Wednesday, February 28, 2007

My Autumn's Done Come

You probably know the story of Lee Hazlewood. Lee isn't going to be with us for much longer. He has just released what is going to be his final album, "Cake or Death". It would be churlish to be critical of anybody in such circumstances, but in all honesty there is quite a bit of this record that, it seems to me, perhaps should not have seen the light of day.

However, by the time you get to the end of the last two songs on the disc, there will not be a dry eye in the house. Lee Hazlewood understands that music can do this. Misgivings about this record do not in any way undermine the legacy that he will leave to us. Thank you, cowboy.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Progress Report

So. I finished reading Ian McEwan’s “Amsterdam”. Can’t now understand how I could have taken so long to make a start with it. Aspiring novelists should both read and not read this book. Read it, because it is perhaps the closest thing to a “perfect” novel that I can think of: characterisation, plot, pacing, tension, place, time, anything else you care to mention. When the trademark McEwan shocks occur, you are not only there with the characters, you are inside their heads, feeling what they are feeling, which is something I last remember experiencing while reading “The Comfort of Strangers”, in 1986, lying on the lawn in Carlton Gardens, where the Melbourne Museum now sits, one afternoon, until it started to cool down and darken, whereupon I went back to the flat at 666 Lygon Street to finish it off. That is the only book I have ever read in one day.

Whereas aspiring novelists should, also, not read it, because it can only leave them with an overwhelming sense of “Man, why would I bother?”.

Meanwhile, readers of “serious” fiction who have been hearing about these things called “graphic novels”, but can’t quite get beyond the idea that they would never be seen dead reading comic books, might break the ice with “La Perdida” by Jessica Abel, a well-written, well-drawn story about a somewhat misguided and/or naive young woman who goes to Mexico to find her roots and instead gets into a bit of, er, trouble. Abel may not be in the same league, writing-wise, as McEwan, and she may also not be as great an artist as, say, Picasso, but the particular skill of being able to combine writing, and especially narrative, with a strong visual sense, is something rare, and deserves to be appreciated on its own terms. This book's relationship with superheroes does not exist. I read some of it on the bus, and some of it sitting in cafes, and the world didn’t end. Go on, be brave.

(I also, to keep things a bit lighter, romped through another hardcover work of graphic fiction, “Get A Life” by Dupuy-Berberian, an absolutely gorgeous collection of Monsieur Jean stories, translated from the French, and packaged to the exceptionally high standard we have come to expect from the good people at Drawn and Quarterly. For those of us whose next visit to Paris is some years away, it’s the next best thing to being there.)

“Stranger Than Fiction” is a better movie than you might think. I had never seen a Will Ferrell “vehicle”. The closest I have ever come is watching him interviewed by Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show Global Edition” some months ago. I took him to be a glorified ham actor, but there is nothing hammy on show here; it is all very quiet and understated, perhaps bearing comparison with Adam Sandler’s surprise turn in Paul Thomas Anderson’s last film. The story itself, meanwhile, is the kind of mess-with-your-head concoction that has appeared in recent years in films like “I [heart] Huckabees”, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”, and especially “Adaptation”. What the creators have done here, however, is to transpose these seemingly post-modern avant garde ideas into the mainstream, and they have done so in such a way that you don’t notice the joins. It won’t win any awards (although Dustin Hoffman should be noticed for his beautiful performance as a literature professor/sleuth, not a million miles away from the character he played in “Huckabees”) but there are plenty worse films out there at the moment.

Over in the world of the blogs, Woebot has, as you might expect, be the first of the old guard to embrace video streaming, if that’s what you call it, with Woebot TV, while over at his usual home he has posted a scantastic tale of his grandparents’ record collection, which would appear to bear a striking resemblance to that of my own parents. (No Winifred Atwell, though?)

Elsewhere, Mark K-Punk has finally put up the second and third parts of his too-difficult-by-half-but-that’s-how-we-like-it discourse on The Fall’s “pulp modernism”, while our man Tom Ewing has brought some much needed freshness to the frequently uninspiring pages of Pitchfork with a nicely meandering essay on the Beatles and the music-hall tradition. Marcello Carlin, meanwhile, has produced four consecutive pieces of writing that are up there with his best (which, of course, is way out of reach of us mere mortals), dealing, in turn, with the new Stooges album (and in the process totally nailing the fan’s urge to welcome any new, and especially any new and unexpected, material from a long-dormant favourite as a “stunning return to form” - yes, we all do it; I even had kind words to say once upon a time for the Howard DeVoto/Pete Shelley sub-Buzzcocks reunion album, the name of which I can no longer even recall, and the desire to hear which is zip), “Treasure” by the Cocteau Twins, an album which means more to me than almost any other album by any artist anywhere ever (i.e. it’s quite good), and, by way of two posts, Judee Sill, whose “The Kiss” destroys me every time I hear it. Good work, fella.

And a final mention to new blogger on the block, Sammy Harkham, comic-book creator and editor of the cutting-edge graphic anthology “Kramer’s Ergot”. Sammy is doing a fairly regular blog which is tied in with a Los Angeles store called “Family”, which I can’t help thinking I would spend way too much money in if I lived anywhere near it. Sammy’s blog is to some extent “advertising”, but it is sufficiently stand-alone, and he is such a natural at this blogging caper, that it merits a regular visit.

Oh, and I have also bought the Tom Waits triple-disc set “Orphans”, which will take a while to digest, and I would like to have bought the new David Kilgour except the guy behind the counter at Canberra’s “hippest” record shop had no clue who or what I was talking about. Sheesh. Dude is only a living legend ...

So, what have you been up to?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Where It's At

A friend writes to advise that she is about to undergo a kind of voluntary sonic colonic (solonic?) irrigation, flushing out all of the old music in her head to make way for new sounds. Or unheard or forgotten old sounds. What, she asks, should she be looking out for in 2007?

Well, I have given this some thought, and here is what I would be cramming my head with, if it were me.

First off, I find that a lot of what I am listening to at present is being made either by waif-like females (at least, they sound as if they should be waifs; some I cannot vouch for the way they look, as they remain little more than spectral digital presences): “Ys”, obviously, but she already knows about that; but also Marissa Nadler; Emily Haines and the Soft Skeleton’s “Knives Don’t Have Your Back” and Neko Case’s “Fox Confessor Brings The Flood” (both being members of Broken Social Scene, perhaps suggesting that half the Canadian youth population are Scenesters, which may in fact be true) and, not so much waif as tough, Joan As Policewoman’s self-titled album; and, from an older school, records by Karen Dalton and Vashti Bunyan; or by what Mojo magazine, the home of dad rock, would be calling beardo folk, or New Weird America, or folktronica, or back to the Appalachians: by which I mean, I just can’t get enough of “Espers II”, “Brightblack Morning Light”, Six Organs of Admittance’s “The Sun Awakens”, Tunng’s “Mother’s Daughter and Other Songs”, and “To Find Me Gone” by Vetiver. To enter these records is to enter a world where time has stood more or less still, where new sounds are being made in the old ways, and old sounds are being made in the new ways.

Otherwise, I find myself at the moment skittering between shortlived “phases”. First there was my Led Zeppelin phase, inspired by watching Disc 1 of the “Led Zeppelin” DVD on a big TV on New Year’s Eve. This needs to be watched, not just for the music, but also for their youthful good looks, immaculate dress sense and superior hair care. Next, and still happening, is my Crosby Stills and Nash phase, brought on by accidentally hearing a couple of songs of theirs, “Dark Star” and “Wooden Ships”, on the download. Interestingly (to me), both of these were pockets of music I have looked down upon since I turned 15 and discovered 2JJ and New Musical Express. Which is perhaps my bad, although I wonder where I would be now if I had continued down the path that had me listening almost exclusively to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Status Quo, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd and so on. It probably wouldn’t be pretty.

In fact, I am feeling another phase coming along, and appropriately enough it is a Steve Reich phase (many of his earlier pieces had the word “Phase” in the title). Steve Reich would be very suitable for listening to if you were, say, working on a D Phil thesis and needed at once to concentrate and to have some music in your life. If you ask me, I would say start with “Music for 18 Musicians” (any version; I like the Nonesuch one from a couple of years back, but then that’s the one I have) and “Tehillim” and, maybe, the Deutsche Gramophon two-CD set that has “Drumming” as its centrepiece. The Necks can serve a similar purpose, buy you already know them.

I also think it is always a good time to revisit Tim Buckley. Right now, I would say that the time is right to dig back into “Dream Letter”, a double live CD (I have it on vinyl only, which leaves out a couple of songs from the concert) which I would like to think is still available, although now that you mention it I haven’t seen it around for a while.

Which is probably enough for now. Except to say that on a personal level, I am looking forward to new albums by Air, Au Revoire Simone, LCD Soundsystem, The Bird and The Bee, and Electrelane. But especially the new David Kilgour. It is always a good year when you have a new David Kilgour.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

(Don't) Rain (on my) Parade

I had the job of explaining to Julius (now aged seven) that Australia had lost the rain-damaged second one-day cricket final against England, and hence the series. As someone whose cricketing consciousness has developed at a time when, the 2005 Ashes debacle aside, Australia has been on top of the world, he was understandably disappointed and, in the tradition of Australian values and the notion of the "fair go", tried to find someone to blame. (He eventually settled on "the god of weather".)

Mr Duckworth and Mr Lewis (or is it Mr Duckworth-Lewis?) have devised a system which, though it seems able to deal with every possible eventuality, is inexplicable to seven-year-olds, and hence breaks one of my own ground rules: if you can't explain/justify something to your own children, then you probably shouldn't be doing it. (Okay, nobody mention d*wnl**ding music from the Int*rn*t.)

He insisted that the result was Not Fair, and I must admit I found it difficult to wholeheartedly disabuse him of that notion. (Although I did point out that finding themselves at 4/40 was not the fault of anyone but Australia's upper order.) It does seem, on the face of it, a bit skew-whiff [now there's a word you don't see enough of] when, after one rain interruption, the number of overs to be bowled is reduced by eight and the victory target is reduced by a mere 13 runs.

Nevertheless, as an aspiring young cricketer, the experience will do Jules some good. Hopefully it will also help the Australians, as they ramp up their preparations for the World Cup, the (as I pointed out to him) only one-day series that really means anything at all.

The final word is Jules's: "But we still have the Ashes, don't we?"

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

And here is the news

Let me reproduce for you, without permission but I'm sure they won't mind, the last paragraph of the editorial (they call it a "comment" for historical reasons) in this week's New Yorker (cover by David Heatley, by the way, well done that boy), written by Elizabeth Kolbert, whose work on climate change over the last two years has sent me into alternating waves of proselytising and abject despondency:

"Carbon dioxide is a by-product of just about every aspect of contemporary life—from driving and flying to farming and manufacturing and watching videos on YouTube. To reduce emissions by sixty per cent—or eighty per cent, as Senator Boxer advocates, or by two-thirds, as the McCain-Lieberman-Obama bill calls for—will thus require significant, and doubtless also disruptive, changes at every level of society. This may not seem an attractive prospect, but, as the latest I.P.C.C. report makes clear, change is not something that anyone at this point has a choice about. All that is at issue—and it is critically at issue—is how disastrous the change will be. Already enough CO2 has been pumped into the air to alter life on earth for thousands of years to come. To continue on our current path because the alternative seems like too much effort is not just shortsighted. It’s suicidal."

Monday, February 05, 2007

Whitney Bailliett R.I.P.

We are obliged to mark the passing of Whitney Bailliett, erstwhile New Yorker jazz critic, who, like the best of that magazine's critics (here we are thinking of, say, Lewis Mumford and Pauline Kael; there are others), called it as he saw it, and saw it very well. We weren't around in the late fifties, when Bailliett first appeared at the magazine, but we are willing to wager that not every writer for a major newspaper or magazine was as prepared to be thrilled and amazed by the new sounds of jazz as it evolved into, and beyond, bebop in what must have seemed to have been the blink of an eye. Even now, almost fifty years later, you go back and read one of his columns and feel compelled to rush out and listen to whatever it is he was writing about that week. And you just know that, if he liked it, it will still sound good.

Saturday, February 03, 2007