Monday, December 28, 2015

Weepies - seven songs that make me cry

I can sometimes tell you when I first heard a song. I can always remember when I heard one that made me cry. 

You don't forget a singer or a piece of music that nails your heart right into the floor as you stand there. Sometimes, when you least expect it.

Here are seven that have had that effect on me.

Nancy Wallace: Alice White

Picture a Sunday morning at an experimental music festival on the artier side of Birmingham, 2009. A large fountain has been drained to create a small sunken stage, and the first act on that day is a folk singer, Nancy Wallace. Practically pop, by the standards of the weekend, but no matter. 

Backed by her own acoustic guitar, she opens with Alice White, a song of the women who loved and followed the navvies who built the railways of Britain.

"And now I'm getting old, and grey before my time
With the work and the childbearing, as we trudged from line to line
I often think of poor Dandy Jack, lying so cold in his grave
He's the only one I loved of the navvies."

You can read the full lyric here - but more importantly check this recording of Nancy's version. It's a terribly bleak song, yet full of humanity, and I was in tears all the way through. Amidst a weekend of head music, it stood out as heart music.

For all their cliches, and in their own way they're every bit as stylised as modern pop music, blues, folk and country have a way of cutting through. I sometimes jokingly say that all good folk is about heartbreak and death. And while that's not stricly true, what traditional music does do very well is the conversion of lived or historic experience into tragedy.

Bill Withers: I Can't Write Left Handed

People wrote many songs about the Vietnam War - not all of them will last. Bill Withers' I Can't Write Left Handed is one that will. As Bill says in the introduction to this song - a lot of people write 'social, political things' and maybe generalisation can be the easy way out in art. It's much harder to put yourself in the shoes of an ordinary trooper with no political consciousness and sing their story.

All I know is that I can't even listen to I Can't Write, can't even explain that it takes the form of a letter from an invalided soldier back to his mother, pleading with her to get his younger brother out of the draft, without getting tearful.

"Tell the Reverend Harris to pray for me, lord, lord, lord
I ain't gonna live, I don't believe I'm going to live to get much older
Strange little man over here in Vietnam, I ain't never
Bless his heart I ain't never done nothin' to, he done shot me in my shoulder.

The Unthanks: Monday Morning

Like Nancy Wallace, The Unthanks were slighly incongrous mid-afternoon guests on the second stage at Lovebox in East London back in 2008, but they were great fun. Before they broke into the clog-dancing crowd-pleasers, though, they opened with this lament to a weekend's excesses and the tragedy of everyday life.

"Where is the weekend now?
Where is the whisky and beer I tasted?
Gone the same way as the pay I wasted
On a Monday morning."

Panopticon: Come All Ye Coal Miners 

Panopticon's Kentucky (2012) is one of those albums which defiantly spill out of the genre to which they have been assigned. Over 50 minutes, mainman Austin Lunn mixes black metal with bluegrass, traditional mining protest songs, ambient noise and spoken-word samples to tell a musical history of the rural backwaters of the state (my full review here).

Come All Ye Coal Miners is one of the protest songs - a companion piece to Alice White in its look at the personal impact of industrialisation, with added political consciousness. Lunn is no virtuoso singer, but the very simplicity of his tone makes the connection with the past all the easier. And the hope of a better future the song expresses - the idea, to paraphrase Stephen Donaldson, that the sacrifices of the past and present have meaning - makes it a tremendous gut punch of a tune if you choose to believe it, if only for the span of a few minutes.

"They take your very life's blood, they take our children's lives.
They take fathers away from children, and husbands away from wives.
Oh miner, won't you organize wherever you may be and make this land of freedom for workers like you and me."

Public Service Broadcasting: Sputnik

The sadness of a future which never fully materialised hangs over Come All Ye Coal Miners but also in a different way over much electronic music. Like Panopticon, Public Service Broadcasting make use of spoken-word samples - in this case to summon the optimistic spirit of the abandoned space race. 

Our family are passionate about science and space - so nostagia for what was for and what could have been caught me by the throat at Truck festival this year as PSB played Sputnik.*

"Will the bleep of the satellite bring people closer together in a common understanding?
Or as the Earth shrinks, the universe stretches forth its beckoning hand in a gesture to all mankind
To all mankind, to all mankind..."

* Fun fact - my dad had a cat called Sputnik growing up. 

Steven Wilson: The Raven That Refused To Sing 

Warning: don't watch this video unless you're ready to cry. It's a beautiful piece of animation to accompany Steven Wilson's 2013 album, a song cycle of supernatural tales, also called The Raven That Refused To Sing

Steven Wilson's best known as bandleader for proggers The Porcupine Tree, but don't let the 'prog' tag put you off this, which isn't not a million miles away from Radiohead's ventures into brooding piano territory.

"Sister I lost you
When you were still a child
But I need you now
And I need our former life
I'm afraid to wake
I'm afraid to love

Josh Record: For Your Love

At last, a positive weepie, occupying a very special place in our hearts. It's is all about the power of a song to say what matters to two people.

We seem to have made a habit of seeing Josh in unusual venues - to date it's two libraries and one church. He is a lovely, friendly approachable guy and we'd definitely recommend catching him if you have the chance.

"Carry your story
Wherever I may go
'cause I know it will be mine
'till the end of time."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Happy/sad - Vargnatt's Allein In Mir

Black metal takes many forms.

Sometimes it consists of tremelo-picking a Johnny Marr/Roger McGuinn-ish riff for seven minutes while somebody screams in the middle-distance.

This, then is Vargnatt's Allein In Mir - a great track and probably the most cheerful one ever to be called 'alone in myself.' 

Like other bands at the more accessible end of [MICROGENRE KLAXON] depressive black metal - see also the marvellous Ghost Bath - Vargnatt play the old Smithsian track of rubbing bleak lyrical material / delivery up against a surprisingly cheerful musical backdrop. 

The fact you can't really understand what they're screaming about doesn't cancel out the contrast, since Allein In Mir works perfectly as the title of the piece regardless of comprehension.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

O Miracle Fish Of Divination!

As is traditional at Christmas, I've contributed a piece of spoken word doggerel to Adam Ings' annual seasonal compilation under my nom de Yule Gin And Flamingoes. Big thanks to Adam for prodding me to get it done - the circumstances under which I tend to work best. :)

This year, it was inspired by the fortune-telling fish you often find in crackers. The first two lines, with their odd phrasing, are taken literally from the piece of paper interpreting the fish's movements. From there, it was easy to ad-lib as if the fish were some kind of grandiose oracle worthy of cultic adoration.

And see here for a proper scientific explanation of how the fish works, which does involve sodium polyacrylate, as the last line of the last verse suggests. We may or may not be entertaining on this blog, but by gum we're educational.

Gin And Flamingoes present O Miracle Fish Of Divination!

O miracle fish of divination!
With the wonderful magic to tell the fortune,
Tell us who we are this Christmas.


O miracle fish of divination!
Taken from your larval cracker,
By your sweaty-palmed disciples,
By your paper-hatted preachers,
Let the augury begin!
Let the movements indicate.

Moving head means jealousy,
Moving tail is independence,
Move­­­ head and tail for those in love.

Curling sides for one so fickle,
Motionless - for all you zombies,
And those curled up are passionate.

O miracle fish of divination!
In your writhing you have spoken,
In our hands you found our fate,

What wonderful magic,
That sees the future - 
Sodium polyacrylate.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Television: more political than Sham 69?

A quick compilation of tweets and retweets from earlier this month on art and campaigns.

This is a topic I may well come back to in more depth because I do think it's insufficient to rely on reason (or even reason and good marketing) to campaign over the long-haul. And that didactic art is much less effective at achieving cultural change than its transcendental cousin - as well as being much poorer art.

If anyone has any views on this, please do comment as I'm still thinking this one through and welcome challenges, reflections, perspectives. Thanks!

And two timely quotes I came across in the days that followed.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Reduce, reduce, reduce - simplifying complexity in campaign messages

The other week, I went to a very interesting event organised by the Directory of Social Change - Campaigning and lobbying in a changing political landscape. I'm still reflecting on what I heard, but here's a snippet from the talk by Chris Rose, independent campaigning expert, author and proprietor of

He spoke about a former head of communications at Greenpeace who made campaigners write out what their campaign was about. And then write it again, shorter. And again. And again, until the absolute crux of the message had been reached.

This matters because the 'front door' of your campaign - the basic proposition to people and decision-makers - needs to be as clear, simple and appealing as possible. No matter how much policy depth lies beneath.

I had a go with some of the ideas floating around for our Welsh Assembly campaign next year - see below - and found it really helpful in concentrating my focus and informing the writing of campaign resources. I'm not saying this is definitely what we will use - but it does feel a great deal clearer than it did.

And I'm sure the approach can work as well for a local campaign as it can for a larger one. Good messaging is good messaging.

Starting point

·         Helping candidates to understand the issues people with MND face – using the importance of timely and accurate diagnosis and the theme of time as a starting point.

·         Asking candidates to act as champions for MND in the Assembly and their local community – potentially signing a pledge or taking similar symbolic action.

·         Stressing the importance of political leadership in promoting best practice and the best possible care.


Asking candidates to act as champions for MND in the Assembly and their local community – understanding the issues they face and making sure health and social care works in their interest.
Keep going...

Asking candidates to champion MND – understanding the issues people with MND face and making sure health and social care works for them.
Less is still more

We want Welsh politicians to champion motor neurone disease – making sure people with MND have the right health and social care at the right time.

Gone back up again! Keep reducing.
We want champions for motor neurone disease – making sure the system gives people with MND the best possible quality of life.
Back on track, but keep cutting!

MND champions: politicians helping people with MND get the best possible quality of life.
How low can we go?

Politicians can help people with MND to live with dignity.

10 words – awesome! And see how different on the surface but similar in essence it is from our starting point? 

Perfume hyperbole

From an in-flight magazine, which shall remain nameless:

I'm not sure they meant to say glamorous yet impertinent heroin.

Also: coffee floral? 

There's a thin - almost indiscernable - line between this and a candidate for Thog's Masterclass.

Vanilla accord! 


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Top ten posts from 2015

Lairich Rig [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

It's not been the most prolific year on the blog for me - but I've maintained a steady flow of updates and articles that I'm pleased with and in some cases downright proud of.  

Here are the top 10 most viewed pieces this year. It's no surprise that those posts written with an audience in mind - be it environmental activists or SF fandom - tend to do the best.

1. Hard Science, Hot Mess: Liu Cixin's The Three Body Problem

"Liu mixes astrophysics, the politics of science, the history of the Cultural Revolution, virtual reality and Pynchonesque conspiracy theories to create, well, the hottest mess this side of Philip K Dick."

2. Ten reasons to get involved in a Friends of the Earth local group 

"While I was travelling home last week I challenged myself to come up with ten compelling reasons to join a Friends of the Earth local group. Here they are, collected in tweet form." 

3. Kevin J Anderson's The Dark Between The Stars: control, not mastery

"Dark is more of what Anderson does - space opera on an epic scale [...]. And what an elaborate, detailed, techno-baroque sandbox it is too, taking in psychic empires, gas giant mining, insectoid robot, gestalt forests, plague collectors and colours from out of spaaaaaaaaaace."

4. Now That's What I Call Kinda Okay: Reading the Hugo short fiction nominees

"And the Hugo's are not awards for the merely alright. What would be the point in that?"

5. A big hug from the golden age of high fantasy: Katherine Addison's The Goblin Emperor

"The Goblin Emperor is a Bildungsroman, high fantasy style, and goodness knows we've had a lot of those. But there's no Eddings-style chosen one wish-fulfilment trip for our protagonist here." 

6. Introducing the libertarian dismount  

"I think we're going to see more of the dismount here in the UK in the years to come. Not only is the boundary between the market and the state once again becoming contested territory, but there is a worrying backlash against the politics of diversity on the breeze too." 

7. Black metal ecology: Agalloch's Marrow Of The Spirit

"It's also sometimes hard to locate the human element in Agalloch's work, or to escape the feeling that they have nothing to say about the present other than the need to transcend or transform it. Listening to them is occasionally a visceral joy, but more often an austere, intellectual pleasure, especially given the length of the songs."

8. Quick review of Ancillary Sword, plus my best novel vote 

"What I will say is that I enjoyed it a great deal, although it lacked the shock of the sorta new that it's prequel Ancillary Justice had, as well as its driving heartbreak-n-revenge narrative."

9. Last Day Working For Friends of the Earth

"After seven years and a little more, yesterday was my last day working for Friends of the Earth. It's been an amazing experience in ways I have yet to fully reflect on, and I've been deeply touched by the response I've had from colleagues in the staff body and comrades in local groups as I've been heading out the door."

10. What we don't talk about when we don't talk about The Big Ask

"When we leave out The Big Ask from our conversation as a movement, we don't just leave out an occasion for nostalgia, we omit an opportunity to remind ourselves what it is to be successful."