Friday, February 29, 2008

This just in ...

From the most recently received print copy of the New Yorker:

"Lou Gramm, the voice behind the gale-force mainstream rock of Foreigner, has left the band and is currently pursuing a solo career that flirts with Christian rock."

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sights and sounds

1. You can perhaps imagine how excited I was to discover this. "This" takes you to a web site created by Kevin Huizenga (current crown-wearer of the grown-up comic-book kingdom), Dan Zettwoch (whose work I only know from a longish piece in an issue of "Drawn and Quarterly Presents" where he tells the story of what John Lee Hooker would describe as "the mighty flood, the mighty flood"), and someone called Ted May with whom I am not acquainted. It is in the form of a blog, so, you know, most recent at the top and all that. One of them puts up a piece. Then someone else puts up another piece. They don't necessarily flow in any kind of linear story sense (c.f. Art Spiegelman's "Narrative Corpse" project from a few years back); but it will be interesting to see where it goes.

2. Jason is doing the latest New York Times funny-pages strip. I don't know that much about Jason; his stuff has never really got under my skin. But three weeks in I think I am getting the hang of it.

3. Holy heck, Batman. The New Yorker lets you read a piece by Michael Chabon about superhero costumes, and listen to him talking about same. Which ties in neatly with something that I wanted to mention, namely that I am currently reading Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay", which is perhaps the greatest book ever written (as of today ...). It carries off the neat trick of not only being a book about creation and imagination, but also being itself full to the brim with creation and imagination, down to the ludicrous but beautiful footnotes, any one of which would have provided ample material for a book, or at least a short story, on its own.

4. And not to be satisfied with that act of generosity, the New Yorker also lets you listen to Jonathan Lethem reading and talking about a 1936 Thurber short story. Thurber you generally think of as a humourist, but really what he was was an observer. Much of what he observed was funny, or at least he could see the funny side of it. But, as this piece shows, that was not always the case.

Song of the day

"Confusion", by New Order. I have a confession to make: until last weekend, I had never owned a copy of "Substance", possibly the best, and certainly the most generous, single-artist compilation in the history of the world. I think I held off buying it for so long on the misguided assumption that it was too good to be true; it is too good, but it is also true. Life's not often like that.

"Blue Monday", of course, is the song that blew everything out of the water, and in many ways it continues to do so: try to imagine a world in which it had never happened; you can't, nor would you want to. Michael Clark gave me a copy of the original 12" for my birthday back when it first came out, thus contributing to the financial loss that Factory made on each record sold. (In fact, I can't help thinking that that statistic, even if correct, is as misleading as any other statistic. "Blue Monday" in its original form might have been a loss-maker, but if so it must also have been a loss-leader: much of the money Factory presumably subsequently made from New Order and merely from resultant brand recognition would not have been made but for the doors forced open by "Blue Monday".) Michael possibly assumed, and I'm not going to say he was definitely wrong to do so, that I had a number of self-erected "attitudinal" barriers to entry that would have caused me to reject "Blue Monday" out of hand, and that if it was going to be let into my world, as it had to be, it would have to be pushed. Thanks, Michael.

That said, it is possibly "Confusion" that had the bigger effect on my own ears. Whereas "Blue Monday" took some pre-existing ideas and expanded them out of all proportion, "Confusion" took what we understood as the "sound" of a song and threw it away. I had, literally, never heard anything like it. My guess is that what drew me to "Confusion" was the affinity I sensed between it and the Jamaican dub reggae that by then had long taken hold of me in a deep and profound way, and the way that geniuses (yes) like Lee "Scratch" Perry and King Tubby had opened up the possibilities of recorded sound in ways never before thought of, using in many cases techniques involving nothing more than (perhaps literally) scissors and sticky tape.

The name "Arthur Baker", which meant nothing to me, was what was attached to the sound of "Confusion". It was as if the beats had had all of the juice sucked out of them and had been stripped back not just to the basic sound to something less than the basic sound. Ditto the keyboards. "Minimal" is a word bandied around a lot these days. Is this where it started? Certainly, it is difficult to see how further out New Order, and music in general for that matter, could have gone from here, and indeed New Order subsequently went into a more pop-song-oriented direction from then on - and let's be clear that this is not a criticism in any way. But, in the way of these things, it is arguable that the next step on from "Confusion" was not made for a couple of decades, when Ricardo Villalobos turned up to the party.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Three (unrelated) songs

In chronological order.

"The Bewlay Brothers", by David Bowie. Listening to this song in 2008 provides further evidence that, of the many musical paths forged by David Bowie during his hugely fertile 1970s, some are still being discovered. If you snuck this into a mix after tracks by, say, Tunng and Devendra Banhart, you would have the young and unsuspecting asking, "Who is this hip young thin white dude?". Bowie perhaps does himself a disservice by attempting, in the here and now, to remain "relevant", when his back catalogue is perfectly capable of doing it for him, without the wrinkles.

"Hard Life In Country", by The Fall. Which contains, indeed is dominated by, one of the top five Fall guitar motifs.

"Breathe On Me (Jacques Lu Cont Mix)", by Britney Spears. This is getting a bit old now, but it still hits like an express train. Quality from start to end. Those who wish the worst for poor old Britney have got it all wrong.

YouTube of the day

RIP Teo Macero. Because it's not only the names on the front cover of the record that are the important names.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Song of the day

"Chelsea Girls", by Nico. Somebody should make a movie based on this song. Although I may not have the stomach to watch it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Last night I finally managed to fulfil one of my long-held ambitions (no, not that one): I got to see The Necks playing live in concert. I had seen Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams' previous band, The Benders, a couple of times in Melbourne many years ago, and have also seen Swanton's other band, the catholics, twice. I own almost every Necks CD, which must amount by now to almost 24 hours of music. And yet, through circumstances as diverse as inability to obtain tickets, being interstate, and being too sick to go, I have always missed their infrequent appearances in this town.

Given that my previous encounters with Swanton and Abrahams were all in smoke-filled hotel lounges, it felt initally a little incongruous to be sitting in a theatre looking down on them. But as things panned out, this concert-hall-like setting was entirely apt for the kind of music they performed, which was perhaps closer to modern classical composition (albeit totally improvised) than to jazz. You couldn't tap your foot to it, but you could sway back and forth if, like me, movement is essential to your listening experience.

The first surprise (only because I had never considered it) was how long they waited, in still silence, before anybody started playing. My friend said he thought they were doing John Cage's "4'33"" and was tempted to call out "plagiarists!". That would have been quite funny, but I'm glad he didn't do it. The second surprise was that Abrahams sits with his back to the other two.

The two pieces played, each lasting close to an hour, were quite similar. It was Tony Buck's night: he created all kinds of percussive sounds using all manner of objects, including quite a bit of metal on metal. He worked hard, producing rising and falling waves of intensity early on in the first piece, which then fed through to the second piece as well.

Abrahams meanwhile pulled huge, sweeping washes of sound from the piano, including at one point in the second piece balling his left hand into a fist and intermittently striking the low notes. (This was entirely appropriate to the mood that had been created, which was a bit like the part of "Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow" where she is on the ship, particularly when it docks at that platform or oil rig or whatever it was; the room was full of all kinds of creaks, groans, clanking, and generally unsettling sounds.) Occasionally he would hit upon a melody, usually only for a fleeting moment, but some of those moments were so unexpected and so gorgeous that I could only smile. At one point he was playing a four-chord descending sequence that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Portishead record. Elsewhere he caused the piano to generate what sounded like early-1970s computer music.

Swanton's acoustic bass was what gave structure to everything else that was going on. Occasionally it fell into the mud of the acoustics, but in the absence of any fixed rhythmic structure, he was essential in at least providing a bit of a road map.

The highlight of the night, for me, was the last 15 minutes or so of the first piece, when for a while the volume and intensity increased. You could feel the three of them breaking their own shackles. It was up to Swanton, then, to bring the piece in to land by way of something like a slowed-down take on The Stooges' "Now I Wanna Be Your Dog".

Having seen it first-hand, I still don't know how they do what they do. Maybe they don't, either. But I guess they have done it so many times now that it just happens. How so much can be teased out of an arbitrary starting point (in the first piece, a slow one-two-one sequence of bass notes; in the second, a simple piano melody) is a beautiful mystery.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Song of the day (2)

"I Think I Smell A Rat", by The White Stripes. 2008 is shaping up for me as the Year of The White Stripes. I have put off listening to them for way too long. Sasha Frere-Jones (yes, him again) has been very critical of Meg's drumming. But she's not there to be John Bonham or Jeffrey Wegener. She's there to do a job. And it's hard to fault her on that score in this song, at least.

Anyway, a certain drummer from Liverpool called Ringo was also the subject of plenty of negative commentary regarding his ability, and he went on to be the voice of Thomas The Tank Engine. So, Meg, I'm sure you have a bright future ahead of you.

Song of the day (1)

"Blind", by Hercules & Love Affair. I think this is a rather good song, although for the moment it is too swamped in Internet hype for me to be entirely certain of my own thoughts. Certainly, this kind of song is a perfect vehicle for Antony's gorgeous voice (see also "One More Try", by My Robot Friend).

What I can't explain, however, is why whenever I listen to this song it triggers in the jukebox that is permanently embedded in my brain "You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties", by Jona Lewie. Go, as they say, figure. Do they still say that?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Song of the day

"Life On Mars", by David Bowie. By way of celebrating the return to our TV screens, in a seconds series, of the BBC show of the same name.

Friday, February 15, 2008

To whom it may concern: Thanks, guys

[Editor's note: May also be of general interest to other readers.]

Let's assume you were the recipient of a twelve-month gift subscription to the New Yorker. What would you do with it? You would read it. Every week. From cover to cover. If you had the time. Which you don't. Here are my suggestions.

Elizabeth Kolbert's writings on climate change are compelling (and frequently distressing) and must be read. Likewise, Michael Specter's pieces on the outer limits of science and research. I would also recommend you always read: Anthony Lane's film reviews and longer-form criticism; anything by Bill Buford, who seems to have found his calling in writing about food (although, like me, he has the annoying habit of throwing parenthetical comments into every other sentence); Seymour Hersh's skating of the thin line between conspiracy theory and How Things Really Are in the murky world of American foreign policy; anything by its team of excellent foreign correspondents, particularly the editor, David Remnick, Jon Lee Anderson, Steve Coll and George Packer (who seems to have developed a second life writing on the US election - and writing well about it, too); and anything by David Sedaris.

It is an election year, after all, so there will be quite a lot about that, most of which will be out of date by the time the magazine has travelled all the way to Australia (most such pieces are available online as soon as they come out, which is the better way to take them in). But there will likely be long-form profiles of the two candidates, whomever they may be, which would be worth reading. If you had the time.

Let's say you are a two-doctor couple: the magazine carries a lot of writing about medicine, particularly the moral and ethical aspects of practice, which you may be interested in; I can't say whether the fact that it is a general-interest magazine means it would be talking down to you.

Let's say you have a particular interest in music: you would do well to read classical music correspondent Alex Ross and pop music writer Sasha Frere Jones (who also maintains not one but two excellent weblogs). Everyone seems to hate SFJ, mainly, I suspect, because he has probably the best job in the world. Also in the arts sphere, I always enjoy Calvin Tompkins' profiles of artists.

What you will look at every week is the cartoons. Don't ignore the other art, either, from the cover inwards: there are often contributions from comic book artists such as Seth, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, and others, including the wonderful Jacques de Loustal, Lorenzo Mattotti, and Richard McGuire (who also is/was a member of Liquid Liquid, but you knew that). If you are really lucky, at some point during the life of your subscription the magazine will run one of its infrequent three-page strips by R and Aline Crumb.

As for the fiction, you're on your own, really, although obviously you must read anything by Alice Munro and William Trevor.

And one final tip: what the New Yorker has the enviable ability to do is to run articles on a topic that appears on its face to be of marginal-to-none-whatsoever interest, only for you to discover that it is the most interesting thing you have ever read. Over the last few months, for instance, there have been fascinating pieces on: the demolition of a building in lower Manhattan; the creation of a global seed bank; the harvesting of cocoa beans; a classical-music hoax; and shenanigans in the Italian olive-oil industry.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

K-Tel record of the day

If you had asked me, back in 1979 [1980 actually - see below], to put together a list of what I was listening to in 1979, it would have looked remarkably like the track-list of "Full Boar". (With the exception of the Jon English song, which I don't remember at all.)

Darren, the font of all knowledge, takes up the story:

"The release date is listed incorrectly (a clue is that selected songs such as 'I Got You' by Split Enz, 'Space Invaders' by Player 1 and 'He's My Number One' by Christie Allen were all released in March/April 1980).

'Full Boar' was released in May 1980. At the time I was working in Clark's Sound Centre during the school holidays (I was 13 and probably shouldn't have been in paid employment). We sold heaps of copies but not as many as '1980... The Music' which was considered a superior compilation.

Whereas FB was released by K-tel and therefore contained left-overs from the previous year as they were deleted from the primary catalogues of the major labels (the practice of the day), 1980 was jointly released by EMI and Festival and therefore contained all the hits of the moment.

I think the 1980/FB sales ratio would have been 3:1. Rarely was FB sold in isolation.

In hindsight, FB is the pick of the two (reinforced by the inclusion of 'Confrontation' by the Aliens, a song I have not been able to locate despite many years of trawling the internet, and 'I'm Not Like Anybody Else' by Jimmy And The Boys)."

The funny thing is, it is quite possible that Darren, whom I did not know in 1980, but who is now very close to the centre of my universe, may have been the person who sold me this record.

This just in

Farewell then, Smoky Dawson, who was an important part of my Saturday-morning-television education (and who was serenaded by The Reels on "The Smokey [sic] Dawson Show", from "Quasimodo's Dream").

All together now: "A four-legged friend, a four-legged friend, he'll never let you down ...".

Civics in schools: a case study

Jules: "Why is the radio still talking about the apology? That was yesterday."

Mum: "They are talking about people's responses to it. The apology is a very important event for Australia. There was a long story on the BBC, which is like the ABC but in England. So even in other countries in the world, it has been news. And you got to watch it on television with your class!"

Jules: "And it was very boring."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

It's Sorry Day!

I took an extended route to work this morning, so that I could study the vibe at the Tent Embassy, which has been rapidly expanding this week in anticipation of the Prime Minister's apology to Aboriginal people for the acts committed long ago, in good faith but misguidedly so, against many of their people. I was a bit late (on account of my watch deciding to lose a few minutes at some point during the night), so that, when I was walking past, the apology was already underway - was, in fact, being broadcast at high volume so it could be clearly heard, depending on tree obstruction and wind direction, from at least as far as the High Court - and the Tent Embassy residents had made their way already up to the lawns of Parliament House, along with a steady stream of people from, as they say, "all walks of life", whom I saw from the bus. Traffic was also congested, or as congested as it can really get in the Nation's Capital. Even the workers at the new National Portrait Gallery stopped to listen.

The apology was made. From what I heard, it was an understated but gracious speech. At the end of it, the world didn't end. A terribly misguided policy had been, over a number of years, carried out against certain segments of a small but significant minority of the Australian people. It was latterly discovered and investigated, and an apology recommended. It is difficult to see how such an apology could be resisted, and yet resisted it was. The new Prime Minister deserves credit for so promptly doing what his predecessor could not.

Now we can all, as they also say, "move on". My feeling is that the apology will be good not only for those to whom it was directed by also for the rest of us. (I'm not being facetious in saying that I feel better knowing it has been made.) There can't be too many people today who hold the view that removing people from their mothers on account of the colour of their skin is sound policy. That being so, there is no reason why a collective expression of (belated) sorrow should be construed as amounting to an admission of present-day individual guilt or responsibility, or any other narrow-minded legalistic kind of analysis. Shit does happen, and it never hurt anybody to hear someone say "sorry".

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Song of the day

"The Number One Song In Heaven", by Sparks. All seven and a half minutes of it, including the lengthy, somewhat abstract introductory passage, which only serves to enhance the thrill, and it is a thrill, that takes place at the 3.30 mark when the song "proper" kicks in. Produced, as if you didn't know, by Giorgio Moroder.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Song of the day

"A Stream With Bright Fish", by Harold Budd and Brian Eno. Unusually for Canberra, today is grey and overcast (although, as we speak, the sun has appeared - as have, go figure, a few drops of rain - through a crack in what is otherwise an unbroken mass of cloud) - perfect listening conditions for Harold Budd, and specifically his collaboration with Brian Eno "The Pearl", which I bought, along with "Eden" by Everything But The Girl (the two albums have remarkably similar covers, although there the resemblance ends), on an expedition in early 1985 with Russell and Roger to the record shop at Monash University. The Budd and Eno I had been looking for for quite some time - thanks to the British music magazines I was aware of its existence, but, in those pre-digital days, the physical object had proved elusive. I should, too, have mentioned it as another record that was predicted by "After The Heat" (passim).

Thursday, February 07, 2008


Pretty much every second place you go on the Internet is linking to this piece of US election propaganda. Apparently, what we all want is "change" [c.f. myself, who often can be heard asking "Why can't things just stay the same?"]. But the change this video makes me long for is the eradication of the heinous practice of melisma from the face of the earth. (Actually, the saving grace of the video is the totally swoon-worthy smile given out by Scarlett Johansson towards the end. And you can get the full benefit of that with the sound off.)

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Song of the day

"Tunic (Song For Karen)", by Sonic Youth. It may be that Sonic Youth's first couple of albums of the Geffen era are not the sell-outs they were pilloried for at the time. Either they have gotten better with age, or they now have a wider context in which to sit (viz., a Second Golden Age around the time of "Murray Street", demonstrating that it wasn't all going to go downhill after "Daydream Nation", after all).

I have always associated the Sonic Youth of the early nineties with Hal Hartley films. "Tunic", to my callow and insensitive ears, was broad, coarse comedy. It is not comedy. And it is more like a Wes Anderson film: a tale of heartbreak and tragedy dressed up in the raiments of slapstick. The lyrics are quite possibly the most direct in the SY canon; and I can't think of a better showcase for Kim Gordon's voice.

Friday, February 01, 2008

2008: the year of the ...

Hmmm. Already we have had a new album from the Magnetic Fields (whose last album was released in 2004). In the pipeline are new albums from My Bloody Valentine (1991), Portishead (1997) and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (2004). Now we discover that there will also be a new album by Tindersticks, who last released an album in 2003 and have since been missing presumed defunct (Stuart Staples releasing a solo album entitled "Leaving Songs" was a pretty solid hint, I would have thought). It is the last of that list that I am most looking forward to. Tindersticks have always produced work of the highest quality, and each album has added something to (or sometimes, crucially, taken something away from) what has come earlier. I don't know where they could go from "Waiting For The Moon", which was a solid (if perhaps in parts less than surprising) summation of The Story Of Tindersticks up to that point, but I am more than happy that I will get a chance to find out.

Song of the day

"The Belldog", by Eno, Moebius and Roedelius. Somehow, many years ago, I must have come home from one of Russell's and my regular Expeditionary Forces to record shops far and wide with SKY021, also known as "After The Heat" by Eno, Roedelius and Moebius (1978). This would have been in the early to middle 1980s, when this type of music was still hard to obtain, and (sudden intake of breath) There Was No Internet. Nowadays, of course, Sky Records has a huge cachet (in certain small but intense circles), and the selling point for the album would no doubt be the presence of the members of Cluster, but back then the drawcard was Eno. I had no idea who the others were. To be honest, I don't remember listening to the album all that often, beyond the last three tracks (the ones with Eno on vocals). But I must have, because last night, as shirt-ironing music, I threw the heavy German vinyl disc on the turntable and was surprised at how well known were all of the music's many quiet twists and turns. I was even more surprised at how it positively reeks of Eno's influence, far beyond just his voice on those three tracks. Most of the album is very much of a piece with "Music For Films" (also 1978), although fragments of "Tzima N'Arki" would appear three years later on Eno and David Byrne's "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts". "The Belldog" itself is a lovely song, which would, perhaps not surprisingly, slot nicely into the second side of "Before And After Science" (December 1977: can you believe Eno's work rate in those days?).