go back in and buy the book, so that I could take it home with me and have a really good cry. (Which I did.) This is the saddest book I have ever read. (It is also very beautiful. Quentin Blake draws the best eyes.) I can’t even begin to imagine Rosen’s own sadness - to lose your 18-year-old son: I “only” lost my father when I was 25 years old (and with him my entire life’s fabric and history) - but Rosen’s evocation of his own grief in this book cuts so close to the bone of my own sadness that, like a dog with a snake, I am torn between being too frightened to read the thing because of what it is likely to set off inside me, and yet being unable to leave it alone. If it’s possible for someone else’s writing to talk to you, “Michael Rosen’s Sad Book” is talking to me.