Sunday, May 28, 2006

Home Truths

"What are you doing on the computer, Daddy?"

"Well, Carl, I'm just looking for songs."

"But, Dad, you already have so many songs that you can't listen to them all."

It is with piercing arrows like these that our weaknesses are brought home to us.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Okie Dokie It's the February 2006 Hypothetical Mix CD

Incredible Bongo Band, “Apache”: barely a guitar or surfboard to be found; instead, bongos (obviously), brass and a nice slice of Hammond driving the tune. You can keep your Shadows, your Ventures, your Bert Weedon: this is my “Apache”.

Edu K, “Popoduza Rock n Roll”: what you have here is, essentially, a Japanese update on that Aerosmith/Run DMC number from ages ago. And your problem with that is?

Felix Kubin, “Hit Me, Provider”: a rather brutal piece of German techno complete with breaking glass sample, and some words about losing one’s mouse oh no, but essentially nonsense. Good nonsense.

Tocotronic, “Gegen den strich”: you would think that this was mislabelled, and that it was, in fact, your typical Tarnation/Cowboy Junkies widescreen Western number. Then the singing starts, and you realise that (1) it is what it says it is and (2) it is quite special.

Ulrich Schnauss, “... passing by”: the synths wash over you in the manner of OMD’s “Architecture and Morality”. There are only a couple of moments of electrickery to remind you that it’s not 1982.

Ash Wednesday, “Love By Numbers”: but then it suddenly is 1982, a year when I was tangentially acquainted with Ash Wednesday. Mr Wednesday (not his real name) has gone on, among other things, to have a stint with Einsturzende Neubauten, whereas I haven’t really “gone on” at all. Oh well. If you wanted to remember what a particular corner of the Melbourne music scene sounded like in those golden days, you could do worse than listen to this.

Go Team, “Loneliness March”: we seem to be on a short journey through my musical past. Next stop 1987 when, in the rolling hills around Leongatha, a select group of like-minded frustrated scenesters discovered that distance was no impediment to fandom. We found ourselves tilling fresh musical fields as far away as Sydney, Australia (the Cannanes), and Olympia, Washington, USA (Beat Happening). The Go Team (not to be confused, or outdone, by today’s bande du moment of that name) comprised Calvin Johnston of Beat Happening and whoever else happened to be around at the time; they put out a series of 7” singles on K Records that came in transparent plastic sleeves and had barely legible labels. “Loneliness March” was one of their finer moments, and it is good to hear it again.

Paulie Chastain and Ric Menck, “Wishing On A Star”: back then I received a mail-order package from Calvin which contained a whole lot of things I didn’t order, plus a profuse apology, plus as an added sweetener a flexidisc with this song on one side. It's probably worth a small fortune now. It is indeed strange to find something that actually sounds better as an mp3.

Rogue Traders, “Voodoo Child”: and then there’s this. You know you haven’t lost it when your six-year-old comes home singing “baybeah baybeah baybeah” and you can say “hey, I know that song; it’s on my laptop”. They may turn out to be one-hit wonders, and even then that one hit is trading on a timeless three-note Elvis Costello guitar-and-organ riff. But try getting it out of your head.

Soft Cell, “Hey Joe”: who knew this existed? An early, extended (12 minutes!) Soft Cell jam which throws together a couple of Hendrix chestnuts. Marc Almond gets a little bit further into character during “Hey Joe” than I am entirely comfortable with.

Black Mountain, “Don’t Run Our Hearts Around”: there are days when you just want to grow your hair long, whip out your (t)rusty air guitar and crank the volume up to eleven.

Vivienne Goldman, “Launderette”: one of my cherished singles is “Private Armies/Launderette” by Vivienne Goldman, who (I think) was a journalist and who (I think) made no other records and who (I know) enlisted the help of, essentially, the then members of Public Image Limited, crucially Keith Levene, and placed Dennis "Blackbeard" Bovell at the controls. Outstanding.

Nina Hagen, “African Reggae”: in which a German screamer does for reggae what Henri Rousseau did for the Pacific Islands.

Keith Hudson, “Turn The Heater On”: the reggae nugget most likely to be known by indie kids, on account of New Order (literally) attacking it on the John Peel show. As white men playing reggae goes, New Order reached depths I would never have thought possible if I hadn’t heard it myself. It makes Paul Simonon’s early fumblings sound like, well, reggae, and gives “lumbering” new meaning. After hearing it, you need to turn to the original just to clean your system out. (Disclaimer: this is not at all meant to suggest that I don’t like New Order. I do like New Order. I don't like New Order attempting to do reggae.)

The Loft, “Why Does The Rain?”: those indie kids probably have a soft spot for this, too; and for good reason.

The Monkees, “Don’t Call On Me”: the Monkees are routinely held up as some kind of cardboard figures of fun. Listen to this and ask yourself, “Why?”

Les Calamites, “Toutes Les Nuits”: bouncy French girl-pop; suitable for pogoing.

Felt, “Evergreen Dazed”: one of my guilty secrets is the complete absence of Felt from my life. On the strength of this (if not on the strength of “Primitive Painters”, which, despite (or perhaps because of) the appearance of Elizabeth Fraser, sounds nothing so much as horribly dated), I need to dig deeper. But I already knew that.

Split Enz, “The Choral Sea”: this came on the iPod. I couldn’t place it, either by band, genre, or vintage. Turns out that it is on an album that I own but haven’t played for many years. I can’t recall ever having been particularly struck by this instrumental at the time. Sometimes if you just wait long enough your moment will come.

Friday, May 19, 2006

A word from our sponsor

This piece on Slate contains a link to an Am*r*c*n Expr*ss ad, directed by Wes Anderson, that you can watch via the wonder that is YouTube. Watch the ad. (I guess you might have seen it if you are an American but I also assume we'll never see it down here.) Read the piece. (It contains some helpful information for non-cinephiles.) Watch the ad again. And again. And again. Repeat the process.

Wes Anderson is one of the masters of contemporary American cinema. There are a few others. (There is even a second Anderson amongst them.) A companion piece on Slate laments that they are less than timely in their output, and this ad is an interesting and perhaps, in time, significant insight into how Wes Anderson's mind works. I'm not convinced that this supposed tardiness is a valid argument, though. If a film takes time to get right, isn't it better to take that time than throw five films into the world in order to see if any of them "stick"? As Mr Incredible said [Pixar has never exactly flooded the market with product, but I don't hear anyone complaining about them], "We get there when we get there."

The thing about Anderson's films, as I'm sure I've said here before, is that he tells fundamentally bleak stories by way of slapstick comedy. This provides for maximum discomfort and memorable images. He also has a lot of ideas, and (as his Amex ad, unless I am seriously misreading it, suggests) isn't averse to having fun at his own expense.

It struck me, 10 years ago, while sitting in a cinema in London observing, in amazement, the quality and inventiveness of British cinema advertising, that advertisements would be the next major artform. I have seen nothing since to disabuse me of that notion. Sure, most advertising is rubbish, but then so are most books, movies, paintings; even (perhaps especially) the vast majority of music should never have been made. So why should advertisements be any different?

Anyway, enjoy the ad. After all, you paid for it.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

In the Core of a Flame

[warning: contains cliches]

I first became aware of the Go-Betweens when Three Triple R, in Melbourne, started playing a song called “I Need Two Heads” on high rotation. It stuck out amidst the post-punk sturm und drang for being fragile, melodic, and alive to the values of space in music, and for having an instantly memorable yet simple guitar solo. It set the tone for the Go-Betweens’ future, and for my own, as well: it was one of the earliest “grown-up” records I bought, and I love it still, even as the glue holding the cover together grows weaker and weaker. (It was also the sound of an Australian band finding its own feet; their earlier songs were essentially false starts in the wrong direction - although, to their credit, never disowned: a raucously joyous rendition of “Lee Remick” closed their set in Canberra the tour before last.)

But then Grant McLennan wrote “Cattle and Cain”. Everybody knows “Cattle and Cane”. It was the common reference point in every obituary of Grant (and how incredible, and telling, that he “starred” on the obits pages of the London Independent, the Guardian, and even the New York Times) (and in many ways I still can’t believe, let alone accept, that he is dead) (brief pause while I compose myself)


“Cattle and Cane” marked the appearance of a genuinely Australian sense of place in popular music. Yes, we had had Greg Macainsh’s location-specific Skyhooks songs, but there was always a sense that they were really only imported songs with the place-names changed for a bit of local colour. And Sherbet had written a song about infidelity using cricket as a metaphor. (The younger and more naive of us believed for many years that it was actually a song about cricket.) But I don’t think it is mere hyperbole to say that this song changed the way musicians in this country thought about what they were doing. The Triffids’ “Wide Open Road”, a little while later, was the “two” of a magnificent one-two punch.

And in many ways “Cattle and Cane” spoke directly to me. It appeared at a time when I had not long moved to Melbourne, to go to University, and was missing the farm something terrible. The lyrics dug in like a blade. No “cane” in South Gippsland, maybe, but plenty of “cattle”. I had been that schoolboy coming home.

I bought every Go-Betweens album on release. At some point I figured out that each one seemed to connect directly backwards, in some way, with the the album before last; to put it simplistically, their records seemed to move from rough to smooth to rough again. I first saw them play live at The Club, in Smith Street, Collingwood, when they toured Australia on the back of the “Spring Hill Fair” album. We were standing towards the back, but there was a palpable sense of self-confidence and mutual respect amongst the band. Robert Forster, of course, was the showman, but Grant with his quiet intensity almost stole the show as they ended with the feedback-laden song-story “River of Money”.

The story of the Go-Betweens is well enough known to remain unstated, but in a nutshell: an unbroken sequence of critically acclaimed records that sold half a dozen copies each; lack of record company support (I think I am right in saying that, at least in Australia, they never appeared on the same label twice); and a high degree of apparent, but unspoken, interpersonal turmoil. As I wrote previously, the Go-Betweens were never just a band. Then they went their separate ways. I had always been more attracted to Robert’s songs (although, as I have written here previously, it was always Grant's songs that could reduce me to tears, which, I guess, is not a situation that is going to change any time soon), so I picked up each one of his solo records while leaving Grant’s post-Go-Betweens career for others to follow. Then the long wait, seemingly futile but we couldn’t quite let it go, for Robert and Grant to rekindle the flame.

Which they did. Reforming at around the time of a procession of cash-driven “reunion” tours by people who should have known better was perhaps a typical case of Go-Betweens bad-timing-by-association, and there were many, even some of the old faithful, who couldn’t quite get back in the groove. But the rewards were certainly there. “The Friends of Rachel Worth”, the comeback album, was a little bit stitched together, although Grant's “The Clock” suggested that they had really returned, and for all the right reasons. By the time of “Bright Yellow Bright Orange” there was a sense of them becoming, slowly, a seamless unit again.

This was the point, also, at which they played Tilley’s Devine Cafe in Canberra. We thought that we had arrived too late to get a seat, but I happened to spot a former work colleague occupying a table of his own directly below the right-hand side of the stage, at which there were two empty chairs. Adam didn’t seem to mind us crashing his party. As the support band, Architecture in Helsinki, went through their instrument-swapping routine, Grant and Robert were sitting right behind us, in the shadows, watching the band and getting a feel for the crowd. (It was a big crowd; Canberra may not have that many Go-Betweens fans but we were all there, and some of us must have brought along our friends.) When the Go-Betweens hit the stage, Grant was directly in front of, and above, us. I spent a lot of the show watching him, admiring his quiet intensity and the way that he seemed happy for Robert to hog the limelight. It was a great show. The list of songs they didn’t play would have made up a pretty solid greatest-hits package. They were kind and generous performers, and, one thought, grateful, too, for this second chance.

“Oceans Apart” dropped a year or so later. It demonstrated, amply, what the previous two albums had hinted at: that the Go-Betweens mark II were every bit as good as the Go-Betweens mark I. Grant had written something of a sequel to “Cattle and Cane” in "Boundary Rider", and Robert gave us what may be his song for the ages, “Darlinghurst Nights”. It all seemed too good to be true.

They toured Canberra again. Money being, as it always seems to be around here, tight, I decided to pass it up this time, secure in the knowledge that I had seen a great show by them in recent memory, and that they would be back again some day. I was wrong on the second count.

It is impossible, at this point in time, not to think about Robert Forster. Maybe it is possible to imagine a future in which he pursues a sporadic solo career as something of an antipodean Paul McCartney, not too worried about what other people think of what he is doing but also not resting on his past fame as a Go-Between. But it is much too early for any of that. Me, I can’t quite bring myself to put on a Go-Betweens record just yet.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Whit Stillman: his part in my downfall

In which the faithful old Guradian [sic] answers the question that has been much on my mind over the last few years, when I have thought about it at all.

Coming soon: Hal Hartley writes, "hey, screw Whit Stillman, has everyone forgotten that I have been missing for several years, too?"; followed some time later by J D Salinger on "what I have been working on since "Hapworth 16, 1924" was published in the New Yorker in 1965, and anyway am I actually still alive?" and then, after another lengthy interval, Scott Walker writes exclusively for us on preparations for his new album, which, given his recent release schedule, is expected to appear in 2018, when he will be 75 years old.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Part Company

Yesterday morning, the news came over the radio that the Go-Betweens' Grant McLennan had died in his sleep, aged 48.

Perhaps my fragile emotional state was a product of the fact that I was driving in to what would be my 12th day at work in a row, but I had to pull the car over in order to cry.

I think I now have some idea of how Beatles fans felt when Lennon was assassinated, except that in the case of Lennon/McCartney any chance of them getting back together was pie in the sky, whereas Forster/McLennan, after many years of trying to go it alone, had recognised that the whole was so much bigger than the sum of its parts and had resurrected the Go-Betweens, surprisingly but majestically. How cruel, then, that just when they were finally getting the recognition that they had always deserved, it must end.

It is just so sad. My heart goes out, obviously, to Robert Forster, but also to all other past and present Go-Betweens, Adele, Glenn, the other Robert, Amanda, and of course Lindy (who famously shed tears of her own in the post-punk episode of "Long Way To The Top"). The Go-Betweens were never just a band.

Rest in peace, and thank you.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Speed Trials

When you have a minute, take a look at this picture (be quick; it will have changed to something else by next Monday).

On close inspection, it seems to indicate that it is designed to play at 32 1/3 rpm. Is that why Dylan's voice doesn't quite sound like anybody else's?

I checked my own copy, but sadly it is a crappy 1980s CBS reissue and is silent on the point.

Monday, May 01, 2006

One Down, One Up

With the death, at age 97, of John Kenneth Galbraith - the sensitive thinking man's economist - the level of common sense in this world has gone down a notch. Or two.

But all is not lost. For what do we see in the New York Times Magazine? Nothing less than a brand new, serialised Maggie story by Xaime Hernandez, coming at you a page at a time, in glorious full colour. No, I didn't believe it either.