The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'personal'
Late last year, the indie-music world was surprised by the announcement that Lush, one of the better-known lost bands of the 1990s shoegaze/ethereal/dreampop zeitgeist, were reuniting, and were not only planning to play gigs but were working on an EP of new material. On one hand, it made sense; with My Bloody Valentine having played sold-out gigs and finally released the Shoegaze Chinese Democracy, The Jesus and Mary Chain having played successful reunion gigs for a few years and talking about recording again, and Slowdive's expectation-bustingly successful comeback (and, again, an album in the works), if ever the time was right, it is now; though on the other hand, the fact that the end of Lush came after the suicide of their original drummer, Chris Acland, always seemed to rule out a reunion. Yet, after almost two decades, it was officially on the cards. A gig was announced at the Roundhouse in Camden for May; it sold out rapidly, and another was arranged for the following night.
I managed to pick up tickets to one of the May gigs, and have been looking forward to finally seeing Lush play live, even if doing so was from a distance in a large venue. So imagine my surprise when, flicking through upcoming gigs on Songkick just over a week ago, I found a new Lush gig on Monday week at Oslo Hackney, a much smaller venue, and that, even more mysteriously, it was not sold out.
I, of course, grabbed a ticket to this gig. Tonight, I went to it, and I must say it was great. The band went on a little after 20:30 (“No red hair, get over it”, said the now-brunette Miki, before they launched into their first song), and were in fine form, playing tightly and with energy for an hour and a half, doing mostly songs from between Gala and Split, with a cursory nod to their final Britpop-tinged album Lovelife. Above the driving bass lines, propulsive drums and the swirl and crunch of interlocking guitars (each through its own array of pedals), Miki and Emma's voices floated, as melodic and forceful as a quarter-century earlier. Anyway, the audience loved it, applauding rapturously; the band came on not just for the standard scheduled encore (3 songs, including Desire Lines), but for another subsequent unscheduled one.
There was, of course, a merch table, and alongside the usual T-shirts and a zine (Thoughtforms, glossier than the indie fanzines of old but the same concept) containing interviews, there was the new Lush EP, Blind Spot; a flat, oversized card package designed by V23 designer Chris Bigg, containing a semitransparent CD. I bought a copy and listened to it upon getting home, and it is very good indeed. Some are calling it a more mature version of Lush (which it is), though to me, it sounds most like a timeslip; an anomalous artefact from a parallel timeline, which somehow mysteriously appeared in this one. In its home timeline, Lovelife and the foray onto the Britpop bandwagon never happened; instead, Lush kept honing and refining their ethereal/dreampop sound, with Blind Spot, or something very much like it, coming out a few years down the track. That timeline is, of course, a very different world to the one we know.
In any case, I'm looking forward to seeing them again in a month or so, and hoping that this is the start of the second chapter of the Lush story.
The buzz of my phone cut through the remnants of a fading dream this morning, a notification of something happening in the waking world. I picked up the handset and saw on its screen two items, from two different media outlets on opposite sides of the Atlantic, announcing the seemingly preposterous: two days after having released his new album (on his 69th birthday), David Bowie had suddenly died of cancer. Surely this cannot be the waking world?
It turned out to be real enough. In the minutes that followed, the trickle of incredulous queries turned into a torrential flood of mourning, commemoration and sombre celebration of an epic life. MetaFilter got its usual river of mournful .s. Facebook and Twitter were wall-to-wall Bowie all day. The Guardian ran a liveblog and a surfeit of articles and thinkpieces, with seemingly everybody other than George Monbiot giving their take on Bowie's significance. My Spotify sidebar was almost entirely Bowie (the sole outlier being someone in the habit of listening to their algorithmic playlists).
I had been meaning to listen to the new Bowie album, ★ (or Blackstar), today on Spotify, before probably buying a copy. It was officially a mere two days old, though had been completed months earlier. Much like his previous album, 2013's The Next Day, it had been made in secret, its release synchronised to Bowie's birthday. Though while The Next Day was perhaps necessarily backward-looking, from the Heroes-sampling artwork to its 1970s rock stylings, to the nostalgic melancholia of Where Are We Now?, Blackstar couldn't be more different. Recorded with entirely new musicians, from a jazz background, a shifting assemblage of sounds; a Middle Eastern scale here, some drum'n'bass-style beats there, the mood shifting between skilfully crafted pop and the ominous and unsettling; oblique references to executions, hospitals, being in heaven with invisible scars and never seeing the trees of England again, and a final track titled I Can't Give Everything Away. In the handful of days and weeks various people had to hear it before the truth came out, there was much speculation; was it a response to atrocities in the Middle East? Did it signify the dawn of a new late period of intense creativity on Bowie's part? If anybody had put the pieces together, they kept their mouth shut.
After the news got out, Bowie's long-time producer Tony Visconti, who had spent the past year working secretly on the album, revealed that it had been intended all along as a parting gift; Bowie, diagnosed with cancer and knowing that his time was limited, had recruited him and a few musicians and worked on it for a year. He had played fair, creating something that would be seen for what it is only in retrospect. David Bowie's final artistic work was the presentation of his death and transition to history. Even the title is a clue: in astrophysics, a black star may be a transitional phase between a collapsing star and a singularity; and the artwork, being the only album to lack Bowie's image on its cover; perhaps alluding to his imminent absence from the world. (I wonder whether the designer, Jonathan Barnbrook, knew the full story behind his brief.)
I was a little too young for David Bowie's music have been directly part of my formative experiences (my adolescence coinciding with the forgettable Tin Machine, rather than his liberatingly transgressive Ziggy Stardust/Aladdin Sane era, the monochromatic artistic explorations of his Berlin period, or even his early-1980s pop breakthrough), but Bowie was in the background, directly and indirectly. His big hit Let's Dance, angular and night-coloured, is a fixed memory, overheard in fragments hundreds of times in my childhood—in my fragmentary child's-eye perceptions, its staccato horns and woodblocks merge with punk plumage and rudeboy checks into a tapestry of edgy, transgressive early-1980s youth counterculture, vaguely forbidden with admonitions about drugs and criminality—and immediately taking me back (a honour it shares with Roxy Music's More Than This); other songs, from Rebel Rebel to Ashes To Ashes, also were familiar before I ever knew whom they were by. I would pick up the thread many years later, with the 1969-1974 singles compilation. I went to parties where his 1970s albums played in the background, put on by people who were older than me or who had inherited older siblings' record collections. (The influence of David Bowie was a constant in Melbourne from the late 1970s onward; see also: Dogs In Space.) The music I would end up listening to myself (and the first record I ever bought was a New Order 7") was influenced by him, (even though it generally emerged on the other side of that notional Year Zero known as punk; in reality, there is no such thing as Year Zero). With Bowie gone, the memories his music brings up suddenly feel a lot more distant, as if a thread holding them closer had snapped.
My feelings at the moment are a roughly equal mixture of shock (and reflection on the passing of time and the inevitable end of everything) and admiration for a person who died as he lived, using his own imminent death as art material. This week, I will stop by at Rough Trade and pick up a copy of Blackstar. For one, they are donating the proceeds from their sales of David Bowie records to Cancer Research this month.
Today, I cancelled my iTunes Match subscription.
I subscribed to iTunes Match as soon as it became available in the UK, because the idea of being able to upload my music collection into The Cloud™ and access it without physically shlepping it around seemed very useful. Over the next few weeks, I embarked on the project of uploading the contents of my music collection (which, in its unabridged form, resides on a small Linux machine running mpd); manually copying it to a MacBook, dragging it into iTunes and waiting for it to sync up with the servers and verify or upload my music. Slowly but surely, a virtual copy of my music collection took shape in the cloud, accessible remotely wherever I have my iPhone and an internet connection. And then, towards the end, I hit the 25,000-song ceiling, and no more songs would go on.
iTunes Match, you see, has a limit of 25,000 songs per user, not counting purchases from iTunes. This is a hard limit; there are no premium tiers which will bump this up to something more generous for those outliers on the right-hand side of the music-collection bell curve, not at any price. Well, you could always repurchase part or all of your collection from the iTunes Store, freeing up slots for out-of-print rarities and CD-Rs bought at gigs and such, but that kinda sucks. It is not clear why Apple did not offer any sort of reasonable option for prolific music collectors; perhaps the various music rightsholders, long used to the role of the dog in the manger, decided that those people could pay extra and demanded extortionate prices, or just flat out refused to allow it, because they could. Perhaps Apple thought that having different usage tiers broke up the elegance of their iTunes offering, that 25,000 songs was more than enough for the typical user (whose music collection consists of about two dozen albums, among them Coldplay, Skrillex, a few albums of classic 90s alt-rock and the obligatory stylishly understated European indie wallpaper music), and that the tiny minority of power users who need more aren't really the kinds of clients they are interested in. Perhaps this is simply a cynical ploy by Apple and/or the RIAA to arm-twist the punters into repurchasing their record collections in another format (namely a digital file much like the one they already have, but with the option of accessing it on iTunes Match for free). But in any case, the upshot is that one is stuck with the 25,000-song hard limit.
For a while, I made do with the limit. My plans were downgraded from “get everything into iTunes Match” to “get most of it into iTunes Match”. I scanned my iTunes collection, performing triage, coldly relegating albums into a second tier: non-essential; not to be uploaded. The non-essential albums were deleted from my MacBook (there is no way to mark part of your iTunes collection as “yes, I might want to listen to this, but please don't waste any of my 25,000 iTunes Match slots on it”); should I wish to listen to them, I would have to do so at home, on the small Linux box in my living room. Initially, only a handful of albums got relegated, with the rest squeezing in at somewhere over 24,000 tracks. And all was, if not perfect, then acceptable for the time being.
Time went on and, as I bought CDs (some at gigs, some in record shops I visited, and some just because they had artwork and packaging the digital copy was not privy to), every now and then I'd run out of space in iTunes Match, and would do another sweep of my collection, finding more records to consign to the outer darkness. As the low-hanging fruit disappeared, subsequent sweeps became more difficult, until, at some time last year, I resigned myself to not having any new music in my iTunes Match collection, unless it had proved itself so good as to be worth killing something else for; Album Deathmatch.
And so, when the email from Apple came in, notifying me that the renewal date for iTunes Match had come around and I would be billed £21.99 for another year of a flawed service, the choice was clear. Enough was enough, and so I cancelled the renewal. As of now, Apple's systems will have undoubtedly deleted the obscure Australian indiepop tracks that iTunes uploaded some two years earlier.
I would have kept iTunes Match, had it had one of two changes: ideally, the option of a higher limit. Or, if the limit is, for some reason, not negotiable, the option of keeping tracks in one's iTunes whilst keeping (or taking) them out of iTunes Match. The “I like this, but not enough to want to get to it from my iPhone” option, if you will; a no-brainer when dealing with a scarce resource one has paid for.
So what comes next? Well, all the rival services, such as Amazon's and Google's ones, seem to also fall short with large numbers of tracks. I suspect that my next music locker will be a USB flash drive I carry with me; there are 256Gb flash drives on the market now, and while they're expensive, their price will inevitably drop. It's not implausible that, by the end of the year, they will cost less than £21.99.
I am back in Reykjavík, Iceland; this time, I came here on occasion of Kraftwerk playing a gig at the Harpa concert hall. Having missed out on tickets to see them in New York (when they played tantalisingly close to the Chickfactor 20th anniversary gigs) and London and also having enjoyed visiting Iceland before, when the Reykjavík gig was announced, I jumped at the opportunity.
Harpa is the new concert hall built recently in Reykjavík; it was part of a grand project started at the height of Iceland's finance bubble; when the economic crisis hit, construction was suspended, but then the government decided to finance the concert hall, which ended up opening in 2011. It is a spectacular-looking building, and a great place to see concerts in.
On the way into the hall, we were handed a pair of 3D glasses each; these were not the red/blue ones, but some other type, with sheets of slightly tinted transparent plastic (possibly polarising filters?). Soon, a vocoded/synthesised voice announced “Damen und Herren, Ladies and Gentlemen...”, and the curtain fell slowly to the ground revealing the four members (Ralf and the three “new” guys, who've only been in the band for some 20 years), in grid-patterned body suits, standing in position behind black consoles whose edges were lit like vector graphics; behind them, a screen showed video projections. They started the first song: “The Robots”; the consoles' vector edges glowed red, and the screen was filled with Kraftwerk's computer-rendered doppelgängers, moving robotically, their extending arms projecting out of the screen. Then they went into “Metropolis”, with the consoles highlighted in white, and the screen filled with a geometric, monochromatic metropolis, a city of high buildings through which the camera glided, like a Bauhaus/Le Corbusier ideal of modernity.The rest of the set followed, with the visuals working spectacularly well; undulating three-dimensional sheets of green pixelised digits (Numbers), the vaguely Russian Constructivist-inspired 3D forms in The Man-Machine, Volkswagens and 1970s-vintage Mercedes motoring through green landscapes in a somewhat abbreviated Autobahn (the video of which seemed to be set in the era when it was written; other than the cars on the roads, these days, a road trip through Germany without seeing a single wind turbine would be unlikely), text and graphics floating above Tour de France footage, 3D-rendered musical notes gliding from the screen into the faces of the audience and more. Several songs (like The Model/Das Modell, Neon Lights/Neonlicht and Die Mensch-Maschine) were performed with both English and German verses. Some of the songs were updated for today; Radioactivity mentioned Fukushima, and the Spacelab video zoomed in on Iceland, to applause from the audience, before ending with a flying saucer landing somewhere near Düsseldorf. Computer World had a particular resonance in the wake of recent events, but has not, to date, been rewritten to mention the NSA.
It was the first time I had seen Kraftwerk since their Melbourne show in 2003 (which didn't have 3D graphics, though otherwise was spectacular), and was well worth the trip. say what you will, Kraftwerk know how to create a spectacle, a multi-sensory celebration of a (slightly obsolescent) modernity. (There are some photos here, though of course the 3D effects just show up as noise in them.)
This weekend, I went to Indietracks, which, as previous years, was ace. Highlights were:
- Bis, who headlined on the first night, playing an energetic set (even with Manda being in the late stages of pregnancy). I saw them the night before at the Lexington, but preferred the Indietracks set, as the crowd at the Lexington had a macho, aggressive vibe (a big chunk of the front of the audience seemed to be muscle-shirted Rollins-wannabe meatheads looking for some action), which the twee pop kids, bless them, didn't have.
- The Secret History, the New York cult heroes (mostly) formerly known as My Favorite, playing on the main stage; they did two My Favorite songs (Absolute Beginners Again and The Suburbs Are Killing Us), which was great, along with songs from their current incarnation's two albums.
- Haiku Salut, doing a set in the intimate setting of the church, accompanied by an assortment of MIDI-controlled lamps, which waxed, waned and blinked in synchronisation with the music. The effect was quite spectacular.
- Flowers, a promising young band, playing on the main stage on Sunday. They're well worth seeing; I'm looking forward to their album.
- Factory/Sarah veterans The Wake were amazing. Probably the oldest band there (I imagine they could claim a modicum of seniority over The Pastels), who made a return last year after a 17-year hiatus; their 2012 album was in my list of favourites of that year. They played some songs from this album, but mostly older material from their Factory years (which, if you liked Joy Division and the first New Order album, you'll probably like as well); and it sounded every bit as stark as on the record only far more vivid. Meanwhile, the bassist kept stealing the show with his moves; one cool cat.
- Still Corners closed the festival as the sun went down over the stage.
- Sets on the trains: London ukulele-pop combo Owl And Mouse did a great set on Saturday. On Sunday, Harvey Williams of Another Sunny Day played on the train, though there were a lot of people who didn't manage to squeeze into the parcel van it was in. Harvey did manage to do a second set in the workshop tent later.
There's a strangely cheery energy to the album as well. This is something that would be a hallmark of the intertwined dance that New Order and The Cure would perform over the next couple of years. This was to the extent that it sometimes seemed the distinguishing factor of a song wouldn't emerge fully until it was clear if the singer was Bernard Sumner or Robert Smith. However The Cure always possessed the sense of a singular voice going through eternal moods of structure and collapse in equal measure, wooziness and queasy pirouetting. Whereas by this point the rigorous structure of what was New Order remained crucial, especially that sense of being something not too far removed from Can, Kraftwerk and other Teutonic proponents of total focus. And now this sound was more openly underscored by the electronic disco rigour that continued to flourish worldwide.
Sumner (or his narrative voice) opened the album confessing that he doesn't necessarily want to have to say what his desires are. This is an apt statement from the singer for a band who hadn't even wanted the job. But then he has to spend an entire album - for the first time ever - teasing a lot of things out song for song, however guardedly, however flippantly, however metaphorically. So why not write a song revolving around an image of lonely souls on deserted islands, except avoiding the kind of approach that the Police had dealt with a few years previously on 'Message In A Bottle' say. So Sumner, who heard so much desire for connection from Ian Curtis, came up with a much better lyric than Sting ever could. And he did it in a less mannered fashion, in a way that actually didn't want to resolve into easy romantic sentiment, on 'Leave Me Alone'.Power, Corruption and Lies is an album I have listened to a lot, mostly in the 1990s; first to a dodgy Indonesian cassette copy, adorned with a cut-out photograph of the album cover and padded out with tracks from other albums, which I picked up at a flea market, and then to the official Australian CD release, padded out with Blue Monday/The Beach. I lived in the outer suburbs of Melbourne then and thus spent a lot of time driving, and a cassette of Power, Corruption and Lies would often spend time in the car stereo. I haven't listened to it as much over the past decade or so (taking it out occasionally, but that's it), but I still know the lie of the album like the back of my hand. (Though, the Power, Corruption and Lies I was familiar with segued from 5-8-6 into the 12" mix of Blue Monday, before easing back into the more languid, resigned Your Silent Face, a flow which, despite its historical and authorial inauthenticity, made perfect sense to me.) Anyway, Power, Corruption and Lies remains my favourite New Order album (though in my opinion, they drop off a bit after Low-Life, a close follower), and Leave Me Alone is probably my favourite of their songs.
This past weekend, I went to the London edition of the Chickfactor indiepop zine's 20th anniversary gigs. The zine was founded in 1992 by two American girls, Pam Berry and Gail O'Hara, and whilst its printed output has tapered off somewhat (though issue #17, now funded through Kickstarter, is coming out soon), has continued as a website. Consequently, they've been organising commemorative gigs throughout this year. Earlier this year, I had flown to New York to attend the Brooklyn gigs they organised, largely because it was quite possibly my only chance to ever see The Softies play live (and it was worth it and then some, but that's another post). Anyway, Chickfactor had for a long time had a connection to London; having been founded by American indiepop kids, a subculture with an inherent Anglophilic streak (often coloured by a stylised, mildly anachronistic swinging-60s aesthetic; witness the summer dresses and severe Mary Quant bobs favoured by girls in the scene). One of the founders, Pam Berry (also of Black Tambourine) married an Englishman and ended up in London, while the other, Gail O'Hara, spent some time living in London in the early 2000s, and had a weekend festival, Mon Gala Papillons, at Bush Hall in 2004 (one of whose nights I ended up attending). So a London festival was only a matter of time.
I didn't go to the film screening (of Take Three Girls, the documentary about post-punk girl band Dolly Mixture, which I had seen before) on Friday, largely because I had already bought a ticket to the Rodriguez gig at the Roundhouse (which was great, incidentally). I went to the Saturday evening gig (back at Bush Hall, around the corner from where I used to live, but inconveniently far from everywhere else), and to the Sunday afternoon/evening gig, which was held at that haunt of London indiekids of a certain age, the Lexington.
Saturday's gig started off with Amor de Días, Lupe from Pipas' new project with her partner, Alasdair from The Clientele. It was as one might imagine; more languid and dreamy than the indiepop of Pipas, and redolent of the psychedelic folk of the Sixeventies in its languor. They were followed by the Would-Be-Goods, a band started by the teenaged Jessica Griffin in 1987, launched with a mildly saucy song about modelling for the photographer Cecil Beaton, which they followed with some highly literate pop songs. The Would-Be-Goods have kept to the jangly indiepop formula for the most part, though have matured somewhat in their themes; whilst some songs are set in the language of youthful friendships and crushes that is the idiom of indiepop (Temporary Best Friend, for example), others anticipate old age and its miseries (Too Old, for example, a song which sits next to Platinum by their fellow él Records alumnus Momus in the canon of starkly, heartrendingly beautiful meditations on the passing of time and all of its crimes). Shortly after the Would-Be-Goods' set finished, the room started to pack out in anticipation of The Aislers Set. They did not disappoint; they tore the roof off the place, much as they had done in Brooklyn. The evening was rounded off nicely with The Pastels, who played a mostly mellow set.
Sunday started with The Starfolk, a husband and wife duo from the US, who played a guitar-driven pop. They were followed by Harvey Williams and Josh Gennet (who had been in a band named Holiday in the US), who played a selection of songs (mostly Harvey's, with some of Josh's and some covers of female singer-songwriters; their version of Broadcast's “Colour Me In” was lovely). Harvey hadn't been busy at work on new material, though had one recent song (“Quiet Domesticity”, a paean to staying at home) and had updated The Girl From The East Tower with a verse about the aforementioned girl losing her job (which turned out to have been at the BBC, where Harvey also works) due to not willing to relocate to Salford. The Real Tuesday Weld played a set a bit later, and had morphed into a more swing style in the years between their initial dealings with Chickfactor and now. They were followed by Pipas; it was great to see them. They had a new song, The Occasion, which they débuted at the Chickfactor 2012 US dates, though it has evolved slightly since. The night was rounded off with Tender Trap, Amelia Fletcher's band, who rocked harder than I expected; stand-up drums, skronky guitars and female vocal harmonies, backing vocals themed with the old youthful themes of boyfriends and girlfriends and such; Amelia seems to do such pop better than the more grown-up themes and mellow sounds of her previous Tender Trap albums.
One thing that was inescapable at the Chickfactor gig was a sense of the passage of time. It was the 20th anniversary of a zine from the golden age of zines (after desktop publishing made them cheap and quick, but before the internet made them redundant as a means of communication) and arguably of a certain type of indiepop, and many of those who were involved back in the day are approaching or well into middle age, often with children. (The drink coasters printed for the US dates read “doing it in spite of the kids”.) It was interesting to see how the indie kids of yesteryear squared their love of and identification with an intrinsically youthful genre with their age and adult roles in life. Harvey Williams wrote a song, with the dry wit familiar to those who remember Another Sunny Day and his solo album on Shinkansen, about the mild joys of not going out (a contrarian stance which parallels the anti-machismo of his youthful work, along with that of his Sarah Records peers). Jessica Griffin, who (whilst presumably still in her 30s) wrote a sad song about the ravages of aging, doesn't expect to be still doing this sort of thing in ten years' time, while Amelia Fletcher has taken the opposite route, embracing the formalism of indiepop as ballads of youth in the vinyl record age (her band's previous album was titled Dansette Dansette, after a 1960s-vintage record player), can see herself singing songs about boyfriends and girlfriends (and, presumably, the ideal boyfriend's record collection) when she's 80.
Anyway, photos are being posted to the usual place. I managed to get some video with my iPhone, which has been collected here. Check back here in some 10 years' time for reportage from the Chickfactor 30th.
Around Leicester Square and Chinatown, one sometimes sees a hoody with a traffic cone:
The figure, sitting there in the middle of pedestrian traffic, burbling into a traffic cone, seemingly oblivious to the comings and goings of tourists and Londoners, seems like some non-specific element of as-yet undifferentiated satire or social criticism, some amalgam of Hogarth and Banksy, Chris Morris and Thom Yorke. But what does he represent? Is he the feral Other, attired in the uniform of Britain's demonised youth, brazenly possessing a traffic cone he is unlikely to have acquired legitimately, and embodying threat? The drug-zombie, mouth clamped onto a pipe, oblivious to the morés of respectable society? Or the embattled Everyman, reacting to unreasonable circumstances in the only reasonable way, by curling up into a ball and gibbering? Is he a satire on the malaise of Broken Britain, or the mindset of the sorts of people who use the phrase "Broken Britain" in the mistaken belief that it was ever not, or both?
I am currently visiting Sweden for a few days; consequently, I now have a Swedish mobile phone number.
I have no plans to actually move to Sweden, and no current plans to return (though it's not unlikely that I will at some point), and so the +46 number I have will most probably sit idle, the SIM card in a drawer next to the German card I bought in Berlin last year (unlike that one, though, this card can be topped without having a local bank account in the country in question, making it more likely that I'll reuse it). But at the moment, the SIM card is in my iPhone, providing me with access to maps and similar services on demand, and my British SIM card is in my second phone (a Palm Treo 650, a piece of mid-oughts executive power-tech that looks ridiculously clunky these days and probably will be considered retro one of these decades).
The reason I went to the somewhat absurd extent of investing 99 Kr (almost exactly £9.90) in a foreign telephone number I will use for a few days is because of the unusable state of data roaming in 2011. While, in the EU at least, roaming charges on phone calls and text messages have come down, data still remains prohibitively expensive, with the foolhardy user who enables data roaming on their smartphone likely to drain their prepaid credit in minutes or, if on contract, be on the hook for thousands of pounds.
Things have improved slightly, though not enough to make using a smartphone abroad with one's own SIM card remotely economical, except for the super-rich and those with the deepest of expense accounts. For example, Vodafone (my UK carrier) now offers either 5Mb or 25Mb (depending on the country) of data abroad for £2 a day, with subsequent use being charged at £1 per megabyte. I tried using this when in Paris a few days ago, and found, to my chagrin, that the quota evaporated within ten minutes of idle time. Presumably Vodafone's offer is intended for users of something other than modern smartphones. Not quite sure what: perhaps those social-network featurephones marketed to teenagers with limited allowances?
I suspect that this has less to do with smartphones sucking up vast quantities of data and more to do with the way roaming data being metered being incompatible with the way smartphones use data. I imagine that what is happening is that, for billing purposes, one megabyte is one megabyte or part thereof, and the clock stops whenever the phone stops sending or receiving data for a period of time and/or when the phone connects to a different server. Which was probably fair enough a few years ago, when the much simpler phones did one thing at a time, and internet access on phones was an afterthought, a special mode added on after the fact. Today's smartphones, however, are entirely different beasts, being effectively UNIX-based computers designed to be permanently connected to the internet, and constantly sending and receiving small quantities of data, from notifications to location hints. Because this data is sent as internet packets, a premium-priced service on top of the mobile phone network, the partial megabytes soon stack up, and so does the bill.
With smartphones, we're living in The Future, but only in our home countries. There, we can pull down maps, check email, upload photos to the web, and even, particularly ironically, get spoken text translated into other languages. Elsewhere, we're still in the mid-2000s, forced to rely on pre-cached data and scrounge for open wireless access points (themselves an increasing scarcity, due to the three apocalyptic horsemen of terrorism, paedophilia and copyright infringement). Of course, one can, for a tenner, buy a new SIM card, and then freely use the same networks one would otherwise be paying through the nose for, at the cost of losing access to one's phone number for the duration. Which, all in all, is an absurd situation, and The Future won't officially arrive until this is resolved.
And now, interrupting regular (or even irregular) blogging to introduce a side-project I have recently been working on: The Postmodernism Generator for iPhone. This is an iPhone port of the venerable Postmodernism Generator, which has been around the web, in various forms, for a decade and a half. The iPhone edition runs on the same engine, albeit slightly extended and cleaned up (aside: stopping a 15-year-old command-line C program from leaking memory enough to run acceptably on a phone involves considerable work), with some improvements (you can adjust the target length of essays and, optionally, use surnames from your address book in authors' names). Additionally, the grammar has been updated somewhat, with new content (for example, it now knows about Lady Gaga, Slavoj Žižek and Quentin Tarantino films made after Jackie Brown); these changes will be ported to the web-based version shortly.
The Postmodernism Generator for iPhone is available from the App Store, here. It's priced at the lowest price point (US$0.99/£0.59/0,79€/AUD1.29), which gets you a virtually infinite cornucopia of dense verbiage at your command, with or without a network connection, for amusement, befuddlement or plagiarism*.
Note: The Null Device does not encourage the use of the Postmodernism Generator for plagiarism.
This afternoon, courier arrived bearing a small box from "Syncreon Technology", which, according to the postcode, appeared to be located in an industrial estate in Hinckley, Leicestershire; it was labelled with "No Delivery To Neighbour" and the contents were described as "Electronic Parts". On opening the box, I wasn't particularly surprised to find that it contained a new iPhone 4. It seems that Apple went to the trouble of setting up a front company, with an office somewhere nondescript, in order to avoid units from the first batch being stolen.
You've probably seen the reviews of the iPhone 4. All things considered, it is a beautiful piece of hardware. The screen, with its tiny pixels and rich contrast and colour depth, looks like backlit slide film or luminous magazine print, and the build quality of the unit feels solid in a way that few mobile phones do. Meanwhile, iOS 4 is very responsive on it. There may or may not be an issue with antenna sensitivity and reception (some users have reported their iPhones losing bars of signal when they touch the steel frame, which doubles as the antenna, and its signal reception fared worse than that of a 3G data card, the only thing I could compare it to on the Three network), though it seems to get acceptable signal so far. Meanwhile, the (rear) camera seems to be a great improvement over the previous one.
I have transferred my data from my old iPhone 3G (one I bought on eBay earlier this year as a stopgap device) to the new phone and played with it a little, though, so far, I'm pleased with it. It'll probably become even more impressive as apps start appearing that take full advantage of its capabilities.
Half a decade ago, I lived in North Fitzroy. On weekends, I would spend my afternoons sitting in a local café, the Tin Pot, with my laptop. The Tin Pot was a groovy sort of place, taking up two Victorian shop units; its walls were plastered with gig flyers, the staff were young and hip, and the music (which, more often than not, the staff brought in) was an edgy and eclectic mix of what was cool, ranging from PJ Harvey to Prince to local indie and hip-hop. The Tin Pot soon became my Moon Under Water of cafés, the ur-café to define the experience of the café as an agreeable place to spend time, an ideal for one part of living.
This afternoon, being in Melbourne, I made my way back to North Fitzroy, laptop in my backpack, with a view of spending an hour or so in the old haunt. I had heard various rumours of it having been gentrified somewhat, but was still shocked at what I found.
It's still there, and still named the Tin Pot, but is a different place. Gone are the flyers, the 1950s laminate tables, the funky décor and cool music. The walls are now whitewashed, unsullied by the evidence of urban life, the rooms filled with wooden dining tables that underscore that this is a place for respectable grownups with busy lives to eat, not a place to hang out. The stereo plays, at a respectably sedate volume, a music which could be best described as "contemporary easy listening"; a combination of the most unthreateningly obvious end of 1960s soul, of the sort one might find on a K-Tel compilation, and imitations thereof (I counted two Bee Gees songs); it had a mildly anaesthetic quality to it, chosen to soothe and reassure, never stimulate. The staff are attired in uniform black, and what clientele there was was north of the mid-30s, with nobody anyone could accuse of being a "hipster" or "coolsie". It looked like a genteel tea room near Hampstead Heath, or perhaps in one of the faux-English parts of the Dandenongs.
In retrospect, the signs were there in February, when I last visited; while the tables and flyers were still there, the fruit-shaped lights were gone from the window, the music was a bit more generic, and the clientele were a bit older, often with babies in tow. I wasn't expecting such a complete metamorphosis, though.
Farewell, Tin Pot; it was nice knowing you.
An artist has placed 30 street pianos in the City of London. The pianos are padlocked to prevent antisocial people from vandalising them and bear the legend "Play Me, I'm Yours".
Your Humble Correspondent saw one such piano this afternoon at Liverpool Street station, adjacent to the exit to the station plaza. I walked up to it, and, before I could approach it, was approached by a beggar, who presumably had found a lucrative pitch around the piano. I, of course, did what any decent person would have done and gave the poor wretch a crisp ten-pound note.* After he was off, I approached the piano, wondering whether it actually worked.
Before I could touch the keyboard, I heard another voice. Another man, with bad skin and beady eyes, had walked up to me, and was pointing to a discarded Tesco bag on the ground near the piano.
"Is this your bag?"
I assured him that it wasn't, and returned my attentions to the piano. I managed to find that the lowermost D key did actually work. My unwelcome companion, however, would not be ignored.
"It's a disgrace, that's what it is! People leaving shopping bags around."
It seems that he had a chip on his shoulder and a lot to say, and had found someone to say it to, or at least to say it at. In any case, he didn't have an audience for long; I abandoned the piano and left. The piano went unplayed; the only people who found it useful, it seems, were Trevor the Tramp and Mr. Cranky.
I suspect that ideas like street pianos, while they may well work in, say, Berlin or Copenhagen or somewhere, don't work in London; because of the culture of London and/or England, they would attract the antisocial who would render them unusable for their intended purpose; i.e., awakening the spirit of creative play in random passers-by. This comes down to the social contract of London.
To live in London for any length of time is to learn the rule that other people are at best an annoyance. There are too many of them and too little space to go around. When they're not assaulting your hearing with their tinny music-playing mobile phones, accosting you for money or subjecting you to their inanities and prejudices, they're taking up space you want to move into, or looking like they might well threaten to do one of these things. One deliberately avoids eye contact, avoids acknowledging other people as anything more than roughly human-sized obstacles, lest the barrier come down and one find oneself subjected to the outflowings of the (quite probably disagreeable) personality of the entity sitting across the Tube carriage. That is, in the event that they don't start moving away from the weirdo who's making eye contact with them. People in general are, the belief goes, not very nice. (There is a technical term used for this state of being; it starts with C.)
Of course, the flipside of believing that people are, as a rule, unpleasant is to believe that being unpleasant is the accepted behaviour, part of the social contract. The only people who are conspicuously nice are charity muggers and con artists, i.e., people who are up to something. Unpleasantry is honesty.
Why this is so is not clear. The Left might claim that it's the legacy of Thatcherism and the dog-eat-dog market society, whereas the Right may pronounce gloomily that it is part of mankind's Hobbesian nature, the eternal war of all against all which can only be quelled with suppressive force from above. Perhaps it has something to do with England being what anthropologists call a "negative politeness" society (where politeness is about leaving people alone, rather than reaching out to them, as in a "positive politeness" society), and thus the only people who deign to enter the bubbles of mutually agreed isolation people were are outsiders, those with little to lose. Well, them and chuggers, but I digress. And some (including author Stuart Maconie) claim that it is only London that is like this, that if you head far enough north, or far enough south, people become actually quite agreeable.
* Actually, I lie. I headbutted him to the ground, kicked him repeatedly in the groin and told him, firmly, to be off lest I give him a proper hiding.
Your humble correspondent spent the past three days in beautiful Brutalist Birmingham, at EuroPython. This was my second visit to a Python conference in Birmingham (the first was last year's PyCon), and was just as interesting.
There were some interesting talks there: I found Chris McCormick's talk on RjDj quite interesting, not so much because of the Pythonic bits (a description of a Django-based web app, which is the online side of the app to sidestep Apple's iron grip on software updates), but because of the description of how RjDj works (it's basically Pd, hacked to work as an embedded environment). This has inspired me to look at the Pd sources and see whether it'd be possible to strip the GUI out and make a library, into which one could load a patch and then use that as an audio engine. (It doesn't seem obviously easy, though someone has gotten Pd to work as a browser plugin (with provisos about it being too insecure for anything but a proof of concept).) If one could create a Pd instance, load a patch into it, send events into it and get buffers of samples out of it, it would make a very useful component for everything from softsynths to in-game audio, but I digress.
And then, of course, were the keynotes: none other than Cory Doctorow gave a rousing speech on
metaclass design patterns in Django how draconian copyright proposals threaten the right to code and innovate, and veteran computer scientist Sir Tony Hoare (the chap who invented Quicksort) spoke about the differences between science and engineering. They also tried, twice, to get Guido Van Rossum to address the audience via Skype, but that didn't work very well. Which may have had something to do with the flaky WiFi.
There were, of course, a few talks I missed which I would like to have seen; the one on CouchDB, for example, I heard was very good, as was the one about the Psyco Python to C compiler.
I was surprised to find, among the vendor stalls (Google sent two people over from Zürich to give T-shirts to anyone who could solve a puzzle, and Oracle were giving some sort of product away) was one from Ableton, the company which makes music software Live. It turned out that they weren't offering any new Pythonic APIs for mashing up audio (apparently Live has a built-in Python interpreter, though there isn't much one can do with it; they did say that if one bought Max/MSP for Live, one could hack it to one's heart's content); instead, they were just looking for Python developers for web-based applications, and giving away badges and cloth bags.
Your humble correspondent is now back in London, having returned this evening from Iceland.
Iceland, you will be glad to know, seems to still be there. There is still a Reykjavík, and it's still a living city (except perhaps on public holidays, when everything closes). Hallgrimskirkja still stands tall, visible from across the city, though now it's covered in scaffolding. Laugavegur is still full of groovy cafés and bars (though fashion boutiques, apparently, have been closing down), and 12 Tónar still has an excellent selection of music, much of it by new Icelandic bands. Furthermore, the café culture leaves London in the dust, as does the quality of the coffee on offer. Alcohol is still more expensive than elsewhere in Europe, which still fails to deter the locals from consuming it enthusiastically. Outside of the capital, there are still spectacular fjords, glaciers, waterfalls and desolate landscapes.
Politically and economically, Iceland is undoubtedly in trouble, though not without hope. It looks like the conservatives, who have governed forever, will be ousted at the next election, with a Social Democratic/Leftist Green coalition likely to govern. Scandinavia is being cited as a model for governance. And while the prospect of Iceland joining the EU has been cited, it remains unpopular with the population, and looks likely to go to a referendum if it comes up. Meanwhile, the Icelandic people are developing a taste for protest and for rocking the boat in an uncharacteristic way. During a visit, I saw an empty building which had been taken over by squatters, who intended to set up a community centre. On Tuesday evening, the building was surrounded by activists, anxiously awaiting a police raid. (Squatting is uncommon in Iceland, and there is no concept of squatters' rights there.) Anyway, only time will tell what will happen.
Anyway, I have posted photos from my visit to Flickr; they can be found here.
As of today, I am no longer in the prime advertising demographic. In theory, nobody's ever going to try to sell me an iPod or a backpacking trip to Thailand again; from now on, it's only foot lotions, lawn-care products and insurance.
Tonight, I went to the Forum to a gig in tribute of someone named Nick Sanderson (the frontman of a band named Earl Brutus, apparently, whom I only know from the Gary Numan tribute compilation they appeared on around 1997). Playing were The Jesus and Mary Chain (headlining), British Sea Power and Black Box Recorder.
Black Box Recorder started just after I came in, and were great. They played almost entirely songs from their first album and B-sides thereof, which was good as those were the good ones IMHO. They did England Made Me, Child Psychology, Girl Singing In The Wreckage and a somewhat more dubby take on IC One Female. And Sarah Nixey's vocals were as archly breathy as ever.
When I heard British Sea Power a few years ago, I came away underwhelmed; tonight's gig has reaffirmed that assessment. Their music strikes me as rather dull; competent though uninspiring stadium-filling wall-of-noise workouts in the U2/Coldplay mould, with a bit of Magic Joy Division Dust sprinkled over them to give them some edge.
The Mary Chain, though, were great; they sounded just like the records they made two decades ago, and got the crowd moving. They played mostly more recent tracks, though did get in a few from Darklands and Psychocandy, and they also played one new song. Could there be a new album on the way?
One thing that left me wondering: why was there a huge tinsel rendition of the British Rail logo (you know, the one with the arrows) behind the stage? Is this the RAF Bullseye of 2008 or somesuch?
One thing you can do more easily in Britain than in Australia is hop on a train to see a band in another town later that evening; partly because Britain has trains which run at more or less reasonable frequencies and partly because there are other cities with interesting music scenes within two hours' travelling time. While in Australia, everything tends to coalesce in the inner parts of capital cities, and all roads lead to inner northern Melbourne, in Britain, things are more distributed; while London is a global centre of commercial music and the media, there are thriving grass-roots music scenes in other areas, such as Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and the East Midlands. In particular, the area around Derby and Nottingham has become an epicentre of indiepop. And so it was to Derby that I caught a train last night to see the last-for-a-long-time gig by The Deirdres.
I caught the 18:45 train towards Carlisle, getting off at Tamworth station (a small two-level station, where the line from London towards Carlisle crosses the one from Birmingham to Derby), climbing the stairs to the upper platforms and catching a train to Derby, arriving at about 20:30. After checking into a B&B, I made my way to the venue, a pub/bar named Vines.
The Deirdres gig, being their last one for at least five months (and possibly forever), was themed around things that hibernate; on entry, one had to name something that hibernates, which was then drawn on one's wrist in lieu of a stamp. The Deirdres themselves were in fancy dress as hibernating animals; there was a caterpillar/butterfly, a turtle, a bear and a hedgehog among others. (One member, Keir, was not in costume; his costume was meant to be a computer, but apparently broke; he said it was because it was a Windows PC and not a Mac.)
Anyway, they put on a great show, playing with their usual exuberantly playful enthusiasm. (A Deirdres show feels a little like an I'm From Barcelona show, only smaller and without the confetti.) Much like the other shows of theirs I've seen, it looked chaotic and ramshackle on the surface, but was held together with impressively tight and well-rehearsed musicianship, not to mention some quality songs. IMHO, The Deirdres are perhaps the most exciting indiepop band in the UK today.
Before their set, they also screened, for the first time, the new video they and some friends made for their song Milk Is Politics. The video's theme has little to do with the song title or its lyrics, instead being a somewhat twee, slightly silly adventure concerning eggs. It's pretty much what you'd expect a Deirdres video to look like, and is rather ace. Anyway, it has now been uploaded to YouTube, and you can see it here:
Google adds Australia to Street View, meaning that large segments of road in Australian urban areas have been given the once-over by Google's camera trucks, producing panoramic images. The images are quite close together, meaning that you can take a virtual tour of various streetscapes.
The coverage seems quite comprehensive; Google's vans managed to trundle down most of the streets in the inner cities, some of those in the outer suburbs, and vast stretches of highway along the outback. Not only can you see inner Sydney and Melbourne, but unimaginable expanses of suburban cul-de-sacs (I imagine there are quite a few Britons who'd be excited by the fact that Pin Oak Ct., Vermont South, has been photographed), and sweeping expanses of outback and desert (they got most of the highway across the Nullarbor, for one). Everywhere from the CBDs and funky lattelands of the inner cities, to towns with one pub, two churches (Catholic and Anglican) and a war memorial, from golden beaches to the unforgivingly majestic landscapes far from anywhere where the idea of the "tyranny of distance", so key to understanding why Australia became what it is, is viewable and scrollable, in increments of ten or so metres. Most of these views will, in all statistical probability, never be looked at by a human being (other than Google's editorial staff).
Personally, the first places I visited when I found out about this were my former homes and old stomping grounds in Melbourne. It was reassuring to see that everything's still there (the flats I was living in in North Fitzroy still look as they did, the Tin Pot and Piedimonte's are still there, Brunswick Street's still unchanged, and even the Lord Newry Hotel looks like it might still serve as a pub, rather than upmarket apartments). A flat I lived in in Carnegie, and a childhood home near Caulfield Racecourse, were also faithfully recorded. The outer suburbs of Melbourne, however, fared somewhat more patchily; the two houses in the outer eastern wilderness where I spent my adolescence had both been passed over by the Google recording angel. Though the major roads were all there, as were the scenic routes leading out of the city.
Australia has stolen a march on much of the rest of the world with Street View. While the technology was, infamously, pioneered in the US (with the usual outcry about the privacy of scantily-clad sunbathers, porno-theatre patrons and housecats in windows being violated), coverage in Europe is presently limited to a few swathes cut through France. (Though, to their credit, the Street View mannequin rendered on French maps does appear to be wearing a beret.) Apparently Britain is on the way, though, as Google's vans have been seen on these shores.
This evening, I caught the train up to Luton to pick up my sister and see her safely to London. My sister has been travelling around Europe for the past month or so, and flies back to Australia tomorrow, after flying in from the Croatian Riviera this evening. Her flight was meant to arrive at 22:25, though arrived a bit early. I caught the 21:35 train up, thinking I'd meet her when she gets out of immigration.
At about a quarter to ten, the train stopped in a tunnel just south of West Hampstead. A minute or two later, we were informed that the train driver has been asked to stay there because of "an incident" on the tracks ahead.
About 10 minutes later, we were told the nature of the incident. Apparently, somebody had climbed the signal gantry on the line, right near the high-voltage overhead power lines.
The train managed to get clearance to go into West Hampstead to wait there, where the driver announced that emergency services had been dispatched. About half an hour later, we managed to make it to Hendon. We waited yet longer there, to be informed that the lunatic was in the signal gantry and refusing to come down. Well, they didn't use the word "lunatic", as it'd be politically incorrect/insensitive, though in my opinion, as soon as someone climbs up onto an overhead power line above a railway and refuses to come down, the odds of "lunatic" being an inaccurate characterisation of them diminish sharply. If they do so in front of the train I'm on, I can think of several other words—much less kind ones—for them as well.
Eventually, we were given the all clear to go ahead. The nutter had apparently left the signal gantry, though was still on the loose somewhere, undoubtedly with a wild gleam in his eye. Presumably the men in white coats were searching the area, tranquilliser darts at the ready. In any case, the train limped through the affected area slowly, before finally building up speed, and making it to Luton exactly an hour late.
Yesterday, Your Humble Correspondent went to the south bank of the Thames and took part in an unreliable tour of
London Tokyo, given by the performance artist/writer/musician Momus and his partner Hisae.
I only saw part of it, joining the tour in the afternoon. Momus and Hisae were attired in what looked like Japanese or Korean uniforms (which, Momus stressed, were not trendy-minimalist Muji products) and carrying 1950s-vintage megaphones through which they talked to a small crowd which had assembled around them, describing to them which part of Tokyo they are in. Well, Momus did most of the talking, with Hisae adding a native Japanese perspective; some of the time (particularly towards the end, when things got a bit more absurd), their act seemed like a traditional comic/straight-man music-hall duo.
The actual content was fairly interesting; we were informed that the National Theatre was actually a trendy shopping centre whose top floor was an art gallery/museum, where yesterday's unsold fashions ended up, and that the mayor of Tokyo makes his way up the river by speedboat at 6pm every day. Other than that, Momus expounded on his theories on Japanese culture and its similarities/differences with British and European cultures (European individualism vs. Asian collectivism/"superlegitimacy", the British stiff upper lip and the Japanese bushidō (which is apparently making a resurgence), the falsehood of the assumption that modernism is Westernism, and the rising Gini index in Japan and declining originality of Japanese street fashion (apparently it's all Uniqlo and The Gap in Tokyo nowadays)).
Last night, I had occasion to watch a Japanese film titled "After Life".
The film (whose Japanese title was the kana transliteration of "Wonderful Life") is set in a sort of limbo, where the recently deceased are given a week to choose one memory from their lives which they wish to keep; the memory is then reconstructed by a team of counsellors and technicians (who themselves once lived and died) as a short film and shown to the deceased, who will then remain in that moment, and that moment alone, for all eternity. The film took place over one week, with one cohort of the recently deceased (among them, a middle-aged woman reliving an exciting affair, an elderly man wishing he had made some mark on the world and a young hipster who refuses to choose a memory on purpose). The film itself has the feel of a documentary; it starts somewhat drily, though gradually, the characters' past lives and all too vivid memories and regrets are revealed.
I found this film poignant and beautiful; the feel of it reminded me a little of another (though somewhat different) favourite film of mine, the Icelandic film Angels of the Universe.
Last night, Your Humble Correspondent made his way out to deepest darkest Richmond to see Momus' performance at the Richmond Lending Library. (This was the second ever performance in a public library I had seen; the previous one was also by Momus, only somewhere around Balham or Tooting, in the southernmost reaches of the Northern Line.)
This performance, which I only found out about yesterday, was ostensibly about the restless spirits trapped inside books. Momus (attired all in black, including a hood) played the role of a spirit medium specialising in spirit media, as it were, or more precisely in the spirits of dead people trapped in books.
He invited attendees (of whom there were perhaps 10, presumably because those attending only had a day's notice of the event) to choose books at random and read a sentence from them, which he then would spin into a tangent, philosophical reflection or evidence of eldritch and unholy things beyond the veil between worlds. (In the first example, a cheerily banal line in colloquial English turned out to really be in "Ukrainian", and a portent of grim things indeed. Later, a book of knitting patterns revealed the battle between Jesus Christ and the tamagotchi—perhaps an echo of Momus' writings about the dualism between the Judaeochristian sex-death-guilt culture and the Shinto fertility religion, though he didn't labour that point.)
In between the entertainment, he performed a few songs, including Beowulf (which he did from under a blanket) and Robin Hood (with a dig at
Thatcher Blair Brown's devil-take-the-hindmost Britain), singing over an iPod playing through PC speakers, and playing the odd stylophone solo.
He also played one of the songs from the new album he's working on with one of the chaps from Gay Against You; it was built up from a Magazine sample (and thus, he said, possessed by Howard Devoto's restless spirit), and sounded quite good, in a glitchy breakcore sort of way; not too unlike Kid606 or Talkshow Boy.
Anyway, Momus' own account of the gig, with more details, is here.
Momus will be back in London in late June, when he will be wandering the south bank of the Thames and telling tourists that they're in Tokyo or something like that. Which should be worth going along to.
This blog has been quiet recently, as your humble correspondent spent the past few days off the grid, attending the ATP vs. Pitchfork festival at Camber Sands (site of the famous Bowlie Weekender).
The festival was great. Being set in a holiday camp (where, presumably, working-class families went to spend their holidays in the days after the 1950s consumer boom but before cheap flights), camping in mud and queueing to relieve oneself into a pit did not enter into the equation; instead, the attendees stayed in chalets (which, despite the name, aren't wooden cabins of Alpine design, but blocks of somewhat minimal one-bedroom flats; my one reminded me of the first flat I ever rented). While the facilities were mass-market, the music wasn't; the bands themselves were chosen by ATP and Pitchfork, hence the standards were quite reasonable, if perhaps a bit hipsterish in places. As well as bands, there were DJs in various venues, and in the chalets, the TVs carried two extra stations of cult films, documentaries and shorts, one programmed by ATP and the other by Pitchfork.
Anyway. some highlights were:
- The Clientele - As dreamy and ethereal as I remember them; music with the texture of honey-golden sunshine through gossamer. Their new songs may have more energetic drums or guitars, but that's still not enough to break away from the la-la land of Alistair's vocal languor. These guys most specifically don't rock.
- Vampire Weekend - Yes, they're a scions of America's elite taking the music of the global downtrodden and using it to sing songs about their disgustingly privileged lives in Cape Cod and at expensive colleges, and liking them invalidates one's right-on credibility, but they are quite good at what they do (which is making danceable pop grooves) and entertaining to watch/listen to, even if one is aware of the inappropriateness of the juxtaposition between medium and message.
- Fuck Buttons - Two guys in hipster attire making electronic drones with a laptop (Mac, of course) and circuit-bent toys, and then fashioning the noises into passable dance music. Not bad. One has to wonder who Buttons was/is, and how he/she/they feel about all this.
- Glass Candy - Former hardcore punks who got really into 1980s Italo-disco and brought some of the hardcore punk energy with them. The floor was a mosh pit with crowd surfing and all. As for Glass Candy (i.e., DJ Johnny Jewell and singer Ida No), they were great. Afterward it was pointed out to me that they are influenced not only by Italian disco but also by the aesthetic of Italian horror films, in particular those of Dario Argento.
- Even - Yes, the Australian indie-rock/power-pop outfit. They struck me as very Australian and very competent at what they do. The bloke looks like quite the part of the veteran Aussie rocker; a solid tradesman in that respected and established of entertainment trades. They've done the hard yards on the long way of rock'n'roll, though haven't reached the top; perhaps if they were 10 years younger, NME would pick them up and make them the next Jet, though right now, they're more like a dependable brand of a traditional product than the Next Big Thing.
- Yeasayer - They seemed epic and prog-rocky; one to look into.
- Los Campesinos! - They were ace. When introducing Knee Deep At ATP, Gareth told the audience that this was their equivalent of playing Wembley, and he's not going to say too much in case he starts crying. They played with terrific enthusiasm and were lots of fun to watch, not to mention musically really good. One of the highlights of the festival.
- Hot Chip - They got the crowd dancing, though people didn't dance as immediately as in Hay-on-Wye last year. Perhaps those Guardian readers really know how to get down? A more likely cause would have been the lack of working air conditioning in the room on that night, though despite that, people did get down.
- Jens Lekman - He opened on Sunday. He had a backing band comprised mostly of cute Swedish girls in colour-coordinated outfits. Everyone wore a brass key around their neck, whose significance is apparently a secret. As he played, Jens instructed the sound engineer, one Steffan, on what to think about when mixing songs: for I'm Leaving You Because I Don't Love You, it was about his last breakup, for Black Cab, about being a teenager and catching public transport, and for Sipping On That Sweet Nectar, about his first kiss. Anyway, Jens' set was really good; the man is an adroit entertainer.
- A Place To Bury Strangers - very loud, and a bit Mary Chain-esque. Not bad.
- Of Montreal - They were brilliant as before. They had the psychedelic costumes, the dancers/psychodramatic performers and the visuals, and played an hour's worth of songs, mostly from their past 2 albums. I also saw the mirrorball ninja guy wandering around the festival site in full costume a few hours earlier, playing on the adventure playground.
- Harmonia were very impressive; three older German men (the oldest of whom is in his 70s, apparently), seated behind tables covered with electronics, and producing immersive ambient soundscapes, of the sort that all the ambient artists who followed took off, only usually not as well. I stayed for the whole thing, which unfortunately clashed with Caribou. I did manage to see the end of Caribou's encore, and that was quite impressive too; droney electronics with mad percussion.
Anyway, there are photos here.
This weekend, your humble correspondent went to the Cans Festival, a huge stencil art exhibition in a tunnel under the former Eurostar platforms of Waterloo Station. The festival organisers took the entire road tunnel and transformed it into a gallery, with artists from all over the world painting pieces (most involving stencilling, though a few being paste-ups) along its length. The most publicised name attached to the exhibition was, of course, Banksy, and he had a number of works there; as well as some stencils, he was responsible for a sitting-room installation with derelict sofas and an old piano made available to the public and a number of "remixed" classical statues. Though there were several dozen more artists, and indeed, anyone could come along, register and add their artwork to the exhibition. (On Saturday evening, a section of the passageway was sealed off from the general public and made available only to registered artists, who were busily adorning it with stencils.)
Anyway, here are a few photos; the entire set is here:
The reason that this blog was quiet for the best part of a week was that your humble correspondent was on vacation in San Francisco. A few observations:
- Heathrow Terminal 5 is, now that the bugs appear to be ironed out, quite a decent airport terminal to depart from and arrive at; the architecture is at once striking (particularly in first impressions, when ascending in the lift from the tube) and practical, and there are plenty of amenities. Getting through immigration was very fast (in contrast, the last time I went through one of the last terminals, I spent an hour queueing at passport control).
- Similarly, I had no problems getting into (or out of) the US. My checked-in possessions weren't stolen by corrupt minimum-waged baggage-screening staff, and nor did I at any time feel intimidated. The entry process was much the same as it is in the UK.
- There is WiFi reachable from almost every café or bar in San Francisco proper, and it's invariably free. None of the miserly paywalling that's the norm in flint-hearted London. Also, people carry and use laptops everywhere; even on commuter trains at 10pm when no-one without a death wish would do so in London. The cafés (from countercultural establishments in the Haight to corporate chains with earth-toned seating and all-Kenny-G music policies) are full of laptops, with a definite majority being Apples. I saw more glowing Apple logos in my six days in the Bay Area than in the entire rest of the year.
- The Tenori-On launch in San Francisco was great; Toshio Iwai's talk was much the same as in London last year, though the guest musicians were different; in particular, I Am Robot And Proud's set (featuring Tenori-On and live piano) was very impressive. (Those hoping for a price cut, though, will be disappointed; the US price is $1,200.)
- On Tuesday, I went to Ignite SF, a geek show-and-tell organised by some of the O'Reilly people, at the infamous DNA Lounge. It was quite interesting, with topics varying from web 2.0 stuff (user-generated content, social software anti-patterns, and so on) to the more outré (robots, giant monsters, and the (briefly) user-accessible LED sign at the DNA Lounge that fell prey to trolls). It was rather interesting; like a briefer, more theory-focussed Dorkbot.
Two years ago, I caught a sleeper train from Paris to Zurich. Not intentionally, mind you, but entirely by chance.
I had originally intended to travel from Paris to Florence by sleeper train, departing from the Gare de Bercy a whisker after 7pm, and to this effect, had booked a seat on the Eurostar arriving at the Gare du Nord just before 5:30pm. This, in theory, would have given me ample time to make my leisurely way through the Paris Métro, possibly grabbing a bite to eat, before boarding my train. In reality, it turned out that the Channel Tunnel wasn't feeling well that afternoon, and the Eurostar spent some 80 minutes waiting in the Kentish countryside, consequently arriving in Paris just before 7. A mad dash in a taxi with a driver who spoke no English ("Parlez-vous Anglais?", I enquired on entering the cab; the driver reply, buttered with no small amount of self-satisfaction, was, "Parle Français.") resulted in my arriving at Gare de Bercy (a good 5km away) some ten minutes after the Florence train's departure.
Facing the prospect of spending a night in a hotel room, I inquired at the ticket office about subsequent trains. Luckily, there was a sleeper train to Zurich (or, more precisely, to Chur via Zurich), and thence I could catch a train to Milan the following morning, putting me on the way toward Florence, at the cost of only around £90 and some eight hours of time. This, however, turned out to be well worth it, as the scenery along the Zurich-Milan route was spectacular. The morning's train wound past silvery alpine lakes fringed with small, white houses and corkscrewed its way up mountains to St. Gotthard's Pass, before entering a tunnel. On the other side, everything was different: the climate, the architecture, even the language. We had left the German-speaking part of Switzerland and entered the Italian-speaking part, a somewhat sunnier, though still impeccably well-organised, place. The train headed south, then stopped for some time at the border as border guards boarded to check our passports. Then it proceeded southward, past Lake Como, and towards Milan. From Milan, I made my own way south.
I had been planning to take this journey again at some point, the next time actually breaking it in the Swiss Alps; getting off the train somewhere around, say, Arth-Goldau or so, and spending a day or two there, in alpine tranquility. Though, when I recently looked at seat61.com, I found that that is no longer possible, having fallen victim to the onward march of progress:
The convenient direct sleeper train from Paris to Landquart & Chur was sadly withdrawn with the opening of the TGV-Est high-speed line in June 2007I wonder how many other sleeper train services have disappeared over recent years, squeezed by the boorish onslaught of cheap flights on one hand and the march of high-speed rail on the other, and whether this is a one-way process, or whether there are any new overnight services being introduced as old ones are dropped. One would think that they could run some through the Channel Tunnel at night. (Perhaps if Deutsche Bahn get rights to run services through the tunnel from 2010, as they have applied to do, they will put some in. After all, Germany is considerably further from London than Paris or Brussels, and an overnight train from London to Berlin, the showpiece rail hub of central Europe, could be popular. And then there were the overnight services from the north of Britain to Paris that were mooted when the tunnel was being built and flights were relatively expensive.)
Blogging has been sparse over the past few days, as Your Humble Correspondent has been away in Berlin.
Anyway, a round-up of things I've noticed from while I was away:
- After the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia, got involved in an EU-funded project to ensure the fairness of the election process, the Russian authorities shut down the university, claiming that it is a "fire hazard". Opposition figures accuse the Kremlin of moving Russia back towards totalitarianism (or is the goal a Singapore-style "managed democracy"?)
- While we're on the subject of democracy, Charlie Stross weighs in on why forms of democracy are becoming increasingly prevalent these days, with even otherwise illiberal regimes adopting aspects of democracy, rather than autocratic systems.
Anyway. Here we have three ways in which democracy is less bad than rival forms of government: it usually weeds out lunatics before they can get their hands on the levers of power, it provides a valuable pressure relief valve for dissent, and it handles succession crises way better than a civil war.
- Barack Obama, it seems, is doing well in the US primaries; so much so that someone in the Clinton campaign seemingly decided to resort to dog-whistle politics and took it upon themselves to circulate photos of him wearing scarily Middle-Eastern-looking attire, in the hope that enough Texans are sufficiently prejudiced to be unable to vote for someone whose name not only sounds like "Osama" but who once wore similar headgear.
- After writing a piece on the mainstreaming of neo-folk music, Momus has discovered Emmy The Great. His great revelation has little to do with her music, mind you, and much to do with her being young, (half-)Asian and fanciable.
- Apple have finally released a new MacBook Pro. It gets the Air's multi-touch trackpad, and the usual quantitative bump in specifications, alas, a higher-resolution screen isn't isn't among them, so if you want 1600 pixels across on something that doesn't look comically oversized, you'll have to buy a Windows machine.
- Meanwhile, Microsoft have been slapped with a US$1.4bn fine by the EU, as well as having made vague promises of being more open in future, and apparently they're working on a Windows Vista-based GNU rival named UNG ("just like GNU, only without all that pesky freedom").
Berlin, for what it's worth, was great; four days, though, is nowhere near enough time to see everything and enjoy the city. Though I was surprised that the attendants on the Deutsche Bahn sleeper train didn't seem to speak English. Hopefully they'll remedy this by the time they start running services through the Channel Tunnel.
For what it's worth, photos are being uploaded here.
Interestingly enough, the package was not postmarked from one of the five boroughs of New York, but from Tucson, Arizona, where Dorothy Gambrell's return address was given as being. I hope that her now living (presumably) among unironically-attired people doesn't dull Cat And Girl's astute focus on the commodification of underground culture, the quixotic quest for authenticity and the zen of hipsterdom.
I woke up this morning to find London covered with snow:
Not surprisingly, there were severe delays on the Tube.
Blogging has been somewhat sparse, as I've been travelling around Australia without a working laptop. (I started off travelling with a working laptop, but it died along the way.) It will resume shortly.
For what it's worth, I visited Melbourne and (briefly) Sydney, catching up with family and friends, seeing a few bands and buying lots of CDs. There are photos on my Flickr page.
I am writing this entry in Melbourne, having returned for a visit, my first in one and a half years.
A few days ago, I caught a flight from London. This time, I eschewed the usual Qantas/British Airways and flew with Emirates, going via Dubai and (briefly) Singapore. I'll probably fly with them again; the experience was, for the most part, very good. The food and service were of quite high standards, but most impressive was the ICE entertainment system on the London-Dubai leg of the flight. It had over 500 channels, including on-demand movies (all of them pausable/rewindable; something which makes a big difference when the staff come around to serve drinks), a pretty large library of music, and a selection of video games, some of which are playable against other passengers. (The trivia game is particularly suited to this, even if the questions are a bit US-centric.) The selection of music is worthy of note; the channels included the usual pop, alternative, classical, jazz and chill-out, along with an extensive selection of world music (J-Pop and K-Pop, European chart hits, classical and contemporary Arabic music and Bollywood-style music), a selection of "classic albums", and a repository of every UK number one hit since the 1950s. As well as this, there were two video channels displaying the view from two external cameras at the front of the plane, one looking forward and the other looking down. This was quite interesting (especially when landing), even though the cameras didn't perform very well after dark.
The entire system seemed to be implemented on the same operating system as the entertainment systems used on Qantas and BA flights; for example, the real-time flight map seemed to be identical, except for the languages being English and Arabic, and Emirates having the somewhat annoying habit of interspersing promotional slides between map slides. This system appears to consist, from what I can determine, of a central computer connected to one or another type of video source (a rack of old-fashioned videotape players on older aircraft or a hard-disk-based system on newer ones) and a few hundred terminals consisting of NTSC monitors and controls. Unfortunately, the ICE entertainment system has not been rolled out across all aircraft, and so 2/3 of the trip (i.e., everything from Dubai onward) only had the old system, consisting of several non-interactive video and audio channels.
I managed to see a few films on the flight: I caught Thank You For Smoking (a cynical US indie film about a tobacco lobbyist; somewhat similar in tone to Wag The Dog), and The Illusionist (a thriller about an illusionist involved with the rather nasty Austro-Hungarian Crown Prince's fiancee; it was a nice mood piece, though the details of his art were treated as an opaque plot device and not elaborated upon). Towards the end of the journey, I also saw and episide of Derren Brown's show and most of Disney/Pixar animation Finding Nemo, confirming that Andrew Bolt was on crack when he wrote about it being leftist propaganda.
The only downside to the flight was the fact that, from Dubai onward, I was seated next to a large woman who was in the habit of surreptitiously lifting the armrests and spilling over into her neighbours' seats. Such, I suppose, are the travails of not being fabulously wealthy and able to afford to fly business class.
As for Melbourne, it seems to be still here, largely unchanged. For one, I am relieved to see that the Giuliani-style sanitisation of the CBD seems to be largely a myth, at least judging by the abundance of stencil art in various laneways. Either that or they dropped the policy after the Commonwealth Games were out of the way.
This blog has been quiet over the past few days because your humble correspondent has been in sunny Reykjavík, Iceland for some two and a half days.
I found Reykjavík to be a very pleasant and interesting place, which manages at once to be small and cosmopolitan. But more impressions later.
Over this weekend, I managed to take a lot of photos (which are making their way here), to see a few gigs (including a Jens Lekman solo set and the first Ninetynine gig I've seen since leaving Australia), pay through the nose for a glass of Viking lager, drink a coffee in Kaffibarinn whilst Architecture In Helsinki played on the PA, and visit the Blue Lagoon (which is highly recommended). And I managed to find a DVD of a brilliant Icelandic film I saw at the Melbourne Film Festival some years ago, "Englar Alheimsins"; there seems to be nowhere outside of Iceland that is aware of this DVD existing, whereas when you walk into Skífan (which is apparently Icelandic for "HMV"), you find a raft of copies in the Icelandic film section, all with optional English subtitles. Go figure.
I really enjoyed visiting Reykjavík, and intend to go back. Next time I'll probably stay for longer than a weekend, and travel around a bit more. And probably will catch a later flight out than the 7:15am one.
I'm back in London now, having spent the past five days on the continent, catching the Eurostar to Paris, then travelling via Zürich to Tuscany, staying for a few days in the mediaeval hilltop town of Cetona, then back to Paris via Florence and back to London. Photos from my travels will gradually filter onto Flickr.
- The Eurostar train to Paris was delayed by 80 minutes; it seems that the tunnel wasn't feeling well or something, and the train had to wait outside whilst its handlers coaxed it into cooperating. Consequently, I missed my initial connection, the 19:06 sleeper to Florence, despite a white-knuckle taxi ride through the Parisian rush-hour traffic. The moral of this story: allow more than one hour and 40 minutes between the Eurostar and anything departing from Gare de Bercy.
- I did manage to get a bunk on a later sleeper to Zürich, and a connecting train to Milan. The Zürich train (a French SNCF service) was relatively empty, and even in second class, quite comfortable.
- The Swiss love their sans serif typefaces and clean design, and have some of the best-looking banknotes I have seen. They're about as colourful as Australian banknotes, only with more of a modernist European graphic-design feel.
- The journey through the Swiss Alps from Zürich to Milan is probably the most scenic railway journey I have been on; the train climbs into the alps, winding around hills and going through tunnels, passing vast, mirror-still lakes and small towns. Then it goes through a tunnel near St. Gotthard's Pass, and comes out in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, which has a completely different climate, geography, architecture and character, seeming rather Mediterranean. I have added Switzerland to the list of places to visit.
- Swiss trains are very clean and run like clockwork. Italian trains are generally of a high standard. The "EuroStar Italia" trains (which are similar to French TGVs or Virgin Pendolinos) are fast and come with an onboard magazine (in Italian) and radio channels in the seats (which didn't seem to be working), and the "InterCity" trains (expresses pulled by more conventional electric locomotives; virtually all railways in Europe are electric these days) are air conditioned and clean. First class on those costs slightly more than second-class and gives you larger-looking seats (though they have the same number of them in the compartments) and power points near the window seats. (The EuroStar to Paris also had power points (European ones, not British ones), though the returning one didn't.)
- The "Palatino" sleeper from Florence to Paris is quite popular, and consequently the compartment I was in was full. Fitting into a second-class sleeper compartment (which holds six) with baggage is a bit of a juggling act. Apparently first class sleepers are said to be much more comfortable.
- Most if not all of the native English speakers one meets whilst travelling on trains through Europe are Americans. I wonder why this is; perhaps it's because Britons associate trains with day-to-day drudgery and avoid them whilst on holidays, whereas Americans regard them as part of the European experience.
Tonight, I went to Cargo to see Camera Obscura, the Scottish indie-pop combo. They were pretty good; slightly retroish pop music, not a world away from Belle & Sebastian, though with a black-haired girl in Stuart's place. (I.e., if you like B&S, you'll probably like them.) They played some older songs ("Teenager", "Suspended From Class" and so on), and a few from their new album, which I'll have to get a copy of.
The support band, Frànçois and the Atlas Mountains, really impressed me. They're an indieish outfit from Bristol, fronted by a French chap who moved to Bristol for the music scene, and played both well and energetically, with a lot of instrument swapping, handclaps and general jumping around; not to mention some rather leftfield choices of instruments; in addition to the usual indie kit (guitars, Casios, tambourines, melodicas), they had a huge wooden recorder and a harp; all of which worked quite well. Not to mention that one of the band members had the k3wlest T-shirt: it read "I Really Like Electric Rock Music".
I happened to have a digital video camera on hand, and hence I filmed parts of the gig. I've uploaded one of François & co.'s songs, "Tracey Emin" (perhaps the standout piece of the set) to YouTube (with the appropriate permission, of course):
Your Humble Narrator is presently sitting aboard a train from London to Glasgow, in the first-class compartment. First class doesn't cost all that much when booked in advance, and has privileges, not least among them free wireless internet throughout the four-and-a-bit-hour journey. The quality of the internet access is mostly usable, though somewhat patchy; speed is, from memory, comparable with dialup, and long file transfers (such as Flickr photo uploads) sometimes time out; other than that, the service is quite usable. The other benefits of GNER first class are somewhat fewer than they were on Virgin: a GNER first-class ticket won't get you complimentary food other than biscuits, or any drinks other than tea, coffee or juice. The seats are comfortable, though, and the power points seem to work throughout the journey (on some other trains, I've found my laptop running off battery power an hour into the journey, despite being plugged in).
Shortly after 10 and some distance out of Peterborough, the train stopped in its tracks outside a perfectly unexceptional-looking town, replete with industrial estates, big-box shopping centre and, in the distance, a church spire holding court over Victorian semi-detached chimney pots. An announcement came on on the PA, saying that the train ahead of ours on the line had collided with "a herd of cows", and the estimated time of departure was unknown. Half an hour later, workers apparently finished removing bits of hamburger from the tracks and the unfortunate train ahead managed to limp into the next station, Newark North Gate, and so we got moving, with the guards announcing that we will be making an extra stop at the next station to pick up passengers from the stricken train. The train is expected to be an hour late pulling into Glasgow.
Last night, I went to see Jens Lekman, the Swedish indie singer-songwriter, at Bush Hall. He was excellent.
There were two supports: the Bill Wells ensemble, and some chap named Richard Swift. The former (who are from Glasgow and have played with Belle & Sebastian) also doubled as Jens' backing band (and did a sterling job of it); in turn, Jens joined them on stage on various instruments during their set. They were quite good, in a jazzy sort of way. The Richard Swift outfit, however, seemed a bit too loud; their sound was distorted and harsh.
Shortly before 10, Jens came on with an acoustic guitar, and performed an unplugged acoustic version of Happy Birthday, Dear Friend Lisa, segueing into an unrecorded older song titled Are Birthdays Happy? ("Are birthdays happy, or just a countdown to death?"), before being joined by the band (three women on brass, a drummer, and Bill Wells on piano). He played a few songs familiar to anyone who has his CDs, including good renditions of Black Cab, A Sweet Summer Night On Hammer Hill, You Are The Light By Which I Travel and a version of Maple Leaves with both English and Swedish lyrics, and a few other ones, which may have been newer, older or both; he sang and played bass, guitar and electric thumb piano, playing for about an hour.
Then, when the gig finished and everybody was turfed out of the hall by the management, he materialised behind the merchandise stall with an acoustic guitar and regaled the assembled punters with two songs, I Don't Know If She's Worth 900 Kronor and Tram #7 to Heaven.
This February so far has been a record-breaking month for gigs; in the past 2 weeks, I have seen what could well be three of the best gigs of 2006. Anyway, Jens Lekman is a class act in every sense, and those reading this in Melbourne should consider yourselves lucky to get to see him with Guy Blackman and part of Architecture In Helsinki as a backing band soon.
This past Friday evening, I went to see Belle & Sebastian at the Hammersmith NME Carling Xfm Apollo or whatever it's called. Apparently (according to Stuart Murdoch), this was the very same historic venue at which David Bowie killed the Spiders from Mars.
The Belle & Sebastian gig last night was brillant; as good as the Brighton gig a week earlier. They started off with The State I'm In, and then went on to play songs including Le Pastie De La Bourgeoisie, Dog On Wheels and She's Losing It; it was good to see that both Electronic Renaissance and Your Cover's Blown got onto the playlist; both of these work really well live. Oh, and Stuart went on wearing a school jacket, which suited him.
There was no cover this time and no guest singers, though there was audience participation aplenty. After playing The Loneliness of the Middle-Distance Runner, Stuart paused and confided in the audience that he was wondering what 5,000 people whistling in unison would sound like; he then strummed the chords of the song whilst the assembled audience whistled its melody. (For the record, it sounded quite impressive.) At another time in the gig, Stuart noticed that some members of the audience had brought in tambourines and such and asked who else had brought in instruments. One audience member handed him a kazoo, which he proceeded to play, before throwing it back. At the end, they played Judy And The Dream Of Horses; Stuart didn't sing the first verse, but instead played guitar and let the audience do it; they rose to the occasion with gusto. Of course, it wasn't really the last song; there was an encore, in which one of the songs was Sleep The Clock Around, performed with a piano intro.
I managed to take some photos at the gig; they are here.
Last night, Your Humble Narrator saw Belle & Sebastian at the Dome in Brighton.
The gig was excellent; as impressive as the Melbourne one*. They played a mixture of old and new songs, starting off the gig with Stars Of Track And Field. Stuart was particularly animated; other than dancing energetically, during a performance of Electronic Renaissance, he took to the railing that encircles the general-admission area of the Dome and did a circuit of it, singing into a wireless microphone. The audience was divided between those who turned to follow him, and those who watched the rest of the band on stage, including Stevie also singing. The version of Your Cover's Blown was also very groovy, and they did an impromptu live version of The Strokes' Last Night, which, whilst lacking somewhat in accuracy, more than made up for it in spirit.
I managed to get a camera into the venue, and took some photos. Alas, my batteries soon ran out (a pox on Canon's battery life indicator, which has only two settings: "everything's OK" and "about to die"). I took the remainder of the photos with my cameraphone, which turned out better than one would expect from a phone, though nowhere near proper camera quality. The photos are/will be here.
* except that the girl they got on stage for the encore didn't know the words to any songs, and stood there like a somewhat inebriated deer caught in headlights, singing the few fragments of The State I'm In she could remember. It was alright, though; the audience joined in to help her.
This past November, Your Humble Narrator participated in National Solo Album Month; a challenge similar to NaNoWriMo, only involving recording an album's worth of music in one month. This time around, miraculously, I managed to cross the finish line. Granted, much of the album is unpolished and, given more time, some of the tracks would have more work done on them, but that's expected for such things.
Anyway, the album is here.
The thing about being in bed with a fever and a PowerBook is that one is never quite sure where one ends and the other begins.
Yesterday, Your Humble Narrator went to Banksy's latest exhibition, titled "Crude Oils". It was held in Westbourne Grove, Notting Hill, in a shop which had been transformed into a ruined art gallery for the duration of the exhibition. By this, I mean that it had been filled with props such as smashed artefacts and a skeleton in a security guard's uniform, and then populated with dozens of live rats, which were kept provided with pellets and water in shattered vases and such. Because of the rats (which, apparently, were borrowed from a film animal company and had probably appeared in any films, TV shows and commercials made in London recently and containing rats), the main part of the gallery was behind a plexiglass screen and one had to sign a disclaimer, promising not to bother the rats. Time inside the main part of the gallery was limited to five minutes per person.
The exhibition itself was quite entertaining, in characteristic Banksy fashion, consisting of various artworks "remixed" and updated for the grim meathook present, as seen through Banksy's cynical, kitchen-sink sensibility. There were romantic landscape paintings updated with police incident boards, CCTV cameras, submarines, vandalism and violence. A classical nude statue was covered in tattoos, and a bust wore a gimp mask. All the usual sort of thing, and enough to not disappoint any Banksy fan. Though the rats were the stars of the show, and their presence (which one could see, if not smell, all around) made the most striking impression.
The exhibition is open for two more days, 11am to 8pm. Meanwhile, my photos thereof are here.
Last night, Your Humble Narrator went to Bush Hall to see Pipas and The Clientele.
Pipas were lovely as usual; it was mostly a guitar-based set (with two guitars), though with a few canned backings on an iPod. They did old and new songs, including some from their Bitter Club EP. (For those who haven't seen them, they're a melodious indie-pop duo, are signed to US twee/indiepop label Matinee, have played in Scandinavia a fair bit and Lupe is going out with one of the Lucksmiths, which should give you an idea of where they're coming from.)
The Clientele played, appropriately, in a darkened room, with video projected over them (several iterations of an art film they did the music for, with lots of footage of sunlight in water, English countryside and such, as well as Chris Marker's La Jetée). They mostly did songs from their new album which has just been released; they sounded much like their previous two albums, if perhaps a bit more animated in places. And Alasdair's vocals sound every bit as floaty live as they do on record. At one stage, Lupe joined them on stage and read out a spoken-word piece about a photograph from 1982, as they played.
As one would expect, where was a good number of international-indiepop-underground coolsie types in the audience, with their bowl haircuts, black-framed glasses and button badges; in their late 20s and 30s, the audience for these sorts of gigs is half a generation older than today's post-post-ironic electro/new-new-wave/kill-the-whiteness-inside/disco-rock kids, and the milieu around this sort of scene seems, in some ways, to hearken back to an earlier age of indiepop, when one was more likely to encounter the adjective "summery" than "angular" in record reviews, understated pop songs with wet lyrics were an authentic reaction against the macho rockism of the "alternative" mainstream rather than part of the Coldplay/Keane AOR mainstream, the kids hadn't yet gotten into hip-hop, cocaine or trucker hats, and if you wanted to make music in your bedroom, you used guitars, Casio keyboards and a four-track, rather than a laptop. Or something.
That world seems to have since superseded by punk disco, ironic chav, the New Rockism, the NME garage rock revival, the Carling New Wave, spending hundreds on brand-name fashion, and relying on one's hipster knowingness as a free get-out-of-jail card, good for all crimes of unenlightenment from casual racism to meretricious consumerism. Or not quite; the mercenary mainstream was always there, and there is also always an underground; it's just easier to see yesterday's underground than today's. Partly because yesterday's underground gets recycled into, or referenced by, today's mainstream: the UK indie explosion of the 1980s gave us Britpop gave us Robbie Williams, XTC begat the Kaiser Chiefs, The Little Band scene gave us JJJ grunge gave us Killing Heidi, and such. Meanwhile, something new is always forming on the margins; and when the margins are strip-mined to death by corporate cool-hunters, something new forms off the map.
This afternoon, I went to The Hospital, a gallery in Endell St., Covent Garden, to see a video installation titled Anyone Else Isn't You, by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (the artists behind the reenactment of that Cramps gig in the mental hospital, and a number of Smiths-themed installations in the 1990s). This video work (named after a Field Mice song, which played at the end of it) was about the way people's lives and relationships are influenced and mediated by music, and consisted of fragments of interviews with 12 people talking about such things as mixtapes they made for/received from lovers, songs they couldn't listen to any more because they were associated with relationships gone bad, records associated with specific times of their lives, and other anecdote (one woman mentioned a friend who did so much acid he thought he was living in Pet Sounds). The people were mostly in their late 20s/30s, and the music they mentioned ranged from the likes of My Bloody Valentine and Belle & Sebastian to the Velvet Underground; the video went on for about half an hour.
There is also a booklet with the exhibition, featuring writing on the subject by Momus, Steve Lamacq and one JJ Charlesworth.
The past week has been unusually rich in worthwhile gigs in London, and Your Humble Narrator spent much of it going to such, often with camera in hand:
- Monday night was Suzerain at the infamous Hope and Anchor in Islington. I've seen them before; they're not so much an indie band as tomorrow's chart-toppers who haven't been signed yet. They sound somewhere between David Bowie and Duran Duran, with elements of Icehouse, the Scissor Sisters and early Nine Inch Nails, look not too unlike Interpol or Franz Ferdinand and play a rather tight, catchy glam-pop. They'll probably go far.
- On Tuesday, I went to Club AC30 to see Sambassadeur, a Swedish indiepop band on the Labrador label (also home to the likes of Acid House Kings, Club 8 and The Radio Dept.). They were pretty good; somewhere between various Sarah Records bands, the Jesus and Mary Chain, and other recent Swedish bands including The Radio Dept; two guitars, bass, harmonium, boy/girl vocals and an iPod providing the drum tracks. There are some photos here.
On Thursday, I went to see Mirah, the K Records singer-songwriter and her band, at the Purple Turtle in Camden. They were quite good; the eponymous singer/guitarist was quite animated, and was accompanied by the usual bass and drums, as well as violin and accordion. Meanwhile, the bass player proved that Justin Timberlake and Von Dutch have not yet managed to kill off the trucker hat among US indie-rock hipsters; either that or we are witnessing a second wave of ironic appropriation of mainstream fashion's adoption of an earlier ironic hipster style. Anyway, there are photos here.
I ended up picking up a copy of Mirah's second album, Advisory Committee, at the gig. There seems to be an interesting lo-fi experimental-electronic thing happening on some of the tracks, amidst the (sometimes stereo-doubled) breathy vocals, indiekid guitar strumming, layers of fuzzy sound and the odd glockenspiel and such. It's a bit more adventurous sonically than You Think It's Like This... (if perhaps not quite as innocently playful), and has a sort of spiky quirkiness that seemed to be absent in C'mon Miracle, which (from memory) seemed more like a straight alt-country record.
On Friday night, I went to see a band named My Favorite play in Hoxton. They're an electropoppy outfit from New York; bouncy upbeat songs sounding like OMD or 1980s New Order at their poppiest, with pleasant-enough boy-girl vocals; upon closer listening, though, the songs turn out to be quite dark, about the ghosts of dead teenagers and such. I picked up their album, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives; the booklet looks more like something one would expect from a lugubrious Montréal post-rock collective than a New York electropop band, and betrays a morbid obsession with Joan of Arc. Photos here.
Incidentally, Hoxton Square on a Friday night is a rather interesting experience; upon entering the square, the noise of hundreds of people talking is the first thing one notices. The crowds outside the clubs and swanky bars are to be expected; the large numbers of people sitting on the grass in the centre of the square, as if waiting for a band to come on at an outdoor concert, seemed a bit more unusual. Were they there just to bask in the ambient coolness that is Hoxton? Is this what the cool set in London do when they become too old to get their teenage kicks by walking slowly up and down Camden High St. in orange "PSYCHO WARD" shirts, hardcore band patches and cutesy-goth-cartoon-character bags or something?
I'm back in London, having spent the last week in Melbourne. I had little time to access the net, spending most of my visit catching up with people and attending to various matters, hence the lack of blogging.
Melbourne was still where it had always been. A few things had changed (there's a JB Hi-Fi in Bourke St. where a discount clothing shop had been, 3RRR have moved out to Brunswick, and new trains had replaced most, but not all, of the old Hitachi trains), but generally, it felt as if I hadn't been away. People I knew were still there, and many of the familiar landmarks were as I remembered them. Oh, and EMI are still releasing corrupt CDs there.
My flight to Melbourne was a Qantas flight, whereas my flight back was with British Airways. Which are roughly similar, except that Qantas has better entertainment systems in cattle-class (you can actually play Tetris-like games on the screen in front of you), whereas BA has better in-flight duty-free shopping. The BA seats also had regular headphone sockets, thus allowing one to use something better than the craptacular headsets provided by airlines. (I had my Sennheiser PX200s with me, and they worked remarkably well; I'd say that actual noise-cancelling headphones are probably overkill.)
I briefly considered buying a PSP in Singapore (where they are out, unlike in Europe), though thought better of it, partly because of a lack of compelling titles (I've heard good things about Katamari Damacy, though that's not out on the PSP), and partly because no-one has figured out how to run user code on a current one yet.
Anyway, during my visit, I took some photos documenting Melbourne's café culture (the like of which I haven't seen in London); these photos may be found here.
Blogging will probably be light for the next few days or so, as I'll be in Australia, visiting family and friends.
Last night, Your Humble Narrator made it down to Bush Hall to see folktronica artist, cultural theorist and fabulous British eccentric Momus, HitBACK guitar-pop band The Free French and an outfit named Stars In Battledress.
First up were Stars In Battledress, a duo with one chap playing guitar and singing and the other playing piano. Their music was somewhat avant-garde, like a roiling sea of chords, notes and words, shifting and changing structure. Not really my cup of tea.
Momus was next, and took to the stage with his iBook. He basically sang over backing tracks played from iTunes, stopping from time to time to play sounds on a Flash-based microtonal instrument on the iBook. Other than that, there was no live music, though Momus put on an entertaining performance, moving around a lot and putting on quite a dramatic act as he sang his songs. (I guess that the important thing about a performance is not what proportion of notes played is live and triggered by musicians on stage, but the energy and charisma of the performer; the reason why most live-electronica acts suck is not because the artists are sitting behind a rack of synths twiddling knobs rather than playing a guitar, but because they fall into the backroom-geek trap, just sitting there rather than engaging the audience. Punters generally don't pay to see mild-mannered geeks controlling synthesizers, which is why the dance-music fad of the 90s had wide-boy "superstar DJs" to act as frontmen. But I digress; Momus certainly did not suck.)
Finally, there were The Free French; they're labelmates of Spearmint, and not too far away in the stylistic universe; indie guitar-pop with a touch of blue-eyed soul (the frontman is apparently a huge Hall & Oates fan). They played a decent set from their past three albums, and a new, as yet unrecorded song. They were enjoyable; I'll probably see them again.
There are photos here.
On Saturday night, I went to see the Castaway Theatre Company's performance of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Enchained. It was fittingly anarchic; they had five people each playing Pa Ubu and Ma Ubu, mostly attired in vaguely punky combinations of random clothes, and a lot going on on stage, most of it rather absurd. It reminded me a lot of the Doug Anthony Allstars, in particular DAAS Kapital. The music played in/between various sequences included a lot of guitar punk and several Half Man Half Biscuit songs, which worked rather well. Anyway, there are some photos here.
The journey to/from Aberystwyth involved a stopover in Birmingham, and a bus between there and Telford, due to railway works. On the way back, I spent some time wandering around Birmingham, raiding the local Music & Video Exchange and taking a stroll around the pedestrianised neo-brutalist cityscapes of the Bullring. For some reason, Birmingham reminded me a little of Brisbane.
The London-Birmingham leg of the journey was on a Virgin Trains Pendolino train, which was fairly nifty. For one, they come with laptop power points, even in cattle-class. (Now that's one thing I can't see ever being installed on the Melbourne-Sydney XPT, partly because rurals and bikies generally don't carry laptops.) Also, the way they tilt when they round a corner is pretty nifty.
(Note to self: make more excuses to get out of London; by which I mean far enough out to get out of London's reality distortion field. Living in London, it's too easy to start thinking of everything in terms of Tube lines, N|W|E|[NS][EW]|[EW]C postcodes and relative position to the Thames, and to forget that there is life and activity in Britain that's not in relation to London.)
Living in London and not having a landline, I've been using Skype to call people in Australia; recently, I have found its reliability to be somewhat variable. Sometimes when I call a mobile phone number, I get a recorded announcement saying that the phone in question is not connected; at other times, I get a nameless voice-mail message, which may or may not belong to the person I wanted to call.
Furthering the annoyance, Skype's charging mechanism is a bit unreliable, and sometimes it goes from Ringing to Call In Progress when the phone is still ringing; there goes another 16.5 Euro Cents.
Tonight, Your Humble Narrator went back to the Water Rats, to see three bands.
First up was Lifestyle. Basically electropop, with some live synths, live bass (played by a hipster in a rather flash hat), and vocals by a chap in a long pinstripe jacket. The elements were promising, though the singer's vocal style didn't seem to suit the music; at times he sounded reminiscent of Jimmy Barnes as he strained and belted out the notes.
The second band, Schmoof, were awesome. An electropop duo with great stage presence; the guy (dressed all in white, and looking just a bit Eurovision) started off playing two synths, while the girl sang and danced around; then they strapped on two SH-101s and moved and played. They were a little like a more pop Mink Engine. They did songs about the Northern Line, choosing between chocolate and boyfriends, and backseat drivers, and an electropop cover of Guns'n'Roses' Sweet Child O'Mine, which absolutely rocked. Oh, and did I mention that projected on the rear of the stage were visuals generated by a Sinclair Spectrum? I.e., the guy in white had spent ages writing BASIC programs to do blocky animations in time to the music. Which all was cooler than cool.
Finally up came Freezepop, a US synthpop act. They sounded somewhere between Ladytron and Barcelona. One of their number moved around the stage playing a Yamaha QY-70 (that's a handheld synth/sequencer). They had somewhat of a hard act to follow with Schmoof, IMHO, though they were fun, especially their last song (with its synthesised/sampled rock/metal riffs and posturing to match).
Between sets, the DJ played tracks like The Postal Service and The Flaming Lips (a Japanese version of Yoshimi). Then, between the next two sets, the "DJ" turned out to be a preprepared mix CD.
At the beginning of the night, there seemed to be a lot of goths about; almost half the room seemed to be of that persuasion. Perhaps they misread the flyer as "Futurepop"? They either filtered out or were diluted by new arrivals by the end of the night.
Anyway, there are photos here.
I went along to Dorkbot tonight, which was fun.
It started off with Mike Harrison's demonstration of "The Dreaded Destruct-O-Tron"; basically, a box with a huge capacitor that can be connected to various things, including an induction coil, and, when discharged, does evil things to anything metallic in close proximity to it. Harrison demonstrated it crushing soft-drink cans, launching hard disk platters at 300MPH, and, to popular applause, destroying a few copies of the recent Band Aid single. He also had a DVD of footage taken with a high-speed camera (at thousands of frames per second) of what happens to the hapless objects in question.
The "Exploring the Libido with an Analogue Computer" segment was a bit of comedy, somewhere between Benny Hill and Look Around You, in which a balding scientist type used an electromechanical computing device (an arrangement of motors and gears from a 1960s-vintage flight simulator) as a model of his sex drive, and afterwards, proceeded to demonstrate a spark generator connected to a 1980s portable computer programmed to detect raspberry-like noises, as a uniquely British answer to high-tech Japanese toilets. And yes, it's every bit as puerile as it sounds.
Possibly the most interesting part of the evening was Aymeric Mansoux's demonstration of his experiments with Pd; he basically had videos of Pd patches which gathered data (such as traceroutes to hosts or web server loads) and converted them into pretty good Autechre-esque music, along with visuals which wouldn't look amiss on a Warp DVD. Amusingly enough, the traceroute to www.microsoft.com looked and sounded rather dark and ominous.
The "Dorkestra", which consisted of people making noises was a bit hit-and-miss, being much like the What Is Music? festival in Melbourne. One guy was doing "optical analogue synthesis" with cooling fans and LEDs, which sounds impressive, except that the only sounds he seemed to make sounded somewhere between air-raid sirens and circular saws. Had he been able to play a tune, I would have been impressed.
There was also a raffle with free entry, largely to get rid of two BBC Micros. I didn't win either of them; I'm undecided as to whether that's a good or bad thing.
This evening, Your Humble Narrator went to the first night of Mon Gala Papillons, a two-day indie-pop festival organised by Chickfactor, at a rather plush music hall in Shepherd's Bush named, appropriately enough, Bush Hall.
First up was Amy Linton, of Aislers Set fame; she strummed an electric guitar and played/sang a few songs, and was quite good. Seeing her brought back some memories; the last time I saw her play was in a backyard in Clifton Hill, when Stewart and Jen were honeymooning/holidaying/touring in Australia.
Next up were a female duo from New York named Mascott. Their set started with one of them (Margaret) on stage, playing violin, as the other played a grand piano (located in front of the stage) and sang. The first song was lovely; it reminded me a bit of another New York resident, Greta Gertler. Afterward, the pianist took the stage and picked up a guitar. Some of the other songs were quite nice, though I thought that the first one stood above them all.
Third on was a solo set from Stevie Jackson, of Belle & Sebastian. He went up on stage, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, and started off playing Ode To Joy on the harmonica, before launching into his own numbers. He didn't play any Belle & Sebastian songs that I recognised; mostly his own songs, and mostly ones about girls (because, as he explained, he likes girls). The songs included "Portland, Oregon", "Phone In My Head" (which was particularly nice), and "Lonely Pop Star", as well as a Belle & Sebastian-style rendition of Frosty the Snowman (which someone requested), and a song he said he learned from Alex Chilton toward the end.
Then on came electro-pop duo Pipas, a girl with shortish brown hair in a stripy top and a guy with a bowlie haircut and glasses in a chequered shirt. They had a PowerBook on stage, which they mostly used to play backing tracks (and a bit of keyboards), over which they played guitar and bass and sang, performing songs off their recent EP and past albums. They were a little shambolic, but generally pretty good.
Finally, the Television Personalities came on. I was expecting them to be like XTC or Wire or The Fall or someone, but they were more Mod-revivalist, right down to the bassist having a Royal Air Force roundel and Vespa logo on his bass.
(Apologies for the crappy photos; I left my PowerShot G2 at home, and had only my futurephone to take photos with. I really need to get a decent camera that fits comfortably in a pocket and gives me no excuse to not take it to gigs.)
Tonight, Your Humble Narrator went briefly to the 4AD showcase at the Institute of Contemporary Art, seeing Cass McCombs; he was nothing like what I expected (I was expecting a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar; I got a band who sounded more like the Jesus and Mary Chain, with bits of Yo La Tengo, Slowdive and The Cure's floatier moments thrown in). Not that I'm complaining, of course.
I didn't hang around for the other bands, though, instead departing for the Barfly in Camden to see Swedish indiepopsters The Radio Dept.. And they were excellent: four members, with guitars, bass, keyboards (a synth with a "THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS" sticker and a toy electronic piano), a laptop and a conspicuously unused drum kit. They did a briefish set, playing mostly tracks off their album, and one new track soon to be released on a single in Sweden. For those who haven't heard them, they're a combination of sweet, jangly indiepop, shoegazer (with judicious use of reverb, skronky guitar feedback and vaguely Slowdive-esque basslines) and subtly distorted vintage drum loops.
Your Humble Narrator has recently arrived in North London, and has made the following observations:
- Holloway Road's closest Melbourne equivalent would be Sydney Rd., Brunswick. Grungy, downmarket, and running north-south through various working-class areas. (I think it's the street the record shop in High Fidelity is meant to be on, which basically is a way of saying that it'd be a small, obscure and struggling sort of place). There are no fashionable shops (except perhaps one near the Highbury end, which sells Ben Sherman gear rather cheaply), lots of bargain shops, discount phone-card vendors, internet cafés (the going rate seems to be £1/hour), halal fried chicken shops (the confluence of Islamic food-preparation doctrines and American-style fried chicken, often named after randomly-selected US states, is one of those puzzling artefacts of contemporary Britain, but I digress), and the odd McDonalds (though no Prets; that would be too posh). And most, but not all, of the shops have shutters (probably suggesting that the area used to be a no-go zone blacklisted by insurance companies, though has improved somewhat recently), usually covered with aerosol art. There are plenty of beggars, gnarled-looking trolls, working the streets; every cash machine seems to have an "attendant" sitting down beside it, ready to claim his perceived share of the privileged users' largesse.
- I've heard it claimed that Upper Street, Islington, is roughly equivalent to Chapel Street. Or possibly Brunswick Street, though probably not: Brunswick Street would probably be Camden High Street without the market; William Gibson called it the "Children's Crusade".
- North London seems like a rougher environment than inner Melbourne. There's a faint vibe of aggression in the streets, evident in groups of hard-looking youths. And then there are the local community newspapers: where the inner-Melbourne papers go on about insufficient community health-care funding and insensitive high-rise apartment developments, the papers here talk about gay-bashing youth gangs and muggings in broad daylight, and you know you're in a grittier, more hard-edged reality. Keep moving, don't make eye contact, and try not to look like a soft target.
- Highbury (which is east of Holloway Road) is a pleasant, village-like place; small shops and restaurants, leafy streets and a quiet atmosphere. The area around Highbury Grove/Blackstock Road (or A1201; given how often British roads' names change, most major ones are known by a number instead) and near Arsenal football stadium in particular seems rather pleasant.
Your Humble Narrator is currently in Tunbridge Wells, with somewhat limited internet access; as such, blogging will be somewhat sporadic. Maybe I should start writing letters to the Times instead.
Also, can anybody recommend: (a) good cheap/free wireless internet facilities in London, and/or (b) a reasonably inexpensive dialup ISP in the UK which is usable from Linux and MacOS X (i.e., speaks basic PPP rather than using some proprietary Windows software)?
Now where did I put that superhero costume?
I went to the Make Mixtapes Not War benefit at the corner this evening, which was quite good.
I walked in halfway through the Jihad Against America set. They were loud; they're basically hardcore punk/metal played by people some 10 or so years older than the usual hardcore punk/metal band (hi Ben!), and with a sense of irony. They were rather loud, and played fairly tightly, though some of their material (especially the bits with the growly metal vocals) is a bit too close to Filthy Maggoty Cunt territory for my taste. Still, to each his own; the kids in the studded bracelets seemed to like them.
Keith's Yard were fairly good; they were very much in a post-punk vein (think the Melbourne little-band scene), with droning guitars (two or three in each song), bass and drums, and the odd repetitive vocals delivered with a sneer; I imagine that that's the sort of thing one could have seen at the Seaview Ballroom in 1978 or so. (Ben Butler compared them to the Happy Mondays, in their combination of strong rhythm and nonsensical lyric fragments and getting the crowd dancing; though the key difference would be that the Mondays combined indie rock and house/dance music, whereas Keith's Yard are pure post-punk classicism. Still, in the age of punk-flavoured house music, is there really so much of a distinction?)
The Bird Blobs couldn't make it, on account of Ian Wadley being overseas with another project, and so were replaced by an outfit named SNAP! CRAKK!. They were also in a new-wave/post-punk vein, only this time with drum machines and synth keyboards (as well as chaotic guitarwork and random lyrics). The vintage Korg keyboard they used was, amusingly enough, plastered with Burzum stickers.
Love of Diagrams played their classics from The Target Is You, as well as some new songs, some of which have vocals. Other than that, they're doing much the same sort of thing; guitar/bass/drums and lots of energy.
The Bites were OK, and had some good songs. Sinking Citizenship, however, didn't grab me; they sounded like fairly rote post-grunge rock.
The Ninetynine set was interesting; Amy is still in Berlin, so they made do without her (and without her songs, of course; there was no Great Escapes or Highway Delights in the set); however, they had three guest musicians, including a bloke in a pinstripe suit playing cello and an accordionist. They played two new songs, both by Laura; one (called something like Bridge) was in a similar vein to Mesopotamia or Kinetic Factory, with a vibraphone and vocals, gradually building up, and the other (Red Card Yellow Card) being a bit more upbeat. They finished with a rocking rendition of Wöekenender, one of their classic crowd-pleasers. Oh, and Iain had since cut his hair really short, with a slight quiff at the front, which, with his glasses and anorak, gave him a slightly Morrisseyish air. This was the first Ninetynine gig in something like seven months, and (from what I heard) may well be the last one for equally long.
I caught a train to Flinders St. yesterday evening. Sitting across the aisle from me on the train was a pudgy teenager attired in hip-hop thugwear (Fubu sneakers, a Slim Shady athletic shirt, and the obligatory baseball cap). In one hand he had a can of spray paint, which could be considered fairly typical. In the other, however, he had a translucent plastic bag, the insides of which were spray-painted gold. This he would put to his mouth from time to time and suck on it. As the train approached Flinders St., and the electronic voice on the PA announced this for the second time. Chromeboy rasped in a cracked, high-pitched voice, like a chain-smoking castrato: "yeah, yeah, shut da fuck up."
Today I turned 30. Which means that I'm now no longer in my 20s, and only through the modern miracle of extended adolescence do I have five more years in the prime lifestyle-product marketing demographic.
Funny, as I don't feel any different than I did when I was 29; the number-rollover shock that usually hits me twice at this time of year (as it does when you're born close to the start of the year) wasn't any more severe than last year; probably because I was aware of my being about to turn 30 for some time.
Either that or it's senility setting in.
Two things I ended up taking back from Byron Bay: a bag of Byron Chai mix (which is quite good; one of the better chai mixes I've tried), and a small jar of lemon aspen jelly (which tastes like lemons, only perhaps slightly more sour). Apparently lemon aspen jelly is made from lemon aspens (a native plant that only grows in Australian rainforests), and not lemons aspen (though it sounds like it should be).
Today I had occasion to catch a tram from Glebe to Central Station. One thing I noticed about Sydney's trams (all one line that they have there, much like Manchester or LA or someplace) was that they have TV screens installed on board, with sound, which play some sort of "entertainment programming", consisting of ads and extreme-sports segments. Which looks like the sort of thing that giant TV screen in Bourke St. shows.
Mind you, the trams there do have air conditioning you can actually feel, as opposed to the pitifully weak effort on Melbourne's trams/trains (presumably adjusted down to the bare minimum to cut the privatised operators' electricity costs). Perhaps that's what the ad revenue pays for?
Sydney's buses also have video screens, which today were displaying Fun Facts About Christmas (i.e., about reindeer and Christmas trees and such, not about Jesus Christ or Mithras or the like). Not sure what the point of those is; perhaps they'll gradually sneak in ads?
(Yes, I'm in Sydney right now; I'm typing this from Peter's house. I've been on the road since Sunday, hence the recent sparsity of blogging.)
Many years ago, I was playing with Fontographer and created a font named ModeSeven, based on the Teletext character set (and named after the BBC Micro screen mode using the Teletext chipset); it may be found here. A few weeks ago, I received an email from someone at TalkbackThames, a London-based TV production company, informing me that they had used the font on a DVD and asking for an address to send a complimentary copy of the disc in question.
As a consequence, today I received in the mail a copy of the DVD of the BBC Look Around You comedy series. This is a series of 9-minute segments parodying British educational TV programming from the 1970s (right down to vintage calculators used), only wildly inaccurate in a somewhat Pythonesque sense, with plenty of howlers and made-up words used. (For example, dissolving iron with acid creates a substance named "bumcivilian", whose creation removes all sound from the air for some seconds.) Somewhat amusing, though probably more so if you went to a British school in the 1970s. The disc also contains other features, such as an entire set of fake Ceefax (i.e., BBC Teletext) pages with news stories such as the scrapping of the trans-Atlantic British Rail route and the replacement of small-denomination coins with a dust worth a certain number of pence per gram, as well as Look Around You quizzes. (They seem to have used the DVD menu facility to recreate the teletext pages, and done so quite convincingly.)
(Where was my font used? In the optional DVD subtitles, which are designed to look like Teletext captions for the hearing impaired.)
I've just been informed that a font I did some years back (Mode Seven, a simple tracing of the BBC Micro Teletext font) has just been used on a DVD of the BBC's Look Around You comedy programme, a copy of which is on its way to me. Which, I think, is pretty cool.
Unlike some people, I didn't get to go to Iceland, but I did get to see a small piece of Iceland tonight at the Corner; namely, Múm. They were supported by Minimum Chips (my second favourite local band at the moment) and Architecture In Helsinki.
The Chips played two sets on the side stage: one shortly after 9, when the doors opened, and one after AIH finished while Múm were setting up. For the first set and half of the second, they played without Ian, with the drum kit standing empty and an old analogue drum machine carefully programmed with all their drum patterns. They played all the tracks off Gardenesque, a few old songs from around the time of Swish and a few from various compilations, which was good.
Between their two sets, local twee indie-pop orchestra Architecture In Helsinki took to the main stage and played for about 45 minutes. They played some tracks off Fingers Crossed (some in extended versions) and a few new tracks; their new material is somewhat less sugary than the album tracks, and perhaps a bit reggae/dub/ska inspired in places. (Which makes sense; they have enough personnel to form a ska band, for one.)
And Múm were pretty good. Their music was rather sparse, drifting between pieces. It is probably a dreadful cliché to say that it evokes the sparse Icelandic landscapes, but it did. They played a number of pieces, including some new ones, melding from piece to piece. I was expecting them to be standing behind laptops and controlling some mysterious process that made plinking noises, but most of the music was live, played on melodica, violin, keyboards (including a vintage Wurlitzer and a Moog), guitar, drums and xylophone; oh, and the obligatory PowerBook. They finished up with an encore of I'm 9 Today. And the Guns'n'Roses T-shirt one of the band was wearing was quite amusing.
And someone kept blowing soap bubbles over the audience during their set. Probably an AIH fan.
I just came back from the Heligoland CD launch, which was pretty good. The DJ (Electric Sound of Jim) actually played some Field Mice (Missing The Moon, actually) which made my day. Too few of us Mice fans in Australia.
I also got a look at a copy of the newly-pressed new Sir album, titled Trapped In A World Of Make-Believe, that Jesse had with him. It looks quite promising; the artwork looks very crisp, and the track listing has various songs they've been playing since The Night I Met My Second Wife. I look forward to hearing it, and probably spinning it in a DJ set or three.
(And speaking of DJ sets, hopefully there'll be some good news about those in the not-too-distant future. Watch this space for details.)
Oh, and Ninetynine have a new 4-track EP coming out. (Yay!) Unfortunately, it's only coming out in the US and UK; Cameron says it's because nobody's interested in putting them out in Australia. I wonder why that is; whether it's scene politics rearing its ugly head, the local market being too conservative to accept casiopunk as a valid genre, or collateral damage from the Back-To-Basics Rock Revival. Anyway, time to keep checking Twee Kitten, I think.
And the Heligoland gig was good. They played some new tracks and some older ones, in their usual æthereal style, and as an encore did their cover of Kraftwerk's Neon Lights.
My DJ set at Grand Music for Tiny Souls went quite well. I didn't play for very long (from a bit after 4 until around 8ish, in between bands; then a guy calling himself Tepid took over and brought his collection of laptop glitch electronica and such; he seemed like a pretty nice chap, and he does a weekly glitch/noise/drill'n'bass night at Pony on Tuesday nights; may have to show up to that). Also, this time the organisers provided the setup, and so I had access to a Denon DN-X800 mixer, much better mixer than the $125 Smack Converters special I usually use, and a DJ-oriented double CD deck. Ah, luxury.
(What did I play? A bit of UK indie-pop (The Field Mice, It's Jo and Danny, The Lollies, The Charm Offensive, Spearmint, Black Box Recorder and Belle & Sebastian all got a look in), a bit of shoegazer/dreampop/ethereal-type stuff (Lush, Slowdive, Parsley Sound), some antipodean acts (Architecture in Helsinki, Ninetynine, The Hummingbirds (the ones from the early 90s), The Chills, Ash Wednesday), a few old-sk00l acts (Joy Division, Pixies, Smiths), a few new things (the Interpol disc got a spin) and a few oddities (Dsico's Smells Like Electro, John Trubee's Blind Man's Penis Song, Denki Groove's Shangri-La).)
Some of the bands I saw there were quite good too; in particular, I Want A Hovercraft and Season (who are sounding a bit like Mogwai in places, in a good way). Unfortunately, I didn't get to stick around to see International Karate or Seascapes of the Interior, as the Love of Diagrams album launch was on the same night. Sometimes it'd be good to be in two places at once.
Ah yes; I will be DJing this Friday night at the Dandelion Wine benefit gig, at the Cue Bar on Brunswick St. What to expect: indie, shoegazer, post-punk, a bit of electronica and a few weird things thrown in for good measure. Anyway, it's for a good cause (Dandelion Wine's airfare to some music festival or other in Romania).
This afternoon, I made my way down to the Fitzroy swimming pool. Why, you ask? No, not to do a few invigorating laps of the pool, nor because of any sort of aesthetic liking of the smell of chlorine and the sounds of children running around and splashing, but because today was Rockpool, the annual daytime-concert-at-the-pool event. No major international artists, but local acts (like B(if)tek and Architecture in Helsinki) came along to give something back to the community.
In particular, I showed up just in time to see the Ninetynine set; the first one of the year, I believe, and the first time I had seen them since London. The sounds wasn't ideal, but the energy was there and it rocked. (Incidentally, they seemed to rely on a MiniDisc for a lot of the rhythm loops; perhaps they're running out of Casiotone keyboards or something?) They did a new song, with Amy singing; it sounded a little New Orderesque, at least to my ears. (Occasionally I wonder just how much they were influenced by New Order/Joy Division; that and the guitarwork on Woekenender and Laura's lyrics sounding just a tad Barneyesque in places.) Anyway, they rocked.
The audience was full of pale indie types who don't usually go in the sun; some were looking a tad awkward in bathing costumes, others came wearing band T-shirts and shorts and such. (I was the guy in the Gentle Waves T-shirt and brown cords, looking rather out of place in the sun.)
The Kraftwerk gig was excellent. I showed up and made my way to the balcony, finding a spot with a good view of the stage, as David Thrussell was playing all sorts of weird tunes. Then the DJ stopped, and things were quiet for some minutes, except for the crowd yelling and stamping.
Then the Metro was filled with the sound of an old-fashioned speech synthesizer uttering bits of German, and the curtain rose, revealing four middle-aged men standing behind consoles (and looking not unlike characters from some Star Trek-like TV show). They played Computerworld and the projection screen glowed cathode-ray green (older readers may remember this colour); they also did Pocket Calculator, with an animation of a calculator, their (quite topical) anti-nuclear protest song Radioactivity, a version of Neon Lights with a verse in German, and their one song about a pretty girl, The Model.
While they stayed at their workstations, playing keyboards and operating their laptops, visuals were projected on the screen behind them, ranging from the sorts of retrofuturistic computer graphics (lots of wireframes; remember when those were cool and shading was too expensive?) to old stock footage of the Tour de France, train and road travel across Europe and the like.
Their songs varied quite a bit from the recordings; the version of The Robots started with them transposing the main riff into different notes, and went on into some improvisation with new (yet quite fitting) synth lines.
(Oh yes, the consoles they were using looked pretty nifty, consisting of a keyboard of some sort, a foot pedal and a laptop. I wonder whether the keyboard part is an off-the-shelf instrument of some sort, or a box containing various controllers and such, and indeed whether the keyboard is not just a controller for software on the laptop, Kraftwerk being famed for their fondness for Cubase VST.)
Well, the DJ set went quite well. I played for around two hours in total (I can't tell exactly, as it was too dark to see, and the three pints of Guinness I had on the drinks rider probably also contributed). I managed to play a bit of The Charm Offensive (Just Like Bob & Terry) and The Lollies (their hidden track, Happy), which was quite possibly the first time either act was played in Australia, and expose the good Seaworthy/Heligoland fans to my choice of music, getting a fairly positive response. (I played a bit of the sort of ethereal/shoegazer stuff that would go well at such a gig, like Slowdive, Lush, &c., a few other things that fit in reasonably well (The Field Mice, and various other indie bands), a few tracks by local bands, and some odd things which people found amusing (including the cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit recently mentioned here).)
The only major hitch is that I suspect my old Sony Discman finally gave up the ghost towards the end of the set; at least it was considerate enough to not do so at the start, though.
The bands, btw, were quite good. Seaworthy reminded me a bit of the first Mojave 3 album in places, and Heligoland's new material is sounding quite impressive. (Their cover of Kraftwerk's Neon Lights was also quite inspired.)
Anyway, I'll be DJing again sometime in the near future. Watch this space for details.
Things I found in my PO box today:
- Two CD-Rs containing demo tracks from The Charm Offensive (a very promising new indie-pop band I saw in London some months back). Interesting; their material sounds somewhere between Birdie or Blueboy or someone and Black Box Recorder without the sarcasm (though with the conspicuous Englishness left wholly intact). I'll probably play some Charm Offensive in one of my DJ sets.
- The photocopy edition of Cat and Girl #3, along with some stickers and button badges, and an amusingly useless leaflet showing bar/pie charts about the planets and their search engine statistics.
- A mobile phone bill
Your humble narrator will be DJing this Sunday at Pony, at the Heligoland gig. Expect a combination of shoegazing, laptop electronica, indie-pop and eclectic weirdness. The first DJ set starts about 8ish.
I turned 29 today. Which means that in one year's time I'll be 30, and no longer in my 20s. (Five years after that, I'll no longer be in the prime demographic for lifestyle-product advertising; an unperson, invisible to marketers, missing, presumed mortgaged in the suburbs somewhere.)
One thing this getting old business makes you do is take stock, and think about where your life is heading. Because as the numbers add up, the opportunities for change dwindle, and younger, fleeter birds get what was your share of the worms.
But more on that another time.
In under 4 hours, 2002 will be over. It was a mixed year; on one level, things were still going to shit. The belle epoque of the 1990s, which we didn't recognise as such of course, is still over; in its place, an age of recession, random terrorist attacks and perpetual war. The world is still sliding closer to World War 3 proper, with the Iraq invasion still on track, and creepy neo-Stalinist cult-state North Korea making the most of this opportunity to build up its doomsday arsenal (and possibly open up a second front). The economy is still fucked (other than Lockheed and such, of course, who can only keep going from strength to strength). We now all know what the good burghers of Tel Aviv must feel like wondering whether the person next to you on the bus is a suicide bomber. George W. Bush is still the most popular president in US history, and this was borne out in Congressional elections, where Republicans swept to victory. That ol' Bush magic is rubbing off on his regional deputy in Australia, with the formerly much derided reactionary PM now seen as a Great Wartime Leader. Total end-to-end copy-denial mechanisms are well on their way to appear in all PCs and anything capable of receiving copyrighted signals, further stomping on our rights in the name of our corporate masters. Global warming is still here, and still being ignored. Brunswick St. is like Chapel St. only less authentic. Things look like they could get a lot worse before they get better.
(OTOH, there are signs of hope. The Greens have made big gains in elections in Australia, and if they keep it up, they'll actually end up winning some seats outside of the Senate. We still don't have suicide bombers blowing themselves up in crowds or on buses in Australia. And there is the chance that things may not quite go to hell, and that if nothing else happens, the world may snap out of it and things may in fact start to get better. Well, we can hope.)
On a personal level, 2002 was an eventful year. A lot of things happened. The big one was, of course, going to the UK in October, which was a profoundly perspective-changing experience. (There's nothing like travel to shake you out of the relaxed and comfortable complacency that grows on you like a crust if you live in one place for too long; but more about that later.) Other than going to the UK, I also bought a proper digital camera, entered an art exhibition, and saw a lot of great live music (including Morrissey and New Order). So, all in all, it wasn't too bad a year.
See you in 2003.
A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to see if my old Windows version of Fontographer would run under Wine under Linux. Imagine my surprise when I found that (with a bit of hacking) it runs quite usably. (Some obscure dialogs lock it up, but that's a lot better than the Mac version runs under OSX's Classic mode; which is saying a lot.)
Consequently, I spent some time making another cheap and nasty geometric font, this time based on a type of alphanumeric display used in places like airports and trains. Then I got carried away, did a version based on a malfunctioning display (one that was on the train I caught to Reading on my way to Aberystwyth a few weeks ago, actually), and one showing random pixels, and so on, until I ended up with a five-font set. Which now appears on my rather underdesigned font page. Well, that and an even more dodgy-looking bitmap conversion I did a few years ago.
(This is the font appearing in the title graphic; incidentally, the photograph in the graphic is the view of the countryside out of the window of the train with the malfunctioning display.)
Well, after 24 hours of sitting on a packed airliner (no empty row of seats to sleep on this time), I arrived back in Melbourne, tired, jetlagged and aware that I've spent too much money. (And I got stung on the excess baggage thing too; ouch. Damn you, Fopp.) And I have some idea of what Luke must have felt like to be back in Sydney.
Normal blogging will resume shortly.
Last night, I went up to a small pub/venue named the Betsey Trotwood, in Farringdon Rd., EC1R, to see a band named The Charm Offensive. I found out about them a week ago, when Nicola (the vocalist) was handing out flyers at Bowlie Nite, and decided to go and see them. I was quite impressed. The band consisted of two guys with guitars (one acoustic and one electric), a female vocalist and a minidisc player with the obligatory drum tracks. Their sound was sort of sweet Sarah Records-esque indie-pop, of the sort you don't hear much of these days; jangly acoustic chords and quiet boy-girl harmonies and such. They sounded a little like Blueboy, or perhaps Even As We Speak. I hope we hear more from The Charm Offensive.
I just got back to London, after five days spent up north in the land of whisky and Irn-Bru. It was fun.
Yesterday I caught the train down from Inverness, through the sweeping landscapes of central Scotland, to Glasgow, the city that gave us Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian and a lot of twee jangly-pop bands somewhat before my time. Within a few hours of arriving, I had made my way to The 13th Note, a local café and band venue, which seemed quite cool, and has bands on pretty much every night. (For the Melburnians reading this: the 13th Note would be somewhere between the Empress and the Tote, or perhaps like Revolver without the house music and vague miasma of wankerdom subtly permeating everything; it's a funky-yet-too-grungy-to-be-yuppified bar with vegan food, artworks on the walls and flyers everywhere else, and a subterranean cavern where the punters go to see bands make a lot of noise.)
(Aside: Glasgow seems to have a number of things in common with Melbourne. The rain, the grid-shaped street layout, the relative lack of spectacular monuments, and of course a vibrant live music scene. It doesn't have trams, though, and the closest thing to the notorious Rangers vs. Celtics sectarian rivalries that Melbourne would have would be the occasional Serbo-Croatian soccer riot or something.)
I spent the day walking around Inverness and its environs, taking a stroll up and down the banks of the Ness. As I was walking around town, I thought that Inverness would be a great setting for a mystery story or thriller. As I was walking upstream, through the autumnal landscape, the river slowly flowing towards the Moray Firth around islands full of high trees, I realised why: because the landscape looks somewhat like the landscape of British Columbia, Canada, which (through films and television from the X Files to Insomnia) has become shorthand for that type of story.
I also stopped by at the whisky shop and picked up a bottle of something called Athol Brose, purely on the strength of the Cocteau Twins having titled a song after it. It's quite nice.
I'm in Edinburgh right now; I'm posting this from a (somewhat expensive though centrally located) Internet café at Waverley Station, and won't be able to post photos until I'm back in London at least (within a week, most probably). There's a Human League song playing on the radio, which is somewhat unusual perhaps.
Edinburgh is a very impressive-looking place; more so than London, I'd say. It's built on the slopes of hills (around a castle of historic significance), and thus you have interesting things such as streets on different levels, entire streets going under other streets, buildings with two ground floors and lanes which are winding stone staircases. Which, as you can imagine, looks quite doovy.
A word of advice for visitors to Edinburgh: if you're keen on photography (or just nice views), go to Calton Hill. (Why doesn't every city have high hills with impressive neoclassical monuments in the centre?) If you're afraid of heights, ignore the preceding advice.
(Another word of advice: don't bother with those British Telecom Internet-enabled payphones. They're a nice idea, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. For one, the vandal-proof, payphone-style keyboards are impossible to type on at all comfortably, and the keys tend to behave somewhat erratically unless whacked with great determination. (And also the custom browsing software they use lacks certain amenities, such as, say, HTTP authentication. Haven't these people heard of Mozilla?))
I never did end up making it to Machynlleth; as I was making my way to the 13:35 train, I remembered that I hadn't visited the record shop (which Jim had recommended), and so I went to check it out. (I ended up buying 4 CDs there.) Then I caught the next train out, which was meant to be 2 hours later, but was about 15 minutes late on top of that. Britain's railway network, it seems, has seen better days. Anyway, I'm back in London, for now anyway.
(I also managed to score a short-sleeved Ben Sherman shirt which was marked down to £18 at a local clothing shop. That's one of the advantages of visiting from the other hemisphere, where it is short-sleeve weather.)
Anyway, I rather liked Aberystwyth. It's a rather charming combination of Victorian seaside resort (smack bang in the middle of the Welsh riviera), rural Celtic village and happening university town. The weather also seemed quite mild there too; I'm told that because of Aberystwyth's location, it usually is.
I'm in Aberystwyth; I arrived on the train last night, and met up with Jim and Catrin, at whose quite pleasant (and undeniably fire-safe, judging by the bilingual warning signs on all the doors) flat I stayed overnight. Anyway, they're both quite nice people, and as interesting to talk to in real life as online.
I saw parts of a video of the production of A Clockwork Orange in which they acted (Jim playing the minister and Stanley Kubrick, and Alex and the prison chaplain all played by multiple actors; also, the main actor playing Alex was female), which was quite horrorshow. I also saw some fragments of the local Welsh-language channel (S4C); there's some rather high-quality film made here which unfortunately doesn't make it out into the wider world because it's in Welsh. (There's even a Welsh anime-style film, which looked quite impressive.)
I spent most of this morning wandering up and down Aberystwyth (an undeniably charming place; I can see why people who come here often end up staying), taking photographs and picking up bits of Welsh from the bilingual signs. I'll probably stop at Machynlleth (sp?) on the way back.
I've been a bit quiet lately, because I've been too busy wandering around London to blog. I spent yesterday wandering around and doing some shopping. (It appears that Ben Sherman shirts are actually cheaper in Melbourne than here, as I found to my dismay; though at least here you can find a good range of Radiohead/W.A.S.T.E. T-shirts in shops.)
Today, however, I spent much of the day wandering around the Victoria & Albert Museum. It really is a fantastic place; it has huge warrens of rooms full of all sorts of objects and artefacts; from the personal effects of 16th-century people to machines made in the Renaissance (some of which look surprisingly modern), to designer plastic radios from the 1970s to huge statues, along with insights into the worlds from which these artefacts came.
Luckily the weather is looking up somewhat, as from tomorrow I'll be travelling around a bit.
Seen on a flyer picked up from a record shop in Islington:
1st Thursday of every month at Lounge Bar
Kid Sinead and Friends
With regular guests including:
Billy Reeves (BBC London Live)
Playing Bowlie favourites such as: Free Design, Mamas & Papas, Beach Boys, Young Marble Giants, Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian, Black Box Recorder, Broadcast and a Bowlie shaking selection of 60s/French Pop, Northern Soul, 50's Jives and varied records of sweet and melodic sounds, old, new & rare!
The obverse of the flyer has a drawing from an old children's book of a little boy and girl running along a street, with a Belle & Sebastian lyric printed over it.
Does anyone know what the word "Bowlie" means in this context? I get the feeling it's a (new?) name for a twee-pop subculture, but why Bowlie?
I spent most of today wandering around Tate Modern. It's pretty doovy, and should be on the itinerary of any London visitor interested in 20th-century art. Some of the things which made the biggest impression were the Jan Svankmajer animation (that's the one about three varieties of dialogue), the Sarah Lucas room (which contained a number of objects as social commentary, including a garden gnome covered in cigarettes and pages of a tabloid newspaper, presented verbatim as comment on the prurient interests it is aimed at), Thomas Struth's photographs of buildings and cityscapes, Cindy Sherman's Bus Riders (a series of photographs of the artist disguised as various bus passengers), the Soviet propaganda posters, and the mail-art room (which, alas, was towards the end of my visit, and I didn't have the time to do it justice).
I went along to the Ninetynine gig in Soho this afternoon, partly to see them and partly for the supports (it's always interesting to see what supports a band has in a different city).
The first band was meant to be a C86-ish outfit named Kicker; but they pulled out, and so were replaced by a band called The Projects. They were fairly typical indie-pop; guitars, keyboards (a Casio and, adding that particularly English touch, a Novation analogue synth), and punchy short songs with indie-pop sensibility. They were OK; pleasant enough, though they didn't stand out much.
Next up was a punky outfit named The Lollies. Comprised of two Canadians and an American who met up whilst in London, the band consisted of a punk rocker girl with pigtails, fishnets and a Powerpuff Girls T-shirt playing guitar (with lots of jagged chords), another girl in a white singlet playing bass (quite nimbly and melodically), and a guy with sideburns and black-framed glasses behind the drums. They were sort of power-pop, alternating between punk numbers and wry pop ballads (such as Office Romance); think something not far from Bidston Moss, perhaps. Anyway, I ended up shelling out the ten quid and getting their CD.
Then Ninetynine came on. They played with a 3-member lineup, without Iain (that's the anarchist hipster guitarist). They had a few technical glitches early on, and the PA/mixing was a bit muddy in places, but they rocked and the audience picked up on that, applauding wildly after each song. (Mind you, Laura said at the end of the show that about half the audience were from Melbourne.)
I did manage to get some photos (my camera sort of works), but this laptop's rather slow at editing them and it'd take me all night to get some thumbnails ready, and I'm too tired. Maybe later.
A few photos from Portobello Market last Saturday:
This chap's name appears to be Mafa Mianmaud Bamba, and he is a localised celebrity of some sort, at least for his mad hairdo. He was standing near a wall, with a rack of postcards of himself which he was giving away for free, and smiling at people. A number of people posed for photos with him. I don't know whether he has any other claim to fame other than his hair.
A woman with an antique barrel organ and a pram full of small dogs in hand-knitted woollen cardigans. She would turn the handle and the dogs would yap. Almost like something out of the English equivalent of a Jeunet & Caro movie or something.
Marxist chic appears to be big in the yoof-oriented parts of London, with Soviet-flag T-shirts and numerous items of Che merchandise all over market stalls. In fact, not far from where this picture was taken, someone was selling Che handbags. This particular variant of the icon appears on the railway bridge across Portobello Rd.
(I also saw some Giant stickers nearby; though, so far, I haven't seen one THIS IS A HEAVY PRODUCT sticker anywhere in London.)
The good news is: I've managed to get the laptop I'm using to read my CompactFlash cards. (For some reason, only the second PCMCIA slot works.)
The bad news is: my camera appears to be broken. I.e., the mode switch (the one that goes between camera, off and playback modes) seems to be stuck permanently in camera mode; rotating it has no effect. Anyone know of a good, quick and reasonably priced camera repair place in London?
I picked up the recent Time Out (sort of like the London Beat/InPress, only in magazine format, not free and a bit more upmarket), and apparently there's an indie-band open-stage night tonight at some place called the George and Dragon, in West Acton. Which could be something good, or it could be third-rate post-Oasis brit-rock bands or something. I might go to check it out anyway.
Also, the supports for next Tuesday's Ninetynine gig at the Metro Club sound good; one of them is said to be C86 inspired, which to a Field Mice fan like myself sounds rather promising.
In other words, I went to the Portobello Market today and scored a pair of Doc Martens for £35 (which comes out as A$98 or so with the peso's current exchange rate). Not bad, given that they cost close to twice that much back home. Ben Sherman shirts don't seem to be much cheaper here, though.
So here I am in London, home of the brash outrageous and free. I'm now typing this on a borrowed laptop in Ealing (a perfectly pleasant and very leafy sort of place). After hopping on a plane and spending some 20 hours onboard, mostly watching the animated map on the screen in front of me, I spent much of the day wandering around Notting Hill and Soho, and managed to visit a few of the local record shops. I only picked up 4 CDs, though (a promo copy of Primal Scream's Autobahn 66, Neil Finn's cover of There Is A Light That Never Goes Out (only £1, and so far sounds quite decent, if not particularly different from the original), Röyksopp's nicely electroclashy Remind Me single, and the Pop Romantique compilation with Air and Ivy and such, all at Music & Video Exchange).
A few observations while I still remember:
- The new Flaming Lips album (heard on the plane over here) is good. I'll probably have to pick it up.
- Sunsets from 30,000 feet don't look anywhere near as interesting as you'd think they would.
- There's a shop in Carnaby St. called Casio @ Carnaby, whose name sounds like an indie-pop compilation album concept.
- No matter how many CDs you burn to take with you, there'll be something you want to listen to which you left at home.
Anyway, I'm about to fall over, so it's goodbye from me for now. More to come later, including possibly photos if I sort out some technical problems.
Btw, does anyone know a good way of getting Windows 95 to talk to USB Mass Storage devices (i.e., CompactFlash readers), or IDE storage devices? Is it doable?
I went to the Empress tonight, to see a few bands. I only saw The Steinbecks' last two or so songs, but they seemed quite good, in a Sarah Records-esque jangle-pop sort of way. Lacto-Ovo played mostly new material, and sounded rather early-80s (as they do); in one of their songs, the guitar was somewhat reminiscent of The Cure circa A Forest. With any luck they'll have a new EP out sometime soon.
This evening I went to Nic of Dandelion Wine's birthday do at Chung On, a good (if stuck in the '70s decor-wise) Chinese restaurant in Moonee Ponds. A good time was had by all, with a lot of entertaining conversation (not to mention good food; the mango chicken is highly recommended). And the background music was quite amusing; just sufficiently loud to be audible during lulls in conversation, it consisted of an endless loop of ridiculously bland elevator-music instrumentals of pop songs (everything from George Michael's Careless Whisper, performed Kenny G-style, to Burt Bacharach's Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head; no Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins covers just yet, but give them time).
Today I picked up a copy of Belle & Sebastian's The Boy With The Arab Strap, after hearing it in the car when catching a lift back from Saturday's Ninetynine gig. (The advantage of living in North Fitzroy: people you catch lifts with are likely to have good stuff playing in the car.) I'm listening to it now, and it's growing on me. There are some quite catchy understated melodies there; I particularly like Sleep the Clock Around and Ease Your Feet In The Sea.
I didn't get into Belle & Sebastian a few years ago, when all the indiekids were wearing their I-own-Tigermilk badges, because I just didn't get them. I mean, I was into The Smiths, mostly because of Morrissey's sardonic miserablism and Wildean allusions (and probably living a socially isolated existence in Ferntree Gully had something to do with it), but B&S didn't scratch the same itch. Then again, I didn't quite get the concept of (indie-)pop sensibility back then either; it was a bit too subtle for me. As they say, when the student is ready, the teacher appears.
I had a fairly busy evening tonight (in a good way). Readers of my blog may remember my dilemma from a few days ago. To whit; two shows worth seeing, both unlikely to be repeated, on the same night. Firstly, American indie singer/songwriter Jen Turrell was playing at the Empress, in her last tour of Australia before she and Stewart have to stay in the USA for two years (it's a permanent residency requirement, I believe); secondly, the ever-rocking Ninetynine were set to play at the Tote, in possibly their last gig before their world tour. If I missed them, my next chance to see them would probably be in Reykjavík in November.
And then I realised that (a) Jen was playing a support set, while Ninetynine were headlining, and so if I went to see Jen, and then rushed down to the Tote, I had a good chance of catching them. Which is exactly what I did.
I got to the Empress shortly after 9. Jen was the first act on, and went on stage at 9:30, playing about a dozen short, sweet jangly-pop songs, accompanied by Stewart on bass and their TR-808 on Minidisc. It was a very nice set, with a lot of lovely harmonies and classic chord progressions, and a bit more than a touch of fey sensitivity.
Then I made my way to the Tote. I got there halfway through the second band's set. The band room was quite full, and I recognised a number of the people there (Jesse from Sir, Sarah-Jane from I Want a Hovercraft, a girl who followed Ninetynine all the way from Sweden, and a guy who collects Casio keyboards were some of the people I ran into.)
Anyway, Ninetynine came on, and they rocked hard. They had a lot of kit with them (vibraphone, glockenspiel and three Casios), swapped instruments a lot, played with great energy, doing a lot of new songs and finishing with an intense version of Polar Angle. Their new material is very strong; sophisticated and layered, and yet with a spiky edge and punk energy, and their next album (due in 3 or 4 months) should be something to look forward to.
It was a good night.
It's the little things... I was in the RMIT Bookshop today, looking for some work-related titles, and noticed that Lush's Split was playing. That made me smile.
Tonight I went to night 2 of the 555/Red Square/&c popfest at the Empress. It was perhaps even better than night 1; for one, the music was a bit more diverse. There were also fewer people there, perhaps because something else was on.
First up, Guy Blackman and Mia Schoen played a set (of which I missed the start); with Guy (who also co-hosts Untune The Sky and runs local indie label Chapter Music) singing and playing guitar, and Mia playing piano. Then Fog and Ocean came on; they consisted of people from various bands (including Stuart and Jen, and Kellie from Sleepy Township) singing, and noodling (or miming) on toy instruments over a MiniDisc of prerecorded electropop. They had a lot of fun doing it, and pulled it off with style. (At one stage, Kellie pretended to play a Casiotone keyboard (which had "WE DON'T ROCK" written on the back in black marker) with a piece of paper on the keys.) Julian Teakle played overdriven electric guitar riffs and sang about timeless themes such as parties being over; his style sounded very pub-rawk.
Even As We Speak, Sydney's contribution to the Sarah Records fey-indie-pop sound of the early 90s, were scheduled to play next, and did, with a drastically reduced lineup. (Only Mary, the vocalist, made it down to Melbourne.) She had a go at playing the guitar lines and singing, and then enlisted another guy to help her on acoustic guitar. Her set was very lovely indeed; nice chords and melodies and touchingly sincere lyrics delivered in a mellifluous voice. It's good to know that Even As We Speak are still around; apparently, they're working on new material; their Peel Sessions CD is about to be released, and they're negotiating with the Sarah Records people to rerelease their back catalogue. I look forward to hearing more from them.
They were followed by Minimum Chips, who played a very tight and groovy set of their brand of retro-styled pop. They played mostly new, as yet unrecorded, songs (though one does appear on the souvenir CD that was given away at the door). It was then that the crowd started gathering in earnest. When they finished, they lent their Yamaha organ to Huon.
Finally, Boyracer came on (this time consisting of Stewart and Jen, with the guy from Bend Over Boyfriend on drums) and tore the roof off the house; seriously rocking out with some frantic power-pop. As usual, Stewart (who, in his Lambretta shirt and red-and-blue-target-logo boots was more Mod than Damon Albarn and both Gallagher brothers put together) jumped around like a maniac and thrashed the hell out of his guitar.
(Once again I ended up buying too many CDs, as one does at these sorts of events. Tonight I picked up the retrospectives from Boyracer and Minimum Chips, a rather nice guitars-and-bleeps pop record from an outfit called The Love Letter Band and the new Tracey Read album. I've spent a ridiculous amount on CDs this weekend. Though, upon listening to some of them, I'd say it was money well spent.)
Anyway, it was a great night. For those who missed it but wish you hadn't, Boyracer, Mary of Even As We Speak and Ashtrayboy are playing at Pony tomorrow (Sunday) night.
I just picked up a Handspring Visor Deluxe handheld to replace my dead Pilot 5000. It was a choice between this one and the slimline Visor Edge, both heavily discounted, but I went with the Deluxe, because (a) the only advantage of the Edge is that it's slimmer and sexier-looking (not something I look for in a handheld computer), (b) this one was cheaper, and (c) I don't like the idea of a PDA with volatile memory running on an internal rechargeable battery (as those degrade over time).
Now to get it working with Linux...
It looks like my Pilot (an ancient US Robotics Pilot 5000, not one of those new-fangled PalmPilots) is cactus. The touch screen finally gave out, and now varies between locking the machine up and not working at all. I've managed to get the data off it, and now am looking at what to replace it with. (I'm thinking of going with a Psion.)
I've just returned from Apollo Bay, after spending about 3 days there at the Music Festival. It was great.
I got there on Friday afternoon, arriving on the coach, and checking into the Apollo Bay Hotel (that's the big flat pub with the sprawling beer garden); I then wandered around the township, which I hadn't seen for something like 10 years. I first came to Apollo Bay when I was 17, and have vivid memories of that summer; the sensation of the vast chasm of time between then and now (a lot changes in 11 years) was quite profound.
(Apollo Bay has changed, but not as much as I feared. It hasn't become the St Kilda by the Otways that some have said; and while there is a prominent tourist industry, it's not all chrome yuppie latté bars and bling-bling, at least not yet. (No, that'd be Lorne.) Apollo Bay is still a small township, with a lack of slickly branded consumer experiences, thank the Gods for that. (How long that will last I don't know; land prices are through the roof and the wealthy are buying up land, undoubtedly to knock down the modest houses and replace them with chrome-and-concrete lifestyle fortresses.) The changes I've noticed are that the old Post Office building is now a fruit shop (I think it was an arts shop in 1992, but I'm not sure), and the Mechanics' Hall is no longer a cinema. (I remember seeing a rather bad horror movie there in 1991.)
Anyway, the bands: the highlights from what I saw would be FourPlay (who rocked; the crowd went wild, even in the unenviable Sunday morning slot), Sarah-Jane Wentzki (who has a great voice, and played some melancholic almost trip-hop compositions on guitar, accompanied by Seth Rees' shoegazing guitarwork), and the all-star jam at the end (led by Melbourne reggae outfit Bomba, who obviously studied Bob Marley in great detail). Other acts I saw included the Mongolian Fishmongers (who weren't as punk as the blurb suggested, being more of a pub-style Celtic/country outfit, and none of them had bizarre hair or piercings), Ember Swift (who was quite good in a folky PC singer-songwriter sort of way) and Skazz (who played a mixture of 1960s-style ska and jazz, and did a good job of it). The opening night performance was quite cool too, with fireworks, fire twirling, and people in costumes, and various music (the second piece, with the flute and massed choir, was quite good).
Other than that, I bimbled around Apollo Bay, took a lot of photos (the ones which weren't obliterated when my camera crashed may be posted here soon), went to a few workshops (the TZU turntablism workshop (which was fun), and a blues guitar workshop (which was somewhat interesting)), and hung around with friends (Peter and the gang, and Seth and friends).
All in all, I had a great time. I'll probably go back next year.
My musical instrument collection grows slightly: I was on Sydney Rd. today, and at one of the pawn shops there, I picked up a Casiotone MT-45 keyboard. (That's the one with the laughably thin imitations of instrument sounds, and the 8 built-in rhythm loops that you may have heard used by everyone from Ninetynine to Sealifepark to Lacto-Ovo.) I'll probably use it for experimenting, and possibly in recording as well; and if I figure out how to get into live performance, it may come in handy (being small, for one).
Last drinks, everyone: Today was the end of a Melbourne institution, the Punters Club; the last day of the venerable pub/band venue's operation, and they chose to go out with a bang. The doors were open for free, and they had bands all day, from 3PM until late in the night. And many people rocked up to pay their respects to the Punters, to have one last pot (or several), tread the sticky carpet for the very last time and reminisce about all the great bands they have seen there, among them your humble narrator. As it was the last ever day at the Punters, and entry was free, the venue was packed soon after 3PM; after that, a long queue formed outside the door, with people being allowed in only when others left. Inside it was pretty tight.
I have seen many good shows at the Punters; I remember when I lived out in Ferntree Gully, driving down to Brunswick St. in my mum's car (I must have known the back streets of Fitzroy quite well then, or at least in terms of parking spots) to see The Paradise Motel there, and a number of bands after that. And now that era has come to an end. It's somewhat sad to have walked out that door for the last time, knowing that it's not a doorway I will pass through again in this lifetime.
To paraphrase one graffito in the Punters, Brunswick Street looks likely to die now that its heart has been ripped out. The street's cultural authenticity is in decline, and Brunswick St. is looking more like Chapel St. with each day that passes. (Even in the queue I noticed a difference between the people lining up to enter the Punters and the people walking down the street; the latter were wearing more designer-logo T-shirts, of the sort that sell for $70 in Prahran.) Oh well, now there's one fewer reason to get off the 112 tram on Brunswick St.
Oh yes, the bands. The first one I saw was some country outfit; then came Ruckrover (some of whose members worked at the Punters), who were very tight and energetic, with perhaps a slight Northern Soul feel to some of their numbers. Then came Disaster Plan, who played (as promised) quietly enough to be drowned out by the crowd, and ended with some rants about the inferiority of the other pubs (the Evelyn, for example), and then was Gaslight Radio, who were also quite good.
It's good to run into people who appreciate brilliant, long-forgotten bands few others have heard of. I went to the Empress Hotel this evening to check out the bands. The first up was a touring English indie duo named Partition; two guys with a guitar and a drum machine singing slightly humorous indie numbers, with a subtle Sarah Records feel in places, only a bit more punk in others. (Among the songs they did was one about thinness obsession to the tune of Billy Bragg's New England, and a slightly punky yet touchingly heartfelt rant-over-guitar-strumming piece about having fancied some girl for 10 years and then finally going out with her for two disastrous weeks, which reminded me a bit of The Cure's So What), finally ending with a funny little dance to a drum machine pattern. Whilst on stage, they wore white T-shirts, reading "APART" and "APRAT".
Afterwards, I noticed that one of the members of the group (Martin) was wearing a T-shirt with the Field Mice soundbite "CHOCOLATE LOVE SEX" printed on it; I asked him whether it was a Field Mice reference, and it was. It turned out that he used to go and see many of their gigs when they were around (late 80s/early 90s), and was into the whole Sarah scene. Anyway, we ended up talking a bit about bands and such. He also mentioned that Partition have written one Field Mice-inspired song, but they didn't play it tonight, as it's not finished yet.
Anyway, Partition seem like a fairly interesting outfit; with any luck they'll record something soon.
Tonight (well, last night), I went to the Black Cat Cabaret to see the New Buffalo performance. This time there was no backing band, just Sally with two keyboards, a drum machine (a Roland CR-68, for the trainspotters out there) and a guitar. She performed a number of songs, singing and playing keyboards quite deftly. It was arguably better than the Revolver show on Monday; the more minimal instrumentation worked better with the vocals, and also the smaller space (a café with a stage, rather than a cavernous nightclub-type venue) was probably more suited to the show.
Rock over London, rock on Chicago: I just had a bus ride almost worthy of a Wesley Willis song. For one, the bus arrived 10 minutes late, and was unusually crowded. Then, a block into the ride, the driver turned into the wrong side street, realising his mistake when faced with a ONE WAY sign on the much narrower side street than it should be. He manouvred the bus out of the street, but not without grinding it against a sign. After that, the bus (which was considerably late) kept stopping at pretty much every stop to let people on or off, and finally took another wrong turn, missing the stop I usually get off at by a block.
Yesterday I was at Windsor Station, and noticed that the music in the café in the former stationmaster's office sounded rather familiar; the stereo there was playing one of my favourite discs from some years back, Dead Can Dance's Within the Realm of a Dying Sun (the closing strains of Xavier and the opening of Dawn of the Iconoclast). Then my train rolled in, and for a moment I had a vision that it was not the nondescript Hitachi tin can it was, but something from an earlier era; a great steel locomotive, with one baleful burning eye of a headlamp.