The Null Device

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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.
  • P1320636The 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.
I didn't get to see everything, of course; I missed, among others, Monnone Alone (whom I did manage to catch in London recently, though) and most of the Pastels' set, among innumerable others.

I have posted photos here; I'm also uploading some videos I took here.

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I recently bought myself a Korg NanoKey. That's a tiny USB MIDI keyboard, about the width of a low-end MacBook, with two octaves of plasticky-feeling keys.

Laptop and Korg NanoKey
The NanoKey has received mixed reviews, with some admiring the concept and others complaining at how cheap it feels. I've only been using it for a week or so, but I'm extremely pleased with it. For one, it's tiny, which makes all the difference. It fits comfortably in a laptop bag, and is small enough to get out and use anywhere; I can take it out in a café without looking like some kind of attention-seeking weirdo, or even use it on a train (these have both been tested; the last one, in economy class aboard the Eurostar). Or, I can place it unobstrusively on the desk. The convenience factor is a big win; in contrast, I also have a 25-key Evolution MK-425C, which is about the size of a backpack, and has been gathering dust for ages.

Of course, as you can probably guess, the NanoKey is thin and plasticky. If you're guessing it feels cheap, kind of like a child's toy piano, you'd be right. No-one will mistake it for a Steinway grand any time soon. Though, given the convenience, that doesn't matter; it works well enough for what it does, which is sending MIDI notes better than the QWERTY keyboard. And furthermore, it is touch-sensitive; I was quite surprised to find this out.

It also came with a download code for the cut-down edition of Korg's M1 softsynth. Which is great should I ever need an Italo-house piano or similar.

The upshot of this is that I've been playing with music more, and when I do, in a more hands-on way; actually playing notes, rather than clicking and dragging. In any case, it was probably the best £45 or so I've spent in a long time.

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The Graun's Alexis Petridis is unimpressed with the new CSS album, finding that the formerly chaotic Brazilian band has turned into an inoffensively generic commercial-indie-by-numbers act, its former appealing oddness—and indecorous language—ruthlessly eradicated in the pursuit of homogeneity:

Often, Donkey sounds like someone has tracked down the anonymous session musicians who spent the 1970s knocking out polite covers of chart hits for budget-priced Top of the Pops compilation albums and got them to have a stab at replicating CSS's sound. It couldn't seem less incongruous than when flashes of the old sharp CSS attitude occasionally appear on the album, marooned over their new rounded-off sound. "I'm gonna drink 'til I pass out, I'm gonna jump on the table and dance my ass off 'til I die," sings Lovefoxxx on Left Behind, sounding more like a woman who's already got her dressing gown on and is checking the Sky+ programme planner to see what time Midsomer Murders starts.
Perhaps it has something to do with the way CSS have been received, particularly in the UK. As with Björk, despite the critical plaudits and high rankings on style mag cool lists, there's a touch of Clive James chuckling affectionately at the Japanese on Endurance about people's reaction to CSS: look at the crazy foreigners with their funny clothes and pidgin English song titles. You get the sense that the band's members occasionally feel they're being patronised. Shortly before her recent departure from the band, bassist Ira Trevisan told one journalist she was sick of being asked about their "Brazilian heritage", adding: "It would be good if we were Belgian." There's a sentence you don't hear every day. Maybe the idea is to prove they have more in common with their European peers than they do with their native forebears, to make music to which no one could append the word "wacky", but it's hard not to feel that becoming as boring as your average British indie band is a pretty extreme way of avoiding the odd question about Tropicalia.

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I recently received in the mail a new EP by a band named Moscow Olympics, and have been listening to it rather a lot (as is evident in my stats). Anyway, I think this is a cracker of a record, and possibly the début of the year.

I found out about Moscow Olympics' Cut The World via the indie-mp3 blog (though had heard the band mentioned before), and ordered a copy. Soon enough, an envelope arrived bearing Swedish postage stamps and containing a CD, its cardboard case printed with photographs of the interiors of 1980s East German apartments.

The record itself starts strongly, with gated drums straight out of 1988 and the plaintive ringing of a guitar line; within the first 30 seconds of the first track, What Is Left Unsaid, it is obvious that this is going to be a slice of classic indiepop in the post-C86 vein. Choppy guitar chords, wistful chord progressions, tensely wound rhythms and Hookier-than-thou melodic basslines are reminiscent of the likes of The Bodines, Factory-era Wake or something from Manchester before it became Madchester; just listening to the record, one is transported back to northern England in the 1980s, to visions of row houses snaking their way downhill under the leaden glow of grey skies; views from grotty bedsit windows, the BBC on the telly, and the miners' strike in the headlines. Which is all the more unusual, as the band hail not from Thatcher-era Grey Britain but from Manila, in the Philippines. Yet, obviously, they are driven by a deep love of 1980s British indie-pop, as this record is imbued with its spirit, with all the awkward exuberance that still keeps this genre fresh and relevant.

The next two tracks go on as the record started; in the fourth track, Safe, the vocals, which already were low in the mix and washed with reverb, blossom into full-blown shoegazing à la Slowdive or Secret Shine. Meanwhile, track 6, Ocean Sign, ramps up the New Order influences, with extra-Hooky basslines; it almost sounds like something off Low-life. The finale and title cut starts innocuously, but rises to a crescendo of gloriously delayed guitar, like a brighter, sunnier version of Slowdive's Primal (the closing track from their first album), before exiting gloriously in a tail of shimmering reverb.

I'm tipping this to be one of my records of 2008. Well done, Moscow Olympics.

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Tech blog Ars Technica has a meticulously detailed review of OS X 10.5 Leopard. As one would expect, it's 17 pages long and goes far deeper than the usual roundup of cool features and visual effects, delving as deeply as the kernel and APIs. In it we learn, among other things, that Apple are finally killing off the old Carbon APIs, inherited from the old MacOS, meaning that someone at Adobe and Microsoft will have a lot of rewriting to do. Not to mention that, while the UI isn't seamlessly scalable yet, it's going in that direction, with elements (such as window decorations and checkboxes, for example) being assembled from XML-based "recipes" (and all the "Aqua" eyecandy appears to be made by distorting a source bitmap of a glass sphere). On the downside, the article's quite scathing about the new Dock and folder icons.

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The Graun's resident indiepop kid, Jude Rogers, has a track-by-track, minute-by-minute review of the new Architecture In Helsinki album:

(track 1) 0.37 Good God - this is the strangest damned thing I've ever heard. Punchy, nasty drum beats, chunky, clunky metallic keyboards - imagine a Prince album track from the mid 1980s reworked by the devil - and the Cookie Monster drunkenly growling on top about brides and grooms and offices.
(track 5) 1.36 Here's a thing: I like this band much more when they're calmer. Does this say something about me or them? Am I a frighteningly boring old bugger, startled to smithereens when I hear the merest snarl? Or is music better when it's controlled and considered? This young thing will plump for the second option.
(track 10) 1.13 Wo-ah! Plink! BZZZZ! Suddenly I know EXACTLY why it's not working. It's not quite a case of too many cooks spoiling things; it's a case of too many ingredients being stirred into the broth. You know when you're younger, and you think the more herbs and flavours you put into a meal the fancier it'll be? And then you have a nice, simply cooked bit of beef and it's the best thing you've ever had? It's like that. Less wow, bam, dang, wang, wallop, wah, my architectural friends. Just stick to the wow.

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And now, here is my annual write-up of the past year in music:

Top 10 albums of 2006 (in alphabetical order, by artist):

  • The Blow - Paper Television

    Polished yet glitchy electropop, with just the right mix of slickness and roughness, with thoughtful lyrics. Pile Of Gold is perhaps the best pop song about the economics of sex ever recorded, The Big U talks about the universe as a romantic rival, and Babay (eat a critter, feel its wrath) is a rather clever use of meat-eating as a metaphor for unrequited love, from the point of view of the eaten creature/spurned lover. The melodies are pretty catchy too; this all works as pop music.

  • CSS - Cansei de Ser Sexy

    They came out of Sao Paolo, they look like American Apparel models, have songs with titles like Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above, Artbitch and Music Is My Hot Hot Sex, and their name means "tired of being sexy" in Portuguese. Which all sounds perhaps a bit too VICE Magazine, though their music is actually good; a bit like a more electro Shonen Knife.

  • Gersey - No Satellites

    The Melbourne group's third album, sees their guitarwork joined by more driving, angular grooves. It's all good.

  • I'm From Barcelona - Let Me Introduce My Friends

    A record so exuberantly joyous that it makes The Go! Team sound like The Smiths by comparison. A Swedish chap named Emanuel and 28 of his friends getting together to sing perfectly catchy pop songs about stamp collections, treehouses, and friendship, and once you hear them you'll be forgiven for wanting to join in and sing along. As the end of the booklet says, now you're from Barcelona too.

  • James Figurine - Mistake Mistake Mistake Mistake

    A new record by Jimmy Tamborello, better known as half of The Postal Service. Only with the smugly saccharine romantic-comedy feel of Give Up replaced with Kraftwerkesque cold feeling and sparse electronic buildups like winter landscapes scrolling past alongside an Autobahn. The choirs of robots are back, though they're less shiny, and their joy circuits have since burned out. One of the quiet triumphs of the year.

  • Mojave 3 - Puzzles Like You

    Once upon a time, Neil Halstead and Rachel Goswell were in a band named Slowdive, and crafted lush, intricate walls of gently intense emotive sound. Then they threw that all away, formed a band named Mojave 3 and started making stripped-down 2-chord country/folk busker tunes, refusing to even mention their previous incarnation. Now they got their groove back, and come back with an album of lush, layered pop songs. It's not shoegazing (though there are enough bands doing that for those who want it), but it is a return to form.

  • Momus - Ocky Milk

    The latest from self-styled tender pervert Momus, a mashup of influences from Canto-pop and synthpop to music-hall, ragtime, along with nods to hip genres such as glitch and freak-folk (though Momus, in his glorious eccentricity, is the sort who never quite fits into a scene or genre). There are numerous layers of subtlety and reference in this work, and analysing them could be a PhD thesis in itself. Having said that, it makes a more listenable (if still wilfully eccentric) pop record than Otto Spooky or Oskar Tennis Champion. My favourite track would probably be Zanzibar; one day, I want to go to Zanzibar and watch the sun set over the Atlantic whilst listening to this.

  • The Radio Dept. - Pet Grief

    The second album from the Swedish shoegazer/indie-pop band, and a very polished work, with lush yet wistful pop songs constructed from clunky 1980s drum machines, processed guitars and the odd keyboard, and a few Pet Shop Boys influences sneaking in amongst the Slowdive and Sarah Records.

  • Spearmint - Paris In A Bottle

    A concept album, based around an encounter between four young strangers in Paris a decade earlier and their wishes for the future, told in recollections from the imperfect present. Spearmint are in fine form, doing what they do well; catchy bossa-nova-influenced pop songs with themes of bittersweet complexity; their arrangements are more sophisticated than on earlier records. Highlights are the two tracks which bookend the CD, and the disco groove of Psycho Magnet; also listen out for the French accordion on Wednesday Night.

  • Wolf & Cub - Vessels

    Some kids from Adelaide with guitars, but don't let that put you off. This isn't the knuckle-dragging rockist primitivism of Jet or Eddy Current Suppression Ring but a quite effective blend of krautrock and psychedelic rock grooves, with perhaps a nod to the Stone Roses; it has driving motorik grooves, dubby basslines, fuzzy guitars, the odd psych-rock freak-out and creative use of pedals and studio effects, and it all hangs together rather nicely. I only discovered this album at the end of the year, though feel that it merits inclusion.

I haven't nominated an album of the year, though if pressed, I'd probably say it was Momus.

Other albums of note included: Beirut, Gulag Orkestar (which is rather good, though has been played to death now, thanks to everyone who reads Pitchfork; see also: The Arcade Fire), Hot Chip, The Warning (think 1980s Prince meets Aphex Twin; highlight: the title track, with its contradictory combination of gentle beauty and messages of aggression), and Small Sips, The Morning Ripples (a new project from members of Sodastream and The Paradise Motel, in a somewhat Mojave 3-ish direction), New Waver, Neuters (a compilation of covers of popular songs, reinforcing New Waver's Darwinian-pessimist ideology).

There were also new albums from Belle & Sebastian (which was OK, though I'm not sure I like the 1970s rock direction they're going in) and Camera Obscura (which sounds less like Belle & Sebastian than their previous album, and takes more cues from 1960s country and Motown). Ninetynine also released a new album, though it didn't grab me quite as much as The Process and Receiving The Sounds Of Science Fiction.

The gigs of 2006 were (in chronological order):

  • Belle & Sebastian, Brighton, 3 February, and Hammersmith Apollo, 10 February

    Part of the tour promoting their new album, and it was great. For a band who are trotted out as the stereotype of music for bookish introverts, they rock pretty hard. The live version of Electronic Renaissance, which has become a staple of their gigs, is pretty good too.

  • Jens Lekman, Bush Hall, 16 February

    He was brilliant; playing a lot of songs, some new and some old, and putting everything into it. And at the end he appeared in the corridor with an acoustic guitar and serenaded the crowd with two songs. Jens, you rock.

  • dataPanik, the Luminaire, 6 April

    They rocked. There was so much energy and intensity. It was the same feeling I had when I saw Ninetynine for the first time at the Punters Club all those years ago. Unfortunately, the rest of the world didn't feel the same way and dataPanik, after failing to get interest, disbanded. More's the pity; though I look forward to next year's Bis reunion gig.

  • Architecture In Helsinki, ULU, 13 May

    Another great AIH gig, with a tight performance and a 7-minute block-rocking extended version of Do The Whirlwind. They played a few new songs, which are in more of an electro-funk direction, and sound brilliant. I eagerly await their new album.

  • Os Mutantes, Barbican, London, 22 May

    The legendary Brazilian Tropicalia band, who influenced everyone from Talking Heads to Architecture In Helsinki, played their first gig in 34 years(!), at the Barbican. It was a momentous event. The audience seemed evenly divided between Brazilians and non-Brazilians. The gig didn't disappoint; they put on an impressive performance. When they did Bat Macumba, people were dancing in their seats.

  • François and the Atlas Mountains, supporting Camera Obscura, 11 June

    Don't get me wrong, Camera Obscura were good, but François and his friends stole the show. Playing (and swapping) a variety of instruments, from Casio keyboards to a harp, they performed some rather nice indiepop songs with a good deal of exuberant energy. They're one to watch for the UK people.

  • Spearmint, Bush Hall, 21 August

    One of three Spearmint gigs I saw this year, and the lads put on a good show each time.

  • CSS, Dingwalls, 10 September

    They were lots of fun to see. Their gig was more rock and less electro than their album sounded, and Luisa Lovefoxxx seemed to be having lots of fun on stage.

  • I'm From Barcelona, Hoxton Bar, 14 September, and Jamm, 15 September

    If I had a gig of the year, it would probably be this one. I went to see their first gig (on the right north side of the Thames), and liked it so much I went to the second one the following day. There were 22 people on stage, singing, clapping, playing instruments and fruit-shaped shakers, playing around and having a great time whilst making perfect pop music. It was like the best party ever, only in the form of a pop concert.

  • Ninetynine, Smekkleysa, Reykjavík, 21 October, and The Windmill, Brixton, 31 October

    It was a reduced touring line-up, consisting of only Laura, Cameron and a girl who was filling in for Amy, though the magic was there. The mighty juggernaut that is the Macfarlane/Potts partnership was out in full force, and they played lots of old songs, including all the favourites. I swear that Polar Angle rocks harder every time they play it.

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Last night, I went to see A Scanner Darkly, Richard Linklater's rotoscoped/animated adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel. I was impressed.

The bizarre psychological dystopias of Philip K. Dick have, in recent years, provided ample fodder for Hollywood. Unfortunately, though, the usual treatment accorded to them involved dumbing them down, cutting out the thought-provoking elements that might annoy the average viewer who just came to see fights and explosions and stuff, "rationalising" the characters into a set that follow the Hollywood scripting rules, grafting in the usual action clichés, adding a romantic subplot so the action fans don't feel bad about bringing their girlfriends (extra revenue, you see), and hanging the whole garment on the shoulders of a larger-than-life star. Thankfully, though, Richard Linklater got to A Scanner Darkly before someone could make it into a Tom Cruise vehicle about a future dystopia run by evil psychiatrists or something, and he did a fine job with it, keeping it disorientingly true to the spirit of the book.

One of Linklater's previous films was Waking Life, a small art-house film consisting of people talking about the nature of dreams and consciousness. It was shot on video and then traced over by animators, resulting in a realistic yet stylised animation. Linklater ended up using the same effect for A Scanner Darkly, and it worked rather well. The story is darker, with its pervasive paranoia (some induced by highly addictive hallucinogenic drugs, and some by an intense war on drugs), and involves a government agent masquerading as a drug dealer (and user), who is then assigned to spy on himself (his supervisor doesn't know who he is, as all the agents wear "scramble suits" which disguise their appearances), and is soon wondering who exactly he is, and whether his confusion is a result of the institutional paranoia of the drug war or drug-induced psychosis.

The animation was of a higher quality than in Waking Life, which in some ways seemed like a rough sketch for this, and works rather well in the context of the film. Whilst some commentators doubt the point of animation that incorporates live-action detail rather than simplifying and caricaturing, it works rather well here (though one could argue that, much of the time, it isn't so much animation as a rather labour-intensive image-processing effect). The use of Thom Yorke's music in the closing credits was also an inspired move; Yorke's left-of-the-Guardian visions of a Blairite/corporatist hell aren't too far away from PKD's Orange County dystopias. And who would have guessed that it is possible for Keanu Reeves to not be annoying, at least when he's traced over by animators and furthermore placed in a scramble suit?

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I picked up a copy of Morrissey's new album, You Are The Quarry, last week. I rather like it.

You Are The Quarry was produced by Jerry Finn, best known for his work with mook bands like Blink 182 and Green Day. Perhaps Finn took this project up for the credibility (much as Trevor Horn is said to have done with the last Belle & Sebastian album); in any case, there are no big grinding nu-metal guitars, no shouted rap lyrics and no obscenities, save for the word "shit" appearing a few times. There are, however, electronics; drum machines, sampled loops, analogue synth burblings and filter sweeps, and even what sounds like a 303 squippling away under the guitars in one song. (A 303 in a Morrissey song? Surely the end times must be nigh.) The electronics are never obstrusive. Perhaps Morrissey's Smiths-era hard line against electronic music has softened over time, or possibly Finn, who, presumably, is more aware of commercial realities, persuaded him to allow them in. In any case, the decision works well, successfully maintaining the integrity of Morrissey's sound without sounding stale or rehashed.

The lyrical content is vintage Morrissey; opinionated, self-deprecating and archly humorous. He takes America to task for arrogance, prejudice and hamburgers in America Is Not The World, denounces the insipidness of mass culture in The World Is Full Of Crashing Bores, and defiantly asserts his vision for England in Irish Blood, English Heart ("I'm dreaming of a time when the English are sick to death of Labour and the Tories, and spit upon the name Oliver Cromwell, and denounce this royal line").

Those expecting Morrisseyisms won't be disappointed. I Have Forgiven Jesus is, thematically, Unloveable crossed with November Spawned A Monster ("I have forgiven Jesus, for all the love He has placed in me, when there's no-one I can turn to with this love"); How Can Anybody Possibly Know How I Feel is a defiant, almost solipsistic assertion of alienation from the human race, preemptively writing off the possibility of any meaningful connection with a fellow human being ("She told me she loved me, which means she must be insane"), whereas, in I Like You, he sings "You're not right in the head, and nor am I, and this is why I like you". In the almost New Order-esque I'm Not Sorry, he teases the listener with another non-acknowledgment of any particular sexual orientation "The woman of my dreams, she never came along, the woman of my dreams, well, there never was one".

Other songs tell stories; The First Of The Gang To Die is presumably a Sweet and Tender Hooligan inspired by the Mexican gangbangers who have become Morrissey's biggest audience, and All The Lazy Dykes is addressed to a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. The last track, You Know I Couldn't Last, is a broadside aiming at everybody Morrissey ever was let down by: journalists, fickle fans, those who accused him of racism, and his former bandmates (described as "Northern leeches").

The US special edition of You Are The Quarry comes in a gatefold sleeve, much like a miniaturised LP sleeve, with a bonus DVD. The DVD contains the video for Irish Blood, English Heart, a handful of photographs and a copy of the lyrics which are also in the booklet. There's nothing truly essential there, though hardcore Morrissey fans will want it for the video.

For the most part, I am pleased with You Are The Quarry; it has lived up to the expectations I had from seeing him play in 2002. Though, if he really lives the life he sings about, it's a worry. Being an ungainly, lonely, misanthrope at 16 is almost normal, but if one hasn't snapped out of it by the age of 44, one is well on the way to being a cranky old curmudgeon. Listen and enjoy, but also let it be a warning: go out, make some friends, find somewhere where you belong, maybe meet a nice boy or girl and find some sort of contentment, or else you may end up like Morrissey, only without the fame and record royalties.

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An interesting review of a new compilation of Jorge Luis Borges' non-fictions. (Washington Post, via Robot Wisdom)

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