Sunday, August 30, 2009

Here we go again

It just goes to show that the fact that something appears with increasing frequency, or increasingly dire alarmism, on the front pages of the newspapers, at the start of the news bulletins, and all over the current affairs programmes doesn't necessarily mean that it is right.

First: Y2K. What was that all about?

Second: the Second Great Depression. Okay, it's probably still too early to call that one's bluff, and the methods used to avert it (whether it was, or was not, in need of averting) may be paid for by the next few generations of (mostly) Americans, but it's looking increasingly like things weren't quite as bad as all that - just like, in the couple of years before the markets melted down, it is now pretty damn easy to see that things weren't as good as they were being made out to be, either. (It might be fun to trawl through some American newspapers - and not just the business pages, either - circa 2006 to see how often people were being told that house prices would keep going up forever and that you could bet your, or more accurately somebody else's, life savings on it. Like, duh?)

Third: swine flu. August was going to be when it wreaked maximum devastation upon us all. Well, August has been and gone, or pretty much so anyway, and the vast majority of us seem to be still here, and unscathed. Yes, people are still contracting it, and there is nothing to be gained by understating its severity, but was there really anything to be gained by scaring the bejeezus out of us? (Actually, yes, there was much to be gained. Publishing a newspaper with the front page emblazoned with the headline "Everything's pretty quiet around here" isn't likely to lead to a sudden spike in advertising revenue.)

Fourth: Islamic fundamentalism. We may, or may not, be about to be overwhelmed by tyrannical fanatics of some stripe or other. We will know when it happens. But in the meantime we would, I suspect, be better off going about our business, unscathed by millenarian (that may not actually be the word I'm looking for) predictions.

Where does that leave climate change? Whether it's from growing up on a farm, or for some other, random reason, climate change has been frightening the pants off of me since long before the papers got hold of it. In fact, I have for some time been hoping it would gain some traction in the mainstream media. Which it now has. Doomsday scenarios are there, in black and white, for those who choose to look for them. They aren't (yet) on the front page, but they're there. And now that they are, my in-built media bullshit detector has unexpectedly switched itself on. Theories of climate change, after all, are just that: theories. And while I am still 100 per cent prepared to take the word of scientists over the word of conservative politicians, vested interests and lobbyists any day, I have realised that it is important to acknowledge that we are staring at the unknown. The Communists never took over the world. We weren't obliterated (or haven't been yet, anyway) by nuclear destruction, or enslaved by aliens. (Yes, Australia did lose the Ashes. Some things do go as predicted.)

Here's the thing: in August 1959, Mollie Panter-Downes, writing in the New Yorker, wrote this:

The beautiful hot summer, which has gone back to the good old sun-baked pattern of the years before the atomic bomb was popularly supposed to have upset the weather, must rank as major news here in its cheerful effect on the national morale.

You might, if you were a sceptic, substitute the words "carbon consumption" for "atomic bomb", and speculate as to what might be written a few years from now. I still think, sadly, that you would be wrong, but the course of events runs according to no plan. None that we can see, anyway. (The other thought that comes out of that quote is: history tends to record what comes to pass, not what doesn't come to pass.)

Bonus question: are our computers going to pack it in again come 01-01-10?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Song of the day

"Mama Used To Say", by Junior. For a long time, back when songs came on the radio, and went away again, and you never quite managed to catch who or what they were, I thought this was Michael Jackson. (Well, it does contain a liberal usage of that "Oooh" thing.) I was never, at the time, entirely sure whether I liked it. Now I am certain.

(Another, much more recent, song has affected me in a similar way: "In The City", by The Chromatics, has been floating around on my work computer for some time now, and I have listened to it quite a bit, frequently finding myself close to hitting the "delete" button. But all of a sudden, having forked out for the "After Dark" compilation, on which it also appears, it has dawned on me that it's a song I can't live without. I can't explain it. But then, love's like that.)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Song of the ... er ... decade?

So, Pitchfork has published a list of the 500 best songs of the first decade of the 21st century. A few thoughts:

1. Isn't it a bit like announcing the winner of the grand final while you're still only half-way through the last quarter?

2. How is it that I have never even heard of, let alone heard, the song that has been anointed as the number one song of the first decade of the 21st century?

3. I wonder what was number 501?

4. One thing a scroll through the list has done is remind me of just how good the early Broadcast records were. And, I can now confirm after giving them another listen, are.

5. Surely the best record of the first decade of the 21st century is "I Feel Space", by Lindstrom: a record that, by looking backwards, managed to invent a version of yesterday's musical future that has, more or less, come to pass in the four years since its release. Whether this one piece of music can therefore be said to have caused music to be the way it is now, or whether Lindstrom just managed to catch the leading edge of a wave that had already begun to form, we will never know.

6. Wouldn't it be funny if the best song of the first decade of the 21st century hasn't even been released yet?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Neatest trick of the week

Meanwhile over at, the Record Club heads into the home straight of its current season with an all-acoustic version of "Black Angel's Death Song", the "difficult" second-last song on the first Velvet Underground album. This is perhaps the most radical, and I think the most successful, re-working in the entire project. Listen to it with your eyes closed and you might well be listening to a Bob Dylan song from a similar time: "Masters of War" comes to mind (but then it often does).

One more song to go, but even now we can say: hats off to everybody involved. Not every song has been a success, but most have been at least listenable, and three or four could survive commercial release. I look forward to the next instalment.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Song of the day

"Radio Free Europe", by R.E.M.

"Radio Free Europe" was the first R.E.M. song I ever heard. My old partner-in-crime Russell and I were on one of our periodic record-buying raids into the city (and sometimes beyond - to Greville Records in Prahran, to Exposure in Cotham Road, Kew, to Dixon's Recycled in far-away Blackburn - we even, once, went to the home of the World Record Club, in Hartwell, as it was closing down, and my regret now is that I didn't buy the entire contents, all of those V Balsara and His Singing Sitars records, what I wouldn't give etc etc).

If I may digress for a second: one night Russell, Roger and I headed off to somewhere like Coburg or Preston, by train, on a futile attempt to find some record shop we had never heard of, in a place we didn't know, that Russell seemed to think was having a big sale. We came home empty-handed (I don't think we even managed to find the shop, or maybe it was closed, or the sale was finished, or was a dud, I don't now remember - come to think of it I can't be absolutely certain that Roger was with us) and, when we were riding the train home, the entire carriage all to ourselves, a drunk guy wandered in, muttered something, sat down opposite us, vomited up a remarkably smooth and remarkably pink liquid concoction onto the floor between us, muttered a bit more, then stood up and staggered out of the train at the next station.

And with the appearance of the word "muttering", we neatly and unexpectedly return to R.E.M., who were once the subject of a magazine headline that said something like, "The only band that mutters". Anyway, on this particular vinyl excursion, we found ourselves at Central Station, downstairs at the long-defunct Melbourne City Square. They were having a sale, as it happened, and Russell handed me the first two R.E.M. albums, "Murmur" and "Reckoning", saying something like "You should buy both of these". Which, one friend unquestioningly following the advice of another, I did. I wish he was still around to thank. Both of those albums, and the two that followed, "Fables of the Reconstruction / Reconstruction of the Fables" and "Life's Rich Pageant", ended up being among my most-listened-to records of the 1980s. This was at a time when the sixties of The Byrds were only just starting to creep into the Melbourne band scene, and R.E.M. were a breath of fresh air similar to the one The Smiths were soon to blow in on from another direction.

(And then, on "Document", they gave the clearest appearance of selling out: YOU COULD UNDERSTAND THE WORDS!!! At which point I left R.E.M. behind. It was one of my typical, and typically misguided, rushes to judgment. "Document" itself, I am prepared to admit in hindsight, is only slightly below their best. "Green", on the other hand, has only moments. And I knew, the Saturday morning that I heard Brian Wise on the radio going on about the greatness of "Out of Time", that R.E.M. had slipped out of my grasp and into the mainstream. I was, of course, wrong, at least in one respect: their greatest moment, "Automatic For The People", was still to come.)

But, man, those first four albums. Michael Stipe was an extraordinarily charismatic front-man for someone who went to such great lengths not to allow himself to be understood. They had a remarkable guitarist (echoes, again, of The Smiths). They wrote great song after great song. They specialised in false starts and false endings, and in counterintuitive arrangements. They threw away as afterthoughts musical ideas most bands would have been proud to make a whole song, or even an entire album, out of. Most of all, and never more so than on "Murmur", they filtered the tunesmithery of The Byrds through the soundsmithery of The Cure's "Seventeen Seconds" and "Faith", two of my then (and still) favourite records. Nothing was clear. Everything was suggested. They weren't so much lost in the fog as seeing with absolute clarity where they were going, notwithstanding the fog. The fog, in other words, was integral to the songs, and hence to the records. It is how I remember them. It is how I want to remember them.

Which is why listening to the remastered two-CD "Deluxe Edition" of "Murmur", released to great fanfare last year, was such a horrifying experience. Here is a record, the opacity of the sound of which has always been integral to its greatness, buffed up and polished so much that it sounds like any other sixties-influenced eighties rock record. The drum hits are crisp and clear, the vocals are up front and centre, with impeccable clarity. Everything is in its right place. It's just that it's the wrong place. I have reacted to this "Murmur" in the much the same way that I reacted to first hearing "Speedboat", from the compact disc release of "Rattlesnakes", by Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, in 1986: I ran as far away from it as possible, as fast as possible, for fear that I could never listen to it on record again. In the case of "Rattlesnakes", the sound was just so frighteningly clear that I could see my entire vinyl collection collapsing into instant irrelevance. In that instance time healed all wounds, of course, and I can now listen to vinyl and CD (and MP3, for that matter) side by side and appreciate the pros and cons of both. But in the case of the remastered "Murmur" my fear is that by listening to it again I risk undoing the magic spell that the original album has cast over me for so long. If the album means as much to you as it does to me, I don't know that you are going to get anything positive out of the "Deluxe Edition". If you are new to R.E.M., then go for it, you will never know what you are missing, and I dare say that even in the absence of its original fuzziness it is still a great album. They are, after all, fine songs, whichever way you look at it.

So I run back to the shelf that holds the vinyl, think of Russell as I drag "Murmur" out of its cardboard sleeve, cardboard inner sleeve and plastic inner inner sleeve, drop the needle on the record, and luxuriate once more in the murky and unfathomable depths of this majestic album. And breathe a sigh of relief that its particular genie is still nestled comfortably in its bottle. But it was a close call.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Four Seasons (In One Day)

A few months ago I put up here an ad from the New Yorker published early 1959 showing somebody moving furniture into the newly completed Seagram Building. Time marches on, and now we publish an ad from the New Yorker from August 1959 announcing the opening of the Four Seasons restaurant (which was, and is, in the Seagram Building).

Has graphic design improved at all in the last fifty years? This ad would suggest the answer, Not really. (And the owners of the Four Seasons clearly think the same way: the same logo appears on its website today.) The white space. The clean lines. The symmetry. The graphic might be something that fell from the pen of, say, Richard McGuire ten minutes ago. (Question: did Mies van der Rohe and/or Philip Johnson, who designed the restaurant itself, also design those gorgeous images?)

(Hint: click on the picture for one that can actually be seen by the naked eye.)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

High Rotation (Junior Edition)

The boys watched "Barnyard" on the weekend. It resembled no farm I have ever seen: even the man cows (that'd be "bulls") had udders. Watching an uddered man cow strumming an acoustic guitar and singing the Johnny Cash version of "I Won't Back Down" was, frankly, more than I was prepared for. However, it did pave the way for the eleven-year-old to become interested in the sound of the twilight of Johnny Cash's voice. The other song that the boys won't let go of, also from the movie, is "Boombastic", by Shaggy, which takes you back to the days of jungle and dancehall. It doesn't do that much for me but it has a nice rhythm. That should be "riddim", I suppose.

We also don't seem to be able to get enough of the 8-Bit remix of "Hell Yes", by Beck, from his album of "Guero" remixes, "Guerolito". The remix album has grown on me in direct proportion to the way the original album has also grown on me. There is something about Beck that makes it easy to listen to the same songs over and over. Which is pretty lucky for us, really. Because that's what we tend to do.

Song of the day

"Through My Mouth", by Eleventh Dream Day. Man, Eleventh Dream Day. I haven't listened to them, or even thought about them, for years, possibly (gasp) decades. But their sound has travelled across the eons remarkably intact and, in fact, fresh. If you drew a few lines connecting The Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth, The Feelies and Band of Susans, you would have some idea of what they sound like. You would also have a pretty cool drawing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Song of the day

"Seal Whales", by The Meat Puppets. Everybody (well, Kurt Cobain anyway) raves about "Meat Puppets II". But for my money their third album, "Up On The Sun", takes the baked cookie. Its blend of quiet psychedelia and Arizona heat-haze makes it irresistible. "Seal Whales" is but one of many cases in point.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Song of the day

"Anybody Here Wants To Buy Some Cabbage", by The Hanshalf Trio. I have been walking around singing this song for a few days now. The boys think I am a bit strange. They may not be entirely wrong.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Song of the day

"Want You Back", by Nite Jewel. New release on Italians Do It Better. They sure do. So many songs at the moment combine cheeeeezy synths, "Dare", and New Order. These are not mutually exclusive propositions. This entire EP is going to be on high rotation around here. Nite Jewel has got her mojo back.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken

An explanation is probably in order.

Having signed a document stating that I will not use my work computer for the purpose of (inter alia) "updating personal blogs", it is probably for the best that I no longer do so. Which is a shame, because it has been quite convenient to be able to, throughout the day, compose a few sentences in my head, and then sit down with a cup of tea for a few minutes in the afternoon to type and upload those sentences onto this here weblog.

Bear with me, then, if you will, as I adjust myself to the New Reality, and find a new routine to fall into.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Song of the day

"Execution", by Pink Mountaintops. Watch it here. I think you'll find it speaks for itself.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It ain't what you do it's the way that you do it

As quoted in the New Yorker, an unnamed friend of John Brennan (President Obama's unsuccessful initial candidate for Director of the CIA - which, well, in these early post-Bush years, is that a job anybody would actually want? There's a few skeletons there, fellas) described those of us who write blogs as "a few Cheeto-eating people in the basement working in their underwear".

In case you're wondering, they're Bonds.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

This Goes With This (compendium edition)

I seem to have had a day of hearing things in other things. Listening to "Telescope", by Partial Arts, I suddenly found myself hearing "Nothinginsomethingparticular", by The Associates.

Then, I was listening to something by Amon Duul II (the name of which escapes me; it's on another hard drive in a different place) and found myself thinking of "Breaking Glass", from Bowie's "Low" album (perhaps not surprising given what Bowie would have been listening to at the time).

And finally, spinning the new album by YACHT, I was put in mind of Romeo Void (were Romeo Void anything more than a no-hit wonder? Answers on a postcard please) and, later, one of those gorgeous Heather songs that lurk on most Beat Happening albums.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Song of the day

"Careering", by Public Image Ltd. I have started to actually read, as opposed to merely dipping my toes into, Simon Reynolds' big fat book on the post-punk era, "Rip It Up And Start Again". One thing a book like this does, for those of us who lived the scene vicariously, from half a world away, through the pages of the NME and the half-heard radio signals of Sydney's 2JJ, is tell us a bit more about what was really happening at the time, and particularly the social and economic triggers, and the philosophical ideas that were in play (although the latter were played out to some extent in the NME, if we had been old or wise enough to understand any of them). Another thing it does is give us a friendly nudge in the direction of a few records or bands that we knew about but had never quite got around to listening to, through mental blanks and/or simple unavailability of their records in this country. (Exhibit 1: The Mekons. Exhibit 2: The Slits (save for their glorious take on "I Heard It Through The Grapevine", which I have always known and loved).)

The third thing this book does is send us back to the records we have owned since time immemorial, but which we no longer listen to. Specifically, for present purposes, "Second Edition", by Public Image Ltd, a record that turns out to have aged remarkably well. And it was mighty impressive then, if a bit unwieldy and a bit unfathomable. The unwieldiness is gone, owing to long-term familiarity. It's in m' veins. The unfathomability no longer matters, and may well have been the point. Here is an album that is all about sound, particularly - and featuring strongly on "Careering" - the overwhelming dub-inflected heft of Jah Wobble's bass and the wiry guitar playing of Keith Levene. On "Careering", though, Levene jettisons his guitar in favour of a parade of Moog synth noises that, although they sound suspiciously like they may have come from a Doctor Who sound-effects record, build a sense of malevolence that is perfect for the song. The other thing I hadn't previously noticed about "Careering", though, is how closely the opening few bars of it resemble the start of another great song of the era (and another one I haven't put on for years), Magazine's "The Light Pours Out Of Me". The two songs are, I seem to recall, close contemporaries. There must have been something in the water.

"The clothes make the man."

The above line, if I remember correctly, which I probably don't, is spoken by Screamin' Jay Hawkins, resplendent in a red suit, as he stands behind a hotel desk in Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train". It is a sentiment that has clearly been taken to heart by Warren Ellis, hirsute Dirty Three violinist and Nick Cave's present (red) right-hand man, according to this highly entertaining, albeit woefully edited, piece at The Quietus. We could all learn a thing or two from it.