Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Little power, less glory

Dear hearts, hope it's all been lovely. This bloggish equivalent of a note for the milkman is just by way of a confession: I managed to quit London for this present coastal grotto without packing the mains lead for my laptop. This gives me 2 hours (actually, already down to 40 mins) worth of the old electro-juice before my poor pooped computer joins me in the hinterzone of seasonal flatlining. Given that these album reviews and so on have so far taken approximately 4,400,000 working hours, it seems daft even to attempt to finish off the Furtive 50 and announce the Perkinses as promised. I'll do it when I'm back in London next week and plugged in to the grid. Shame, really: no one has any appetite for these absurd exercises at the beginning of the new year. And yet I think I must see this exercise through, for the two or three folks who have been following it closely. So, apologies, and over and out until 2007, and then there'll be a load of stuff, and you'll be so over it darling, and what are we to do anyway. Happy etc.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Oh I say it's tough, I have had enough, can you stop the cavalry?

In case I'm not here again before the big day: may your every com-municable desire be fulfilled this Christmas, and please, if you've enjoyed spending time at Thompson's this year, save me a little bit of marzipan, won't you?

Stay tuned for the Perkins Awards and the Top Two Fifths Of The Furtive 50, some time between Christmas and New Year.

And there's a pound sterling (or foil-wrapped chocolate equivalent) for anyone who can guess the designer of this card image. ...Though actually if you were born any time after about 1976, or you spent any of your childhood doing anything other than watching telly, the answer will be pretty underwhelming anyway. But if you're intrigued, and you're prepared to forfeit your quid, click here.

Comfort and joy, my dears. xx

Intermission: The Twelve Links of Christmas

I know, I know, everyone's quite literally beside themselves with anticipation regarding the higher reaches of the Furtive 50. Will Rudebox manage to pip Sting's lute album for the eagerly contested top spot? Or vice versa? O, my dears, I'm sorry, you're going to have to wait a little while longer. I'm a little bit menkle with sleeplessness and I've been staring at this Bodforsaken screen too long, and what's more every openable window on the homeward 15.18 from Liverpool Street had a little sticker on it that said "Open for extra ventilation". (Presumably eventually they'll put another, perhaps marginally smaller, sticker on each window, directly above the first sticker, that says: "Please read sticker below.")

Never mind. Away with such humbug. This will be my last post of the year from the vantage of the Dream Thrombosis we call London; the remainder of the top 20, and the Perkins Awards, will have to go up between Christmas and New Year's, while I'm away in Portishead. There, though, things are dial-up at best -- at peak periods one often has to fall back on a technique not unlike bark rubbing... Which reminds me, I was doing some work yesterday and the application I was using informed me that if its next stage didn't launch automatically I would have to "connect to the internet manually": which presumably involves sticking your wettened finger in the phone socket and trying to sing the Modem Theme Song ("Booooooo.....bip! Booooooooo...", &c. Think Meredith Monk.) ...Anyway, the point is, now would be a good time to take care of anything that requires having more than one interwebular process running at the same time. I suppose I could wait till Portishead and try two simultaneous operations, but very much fear it might cause the Christmas lights to go out on the High Street.

Therefore, to help you while away those forthcoming odd moments between Medjool Dates, here are some linkypoos. None of them received a hero's welcome, none of them, none of them. But perhaps there are one or two things here that might amuse or interest you once you've broken your new Pocketeer and accidentally goosed your auntie.

1. for 'Partridge' read 'Web-based text art with the goodness of added jazz'
During the comedown from that staggering Books gig the other day, and thinking in particular about an oddly disconcerting piece they did in which a sort of phonetic mistranscription of their lyrics was flashed up one syllable at a time, I remembered about Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries. They're quite well known now, award-winning, that sort of thing, but don't let that put you off. This will not repeat not work on dial-up [D'oh!] but if you've got broadband and decent speakers where you are, turn yourself up to 11 and settle back to watch one of YHC's mini-dramas. 'Dakota', at the very top of the index page, is a good place to start: an earthy, salty, splashy roadtrip hallucination set to an astonishing 1962 track by Art Blakey's Afro-Drum Ensemble; favourite words such as 'ham', 'wad' and 'slug' will appear as strangers to you. ...Or persons of what used to be called "a more sensitive disposition" (now known as "post-traumatic stress disorder") might prefer the lovely, eccentric, off-kilter 'The Last Day of Betty Nkomo'. Or, you know, click where you like, it's all instant gravy.

2. for 'turtle doves' read 'participatory cartoon ski-jumping'
'Line Rider' is a neat and immensely appealing little game which you can use either to pass the time while the kettle's boiling or, alternatively, accidentally stay up all night playing until such time as you are weeping curious hot pink tears that leave an indelible mark on contact with your keyboard. What I'm saying is, it's addictive -- or rather, as Harry Hill says of heroin, it's very moreish: there's no personal best to beat, no levels to crack, it ought to be possible just to walk away with the sort of resolute give-a-little-whistle insouciance that would make Nancy Reagan proud of you. But that's not always an option. As proof of which, B3ta just linked last week to evidence of someone having got into Line Rider in a very big way. Play it yourself for a little while, at least, before you check this out. It's quite, quite extraordinary.

3. for 'French hens' read 'cameraless films'
Earlier this week I was hanging out with one of my absolute favourite people in the universe, and he was telling me about how he'd been hanging out with one of his absolute favourite people in the universe, a New York-based film-maker by the name of David Gatten. ("Did you mean David Patten?" asks Google, sweetly and solicitously, before inviting me to open a window if I feel in need of extra ventilation.) Without seeing a twenty-fourth of an iotum of Mr Gatten's work he has already become one of my favourite filmmakers: his processes are in themselves events of real poetry and, to an extent, theatre:
"For example, to produce What the Water Said, Nos.1-3, Gatten placed unexposed rolls of film in crab traps in the Atlantic Ocean off the South Carolina coast. The resulting sounds and images
were produced by the physical and chemical interactions between the film's
emulsion and the surrounding salt water, sand, rocks, crabs, fish and underwater creatures." [from Gatten's Wikipedia stub]
I'm going to drop him a line in the new year and see if we can, y'know, e-hang. In the meantime, I've bookmarked his own site and you should do the same. There's not much there for the moment but as an aide memoire I think it could be priceless.

4. for 'calling birds' read 'a necessary bulletin on feminizing foods'
All right, you vegans, before you chow down on your soya-based faux turkey this Monday, you really ought to take a look at this alarming and tightly argued contribution to the nature vs. nurture debate. (Apparently the UK government is already "cracking down hard on soy", which comes as some relief. In a kinder, gentler world, there would be easy access from this story to some kind of joke about the Quorn Hunt on Boxing Day but soya is soya and mycoprotein is mycoprotein and never the twain will meet, not even in a spirit of Christmas armistice.)

5. for 'gold rings' read 'strangers looking at each other'
The fantastically estimable Neil Pattison, author of this terrific book and sotto voce speaker of these marvellous poems, and out of everyone I know possibly the person who looks most like he could really carry off a suit of armour -- and Lord knows, not everybody can... where was I? Oh, yes, Neil kindly dropped me a line to complain that the I'm From Barcelona album was having a deleterious effect on his rostromedial prefrontal cortex (though not, to be fair, in so many words), and to direct my attention towards this really excellently beautiful video for the Broken Family Band's song "It's All Over", from their recent album Balls, which isn't going to turn up in the remainder of the Thompsontastic Top 50, though I did quite like it. (Just not as much as their early stuff.) Anyway, this video: an interesting-sounding photographer, Natalie Toumbas-Dawkins, asked two strangers just to sit and look at each other for an hour in silence, and the video compiles the edited highlights of the event. It's immensely sweet and raw and in some ways quite difficult to watch, though the edge was taken off for me by the extraordinary visual resemblance of the larger-faced of the two men (on the right at the beginning) to the young Leigh Bowery. I would strongly recommend watching this instead of whichever out of Hook, Flubber and Jumanji is on during the festive period.

6. for 'geese' read 'felt'
OK so I had to do a little bit of research for the updated version of Kiss of Life for Sydney and one thing led to another and basically what I'm trying to tell you is that there is a Muppet wiki. Basically, a whole mini-Wikipedia (not that mini, actually) entirely dedicated to the Muppets (and Sesame Street and Fraggle Rock and so on). The level of detail is enough to have even a pretty ardent fan like me reaching for the panic button. But if you did want to spend all of December 27th slumped in front of your computer reliving the greatest moments in the career of Super Grover, or studying the apposite synopsis of Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas (Maria Michaels, come on down!! you stalky freakazoid), WELL YOU CAN. That was accidental use of caps lock there but it couldn't feel more right.

7. for 'swans' read 'Is Act-Utilitarianism self-defeating?'
Obviously, everything is pretty stupid and depressing: but the recent Weatherall report on the use of non-human primates in experimentation [download it here] was, by any standards, an exceptionally disgusting contribution to the pile. What I don't think I quite understand is why anti-vivisection campaigners aren't more ready to flip the argument. (Actually, one can totally see why, given standard media treatment of these topics.) The one point on which proponents and opponents necessarily agree is that there is some usable functional or modelling equivalence between humans and monkeys such as macaques: that's why Weatherall recommends the further use of monkeys in experiments. Why then is it not down to the pro-vivisectionists to explain why they feel it's acceptable to conduct experiments on monkeys that they would not conduct on humans? I don't understand how, or on what rational basis, they derive the moral distinction between human and non-human primates. The person who writes best on these topics, as far as I'm concerned, is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. His work is searching, troubling -- in the best ways -- and it was his book Animal Liberation that shored up my vegetarianism (which in the early days was prone to lapse from time to time) and provided a more articulate commentary to my own inchoate sense of profound opposition to animal experimentation. There's a brilliant resource here, a collection of extracts and articles from across the range of Singer's work. Not all of the extracts come across in full effect out of context, and some of the articles, such as a recent short piece on homosexuality, are so coolly thought that they risk seeming pretty inert. But his reflections on, for example, the use of surrogate mothers in primate research -- the line of inquiry that partly prompted my poem 'Cot death link to womb dream' (read it in Quid 12 if you want) -- are brilliantly, unyieldingly penetrating, and hold their anger barely below the surface. ...Meanwhile, on the train yesterday, one of the free London evening papers had a headline asking about human rights for conscious robots: which is a fascinating area, deeply troubling and in some ways rather encouraging: but we have no business going anywhere near it until the distorted status quo that accepts vivisection and rejects euthanasia (and, of course, in many regions, abortion) has been fully and irrevocably redressed. I think that reversal is probably achievable within twenty years, but it's going to take a lot of work.

8. for 'maids' read 'primum non nocere'
While we're in the ballpark, and before we get back to the fun stuff, you'll be pleased to know that I've managed to hold back some of my hysterical indignation to apply to the latest in a line of reports indicating that cirumcision appears to cut the rate of HIV infection in heterosexual men by around 50%. I don't quibble with these findings, I can't; but I worry on two counts: firstly, that they divert attention away from a much greater issue, which is the practically genocidal opposition of the Vatican to the use, let alone the promotion, of condoms, at a time when there seem to be unprecedented indications that some adjustment in that position may at long last be possible -- so there couldn't be a worse time to be taking the heat off the cardinals; secondly, that they will surely contribute to a bolstering of support for a barbaric and futile practice. Where female circumcision is now much more widely considered an outrage than it was a generation or two ago, male circumcision remains so widespread and so locked in with tradition and religious practice that it's very difficult for many people to understand (here we are again) the moral and ethical equivalence between female and male genital mutilation. Most press commentary around the NIAID report chose simply to celebrate the fact that the head of the World Health Organization's HIV/AIDS department is a Mr Kevin De Cock, and this is of course tremendously amusing -- as is this, huzzah; but sorry, everyone: non-consensual male circumcision is an appalling (and in most cases indefensible) practice, and it deserves sober assessment and strenuous opposition. Perhaps during the commercial break of You've Been Framed At Christmas you might quickly cast an unprejudiced eye over the Declaration of the International Coalition for Genital Integrity. At any rate, the idea that male circumcision may be perceived to be in itself effectively preventative of HIV infection as a result of this coverage is, in both of its obvious implications, horrifying.

9. for 'ladies' read 'Petrol Boy'
There aren't many routes by which one can satisfactorily escape from a discussion of genital mutilation back to the showbiz levity by which the top of this list was characterised. But this will help get us some of the way. The use of "Winters Love" by Animal Collective on the soundtrack to Shortbus (and indeed at that film's climactic moment) made me dig deep to remember where I'd heard that track before. The answer: 'The Child That Smelt Funny', of course: one of the many very profoundly scarring Flash cartoons to be found on David Firth's extremely satisfying web site . (Almost certainly you are cool enough to know all of this already.) The evident influence upon Firth of the peerless Kenny Everett -- who, as we know, was born on Christmas day -- is particularly to the good.

10. for 'lords' read 'big sound authority'
Quick. Easy. Look, cos it's late, and I've got to get on a train early tomorrow. Er... Right, now I'm panicking. No. Calm. Calm. It's fine. Here's a good thing. Hype Machine. It's a searchable database (I expect both of those words are extremely old fashioned but I'm past caring) of the mp3s that get posted to music blogs. So if your New Year's Eve party is going phut and the only thing that will save it is the excellent song "This House Is Where Your Love Stands" by the Big Sound Authority, you can do the tappity-tap and your computer will do the voila. How pleasant it is to live in the future, and how doubly so to spend so much time listening to songs from the past.

11. for 'pipes' read 'the Russian secret police disguised as wallpaper'
Inevitably, someone -- in fact, this (unarguably tall) man here -- has transcribed the three Derek & Clive albums that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore recorded through the mid 70s. As a teenager I knew quite long stretches of Ad Nauseam off by heart. My relationship with this work is much more problematic now -- the violent misogyny and the gross racism no longer seem to me to have the patina of irony that I initially assumed; you only have to watch the Get the Horn video to see the quite direct and unvarnished hatred Cook clearly had at the time for everything, almost certainly including the work they were doing. Some of it still makes me laugh - 'The Critics', at the end of Ad Nauseam, is still a weeping delight, perhaps in part because it's (unusually) Moore rather than Cook who really cuts loose. Anyway, I'm linking to these transcriptions because actually, uncoupled from the tone of voice that comes across so exposingly on the recordings, the dialogue seems to me to be, written down, much funnier. The obscenity is less pressured, the balance of power more equalized, and the black-and-white rendering of some of the more colourful discourse creates a surprisingly beautiful tension. It's vastly rude and obnoxious so don't click if you think you won't care for it, but this is my favourite of the transcripts: the way it opens out into such reckless existential wretchedness, almost by accident, is wonderfully, exactly, expensively sublime. They would have shrunk from the coarseness of the language, certainly, but Edward Lear, say, or Nikolai Gogol, would both have recognized the movements of these conversations, and especially the atrocious complicity of banal language in the unspeakable awfulness of everything to do with living when compared with the equal and opposite awfulness of everything to do with being dead. This dialogue is worthy of comparison with both those writers, and with Pinter, and to some extent with Beckett: which for improvised material arising out of the mutual antipathy of two drunk and seedy and perpetually disappointed light entertainers is really saying something.

12 for 'drummers' read '
Oh, God, I'm tired. Why does this always take three times as long as I think it will? Look, just, right, OK, if you're bored, you might have fun playing Likebetter. You keep choosing which photo you prefer out of an unrelated pair, and some spooky algorithm makes deductions about you based on your preferences. It may freak you out a bit -- it did me -- or equally it might not work so well for you and you'll think I'm a sucker. Also, this too, when it works, is freaky. (It got 'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' right first time, but rather splendidly identified 'There Ain't Nobody Here But Us Chickens' as 'God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen'.) But turn on your pop-up blocker and set Spyware Doctor to stun.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

#21-30: OK, Peter Schilling has left the building

Looks like somebody activated The Noah Plan. (God bless the world wide web. ...Ah, who are we kidding, God is the world wide web.)

Anyway, blah, next ten.
#21 Roland Ramanan, Caesura
Trumpeter Roland Ramanan was responsible for probably the five most sensationally exciting minutes I ever had during three years in the cockpit at CPT, when he very kindly agreed to gather together his quartet (Marcio Mattos, Simon H. Fell, and, on that occasion, Tony Marsh in for Mark Sanders) and play on the opening night of the theatre's second Total Writing Festival. They brought their masterful set to a close with a precarious hurtle through 'Break', from Ramanan's previous Emanem disc Shaken; it made the journey down Carsten Holler's tallest Tate helter-skelter feel like points failure just outside Lewisham. As I recall, my reaction, qua impetuous MC, was to attempt to solicit sexual congress with any audience member who was up for it: but of course no one volunteered because they'd quite literally all just come. Caesura, recorded in 2003 but only this year released, is a less immediately approachable record than its predecessor, setting out large, sometimes thorny, arguments, and working hard in the opening tracks to test the faultlines of more ambitious structures. The cross-conversation between Mattos and Fell is particularly engrossing, given that neither of them is capable of an insipid gesture or prefabricated thought; and Fell's solo, 'Marcel Duchamp', is beyond jaw-dropping: you may lose control -- or even occupancy -- of your entire face. Ramanan is making music of real stature and relevance, and deserves the widest attention and the warmest encouragement.

#22 Schneider TM, Skoda Mluvit
Wow, some people really hate Schneider TM (or Dirk Dresselhaus, as his mom knows him): I've seen a couple of stinging reviews of his stuff. Which I just can't understand. The worst you can say about him is that not everything he turns his hand to comes off: which is probably, in the end, rather a good thing. Not least in respect of doorknobs, obviously. Skoda Mluvit (apologies for the lack of the appropriate diacritical marks but I still can't work out how to do them) is a drop dead delovely record from beginning to end. If you haven't heard Schneider before, pretty much whatever you care to imagine is bound to turn up in the mix somewhere, though not in the company you might expect. One moment he sounds like he might be regurgitating Holger Czukay through a Markus Popp filter, the next moment he's got Capitol K locked in a carnal 5/4 waltz with Alog, the next he's holding Gastr del Sol hostage with Matmos's glue-gun. And yet there's no moment where it would be remotely hard to believe he thinks he's actually Prince. Stand-outs are the laidback playground song "Pac Man / Shopping Cart", which could easily be from a German remake of Midnight Cowboy (and Lord knows it's about time we had one of those); and the baffling "The Blacksmith", a little hip-hop diadem which sounds like it was assembled by someone whose only knowledge of popular music came from reading a David Toop essay printed out during a low toner alert. Top hole.

#23 Hot Club de Paris, Drop It 'Til It Pops
Hah! Let's blow off this dumb record-reviewing waste-of-time and make a record ourselves. Yeah! A brave, ruthless, rapscallious outspew of a record with neat song titles, perhaps. Cool! We could re-record "Deck the Halls With Boughs of Holly" as a sea-shanty by the Sweet and then pretend to be a Pavement tribute band and do a cover version of it called "Shipwreck", it'll be ace, don't forget to bring that glockenspiel you're propping your desk up with. ...What? It's already been done? Gee. What are the odds. OK! I've got another idea. Let's reform Sebadoh, but way way off in the distance, and then stand in front of them and shout, but with barbershop harmonies and that fuzz pedal we nicked off the Beatnik Filmstars. Maybe we could use one of those online Manic Street Preachers lyrics generators, set to 'stun'. ...What? That's already been done as well? Crikey. What can the matter be? Who keeps getting there before us? Could it be Sarge? Rosemary the telephone operator? Henry the mild-mannered janitor? Nope, none of them. Oh wait. Look, under here, there's a tiny scribbled note that says "Warning. Hot Club de Paris have come to save guitar rock from the twin menaces of guitars and rock, but so as not to excite suspicion, they are continuing to base their approach largely on guitars and rock. Bounce up and down if you want but do not try to dance, you will sprain your ankle, your pelvis and possibly your cat." Right. What shall we do now?

#24 Thom Yorke, The Eraser
You don't have to read a lot of Thompson's, or of any of my critical writing that's cropped up in other places, to know that I hold Radiohead in very high esteem indeed. The critical thing is, though, they are, in common with all truly great bands, way more than the sum of their parts. Radiohead is not just Thom Yorke -- nor Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood plus back-up band, as some of their middlebrow admirers erroneously think. The Eraser confirms this, and that's a good thing. To a degree the real disappointment is how like the Radiohead of Kid A and Amnesiac this record is: but it's faintly ludicrous to talk about disappointment in discussing such a well realized album. There is a flatness of dynamic and structure which means that the record as a whole exerts too little pressure on the listener; the trope of the restlessly neurotic (or paranoid) machine that Radiohead have done so much to help us imagine here comes to seem almost placid in the disinterested synthetic environments it establishes, even as the anger builds through "And It Rained All Night" and the needling "Harrowdown Hill". But it's an interesting sequence of songs, meticulously compiled and unyieldingly achieved, and as ever it's instructive to recall the distance from Pablo Honey to The Eraser: only a small handful of artists have been so intrepid.

25 Mazarin, We're Already There
I'm not quite sure what to suggest. I'd really like you to listen to, and ideally fall in love with, this boundlessly attractive record, particularly if you've never slept in an oxygen tent at the edge of Lake Manasarovar, say, or swum with dolphins and McFly at the same time. I think your life would be enhanced by it, as mine has been. But it's now December 16th and, according to their web site, Mazarin cease to exist on January 1st. So what's the point of falling in love with a band on the cusp of terminal expiry? Surely it can only lead to heartache and, in severe cases, alopecia. So look: if you want to bask in the ecstatic loping of "Another One Goes By", recalling the classic pop of The Chills or Another Sunny Day, or surrender to the textural pleasures of "Schroed(er)/inger", an instrumental that both Joe Meek and Wagon Christ would immediately understand, on your own (possibly soon to be slap-) head be it. On the upside, all the indications are that the prime mover of Mazarin, the commendably named Quentin Stoltzfus, will eventually surface in some other incarnation. This sounds like a very good plan indeed.
#26 The Streets, The Hardest Way To Make An Easy Living
The Streets are by any reckoning one of the best things to happen to British music this decade, and it's some measure of Mike Skinner's extraordinary achievement in developing and defining (and cheerfully defiling) his sound across his first two albums that this third was greeted with a certain amount of yawning and shuffling. Quite unmerited, I think. The sound is spikier and the organisation of the album as a whole is less cohesive -- and it could be argued that there are fewer gilt-edged songs here than he turned in on A Grand Don't Come For Free -- but you don't have to read deep between the lines to apprehend the real beef that critics and punters alike have had with The Hardest Way...: there is clearly some resistance to the shift in balance of the topical content of the songs. Suddenly, instead of being about uphill working-class life on Bigtown estates, they're about how Skinner's life has changed, and how he's had to contend with an altogether different set of challenges as a celebrity. Certainly, this change tears a hole in the Streets brand; but Skinner isn't that brand, & he's just doing what he's always done, writing vividly and articulately about what he sees and experiences and how he feels about it. The grand narrative may not come for free any longer, but to react to an album of such vital force and sustained integrity with such protestations of ennui is infantile and, itself, pretty boring. Skinner's got the skills and the talent -- and, by the look of it, the guts -- to sustain a long and fascinating career, and has already crammed into the first few years of it a level of restless and uncontainable inventiveness that makes it impossible to even consider writing him off.

#27 Adem, Love and Other Planets
So I just had a little peek at Wikipedia to see if there was any info on whether Adem might want to come to the pictures with me, and it doesn't say, the sods, but it does quote him as saying, earlier this year (it's on his web site, actually): "I love libraries. The existence of public libraries is one of my favourite achievements of human kind." Which makes me think that maybe we should skip the flicks and go straight for the civil partnership. I appreciate that this will perhaps read as a mildly sinister sentiment to be expressing, even amid the fairground whirl of unrequited devotions that everyone secretly knows Thompson's to be. But in my defence, he started it. Have a listen to Love and Other Planets, preferably outside and on headphones and with no particular place to go, and tell me this man doesn't love you to bits. There is no other explanation, rational or otherwise, for this album: for the driving visionary paranoiac lyricism of "These Lights Are Meaningful"; for the bareback tenderness and irrepressible la la chorus of "Something's Going To Come"; for the rough magic of "You and Moon" ("Searching / I wore out my telescope / and I nearly gave up hope", it begins, like the best Russian novel never written)... On and on it goes, in the best possible way all things to all people, a testament, a witness statement, a beautiful gift completely wrapped up in itself. God bless Adem and make him good.

#28 Paul Simon, Surprise
Exactly le titre juste, it seems to me. Paul Simon -- confusingly, for one of the half-dozen truly great American songwriters of the last fifty years -- hasn't really turned in a strong collection of songs (notwithstanding the biannual repackaging of his greatest hits) in the twenty years since Graceland -- which was anyway something of an outlier -- and, before that, Hearts and Bones: an album about which I alone among all living creatures feel enthusiastic and affectionate. There was something interesting about the moment of reading that Simon was in the studio with Brian Eno; after all, Eno's collaborative promiscuity means that for most artists of stature it's probably a matter of when rather than if: no biggie, surely. But the feeling that this was a curious mismatch prompted a deductive reflection: Simon must, after all, have a stronger and more distinctive identity as a songwriter and singer than has come to seem the case in all the generic eddying and buffeting that has characterised his solo career. Needless to say, Eno's influence is palpable -- his own Another Day on Earth, from last year, and his work with Daniel Lanois, are the reference points, I guess -- and the album gets off to what can seem a slow and stodgy start, with Eno-drenched treatments making Simon sound almost perception-alteringly lugubrious, particularly now that his voice is just beginning to coarsen a little. But it picks up, opens out, becomes fleet and light and a bit giddy even, and repeated listening reveals strong and supple and occasionally ardent songs, with more anger but less sourness than the classic Simon of 25 or 30 years ago. It doesn't quite all fall into place until the last track, "Father and Daughter", which is as simple and good-hearted as anything he's ever recorded, with or without his Fraggle-shaped ex-compadre, and reveals the singer, rather than the producer, holding steady at the still centre of the operation: and suddenly you want to throw streamers. Surprise is the moving sound of someone remebering a longstanding appointment, keeping a promise.

#29 Francois Couturier, Nostalghia: Song for Tarkovsky
O bother. Is this the first sign of impending middle-age, choosing two ECM records for your top 50 of the year? Actually, in my case, no, it's about the eighth or ninth sign, and presumably in this case, as in all the others, resistance is futile. I don't know much about Francois Couturier beyond another ECM disc, about ten years back, with the violinist Dominique Pifarely, a pretty severe record called Poros for which I've yet to develop much of a fondness. But I do like that Couturier -- like Georg Graewe, who he reminds me of in some ways -- is prepared to be quite ugly, to make interventions into a generally spacious sound field that are dense and bunched-up and intractable. Two things in particular really work in Couturier's favour here: the instrumentation (cello, soprano sax and beautifully played accordion, alongside his piano), which gives him reach and an undertow of emotional warmth that particularly his occasional more sentimental 'classical' gestures ironically lack; and the overarching dedication to Tarkovsky. Often these conceptual orientations either fail to communicate or they signify haphazardly: but here, Tarkovsky's films function as objects which anchor and in some ways come to anticipate the music, which is not, then, pictorial, but simply fixed in an exterior relation to listener and performers alike. I don't know, sometimes I listen to this album and there's nothing there for me, and at other times it's compelling and deeply rewarding. Certainly it is a strange recording, and one which repeated exposure is not making any more familiar: and there's something exceptionally decent about such unassimilable work, and about the imaginary space it occupies. [p.s. I've just remembered: there's yet another ECM record still to come, quite high in the list. Fetch me my zimmer, somebody.]

#30 Arctic Monkeys, Whatever People Say I Am That's What I'm Not
Suddenly it seems like a very long year: to think that this album was released in January, when it feels as though it came out at about the same time as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway or Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. This is partly I suppose because the buzz was building all through the second half of 2005 -- oddly enough I first heard of them through a discussion on the always marvellously entertaining bulletin board at the web site of Jonathan King. (What on earth can he possibly have seen in them? ...Oh.) What needs to be said? This is a cracking album. I sort of hope they never make another. They'll never have this much energy again. Actually I also think it's reasonable to say that this makes the list partly as a representative of the several very useful records that were able to come through in its slipstream: there would have been an argument for finding a slot in the Furtive Fifty for Milburn's spanking Well Well Well and the triffic recent lick-and-a-promise debut from Bromheads Jacket. On weighing it all up I simply thought the Monkeys had arrived more fully formed than the others, and made what will probably be a more enduring album. Good on them. But seriously. Retire! RETIRE!!

Saturday, December 16, 2006

#31-40: As Peter Schilling went on to say...

"...The count goes on."

(If this Peter Schilling stuff all means a big Viennese nothing to you, you've forgotten one of the best singles of 1983 or thereabouts. I'll stick it up over at Gevorts Box when I have a chance. Meanwhile here's the text version, for those of you listening in black and white.)

Anyway. Here I am donning my Dave Lee Travis Beard & Lobotomy Disguise Kit to itemise the next ten records in this ongoing account of the year's best. (If you've just joined us, there's a fuller introduction below.)
#31 Asobi Seksu, Citrus
I know I wasn't the only person instantly seduced by Asobi Seksu right from the get-go: the opening track, "I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me", on their first album, a couple of years ago, bounced around the interwebulosphere like a veritable squash-ball full of wildfire. (Captain Ignoramus here initially made the twitty assumption that Asobi Seksu was the name of a solo female vocalist, rather than a full band; given that actually the phrase translates roughly as 'Casual Sex', we should hope that not too many fans have made the same error and so-named their firstborns in tribute -- Lord knows it was hard enough growing up with the moniker Captain Ignoramus.) Anyway, no no no, they're a New York band who find a groovy thirdzone between -- to these ears -- Stereolab and My Bloody Valentine, with genially expansive schoolgirl melodies scribbled over the top of some lushly (and sometimes Lush-ly) insistent slabs of reverberant guitar-band thrumming and bags of pedal-power. Citrus starts and finishes staggeringly well while losing its identity a bit in the middle; but more to the point, Asobi Seksu are exactly the kind of band you wish your best mate played in, so you could root for them, and hang out with them, and have swoony inappropriate fantasies about whichever of them seems shyest and/or has the best hair, and do little cartoons of them on the cover of your maths book: and the good news is you can probably do most of those things even though your best mate almost certainly doesn't play with them, the swine.

#32 Richard Butler, Richard Butler
Richard Butler by Richard Butler, what can one say about Richard Butler by Richard Butler? I just like typing his name. I know I'm hardly a stranger at the Hyperbole Bar & Grill but it is literally true that there is no male voice in the rock pantheon that I'd sooner listen to than Richard Butler's, and, fortunately for all of us, that voice continues to emerge from the lower regions of the face of Richard Butler, who has this year released Richard Butler. Loving him as I do, I bent a forgiving ear towards him while The Psychedelic Furs (with whom he sang, if you've only just woken up and nobody's making coffee yet) drifted off into their dotage and Love Spit Love, his subsequent band project, footled their way through the mid 90s to no particular effect. Initially, Richard Butler seemed no more impactful than that output, though it's very nicely (if perhaps a little over-tastefully) produced by Jon Carin, ex- of Industry; I was ready to file it alongside, for example, John Cale's ProTools fiesta Hobosapiens as a perfectly respectable record produced in good faith by an artist who would have rejected that perfect respectability outright and with some violence thirty years earlier: so that the disappointment is sort of with life rather than with the people concerned. Nonetheless, I've warmed to Richard Butler, which does, after all, repay repeated and attentive listening. It's too often sluggish and vague where Butler's voice has always been set off best by penetratingly focused writing and playing. But the vocals are front and centre and he never once sounds like his heart isn't in it -- he could, of course, sing the Chicken Tonight jingle and make it sound like the greatest heartbreak in the western world, and perhaps one day he will, but in the meantime there's enough in this album to keep drawing me back, where other, more immediately sensational, albums have long since given up their secrets and the ghost.

#33 Tomasz Stanko, Lontano
As with Richard Butler's Richard Butler, there's so much high-class reflective sheen on the surface of this recording, it's a little surprising not to find Kelsey Grammer chopping out a line or two on it. But with Tomasz Stanko, you expect nothing less: he's been more or less star centre-forward for ECM for a good ten years (and in the squad for, what?, 30 maybe), and there's never been a more cogent match between artist, producer and label. (It helps that producer and label are essentially one and the same Manfred Eicher, of course.) There are countless instances of the ECM aesthetic -- the audio equivalent of huge expensive coffeetable books of tasteful photographic landscapes and the odd unrevealing nude -- appearing unattractive, conservative and downright icky; but equally, there have always been great and distinctive artists -- Eberhard Weber and Arild Andersen being my particular favourites -- who have found in its catalogue the right balance of home and abroad, as it were, and in Lontano, the extremely fine Polish trumpeter Stanko has delivered an album that seems to take him further out than he's been for a while. The language and the range is freer, both in terms of improvisation and ideation; the group-play is unbelievably secure and nuanced, with pianist Marcin Wasilewski offering an especially crucial mix of authority and sensitivity. As ever with (the best) ECM recordings, it's vital not to be seduced by the balanced and unobtrusive character of this album and relegate it to dinner-party music: it's only when you have a moment-to-moment relationship with its many human narratives that you begin to come into an understanding of what Stanko and his quartet are up to. This album is not going to knock down any barricades but it means exactly what it says, and, particularly in idiomatic European jazz, that's rare enough.

#34 Trivium, The Crusade
And now for something completely different. It's very rarely these days that I listen to metal, or at least out-and-out metal -- as opposed to the gleefully deconstructive approach of System Of A Down, say, or the thwacking melange of mimickry and gimmickry that is Fantomas. But all that strenuous cleverness can have a boy reaching for a Ritalin patch and dreaming of a kinder, more nakedly preposterous time -- more tongue, less fork -- when it wasn't necessary for a metal band to build in a sardonic critique of their own postures. Welcome back to Trivium, everybody. I always forget they're American, there's something so, I dunno, so deliciously East German about them, the earnestness, the unstintingly overblown religiose quest narratives, the personal styling...: everything about them says pimp my Trabant. I was gaga for last year's Ascendancy, which was the first time I'd heard them, and indeed heard of them; this new record has perhaps lost a little of the hell-for-leather recklessness of that last album, but while it took me a couple of weeks to tune into the more mainstream flavour of The Crusade, I've really come to like it a lot, even its overwrought melodic choruses. Really of course this stuff only makes sense when you play it so loud that you feel like it's trying to practise the Heimlich manoeuvre on you -- and in a shared terraced house in Stoke Newington that opportunity does not often present itself. Rest assured, as soon as it does, you'll know about it.

#35 Sophia, Technology Won't Save Us
OK, hands up who forgot about Sophia? I'd been that rarest of flowers, a casual supporter of The God Machine, a band of whom you weren't considered a real fan unless you'd tattooed their complete discography on your eyeballs with the jagged edge of a rusty tin can lid. But I felt a pretty deep (and, it goes without saying, slightly pretentious) connection with their first album, Scenes From The Second Storey -- I was 20 and unlucky in love, we've talked about this... And so when The God Machine had to end, and the band's leading light (a phrase which in this context has to be taken as a synonym for 'impending doom'), Robin Proper-Sheppard, began a new band project called Sophia, I was keen to hear the results. That first album, Fixed Water, was good but not great, and I guess I wandered off -- and, in so far as I thought about it all, assumed they'd done the same. Well, nuh-uh. Technology Won't Save Us is their sixth album, and there's something immensely cheering about rediscovering them at this late stage and finding that they still sound pretty much the same. There's a fair bit more gumption behind this new record than the somewhat drippy Fixed Water, something of the driving cinematic quality of The God Machine at their best; the instrumentation is more various here and the songwriting occasionally and rewardingly makes a break for it. And Proper-Sheppard, quite magnificently, still sounds like a 15-year-old singing songs in his bedroom about how hateful everyone is, with the possible exception of Camus. This is not the 35th best album of the year but it means a lot to me to have heard it, more or less out of the blue, and to like it as much as I do.
#36 Lindsey Buckingham, Under the Skin
In what a great poet -- was it Sean O'Brien, perhaps?, I can't quite remember -- so memorably described as "this ever changing world in which we live in", one maxim remains irreducibly true: I'd really very much rather jack than Fleetwood Mac. (Imagine my surprise and delight when The Reynolds Girls released their jolly 1989 single, expressing an almost identical sentiment.) Actually, to be perfectly honest, I did, on its release, buy Tango In The Night, because, ah, I was young and burgeoningly theatrical and therefore a little in love with Stevie Nicks. It was only later that I realised the rhythm tracks were all created out of a single Fairlight sample of an eternally stamping jackboot (...or, rather, Fleetwood Macboot). Thing is, even at the time that I was swooning in my room to the (evident) strains of "Welcome To The Room, Sara", twenty years ago, the ladies and gentlemen of F. Mac seemed impossibly middle-aged, self-evidently in the twilight of their waning. And so it is with some surprise that I find myself eager to hail longterm F. Mac inmate Lindsey Buckingham as the author of one of this year's most appealing records. No, he hasn't teamed up with Odd Nosdam, no, he hasn't gone crunk (though at his great age I suspect he may do when he stands up too quickly). It's just voice and guitars, mostly; but it's gripping stuff, right from the start, when in "Not Too Late" he traces, over a turbulent bed of drily-recorded fingerpicking, an account of his career and present status that manages to be narcissistic and self-lacerating at the same time. It's all strikingly unvarnished, his voice is unflatteringly recorded, the songs are hardly ever professionally slick... the whole thing catches you from leftfield. Though it's not that similar musically, the artist I was most reminded of was (the much lamented) Warren Zevon; Buckingham doesn't appear to have a tenth of Zevon's wit, but this is obviously a frustrated and underrated singer-songwriter making his case with urgency and integrity, and it makes this list where a likelier candidate like Neil Young's Living With War doesn't.

#37 Tortoise & Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, The Brave and the Bold
I'm writing way too much here, this is going to take more than a year if I'm not careful, I'll end up lapping myself in reverse. (An agreeable trick if you can do it.) Fortunately I can be succinct about The Brave and the Bold. This is an excellent record. There. I haven't listed BPB's The Letting Go, his more recent 2006 release, which I've not yet developed a real liking for -- it has lovely moments, but it seems oddly buttoned-up to me, a little bit circumspect, and I don't at all like Dawn McCarthy's voice (passim) I'm afraid. Proper fans of Will Oldham have tended, on the whole, to celebrate The Letting Go and demur a bit at this covers project with Tortoise, which they have seemed to find rather blocky and squishy in its textures (I don't believe anyone actually used either of those words, I'm just trying not to use daft descriptors like 'MOR') compared with the luxuriant spindliness and ranginess of classic Oldham. What I love about The Brave and the Bold, though, in general, is how surprising it is -- far more, for me, than anything he's released since Palace Music's Arise Therefore (which remains one of my top five albums like evah -- but that's another list). Tracks like "That's Pep!" and "Cravo e Canela" seem to be taking him by surprise -- as well they might. And the version of "Pancho" is almost without doubt the year's most unreservedly beautiful love song. And we haven't said this yet but don't Tortoise also sound more gee'd up than they have in a decade? I'd thought they were noodling themselves beyond the blue horizon and out to grass, and then this happens. Lovely. Bravo. Should be higher in the list. Never mind. Still. Look. I hardly wrote anything about this one.

#38 The Killers, Sam's Town
Given the unconscionable tediousness of almost everything related to Brandon Flowers, in particular his witless pronouncements about the strong and loving arms of Meerika The Beautiful, The Killers are an extremely hard band to like. But it turns out to be worth the extra effort. The boys generate a smart driving rock sound, with bags of high end for maximum antisocial iPod leakage, and a plainly instinctive grasp of how to put a song together. Flowers's vocals are for the most part generic alternative rock 'n' roll bleating, and seem desperately limited at times, but when he's in his comfort zone and the band are around him like the Jets around Riff in West Side Story -- as on the big (and enthralling) single "When You Were Young" and the coolly irresistible "Read My Mind" -- you can kind of understand how he makes weak hearts flutter. Quite unusually for me, I find myself tuning into the lyrics, also, and enjoy their almost Dickensian sweep and their flirtiness, particularly their keen amalgamation of sex and the city into one big pulsating idea for a good time. Something needs to change for them to become an important band, I'm not quite sure what, it's not on the cards yet, it's just the difference between their album three-from-now being truly great and being completely irrelevant. If they can figure out what it is, they should be unstoppable. If you're reading this, Brandon: the answer to this quiz question is not repeat not Oasis.

#39 Lambchop, Damaged
OK well this one I probably can do quite quickly. I adored early Lambchop and then round about What Another Man Spills we kind of parted company -- not acrimoniously, I just wasn't buying the Curtis Mayfield tip and we agreed to see other people for a while. So this is the first album since Nixon that I've given more than cursory attention to and I think it's very beautiful. The idiosyncratic sweetness of Kurt Wagner has resurfaced, the expressed worldview (and its musical wrapper) has lost much of the glib ironic doublethink that bogged it down for a while. The sound language furthermore seems entirely theirs, at last, rather than a confection of quotes and lifts and pastiches. Songs like "A Day Without Glasses" and "Beers Before The Barbican" are redolent equally of poetic, political and romantic ardour, and that's just what's required. Just when I was starting to think I never needed to hear another Lambchop album, I did, and now I do.

#40 I'm From Barcelona, Let Me Introduce My Friends
A (very) little research indicates that there are 29 members of I'm From Barcelona, which is one more than The Polyphonic Spree at their largest. I take this to mean that IFB could take TPS in a fistfight. Good. (Of course there probably ought to be some weighting to the calculation, given that it's Swedes versus Americans -- but, come on, it's two in the morning, what do you want from me?) I think it's the cultishness that eventually put me off the Spree, though they're cracking live if you're in the mood: but the good thing about I'm From Barcelona is that they sound like a gang rather than a sect. (As the Pitchfork review appositely says: "One of these voices could be yours.") Their music is ragged and infectious at best, slightly twee and overweening at worst; it's also various enough to hold the attention across a whole album, where other large combos are often susceptible to creating too-thick textures which become monotonous and eventually indigestible. I'm not totally crazy about the album -- it's just a bit too likeable, perhaps -- but we should enjoy IFB while they're around, before they either become economically unviable or (more likely) a band made out of 30 Albanians runs them out of town with the sticks and the yelling.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

#41-50: As Peter Schilling once remarked...

"The countdown starts."

Ah, they don't write pop tunes like that any more, do they? "Starting to collect / requested data / 'What will it affect / when all is done?' / thinks Major Tom." And so think we all.

Because yes, the ordination of The Controlling Thompson's favourite records of the year commences here and now: admittedly at the lower reaches of the charts (this is #41-50) so you needn't start foaming with excitement quite yet. In a way it seems absurd to turn a little end-of-year throwaway into a week-long featurette, and perhaps I should have stuck with the original plan for a Top 20, which might not have telegraphed quite such deplorably strong intimations of self-importance. On the other hand, even going down as far as number fifty, there isn't an album on this list that I wouldn't recommend you hearing, and if each of these records receives even one extra spin in the universe as a result of this exercise, I shall be quite aux mintballes.

The obvious but necessary disclaimer is that I probably haven't heard more than three or four of the fifty records that were actually the best among all those released this year, in just the same way that the three best violinists on the planet will probably never see a violin. That's just the way it goes. And of course, in so far that the ordering is anything other than completely arbitrary, I'm merely trying to communicate enthusiasms, quite subjectively and with a characteristic dash of (not altogether unconscious) idiosyncrasy. For example, there would clearly be a strong argument for Scott Walker's The Drift to be named as objectively the best record of the year, in terms of its vision, its scope and its impeccable crafting: but I'm not even going to be listing it in the fifty, because I honestly find it too scary to listen to, and whichever way you look at it, a record you never want to listen to EVER AGAIN if you can possibly help it is not in the end a great record.

Nor, of course, are most of these: though I'd make the case for the top seven or eight: which I guess I'll be getting to in about a week, maybe sooner. Down among these lower reaches are a bunch of really worthwhile three- and four-star records which it's been good to listen to this year, and which you might enjoy if you checked them out. As an aid towards which, I'll be uploading a track from each of these 50 albums over at Gevorts Box (which is now up and spooling again -- sorry for the hiatus) as we go along.

Please also leave comments and corrections, according to taste (or lack of).

And now, as, in tribute to Fluff (who sadly, of course, has now left the building, buffeted by a sudden gust of air), the congregation makes the sign of the Swingin' Cymbal, dearly beloved, let us rock.
#41 Oh No! Oh My!, Oh No! Oh My!
This small but beautifully malformed bunch of fellows from Austin, Texas are definitely on the up-and-up, as evidenced by the fact that they clinch the coveted Thompson's #41 slot while The Flaming Lips, for whom they opened a couple of shows earlier this year, find their own overeggy (and undereasy) 2006 release has garnered them a grand total of Mestingua Condoriosis Squat. This is impeccably good-natured, marginally off-kilter longsleeved-cardigan indie stuff; it may not see you through the winter, quite, but break it out again round about the third week of March, and it'll make you want to dance in a diffident sort of way on your roof. If that sounds like faint praise, let's be clear, if you're dancing on your roof, diffidence may be the best policy. Two words, people: Health &/or Safety.

#42 Gary Jules, Gary Jules
Another self-titled album, making this region of the chart look suspiciously like it's been badly administered. Anyhoo. If Mr Jules is right now wandering around the tradesmen's entrance of your memory, looking a bit lost, permit me to help you out: it was his tremulous vox on the Donnie Darko rendition of 'Mad World' that improbably secured the Christmas No.1 single a few years back. This is Jules's first album since the splendid (if freakishly titled) Trading Snakeoil For Wolftickets, which earned a reissue and a modicum of attention on the back of the big hit; this one's perhaps not quite as strong or as supple as the last, but the writing is secure and his delicate performances are nicely recorded. Highly recommended if you secretly quite fancied Yusuf Islam's comeback album this autumn but feared it might be a bit raucous for you.

#43 Babybird, Between My Ears There Is Nothing But Music
Stephen Jones was very very interesting for quite a long time, first as a member of the important Sheffield performance company Dogs in Honey, and then with the series of (desperately fragile and cheery and occasionally psychotic-sounding) lo-fi solo recordings he issued on a series of limited edition CDs in the mid 90s. Then he inflated his Baby Bird moniker to accommodate a proper band like, and they did the vastly misunderstood "You're Gorgeous" and a couple of quite crumby albums and by that time he wasn't very interesting any more. Then there was a pretty interesting album called Bugged in 2000, with big widescreen songs and Imax production values to match: but by that time no one was paying much attention. And I don't think anyone's paid much attention ever since. But this newest, rather unexpected (I assumed they were all dead), album shows that he's still, at his best, an immensely capable songwriter, with a nearly unerring feel for a pointy hook or a rumbly groove. So we end up at a sort of paradoxical conclusion: that this album is definitely worth paying attention to, but he's also clearly one of those artists who can only produce his best work when nobody's paying attention. Luckily for me, I am writing this paragraph in the style of Matthew Collings, for a bet. Except I'm not. Or am I? Perhaps it doesn't matter. But actually, yes I am. Or, actually, am I? And if I don't know, can I still win the bet?

#44 The Hidden Cameras, Awoo
The Hidden Cameras are gay and Canadian, so this was probably never going to be a candidate for Difficult Listening Hour. I became aware of them a couple of years ago when their track 'Boys of Melody' suddenly seemed to be everywhere [& it cropped up just last week on the Shortbus soundtrack], and was in due course a bit surprised that such a gracious and appealing song should have arisen out of a band who seem to come across in interviews and articles as kind of obnoxious. Perhaps they're just young, who knows? At any rate, this is a lovely album, not totally consistent but three or four tracks really hit some heights and you end up feeling warmly about them, however cool you were on arrival: so shake the snow off your Mountie boots, or rearrange that instruction into a well-known phrase or saying, and perhaps have a stab at singing along with the title song, which is as good-natured a thing to come out of Canada since Nate Dorward came to town for Total Writing London -- and, before that, of course, the largely underestimated Asses of Fire.

#45 Hot Chip, The Warning
It was revved-up theatre magus Liam Jarvis (of Theatre Trash) who first tipped me the wink about Hot Chip -- at least I think that was what he was doing... Two-and-a-half years later and this all seems a bit well, duh. I mean, this album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, which is a bit like being kissed by your auntie in front of all your mates. Though not with tongues. Still, a kiss is just a kiss, and a man's a man for a' that, and whichever way you slice it, The Warning is a gorgeous album on the ear. The songs may fall unarousingly between the opposing stools of insistence and elusiveness, but their soundworld is so deep and shiny it's like visiting some weird futuristic organic farm where E-numbers grow in strands on the trees. What am I describing? I'm describing a kind of Quorn Wonderland. Maybe that's the nature of 'the warning'. Ultimately it bugs me that they sound so cool and uneffortful, when classic synthpop was never about disengagement, it was always critically concerned with the social and political circumstances of its own manufacture and aesthetic. I think it's possible that in fifteen years, The Warning will occupy the same cultural position as, say, Vangelis's album Fruits de Mer. Not that such a Vangelis album exists, as far as I know.
#46 Easy Star All-Stars, Radiodread
On the surface it looks like a "here today and - if I may say so - gone tomorrow" sort of novelty album: a reggae / dub whole-album cover of OK Computer. But it's got more going for it than that, partly I suppose because it smartly picks up on the way that Radiohead themselves have an occasional penchant for basslines that in other contexts would sound quite dubby, and for bouncing broken-down stuff all round the stereo field; for an example of both, see their original recording of 'Airbag'. The renderings here vary in approach and quality but the whole project is satisfying and in some ways quite compelling, at least in the new light they throw on a great album, just as Brad Mehldau, for example, has done with his Radiohead versions. The All-Stars' take on 'Airbag', with Horace Andy on vocal, is fantastic, and a sweetly upbeat 'Let Down' featuring Toots & The Maytals (yes, for real) is a treat.

#47 The Who, Endless Wire
If you'd told me at the beginning of the year that I'd be including an album by The Who in my year-end greatest hits, I'd have taken you outside and thrashed you unrelentingly with my copy of The Wire (ironically enough). I've really never had any interest in The Who, except perhaps for their very early records -- up to but not including Tommy -- when the bombast was still inchoate and there was a kind of seething sinewy proto-punk energy to them that hadn't yet gone all Bloke Coke. I suppose why this record works for me is because in many ways they sound like a very young band on it -- a not particularly innovative or talented student band who nonetheless command a certain amount of admiration because of their willingness to go out on a limb. Endless Wire is sometimes preposterous and sometimes overblown (though occasionally those things work pretty excitingly in their favour, as with the irresistible anthem 'Mike Post Theme'), but it's the record of two immensely experienced musicians so hungry to do something new, to take some risks, that they occasionally sound almost inept, and it's hugely likeable for that. Good, too, in the promotional interviews around the release, to hear Pete Townshend allowed to talk about music for a change, rather than his credit card statement.

#48 No Name Horses, No Name Horses
Difficult to say much about this natty Japanese big-band blowout, as I don't know very much about it, other than that the convening genius is Makoto Ozone, who will be familiar to some as pianist with Gary Burton's mid 80s quartet, on albums like Real Life Hits and Whiz Kids. Ozone's a truly brilliant pianist and one would wish to hear more from him on this album; he essays a bit of Hammond here, too, where I'm not sure he's quite so convincing. It's all pretty straight-ahead and Parky-pleasing, but there's room for that, right? The little I've turned up (in English) on the web suggests this band is hot stuff live, which I can well imagine; whether it's a longterm project for Ozone remains to be seen. On the whole I'd rather hear him in a small group setting but this is breezy fun to be getting on with.

#49 Take That, Beautiful World
I had really mixed feelings about the Take That reunion, and I suppose I still do. Straight up, they were by any measure one of the two or three most important pop groups of the 90s in the UK and perhaps the most influential -- just look at how many copycat outfits emerged in their wake, all of them without exception missing the point... I wouldn't argue that more than a handful of tracks they recorded stand up to much scrutiny, though there are maybe half a dozen songs that do something special. But their cultural significance is greater than that of Oasis, Blur and the Spice Girls combined, and so much of that significance had to do with speed and fluidity and youthful liminality, I was worried that what we'd see would be a betrayal of what made them important. I've also -- as many Thompson's denizens will know -- been an avid supporter of Mark Owen's solo career, which has developed in the most unexpected and engrossing ways, leading most recently to a genuinely world-class album, How The Mighty Fall, fantastically produced by Tony Hoffer (Beck, Grandaddy etc.). There would obviously have been strong incentives, of all kinds, but I wondered whether falling back in with Take That was the right move.

Well, it could have been a lot worse. They're selling extraordinarily well, though I don't know (I mean, maybe they are, I really don't know) whether they're reaching a new audience. They're not quite as fleet of foot as they were but they don't look too Butlinsy and their vital signs are still way ahead of Westlife. They've talked interestingly and I admired the ITV documentary in particular. And best of all, the album really kind of works. The writing (much more equally collaborative, apparently, than in their Barlow-powered heyday -- though they were always more of a covers band, really, if you do the maths) is confident and shapely, and the singing especially is a mile away from the weediness of their earlier work, not least because of Mark's leaps and bounds since he whimpered through 'Babe' in front of a hysterically weeping nation all those years ago. The production is a bit thick and plodding and there's not much variation; it's hard to feel very excited by any of it. But it is easy to like, and to admire. For which, this ex-screaming teen is truly thankful.

If the above has enticed you in any way, just check twice before you pay the cashier: there's also an album called Beautiful World by the American a capella group Take 6, who can normally be found one divider up in the racks. I'm sure that's good too, I'm just saying...

#50 David Kitt, Not Fade Away
I've only just spotted a neat little connection here. A couple of years ago, I made a solo show called Nine Days Crazy, for which Mark Owen very kindly wrote a couple of (heartbreaking) songs; while we were waiting to receive them from Mark, we needed placeholders on the soundtrack, for which we used two tracks from David Kitt's album Square 1. I don't know whether the title of this new Kitt record is ironically intended: for a while he was a prominently slated 'next big thing', but his time never quite came, and just as he was on that cusp his music seemed to move into a more limpid pastoral mode, which I suppose wasn't what the tastemakers wanted. In a way, they were right -- Kitt's best work to date by far is his 2001 album The Big Romance, which found a really nice and notably distinctive laidback urban sound by setting his acoustic guitar among itchy, skittering beats, big stacks of multitrack vocals, and some bold electronic colourings -- and it seems as though Not Fade Away might be his acknowledgement that that kind of palette suited his songs and his affecting voice rather well, as it's that territory that he's returned to here to some degree. What's missing, for me, is that the songs themselves seem a little underdeveloped and not as interesting structurally as they've been in the past; but Kitt's an immensely appealing singer and musician and, whatever misgivings one may have, he definitely holds the attention throughout. I'm sure he knows really that never becoming the next David Gray or Damien Rice is doubtless the best thing that could have happened. Hopefully this new record will help to build his audience a little more.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

This great society is going smash

Just back from an awesome gig by The Books at QEH. They played for not far short of an hour and a half -- about sixteen songs, mostly with video projected at the back of the stage. I never realized there's only two of them -- the detail of their work, not just the complexity of the layering but the incredible delicacy and precision of it, would have seemed naturally to arise from some larger collective. The video stuff and the heavy sampling meant they were playing along with prerecorded files, which is always kind of a shame, particularly because in so many other ways what they do works brilliantly as theatre; but the trade-off is probably worth it. If you don't know their stuff, go looking, I'd say, it's exceptionally gripping, often profoundly moving ('Be Good To Them Always' in particular is desperately sad, for mostly indecipherable reasons) and yet charming and unassuming. There they are in that magic hour between Ben Marcus (honorary CEO of these premises) and David Gordon Green. And the 'D' turned out to stand for Drake, as in Nick, as in 'Cello Song', their encore; it couldn't have been more beautifully judged. They should come back and play again soon, like tomorrow or something. London loves them. A foyer full of cute bespectacled grad students with (between them) the full human array of beards and almost-beards, all clamouring to buy The Books oven mitts, can't be wrong.

Not only did they spark off some intriguing new thoughts for The Goodman Portraits but also their video stuff reminded me to post this here -- Harmony Korine directs for Bonnie 'Prince' Billy. It's great as long as you're not expecting Rentaghost. This one goes out to Sam, in lieu of a more apposite dog-treat or cough-drop.

So anyway the top 20 albums is going to be a top 50, maybe starting tomorrow, and building to an almost spoonbending climax sometime next week as I announce the winners of the 2006 Perkins Awards. Throw out your advent calendar, it's useless now. Which reminds me -- Gevorts Box is temporarily down, but don't give up on us baby, it's just a little local difficulty; I'll be uploading tracks from the Top 50 as we go along so DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL. Seriously, don't touch it. Just don't.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

On voyeurism & participation

Firstly, a quick p.s. to my last post regarding kari edwards. In my haste -- and the touch of bewilderment that I was experiencing and trying to describe -- I neglected to honour edwards's preference for lowercase rendering of her name, which I regret; likewise her disavowal of gendered personal pronouns, of which I hadn't, I confess, been quite aware, though it is a telling and characteristically pertinent unconvention and, again, one I would have wished to observe: and, indeed, could have done if I'd just waited a day for the many online tributes to edwards's memory to start appearing.

The first I saw was at Ron Silliman's blog (always worth keeping an eye on if you want to know what's afoot; we are not always shoulder to shoulder with Silliman, but at least ballpark to ballpark): his brief tribute is here; and on Wednesday he helpfully linked to Blazevox ("publisher of weird little books"), where edwards's recently completed Having Been Blue For Charity has been published as a free downloadable e-book (in .pdf format). It's a very substantial work and I've barely skimmed it but it's already rewarding even that superficial attention, with some bravura graphic passages and a lot of exciting writing, pretty much wherever you choose to dip. I look forward to spending more time with it in the days and weeks to come, and I recommend it not only on its own obvious merits but as a way of making a simple connexion with a remarkable and life-enhancing person.

Aiee, what a week. Definite lowlight was getting a call about quarter past five on Tuesday afternoon, very sweetly asking whether transport problems were perhaps the reason that I hadn't turned up to the CSSD seminar at which I was due to deliver a paper on (according to my diary) the following afternoon at 5pm. My error, and, as my old deputy headmaster used to say, mea maxima culpa. Not like me, really, a goof like that, but things have been busy and my head has been crowded and, as the folks at Central kindly keep reassuring me, these things happen... All true; but that sinking feeling on getting the call, and the wincing I've been doing ever since, every quarter-hour on the quarter-hour, have been a gruesome counterrhythm to the last few days.

The big upside was yesterday evening, when my MA group at Rose Bruford gave their one-and-only performance of the piece we've been putting together for the last four weeks. There were times, particularly last week, when I thought it wasn't quite going to come together, and there were going to be tears and fisticuffs (tears, me; fisticuffs, them). In the end, though, it worked really well, and I had a little surge of teacherly pride which I wouldn't have missed for anything. Some of the material was really strong -- the writing in particular (watch out for a young American woman called Miranda Craigwell who is really going to go places, as I'm sure will many of them) -- and they all, in the end, threw themselves into it with a good deal of commitment and an entirely apposite sort of cheerful abandon. I'll miss them: though I have a souvenir, in the shape of -- in fact, it actually is -- a keyring with a picture of Marilyn Monroe on one side and, on the other, a picture of Professor Stephen Hawking in the form of a papier mache otter. Made up to look like Marilyn Monroe. ...It's a long story.

So today was my first proper day off for quite a while, and with all the appetite and ten times the speed of Hungry Horace I headed for the cinema, putting together on-the-hoof a double-bill that turned out to be a nicely suggestive pairing as well as a cracking afternoon.

First stop was The US vs John Lennon, a VH1 documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld; not quite sure why it's been given this limited cinematic release, but it's good that it has. The focus, as the title suggests, is on Lennon's movement, through the late sixties and early seventies, into terrific prominence as a cultural and (broadly) political activist and agitator, and the response in particular of Hoover's FBI during the Nixon era: the sum of which seems to be a rousing endorsement of the old saw that just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean they're not out to get you. The odd mixture of Lennon's sophistication (in understanding intuitively and intelligently his relation to the media and the platform it gave him) and the naivety of his message -- he is shown more than once describing his political activity as "selling peace to housewives as if it were a brand of soap" -- is striking; it is heartening and quite moving to see him opting, even as he denies it, to become a sloganeer first and a songwriter second (the 1969 "War Is Over - if you want it" billboard campaign conceived with Yoko still looks stunningly cogent), apparently on the basis that there's no trade-off involved, only an inescapable continuity: that his alliances with the likes of Jerry Rubin and the estimable Bobby Seale were centrally and ineluctably artistic in their nature and significance.

After a fair number of warts-and-all (or warts-only) Lennon docs, here he comes over as likeable and quick-witted, and motivated by an obvious devotion to the joy of doing the right thing, of standing up to the man because there is no pleasure or sense of personal freedom in any of the alternatives. (A formulation much espoused by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, incidentally, though he's not quite as ready to stand up as one would have wished, overburdened as he is with worry and eyebrows.) The moment towards the end of the narrative where Lennon learns he has won his long battle against deportation on the same day that his son Sean is born is immensely touching and, for obvious reasons, desperately poignant. Even more encouragingly, the presentation of Yoko Ono is level and respectful and the account of her influence on Lennon qua emerging artist/activist is, for once, blessedly free of the usual racist and misogynist smirking. There is not much here that is new or surprising in itself, and it's far from a masterful piece of filmmaking, but images -- not just of the central protagonists (especially the wretched Nixon) but of U.S.-committed atrocities in Viet Nam and Cambodia -- that have become overfamiliar from repeated exposure on television come across with a new vitality and awfulness on the big screen. Though only talking head Gore Vidal makes it explicit within the body of the film itself, Lennon, and the reaction to him, is clearly being used at least partly metonymically, or metaphorically, to enable a story to be told that has obvious and galling resonances for our current predicaments on both sides of the Atlantic: among the most galling of which is that we have no Lennon to galvanize the mass popular protest that should properly be a dominant feature of our current lives. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of such figureheads being apparently requisite, it is miserable to think that the closest person we have to Lennon in 2006, in terms of reach and of a willingness to speak, is becoming a tabloid laughing-stock not because of his countercultural attitudes and broad-strokes anti-imperialist politics but because he keeps getting wasted and falling asleep at the traffic lights. Says it all, really.

Movie number two was a fairy story of a quite different order, though it seemed to me to speak articulately and with some sense of urgency to the kinds of cultural pressures that Lennon was attempting to conduct. After some months of anticipation, it was time to go and see John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus.

If you haven't been reading the film pages lately, the Brodie's Notes on Shortbus are simply this: the winsome demi-Scot Mitchell is the justly celebrated progenitor of Hedwig and writer/director of first the stage show and, eventually, the terrific movie version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch; this, his second film, had for a long time the breezy working title 'The Sex Film Project', in that it was to be an ensemble comedy-drama in which sex would be used as an index for, or (oh crumbs) entry point into, its characters' emotional lives, and furthermore that the sex shown would be explicit and unsimulated.

There are all kinds of ways one could start to write about this film, but I'm going to say this first, before all the theorizing leads me off down some crazy-paved path and off into the sunset: that Shortbus is among the most beautifully conceived and executed movies I've seen in an awfully long time. I found its sweetness of tone utterly genuine and deeply touching, as I did with Hedwig; the writing is extremely funny and lively and never once misfires (nor do any of the scenes that appear to be wholly or partly improvised); its candour, not just sexual but emotional and political, is perfectly judged; it is (mostly) visually beautiful without being strenuously pretty, and edited with wit but not boisterous cleverness. And above all the performances are brave, intimate and generous -- and again one is aware, in the context, that these epithets might seem almost like double entendres, but the point is exactly that they are not; that what Mitchell and his company achieve is a wonderfully optimistic fluency in which the sexually explicit scenes patently endorse and amplify the rest of the picture, and vice versa.

I thought on occasion in the first few minutes that I was going to find the frivolity of some of the sexual content offputting. In the last five years or so we have become increasingly used to seeing movies being certificated uncut (surrounded by less and less fuming controversy in the media) that dare to present real sex; only one, really -- Larry Clark's Ken Park -- has managed to articulate convincingly within itself the argument in favour of eschewing simulation, but all, from Patrice Chereau's Intimacy to Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, have manifestly set out to take the notion seriously and treat it responsibly. Perhaps there has been the sense that only a 'European-style' approach, in which sex is a companion piece to high art and existential philosophy and suicide and suchlike -- and unsimulated intercourse is a logical extension of the intense soul-baring acting we know to expect, will seem fully and unreproachably to activate the legitimacy that the BBFC is supposedly looking out for. (In fairness, Ken Park is not that pretentious -- in fact, it couldn't be less pretentious, though its sex scenes are about far more than merely 'keeping it real'.) And I think I feel that too, a bit, perhaps because of the relative novelty of this topical permissiveness: a little bit of "don't spoil it for the rest of us", you know, don't set us off on the slope that leads to a cert-18 hardcore remake of Confessions of a Window Cleaner.

What Mitchell's doing, though, is taking us to a necessary next step, in that the sex in Ken Park or 9 Songs is not, after all -- quite -- real. Real sex is as much about false starts and cramp and bumping heads and losing your balance and scaring the cat and suddenly getting the giggles as it is about those indicators of arousal and fulfilment that we have not previously been permitted to see at the legit cinema. And yet -- and this is absolutely central, I think, to Mitchell's thesis (though I'm sure he'd shudder at the word thesis) -- and it's also a key part of what I've felt about putting physical nakedness on stage or working with it in theatre processes, to the extent that I have -- what he's showing is not, or not only, the vulnerability or the frailty or fallibility of the naked body, but also, and more significantly, its continuity, its perseverance, its radical and indivisible presence beneath all our performances.

This beautifully underwrites Mitchell's larger theme -- which, again, feels exactly and excitingly congruent with my own current preoccupations in theatrical performance (though these remain frustratingly underdeveloped except on paper) -- regarding the creation of meaning through the presentation and exposure of the body that is explicitly and exemplarily communal and social and material before and beyond its individuality and its rearticulation as a kind of a priori privacy statement. Shortbus is not just a New York movie (though it is certainly, and very beautifully, that); it's also a post-9/11 movie, and not in the way that every New York movie in the last four years has been by default. It feels like it ought to be an oversimplistic gloss, but I honestly don't think it is, to say that Mitchell is showing us real bodies, touching for real, inside and out, as a kind of promotion of the communal adaptability of bodies and of affective tangibility in the face of, and in protest against, the prevailing political narratives of disembodied threat and abstraction and the half-concealed nomadic evasiveness of the operations of capital and of its military and industrial representatives. Justin Bond (of Kiki & Herb -- who I don't get, I have to say, though he's great here) has a provocative line that gets as close as anything to a statement of this objective, when, as the host of the sex club which gives the film its title, he tells Sofia (the excellent Sook-Yin Lee) that young people are drawn to New York because "9/11 is the only real thing that ever happened to them." I've written a bit about this territory before, in an Edinburgh Review essay on contemporary American poetry -- and I would have spoken about it some more in the paper I'd have given at Central if the seminar had been on Wednesday: so I won't get into it now: but I do think the incontrovertible realness of 9/11 (and its grotesque mirroring pay-off, the afterimage of the absent World Trade Center towers -- very briefly invoked in one of Shortbus's attractive animated link sequences) has triggered a reappraisal of the idea of virtual community -- not to destroy it altogether but to problematize and, somewhat, to defuse it -- and a substantiated intuition of the political supremacy of place over (hypothetical) space, and of body over image. For all that Shortbus uses some of its sex scenes for some pretty joyous political critique -- the much-discussed scene where one character sings 'The Star-Spangled Banner' directly into the anus of his partner is about as definitive a remark on the 2001 Patriot Act as it deserves -- Mitchell also knows that the comfortably contained dissent of middle-class liberal satire doesn't begin to get the job done. For Lennon and Ono's "Give peace a chance", read Shortbus's own soap-selling slogan (and strapline), mouthed by the club's maitre d': "Voyeurism is participation." The initial character of this maxim is a genial cheekiness in line with the utopian erotic collectivism being acted out on screen before us; but just allow it to settle down to its core proposition: to witness is to be implicated. The resonances of this, not just for a New York audience but for any audience anywhere on the neoconservative axis, are unmistakeable.

It's entirely because of this generous and -- yes indeed -- carnal embrace of an incorporative political programme that is set to ramify way beyond the ambit of this small group of busy bees and their recipes for leisure time, that it's possible to enjoy Shortbus for the impeccably beautiful and graceful film it is. It seems to me to be a late descendant of the line of new queer cinema that flourished in the early 90s; one character namechecks My Own Private Idaho (which would surely be endorsed by Jonathan Caouette, who has a don't-blink cameo), and there seems to be a clear debt to two films of immeasurable importance, Gregg Araki's Totally F***ed Up (the asterisks of course were his -- a sure sign of how much things have changed in the past decade) and Rose Troche and Guinevere Turner's Go Fish. (A scene in Shortbus where a group of women attempt to describe their best ever orgasm feels like an out-and-out hommage to the cute linking commentary scenes of Go Fish.) Shortbus is as good and as timely as either of those films, and as courageous and as exciting as anything that's been made in the last five years; it has moments of the rarest tenderness, and moments of broad and uproarious comedy that surely are calculated, in their laugh-out-loud quality, to remind you that you're watching with other people sitting all around you. How's this for polymorphous perversity?: I cried three ways: with laughing (at an extended near-slapstick sequence built around the operation of a vibrating egg); with sadness, at a couple of scenes played quietly and unhistrionically but also unabashedly for the wringing out of tears; and, quite a few times, in stark overwhelmed admiration for the kindness, the unimpeachable goodness, of the whole project.

Yet again, and far more so than was the case on seeing Destricted (as I described a few months ago), I'm left wondering what live theatre can do with all this. I was reminded, on the way home, of seeing the (then) Oxford Stage Company's production of Sarah Kane's Cleansed at the Arcola this time last year. Cleansed is an unbelievably difficult play to stage as fully and faithfully as it demands, and I would have to say, regretfully, that Sean Holmes's production never even got close for me, which made for a desperately frustrating evening, as I think it's also Kane's best and most important work, and therefore one of the most significant plays to be written in the last fifteen years. But -- on the night I saw it, at least -- something notable happened: in the scene where Grace and her (dead) brother Graham make love, Garry Collins as Graham, on removing his clothes, had a hard-on, and it was still in evidence at the end of the scene. Afterwards, talking in a cafe with friends who'd also seen the performance, I made some flip-sounding remark about Collins's dick having been the best actor in the play, and I think everyone cringed a bit at my being so crass. But it was true, in a more profound and heartening way than I managed to articulate at the time. In the midst of all this performing, all this simulation, all this misconceived playing-at-extremity, there was this momentary realness, uncontrolled possibly, but showing everything else up as a kind of bourgeois party game, suffocating in the tiny airlock gaps between non-tessellating "theatrical" conventions.

There's a lot more to say about this -- not that particular boner, memorable though it was, but about the complex interrelations, both actual and potential, between nakedness and nudity and eroticism and sex (four quite distinct propositions), in the context of the larger theatrical encounter. But I feel more and more like it's not merely self-defeating but actually obnoxious to keep ending up, like an old drunk howling at the moon, posting this sort of speculative commentary to the blog, or making private notes, or writing emails to friends, like this, at three in the morning... I came back from Wales feeling -- and how daunting this is coming to seem again, after barely a month -- that the only way to take these ideas forward is to be brave enough to tackle them in the company of actors and other artists, in whose bodies and minds there is some possibility of discovery. I'm currently mapping out a live art (ish) piece called The Goodman Portraits, which would in part be a way of focusing these questions onto one set of enquiries; and it looks as though I may already have slots in the spring for presenting early sketches towards it... So perhaps that will help provide the impetus to really commit to some searching work.

Thing is, so much that I've seen and experienced in the last few weeks -- from Tim Jeeves at Chisenhale, to Hail the New Puritan at the Tate, to tea & conversation with Rajni and vodka & conversation with Sebastien and rush-hour train travel & conversation with Charlie, to the continuing bravura misadventures over at Dennis Cooper's blog and the constantly evolving all points bulletin at Tom Raworth's (which I had foolishly taken my eye off) and the gentle meandering openness of Katharine's, to re-reading (yes, yet again) Tom Spanbauer's In The City Of Shy Hunters, to Sara Crangle's new essay on my poetry (which makes me sound far better than I am), to Shortbus today -- has all conspired to create a model of the courage and companionship that I crave (and so often and so fortunately discover) in other artists and find it sometimes hard to recognize in myself. I wrote a programme note a couple of nights ago for the Sydney production of Kiss of Life, which is the next big thing in the pipeline, and found myself using a voice that was both me and not-me: it was as if I'd donned some sort of superhero costume that allowed me to say what I was actually thinking. What was weird was how it prompted me to reflect on the extent to which I habitually don't say what I'm thinking: and yet the authentic voice of those thoughts, it seems, might not be as tremulous and crepuscular as I suppose I imagine.

If you've read this far, you will be finding it hard to believe that I ever think anything that I don't immediately say, here, using as many words as possible. ...Or perhaps not immediately.

In other news: I thought I would post here in a week or so a sort of top 20 albums of the year: but in order to begin that process, I'm compiling a long-list. I'm at 92 at the moment and would obviously dearly love to get up to a hundred. If you have any suggestions of stuff I might not have heard and that ought to be taken into consideration in this rapturous Advent reckoning, drop me a line...