Thursday, July 28, 2005

Walking On Thin Ice

Buried in the middle of Jane Mayer's long and compelling report in the New Yorker of interrogation techniques that may or may not be being employed at Guantanamo Bay (by the end of which you will be, if you are not already, unsure as to exactly who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this "war" - and, if American doctors turn out to have been involved in monitoring levels of torture so as to make sure detainees almost, but don't quite, die, then heaven help us all) is the fascinating insight that one of the methods of don't-call-it-torture that has been found to be most effective is the playing of Yoko Ono records.

Memo to my future captors: if you keep me in a confined space and put Eric Carmen's "All By Myself" on an endless loop, I have no doubt that I will, before it gets to the third repeat, be inventing all kinds of classified Australian military secrets.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

People Who Died

So, now that we in the southern hemisphere have become aware, thanks to a recent obituary in the London Independent, of the existence and identity of Gretchen Franklin, do the various lyrical elements of the song "Telephone Thing" by The Fall coalesce into a coherent and unified whole? [brief pause] Err, no, actually.

Just like spring rain

You go into Revolution, Canberra's only serious second-hand CD store, once every week or so and trawl through the "Just Added" bins. You go for months without finding anything worth a second look. (It's a useful barometer, though: the shelves at the moment are full of copies of the latest Coldplay.) Then you go in one day (viz.: yesterday) and leave with not one but six purchases. In a moment, what you bought and why. But first, what you left behind:

Robert Wyatt, "Rock Bottom": because you picked it up, put it down conspicuously at the front of a heap of other discs so as not to forget about it, and then forgot about it. It is more than likely still to be there next visit, however; you can't imagine the post-Canterbury scene to be a hot topic of conversation in Canberra this winter.

David Bowie, "Stage": because something had to give, and because you are punting on it turning up, as did the contemporaneously reissued "David Live", at the local library.

On the other hand, you bought:

The Sea and Cake, "One Bedroom": because, even though you know nothing about this one, you once borrowed their earlier album "Oui" from the library and quickly fell in love with it. (Cue voice from back of own head: so why didn't you buy the copy of "Oui" that was also on sale?)

Ron Sexsmith, "Retriever": because it's Ron, and no further explanation is therefore required.

"Hustle: Reggae Disco": because it's on Soul Jazz, and because it dovetails two of your passions. To be honest, you aren't expecting all that much from it, but you are secretly hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Beck, "Guero": because Sasha Frere-Jones is more often right ("Entertainment"; "Madvillainy"; "London Calling"; "Remain In Light") than wrong (M.I.A., Keren Ann); and because you have learnt long ago not to trust "critics" regarding Beck. To this day, almost nobody gives "Midnite Vultures" the credit it deserves, and you need to see why this new one should be any different.

The Meters, "Good Old Funky Music": because the Meters are sadly absent from your collection, and this looks like as good a place to start as any, in that it includes "Look-Ka Py Py".

Ry Cooder and Manuel Galban, "Mambo Sinuendo": because your wife couldn't get enough of this when you borrowed it from the library a while back, and because of the close-up cover photo of the tailfin of a big, late-50s American car.

Which should keep you occupied for a little while at least.

Let's Active

The scene: driving in the car, towards home.

Julius (aged five): can we stop at that playground?

Dad (aged forty-one): no; we have to get home. Anyway, we just did a whole lot of running around at the park.

Julius: but dad, I'm still activated.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


1. For those of you, like me, suffering from Marcello Carlin withdrawal, he can be found here, writing with typical astuteness, perception and openness about Pink Floyd's Live8 set. I have also discovered that his thoughts can be found from time to time in the comments box over at the popular Popular. (Mind you, some of us are still suffering from Ian Penman withdrawal. Every so often, just for the sheer futility of it, I click on over to The Pill Box just so that I can gaze once more upon those indelible words “NB: AEON VOID SHATTERS”.)

2. Out goes James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand” (which I cannot recommend highly enough; for whatever reason I took to this much more than I ever took to “American Tabloid”, even though at face value they are very similar in structure and in subject matter; but crikey it’s a monster of a book, 700-odd pages of sentences of seven words or less, not an adjective or adverb anywhere, nothing in the nature of descriptive scene-setting: it probably expands to a “normal” novel of a length far exceeding a thousand pages); in comes Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights”, the first in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. This is being devoured extremely quickly; Pullman, leaving aside any views he may have on politics and/or religion and their place in what may or may not be “children’s literature”, he is a cracking storyteller, and it is impossible to put this book down. It’s particularly pleasing to think there are two more books to come.

3. We were wrong dept: I seem to have made the following mistakes (among many others).

(a) Some months ago I unthinkingly slighted a band called Joy Zipper, whom I had never at that stage even heard of, because Alexis Petridis, in the Guardian, had suggested that they were better than Yo La Tengo (nobody disses YLT in my presence and gets away with it). I have now heard a few songs that they have done and they do seem to have something going for them, noting in particular a terrific song called “Baby You Should Know”, which has a languid charm all its own (well, the ghost of My Bloody Valentine lurks, but where doesn't it?).

(b) I once flicked through a book called “Epileptic” by David B, at Minotaur bookshop in Melbourne, deciding that it was, and I quote, “Not the sort of thing I'm into”. Late last year my comic book pusher-man, Peter Birkemoe at the Beguiling in Canada, foisted upon me a copy of David B’s first book for Drawn and Quarterly, “Babel No 1”, which I devoured over Christmas at a cafe on the Geelong waterfront. Give me more, give me more.

(c) In a similar act of spectacular misjudgment, I passed on Mr Birkemoe’s earlier recommendation that I buy a book by Ron Rege Jr. At the time, I had a quick trawl around the Internet and didn’t take instantly to what little I found. (To quote from one of the memorable, but unnamed, characters from "Little Britain", "Computer says ... no".) Having now been exposed to his work at some length, thanks to the mini-comic attached to “McSweeney’s No 13”, a page of his work in “Kramer’s Ergot No 5”, and some of his stuff that I have latterly discovered lurking in the pages of the “Comix 2000” anthology, I am now Ron Rege Jr’s number one fan and would be proud to call him "dad".

4. It is nice to welcome back Gabba, although I am not entirely sure that too much democracy is necessarily a good thing. When the usernames after the songs were either "jk" or "krg" you knew where you stood. Now, it can feel a bit like having a total stranger coming up to you in the street and saying "drink this, it will change your life". At least two people have put up work of their own (at least they were honest enough to admit it). Still, free off-peak downloading allows one to discard the non-starters at little cost. (Also, some of the entries seem only to allow me to stream, not download, the track, but I assume this is something peculiar to the Macintosh?) And it's unfair to be critical of jk, who might just as easily have abandoned the entire project after the loss of his partner in crime. Better this Gabba than no Gabba at all, what?

Shredded wheat

Given the paucity of non-chain record stores in Canberra, it is surprising what turns up on the shelves at the local libraries. Here’s the latest selection:

“Better Shred Than Dead: The Dick Dale Anthology”: the first disc of this two-disc retrospective rocks (although Link Wray is my artist of choice in this department). The second disc, covering the Dick Dale renaissance of the 1990s, adds not much to the first disc except higher fidelity; it also can’t help but suffer from the presence of one Stevie Ray Vaughan, much loved by bearded men who use words like “chops” and “licks”, but who in my opinion was strong on craft but sadly lacking in art.

Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy, “Immortal Memory”: not the first time I’ve borrowed this. At previous attempts I hadn’t been able to see past the idea of this being an extension of Dead Can Dance. And I suppose in some ways it is: you wouldn’t mistake Lisa Gerrard’s voice for anybody else’s. But reading it in that way, it fell short of expectations. This time around, I have been able to appreciate it for what it is: a compelling song cycle in the classical tradition, but with a definite Irish feel to it. Which, obviously, tells you nothing. This record is a delicate, precious thing, which quietly convinces you to give it the time and attention it needs for its beauteous charms to slowly unfold before you.

The Free Design, “You Could Be Born Again”: undoubtedly the pick of this bunch. The Free Design are mostly known, of course, for their purported influence on Stereolab; a theory which is parrotted so much that it is as if, if you had all the Free Design records, you would see nothing at all novel in the ’Lab. Which is, of course, a load of cobblers. You can hear plenty else in Stereolab, from the minimalists to the Swell Maps, from the Velvet Undergound to Suicide. None of which, by any stretch, have any connection, musically at least, whatsoever to the Free Design. At least, not on the strength of this record, which I think was their first, from 1968. This album sits fairly comfortably inside a circle bordered by, let’s see, the Seekers, Sergio Mendes and Brasil 66, Os Mutantes, and any number of records under the banner of Phase 4 Stereo, but with a touch of Van Dyke Parks thrown in to keep it just difficult enough to have remained slightly under the radar of popular consciousness. The arrangements and harmonies are unfaultable. And their version of “California Dreamin’” is up there with the best. But to come back to this whole Stereolab/Free Design straw man, the more I listen to this disc the more I suspect that a better modern comparison would be Broadcast, and in particular “Ha Ha Sound”, in which that band postulate a world in which 60s nostalgia would bypass all of the usual suspects in favour of the early electronic artists, Stockhausen, The Fifth Dimension, and European soundtrack music.

The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, “The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion”: JSBE, I find, are much like a visit from your in-laws (note: I didn’t say my in-laws). It’s good to have them around, but it’s also nice to see the back of them. And yet when they’ve gone you kind of wish they’d come back again. Weird.

“The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered”: disclaimer: I have always been a bit uncomfortable with the whole notion of outsider artists in general, and with the cult of Daniel Johnston in particular. Is it okay to derive pleasure out of the product of someone else’s mental illness? And yet the roll call of the great and the good on this tribute album surely speaks some kind of volumes about the quality of his songs. And in the hands of “actual musicians” they do scrub up rather well. The packaging suggests Johnston’s full blessing, so I am putting aside my misgivings for the time being. It’s nice to hear Calvin Johnston’s basso profundo again after all these years, for example; while Beck, M. Ward, Tom Waits, Bright Eyes and Eels are there for the benefit of the hipster cogniscenti. “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievience [sic]” is a gorgeous song no matter what its provenance.

Hood, “Outside Closer”: having listened to this four or five times, I find myself unable to commit any of it to memory. Where does it go? I can’t say I dislike it. Quite the opposite. Maybe I have reached saturation point. Influence corner: the gold standard of post-rock, Tortoise’s “djed”; The Sea and Cake; Four Tet.

Pulp, “We Love Life”: in this busy world in which we live, “Hits” is all you really need of Pulp. No more - but certainly no less, I hasten to add, in case you took this as some kind of put-down.

Mission of Burma, “Signals, Calls and Marches”: over the years I have probably discarded more Mission of Burma records than you have ever owned. Unlike most records I have gotten rid of, I haven’t yet lived to regret having done so. Once again I can’t pinpoint the problem. If I said that the CD version of their live album, “The Horrible Truth about Burma”, was the one record of theirs that has ever come close to being indispensable, would I be saying anything?

Casiotone For The Painfully Alone, “Twinkle Echo”: if I hadn’t spent much of the second half of the 1980s lost in a world of K Records, the Cannanes, and Wayne Davidson’s mostly cassette-only Toytown label, I’m sure I would find CFTPA fresh and exciting. (Plus I would now be able to lead some kind of normal life. Thanks, fellas.)

Saturday, July 09, 2005

It Takes All Sorts To Make A World

Do I attract weirdos? Or am I, in fact, a weirdo?

I left work last night around 5.30. It was dark, and cold, and raining. There were no people around. I was walking to my bus stop. This involves crossing King Edward Terrace, a fairly busy road, at a pedestrian crossing. (The crossing is clearly signposted and well lit, but it occasionally becomes invisible to motorists, and I cross my fingers each time I step out onto it.) There was no oncoming traffic on the near side of the crossing, so off I went. I got almost half way across when a car coming the other way drove through the crossing just in front of me. The driver slammed on the brakes at about the time I would have been under the back wheel of the car. The car then drove off again, with its horn blaring incessantly and the driver’s arm waving out of the window. I thought it must have been someone I knew, apologising for almost killing me, so I waved back as I continued walking to the bus stop, shaken somewhat.

The next thing I knew (by now I was at the bus stop, calling up some Bill Fay songs on the iPod), the sound of the car horn was getting louder again, and the car, having done a U-turn on King Edward Terrace (itself no mean feat at that time of the day, on, as I have already said, a dark and wet evening), was doing a right-hand turn into the street where the bus stop is. “Here we go”, I thought to myself, as the driver, in the one motion, leaned across to roll down his passenger-side window, and started to drive his car off the road and up onto the footpath. For a moment I thought the object may have been to finish the job and actually run over me, but the car then stopped. By now I was very conscious of the fact that there was not another living soul around. The driver, who seemed to be a pretty large bloke in a small car, stuck his head almost out the passenger window and started screaming at me, and gesticulating wildly. In the split second in which I had to weigh my options, I thought: if I start to run, he will get out of the car and come after me (or even perhaps keep driving after me - I mean, the car was already up on the footpath pointing in my direction), in which case I don’t stand a chance, and it’s not as if there was anywhere that I could run to. On the other hand, it would be faintly ridiculous for me just to ignore him: he was as in your face as someone could be when they are in a car and you are standing at a bus stop, and anyway there was nobody else around that I could pretend that he might be talking to. So the only life-extending option I had, I figured, was to engage this guy in rational conversation.

As it turned out, that was fairly easy to do, because he wouldn’t let me get a word in edgeways. And he threw me with his opening line. I was expecting “What is your problem?” (easy answer to that one: I’m standing in the rain at the bus stop, without an umbrella, watching rain pouring over the brim of my hat, and wondering if you are going to pick up an iron bar and kill me with it); or “What the hell do you think you were doing?” (easy answer to that one, too: I was crossing the road at a designated and well-lit pedestrian crossing, giving me the right of way, and you had more than enough time to see me given that I was already almost half way across the road; okay I was wearing dark clothing, but after all I am an aging post-punk and wearing black is like an article of faith, not merely a uniform, and in any event the dark clothing would be offset by what was visible of my pasty white skin).

No; the first thing he said was: “What fucking country are you from?” Huh? Before I had time to come up with some kind of smart response, though, he had the answer: “Are you Italian? Are you from fucking Italy? That’s it, isn’t it: you people. What’s your father? Is he fucking Italian? Is your father Italian? Of course he is. Why don’t you back to your own fucking country you fucking wog. You wog. I hate you. You fucking wog.” (I am perhaps not recording this verbatim, but I hope you are getting the idea.)

Before I could explain to him that my father had been dead for some years and that I am at least fourth-generation Australian on both sides of my family, he took a new tack: “Where do you work? Where do you fucking work? You work over there don’t you? [looking back in the general direction of the High Court of Australia] Yeah I know you fucking do because I seen you [sic, obviously] coming from there. You people. You fucking people. I’m going to report you to the police. You people think you can get away with anything but I’m going to report you to the police and they’re going to come down there and they will fucking report you. You fucking people. You think you can do anything. Are you fucking Italian? Where’s your father from? You idiot. Why don’t you go back to Italy you fucking wog. Fucking dago.” (I was kind of wondering if my hat, a 1940s-era fedora, of the kind favoured by Canadian comic-book artist Seth, was some kind of obscure signifier of an Italian origin, but I didn’t have the chance to ask, I was drowning in this guy’s verbal torrent.)

At that, he drove off, but not before winding his driver’s side window down so that he could continue screaming at me as he drove back whence he came, turning left onto King Edward Terrace and leaving me, standing in the rain, to ponder what exactly had just happened.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Accidents Will Happen

The story so far: a few days ago, Orbis Quintus posted a song by 60s NZ band The Avengers, which prompted me to put up the Pop Art Toasters' cover of the same song (scroll down a couple of entries). Now, in the way of these things, the ever reliable Moistworks has posted "I Won't Hurt You" by the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, a song which is also covered by the Pop Art Toasters on their one and only EP (which only has five songs: is this an unlikely coincidence or something more sinister?). The good news is, this gives me the chance to post the Pop Art Toasters' version, which I think is the best song on their disc. The better news is, it gives you a chance to hear this song, which so fully captures the essence of the Chills that it continues to come as a surprise to find that it's not a Martin Phillipps original.

Pop Art Toasters, "I Won't Hurt You".

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Splash Your Jewels

And while I'm on the subject of things New Zealand, a big shout out to me old mucker Alun Breward, who was kind enough to take the time to send me a nicely photocopied (reduced to save paper- we like that) article from NZ magazine the Listener about David Kilgour. I can't recall ever having actually read much about Kilgour, believe it or not, so it was good to have the opportunity to vicariously catch up with the man for a few minutes.

And if anyone has earned the right to spend their days sitting on the verandah of their secluded weatherboard house, contemplating whether to take the board out to catch a few waves, or whether to strum a few chords instead, it is David Kilgour, founder member of the Clean, perhaps the most influential band this side of the Velvet Underground; shortlived Chill; part-time Pop Art Toaster; part-time member of Yo La Tengo; and one of the finest guitarists and tunesmiths I can think of. His latest solo release continues to elude me, but the previous four come highly recommended. You can (and should) start anywhere, really.

Mind you, I am somewhat puzzled by a quote in the article from film-maker Bridget Sutherland (who is making a documentary about Kilgour), who calls "Here Come The Cars", Kilgour's stripped-back, sparkling solo debut, the closest New Zealand has come to a "Blonde on Blonde". How so? It's nowhere near double-album length; contains no canine-trauma-inducing harmonica solos, and is not (yet) a certifiable stone cold classic record, instantly recognisable by anyone anywhere. Yes, perhaps on one or two songs Kilgour sings in a style that might be called "Dylanesque", except that more often than not "Dylanesque" is merely a code word for "can't sing". Which isn't true at all in Kilgour's case; his voice might be limited, but he knows his limitations and works them to advantage. (In fact, a closer reference point than "Blonde on Blonde" might be "Electrical Storm", the first solo release by Ed Kuepper, someone else whose voice might sink more ships than it launches, but for whom that doesn't mean a damn.)

Oh what the heck, here is "You Forget", taken from "Here Come The Cars", just to give you a taste of the superior Dunedin sound:

David Kilgour, "You Forget".

Released on Flying Nun, at least in New Zealand, in 1991. Try Smoke.