Thursday, July 28, 2016

Song of the day

"Terrapin Station (Live at Red Rocks Amphitheatre, Morrison, CO, 7/8/78)", by The Grateful Dead.

So, then. If into the hallowed halls of the Grateful Dead we must wander, then wander into them we must, trying to keep our eyes open and our wits about us. The Grateful Dead: owners of one of the most intimidating back catalogues known to man. Bearers of a fan base the level of whose obsessiveness can only be dreamed of by pretty much any artist you might care to mention (perhaps only Dylanologists take obsessive fandom further).

Me? I have spent the first 52-and-some years of my life steering well clear. Two reasons. One: I was brought up under the heavy influence of the scriptures of the Church of Post-Punk, wherein everything you would find in The Grateful Dead was anathema: long songs; facial hair; musicianship; erm, "chops" of any kind. (It seems funny to think about it now. What with all the bad buggery bollocks going on in the world in 2016, at least one thing seems to have gotten better since 1978: openness to musical genres other than "our own" has never been greater; the rule book seems to have been thrown out (which is a somewhat ironic thing to say in this context, seeing as how "punk" held itself out as doing exactly that, whereas what it actually did was impose an even stricter set of rules that the one it thought it was setting fire to).)

Two: I know what I am like with rabbit burrows. I chase every rabbit I can find down every rabbit burrow it may run into, until I have caught them all. (I think it's what makes me good at my job.) And The Grateful Dead is one huge, complex, multifaceted, possibly bottomless motherfucker of a rabbit burrow. So I have steered well clear.

Until now. (Curse you, Apple Music.)

I suppose ultimately something was going to lure me in. What did it was the five-disc "covers" record that the dudes from The National put out earlier in the year. I like a lot of the musicians involved, I liked what I heard, and, let's face it, the ten-year-old in me has always had a weakness for long, drawn-out jams, as to which The Grateful Dead are ground zero. Where to start: the studio albums? (I suspect not.) Dick's Picks? Dave's Picks? Band-released live collections covering years, tours, venues, you name it? So the easiest thing appeared to be: what has come out recently?

Which turns out to have been "Red Rocks 7/8/78", a three-cd-length live release from earlier this year (but, as with all things Dead, a recording that has circulated amongst the faithful since, in this case, probably 7/9/78). The first thing to say is that it confirmed my suspicions: the Grateful Dead veer wildly from the appallingly naff to the insanely great. (As to the former: what could have possessed them to try their arm at "Werewolves of London"?)

"Terrapin Station", the first song of the encore, is an outstanding piece of music. It's as simple as that. You would travel a long way to hear a bunch of dudes so in tune with what each other is doing. (I suppose that is what turned one into a Deadhead.) But, for me, the remarkable thing about it is: during all the years I have been a fan of Wilco, I had never once suspected a connection with The Grateful Dead. But here it is, front and centre. The minute whomever is doing the vocals on this song (see how little I know?) starts up, it may as well be Jeff Tweedy. That's maybe a superficial observation (hey, you've come to the right place), but how about this: set this version of this song side-by-side with "One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley's Boyfriend)" and join the dots. (Also: Wilco have been releasing something called the "Roadcase" series of recordings of live shows, possibly not complete but certainly in large numbers; how Dead is that?) It's a curious thing. Both Wilco and The Grateful Dead have (deservedly) solid reputations as bands that sound like nothing other than themselves, and yet here they are sending vibes in each other's direction across the decades. Maybe they should have been called The Grateful Undead.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Song of the day

"Operator (DJ Koze's Extended Disco Version)", by Lapsley.

In the radio station of my dreams, this song would be on very high rotation. DJ Koze has the knack for working a particular kind of magic, where he conjures the essence of a particular type of music from days of yore, without coming across as either pastiche or imitation. In this instance, as the title kinda gives away, disco is the order of the day. Right out of the box, the strings transport you to the world as it was in, say, 1975, and there are other nice period touches, but the four-note synth line comes from a place outside of time, as, I think, do the piano and the subtle almost-gospel tinges that appear tentatively around the corner in the middle of the song. Lapsley's Amy-Winehouse-by-way-of-Sade voice sits very nicely on top of it all. Please can you make this a hit?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Consumer advisory

Adrienne and the 18-year-old are off on a European holiday that we can't really afford, so the 16-year-old and I thought we would spend a few nights in Sydney. A pretty stupid idea, really, given how much the European trip has set back the household budget, but what are you going to do?

We figured on taking the train, because a few people had told us that it is quite a nice trip (it is). We had some activities on the list. But where to stay? I had played around a bit on Airbnb but didn't really have a feel for it. A work colleague hopped on to (which Adrienne has used before, with good results) and noticed a room with two single beds at the Sheraton on the Park for a price that was not too much higher than it seemed like we would be paying for any old hotel room. Describing it, as I recall, as something like the "deal of the century", he more or less insisted, and so we deferred to his better knowledge of the city. We probably couldn't really justify the expense, but, as I said, what are you going to do? Adrienne did the booking, as I am relatively (actually, scrap that "relatively") useless in that regard.

We only had to walk in the front door of the Sheraton on the Park to know that it wasn't our kind of place, and that the people staying there were not our kind of people. The 16-year-old observed that it seemed pretty fancy. (I could see him doing the maths behind his eyelids.) I bluffed my way up to the front desk and (unlikely as it must have sounded) said that I had a room booked. The girl behind the desk (who was very nice) did us the courtesy of checking the list instead of peremptorily calling for security, and, lo and behold (she did her best to hide the surprise), my name was on there.

Sir, she said, You will be in a room with a queen size bed. Well, this was not a good start. But, I said, We had booked two single beds. The girl enquired if we had booked direct, and I said it was through She then told me that bedding is not guaranteed through third-party booking sites.

I was at a disadvantage here, because I hadn't done the booking myself, but I was pretty confident that we had quite clearly and unequivocally booked two single beds. The short answer was that they didn't have any at that price, but there was one room available with two single beds overlooking Hyde Park (the room we booked had "city views") which she could give me for the "discounted" rate of an additional $60 per night.

I mentally weighed up the options: (a) trying to find somewhere else to stay; (b) sharing a bed with the 18-year-old for three nights; (c) making a public scene at the lobby of the Sheraton on the Park; and (d) finding an extra $180, which, the point being, we were over-extending ourselves anyway. The first three were easy to cross off, which left me reluctantly opting to postpone my retirement for a bit longer than I had been hoping.

Up in the room, where we did have, I must admit, a pretty nice view (you could see the harbour if you stood on tiptoes), and a black marble bathroom (what the heck am I going to do with a black marble bathroom?), I jumped on the phone and checked over what our booking confirmation actually said. There, in black and white, were the words "two single beds". I went back downstairs: reluctantly, obviously, but my inherent distaste for injustice is slightly more active when the injustice is directed towards myself. The same girl at the desk had a look at the confirmation on my phone and spoke to somebody else. Ah, you see, was the sense of what I was then told, the word there is "Requests". As in, the customer "requests" two single beds. It doesn't mean you are going to get them. They go to our own paying guests first. I was also told that if I had read the page from which the hotel was booked, I would have seen that it says "The hotel doesn't guarantee customer requests". But we can give you free wi-fi, which usually costs $20 per day.

What the heck. I took the free wi-fi. (Which I didn't need.) I enjoyed the view. (Which I hadn't felt the need to pay for in the first place, and I can't say my enjoyment of it was entirely free of resentment.) The black marble bathroom? Whatever. The beds were comfortable, I will give them that, but then I would assume that they were no different from the beds in the room we thought we had booked. Other than that, it was just a hotel room. (Plenty of unwanted noise came through from the room next door, for example. Plus, they would appear to have charged us $5 for a small packet of UHT milk. In my experience of regular hotels, the milk is complimentary, like the tea bags.) Everything else is just marketing.

It's a bit futile to say we certainly won't be staying here again, because we wouldn't be anyway. But the point I want to make is: people, please don't make the same mistake I did. If the people behind the desk are right in saying that a disclaimer exists on the booking page, I still find it hard to accept that it is, in any way, reasonable for travellers to not find out that their "request" has not been granted until they are at the desk of the hotel, and therefore, for all intents and purposes, at the mercy of the hotel. And furthermore, I would be interested to see what would happen were somebody to test whether the choice of bedding arrangements, which is actually one of the things you enter in order to search for, and therefore book, a room, can be construed to be a mere "request" (as opposed to, let's say, whether the room has a black marble bathroom, or free wi-fi, or views of the harbour if you crane your neck), and particularly whether it is reasonable for the unsuspecting customer to have understood it as such. It wouldn't be that hard to imagine a scenario where, unlike with the two of us, there would actually be no choice to be made by the two guests, and where it would be highly inappropriate for them to share a bed. What then?

So, the moral of this story. Well, there are two, actually. One: if a hotel seems more tony than your station in life would usually suggest that you might stay in, it is probably best to stay away. Two: if you are booking a room at the Sheraton on the Park via, and you have any "request" as to the bedding arrangements, you are doing so at your own risk.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Song of the day

"Dream Baby Dream", by Suicide.

This blog, this year, is starting to look like a rolling obituaries column.

This week, sadly, we lost Alan Vega.

Close reader(s) will already know that Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" sits very high up on the Farmer In The City Greatest Songs Of All Time list. I am presently reading Garth Risk Hallberg's gargantuan novel of mid-seventies New York, "City On Fire", and so I am immersed in that era of that city to the extent that, when I first heard the news, I momentarily thought it was still 1977 and he had been cut down in his prime. But in fact he was 78 years old -- or, strictly speaking, young -- and, until quite recently, was still pushing the envelope. We all should be so lucky.

Vega was responsible for much more than just that one song, of course, both with Suicide (you shouldn't pass up either of their first two albums, even if you will only want to listen to "Frankie Teardrop" once) and alone (he had something of a nearly hit with "Jukebox Babe"). But, for this listener, all roads lead back to "Dream Baby Dream".

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Song of the day

"Love X2", by Nite-Funk.

2016 being such a great year for music, it should be no surprise that yet another record has come across my (virtual) desk which has stopped me in my tracks. Specifically, a four-track EP by Nite-Funk; Nite-Funk being a certain Mr Dam-Funk, about whom, presumably on account of my advancing years and receding hipness, I know somewhat less than zip; and a certain Ms Nite Jewel, who engaged my attention some years back with her high-budget-on-a-low-budget electro pop nuggets. She lost me after a while as she crept into an actual high-budget set-up (or "higher" anyway; or maybe she just got more proficient), where I thought she had fallen just a little flat. Anyway, she's back, with an album of her own, and this EP, and in particular this exquisite slice of skeletal funk/soul, bearing as I think it does the gentlest of nods to the late-eighties / early-nineties London (and Bristol) of Soul II Soul and early Massive Attack (a place and time, musically speaking, that I never expected to be thrown back to). Plus, Nite Jewel herself has clearly been spending some of the intervening years working on her singing voice. Here, she soars.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Song of the day

"Widening The Vision", by Bentcousin.

Truth is, I would never have become aware of Bentcousin were it not for Marcello Carlin writing some paragraphs about them in the course of what must surely be the highest number of words ever written about (well, ostensibly about) a run-of-the-mill 1990 Fleetwood Mac album. Just another in a long list of things for which he has my eternal gratitude.

Bentcousin are obviously children of the 1978-1982 generation, but unlike with many other likeminded youth, listening to them doesn't make me wish I was listening to their oh-so-obvious influences instead. Bentcousin, and this song in particular, demand to be listened to Right Now.

"Widening The Vision", the last song on the album (there is nowhere else it could have gone), is a monster. A juggernaut. It is welded together by an unrelentingly solid bass line. The drumming, counterintuitively but perhaps necessarily, is feather-light, calling to mind those magical days when Lindy Morrison held the Go-Betweens together. The guitars; well, here's a surprise, because who is on guitar? None other than Sir Keith Levene, that's who (not a real "Sir"), bringing a kind of Rowland S Howard-on-a-holiday texture and -- yes -- melody. There are lyrics about weeing in the sink. There are gorgeous twee-pop (not a pejorative) backing vocals. There is a melodica. After four minutes, the song, and the album, fade out. They have to fade it out, because there is no way that you could actually stop a song like this; there are no brakes powerful enough. You can turn the volume down, but the song, somewhere, keeps going.

I want you to promise me you will listen to this at some volume.

Edit. Newly discovered bonus beats: you can listen to their rather tasty version of Dinosaur Jr's "Freak Scene" below. The actual Soundcloud page includes a download button. With your ears pinned back.