Thursday, October 20, 2011

Kings In Yellow - gorgeous new Gollancz hardback SF range

Cue mutant Proustian rush for anyone who remembers harvesting the original Gollancz SF hardbacks from your local library shelves when growing up.

Nostalgia aside, let's celebrate the return of a literary design classic for Gollancz's 50th Birthday.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Make mine a 99% - A brief encounter with the Birmingham Occupation

Last Sunday I came across the Birmingham Occupation in Victoria Square. It's small, but perfectly formed at this stage. Just a few tents and banners, but inspiring to see it up in the grill of the Birmingham establishment, across the way from the Council House and cat-swinging distance from the Banking District.

Two posts ago I was reeling at the reminder that 25% of the people in my constituency are unemployed, so it's not like the great and good don't doesn't need reminding.

On Monday the camp had their first General Assembly to decide their approach - interested to hear what comes out of that as I couldn't make it down to listen in.

So, even if you can't occupy, pop along and have a chat with them, find out where they're coming from and what help they might need. They're lovely, friendly people - the Jarrow marchers of our day, perhaps - and along with climate change and global hunger this is one of the most important debates to be involved in right now.

The links!

Facebook page
Twitter feed
IndyMedia article with lots of lovely photos from the rally that kicked off the Occupation.

More photos from the banners slung under the giant video screen in Victoria Square.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Late-period Woody Allen film much like late-period Woody Allen

Proposal: Woody Allen should go down the James Patterson route of getting other people to collaborate with him on his films.

Take Midnight in Paris, where sock puppet Owen Wilson, travels back in time to an idealised 1930's and hangs out with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Dali, Picasso etc for writerly inspiration.

It's Woody on autopilot: a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of Europe, a bundle of first world problems, and a first-rate cast all bound up in self-referential autocritique (what, it's not enough to live in the past, you say? well strike a light!), an indifferent script with a few good gags and lazy direction.

Lazy direction? Let's just say I was nearly violently ill during the opening credits sequence of tourist-board Parisian scenes and leave it at that.

But it's not a bad idea for a film, if someone was genuinely interested in the artists of the 30's instead of using them to massage his proxy's ego. Oh, and interested in writing some decent jokes.

So why doesn't Woody, as he slips in to his twilight (Woodydammerung?) come up with the idea, keep directing, if he wants, but let other writers, who probably love his work up to the mid 90's, do the heavy labour he doesn't want to do?

Would we out-woody Woody, would we? Only one way to find out.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sparkbrook by-election commentary Pt 1

I'm working my way up to tackling the big political issues, like, y'know, world peace, but for now, here's a quick thought on the Sparkbrook ward city council by-election next month on 10 November. Specifically, what I'm learning from the leaflets being pushed through the door.

I've chosen Labour to look at purely because they are the only party to have given me anything to read so far, with the exception of a terse postcard from the Greens which said we are Green, we woz ere, you woz not, or something to like effect.

Disclaimer: I'm not a member of a political party, nor am I involved in Sparkbrook politics. I'll happily deconstruct any political literature I come across, just for the sheer geek-out-ability of it.

As you can see from
this year's results in May, Sparkbrook is something of an electoral anomaly in that Respect are a force to be reckoned with. Up till then, they had had all three seats for Sparkbrook. Their three councillors included the formidable Salma Yaqoob, who's triggered the by-election by stepping down for health reasons.

So it's no surprise that, with Salma off the scene, Labour's leaflet strikes a magnanimous tone. Perhaps it's courtesy, certainly there's no political capital in going on hard on Respect under the circumstances
(unlike in previous local elections)

Yep, it's clear who the enemy is here.

Here we have a critique of national politics playing proxy for local politics. Understandable but frustrating from the standpoint of wanting to make an informed choice at the ballot box.

The policy solutions? Cutting tuition fees, a tax on bankers' bonuses to create more jobs and a new law on apprenticeships. All interesting policies I'd like to examine ... as part of a UK election and political grassroots debate between elections. None are in the gift of Birmingham City Council, our beneficent municipal Godzilla.

Interesting emphasis on young people's problems, though. Is Labour trying to politicise youth, or appeal to their more-likely-to-vote parents and elder relatives?

Lib Dems and Tories picking on the people of Sparkbrook? Watch out! Sounds as if Mike Whitby is out to steal your lunch money.

I'm just a little disappointed about the standard of political discourse here.

To be fair to Labour, I will add that we also received a letter from local MP Roger Godsiff- making it 200% more literature than I've received from Respect, the Lib Dems or the Conservatives.

While two pages of text risks TL:DR it does include some local proposals:
  • Gating alleyways to prevent them being used for drug deals (is this current Council policy? they're trying to gate our alley at the moment)
  • Community-led projects like insulation, recycling, solar panels (OK - that does push my buttons)
  • More local schooling (not sure what this means but given that I don't have a hard working family and am just a feckless single, I probably don't need to).
There's a major dollop of jam tomorrow with this - the deal seems to be 'help Labour become bigger, if not the biggest party on the council, and we'll see you right.' But hey, at least that's a sensible local political strategy.

I also need to thank Labour for the statistic in the letter that 25% of people in Sparkbrook are unemployed. I mean, for Zarquon's sake, this ought to be a major wake-up call to everyone of any political persuasion and none in my neck of the woods.

Next question: so what are we going to do about it?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Ten songs which are also great fantasy short stories

Fantasy seems to fit itself better to the song form than other genre fiction. I like to think it says something about its roots in the exhumations of epic poetry by Tolkien and others, as well as the survival/revival of the wierd in the folksong tradition.

Here are ten tracks which stand up as short - possibly a little experimental - fantasy fiction while also being great songs. Do you have any additions to this list?

1. Patti Smith, Birdland: Farmboy has prophetic visions after his dad's funeral, declares himself inhuman, acquires spooky eyes and an affinity for ravens.

2. Led Zeppelin, The Battle Of Evermore: On many levels ridiculous elf-folk about armageddon, redeemed by utter dead-pan sincerity by Plant and Denny and lovely, darling mandolin. The only entry on this list with serious Tolkien debt.

3. Joanna Newsom, Monkey and Bear: There is room in this list for one tragic story of carnival animals eloping, from the Angela Carter modern fairytale wing of fantasy. Quotes from Westside Story and makes me tearful.

4. Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, The Game of Eyes: "The Game Of Eyes is played between two people on a burning marble board! Mwa ha ha ha!" Nuff said.

5. Prince, Darling Nikki: Prince is the L Rider Haggard of funk (probably NSFW lyrically).

6. Joni Mitchell, Roses Blue: Problems with fortune-telling, part 1

7. Comets On Fire, Hatched Upon The Age: Problems with fortune telling, part 2

8. Tom Waits, Underground: Tom bangs on pots and pans and shouts about the Hollow World. This list's Fisher King entry.

9. Scott Walker, The Seventh Seal: Why Scott? A five-minute mariachi version of Ingmar Bergman's chess-with-the-Grim-Reaper-classic! How thoughtful of you!

10. David Bowie, Magic Dance: What? It's Dr Seuss goes fantasy! It's not just a gratuitous excuse to link to the video and to that outfit.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Second-hand music - quick reviews

Just time to round off this week of second-hand music with some quick reviews.

Joanna Newsom - Ys

I've just been downstairs to apologize to the house's three witchy cats for not having previously appreciated how great Joanna Newson was. The string arrangements and Joanna's Betty Boop voice give it a springy feel which carry you through those loooooong songs.

The cats, enjoying a bit of the old Joanna

As a former astronomy geek, she had me lyrically at the meteorite in chorus of Emily.

Willy Mason - Where The Humans Eat

Willy, you were great at Moseley Folk Festival last month, so if it's alright you I'll remember that instead of this album, which made the cats hungry (s'true) when I played it in the kitchen. It's your first album from seven years ago and I'm sure you get better.
Goodness knows I wouldn't want to be judged on what I was like when I was 20.

Human League - Dare vs Heaven 17 - The Luxury Gap


It's interesting that the Human League sound so incredibly cheap with their youth club synths and - much though I love Phil -
limited vocal ability. Heaven 17 clearly got custody of the good equipment when they left the League - the Luxury Gap sounds expensive in the way that high-end 80's electronica does - and also recruited a more technically proficient singer.

In spite of the majesty of Temptation, I still reckon that the League's endearing amateurishness (herewith Sound of the Crowd) shades the precision-tooled faux-corporate London-Edinburgh-Sheffield schtick that Heaven 17 peddle.

NB: Glenn Gregory is not to be confused with local Birmingham councillor Len Gregory. This is a common mistake, no doubt based on a desire in the collective subconscious to see more eighties synth-botherers in local politics.

Second hand music part 2: Negativland - Helter Stupid

Over the years, the risk in playing the pop agent provocateur has shifted more from scandal to boredom. You could say we live in a Meat Dress World where, for example, wearing half an uncured cow to an awards ceremony seems less about scandalizing the bourgeoisie, less about surrealism, feminism, any-ism, and more about desperately trying to hold the media's attention.

I'm interested as to whether Gaga's reluctance to give a coherent explanation of her costume choice is a genuine reluctance to shut down possible meanings, or just that she didn't have one to offer.

"It [the dress] has many interpretations but for me this evening. If we don't stand up for what we believe in and if we don't fight for our rights, pretty soon we're going to have as much rights as the meat on our own bones. And, I am not a piece of meat."

Gaga stands up for non-specific freedom in essentially empty gesture! Yay!

All this is by way of an introduction to this week's other Second Hand Music post, a band which really did yank the tail of the media donkey with a purpose in mind, even if it did come back to bite them.

Here's Californian sample-punks Negativland with 1989's Helter Stupid, courtesy of You Tube

Helter Stupid Part 1

Helter Stupid Part 2

So, remember news stories linking heavy metal with murder and suicide? Recall the recurring moral panic - probably in the Daily Mail - about what teenagers are listening to? The disregard for basic causation? The lazy journalism which implies people do whatever music tells them?

Back in 1988, In a moment which walked a fine line between Dada prankster genius and self-immolation, Negativland tried to bring down a media witch hunt of this kind on their own heads to demonstrate how ridiculous and poorly researched they usually were.

The band put out a press release suggesting that they had been banned by federal authorities from touring pending an investigation into a tragic Midwest family killing, in which they denied that their music (specifically the song Christianity Is Stupid) was involved.

None of this was true (except the murder case itself) but most news outlets who picked up on the story followed the 'no smoke without fire' principle and assumed that there was a link. End result: a sh*tstorm of negative Negativ' reporting, and both the music papers and the mainstream media ultimately left with egg on their faces.

Now that's a scandal.

Though I'm ambivalent about the stunt itself - part of me feels it's in poor taste - what cannot be denied is that in licking their wounds Negativland made a powerful, important record in Helter Stupid.

Manipulated voices, including news reports from the case, horror movies, priests, John Lennon and an Indian woman demanding ever 'more data', plus characters played by the band themselves, rest on a backdrop of samples and house beats. It puts pretty much everything I've heard to shame for sheer density.

I wonder if Dr Alex Paterson was listening, as what the collage of Helter Stupid most reminds me of is The Orb at their most un-dubbed.

Funny, head-spinning, non-didactic, transgressive, ferociously imaginative, it turns Negativland's point about the gullibility of the media and the fall-out from their escapades unexpectedly into some of the best political music ever.

McLuhan and Kurt Schwitters to a disco beat? If you like, Neil.

Wierd Digbeth and Highgate photography

Here are photos of found objects that catch my eye around where I work.

David Braben cleans out his attic

After Meret Oppenheim?

Reverse Narnia gambit

Excalibur down on its luck again

Street art

That's deep, man. Deep

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Plush It Real Good

Or, do I have a problem with retro pop classicism these days?

First off the conveyor belt of charity shop music this week are Plush, the rocking alias of Liam Hayes, and their second album Fed (2008).

Fed is a very high-quality stylistic exercise and - I think - I mean that as a compliment. The style in question here is early 70's soft-rock, echoing solo Lennon, Al Green, Dark Side- era-Floyd, with some of the best strings, horns and organ arrangements I've heard in a long while.

While Liam Plush self-produces, all this aural cotton candy- you might be surprised to find - has been recorded by Steve Albini and friends, taking a well earned day off from recording shouty men with tattoos. It sounds gorgeous, and you can find two examples of it here on Plush's own site.

No Education, which is pretty typical of the Fed sound (the Wall of Plush?)
the jaunty Greyhound Bus Station, which sounds uncannily like it's about to turn into the Velvets covering the theme to Only Fools and Horses.

Fed's been on my headphones for the past week, sounding great, and causing little moments of happiness every time I put it on.

Yet .... and yet yettery yet:

Liam can't really sing. We're talking nearly Curt Kirkwood from the Meat Puppets levels of not finding the right notes. And he's not trying to do this in a genre where non-singing is a virtue, no, no, no. He's set his cap at the unforgiving heights of AOR and white soul.

If Liam managed to sing the right wrong notes (hello, Edwyn Collins), or he had a distinctive writerly voice (hello, Edwyn Collins), he could probably get away with this more than he does with me.

I'm also asking myself these days - and this is not Plush's fault - how much value there is in an album which sets itself up in the shadow of the old masters. Blame Simon Reynolds, if you like. I feel that musicians who still want to do so either need to find ways of bringing the old into the new, or at least speak to the times (what I think of as the Folk Get-out Clause).

Fed does neither of these things, but it remains a glittering Faberge of an album - shiny, precious, painstakingly done, but I'm not sure what it's for.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Second-hand music

Probably about half my CD collection comes from second-hand and charity shops, library sales and record fairs. There might well be some reduce-reuse-recycle point of principle at bottom here, but I do it chiefly because I enjoy the paradoxical hunt for something I'm not looking for.

Charity shops are the best places for this activity, because the professionals - Record & Tape Exchange et al - much though I love them - make it too easy to find something of interest. They're best for comfort browsing and bulk buying rather than chance, right-place/right-time finds.

Being on holiday last month was an opportunity to place myself in the path of serendipity (or at least Age Concern Lutterworth) and see what I found.

Reviews and more to follow over the course of the week.