Sunday, January 28, 2007

Implausible jukebox #1

If today's update to Gevorts Box weren't sonic stimulus enough, AND IT IS, but if it weren't, and in fact even though we both know IT IS, here's some more. Thought I'd share with you the last half dozen music videos I've bookmarked at YouTube. Yeah, yeah, that's right, there's this thing called YouTube now.

And so, in what may yet become a regular feature -- hence the optimistic numbering -- the Controlling Thompson beneficently presents Implausible Jukebox #1.

1. Stimmhorn live at the Paleo festival, July 2000

I first heard the Swiss duo Stimmhorn on Radio 3 about ten years ago and spent a long time trying to track down their atrociously pleasuresome CD Schnee. (This is back in the day, remember, before Amazon, or at least before I had access to Amazon. People had email addresses made entirely out of numbers. Sometimes you'd come across someone's home page and it would all be done with coloured pencil. Those were the days.) Nothing they've done since has touched me in quite the same way but I've never seen them live -- weird that, for example, the LMC has never brought them over for their annual festival -- and this footage suggests that I've missed a treat. The talkative audience for this set is baffling, like talkative audiences always are.

2. The Avalanches, "Frontier Psychiatrist"

I loved this record when it came out but only ever caught a glimpse of the video. I think this is really smart: it's very interesting to have such a strong visual play-out of the grammar of turntablist pop like this -- it really brings home the relative promiscuity of sound, and its entirely different order of logic, even when it seems to be operating in an unusually illustrative matrix. This looks like a really great theatre event -- obviously reminiscent of early Robert Wilson, or Richard Foreman. Yet another reason to be utterly mystified by the continuing popularity of Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll".

Incidentally, what put me in mind of The Avalanches in the first place was spending too much of the day watching Beardyman & JFB. If you don't know Beardyman yet, go fetch. Now! Don't mind me, this'll all still be here when you get back.

3. Vivian Stanshall and band, "Wasting Away" (from 'Crank', for The Late Show)

'Crank', the half-hour autobiographical musical that Viv Stanshall put together for BBC2's (still sorely missed) The Late Show in 1991, just four years before he died, is so rawly sad in itself and so poignant in retrospect that I find it awfully hard to watch -- though I'm glad I had the presence of mind to tape it when it was on, as I think it's only ever been repeated once on terrestrial tv. In my late teens and early 20s, Stanshall was a real hero of mine, I was always hungry for information and recordings but most of his solo stuff was out of press and (have I mentioned this before?) there was no Wikipedia in them days my dears. In fact I don't think anything he did musically post-Bonzos, on record at least, comes close to the success of 'Crank', and this opener is one of the best numbers.

On the day that Stanshall's tragic death was reported, I was due for a session with my then therapist, and arrived still reeling from the news and sufficiently upset to feel the need to explain the cause. My therapist's suggestion was that the real reason for my disproportionate distress was a subconscious fear that the ardour of my passion for Stanshall had somehow caused the fire in which he perished. That seemed very silly to me at the time and rather odious, but I now find it rather an impressive idea. As well as silly and odious.

4. Truck, "Devil's Land"

This song has been resolutely jammed in my head since January 2nd, when I heard it for the first time. In times gone by, I'd have applied leeches to my temples and tried to suck the tune out; regrettably, modern science has nothing to match that, so I'm stuck with the song. Well, fine. It's great work and I love the lyric, which is cool because I never pay attention to lyrics. This is just a homemade video but all the more appealing for that. A real band! Very good. You can download the song from Truck's MySpace page; alternatively, MySpacephobes like me can hear it on rotation at Gevorts Box, where it comes on every four hours or so.

5. Captain Sensible, "Wot"

Today's madeleine moment comes courtesy of the enduring Raymond Burns Esq: neither eminently sensible nor, presumably, an actual captain, but nonetheless an unlikely stalwart of 'Cheggers Plays Pop', and what, dear Bertolt, actually keeps mankind alive, if not that? Before today I hadn't seen this video in the best part of 25 years, and yet it all came rushing back -- the piledriver man (with his tremendously achieved facial expressions), Jeanette Charles (I think) as HMQ, the incident with the Adam Ant lookalike... I'm a little surprised to see the great Hugh Lloyd tangled up in it all, but compared to Neil Kinnock turning up in the back of Tracey Ullman's taxi, it's a piddling trifle. What's too easily forgotten is how great those breakthrough Captain Sensible hits sounded: due entirely (no disrespect to the Captain himself, but let's face it...) to the immaculate playing and production by the great, wretchedly underappreciated, Tony Mansfield -- prime mover of the peerless New Musik, and later producer of A-Ha's "Take On Me".

6. Stockhausen, "Set Sail for the Sun", from Aus den Sieben Tagen

A real find, this: what looks like a front-room performance (by a diverse and characterful group of individuals!) of one of Stockhausen's crucial late-60s text compositions. Listen first, if you like, but it may be of interest to read the score the musicians are using:

play a tone for so long / until you hear its individual vibrations // hold the tone / and listen to the tones of the others / - to all of them together, not to individual ones - / and slowly move your tone / until you arrive at complete harmony / and the whole sound turns to gold / to pure, gently shimmering fire

I think this is a really good, acutely sensitive performance, more searching and argumentative than you might expect. (It's worth listening to more than once, as the phantom of narrative can tend to mislead, in a way.) There's also an immense pleasure in the guy turning the lights out after the first minute. No visible shimmering fire, then, but that's a big ask...

Ay ay, that's yer lot. Might do more though, in a while, if there's any sort of positive response to this little outburst.

My attention probably ought to be on my tax return for a couple of days (not that I'll necessarily be troubling the scorer overmuch), but I'll drop in again soon enough. Want to post something on the Pompidou video art exhibition at Sydney MCA, and also on the remarkable new Prestel coffeetable biog of Robert Wilson.

In the meantime can I just share this delicious (sadly anonymous) comment that I've only just come across at the Encore Theatre Magazine blog?

"That's what I want to be part of. A theatre that's big enough for everyone - Stoppard, Crimp, Hare, Churchill, Gill, Stephens, Craig, Buffini, Kelly, Jones, Nagy, Hannan, Barker, Edgar, Ravenhill."

That big, eh? Fancy.

We're going to need considerably bigger buns.

Gevorts for the day

So at long last, Gevorts Box, the Thompson's radio stream, is refreshed. There are now tracks from all the albums in the Furtive 50 (in no particular order), and a whole mess of fine and dandy stuff besides. As promised, I've thrown in a couple of cuts from Alice Coltrane; there's a smattering of tracks based around retro gaming -- Aphex Twin takes a swing at PacMan, Orgue Electronique abuse Pong, Ian Sherwen assists in the suicide of a Speak and Math, etc.; some current favourites pop up, including Loney, Dear (at whose altar I have arrived a bit late), The Late Cord, and the newly indispensable Connan & the Mockasins; there's the opening track from Henry Threadgill's 1995 album Makin' a Move, which I've only just discovered and is making my head spin very agreeably; there's The Kingsmen's "Jolly Green Giant", one of the great half-lost pop records of the 60s; and for the grown-ups there's Jim Henson doing the Captain Vegetable theme song, Phil 'n' Dog's limitlessly inappropriate mash-up of the Muppets theme with Electric Six's "Gay Bar", and Rolf Harris effortlessly outdoing the original with his genius cover of "Walk on the Wild Side". O and bags more. Literally, bags.

I'm very happy, by the way, to try to fulfil requests at Gevorts Box, and, indeed, dedications. [That deserves an emoticon, but unfortunately I'm 33 years old.] If there's something you'd like me to play, just leave me a comment here, or drop me a line by email if you know where to find me. (It's not hard to discover.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Three things to feel bothered about

A curious sensation to come back from a few days out of the loop and find all manner of unexpected ghastliness piled up in the in-tray. Here are three things that deserve your attention, if they don't already have it.

1. If you're reading this blog on purpose -- and who knows?, perhaps you are -- you probably already know about the big talking point in British theatre this last week: namely, the sudden emergence of the threat of imminent closure to Battersea Arts Centre. Reviewing its commitments in the light of what they say is an unmanageable shortfall, Wandsworth Council, which administers the borough in which BAC is situated, is proposing completely cutting its funding to the venue, and at the same time starting to charge commercial rent (instead of the peppercorn rent previously levied) and maintenance costs. Altogether this amounts to BAC taking a hit of around £370,000 -- around a third of its current budget. The venue already operates close to the edge and would not be able to absorb such a massive hike in its outgoings. What this all adds up to is BAC facing having to shut down from April.

The chorus of shocked and baffled anger that has greeted the news among theatre professionals in London and further afield -- and, gratifyingly, among audiences and Wandsworth residents too -- is in itself at least heartening, though it may in a way be almost counterproductive. The council's beef is that, while they are broadly in favour of BAC, they now see it as being a regional and national player rather than simply a local one -- which is quite accurate -- and therefore feel that as a funding body with a specifically local remit they have no business being required to support it to the degree that they currently do. It's rather a blinkered view even on its own terms, given the amount of money and visitors and prestige that BAC conducts into the borough; it's also to some degree inconsistent with the facts, which are that BAC makes an exceptionally strong offering to local residents (especially by comparison with other similar scale venues elsewhere) -- stronger I think since David Jubb took up the directorship (he being mindful, I suspect, of the seeds of just this conflict, which were certainly apparent three years ago); and furthermore that the proportion of local residents in its day-to-day audience is also unusually strong. Nonetheless, I dare say this nationwide outcry only bolsters Wandsworth's reluctance to pick up so much of the tab out of its local shop for local people coffers.

For myself, there is -- not a difficulty, exactly, but a tremor of disturbance here, in that I cannot claim to be a front-and-centre fan of BAC; quite the reverse, in some ways. Not that I dispute for a second the summary of the venue's influence and significance from which Lyn Gardner launches her Guardian blog entry on the topic. In fact really it's because of that position that I worry about BAC: its influence is not necessarily disproportionate to its turnover of creative material but I think there are huge problems with the view it takes on how it can best support artists, and the models and languages that it favours have been taken up in many other places, indeed have come to define the working culture to a surprising extent, with many other venues and producers and funding bodies seeking to emulate what they see as an impressive series of successes. For some artists, certainly, their relationship with BAC is a blissfully happy marriage; for many others there are real difficulties. My perspective was certainly changed substantially by my experience of running a much smaller venue that, to a degree, fed emerging artists quite frequently into the BAC machine. It's interesting to read my old pal Mervyn Millar's description of how "BAC takes artists who are lost and confused artists and sends them out curious and demanding": I have to say I quite frequently saw them do precisely the reverse. Furthermore I'm extremely sceptical about the scratch culture that has emerged from and become synonymous with the organization. They were also often eager to take sole or dominant credit for work which did not in fact originate with them, and to collude with lazy and admiring critics in creating the impression that nothing worth knowing about emerged in any other way than through their auspices: which I suppose I must admit I find, not least, a bit personally insulting, since I've worked at BAC only once, several years ago, for two days, and it was one of the more miserable experiences of my professional life: I do realize it's a bit shallow to read it through my personal experience, but there are plenty like me. I don't necessarily decry the company's efforts to bolster its brand by inflating its authority, Wizard of Oz style; what's more symptomatic is that the brand is, to my mind, too bulked out with factors of scale, and with value-neutral indicators like 'innovation' and a totally meaningless and deceptive rhetoric around 'risk'.

Conversely, I think under David Jubb and his current team the programming has become bolder and more searching. (A real tipping point for me was their decision to rehouse the Bohman Brothers' music events after they were displaced from their previous home at the Bonington in Vauxhall. That series has been vital to London and I admire BAC very much for taking it on. There's also a personal pleasure for me in that outcome, because I was the twisted matchmaker who pointed the splendid Patrizia Paolini in the Bohmans' direction, which I think got that particular ball rolling.) The language David sometimes uses when he's trying to describe the kind of work he doesn't like is -- I think -- deplorable, though I'm sure it wouldn't strike me as such were he not in such a culturally conspicuous position. But I do get the impression -- as, to be fair, I always have, whenever I've talked to BAC workers -- of a tight clutch of people who are all thinking hard and working hard and feel passionate about what they do. On a systematic and corporate level BAC is a cross between a selfish giant and a nude emperor: but theatre happens somewhere else entirely, at a personal level, in the movements of relation between and inside people, and at that level, there is much to commend about BAC, and plenty to enjoy and admire in a great deal of the work they present.

So: this post is not by way of a spleen-vent at a time when we should all be pulling together (which we should -- not least because the threat to BAC is by no means isolated; there is a real sense of climate change in the British arts scene right now, and this won't be the only struggle we have to engage in this year, I'm sure). It's more a wish to raise a supporting voice that is not uncritical -- which much of the cheerleading on the Guardian blog necessarily is -- but has no vested interest and would nonetheless recognize and endorse the importance of BAC's continued survival. I would a hundred times rather have a BAC with all the faults and provocations that have bugged me all along, than no such focal point for emerging theatre artists and a bloody great Wetherspoons on Lavender Hill. As one BAC insider wrote to me yesterday: "It's like with friends, you see flaws face-up because you care about them more. If this was the Royal Court, I wouldn't know where to start." (Though maybe the Court has brighter prospects under its new artistic leadership -- but that's another story.)

If you're a Wandsworth resident and you haven't yet made a noise about all this, I'd really urge you to do so. As I say, I'm not sure that objections lodged from outside the borough won't have a flip-effect: though, having said that, if, as one Councillor seems to have suggested, there is an argument for Wandsworth continuing to fund BAC in line with the proportion of its work that engages a specifically Wandsworth audience, that actually could be a manageable outcome for the venue, given the more than decent numbers BAC achieves in that regard.

A more digestible -- and inevitably more partial -- but I think extremely impressive -- account of the situation is given by David Jubb in an interview with Dominc Cavendish over at theatreVOICE. I hope it works out, I really do. Initially the shutdown of BAC was impossible to imagine; after a few days' contemplation, it's not, and the prospect is desperately scary. At every level of theatrical artistic activity in and out of London, BAC has become a vital presence.

2. While I was away, the death was announced of Alice Coltrane. Truly sad news. She was an awesome musician and, judging by her recent album Translinear Light, still had it seriously going on. It was good that she had fully emerged, in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life, from the shadow of her late husband, and a more acute critical engagement with her own work as an independent artist became belatedly possible. Odd that such an out-and-out devotional artist should be a favourite of an ungodly soul like me, but there's no denying the extraordinary centripetal force that her spiritual beliefs exerted on the distinctive modalities and decorations -- and the sheer drive -- of her work. If you're not already an Alice Coltrane listener, my favourite albums are Ptah the El Daoud (with Pharaoh Sanders and Joe Henderson), Eternity and Transcendence -- and, actually, Translinear Light. But my guess is you can probably drop in to her body of work wherever you like, and there'll be something rewarding and engrossing right in front of you. Much of her work got reissued over the last decade and you can probably pick an album up in Fopp for a fiver, or do the Amazon thing. It's beautiful, enduring stuff, and my hunch is the critical estimation of it will continue to rise for a while yet.

Incidentally, I have a feeling there's a track from Translinear Light on the playlist over at Gevorts Box. I might upload one or two more the next time I update -- which is overdue, as I still haven't made good my promise to feature a track from each of the Furtive 50 albums. I'll give you a shout when it's done.

3. More depressing than the threatened closure of BAC, more lamentable than the passing of Alice Coltrane, I have to tell you now -- and I found this out quite by accident really, idly following a thread that began with a Wikipedia visit to check (in a rather ungentlemanly way) how old Cleo Rocos actually is -- that there is a minor planet named after Enya. Not just with the same name, but literally named after her. As you know, my dears, the Controlling Thompson is no stuffed shirt (despite appearances to the contrary): I'm delighted that there's a planet Brianwilson, and there's one called Rammstein too, and I'm even prepared to accept there's one named Oldfield. But what chills grip the wretched heart on reading the sentence: "Where is (6433) Enya tonight? Customisable ephemerides are available."

Thursday, January 25, 2007

What I did on my holidays

There is, as we know, a type of coffee, prized by wacko connoisseurs, that has been eaten and regurgitated by Vietnamese weasels. Which I mention only because that's exactly how I feel. Haven't ever really experienced jet-lag, not like this. This is the kind that waits until you're insouciantly telling someone how the jet-lag hasn't been nearly as bad as you'd been led to expect, and then it sneaks up behind you, stuffs a choloform-soaked rag in your cakehole, and blats you robustly on the anterior fontanelle with the business end of a coal scuttle.

So it may take a while to get this post together in the gaps between naps. (Does it still count as a 'nap' if you actually flatline and only wake up at all because the familiar-looking lady at the end of the white tunnel says "It is not yet time, little one"?) Let the record show, nonetheless, that since you and I last played conceptual dominoes here in the Thompson's snug, I have been to summer and back, and saw that it was good.

I didn't keep a diary exactly but I'll see what I can remember through the bruise-purple haze.

Friday 12th: Cis and I meet at Heathrow. I have travelled almost the entire length of the Piccadilly line in my summer jacket (which will not fit in my bogglingly overstuffed suitcase). Cis thinks I look like an Englishman abroad already, and I probably do. We are a bit nervous and a bit excited. We accidentally check in at the business class desks and the woman has to ask us, very sweetly, if we realise we're travelling in economy. It is all getting a bit real, suddenly, after a long haul of getting the show (nearly) together and tying up all the other loose ends that won't have our attention for the next ten days. Once we're through security I have an Oreo shake. It is disgusting. We get on the plane. I have been telling myself that the legroom in Economy is never as bad as I remember. This turns out to have been a lie.

Saturday 13th: We are still on the plane. My vegetarian meals keep not arriving. Fortunately Cis, who is a choosy carnivore, has ordered vegan or halal or something so I nick hers and she chows down on some decent-enough-looking meat while I tuck stoically in to a smorgasblee of rice pasta (note: not rice comma pasta but rice pasta, which is apparently the punishment that God visits on coeliacs) and dirty lentils and a fruit salad that seems to have been assembled by a child with ADHD and a cold. We get off the plane and spend 25 minutes seeing the sights of Bangkok from inside Suvarnabhumi Airport - which is a brilliantly exciting building, so it's not too much of a hardship. I marvel at the previously unseen Cadburys chocolate variants in duty-free while Cis absent-mindedly flicks water at a startled little girl in the bathroom. We get back on the plane. More lentils. Possibly the same ones, actually. It transpires my sleep patterns have fallen into exact sync with the in-flight entertainment system and consequently I see the last ten minutes of Borat and the first five minutes of Neil Sedaka In Concert three times. We are still on the plane. It occurs to me that if my ankles swell any more, I may have to rethink my brace position in an emergency.

Sunday 14th: We are still on the plane. Then we get off it and suddenly we are in a cab careering around Sydney with the delightful and quite radiantly hungover Rebecca from the festival. We are delivered to our apartment, on the 33rd floor of a skyscraping block slapbang in the middle of town. It's a real space-age bachelor pad with a black sofa and an inscrutable oven, in my dealings with which I never, all week, get further than (inadvertently) altering the time on the clock. We have a bathroom each and are both secretly overjoyed. The view from the balcony is spectacular: though it is slightly odd, so epically far from home, to be looking out over the HQ of BT and a large branch of Woolworths. I don a new variant of my colonial garb and we go out to get wilfully lost in the Velvet Underground & Nico cool of Sunday morning in Sydney. It is very bright and surprisingly docile -- we keep forgetting most people haven't got up yet. After a while we turn a corner and suddenly there, in front of us, is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and just a little off to its left, the Opera House, our workplace for the next week. The water is impossibly blue, the sunlight is bouncing off the Opera House, and my legs nearly go out from under me. We walk down to the venue and find a big Kiss of Life poster in a display case. It's quite overwhelming -- I'm a bit choked -- the inevitable "If only my mum were around to see this..." -- and Cis compounds it all by saying some kind and touching things, which nearly tips me over. We go and get a drink at the Opera Bar to take the edge off it all. It really is the most extraordinary feeling. Back home via Woolworths, which turns out to sell organic vegetables and decent blue cheese; the cognitive dissonance is at Tom and Jerry frying-pan levels. I get back to the flat and those regions of my skin that have been exposed to the sun are throbbing roughly the same colour as the giant festival banners all over town. It's a deep pucey sort of fuchsia. It suits the banners better than it suits me; Cis certainly doesn't fancy shining lights on it when I'm on stage. The rest of the week I walk around slathered with so much Factor 30 I look like I've escaped from Sankai Juku.

Monday 15th: Mostly we're in the flat all day, Cis working on her lighting stuff, me trying to learn the script for the show -- it's proving unexpectedly difficult, largely because of the cuts and changes we've made in rehearsal with Wendy - it means not just learning the new stuff but wilfully erasing the old stuff. Mid-afternoon we head over to the Museum of Contemporary Art for a reception. Somebody who may or may not be the Minister for Arts makes a hail-fellow speech and Fergus Linehan, the impossibly youthful festival director, says a few words. I'm not paying attention. To my left is the godlike Ursula Martinez and to my right are half a dozen boys from Batsheva Dance Company. Possibly I have dreamt this scenario before, but forgotten it for the good of my health. I suddenly feel immensely fat and puce. After a chat with some festival folks we wander home and start to go painstakingly through the script cue by cue. It's all gone a bit 'game on'. For the first half hour we are splendidly meticulous. After that it all gets a bit fudgy and by 9pm we are so mashed with (alcohol-free) tired-and-emotional that there's nothing for it but to hit the hay. Tomorrow's going to be a hell of a day.

Tuesday 16th: A hell of a day. I'm bolt awake at 5am, the jet-lag and the adrenalin meeting in the middle. A car takes me over to the vast Gilliamesque ABC building, where I'm to be interviewed on the national radio breakfast show by a distinguished fellow called Paul Barry. It seems he's the Aussie hybrid of John Humphreys and John Pilger. I'm supposed to be on straight after the 8 o'clock news but I'm being bumped a bit so that they can talk a little more about Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti's head coming off. Mr Barry barely crunches the gears as he comes out of that and into "And now for something a little lighter..." He's great, it's a decent interview, job done. Then it's over to the Opera House for a photocall; I'm a little late and the photographer has a 10.30am deadline so is more stressed than I am. I lean winsomely on bits of the set, he pronounces himself satisfied (though I'm not sure satisfaction normally expresses itself through a psychotic grimace like that), and it's only then that I'm really able to take in the Studio, where I'm going to be performing. It's a beautiful space: impossible to believe that it seats 300-odd, it's so intimate-feeling. Cis is perky, I'm perky. (I'm still a wee bit pinky, too.) We spend the next eight hours being pretty unrelentingly deperked. By lunchtime (another photocall), we have worked four and a half hours and are precisely four and a half hours behind schedule: the morning has been entirely taken up with stuff we thought was going to be done before we arrived. Everyone's incredibly nice and warm and friendly and encouraging and deeply, deeply, how-deep-is-the-ocean deeply unconcerned at the state of play. We smile and say 'thank you' a lot. The last of the lightboxes for the set is finally installed at about 4.30pm (by a delightful guy who is under the impression that this first performance is a preview); we do a soul-destroying, energy-sapping run, and then have about half an hour before the sell-out audience start coming in. On the strength of a large banana, a swig of camomile tea and a brisk warm-up that involves shouting "Knife!" a lot (ask Wendy), I'm back out there. It's fun. I get to say "Hello Sydney" like I'm, I dunno, Nils Lofgren or someone, and they're very friendly and supportive and I have to tell you there is a huge rush of pleasure the first time I hear close to three hundred people laugh at my silly jokes. We get through it. Some of the festival folks gather us up and take us to the Opera Bar where I lose the will to speak, and allow myself to become engrossed principally in the cocktails I keep getting bought. (My opening Dirty Carpet Disco is nice enough but it's the Pink Kimonos thereafter that really hit the spot.) Everybody is very nice and warm and friendly. No one is talking about the show.

Wednesday 17th: Wake up utterly depressed. We have travelled fourteen-thousand miles to do a show I don't like doing very much at a venue run slightly worse than [pick a London off-West End venue to replace the one whose name I've just removed] and I have this weird paranoid sense that they think it's a dud. Another early morning radio interview at ABC, this time on the local station, with a woman called Jennifer Byrne, who seems to be styled as The Thin White Oprah. It's cordial if slightly wonky, though she annoys me by going on about the show I made last year for Pizza Express (and then tells me off for actually saying "Pizza Express" on a non-commercial station). Then C & I have our first taste of free time, and decide to take the ferry to Manly. The beach is packed and the town feels slightly down-at-heel but we head away from the sea and find a nice spot for a really decent lunch. Good Lord, the ladies and gentlemen of Australia seriously know how to put a salad together. We get ice cream on the way back, but it's immediately apparent when I put mine near my face that it has undeclared peanuts in it, so that's the end of that for this allergic sissy. I carry it around forlornly for a while and then, back on the ferry, bend over to put it on the floor. (It's a cup, not a cone, 'kay?) There is a noise like a sonic boom. My trousers have split from the side of the crotch to halfway down my inner thigh. I spend the next few minutes trying to cover everything up with Cis's bag -- sure, it's a robust and vibrant culture, but my puce sunburn and bright blue M&S pants are presumably a colour combination too far, even here. Back at Circular Quay, we manage to transfer me to a taxi without causing any diplomatic incident, but back at the apartment block, as I get out of the cab, I hear another terrifying ripping sound and the tear now extends south of my knee. And there are, of course, literally, thirty people in the lobby all waiting for the elevator with me. Later at the theatre, telling the audience about my day, I realise that "I tore my trousers on the Manly Ferry" sounds like the title of a gay country-and-western song. The show, though, goes like a dream: I'm full of energy and everyone comes with me. We hang around afterwards to see the late show in the same space, Taylor Mac -- whom I've been hearing great things about for ages. It's all true. He's extraordinary. The nice thing is, we couldn't be more different as stage presences -- seriously, we couldn't -- but we're talking about the same things, we're on the same team, it feels really nice. I've never seen a drag artist make such explicit connection with the idea of shamanism. His songs and patter are the perfect combination of sweet and dirty, and he can turn a line on a dime to achieve effects of really stunning poignancy. I'm a fan, hook line & sinker. Cis and I wander happily home and make short work of the best potato chips I've ever tasted.

Thursday 18th: We have tickets for the morning dress rehearsal of Opera Australia's production of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd at the Opera House, though we cut the timing a bit fine and end up getting snapped at by an usher, who thereby earns the distinction of being the only rude and unpleasant person I met all week. I suspect she thinks she's affecting an English air of superiority; but of course that's very slightly not the same thing as being a sour old bag. Sweeney is an almost unconscionably smart and intricate score and we get quite wrapped up in it, despite a dismal, occasionally truly risible, production by Gale Edwards -- it completely botches the double edge of Sondheim's tone, hampered from the start by a blousy and unattractive design based apparently -- as Cis observed -- on an outsize rendition of the Big Yellow Teapot. Peter Coleman-Wright is an excellent Sweeney though and the lovely "Not While I'm Around" comes across with all its tenderness and ardour intact. After a lazy lunch we head over to the Aquarium: we're being proper tourists now, I've even got my DV camera out. Cis is concerned about the apparently psychotic behaviour of the duck-billed platypus but everything else we encounter seems pretty chilled out. The moon jellyfish are heartstoppingly beautiful and we have an extraordinary long moment gazing upwards at a huge ray that's settled on the roof of the glass tunnel above our heads -- I don't think either of us will ever forget watching him just sit there and breathe. I know it's anthropomorphising like mad but you could look into that face and see such infinite kindliness and wise serenity and even if that's just a dumb projection, it feels profoundly meaningful in a way I would never have anticipated. -- So we head over to the Opera House feeling revived and inspired and really up-for-it. Our first clue to how the evening's actually going to go is that my costume, and Cis's work t-shirt, have been shrunk in the laundry. And then, from the get-go, the belt pack that I wear under my shirt around my stomach (to conceal the transmitter for my wireless mic) keeps coming undone, the velcro is worn or something. During the preamble it doesn't matter too much, a bit of technical difficulty is always a good(ish) icebreaker, but when I get on the chair for the first scene and I feel it give way again, I know we're in for a hard night; the lights come up on me and I'm standing on this chair with my t-shirt rolled halfway up, trying to adjust what looks like a freaky demi-corset around my gross and upsetting belly. I suppose if you're fond of your dignity you don't go on stage in the first place. ...About ten minutes in it comes undone again and this time, mid-scene, there's nothing I can do about it, and the whole contraption slowly unpeels, pulling away the elastoplast that holds the mic cable to my face, and that's that. I'm now definitely unplugged -- with the added bonus of having a bit of manky cloth hanging out from beneath my shirt and flapping in the breeze. It could be worse -- I just ratchet everything up a bit and I don't think too many people would have had trouble hearing what I was saying, but of course all the intimacy of the quiet moments is lost and the heart of the show goes with it. Afterwards there's a little buzz of having got through it -- and a genuine wish not to make anyone (especially the sweet young lad who's been wiring me up each night, with great care and discretion) feel bad about a mishap that wasn't really anyone's fault exactly -- but ten minutes later my spirits are around my ankles. We're supposed to be going to a party for all the artists but instead Cis brilliantly whisks us off to a slightly rundown, gay-but-barely pub out near Newtown, where I drink vanilla Smirnoff at the bar and we watch a fantastic young singer-songwriter called Red Ghost with whom we both fall a little bit in love. There are worse things.

Friday 19th: Our first chance of a leisurely morning. I mostly loll around eating cookies and reading Studs Terkel. It is totally unenjoyable but we stick with it as a point of principle. Then we have to go and buy replacement gear for each of us to wear for the show. We traipse in and out of various half-nice clothes shops in the mall but it's clear nothing's going to fit me here and we wind up at Lowes -- a sort of sub-Primark bargain outlet where the sizes go up to XXXXXL (though I only, & thank heaven for relatively small mercies, need the 2 X's). This becomes a well-received joke in the preamble later: "Mr Goode's wardrobe is by Lowes of George Street." You've gotta laugh, eh? Then it's over to the Museum of Contemporary Art: art later, though, lunch first... & boy, what a lunch. The food all through the week has been magnificent but my entree at the MCA Cafe, a little porcini lasagne, is so amazingly good I get the giggles, the kind of giggles that overtake you sometimes when something's just so exquisitely perfect you don't have the language for it. I've got the giggles for Haydn quartets before now, but never for a meal. Cis has oysters of equal calibre and we both just sit there saying "Wow" to each other and grinning like apoths. It's wonderful -- & all the stress and occasional dismay of the last few days just lifts. The only downside is that we don't finish lunch until four -- why would you? -- and the museum (it turns out) closes at five, so we don't get to see much of the festival exhibition of video art from the Pompidou Collection -- which was, after all, the reason for going in the first place. We arrive at the Opera House feeling like (respectively) king & drag king of the world, and the show is the best so far, by miles. Everyone's buzzing a little bit afterwards, and it's good to feel. Cis & I hop on the ferry to Darling Harbour later and watch Sydney coming out to play for the weekend. Reassuringly, it's horrible, like Friday night is everywhere. I have a ball. And a lot of chocolate cake at a really grim tourist caff. Walking home I realize I haven't been as intensively (and extensively) with someone as I've been this week with Cis in ages -- yet there's hardly been a moment's strain. We've talked a lot and laughed loads. We must look quite the odd couple and in some ways we're chalk and cheese. But she's chalky cheese, like a mild chevre or something; and I'm cheesy chalk. Mmmm. Cheesy chalk.

Saturday 20th: We've been promising ourselves an expedition, but over the week our plans have got less and less adventurous, and we settle eventually for the walk down the coast from Bondi to Coogee. It's fantastic -- I think it bugs Cis a bit that I'm one of only four men either of us sees all day wearing long trousers (though I do give my turn-ups an extra flip for luck), but I'm more up for it than I probably seem. Bondi is ravishingly beautiful and, even on a dead-hot bright-white day like this, surprisingly quiet and laid-back. As the whitest living Englishman, and moreover as someone in whose upbringing "the seaside" meant Weston-super-Mare, I feel quite pleased to have seen both Venice and Bondi beaches in the last decade... It's by no means an arduous walk but we've really had enough by the time we take a break in Clovelly. It's well up in the 30s today and we've been feeling it a bit. So we're still a little depleted in the evening and the show is not one of the best; the audience is fidgety and talkative and I find it hard to concentrate, the preamble is a botch and the club scene comes out completely mangled. But we're done, it's over, and we part on good affectionate terms with the Opera House crew. Cis drags a pretty ungracious Controlling Thompson up Oxford Street where, after I've rejected every vaguely happening or funky-looking gay bar on the strip, we wind up in a manifestly unhappening and funk-free gay bar, sitting in the window people-watching. I am encouraged to note that almost everybody looks about as preposterous as I commonly feel. I wonder what they're thinking. We give up after one drink and head back to the bachelor pad, where we stay up for a while drinking herbal tea and talking about porn, in bachelorish fashion.

Sunday 21st: Up early to pack, and then I head back down to the MCA to see the rest of the video art show. (Great stuff. I'll write about it separately.) Before I know it, time's up, and I say goodbye to Cis on the corner of Pitt and Bathurst -- she's staying on for a couple of weeks. I tell the cabbie I'm sad to be leaving. "Your girlfriend," he infers, sympathetically, and I agree for the fun of it, and he gives me lots of excellent advice on the way to the airport. "Maybe it work out," he says. "I hope so," I say. Unarguably, in the best of all possible worlds, nothing is impossible.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Perkins Redux

So this time tomorrow (and very nearly this time the day after as well) I'll be on my way to Sydney. Still dreading the deleterious conflict between long legs and long haul, but on the bright side, 21 hours should just about be enough time to re-learn the script for Kiss of Life... I'll try and post something while I'm there, but if it doesn't happen -- and frankly why would it?, it's going to be summer, I shall be out and about, enjoying the sunshine, projectile-weeping with terror at imagined stingrays in dark alleys -- then that's where I am if you want me.

Just a quick note in passing: the post-Christmas doldrums were topically illuminated by a superb short piece for the Guardian by (...yes, this is kind of developing into a crush now...) Slavoj Zizek on the perils of cyberdemocracy. It chimed brilliantly with my holiday re-reading of Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd, and, yet again, Zizek, like Goodman, quite inadvertently helps to update the agenda for theatre.

Which brings me to the main business of this (temporarily) valedictory post. (Not quite sure what the Latin is for au revoir. It's not a very classical sentiment, is it?)

Though I've persevered with the top 50 albums, I had aborted my plans to announce the 2006 Perkins Awards, it being already much too far into January now for that sort of nonsense. But looking for something completely else just now, I turned up my back-of-envelope list of my top 10 theatre works from last year, and I think I may as well post it -- without comment (from me -- you're more than welcome to weigh in, if you're of a mind to), but hopefully with some inferable ulterior tremors nonetheless...

So here it is.

The Perkins Awards for Theatre, 2006

1. The TEAM. Particularly in the Heartland. (Traverse)
2. Stan's Cafe. Of All The People In All The World. (Triskel Gallery, Cork Midsummer Festival)
3. Ex Machina / Robert Lepage. The Andersen Project. (Barbican: BITE06)
4. Inspector Sands & Stamping Ground Theatre. Hysteria. (Aurora Nova, Edinburgh)
5. Apocryphal Theatre. The Jesus Guy. (Camden People's Theatre)
6. Tim Jeeves. Performance at 'Perspectives: Shifting Ground'. (Chisenhale Dance Space)
7. Royal De Luxe. The Sultan's Elephant. (Artichoke / LIFT)
8. The Books / Kim Hiorthoy. (Queen Elizabeth Hall)
9. Sunday in the Park with George. (Wyndham's Theatre)
10. Les Ballets C De La B. vsprs. (Sadler's Wells)

There are half a dozen productions whose omission from this short list gives me a pang. But, well, good. It's nice to have a pang.

See you on the other side of the world.

#1-10: Peter out

So, about six weeks late and about £3.5m over budget, at last I am able to reveal the top 10 albums of 2006, as voted for by me the public. I don't expect you to agree, I don't even expect you to like it. Just sit politely and try not to pout.

It's been -- as you can tell -- a bigger job than perhaps I anticipated to lodge remarks here about the 50 new records I liked most in the year. Partly because my finger-mouth always runs away with me: but also because there's a pleasant but stretching challenge in writing about music. The unstoppable tendency seems always to be to write about music either in terms of other music that it's quite like, or to compare it to work in other artforms. Neither of these is an entirely satisfactory way of describing the work concerned, but nor (at least in this cursory format) is trying to use more academic or analytical language. Whoever said writing about music was like dancing about architecture was wrong. Most dance is dance about architecture. -- Though I suppose that's only as true as the notion that most writing is writing about music. Which in those terms is a nice, oddly reassuring, idea, though even ten seconds of scrutiny start to show up the faults in it. So I'll shut up about it.

At any rate, I'm glad I've done this, not just for the bountiful altruism I know y'all associate with me, but also because it's made me sit down and really listen to a lot of music that otherwise just comes flooding in and doesn't always have the opportunity to get beyond a first impression. Since I finally gave in and started loving the download (though strictly at 192kbps or better), the rate of acquisition (a baldly horrible but apt word) has multiplied probably five-fold compared with the ten or twelve CDs I used to buy each month: but the amount of listening I do is probably unchanged. The obvious symptom is putting on oldies -- I've had occasion to reach for Pearl Jam this week, Nik Kershaw, PJ Harvey, early Mouse on Mars -- and knowing and understanding them in a kind of high-resolution that escapes me now even in respect of the contemporary albums that I really like. They have such specific associations for me, particular apartments or cities or seasons or lovers... And perhaps, for the first time in a while, these 50 records will in the future contain something of 2006 that persists. (Though the seasons have been pretty blurry this year. To say nothing of the lovers.)

Perhaps next Christmas we'll just do Secret Santa and leave it at that.
#1 Christopher Willits, Surf Boundaries
So here we are. I know what you're thinking, because I keep thinking it too. "O! Controlling Thompson," I hear you moan, your eyes rolling back a little -- which is intended to signal exasperation but you and I both know there's an erotic frisson in there too, don't deny it, this thing is stronger than both of us -- "O! Controlling T., you big shaggy old thing you," you whisper, "come here and tell me why Surf Boundaries, this 37-minute solo album by the relatively little-known young San Fransisco musician Christopher Willits, is your choice for the best record of last year, before I come over there and make you tell me." It does seem, it has seemed all along, a bit unexpected, and I keep checking back to make sure I still think it's so: and, gosh willerkins, I always do. Willits, who has collaborated with Kid 606 and Ryuichi Sakamoto (among many others) and studied with Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros, is the kind of multi-instrumentalist for whom perhaps the most important instrument of all is the studio. By which I mean, I suppose, the imaginary space in which so much recorded music is now not only created but conceived. There are moments where this album is particularly redolent of some of the other artists who I'd say were great studio navigators -- Cornelius being one, Fennesz another, Nobukazu Takemura a third -- and it's at its best when it's at its most confident and daring in its rebuilding of the conceptual studio space in media res, like a Michel Gondry video. There are other interesting invocations, not least the very opening of the album, which sounds very like a layering of Jon Hassell lines (from around the time of his contributions to David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees, say) -- it could well be Hassell, live or sampled, or perhaps it's nothing of the sort, I don't know, this is one album I wish I hadn't downloaded, the sleeve info would be helpful. After that, it's a remarkable mix of glitch and post-rock, with harmonies (and especially vocal harmonies) straight out of the Singers Unlimited back catalogue. The stacked vocals, breathily attractive and slightly out of focus in a way that recalls My Bloody Valentine, are an immensely appealing part of the mix, but not least because they're used only sporadically. More than any of these 50 albums, I find I'm commenting on Surf Boundaries in terms of the other things it sounds like: which might be laziness on my part or a bad sign on Willits's. I think it's -- modesty permitting -- neither of those things, but merely an index of the immensely capable way in which Willits is here summarising, almost diaristically, the composition of a particular imagination under the influence of something close to a glut of other signatures. In other words, this is a progressive-feeling synthesis of digital intertextualities and authentic analogue gestures: which is what we all are, at our best. So it is possible to find this album literally friendly, in ways that are not about the reassuring connotations of its tonality or its 'accessibility', but about how our skills as friends are about mirroring and affinity and at the same time about innovation and extroversion. Nothing sounds more like this than the ravishing "Yellow Spring", in which a fleet John McEntire-like drum exhibition uplifts an enormous dirigible confection of fudge-thick Madison Avenue vocals, swooping techno synth, insouciant percussion and all manner of rigorous instrumental ballast. It is totally captivating, indeed almost kidnapping, and immensely odd in that it sounds boy-next-door familiar (in all the respects that I've itemised) and yet it's actually like nothing I've ever heard. Many of the pleasures I've identified further down the 50 could be attained some other way: going to the movies, steeplechasing, sharing a watermelon with an old girlfriend, sharpening a pencil with a knife, vomiting while drunk, going to the movies twice in one day. The only way to enjoy what Surf Boundaries has to offer you is to listen, fully and in guileless anticipation of the rapturous pleasure that it has in mind for you. The thing has yet to be invented that could be named after Christopher Willits, but I think it would be a cross between a monkey and a sorbet, and it would come with a little bicycle bell. "O!", I hear you sob again, saucily unbuttoning your cardigan and looking very lovely in the damned moonlight: "O, that Christopher Willits." Bliss out.

#2 Hans Appelqvist, Naima
I raved earlier in the year about Appelqvist's Bremort, and this newest album from the composer and instrumentalist (who Hapna seem to be trying to turn into some kind of posterchild) occupies a similar, if less clearly filmic or narrative, territory: instrumental music somewhere in the dance-folk-classical-electronica-soundtracks midzone; field recordings and voice fragments; sound effects and a myriad of processed and invented tones. It sounds in description less extraordinary than it sounds in reception: though in many ways it sounds curiously ordinary at a musical level. The riffs and jingles that Appelqvist weaves together could often be the themes to cookery programmes on obscure cable channels, or tunes that might go round the head of a Swedish postman as he makes his deliveries, or cuts that never quite made it on to a Penguin Cafe Orchestra album or into a volume of Grieg's Lyric Pieces because they weren't quite rock'n'roll enough. But it's the world that Appelqvist creates around this often ingenuous music, and the tensions with which he circumstantially loads it, that make his work so distinctive and impressive. The only resemblance I can (sensibly) think to suggest is with Fischli & Weiss, whose retrospective show at Tate Modern was one of the big hits of last year -- certainly the British exhibition most frequently chosen by contributors to the review of 2006 in last month's Artforum. I never got around to writing here about their show, perhaps because I felt a little ambivalent and couldn't quite untie my own thoughts: though I think the short version is that I'm feeling a little tired of art that finds beauty in the 'mundane' and the 'everyday' (I'm putting those words in quotes so that you imagine some mewing curator saying them at a dinner party.) In 2007 I'd like -- please -- more art that finds beauty in the exceptional and the startling. But I loved, unreservedly, F&W's Der Lauf der Dinge and, more even than that, their Quiet Afternoon series, which achieves the most radical rewiring of still life imaging since Braque. Household objects -- carrots, bottles, cutlery, utensils -- are photographed in almost impossibly balanced equipoise, at the moment just before the sculptures collapse; it's an entirely different way of organising the composition of a picture around the physical interrelations of unrelated objects -- in other words, only secondarily around formal or aesthetic pressures. So: back to Appelqvist, who takes the 'mundane' songs from the AM radio or the ad-break or the dance class, and the 'everyday' sounds of domestic and town life unfolding on its own terms, and allows them to describe their own relationships in a genuinely fresh and fascinating way. There is immense wit here -- wit in a slapstick, Woody Allen way: 'Underbar jag var annu', for eaxmple is a Mariah Carey song suddenly invaded by Baader Meinhof action figures; but also in a delightful Jane Austen way: the personal dramas of '', a finger-ballet set to the sounds of a slightly recalcitrant personal computer, conjure the funniest piece of music I've heard since Yuri Khanin's Five Smallest Orgasms. I slightly miss the really strong sense both of place and character that Appelqvist achieved in Bremort but this album will obviously do much to boost his emerging reputation as one of the most deft and original recording artists around.

#3 Lily Allen, Alright Still
Never has an explanatory text been more supererogatory. Lily Allen's licketyspit hurtle to prominence was self-evidently one of the more appealing licketyspit hurtles to claim a gentleman's attention in 2006. But what not everyone has figured out yet, even going by the standards of immensely accomplished radio-friendly cuts like "LDN" and "Littlest Things", is that Allen is -- especially in collaboration with the excellent Future Cut -- a brilliant and, on this evidence, visionary songwriter. (The number of brownie points you get for rhyming "Kate Moss" with "weight loss" are most tidily expressed in scientific notation.) She has a gift for the telling detail, both lyrically and musically, and her vocal stylings are disarming in their balance of a diamond edge and a quaintly lackadaisical quality. For anyone to have survived the parenting, even in absentia, of both Keith Allen and Harry Enfield, is exceptional enough; to go on to secure the antipathy of Bob Geldof and the affections of Tom Raworth is a tall order indeed. Best of all, she has the smarts and the self-possession to ride out this year's inevitable backlash and is therefore on course to become a national living treasure round about summer 2009. Alright Still is a truly lovely album: warm, sardonic, intelligent, sappy, not a little cruel. May the road rise with her.

#4 Make Believe, Of Course
It was the Ohio-based weather system and range of powertools they call jUStin!katKO (no mean noisemaker neither, he) who turned me on to the Chicago band Make Believe -- who are also, to all intense sand purposes, the Chicago band Joan of Arc. What Make Believe have, though, is the kind of edge from which you could easily (and perhaps quite willingly) sustain a life-threatening papercut. If I had to nominate the single best use of the electric guitar in the world last year -- and this is certainly a crowded category, given that, my informants tell me, the electric guitar is becoming quite popular among the young folks -- it would be the opening track on this, their second album: "A Song About Camping" is as exciting an indie rock song as I've heard since the heydays of Slanted and Enchanted or whatever it was the Beatnik Filmstars were always on about. In fact the sound of Make Believe is way more fantastically serrated than either of those, with multiple (and unimpeachably melodic) guitar lines cutting against each other in such a way as to suggest that when Make Believe really do go camping the fires are started by rubbing lengths of barbed wire together. Tim Kinsella has -- when he really digs in -- a sensational voice, which he frequently manages to make sound electrically pure and mechanically abrasive in the same arching gesture. There's a more disconcertingly unnerving thing they do, on songs like "Political Mysticism", allowing a determinedly prosaic lyric on an obscure topic (in this case, "the British Calendar Act of 1751") to describe a melody line that both acknowledges and disobeys the conventional architectures of pop-rock phrasing: it's effectually unnerving anyway, but disconcerting because the only other band I've ever heard do this (& make such a big thing out of it) are Pence Eleven -- and sounding kind of like Pence Eleven is akin to finding a crisp that looks kind of like Elaine Paige. And yet you can nearly dance -- quite ecstatically -- to "Pat Tillman, Emmett Till". Provided of course that you have one leg shorter than the other. And also another leg. And you are, in fact, falling out of an aeroplane.

#5 Robin Williamson, The Iron Stone
So, this will be a shock to those of you who peeked askance at my notes and thought there was a Robbie Williams album in the Top 10. ...Actually, Rudebox is a completely extraordinary album which completely refuses all attempts at assessment. I am prepared to say that it is probably bobbins, but there is something very interesting going on in it, that's for sure, in a "In case of emergency break glass" kind of way. -- Arguably, though, The Iron Stone is even weirder. ...Or wyrder? Twistier and turnier than anything else this past year, that's for sure. Here's what we're talking about: the 63-year-old founding member of the near-legendary (and increasingly influential) Incredible String Band, in consort with jazz lumins such as bassist Barre Phillips and Mat Maneri on viola, recorded with typical care and clarity by Manfred Eicher for ECM. Folksongs, stories, improvisations: from the two-millimetres-left-of-risible opening tale of "The Climber" ("Three brothers / In the land of the great mountains", one of whom "obtains a rope of moonlight" with which to climb through the clouds...) -- told with great understated drama and precision by Williamson but a heck of a wrongfooter if you're not expecting it; to the terrifically gripping account of the traditional Scottish ballad "Sir Patrick Spens"; to the searching, unsettled spontaneous composition "There Is A Music"; to the affecting, devotional-humanist meditation "To God In God's Absence", one of the album's more understated highlights. I often feel a bit bothered by the lack of crossover between free improvised music (in this country at least) and the folk tradition -- which is, or at any rate contains, after all, an equally radical improvising practice. The situation of music in between these two modes is anomalous, which is sad not least because it tends to work marvellously well: as evidence of which, seek out my friend Susanna Ferrar's daringly poised and inexhaustible album A Boy Leaves Home; or the Solo Bagpipes albums of Paul Dunmall (who has played with Williamson) -- the first of which is probably the record I've played and enjoyed most this year, and deserves mention for that in spite of the tyranny of the new that I'm stoking in this exercise. At any rate, Williamson's new album is peculiar and sometimes extremely vulnerable (all of which of course I greatly applaud), but it is also credible and compelling -- where lesser figures attempting similar manoeuvres would induce mirth and probably derision. It expects, but does not demand, close and intelligent listening, and rewards but does not repay it. In other words, it is, as the blurb -- presumably Anthony Barnett's -- to the original Agneau 2 edition of J.H. Prynne's Poems had it: "expensive of attention and persistence." A genuinely worthwhile recording, genuinely exploratory and creative, with not a quarter-second of triviality or pretentiousness anywhere in its grounds.
#6 Derek Bailey, To Play
It's now been a little over a year and I still can't get used to the idea that Derek Bailey is dead: and this being one of the most vital releases of the last year doesn't help much in reinforcing the finality of his passing. To be honest (and I appreciate this is close to blasphemy) there are other improvising guitarists I find give me, on the whole, more listening pleasure: Roger Smith, for example, or the underhailed John Bisset. But compared to those guys, and indeed to most musicians on the planet, Bailey was, and in a sense remains, incredibly prolific -- and his recorded output is remarkably consistent in quality given the diversity of the man's collaborations and the restlessness of his inquiry. I first heard Bailey as a teenager (me, not him) on the extraordinary Company record Epiphany and initially found it hard to get along with him; in fact it wasn't until his Tzadik album with The Ruins, and not long after that the Guitar, Drums and Bass collaboration with DJ Ninj, that I really started to pay close attention -- or as close as one could get in trying to keep up. I still find some of his earlier recordings difficult to warm to (and a particularly sort of seething regret at the crappy sound quality of Music and Dance, the record of one of his improvising encounters with the great Min Tanaka); but a great deal of his late work has been of real importance to me: not least the remarkable Limescale disc, and the widely acclaimed Ballads set a little while back. This, at any rate, is the last new album we shall have from Bailey, though I dare say other older bits and bobs will continue to surface for a while yet; To Play is a collection of the recordings he put down for David Sylvian's use on the latter's excellent (if mildly disorienting) Blemish. Much has been said about how poignant these last recordings are, but if I find them so it's only with particular regard to Bailey's occasional spoken interjections at the ends of tracks ("I'll carry on a bit, OK?"). The music itself is so involved and involving, and so frequently counterintuitive (even after all this time!), that I find it very odd to imagine listening through or past the music to the man himself: and this despite the excellent quality of Sylvian's recording, which mics Bailey acutely enough that a real sense of his own physicality is educed. One surprise for me is that I like the electric playing at the end of the album even more than the acoustic stuff earlier on -- normally with solo Bailey it's, for me, the other way about. But of course it's all surprises. To my very great regret I never heard him live -- there were a couple of conversations about getting him in to CPT while I was there, but by that time he was mostly in Barcelona and it wasn't possible. The immediacy of this recording, however, means that, more than ever with Bailey, there's no shortage of liveness here. This is, I think, one of the best of the recordings I know (I've probably heard less than five per cent of his records); it's every bit as likeable, as difficult, as unique as he evidently was. The limitlessly irritating but sporadically necessary Ben Watson hit the nail on the head when he wrote: "Capitalism embalms successful artists in cliches which betray their real intent. Bailey never allowed that to happen. For this alone, his work is worth exploring."

#7 Lil' Chris, Lil' Chris
Let me just deposit this nano-cavil first: I'm really not sure about the placing of that apostrophe. It seems to be after the model of Lil' Kim; but I would tend to favour the preferred rendering of such luminaries as Li'l Abner and the tantalising but ultimately tedious Li'l Broccoli, on the basis that it's obviously correct. Never mind: Lil' Chris will turn seventeen this summer and presumably won't want to hang on to the diminutive appellation much longer -- though perhaps it refers as much to his short stature (he's barely over five foot) as his tender years. At any rate, I don't suppose it's occurred to anybody involved, with the possible exception of the anklebiter himself, that Lil' Chris will have a long enough ride in the charts to have to worry too much about what happens when he grows out of his current brand. And, talented though he is, perhaps they're right. His pop longevity doesn't matter. This, right now, is a glorious album, better by far than anything ever committed to vinyl by, let's see, Mike & the Mechanics, or King Crimson, or even (let's push the boat out) Beyonce. If you don't know the story -- and I didn't -- Lil' Chris was the communally affirmed stand-out presence on last year's series of Rock School: which means he has been tutored in stagecraft and advanced rockingness by Gene Simmons, co-creator of the greatest rock song ever, Kiss's transcendentally futile "Crazy Crazy Nights". (This is not perhaps what they had in mind when the YTS was devised but, hey, times change.) So far so X Factor: but three things conspire to lift this record out of the bottomlessly cynical reality show murk in which it was conceived. First, Chris clearly does have the moves and the chutzpah -- not being a Rock School viewer, the first I knew about him was this Guardian review of a live set at the Barfly, which made him sound like a cross between Johnny Rotten and Mickey Rooney: and that seems to be about right. Secondly, he's been cleverly teamed up with the genius songwriter and producer Ray Hedges (who, among many other things, was one of the creative team behind the late and largely forgotten B*witched, the best-produced girl-band since The Ronettes). Thirdly, they've made Chris's obvious ambition and receptivity the signature of his adolescent rock 'n' roll persona: oh, Lord, the sheer terrifying appetite of this record, the out-and-out hunger for sex and excitement and recognition that blares out of pretty much every track. (With the exception of "I Never Noticed", which just sounds, improbably, like a lost Yazoo song.) The smart thing about this is that rock postures may be learned, or faked, but the hunger behind them belongs freshly and, in their own mind, almost uniquely to every teenager. So you believe Chris in the same way you believe Feargal Sharkey on "Teenage Kicks", even though we've learned to believe that that record is the authentic voice of adolescent lust while reality-show upstarts like Chris are supposedly effigies mechanically peddling lame and ersatz simulacra. The web discussion boards are full of people (presumably mostly jealous 16 year old boys) criticizing this album because, for example, "Gettin' Enough" sounds exactly like the Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen In Love", or because Chris can turn on that new wave vibrato you associate with the Slits or will drop in a Lene Lovich yelp every so often: in other words, it all sounds copycat. Well, yes, of course it does. What makes Chris awesome is his reckless determination to live out his bedroom mirror / hairbrush-microphone phase for real, on stage, in boundless dedication to the "ladies and all the pretty boys" he shouts out to. I think he means business every bit as much as the Arctic Monkeys do, probably more; he wants it more, he deserves it more. I'm getting a bit emotional. But this is, I think, the only album to come out this year that's made me take the long route home for fear of arriving at my door before it's finished playing on my iPod. Li'l Chris puts a bubblegum punk spin on O.J. Berman's assessment of Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's: he's a phony, but a real phony -- and no other album this year has captured more of my heart. ...OK, I'm ready for my restraining order, Mr de Mille.

#8 Tape, Rideau
(Another Top 10 disc from Hapna.) Now there's a moral to this story. I absolutely loved Tape's first two studio albums, Opera and Milieu, and I'd been looking forward to Rideau for ages -- I'm not sure if it was delayed or if it was officially out but just hadn't actually showed up anywhere, or what, but there seemed to be an odd hiatus before the new album became available for download. (Not my preferred method in this case, as Tape have always designed beautiful sleeves for their CDs: in fact, I gave Liam both those previous covers as reference points when we were designing the sketchbook aesthetic for the projections in my show Nine Days Crazy; we then used quite a bit of their music in the piece too.) But by the time I actually came to download Rideau, my impatience had become somewhat thickened with urgency, as I was working on a video piece at the time and couldn't find quite the right thing to soundtrack it. Surely the new Tape album would have the perfect track on it, just in time to save the day? Well, no, as it turned out. Rideau was therefore filed under 'disappointing' and though I listened to it a couple more times I never quite rehabilitated it in my mind. And then last month when I was starting to shortlist albums for this process, Tape were obviously worthy of consideration, and I listened some more. So I think in the first draft of this 50, Rideau was somewhere in the mid-30s: but more than any other album, it's gone up and up in my estimation, and now it's here in the top 10. Another couple of weeks, who knows, it might have crawled its way to the very top, like "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" did back in the day. Oddly, I found Rideau less immediately attractive than its predecessors -- this is odd only because all the reviews said the opposite, that this was a more appealing and easygoing record with more upfront production: and that was obviously what Tape were aiming for. Then again, the tracks on Rideau are longer than on the previous albums -- three of the five are in excess of ten minutes -- and I think sometimes my impatience, and the backlog of unlistened goodies always piled up in my mind, means I don't give long-form works the benefit of the extended attention they require. (I'm sure this probably has something to do with my present evaluation of Ys, for example.) Well, I dunno, I liked the minatures of Opera and Milieu and the sense of partial and contingent and incomplete structures and of sketchiness and compactness. But the broader character of Rideau, combined with a clearer focus in the operations of each track, does admittedly work very much to their advantage. Though this is purely instrumental stuff, and there's a fair bit of electronics in the mix, the most obvious comparison is with late period Talk Talk, particularly with the organ that opens out the first track, "Sunrefrain". The percussive tones of "A Spire", meanwhile, seem to recall some bits of Tortoise or Rachel's: except I think that's a hurdy-gurdy back in the mix, which I think would be a bit too pastoral for either of those groups. It bothers me to think that schoolgirls will never scream at Tape and insist that they sign their breasts with a magic marker. Perhaps it bothers them too. But hey, they're Swedes, they're phlegmatic. And anyway, screaming would admittedly be an inappropriate response to music of this extraordinary quality. Though I have once or twice had to suppress a shriek on realizing that, actually, track 3, "Sand Dunes", would have worked a treat for that video.

#9 The Young Knives, Voices and Animals of Men
I'm of an age and disposition where I can't quite keep up with all these guitar bands with short names. It's helped somewhat to find out that The Knife, who are not The Young Knives, aren't a guitar band after all; I sort of know I'm not very bothered about The Vines, who are also not the Young Knives, but I have to try to remember not to confuse them with The Hives, who I think are great (and are of course Swedish, like The Knife) -- but are not a partial anagram of The Young Knives and therefore inadmissible to this vortex. Also the Young Knives are not the Young Gods but I'm not altogether sure the Young Gods are still the Young Gods. Actually, this is mostly fuss about nothing: I don't, on the whole, get mixed up about the Young Knives because the Young Knives are officially my favourite. And they've stayed my favourite even though Time Out really likes them too. To be honest, the reason I particularly like the Young Knives is that they remind me frequently of The Longpigs, the horribly underappreciated 90s guitar band who split after two stunning albums and left nothing else behind other than the curiously overappreciated Richard Hawley. Listen to the chorus of the Young Knives' "The Decision" (btw how did this brilliant single fail to make the top 40 not once but twice?) -- ah, it's one of those songs that's all choruses, really, but that bit about the horses in the New Forest, through to the bit that goes "It's easier, it's easier" -- and tell me you can't hear Crispin Hunt. (Whose name I fear will now become synonymous with the phrase Diddly Squat, thus: "Can't you hear it?" "What?" "That, there, listen, there it was again." "Sorry, mate, I've got a cold, I can't hear Crispin Hunt at the moment.") Except -- and perhaps this is why they never made it big -- the Longpigs would never have had a bit in their songs that went "Bah baah, bah bah baah-dah bah": or if they did, they'd at least have set it to a decent melody rather than exclaiming it languidly as if it were a comment on a next-door neighbour's new sportscar. What I mean is, The Young Knives have clearly, I have no supporting evidnece for this but, they've clearly listened to a bit of Sparks. Which is another gold star for them. I like how they understand that the more preposterous something is, the more urgent the delivery has to be. Consider, for example, the baffling sitcom narrative of "She's Attracted To", or the uncanny strains of "Tailors", which makes Tiny Tim sound like Iggy Pop -- but you can't argue with it because they will clearly brook no discouragement that will make them once relent their first avowed intent. (Whereas I sometimes think a stern look or a single scolding word would rid us of Franz Ferdinand forever.) They will either be huge or disappear abruptly; it is, I should think, very unlikely they will do what the once-promising Athlete did and turn into Snow Patrol at the mildest provocation. (Though the sublime "Another Hollow Line" plainly indicates they could if they wanted to.) Wildest huzzahs, the boys done good.

#10 Johann Johannsson, IBM 1401: A User's Manual
To place this disc in the top ten but to anticipate discussing it almost entirely in terms of its disappointments obviously tells a story of fantastically high expectations: and that would be a pretty fair description of my relationship with IBM 1401. The inspiration and set-up for this album are worth mentioning first. Johannsson's father was Iceland's chief maintenance engineer for the IBM 1401, an early (mid-60s) business computer, and, as a music enthusiast himself, managed to find a way of programming it so that it would produce elementary musical sounds; when the computer was subsequently decommissioned, it gave a farewell 'concert' which was recorded on tape: and these tapes, along with instructional cassettes supplied with the machine, form the raw material for the pieces collected here, becoming solo voices set against large orchestral backings. When I first got to hear about it, this seemed like an ideal project for Johannsson, who had already created a profoundly moving track, "Odi et Amo", for computer-synthesized voice and chamber ensemble, on his 2002 album Englaborn. (It's easier to track down, if you're interested, on the soundtrack CD to Screaming Masterpiece, the recent documentary on Icelandic music and musicians.) It also sounded pretty tasty to me, as I have a longstanding interest in synthetic voices and related processes, and also in the musical deployment of obsolete technologies. So it would be true to say that I had perhaps unrealistically high hopes for IBM 1401. The opening track sets everything up pretty characteristically: the computer plays a simple five-note phrase over and over again, while Johannsson builds increasingly thick orchestral textures around it. Perhaps a useful comparison would be with Gavin Bryars's Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, in terms of the orchestral writing as well as the relation of these massed acoustic forces to a central looping element. (We might also mention John Adams's "Christian Zeal and Activity".) However, where Bryars's fairly sentimental orchestrations are offset by the ambiguities both of his central voice sample and the accumulating pressure of the very long duration of the work, Johannsson doesn't really manage to find a provocative edge anywhere. The string writing throughout the whole album is sub-Part (or occasionally Gorecki) and often porridgey, and forsakes the benefits of both restraint and overload. The track on the album that has drawn most praise and discussion is the closing "The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black", in which the computer 'sings' a version of Dorothy Parker's still-raw "Two-Volume Novel", which in its entirety reads: "The sun's gone dim, and / The moon's turned black; / For I lived him, and / He didn't love back." The first half of this track, in which the orchestra gathers and swells around the looping song of the computer, is in many ways the best-judged passage on the album; but inexplicably, Johannsson chooses then to let the computer recede into silence while the orchestra alone brings the album to a close in an overblown manner that perhaps betrays the composer's sideline in heavy metal. I suppose this withdrawal of the voice is a dramatization of the decommissioning of the computer but in the absence of its focal point the orchestral writing just sounds like so much unwanted gateaux. It bugs me too that Johannsson needlessly changes the computer's lyric to "For I loved her and she didn't love back", which destroys the desolately beautiful rhyme 'dim'/'him'; you'd have thought we might now be ready to hear a 'male' synthesized voice singing disconsolately about unrequited love for another male, not least as it would have been possible to hear it as an elegy prompted by the betrayal of the computer by its engineer. So, yes, I do have regrets about IBM 1401 and I think the chamber settings of Englaborn are rather stronger. For all that, the emotional weight of this album is unmistakeable and cannot be dismissed. Very many people who hear it will be deeply moved by it -- and not quite know why. It has caught me like that once or twice, I must admit, despite all my reservations. Johannsson is a serious and impressive artist and I can well understand his wish to work with these forces and on this scale to realise a project that obviously has significant resonances for him. (A dance piece has now been created around this music which apparently compounds the effect -- and I can well believe it.) For me, he doesn't pull it off. But I'd still recommend very highly that anyone with a taste for the melancholic, and an ear or two accustomed to the likes of Sigur Ros or Gorecki no.3, seek this out and give it a half share in a rainy afternoon.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

#11-20: Peter who? I can no longer remember the basic facts.

Happy year, everyone. Hope your resolutions are going better than mine.

OK so: despite some heckling from an anonymous (i.e. fraidycat) correspondent who is officially no rock 'n' roll fun, I am pleased to unveil the next 10 in my (admittedly uncalled-for) top 50 albums of last year. Apologies again for the tardiness, but hey, I'm a tard -- who you gonna call? The holiday feeling having passed -- about 4pm on Boxing Day, in my case -- I am perforce rebranding this exercise as a 'list show'-style wallow in retroriffic nostalgification. Ah, 2006, those crazy hairstyles, those dimly remembered motor diseases; innocent, carefree times. If you click on the link at the bottom you'll get a pop-up window with Stuart Maconie saying something sardonic about Nutty Bars, or vice versa.

I must admit I really was thinking of chucking in the towel but, insanely, the whole stupid project has excited a peculiar amount of linkage (correspondingly propelling Thompson's up the Google charts: which only right now reveals itself to be an almost unreadably rude-sounding phrase that I promise never to use again). Even the BBC America web site has been directing folks here for their musical edification (though not without a certain tinge of ennui in the doing). So I feel I owe it to the burgeoning international audience presently converging on the bank, to see this through, to spread a little happiness and (most importantly) steer the vulnerable ones away from their Rush tapes.

Hopefully the top 10 should be here by the end of the weekend. I've just had a big lump of work dumped in my lap and I'm supposed to be working on Kiss of Life, which opens in Sydney in less than a fortnight... But I can't be expected to concentrate on any of that with the Damoclean sword of an Unfinished Top 50 dangling over my head like, I dunno, like some other kind of sword that might dangle over a person's head.

No, really, I think it's going well.
#11 Kelley Stoltz, Below the Branches
Darn good piece in the Guardian the other day -- actually not particularly good, but right-minded, which is even better -- complaining about all this Guilty Pleasures nonsense. (If you've missed it, it's pretty much like the rave scene round about September '88, but instead of blissed-out EMF lookalikes throwing elementary scalene shapes in a field just outside Trowbridge, it's a bunch of thirtysomething callcentre team leaders going fluffy-ape somewhere in Camden; and it's not KLF and The Shamen any more, it's Sad Cafe and the Doobie Brothers. If you look closely, however, you'll notice that the callcentre team leaders and the EMF lookalikes are in fact the very same people eighteen years apart. In fact I understand Denchy's moved to Faisalabad. But that's another story.) Come on, class, we've been through this a metric willion times: good stuff is good stuff and bad stuff is bad stuff. If you experience a mix of Guilt and Pleasure every time you listen to Eric Clapton singing "Wonderful Tonight", it's not because the frisson that's running down your spine is induced by the transgressive thrill of permitting yourself to bask in a musical sensation that's too long been prohibited by the metropolitan tastemakers; no, your "pleasure" is incorrect and that's not "guilt" (cue ironic smirking), it's "shame". Mmmkay? But: if you find yourself astrally projecting with confused delight when "Don't You Just Know It?" by Amazulu comes on the radio while you're in the bath, that's because you've responded adequately and humanly to a magnificent song, and if you feel guilt about that then you are betraying your fellow humans, and yourself, and all that is good and reasonable.

Which brings us to Mr Kelley Stoltz: who has favoured us with the year's most nakedly pleasurable record, under the auspices of the reliably life-enhancing Sub Pop. This is genuinely classic pop-rock songwriting, in the line of Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson and Billy Joel and Harry Nilsson and Jeff Lynne: though he can also turn in a neat Nick Drake-y figuration when he needs to. The production is absolutely spanking, more mo-fi than lo-fi -- in other words, absolutely nothing apart from the kitchen sink. That even sounds to me like a real harpsichord on "Summer's Easy Feeling", though it might not be and it doesn't matter any more. The best songs are those, like "Memory Collector" and the beachboysier-than-thou "Ever Thought of Coming Back", which are driven by thumping pub piano that recalls, who?, Neil Innes maybe, or Michael Nyman playing with the Flying Lizards, or any other baldy joanna-botherer who springs to mind, Neil Sedaka perhaps, or Mrs Mills. And ah! The slide guitar that propels "Birdies Singing" and delivers you safe into the hands of this year's most la-la-la-able chorus! And ah again! "There's a bell that won't stop ringing!" sings Stoltz excitedly, and Ding! Ding! Ding! goes a bell, sitting pertly on the top of the mix like the cherry on an individual bakewell tart. Just splendid. The only thing that misfires is the orchestral tuning at the start: but what a clever record, to get all of its wrongness completely out of the way in the first twelve seconds. If you honestly think The Feeling are where it's at, put two drops of Kelley Stoltz on your tongue and call me in the morning, I'll tell you what to do. Below the Branches: no guilt, just gingerbread.

#12 Tunng, Comments of the Inner Chorus
Well I wasn't going out of my way with this one, after I spent what felt like half my adult life trying to track down Tunng's version of "The Maypole Song" (from Paul Giovanni's justly celebrated soundtrack to The Wicker Man), and it then wasn't very interesting after all that. But this, oh, heck yeah, this is interesting. This feels awfully like the home where my heart is -- and presumably also, somewhere, my hat: but I'll look for that later. As you might expect from Tunng's attraction to "The Maypole Song", there's a tremendously satisfying sort of bucolic twanginess to this album, though any mulchiness is capably offset with odd iced-gem niceties of digital tweakery and assorted squelchtronica that reminds me (though sadly not in high-resolution detail) of whatever poem it is in which whatever poet mentions "blips and smears of sheepshit" or whatever the line is, or whoever it turns out I am, finally. What's really striking is how the delicate interplay of acoustic and digital is applied again and again to a programme of immense tenderness: just listen to the smidgen of timestretching in the voice that recalls "Jenny, so-o-o shy" at the start of "Jenny Again". I don't know how pointed and/or winking is the sample at the opening of "The Wind Up Bird" in which a cross man declares: "The books have nothing to say!" -- but Comments of the Inner Chorus is the closest thing there's been to a Books album this year, which is, I hope, a nice thing to say about it, and about them, and about everyone within earshot.

#13 IST, Lodi
I've only heard IST live twice, I think, but I pretty nearly died both times. You just stop breathing. You're there on the edge of your seat (yes, you're probably sitting down, there's not much of a moshpit to speak of) trying not to breathe in case you're louder than they are but you've already stopped breathing anyway because of the quickness, the anticipation, the precipitous angling. IST are the improvising string trio of Rhodri Davies (harp), Simon H. Fell (double bass) and Mark Wastell (cello); the three substantial tracks on Lodi were recorded in 2002 -- four years on from Ghost Notes, their previous (extremely fine) CD, which was anyway mostly composed material -- so this is at any rate a rare and valuable record of a vitally important group, but it also, more particularly, indicates the currents and tendencies of development in their collective language in the years since their earlier disc: and to some degree it also reflects the largely parallel shifts in focus and emphasis that had come to prevail more widely (though not as dominatingly, perhaps, as is sometimes reported) in the improvised music scene in London at that time. To specialists, then, this release will appear exactly crucial: but it deserves, and will endlessly repay, the attentions of any alert and interested listener. The textural world of Lodi is sometimes abrasive, often eerie; sometimes conversational, sometimes profoundly reticent. A very real and impressive intimacy is possible: by which I mean you can get extremely close to this music: and it is encouraging of that -- not at all of the rebarbative or hermetic or boffiny character you are sometimes led to expect. The technique of these players is astonishing, but that's effectually one of the least important things about this challenging and bountifully rewarding, beautifully made disc. (Order from Fell's own Bruce's Fingers web site.)

#14 Joanna Newsom, Ys
Ys is the one record that's made every list of the best albums of the year -- mostly higher up the register, in fact, than it is here -- and there's little point in saying much more about it. Honestly, for me, it's more an admirable than a likeable record, though there's a spirited and congenial quality to the (wonderfully clever and idiosyncratic) lyrics which I find I warm to. I applaud its ambitiousness while feeling a little bit cool about its largeness: I think I like music to be more nimble than this, one way or another, more slender or sinewy. Maybe Ys just isn't very sexy: whereas Newsom's previous album, the underrated The Milk-Eyed Mender, is as sexy as all get-out. Ys is just too picturesque and self-sufficient. I suppose what I'm nearly but not quite saying is that it's a mid- or late-career album that Newsom has arrived at prematurely. Perhaps we should hope that the trade-off will turn out to be that in fifteen years' time she's playing harp like Rhodri Davies. Whatever my misgivings, though, this is a truly remarkable piece of work, frequently astonishing, certainly up there with Deserter's Songs and Tilt as an instant modern classic. (But... hands up if you listened to either of those albums at any time in 2006.)

#15 Four Tet, Remixes
Cut to that heart-mangling moment in Mike Leigh's Naked where David Thewlis as Johnny, prowling the streets of King's Cross after dark, asks Ewen Bremner's Archie, a ticcing timebomb in the shape of a dashboard troll: "What's it like being you? Bit hectic, yeah?" Thus, Kieran Hebden, or Mr Tet to you. Is this man some kind of special envoy from the Busy World of Richard Scarry? It's not that his sound worlds are (often) frantic, just he seems to do so much, and in such detail. I've been enjoying his stuff for a while now, particularly since the excellent Rounds in 2003. If you don't know Four Tet, that album might be the place to start; this set of Remixes probably isn't. Which isn't to say it's unsatisfactory in any way, or difficult or discombobulating. It's just, necessarily, a pretty jumbly sort of 30p mix. One disc has a selection of Four Tet mixes of other people's stuff; the other has a selection of other people's mixes of Four Tet stuff. There's an interesting book to be written on the development of remix culture (though not by me), or maybe there is one already. What strikes me particularly in respect of this collection is that I grew up on the idea that a remix was an opportunity to deconstruct: whereas by now, the people who are most embroiled in these circulations are tending to make work that sounds kind of deconstructed already, just about to fall to bits, all its organs hanging out. And in an odd way here it's the remixes that try to make something cohesive and elegant out of the supplied kit that work best: Manitoba (the artist presently known, for legal reasons, as Caribou) whips up "Hilarious Movie of the 90's" into a video game made out of pavement-flavoured jellybeans and marshmallow the colour of Edwardian fog; those smart cookies Icarus transform the fidgety cutlery-drawer agitations of "My Angel Rocks Back and Forth" -- the original of which sounded like Darth Vader sitting in with Clannad* -- into a pedal-to-the-metal psychodrama complete with severed Japanese head and a Meccano effigy of Steve Reich's right arm. Of the Four Tet renderings, there's a particularly discriminating, slightly old-fashioned remix of His Name Is Alive's "One Year", which I love, and another good call from Bloc Party (who already had quite a few bonus points for letting The Go! Team have a fiddle with their "Positive Tension"): Hebden engineers in the home stretch of their "So Here We Are" as rapturous a cloudburst as you're likely to experience anywhere this Christmas. You can't sing along with anything on this album, but I suspect if you turn it up loud enough and concentrate with sufficient fixity, you may find you suddenly project out of your forehead a small sad looping holorecording of Carrie Fisher, probably going: "What's it like being you? Bit hectic, yeah?"

(*This will presumably come to pass when everyone's favourite Dark Lord of the Sith takes over the presenter's chair on Later from Jools Holland, who will have been bludgeoned to death by, oh, I don't care, that big-faced gak-hoover from Keane perhaps, I don't mind if he gets sent down.)