Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Music to watch joss sticks by

I enjoy watching the smoke coil off a joss stick. Especially on sunny days like today. And this has to be one of the most fascinating sounds. It sounds ancient and futuristic at the same time. If the Aurora Borealis made a sound I imagine it would be something like this.

Tanpura: D#

Sunday, 27 September 2009


I mentioned a few weeks ago that I was going camping for a stag weekend. Well, it was dead good and surprisingly civilized - I actually came back feeling healthier then when I'd set off. Probably the best moment was getting up on the first morning and, while everyone else was still snoring in their tents, making myself a cup of tea with my little stove and kettle and drinking it with a cigarette and a couple of chocolate hobnobs.

Anyway this weekend was the wedding. It was great - I enjoy weddings. As always I drank too much and went to bed very late. I had a bit of a hangover but that was largely vanquished by the hotel breakfast. I'm sure it was fear of a killer hangover that led to me booking my return ticket for the afternoon - but I overdid the caution and a five o'clock train left me with quite a few hours to kill. The wedding was in York. I love that name: York, such a weird little word.

My hotel was two hundred yards from the Minster and after a walk by the river to clear my head and a read of the paper I thought I might as well check the place out. I think I'd probably been in before (my parents were avid cathedral spotters in my youth and they're all a bit of a blur). There's a very good statue of Constantine the Great outside the Minster. He's lounging on a throne, menacingly toying with a sword. In Rome the colossal head of Constantine was one of the things that I really wanted to see. Sadly it was being tarted up for the millenium and not on display, I think they were painting the walls or something. I prefer the statue in York but the colossal head is more imperial - I think it's the vacant expression on his face. If I were a hostile mustachioed tribesman the colossal head would have given me the more pause for thought. Seated Yorkshire Constantine looks cruel and formidable but human. Colossal Roman Constantine just looks utterly untouchable.

All cathedrals are worth a visit and it's a strange person who isn't a little awestruck at the proportions of these places and the intricate craftsmanship to be seen everywhere you look. I was creeping about in the crypt when evensong started and it was an unearthly sound and very beautiful. It's strange though - it would never occur to me to listen to a recording of it. It only seems to make sense in a church. It's things like this that make me wonder if I'll ever go to church again. Going through bookcases at my parents' a few years ago I realised, by looking at the inscriptions in prize books, that I'd attended Sunday School for at least four years. I can't remember the point at which I stopping believe in God. I do remember I was about five when I first realised about death and how upset I was. My mum told me not to worry as it would be a long time before I died, to which I thought: "You're missing the point". And she was and no doubt deliberately because of course there is no answer. There are so many beautiful and reassuring things about Christianity but, call me old fashioned, I think you should only go if you believe in it all.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Out of step

I had my desert boots resoled not so long ago. I was quite pleased with the price: £18. Though the boots themselves only cost £14 originally it was worth it because they're the right shape (a bit stubby toed). It may be tantamount to heresy in some circles but I don't really like Clark's desert boots: they're too elongated. Another good thing about having them resoled (rather than just buying a new pair for less) was that the cobbler, at my request, sheared the heel off leaving just a flat sole, which I consider correct. But the main thing is: I like getting things mended. Apart from the heel on the left boot they were still in dead good nick and had developed a characterful patina.

I can't stand shoes with plastic soles or big chunks of plastic embedded into the sole. For a start they look terrible. I suppose it's a bit more durable than leather or foam or whatever but once they're worn away, that's it - the whole shoe has to go. So it's hard not to be cynical about the manufacturers' motives for this hideous development. My sole of choice is crepe but it's got a lot harder to find places that'll do it. According to one cobbler I spoke to crepe is too messy - it melts all over their machines. Another place quoted me the outrageous price of sixty quid.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Softly, softly...

Belle and Sebastian are probably the last band that I'll be into in the buying the tee shirt, going to see them lots of times type of way. I went to see the tour for "The Life Pursuit" and it was a perfectly brilliant gig but haven't got round to buying the album yet. I was a bit disappointed by the singles but I'm sure, in the fullness of time, I'll pick it up. So, what's your favourite Belle and Sebastian album? Mine, by a mile, is "Swansong for You" by the Gentle Waves. I was thinking of a post around female vocalists (the Shangri Las one was a by-product). Quite often, it seems to me, male singers hide behind their style of singing. Mick Jagger or Morrissey for instance. As if singing were something to be ashamed of. And sometimes it means I enjoy the songs less. So, on balance I think I prefer female vocalists. In fact I know I do.

The post was originally going to take in Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny and Isobel Campbell (and maybe her out of Pentangle and Nina Persson of the Cardigans). But, casting about for tunes, I found myself utterly rapt by "Swansong for You". I'd played it a lot at the time but hadn't given it a spin for a while due to being separated from my record collection for a period and the vinyl of this particular record being a bit fucked on account of the heavy rotation. What all these singers have got in common is very high, or very pure voices. You might separate them into hard and soft with Isobel Campbell falling into the latter camp.

I haven't really been able to get into the latterday Nancy and Lee stuff she's currently churning out with Mark Lanegan. The chamber pop of "Swansong for You" seems far more suited to her voice and penchant for cellos and xylophones and other bits and bobs. It's funny - in Belle and Sebastian she was the epitome of indie winsomeness, a dead ringer for Jean Seberg. Why do so many snappy dressers end up going in for the western look?

Anyway, "Swansong for You". I've spoken of albums being close to perfect. This album is perfect. Derivative in places of the Zombies, she makes no secret of her love of that band. I started off loving the simpler songs such as "Flood" and "Loretta Young" but was eventually floored by every single track - taking longer to appreciate the heavier strings of "There was Magic, Then..." and the Morricone knells of "Partner in Crime". Amid all the instrumental variety though is the constant, soft, lovely, lilting voice - gentle even for the talking bits.

The Gentle Waves: Flood

The Gentle Waves: Partner in Crime

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Mary, Mary, Marge and Betty

I don't like bands ironically, if I like the songs then that's it. "Leader of the Pack" is one of those songs that I think everyone hears all over the place from an early age. I picked it up on 7" when I was at college and immediately preferred the song on the flip, "Remember (Walkin' in the Sand)". Despite the fact that I loved the songs so much I didn't follow it up until a few years later when I got hold of the bizarrely, though excellently, named "Myrmidons of Melodrama" compilation.

Despite the supposedly tough girl image there seems to be a massive innocence about them. The way they deliver the spoken bits ("um..he's good bad, but he's not evil") just wouldn't work if it was any other way. One of the things that flash through my mind when I listen to them is the story "It's Like This, Cat". Like that book they're part of the way I think about New York (I've never been).

Sound-wise I find them much clearer and fresher than the Ronettes who in comparison I think sound stagey and cluttered and just generally less convincing. And image-wise, they're very cool. I think they're giving Francoise Hardy a good run for her money in the picture there.

Finally, I love the suggestion that the Jesus & Mary Chain's "The Living End" is the story of "Leader of the Pack" as told from the point of view of Jimmy.

The Shangri Las: Out in the Streets

Jesus & Mary Chain: The Living End

Monday, 14 September 2009

Holy Moly

As I've already said I got into the Pastels by hearing them praised by another group that I really liked. There's a very good chance that group was the Jesus and Mary Chain. There was a time when my musical diet consisted almost exclusively of the Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3. Feedback and distortion was my thing. As much as I loved the Pastels if you'd have suggested to me that they would record better versions of Mary Chain songs I'd have laughed in your face, or possibly punched you. But this is now what has come to pass.

The Mary Chain. How many times has it happened to you that you discover a band, work your way through their immaculate back catalogue and then await their next new release in a state of ecstatic apprehension? Only for the new album to be very poor indeed? "Automatic", there I've said it - let us speak no more of it. At the height of my admiration for them I was probably listening to "Psychocandy" at least once a day, and this state of affairs went on for a year or so. After "Psychocandy" was "Barbed Wire Kisses" (shocking name) - arguably their best collection of songs, but, like "Hatful of Hollow" do you count this kind of thing as a real album? And then we have "Darklands". All the songs on "Darklands" are great - "Nine Million Rainy Day" was my personal favourite - but most are let down by the production/execution, the main offender being "April Skies" on which we cop for the full horror of the Mary Chain's baffling predilection for drum machines. Generally their sound, previously so unlike anything else, becomes well and truly mired in the eighties that they had seemed destined to destroy. The Pastel's version of "About You" shows what might have been. I don't know if the Mary Chain are going to release new stuff, but before they do they should go back and record "Darklands" properly.

Lyrically though I think "Darklands" is their best album with the usual caveat that I haven't seriously listened to anything after "Honey's Dead" and with the definite exception of the line about the Christmas tree in "Fall". Oh, and the mole line in "On The Wall". Hmm, I'm not making a brilliant case here - but "Deep One Perfect Morning" and "Happy When It Rains" both display an articulate thoughtfulness which always came across in the interviews but not previously in the songs.

The Mary Chain's own record with cover versions is hit and miss. Not surprisingly their earlier attempts are the best with the very best being the legendary "Vegetable Man" (I don't get Pink Floyd's scruples on this - it's the best thing Syd Barrett ever wrote). The joy of owning the 7" of "Upside Down" is considerable in its own right, and just for this song, very necessary. Is it just me or has the version to be found on "The Power of Negative Thinking" (another crap album title by the way) been neutered somewhat? I think they've pushed the vocal right up.

"Who Do You Love" and "Mushroom" are also both outstanding but after them we move onto the merely okay "Reverberation" and "Tower of Song" before arriving at "Little Red Rooster". My favourite band covering one of my favourite songs - how could it go so badly wrong? It did and this point probably marks my final disappointment with them. I heard about their version of "Alphabet Street" and it occurred to me that it was misguided, and when I caught up with it this was confirmed, the sureness of touch shown on "Who Do You Love" and "Mushroom" is utterly gone.

The Pastels: About You

Jesus & Mary Chain: Nine Million Rainy Days

Thursday, 3 September 2009

The horror

I find it hard to watch documentaries about the Titanic due to the footage they always show of the ship's broken carcass lying on the ocean bed. The thought of such a large vessel rendered so tiny by the vastness of the ocean depths seriously freaks me out. And the same goes for the thought of seeing a large ocean liner sink in the way the Titanic did, sticking straight up into the air - the unnaturalness of it all, its giant propellers turning vainly in the sky. And then the thought of sitting in a miniscule life raft on top of the rolling surface of an ocean extending to the horizon in every direction. Clearly I'd be of very little use in an emergency at sea.

I mention all this as a preamble to a poem about the disaster that I found in a book I bought this lunchtime (Oxfam again), Dear Blue Peter, a collection of letters, mainly from children, to that fine programme. Despite the almost mindnumbing terror that the whole Titanic scenario threatens to induce in me I was reduced to tears of laughter by the poem, which I share with you now:

So many screams and cries
Why did it have to happen?
All they wanted was a peaceful holiday
Nobody likes getting killed
So much pain
So much history
As the people watch in horror
Lots of people died

It really is a very lovely book.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Warped and confused

It's not all garage rock/indie pop (and ska) round here. Back in the day I'd go into Warp records at least once a week. It wasn't really my scene but through friends I listened to a lot of house/techno and from time to time would actually go forth and buy some. This involved going to the small section at the back of the shop and trying to make sense of all the identical sleeves that housed this type of music. I'll be honest, I was out of my element and often came away empty handed. I rarely persevered as most of the time the counter was swamped by a horde of acolytes all waiting to use the headphones.

Unlike the stereotype the vibe, even towards longhaired weirdoes in drainpipes, was actually pretty friendly. In contrast I remember clanging down the steps into Eastern Bloc Records in Manchester's Corn Exchange one time. On my entrance the record on the turntable screeched to a hideous stop and in the otherwise deserted shop a huddle of about five ferret faced youths in baseball caps and puffa jackets turned to stare at me. I made a perfunctory survey of the dub section and got the fuck out of there.

Anyway, the music. I've heard it catergorized as machine music and criticised for lacking emotion or human warmth. This is ridiculous as it's still humans creating it. Somehow, somewhere the cool perfection of these recordings is what, for me, seems to create the emotion. Admittedly in most cases the feeling aroused by the tracks that I really like is one of slight sadness or maybe yearning.

Beaumont Hannant: The Hunted

Still, a nice juicy two minute bass guitar solo to hang onto in "The Hunted", "Utuba" on the other hand is probably the most alien sounding, most completely created track I've ever heard.

Beaumont Hannant: Utuba