Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Not arrogance, but belief: celebrating Echobelly's On with Mark Stratton

For the twentieth anniversary of Britpop, a series of guest posts looking back at the innovators, the opportunists, the individualists who got caught up in a moment, and how they look the other side of the millennium.

Mark Stratton lives in Kent and tweets at @markjstratton. For his contribution, Mark offers us a personal survey of Echobelly's second album and aspirational high-water mark. 


I agree with Noel. 

It was difficult not to pick the debut album by the best band in the world; but for me a Britpop album takes you back to an era of pubescent anxiety, an era of hope and hope lost. Whatever its merits and there are many (Slide Away alone justifies it), Definitely Maybe doesn’t do that; it’s far too important to be limited to such horology. It will, of course, live forever. 

As I subscribe to the theory that God created Manchester on the seventh day I’m not going to choose Modern Life is Rubbish. Neither can I, with a clear conscience, choose the far superior Suede given their reluctance to hold the coveted founders of Britpop title, let alone, pose with our nation’s flag. Both would be worthy contenders.

I have chosen On by Echobelly. It is an album that perfectly mixes the snarling guitar riffs of swaggering youth together with sing-along, fun, playful lyrics so prevalent in the Britpop era. It wasn’t about arrogance; it was all about belief. 

The album opens up with the guitar laden Car Fiction (2:31) setting the tone for the album; yes we are a guitar band (and a girl is singing) – deal with it. 

Next a soundtrack to my Hoffmeister years and forever on the radio and Jukebox: Great Things (3:31). At the time, like everyone around me, I wanted to do something extraordinary and break free from the metaphoric Rousseauian chains - if only I could tell the younger Stratton now that we can find unsurpassable value and achievement in the most ordinary and everyday of things.

Natural Animal (3:27) is all about friendships breaking at the first sight trouble. "Where are you now? You're supposed to be a friend of mine." We have all been there even if we can't relate to the blatant criminality of the song.

We move to the moodier Go Away (2:44) where the familiar Britpop narrative of anti-authority is evident in the Oasian "we see things they'll never see" vain. 

Pantyhose and Roses (3:25) is one of their most famous, best and most played tunes with lyrics clearly approved by Jerry Hall's mother. It’s still a thinking man’s favourite in any Britpop compilation selection though.

We slow down for Something Hot In A Cold Country (4:01), which is the closest Echobelly get to an epic on this album and is clearly all about unacknowledged genius – I know, tell me about it.

"Love" is the Four Letter Word (2:51) alluded to in the next song which is disappointing because its songsake is rather average when compared to the rest of the album. I stand firmly with Corinthians on this.

Thankfully we move to Nobody Like You (3:52) celebrating the prepubescent anxiety that we (hopefully) all felt at that stage of our lives. Extending, so my best history teacher tells me, to even those who held great offices of State: Why do nice girls hate me? Why?

In the Year (3:31) is the other decidedly average song on this album; I often wonder if it was recorded at the correct speed. 

But that doesn't matter because Dark Therapy (5:30) follows. Very nearly an epic; it is a brilliant, moody Britpop song. "If you close your eyes..." A perfect example of the Britpop canon. 

The weirdly almost electro-acoustic and frankly Morrissyesque Worms And Angels (2:38) closes a great Britpop album which will live through the centuries. 

I was lucky to be brought up when the British music scene was thriving, the new great British band was always just around the corner and on the front page of Select shortly afterwards, and it provided a soundtrack to my formative years. At the time, I wanted to do great things, I didn’t want to compromise, I wanted to know what life is and I wanted to know everything. Readers, I have no progress to report whatsoever; I still aspire to these things but perhaps a little less blatantly and a little less forcibly than when I first adopted it as my personal mantra. On will live with me forever.

Together in Britpop,

Mark Stratton

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A rock opera for the 90's - James Kennedy on Blur's The Great Escape

For the twentieth anniversary of Britpop, a series of guest posts looking back at the innovators, the opportunists, the individualists who got caught up in a moment, and how they look the other side of the millennium.

James Kennedy writes in and about the West Midlands, and incredibly well to boot - he blogs at and you can find him on Twitter at @jameskcentral

He's also been kind enough to write a few reflections on Britpop, of which this revisionist review of Blur's The Great Escape is the second.

The NME gave this album 9/10 – at the end of the review it was said that Blur fans could expect to have a lot to keep them going until the New Year. On buying this, I listened to the album in my new room, filled with posters and cuttings from the NME and Select, and furtive nudes from Loaded of course – a pretty much best of 1995 culture. Autumn was setting in, and the room was lit to the sounds of this album, which would be a far cry from the nice and clean teeth of Supergrass. 

After the Blur v Oasis row, the hangover was setting in. 

From the discordant opening chords of ‘Stereotypes’ and it’s sordid tales of wife swapping in Essex, we are met by the ubiquitous ‘Country House’. With ‘Country House’ comes two motifs that had been heard before in Blur’s ‘Life’ trilogy – seemingly playful and child-like, now signifying an unravelling, a melancholy turning to madness, which is apparent throughout the album. 

On ‘Country House’, a brass refrain makes like a childish playground taunt (look at the video around 3:22 where Albarn does the old thumbs in ears and waggles his fingers). Yet, in another hark about to childhood, the listener can hear the sounds of a fairground in the distance, which remind me of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ – the childish psychedelia of the fairground, the waltzers and merry-go-rounds. 

The players throughout ‘The Great Escape’ are seen through ever distorted mirrors, sticky smells of candy-floss and fried onions. The next three songs, ‘Charmless Man’ ‘Fade Away’ and ‘TOPMAN’, have their lead characters ruined and in thrall to recreational drugs, failed relationships and rough sex.

The album’s strongest track, for me, Blur’s crowning achievement, ‘The Universal’, possibly offers the only modicum of hope in the album’s hour – however, the song tells the story of a doped, blissed out world. The arrangements are lush – it’s hard to fight back the tears when the song kicks back in.  There is grim irony of this song being used in the British Gas adverts, here, seemingly telling the public to inhale the fumes and relax. 

From the eerily sublime to the downright frightening. If ‘The Great Escape’ ever gets re-written as a Lloyd-Webber/Ben Elton musical, a cavalcade of cross-dressing Tories with satsumas stuffed in orificies dancing in a grotesque burlesque would now appear to flashing lights and honking brass bands. 

‘Mr Robinson’s Quango’ is drugged up, rambunctious and gauche, “He’s gotta hairpiece! He’s got…herpes!” After the song grinds into a filthy, raunchy halt, the fairground ride fades up, morphing into a lurching, grinding nightmare.  

‘He Thought of Cars’ is a narrator’s recounting madness, cars in perpetual gridlock, the sky thick with fumes. At the end, the playground taunts of ‘Country House’ are repeated, though this time in a glassy-eyed monotone. 

The album doesn’t stop there – in fact, a case could be made for a subtler track order and some of the tracks left off completely. ‘It Could Be You’ is a nonsensical piece of light relief  about the National Lottery – again, if The Great Escape was an Elton/Lloyd Webber collaboration, this would come as a macabre ballet after the oppressive bad-trip of the last two songs, the smell of gas and orange peel subsiding into the air conditioning. 

Followed on by the excellent ‘Ernold Same’ – a sad sketch voiced by the Right Honorable Ken Livingstone, narrating the life of a commuter destined to live out his life on repeat until his dying day. Albarn sings the chorus in full Harold Steptoe/Dick van Dyke mode “Nothing…will change…tomorrow-row!” Death’s infinite bliss is ‘The Great Escape’ – the final photo on the CD inlay (a dizzying montage of pie charts and ideal home adverts) shows a body being wheeled to the mortuary. 

If that wasn’t enough, ‘Globe Alone’  and ‘Dan Abnormal’ (‘Jubilee’ off the last album, but now with hairier palms and an unhealthy gun obsession) offer a concerned look at those who society ignore, brains gorged on the emergent lad culture and fast food. Finally, two songs dealing with the pains of  unrequited love of ‘Entertain Me’ and ‘Yuko and Hiro’ – foretelling Blur’s more experimental directions end the album on a despondent note. 

There is no jaunty kiss off as with ‘Commercial Break’ and ‘Lot 105’ – after a repeated minor chord after ‘Yuko and Hiro’ and slow fade out, the refrain from ‘Ernold Same’ is heard again played on an accordion, again fading out. To me, this is a tough ending to a tough album. There is real melancholy in this offering – best heard as a whole from start to finish.

‘The Great Escape’ wasn’t regarded to be 1995’s standout album, the plaudits going to Pulp, Tricky and Black Grape, and Oasis delivered a knockout punch in the Britpop wars with ‘Wonderwall’ and the accompanying ‘What’s the Story, Morning Glory’ selling by the bucketload, 

But Blur’s outing, whilst being a tough album to listen to, is best heard from start to finish – a rock opera for the nineties. 

Monday, April 28, 2014

Britpop week: James Kennedy on Parklife

For the twentieth anniversary of Britpop, a series of guest posts looking back at the innovators, the opportunists, the individualists who got caught up in a moment, and how they look the other side of the millennium.

James Kennedy writes in and about the West Midlands, and incredibly well to boot - he blogs at and you can find him on Twitter at @jameskcentral

He's also been kind enough to write a few reflections on Britpop, of which this Parklife review is the first this week.

I remember the first time I heard Blur. I had been awoken in the night by a rather nasty bout of pleurisy, and in my vomiting haze I remember hearing the strains of ‘Girls and Boys’ coming through my bedside radio. 

I didn’t have much affinity with what was to become Britpop then – I’d missed out on the Madchester and Grebo scenes for reasons a bit too long-winded for 800 words – and instead was busying myself with a rabid love of all things REM and the US alternative that wasn’t grunge, the Euro-Pop and Dance revival (thanks to the beautiful MTV Europe) exciting dance music from the Prodigy, Atari ST and Nintendo. 

This track, this ‘Girls and Boys’ – was a goodie. Yet I remember seeing the video, and the singer was possibly a bit too cool for me in his Adidas and trendy hair, and the way he mouthed ‘love’, all fat tongue and doe-eyes, turned me off them a bit. 

The album passed me by on it’s release in that April (come on, Music for the Jilted Generation was out in July!) and the pleurisy song with the fat-tongued singer passed me by. 

An avid viewer of MTV Europe and The Box on cable, it was in August when the ‘Parklife’ video started getting heavy rotation. This was better – the synaesthesia I got when I listened to my old favourite Ian Dury was there – sepia tones, bygone eras. Back to school and my REM buddy lent me an unmarked cassette tape with the album, also called  Parklife. “What’s this you’ve got ‘ere” one of the kids in the classroom said “Blur’s album!” we said. He suddenly became incredibly irate, grabbed the tape off us and hurled it at the floor. “SHIT” was the reply, and as I knew this kid did like his music and wasn’t just being an arsehole, this intrigued me. 

I got the tape home – “SHIT” still ringing in my ears. The first track was ‘Girls and Boys’ which I knew, and the second track “Tracy Jacks” was good if not a little irritating. I was a bit stumped by ‘End of a Century’ for some reason, and ‘Parklife’ and ‘Bank Holiday’ were rambunctious fun. Again, I was overly-ambivalent about ‘Badhead’ and stumped by the point of ‘The Debt Collector’ and ‘Far Out’. I can’t remember what I thought about the rest of it, although, it didn’t really make that much of in impression. Back to swooning over Michael Stipe and Kim Deal then. 

We were all however listening to the Evening Session by November, and I remember that I’d taken an interest in the fact that you could still buy 7” singles, which were particularly good currency within the indie/alternative market. I again heard ‘End of a Century’ played on the show, and despite initial groans, gave it a chance, and it was a real winner, particular the instrumental sections by the awesomely named Kick Horns. 

I was slowly amassing a new vinyl collection to go with my gumpf collected from the 80s, and was already spending pocket money on records – the preceding month had seen me proudly brandishing 12” pressings of Green Day’s ‘Welcome to Paradise’ (on green vinyl!) and Shane MacGowan’s filthy rock n’roll classic ‘That Woman’s Got Me Drinking’ from the Virgin Megastore on Corporation Street. 

So, armed with pocket money, I used a shopping trip to Merry Hill to buy this new Blur single with it’s fantastic sleeve – it’s bedfellow was Pearl Jam’s ‘Spin the Black Circle’ for some reason other than that I liked it at the time. 

It was probably a few months later (a look through my photos revealed that my Christmas presents revolved around Veruca Salt, Liz Phair and of course, REM and the Breeders) that I listened to Parklife again. The local library had an excellent collection of CDs (and I was in love with the sad-eyed librarian with cropped hair who worked on the Saturdays) and Parklife was my first port of call – still with a “16” sticker on the front. 

What really got my attention was the fantastic Stylorouge cover, back sleeve and inlay – giving the whole package a vital, eye-catching look and appeal. The CD finally made sense – I still had problems with the likes of ‘Clover over Dover’ mind you, but the filler tracks really worked, and sent me on real explorations – ‘The Debt Collector’, ‘Far Out’ and the closer ‘Lot 105’ were essential tracks rather than throwaways, influencing my choices of listening in years to come, and one of the standouts was the superb ‘This is a Low’, a stunning psychedelic swoon of a song. 

Select Magazine thoughtfully gave the poster away as part of a stunning collection – and there it was, the greyhounds above my top shelf, for the while, replacing Stipe and Deal as my poster-children of the day. 

Britpop had come to King’s Norton.

What does Tim write about?

In the last calendar year, I have produced the suspiciously round number of 140 blog posts

Subtracting the 39 or so photo-blogging interludes, that gives us just over 100 actual posts with substantial writing of some sort in them.

Of those, what I write about, in order of frequency is:

1. Grassroots organising, training and facilitating - it's my job, innit, so the blog is where I share and reflect.
2. Books, mainly reviews of SF/fantasy, with a few opinion pieces on the side
3. Music, everything from the problems with the NME's top 100 albums of all time to my ongoing tentative engagement with metal.
4. Political analysis and opinion, for fairly broad values of politics and opinion
5. Everything else - film reviews, creative writing, more personal reflections and things happening in my area.

This isn't according to any conscious plan on my part - I write about what I feel called and inspired to write, as I topple down the hillside of momentum and routine. 

But it does mean that the habit must be pretty well embedded in me if I'm producing something an average of one day in three. 

The question is now - is that enough? Can I do more with this urge to write? Is the blog the right place to do it all?

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Like really bad Heinlein fanfic: The many problems of The Number Of The Beast, part 2

Quite apart from its excruciating thigh-rubbing moments (see part one of this review), Robert Heinlein's The Number Of The Beast is the literary equivalent a bloated concept album.

As its champions - and they are out there - have pointed out, it only makes any kind of sense if you regard it as an experimental novel from a mature artist who longer needed to pander to mass appeal.

So we get multiples by multiples - many narrators, many universes, stories within stories, many nods and references to stories by Heinlein and others. An ending in which all fictional universes collide with reality in some fannish utopia. Action - the pragmatic engine of most SF - is subordinated to dialogue, digression and a hazy, events-dear-boy, logic. 

If you give Heinlein's advocates full credit, Beast boasts multiple levels of story - an intentionally hammy and old-fashioned space opera hiding a meta-narrative on what good science-fiction really is.

While I'm not sure Beast consistently bears this interpretation out - if it's consistent in anything it's in its inconsistency - I acknowledge its ambition. 

The problem is that it's a terrible, by turns dull and irritating, experimental, ambitious novel.  In its self-indulgence and junk postmodernism Beast resembles nothing so closely as bad fanfic. 

Really bad Heinlein fanfic.

All the narrators veer between annoying self-righteous and plain annoying. They spend much more time in the middle section of the book (a nadir) engaged in petty disputes about the captaincy of the dimensional craft than actually doing or saying anything of interest. 

And whether intentional or not, the pulp pastiche is certainly painful, spending as it does page after page on mathematical digressions and programming their ship . And the fixation on wearing seat-belts - what's that about Bob? Surely the way to parody pulp effectively is to amplify its weirdness, not replicate its foreground fascination with minutiae.

Meanwhile, the digressions are an opportunity for Heinlein to make a point about Government (bad), personal authority (good), clothes (bad), or gender essentialism (good), demonstrating how confident he is in the rightness of his ideas. No-one speaks against his ideas in Beast, not even in a straw man capacity. It's a book tremendously pleased with itself.

And that's before we encounter the Long family, where if even if the writing improves slightly Heinlein swiftly disappears up his own authorial tract. In short, none of the component parts work and the reader is ready to call if quits well before the end. 

I don't care how meta Beast is trying to be, if it's by turns toe-curlingly embarassing, shudderingly creepy and narcoleptically tedious, then it has not only failed, it's failed on a scale undreamed of by legions of hack writers. 

This is failure such as only misguided talent can achieve.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Superman and Lex Luthor cases for having ground-rules

If you get one thing from this post, it’s this: agree some ground-rules for your group.

I mean it – have a quick chat, sign ‘em off, put ‘em on the back of your agendas or on the wall when you meet.

Bish bash bosh. 


Still here? 

Ok, I’ll give you two schools of thought on ground-rules - the ruthlessly pragmatic and the kum bah yah around the campfire versions of why you need to do this.

First up, if Lex Luthor did facilitation

Photo by William Tung under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Most groups never quite realise they need ground-rules until they need them. Eye eee, someone turns up who disturbs the meeting in some way – interrupts, hijacks, black-hats et cetera.

You – intrepid facilitator – want to manage and address this behaviour without making your exercise of authority arbitrary and inconsistent.

For that, you need to make it about ground-rules. And that means agreeing them before you need them.

If Superman did facilitation

Photo by Christopher Stadler under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

But what if we adopt ground-rules because describing how we put our ethics into practice at meetings is a valuable end in itself?

I’ve never seen a meeting of the Justice League of America where they’ve agreed ground-rules, probably because they are too busy fighting MENACE and THREAT.*

But like your local campaign or community group, it’s an organisation driven by shared values. And comics being comics, they verbalise this all the time. Truth – check. Justice – check. American way – well, you know how this goes.

Ground-rules are a way of affirming our values to help us put them into practice. We’re respect each other enough to listen and stick to an agenda. We’re going to be welcoming to newcomers. Everyone gets a chance to speak. We’ll take decisions on a consensual basis wherever possible.

Affirmations like this help to collectively shape and regulate group culture. And could it be that if your group culture is healthy you're more likely to work together well and be able to integrate new people into your set-up.

Some examples of ground-rules

The Hackney and Tower Hamlets Friends of the Earth charter cited in the Local Group Handbook is still a good place to start.

But here are some other ground-rules solutions I've come across and wanted to share

1. The Birmingham group's ground-rules poster that they have up at every meeting - light, friendly, does the job.

2. The ex-Bury group's group agreement - a little more complex and interventionist - perhaps more suitable for a group where problems with meeting culture and communications have been identified and the core group agree that such is needed.

And if Batman did facilitation...

Yeah, you kind of know he’d be the best facilitator ever – just because he’s Batman.

*Although there was that 80’s version of the JLA, like Dallas in capes, where they probably really needed them to cope with the Guy Gardner edition of Green Lantern.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Oh, Bob Heinlein, no! The many problems of The Number Of The Beast pt 1

It takes a real artist to make truly terrible work. 

Their mistakes are likely to be original ones, radical sins of commission where the spark that brought them success then points them into the abyss. 

Robert Heinlein's The Number of The Beast is a terrible novel in exactly this vein. 

Heinlein's return to writing in 1980, after taking most of the 1970's off due to ill health, is nothing if not ambitious. On the face of things, a multi-dimensional romp through time and space, it also aims to be:

  • An homage to the pulp novels of Heinlein's youth in subject matter and tone.
  • A post-modern riff on interconnected fictional universes, both his own and those of forerunners like Edgar Rice Burroughs.
  • An authorial pulpit for his favourite hobby horses - libertarianism, free love and the nudity taboo.
  • If you believe the hardcore Heinlein fans, also an intentionally badly written parody, a love-letter to science fiction and a quasi-autobiography

All of this written from the first-person perspective of five different characters. Yeesh.

It would take an writer of no mean skill to pull these threads together and produce a great book and, for all that his position in the SF canon is unquestionable, Heinlein's no Salman Rushdie or John Barth. 

But Beast is not the interesting but flawed lesser piece of work you might expect from the writer of Stranger In A Strange Land or The Moon Is A Harsh MistressIt's an indulgent, incoherent, intemperate and interminable mess.

And it's the sexual mores which threaten to sink it before it even opens.

"Sexist, not sexy"

By his own lights, Heinlein would describe himself as a progressive on gender issues, and the book is full with assertive, intelligent, women. Yet Beast kicks off with the lead male protagonist alternately drooling over and bantering hi-lar-iously about the heroine's anatomy with the heroine herself. It then continues intermittently in that vein for the next 500 pages.


Others like Dave Langford have written before me how, aesthetically speaking, Heinlein has an (unintentionally comedic) tin ear for sensual language. And, although the narrative includes chapters from the perspective of two female characters, it feels deeply, uncomfortably male-gazy all the way through. Especially with all that nudity he keeps having his characters practice. 


In Heinlein-world you can only be an assertive, intelligent woman if you're devastatingly attractive, beholden to a man yet sexually available. This was old hat in 1980, and feels positively antediluvian 30 years later.

I'd reflect that it's a classic old school male liberal response to the 1960's in many respects - gets sexual liberation, actually likes women; struggles massively with the feminist challenge to traditional gender roles and phallocentricity.

Oh, Bob Heinlein, no!

But Beast's problems with sex and gender go way beyond the usual Spinal Tap confusion of sexy and sexist. There's not just a couple of deeply unpleasant marital rape jokes, but also a theoretical exploration of father-daughter incest which is hugely Freudian in its undertones and does nothing for the book. 

Except to bring the reader to a juddering halt, asking in quavering tones, 'Bob, WTF?'

And then later on, as the book becomes increasingly meta, we meet the far-future Long family from some of Heinlein's other books, who all seem to be married to and/or hopping into bed with each other. When they're not creating opposite-sex clones of each other to marry and hop into bed with, that is.

Photo by Alex E. Proimos under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Did I mention that the Long family also resolve the incest question by conveniently including an identical twin of the daughter, who the father then sleeps with?

These issues had been bubbling away in his work as undercurrents for a long time, but it seems like Beast was the moment he turned all the problematic elements in his work up to 11. It's a colossal, radical balls-up for an author to make on a par with Stephen Donaldson's Wagnerian folly, the Gap series. Or Bob Dylan's Christian album's from the late 70's

This isn't a blog post about incest. It's a book review. So, let's just say that:

  • It's is a massively sensitive issue, which Beast deals with in a deeply insensitive manner.
  • The Long family are creepy, and the fact they are presented as utopian is creepier still.
  • That all relationships in the family centre around a single Heinlein-analogue is pretty patriarchal, not to mention narcissistic.
  • Taken together with the rampant sexism, it tends to devalue anything he has to say on sex and gender in earlier, saner works. It's hard to dispel the sad impression of Heinlein rubbing his thighs, Vic Reeves style, while he was writing Beast.
  • These intrusions totally derail the novel, although not content with this Heinlein was already taking it way off the tracks in other ways (see part 2 on Beast's junk postmodernism).

Friday, April 18, 2014

Great bands, bad influences

Can you think of any bands which you love, but are terrible influences if digested wholesale?

With some groups, the issue is that they make such a total statement that influence risks becoming pale imitation - comical, redundant or both. Joy Division, Ramones, The Smiths, Portishead: all fall into that category. Massive Attack are a much better influence than Portishead precisely because they're not given to coherency - think of all the forgettable second-tier trip-hop acts who cloned Dummy rather than Protection.

Then there are the bands whose would-be disciples simply don't notice or disregard the ambiguity in the original work. A great example of this would be Blur circa Modern Life Is Rubbish or Parklife: Anglophile records, but also profoundly critical of British culture, as The Kinks were before them. 

Take away that complexity and you merely replicate the past, offering musical pastiches of a particularly thin slice of British (or, rather, English) identity without nuance or comment.

Finally, there's the 'you only get away with this in the first place because you're so darn good' category, with inferior imitations having few of the merits and all of the flaws. Take Led Zeppelin - no band who has tried to sound like Zep has ever come close to being as good as them. And that's despite the occasionally reactionary sexual politics and the musical and other over-indulgences which would have artistically hamstrung a lesser band.

Over to you? Any other examples of great bands, bad influences that spring to mind?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Alcest's Shelter: background music, with occasional transcendence

Finally, Alcest have dropped all the trappings of metal to make that stripped back, shoegazy, dream-pop album it always seemed they were heading towards. Unfortunately, Shelter might be pretty, but it's pretty average.

By removing the blast beats, guitar FX and harsh whispers, Alcest have lost the counterpoint to their gentler passages. Granted, it's a trick they couldn't have pulled indefinitely and credit to them for wanting to evolve. But the overall effect is to make Shelter background music with occasional - too few - transcendental moments.

The gentler approach also has the result of pushing mainman Neige's ennervated choirboy voice centre stage. And that's asking a lot of it. What worked great texturally under walls of guitar in Ecailles de Lune two albums ago suddenly feels unequal to the task of carrying a quiet storm.

Neige has made it pretty clear in interviews - for now at least - that he doesn't want to return to metal. So perhaps we should see Shelter as part of an adaptive process, a transitional album while Alcest master new forms. Let's hope they keep the courage of their convictions, but also that they get as good as they used to be once again.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Get into radical transparency

A challenge for any organisation with volunteer stakeholders - from national bodies to local community groups - is building stronger relationships of trust with your members.

A lot of that is always going to be judged by your visible successes, not to mention the quality of experience you offer to participants. But another part is ensuring that your members can see what the group is doing and have a chance to meaningfully contribute on their own terms.

I want to suggest that radical transparency and sharing builds trust, and hence support and participation.  

I recommend that core members of your group or organisation should be sharing something interesting that they’ve been up to on a weekly basis via Facebook, Twitter, a blog or other tools. It could be something very simple like a photo, or something you've already done for another purpose like a press release.

This can then be paralleled by longer-form updates, say on a newsletter, a blog, a website or whatever - for the purposes of this argument the format is irrelevant.

The key thing is that your supporters, friends and allies can have an insight into our work if they want it, they know where they can get it, and they can use this sharing as a basis for engaging you in dialogue.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Local profile check-list

This is something I remember writing when I joined Friends of the Earth which I came across the other day. It's a self-assessment tool for local groups to work out what they can do to increase their profile and to ask for staff support.

As diagnostics go, it's a useful set of questions, I think, but I've updated it to include references more references to electronic communication tools, distinguishing between old media and new media.

Anything else here you think should be added?

Does your group have an online/offline newsletter or equivalent? 

If so, how do you distribute it, to whom and how many?

Does your group regularly display publicity material (e.g. flyers, posters) with contact and meeting information at places where potential recruits might be?

How often does your group hold stalls or any other activities which allow you to promote the group to the public? 

When your group holds stalls or do other public activities, does it have publicity material which provides contact and meeting information? 

Have your group checked that the information – particularly the contact and meeting information – on the FOE website (and on your group website if applicable) is up to date and accurate?

Does your group have a Facebook page or group and post regular updates?

Does your group have a Twitter account and use it regularly?

Does your group use the internet in other ways to promote itself (e.g. blogs, listings websites)?

How often does your group use the media (press releases, letters, events listings) to promote its meetings and activities?

Does your group periodically invite national supporters in its area to an event?

Has answering these questions inspired you to suggest that your group does something new to increase its profile? If time and capacity are issues, what in particular would be the priority tasks? 

How can staff help your group raise its profile?

a.Helping to develop a plan to raise your group’s profile
b.Helping your local group redesign its publicity material
c.Help with maintaining your local group website or a social media presence
d.Arranging training for your local group on any of the above
e.Helping to develop a public event to which national supporters living locally can be invited

f.Something else

Monday, April 14, 2014

A few thoughts on Pretty In Pink - when archetypes go to the prom

Watching Pretty In Pink for the first time recently I was struck by what an odd, good film it is.

Exquisitely styled and designed - think Andie's bedroom, the record store, Iona's apartment - it's also deeply stylised. Everyone presents as a representative of a particular class or subculture - so far, so Breakfast Club. 

But the starkness of the class divide the protagonist Andie seeks to overcome in love, the blankness of Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy as the couple, and the film's commitment to style over realism, moves the romance into the background for me. 

It's the social conflict in Pretty In Pink which is front and centre.

Perhaps it's because the film eludes male identification characters that this is so, rather than suggesting John Hughes was somehow channeling Brecht when he wrote this.

But it's interesting that the initial ending, subsequently scrapped, unites Andie with her best male friend Duckie, from the same class and milieu, who's been nursing a massive crush on her throughout the film.

That would be more in tune with a social conflict reading of the film, although waaay more dramatically unsatisfactory than the happily ever after you get in the ending which was used.

The real world, as this ad says? Yeah, but not for the reasons it thinks.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Strong misreadings: nihilist Madonna

So I've been wrong all these years.

On Get Into The Groove, Madonna is singing:
Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free /At night I lock the doors, where no one else can see. 
And not: 
At night I lock the door and throw away the key.

She's getting her groove on by herself, before deciding in the next line that she wants to find somebody else to dance with.

Hence, Get Into The Groove (to prove his love to her), right?

But, perversely, I still like my version better. Here we have a Madonna so committed to the radical freedom of dance that she decides there's no going home at the start of a night out. The future is irrelevant - all that matters is the eternal now.

PS - it turns out that I'm not the only one to have heard this in GITG. And the line as I heard it turns up in a number of other songs too.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Boggy here...

Bogs get much worse press than swamps or marshes ... even in fantasy novels.