Monday, 7 December 2009

Another joyless list that is definitely worthwhile

Some weeks ago, NME published its carefully considered and logically thought-out best 50 albums from the past decade. The roll of honour can be found here.

It goes without saying that it got ripped to pieces, which is both the function and the fate of any list like this. But it must be remembered when directing any extreme, rage-filled criticism at the much-maligned, continuingly failing publication, that NME is a populist magazine aimed at people consuming music through a relatively blinkered lens, choosing to whittle their experience down to limited styles from a specific point in time and a often a specific place. And that’s fine: the magazine is still relevant in catering to that.

That however, doesn’t excuse this list of apparent 'innovators' set to pave the way for the future, published in May 2009. There is so much, so wrong, most of which is covered in the comments beneath.

Anyway, that most recent NME list put me in mind of an interesting exercise the Guardian undertook in 1999. They decided to put together the best 100 albums of the millennium, but deliberately discounted a whole bunch of ‘classic’ albums that always get wheeled out when such debates emerge.

Studying best album lists from a host of publications, they named 150 albums that could not be considered by the critics who arranged this new list. So it was that half a dozen albums each by The Beatles, The Stones, Zeppelin, Dylan and others were rendered ineligible, along with Radiohead, The Smiths, Joy Division, Oasis and more.

Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter came top (an album that if a similar list paying tribute to less celebrated artists was made today, would surely warrant exclusion), and the full list can be perused here.

Taking a cue from the Guardian, here is an alternative list of the best 50 albums from the past decade. An NME enemy list, if you will. The only conditions were that no album from the NME list could be included, and there could be no more than three albums by one artist. Albums from the NME list that might have earned a place in this one include those by Wilco, Brendan Benson, PJ Harvey, Bright Eyes, Sufjan Stevens, LCD Soundsystem, Grandaddy and The Shins.

Here we have 10 albums from 2008, eight from 2004, seven from 2007, six from 2006, six from 2005, four from 2009, three from 2001, three from 2000, two from 2003 and one from 2002.

There are 30 American artists involved, four from the UK, three from Canada (counting the Wainwrights as Canadians), three from Australia and New Zealand (Neil Finn and Crowded House not being regarded as separate artists) and one from France.

I make no claims of originality.

1. From A Basement On A Hill – Elliott Smith (2004)

2. Poses – Rufus Wainwright (2001)

3. To Find Me Gone – Vetiver (2006)

4. Cold Roses – Ryan Adams (2005)

5. A Ghost Is Born – Wilco (2004)

6. Dropping The Writ – Cass McCombs (2008)

7. Want One – Rufus Wainwright (2003)

8. 29 – Ryan Adams (2005)

9. Digital Ash In A Digital Urn – Bright Eyes (2005)

10. One Nil – Neil Finn (2001)

11. Ash Wednesday – Elvis Perkins (2007)

12. Figure 8 – Elliott Smith (2000)

13. Abbattoir Blues / Lyre of Orpheus – Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (2004)

14. Heartbreaker – Ryan Adams (2000)

15. Want Two – Rufus Wainwright (2004)

16. Oh, Inverted World – The Shins (2001)

17. Time On Earth – Crowded House (2007)

18. Directions To See A Ghost – The Black Angels (2008)

19. Merriweather Post Pavilion – Animal Collective (2009)

20. Personality… One Was A Spider, One Was A Bird – The Sleepy Jackson (2006)

21. Food & Liquor – Lupe Fiasco (2006)

22. Fly Or Die – N.E.R.D (2004)

23. II – Espers (2007)

24. Andorra – Caribou (2007)

25. Dos – Wooden Shjips (2009)

26. The Trials of Van Occupanther – Midlake (2006)

27. Fort Nightly – White Rabbits (2007)

28. Spoils – Alasdair Roberts (2009)

29. Ys – Joanna Newsom (2006)

30. Phrenology – The Roots (2002)

31. Smile – Brian Wilson (2004)

32. The Letting Go – Bonnie Prince Billy (2006)

33. De Stijl – The White Stripes (2000)

34. I Need You To Hold On While The Sky Is Falling – Kelley Polar (2008)

35. Old Growth – Dead Meadow (2008)

36. Consolers Of The Lonely – The Raconteurs (2008)

37. Satanic Panic In The Attic – Of Montreal (2004)

38. Martha Wainwright – Martha Wainwright (2005)

39. The Week That Was – The Week That Was (2008)

40. Lookaftering – Vashti Bunyan (2005)

41. Motion To Rejoin – Brightblack Morning Light (2008)

42. Cassadaga – Bright Eyes (2007)

43. Sky Blue Sky – Wilco (2007)

44. Saturdays = Youth – M83 (2008)

45. Waiting For The Sunrise – David Vandervelde (2008)

46. Limbo, Panto – Wild Beasts (2008)

47. Fits – White Denim (2009)

48. Z – My Morning Jacket (2005)

49. Strays – Jane’s Addiction (2003)

50. Confessions – Usher (2004)

Three songs: 'Rolling Home' by John Martyn, 'Step Away From The Cliff' by Blue Eyed Son and the fantastic 'Intergalactic Solitude' by Bachelorette.

Monday, 16 November 2009

The Law of Abstraction: Sufjan Stevens' Urban Legend

Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.

Music is feeling, then, not sound;

And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,

Wallace Stevens - 'Peter Quince at the Clavier'

I recently had what turned out to be the strange and insightful pleasure of interviewing Sufjan Stevens. The interview was for a feature in a major UK music paper, for whom I had to take a certain angle due to readability and word-count. This meant that about three-quarters of the interview had to be discarded. Because a lot of what he said was surely very interesting indeed, I offer an edited transcript of the interview, below.

He has three new albums out. Starting with the least good, there is Music For Insomniacs, a record he made with his step-father that is deliberate in its deathly boringness, as it is designed as a sleeping aid. For real. He also has out Run Rabbit Run, a re-imagining of his 2001 electronica record Enjoy Your Rabbit as performed by the New York string quartet Osso under the guidance of he who had the original idea for the new interpretation, The National's Bryce Dessner. That is a pretty interesting listen, but best of all is The BQE, his epic celebration of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in New York that is also a film and a 40-page comic book. He mixes conceptual, often abstruse soundscapes with his usual method of using simple melodic themes to run through an entire album, with quite wonderful results. It is one of the best things he has ever done and he appears to be very proud of it, but there is other baggage weighing upon Sufjan right now.

That stuff can be outlined briefly here. It's not that big a deal, and he seems to have gotten over it, but it nevertheless exposes an issue facing genuinely important artists like him. It is most likely that by talking about his apparent 'existential crisis' in so many interviews he isn't really purging himself of his inner torment (he is far too measured for that), but rather trying to start a debate about distinguishing the substantial from the worthless in the crowded chaos that is recorded music nowadays. He is as focussed as ever, and has even come to terms with the rather silly 50 states project. A polymath and an intellectual he remains...

How do you feel about the fact these new releases are regarded by many as not ‘proper’ follow-ups to Illinois?

What do you mean ‘proper’? Because it doesn’t have songs? I feel like it’s a pretty orthodox sequence of events to go from epic song cycles or conceptual song cycles to conceptual film. It doesn’t seem like such a stretch. It was definitely a self-conscious decision to divest myself of the 'song' itself so I could just focus on music and arrangement and other forms like visuals. I think that it’s still working with the same principles as some of my previous records, though.

What did you do in the way of research for the project? Did you look for artistic precedent or spend a lot of time on the expressway itself?

Most of my time was spent on the actual expressway, it was an experience of retrieving information through observation and developing a visceral response to the expressway, due in part to the amount of time we had to spend filming, which was a lot. I didn’t do that much research, I read a few books, like the biography of Robert Moses, which is mostly about urban planning in New York in the fifties, and I read Jane Jacobs’ book which is a rebuttal of the modernist urban renewal movement. But that seemed meandering and heavy and didn’t relate to what I was doing. I wanted to relinquish anything too literal or historical and to invest myself in the sheer pleasure of experience through the senses. It’s extremely visceral, there’s no narrative and it’s completely impersonal, which I like. It’s kind of satisfying because I often try to render my self in a song and try and impose my own autobiography. That can be kind of exhausting - it can be a release to eliminate myself from the creative process. At least that was my intention, I’m not sure if that’s really what happened.

So The BQE is about feeling rather than, say, stories.

I think so, yeah. I think it’s about collecting information. It’s basically a film and a series of photographs. It’s very concrete in a way; photographs of this physical monument, this short expressway, but it’s assembled in a way that makes it abstract as well. It’s just colours, shapes and designs, movements and sounds. To me it’s very physical, in the way that experience is physical. You see and you taste and you touch. I kind of like that it’s reduced to primitive, sensory experience.

For a non-New Yorker, what is the significance of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway?

The expressway itself is really an anomaly as it is imposed on a pre-existing city, Brooklyn being a weird network of disparate neighbourhoods that grew together. In the forties and fifties when the government was funnelling money into rebuilding the infrastructure they conceived of this plan to join all the boroughs with bridges and highways, and demolish slums and eliminate bad neighbourhoods, to restore and revitalise the Great American City through the automobile. That was the trend in most cities around the country in the fifties. The BQE is just one small, inconsequential example of that. But it doesn’t work on such a ridiculous level, it’s such a failed attempt at arterial traffic movement. It seems absurd and illogical now. And it's become something else: an eyesore and an object of scorn, but at the same time this strange and endearing monument that’s fussed about in the papers every week. But it’s really only 12 miles long and very small compared with other highways.

Were you ever tempted to address those shortcomings of the expressway in any way?

Not intentionally, but it was the elephant in the room. They were the obvious issues that reside in a project about the BQE. It was about slum removal, which is a euphemism for eliminating lower social class people and immigrants. There’s all this manipulative politics that explains the direction of the highway - there were certain neighbourhoods that were cut off and neighbourhoods that were saved because of money and power. Those are all obvious issues, but the piece itself is not really about that. It’s a celebration of colour and shape and form. Just a painting in a way.

What was your first reaction when the Run Rabbit Run project was floated?

Bryce Dessner came to me with the original idea and I thought it could definitely work, even though I hadn’t thought of that material in so many years. I think it sounds better than the original record – it feels more human, and it's definitely more musical and the fact it was translated through several other arrangers apart from me and my own perspective makes it that much more interesting. I like it a lot.

Was there ever any temptation when it was being produced to step and say ‘don’t do it like that, do it like this’?

Oh yeah, I was pretty heavy handed. Over the course of a year they were workshopping and arranging, and I sat in on a few reheasals and had pretty strong opinions about things. The final outcome of the pieces are drastically different from the original arrangements, but all this was hopefully understood from the outset so I didn’t offend too many people. The quartet themselves also played a large part in shaping the pieces. It was definitely a co-operative, communal process. I think we were all extremely satisfied with the outcomes. There were details that I would make clear weren’t the best idea, but it wasn’t about who was right or wrong, it was a collaborative workshop.

What kinds of music have you been exposing yourself to since Illinois?

I’ve been doing a lot more programming and sequencing and working with beats, trying to get away from some of the tools of folk song like acoustic instruments, and working with synthesised sounds. I bought a really expensive analogue synthesiser, and have just been messing around and creating sounds. I have a fetish for these alien sounds, these otherworldy sounds that don’t seem to have any context. You can shape them or manipulate them with different oscillators, and it feels kind of weird, some of it is very amusing more than anything else. I really like synthesised music.

Is that a direction that a new album might take?

I'm kind of all over the place. Because I haven’t released a record of songs in so long I’ve been writing for a couple of years and amassed so much material. It kind of goes in all directions, and I need to step back and figure out how to organise it and find out what’s possible and feasible to shape into a record.

Your songs have always evoked a very literary America to me, something emphasised by your educational background [Sufjan did a Creative Writing MA and some of his stories can be found here]. Are you conscious of being part of any tradition in that way? There are certain moods and ideas that maybe hark back to the transcendentalists or Melville, for example.

That’s pretty dense American literature. Those people were philosophers and scholars, I’m just a songwriter. I have more of a pop sensibility and I don’t think I dig that deep. I wouldn’t take myself that seriously.

Is ‘classic’ American literature an influence though?

Hmm, only in so much that it’s required reading at high school and university. Everyone reads Thoreau and Walden and all that stuff, Emerson and the transcendentalists. But it seems like such an archaic philosophy. I’m not sure how much it influenced me, I definitely have an awe for the natural world that is overwhelming and I think that’s communicated in a lot of my music - almost a fear at the wonders of the natural world. But at the same time I’m very civic-minded and very urban and prefer to live in communities and society. I know there’s a bit of tension with the transcendentalists, because Whitman was a naturalist and a romantic but he was also very urban and lived in Brooklyn and felt an affinity to the city.

It’s a pretty common kind of tension in America, this urban-versus-rural combat that’s going on all the time, whether it’s in politics or in aesthetics or in a way of life, and it’s becoming more and more extreme now as people are moving back to the city with all the urban renewal, and the suburbs are considered this odd, problematic, purgatorial thing that is completely outdated now. There’s a conviction now to either move to the country or move to the city. It’s not happening on a massive scale but it’s definitely in our consciousness.

David Byrne once described your music as ‘transcendental nostalgia’. I know you dislike being labelled nostalgic, but what’s your reply when people describe you in that way?

I do feel that my music doesn’t feel very contemporary. There is something very Romantic and old world about it in the sound and shape of it. Even in the aesthetics and packaging of the records, there’s something mid-century about it. I don’t mind that, but I don’t have much respect for nostalgia or sentimentality. I like to look forward and I like the idea of existing in the here and the now. I like present tense philosophy. I think my music is a compression of nostalgia and modernism and this kind of neo-futuristic, apocalyptic religious sense.

What is your stance these days on whether music can be or is a necessary expression of faith, or can you divorce the two?

I think music is mystical, in that it’s invisible and it’s physical. It’s not seen by the eye but felt by the body and spirit. That’s an indication of its spiritual value. It’s an ecstatic form. It’s spiritual and religious but it’s also more pointedly mystical and mysterious and I think that’s what makes it infinitely accessible and interesting, and that’s what makes it so relevant. Even in a very concrete, physical, material world, we still feel these spiritual impulses from music, art and poetry.

Is that belief a product of your upbringing and childhood or is it something anyone can experience?

I think it’s just in me. I don’t think it has anything to do with my conditioning or upbringing or any kind of personal religious experience. I think it’s just inherent in the human psyche. We’re socialised and we’re educated, and over time there’s a philosophy of logic that has shaped the way we see the world, and that’s integral and physical. It’s experienced and it's learned. I believe you can socialise a man but he will always be a spiritual being. As long as we’re finite, as long as there’s an expiration date… man is wholly spiritual.

Would you call yourself a patriot, in any way?

No, not at all. I hate that term because it’s just so dogmatic. I loathe this mindless allegiance to the principles of a nation, whether it’s a doctrine or a flag or government. I don’t believe in any of that.

But is it possible for the definition of patriotism to be manipulated to not mean the jingoism you hint at, and celebrate other aspects of America?

Yeah. Man, we’d have to come up with a new term. Patriotism and nationalism are just too loaded. I’d rather just say I’m an American and have an unavoidable allegiance to that identity. It’s not a decision one makes, it’s just a matter of fact, of place.

I’m so preoccupied with identity, like most human beings are, especially as an American because we lack a concrete history. My obsession with identity leads to a discursive inquiry into the subject of Americanism and patriotism, but I don’t think that I necessarily am bound by an allegiance to this country at all. I can take it or leave it. But at the same time, it’s just a matter of fact. It’s who I am and it’s where I live.

Have far have you become disillusioned at how convoluted music has become thanks to technology and the so-called democratisation of music-making? You referred once to the futility of ‘contributing to the white noise’. Are you able to overcome that?

There is an excess that’s seems unending and impervious to understanding, because of the availability of music through the internet. It can be overwhelming, but it’s important for people like me to not get anguished for too long on the cosmic, greater process. I tend to despair sometimes over meaning. What’s the meaning of a song? Of an album? What does it mean that I’m on stage in front of people? What is this dynamic? What is this relationship? I tend to question all these things and I don't go into them thoughtlessly. Sometimes I need to just relax and get over it. Generally I like that there are so many resources available for musicians, and that the major market music industry has been collapsing for the past decade is really extroadinary because it opens up so many possibilities for creative inquiry, because making music is accessible and affordable now. It’s nice to have restrictions though, I think that in the previous decade it was more challenging to make a record and release it. Now everything is possible, but not everything is permissible or plausible.

Are you still unreservedly motivated to share your music with the world?

Well I just did a tour for three weeks and shared my music with the unsuspecting public, and a lot of it was new material. You always have to wrestle with the motivation behind motivation. Am I creating for myself? For a public? For God? For nothing? Is there just a void? Are all the sounds we create consumed by a vacuum? These are probably juvenile existential qualms, but I can’t help it.

Three songs: 'You Muses Assist' by Alasdair Roberts, 'Ned Ludd's Rant' by Alasdair Roberts, and 'Hazel Forks' by Alasdair Roberts. Spoils is a great great great great great album.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach, teach gym. And those who can't teach gym, become rock writers.

It is my opinion that music criticism is a dead art. Or at least several bits of it are. Note I refer to ‘criticism’ rather than ‘journalism’ there, as it is the practice of judging the artistic credentials of albums, gigs and so forth that has become redundant, not actual reportage or story-telling. The editor of one publication I contribute to recently said to me “I just want a good story, that’s all” and another has eschewed completely that ultimate obsolete form, the live review, preferring to only write up an account of a gig if, again, there is a ‘story’ to tell from it, rather than the directionless fripperies and cliches of some half-baked critic.

The live review and to a lesser extent the album review are on the way out as the medium comes full circle and concentrates on facts and narratives rather than opinions. This is a good thing, because otherwise you end up with such annoying things as the unseemly and petty kafuffle below this, and an astonishingly awful live review I recently wrote that I had to rescind, retract and generally undergo a chastening soul-search to discover what the hell I was thinking when I invoked subjective nonsense and irrelevant anecdote. Even I’m not interested in my own opinions anymore. Hopefully it was just a full moon on the night I wrote it.

Music writing is most interesting these days when analysis of music is supporting some other wider social theme. Kind of like using music as a lens to observe something else, to the extent that it is almost a peripheral presence. For example, this excellent article came up during research for a recent feature. Obviously not being a music magazine, The Believer doesn’t fall into horrible and hackneyed music critic tropes, because its priority is not to describe or exhort, but to take an issue in the proper world and assess how it is treated in the realm of pop (by someone with expertise in that alternative field), which despite everything, remains articulate and profound in the right places.

In short, the article is looking in at music from outside it, and therefore has enough perspective for it not to be nauseatingly descriptive or a vanity-induced failed attempt at charismatic, personality-heavy nonsense. The best thing Judy Berman can do is not to even contemplate writing about music ever again, lest she be ensnared in its miserable, passé clutches (guilty).

When music is written about without the music itself being the point of departure is when music writing is most relevant I think is what I’m so clumsily pointing out. Andrew Mueller’s book is kind of along these lines. I look forward to National Geographic’s next spread on the Strawberry Alarm Clock.

But don’t get me started on travel writing. The unbelievable vapidness of what appears here, a paper I read daily, is sad.


The Wallabies arrive in Europe this week for a Grand Slam tour. They do, of course, have no chance and they will most likely crumble like little girls at Twickenham this weekend. It wasn’t so long ago we could at least get close to the All Blacks, but a 4-0 series whitewash in 2009 is a new low. It is painful to admit, but it simply looks like the Wallabies don’t care. In fact, complacency has been a theme of Australian sport recently, what with the ridiculous Ashes loss and sloppy performances from the rugby league team that go back to the miserable World Cup final last October.

The last Grand Slam tour, in 1984, sowed the seeds for Australian rugby’s first modern renaissance in the early nineties, which was really the last time international rugby was satisfactory. To mark the fact here is the best Wallabies team from over the years that I have been following their plight, that is, since that golden era. Bias aside, there are three players here that are genuinely the best in their position who have ever taken to the paddock.

15. Chris Latham - Impossible to ignore Matt Burke, but Latham always had the task of inspiring a lesser team than World Cup-winning Burke. A responsibility Latham stepped up to.

14. Joe Roff – One of the great wingers of the nineties and a blueprint for the modern professional player.

13. Stirling Mortlock – Best centre of 2003 World Cup, another who carried a relatively limited team.

12. Tim Horan – The best centre three-quarter ever. No doubt.

11. David Campese – The best winger ever. No doubt.

10. Michael Lynagh – Dead heat with Stephen Larkham, but while Larkham was the superior runner and passer, Lynagh was once the world’s record point scorer in tests and, also, wasn’t injured every five minutes.

9. George Gregan – Faded in his later career, but in the 1998-2001 period, his quickdraw distribution fired the Australian backline in a way that can only be dreamed of nowadays.

8. Toutai Kefu – Tricky, because Tim Gavin had a good innings too. But Toutai Kefu was a hugely dynamic ball carrier. Also, unlike Gavin, he has a Wikipedia entry, so he must be more important.

7. David Wilson – The foundation of the brilliant 1998-2001 teams. A true Wallaby great.

6. George Smith – It seems sacrilege to name current players, because they are mostly a shocking team. But George Smith would probably walk into any other international team of the past decade.

5. Nathan Sharpe – Not a strong position for Australia over the years (apart from the obvious, at No.4), Sharpe edges it over David Giffin and Rod McCall.

4. John Eales – The best second-rower ever. No doubt.

3. Ewen Mackenzie – Australia have never really had a world-beating front row. So it’s the best of a mediocre bunch.

2. Phil Kearns – Won two World Cups, supreme all-round forward.

1. Richard Harry – Perfectly functional prop. Benn Robinson may be in his place in a year or two though.

Reserves: Matt Giteau, Matt Burke, Tim Gavin, Michael Foley, Andrew Blades

Three songs: ‘Seer’ by Witch, ‘Cold Rain’ by MV & EE and ‘Light Of Day’ by Daniel Johnstone (surprisingly excellent).

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Don't Do As Roman Do

I’ve been attending the Zurich Film Festival, unfortunately dominated by Roman Polanski getting arrested as he came to town to accept some lifetime achievement award or something. There were some marvelous films too (like Austria’s Small Fish, Israel’s Lost Islands, Australia’s Samson and Delilah and the bizarre P-Star Rising). I got to share the same air space as Morgan Freeman, Michael Keaton, Peter Fonda and Terry Gilliam. This definitely makes me a better person. Definitely. Better than you.

I was hugely impressed by the press facilities here, which like everything else in this sheltered little country was organized with military precision; chocolates in the welcome bag helped, as did free travel on the public transport here.

I was going to put together a Spotify playlist in tribute to Polanski’s plight, but Spotify doesn’t work in Switzerland (unable to commit to anything, these Swiss folk). So here are some songs on YouTube thematically appropriate to the old dog.

That last one is the original of that quite fantastic song. For those of you who prefer gurning white-boy blues from Nottingham there is this:

I don’t know what to think about him (Polanski). On one hand you’ve got behind him Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Penelope Cruz, Martin Scorsese and about a hundred others whose usual cheerleading for ‘liberal’ causes lures in naïve sycophants like me with ease (Jan Kounen, director of Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, actually withdrew his film from the festival here in protest at Polanski’s incarceration). On the other though, there is the fact that it really was rather a bad thing to do, what he did to that young girl. Insert obvious joke about Woody Allen here.

The argument seems to be that he has already paid for his crime when the girl in question, Samantha Geimer, sued his sorry ass for $500,000 in the eighties. There have apparently been rumours, also, that Switzerland owed the USA a favour over some financial help that went the other way. I don’t know. Either way, I would imagine it’s the first time in RP’s life he would gladly trade places with Letterman.

I rediscovered Imani Coppola recently. Her last album The Black and White Album wasn’t very good. But this song, from 1997, is mighty fine. And her most recent work as part of the duo Little Jackie with Adam Pallin, has been okay too, I guess.

Three songs: ‘Diana’ by Alexander Spence, ‘This Is Africa’ by K’Naan (because of its video) and ‘Love Etc’ by The Pet Shop Boys (also because of its video).

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Like Clockwork

I am in Switzerland for the time being. The German bit. I didn't think there would be any sort of culture shock - Zurich being the financial zenith/Hades (delete as is one's bent) of Europe, but a few things are a little odd to one weaned on an axis of English and Australian quirks. It would be churlish, presumptuous and perhaps wrong to say that a certain part of Swiss society is made up of uptight, emotionally stunted, unimaginative bureaucrats with hearts of cold, solid steel. So I won't, but I think maybe I've been hanging around the wrong parts thus far. I have press access to the quite fancy Zurich Film Festival, which might see more fun amid the glum.

One bright spot, mind you, has been seeing White Denim at Rote Fabrik. I don't think I have really banged on about them as much as I should have in the past - I interviewed them recently, here, but for some odd reason didn't pay much attention to the kafuffle that was made of them last year when Workout Holiday came out. It was probably because of the kafuffle that was made of them last year when Workout Holiday came out. Great band though, and live they are "everything I ever dreamed of", even if Zurich provided a staid audience that barely half-filled the venue. To be within spitting distance of the front of stage at a White Denim gig in London is an unheard of flight of fancy that would get you laughed out of Hoxton Bar and Grill with many a fist shaken at you. Here, you almost felt sorry for the Austin trio as they received no reaction whatsoever from a crowd who, in their defence, didn't have a clue who they were. White Denim always seem to be lost in their own little world when they play anyway, so they seemed happy. And I had a quick chat with their drummer Josh Block afterwards, who is vying with Alex Maas of The Black Angels for the title of Nicest Man In A Band in Austin, Texas. Tremendous chap. I shook his hand FIVE times.

Apart from that White Denim piece, there are a few other new things on my site, including interviews with Brendan Benson and Snowman, live reviews of Yoko Ono, Seven Worlds Collide, Cropredy Festival and The Welcome Wagon and record reviews of The Cave Singers and The Witch and The Robot.

Three songs: 'She Gets Remote' by Hello Fire, '(Ballad Of) The Hip Death Goddess' by Ultimate Spinach and 'Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)' by Melanie.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Knight Demons

Last week I adventured to the continuing transport black hole that is Stoke Newington in order to do some in-house editorial work at The Stool Pigeon. On one day I missed the correct bus stop and ended up in Tottenham, then on another I was traipsing Hackney's streets on foot utterly clueless in this maze of high-rise flats and, for some reason, honest cockney-jon, old-style bakeries. I had me a bagel.

Anyway, this work I would go as far as to say has reenergised me for this strange art of music journalism. Not only is the quarters of this very special publication an extremely fun place to be (literally half of one day was spent poring over this), but it was a timely glimpse and a vital reaffirmation of what it is to actually work for a proper music publication that is managed professionally, is completely independent and finally, shows respect for the writing - and therefore the people who do the writing - over all else. It also helps that everyone involved has a knowledge of music, across all styles, that borders on the terrifying at times.

There is no chaotic, mono-maniacial 'management' from ham-fisted bullies whose ignorance is only matched by their malice (like a certain publication I have previously had dealings case that wasn't obvious), just a calm enthusiasm both for music and journalism. While the practice of writing about music still seems fatuous on a theoretical level, something I'll go into another time, at least some of the bitterness I previously held towards it has been removed by this realisation that it can still be done in a way that is truly critical, not hindered by cliche and without toadying to external influences (labels, PRs and the like). This revitalisation will probably last about three days, but nevermind; may The Stool Pigeon continue to prosper.

Elsewhere, 'in other news', Penrith Panthers got an unholy 35-0 twatting by Newcastle Knights, meaning that we finish 11th, firmly outside of the top eight. I hear Matthew Elliott is stewing on this, but to be fifth little more six weeks ago and then to finish eleventh, below Souths for Christ's sake, is shocking. Penrith have just had four players named in the train-on Australia squad for the four nations and have a bunch of young players the equal of most of other teams in the NRL, so it's a case of underachievement rather than 11th being their rightful place. The loss of Petero Civoniceva is the obvious main reason for this embarrassment, and no one foresaw the rampant rise from Parramatta. But still, 35-0 to Newcastle in a final game where everything was to play for... even the wooden spoon year of 2001 didn't sink that low. So Penrith's season, coupled with NSW's loss in Origin, equals a general disgruntlement with my league teams that stretches back to October when Australia dropped the World Cup. Miserable times. I'm now gonna go for Dragons in the finals series, or maybe Manly. Or Eels.

Three songs: 'When I'm Sleepy' by Wild Beasts, 'Just Ain't Gonna Work Out' by Mayer Hawthorne and 'Next Season' by Port O'Brien

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Horror

I was at the Green Man Festival in Wales for the entire duration of The Oval test match, which was probably a good thing. There were enough cricket fans amid the ponchos and bubble swords to keep me informed of what was going on, what with their diabolical whooping and hollering.

I was distracted by a hangover and a quite unbelievable closing Sunday set from Wilco and by the time I got home I had reconciled myself to the horrors of losing the Ashes - so long as I didn't read the newspaper, turn on the television or go online. Then I discover Australia had lost by one point to a last ditch Dan Carter penalty in Sydney. That was a little too much. The only redeeming fact is that Melbourne's Warren Ellis was far, far cooler than anything at the Green Man Festival, and from the same city Pivot played a nice little half an hour too. I am content with this.

Three songs: 'You Never Know' by Wilco/Seven Worlds Collide, 'Blood Money' by Spiral Stairs and 'Closure' by Apse.

Monday, 17 August 2009

North Country Boys

When I was at Primavera Sound in Barcelona earlier this year I was most swept up with Neil Young, as pretty much everyone else was. I even made a friend amid the madness, a short hairy little Spanish gentleman who used my shoulder as a support for his ecstatic jumping up and down. Also spectacular were Wooden Shjips and Dead Meadow, but by far the most emotional set, for me and many others, was from The Jayhawks on the Saturday. That evening they played pretty much every song you would have wanted from 'Sister Cry' to 'Ain't No End'. Now comes the release of a best-of, which I was generously sent.

Now, while Olson and Louris will probably make more music and it may even be good, this album, entitled Music From The North Country, acts as a an opportunity to mark these beautiful songs and the two disparate characters who made them. One of the top three bands from the 90s, no doubt.

Those songs from their 1985 inception to when Olson left in 1995 are selected perfectly, even though if space allowed pretty much half of every album made in that period could have been included. Unfortunately, 'Sister Cry' doesn't make it, but 'I'd Run Away', 'Two Angels', 'Martin's Song' and 'Settled Down Like Rain' do, alongside the obvious stuff like 'Blue' and 'Waiting For The Sun'. The second half of this collection is all about The Jayhawks minus Olson, and while many (with good reason) reckon they weren't The Jayhawks without Olson, there are some gems from that latter period too. 'Trouble' is a succinct encapsulation of all of Louris's gifts, for example.

The Jayhawks are one of those songwriting partnerships where the indulgences of each member are reined in by the other to achieve an exact, amazing equilibrium between their talents. Louris was the more sentimental one, prone to writing songs with lines about having his "little baby boy". This was kept in check by the odder Dylan-esque lyrical tendencies of Olson, whose curious, biting irony was magnified by that nasal croon of his. Without Louris there to soften him up The Jayhawks might have gone to places too dark to achieve the (moderate) critical and commercial following they did.

Three songs that are good: 'Won't Change My Mind' by Liam Finn, 'Two' by Lisa O Piu and 'Rust' by Telekinesis.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

The Sun Shines On

Until the last couple of weeks, I have received a distinct dearth of interesting things to listen to through the letterbox. Lately, records by Wilco, Wild Beasts and The Cave Singers have arrived, making up for months of mediocrity. I also have the new Brendan Benson album, and I'm interviewing him tomorrow. I love Brendan Benson. To the extent that I would like to bring him a present, maybe ("fellatio?" suggests a friend... No, not fellatio...). I have only once taken CDs to an interview to be signed, although I know it goes against all journalistic integrity to do it... But all critics are essentially fans anyway. Did you know that Brendan Benson is apparently 39?!

Anyway, to counter this miserable lack of music, I took to the blogs on a voyage of discovery. Amid this tricky landscape I came across this, possibly the best and most terrifying thing I've heard this summer. This is such an easy sound to achieve - it is essentially effects-laden heavy blues with a very, very dirty bassline - but only a few select Americans seem to be able to pull it off with any sort of success. I was not surprised to learn that The Entrance Band's singer and guitarist Guy Blakeslee is a collaborator with David Vandervelde, though somewhat amused at the fact that their bassist Paz Lenchantin was in Billy Corgan's execrable Zwan. They release an album in the US in September called Prayer Of Death. I don't know anything about a UK release, as yet.

Last week an acquaintance of mine died. His name was Gary Nelmes. He secured my admiration when I first met him in 2006, but in the past couple of years I only had a passing affinity with this fine man who died coming down Mont Blanc on Friday 24 July. His blog is here, which shows pretty much exactly the beautifully weird sort of gentleman he was. I, for one, raise a glass to him.

Three songs that are good: "Sun Shines On" by Oliver Mann, "I Can't Take It Anymore" by Monotonix and "Bombs Bomb Away" by Elephant Stone.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A Point of Origin

I was away on holiday recently for ten days, during which time I missed three things.

The first was the premiere of Rufus Wainwright's opera Prima Donna at the Manchester Festival. Although I had only heard snippets of the music on TV and radio, I can say that it sounded characteristically florid, and something of a fey departure from the two operas I had most recently seen: The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi Fan Tutte. But sarcasm aside, I really like the new beard, even if he, with all his Dorian Gray-like devotion to staying young and hedonistic, can't be too impressed with the shades of grey that are appearing. What's more, he now looks exactly like his dad on the cover of the latter's excellent 1975 album Unrequited. Rufus will need to put on a few pounds before completing the 'bear' look, mind you.

The second was the Lords test match, which on my return from Italy/Corsica I was too tired to give the indignation it deserved or discover what went wrong. Suffice to say, Mitchell Johnson was flayed around to the extent that he resembled Wile E. Coyote on one of his most soul-destroying days of failure with Roadrunner, and now I hear he is going to start at Edgbaston. Something that many, such as Kevin Mitchell here, have noted would be verging on the sadistic.

The third was the final State of Origin game at Suncorp Stadium. NSW won the dead rubber relatively comfortably, alongside some amusing old-style-Origin fisticuffs that resulted in the astonishingly pathetic Queensland actions of putting up a bomb with the last play of the game in order to simply pummel the hapless NSW taker (Kurt Gidley) with all their raging forwards.

This has largely been a disappointing Origin series. Queensland's dominance and NSW's staggering ineptitude in the first two games ensured that the competitive edge of the series has been dented. At the start, I had such high hopes. I drew parallels with 2001, when NSW had a side packed with superstars and proven elite in the NRL, while Wayne Bennett's Queensland side included ten debutants. Queensland crushed NSW in the first game 34-16 thanks to the maniacal Queensland spirit of these fledglings - I remember one try by Carl Webb being particularly galling for NSW, as the current North Queensland Cowboy flung off various more seasoned players like flies to score.

I hoped the reverse might be the case this year, but no. This is only partly down to the NSW players themselves, mind, because of the unforgivable errors made by NSW selectors. This hurts me to say, as Laurie Daley, a childhood hero, is one of them alongside Bob Fulton, one of Australia's most successful ever national coaches. But they really did make a mess of things in three out of the four key positions. Peter Wallace at halfback should have been dropped after the first game, while Terry Campese at five-eighth should not have been picked, but then shouldn't have been dropped so indiscriminately after failing, especially for the largely ineffective Trent Barrett. Robbie Farah might have seemed the answer at hooker based on the City-Country game but anyone paying attention to the NRL would have seen that Michael Ennis was outperforming pretty much every hooker he came up against. Getting rid of Wallace (whose inclusion in the second game was about as mean as, oh, say, Mitchell Johnson playing in the 3rd test) for Brett Kimmorley and Farah for Ennis for Origin 3 was exactly right, if about a month too late. And is it just me, or is it absurd that Matt Orford has never played a single Origin game?

The other mistake was picking Jamie Lyon. The guy doesn't want to play rep footy, so don't make him. There are plenty of alternatives in the Morris brothers, Matt Cooper and others. One could also make a case for getting Jamie Soward involved at the expense of Barrett, especially for the dead rubber, despite the fact that pundits everywhere were spouting he was too young and green for Origin.

On the plus side, I would suggest that Jarryd Hayne is probably the best player in the world at the moment, while the Panthers' very own Michael Jennings should become an Origin regular. Anthony Watmough remains a beastly presence, too. There is talk of getting rid of Craig Bellamy as coach, but as I say, it is with the selectors, not the coach, where the problem lies. One more year. The alternative, they are saying, is Wayne Bennett. But having a Queenslander coach NSW would be an ignominy rivalled only by having a Kiwi coach Australia's rugby union team. Oh wait...

Three songs that are good: 'Going Down' by Blitzen Trapper (who are really good all of a sudden), 'Rapture Of The Deep' by The Witch and the Robot and 'Gandalf' by The Phoenix Foundation.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Baggy Green

The BBC has recently been showing a series entitled Empire of Cricket, chronicling the history of the grand old game in all the major test-playing nations. Obviously, I've become tenacious in supporting Australia in the current Ashes series so it was with some intense interest - not to mention a wistful nostalgia - that I watched the programme dedicated to the game back home. Obviously a lot of the show was in awe of Bradman et al, but it also offered a reappraisal of the decade and a half of Australian test dominance at the end of the 20th century. It convinced me that Steve Waugh is surely the greatest Australian test captain of all time. It is easy to say that his success was mostly down to the fact he had some of the greatest ever players in his team (Warne, McGrath, Hayden, Gilchrist and so on), but they still had to be motivated into performing coherently as a whole. Waugh's capacities as captain can be proven by a comparison with Ponting's captaincy when it was in it infancy.

Steve Waugh would not have lost the Ashes in 2005. While that team still had every superstar in it, the fact was that they and indeed Ponting still needed to be uplifted, motivated and injected with the spirit required to win the Ashes that no other Australian has exemplified as well as Waugh. Complacency lost that series and the wretchedly immovable Waugh would not have allowed it to infect any of his teams.

It is easy to criticise Ponting for that series, but I believe his legacy will be made in this Ashes series and in the next few years. The Australian team for the first three years of Ponting's captaincy was still Waugh's team - both a blessing and a curse for Ponting. The team currently competing is the first XI that has been assembled and developed under Ponting's watch, and thus there is a case to be made for the fact his motivation is stronger, as he has watched his young bucks emerge in his image rather than Waugh's. They are firmly his and if his sense of history is as acute as it should be he will see an opportunity to establish a new formidable generation of Australian cricketers. Therefore it is important he sticks around as captain for the next three or so years to see this through.

Empire of Cricket had some fascinating footage of those 90s/00s teams, and I was of course moved to put together a best Australian XI for the time that I have been following the Australian game, which is since around 1990. Batting order manipulated a little to ease selection.

1. Matthew Hayden
2. Mark Taylor
3. David Boon
4. Ricky Ponting
5. Steve Waugh
6. Allan Border
7. Adam Gilchrist
8. Shane Warne
9.Brett Lee
10. Craig McDermott
11. Glenn McGrath

It was difficult to leave out Dean Jones, Michael Slater and Justin Langer (without whom we'd be without the Telemachus Brown song '(I Was Wrong About) Justin Langer), and I'm still unsure of picking Brett Lee in place of Merv Hughes. Apart from anything else, you have to include the blonde-haired shark from Wollongong for this.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Cass McCombs

Earlier this year I was asked by Domino Records to provide the press blurb for their artist Cass McCombs, who was releasing a new album in Catacombs in July. In early 2008 I was totally absorbed by his previous record, Dropping The Writ and on the back of that mild obsession with his songs managed to do an interview with the American, something he usually distinctly reluctant to do. Domino then asked me to adapt the resulting article with the emphasis on Catacombs, jazz it up into a more promotional piece and suddenly it's a press release.

Well now the album is out and I've been keeping a keen eye on reviews. As someone who is on the end of countless press releases it was an interesting exercise to discover the varying extents to which reviewers lift from the release itself - as well as gauging response to an album that is very lovely indeed, if not quite on a par with Dropping The Writ. The review in the current issue of Uncut (which I can't find online) hits the nail pretty neatly on the head, while this one I thought was a little harsh. Dusted Magazine's review is not too thrilled with the album but constructs its criticism well, if calling McCombs a '90s sitcom dad' is a little much.

These were two of four negative reviews of the album on the first page of a Google search results page. The BBC's review, here, is slightly more positive and takes more of a cue from the promotional drivel I wrote, while not directly quoting it. But then we are back to ambivalence with The Fly. These lukewarm receptions are a little surprising to me, given that even the record's weakest moments are more interesting than say, the new Peter Doherty CD that came in the post this morning, or of course, the new Moby album. I also have never been able to understand the often-made comparison between McCombs and Morrissey. Oh well.

That press release can be found here.

Three songs that are good: 'Orange Cymbals' by Nurses, 'My Unusual Friend' by Fruit Bats and 'Yahoo' by Slumberwood.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Website Up

I am moderately happy, I guess, to write that the uploading of articles has finished to, a site that I have created to lure potential employers in as well as act as an archive of my more passable pieces. I owe a large thanks to a friend of mine for designing and developing the thing.

The process of getting the site to this point was a deeply painful one. Not only did it take months to do, but it required going through up to three years worth of writing in order to identify works worthy of uploading. This was humbling to the point of giving it all up and seeing out my days on the sofa in front of the NRL with the homebrew, as has been a common scene recently (or even worse, do a PGCE), as there are some truly awful, cringe-worthy excuses for journalism and criticism in my back catalogue. I am moved to admit I have been lazy, derivative, cliched and downright ignorant in various things I have written. Thankfully, the majority of these faux pas were those articles from a long time ago, and at least I am now in a position to REALISE these deficiencies. Which surely makes me better today and tomorrow.

That said, while I was selective indeed with what articles went up, there are still a few things there that are not top-draw - to my tastes and opinion anyway - on there. As well as showing quality of writing, the site is meant to demonstrate breadth of musical knowledge, which accounts for the presence of things that are merely 7/10 rather than 10/10, in terms of how well they are written. Then again, I have on a number of occasions been complimented by vaguely important people on pieces that I have thought were dreadful, so I am probably not the best judge after all.

But there we are. The crux is it is up and it was embarrassing to confront past failings.

One might have guessed from this I am currently reading The Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In other news I recommend a visit here to download a strange, long thing from David Vandervelde and a few friends. Vandervelde released a beautiful album last year in Waiting For The Sunrise, one of 2008's best. That was all lovely soft-rock Americana but this is stubbornly fierce psychedelia, even a bit Hawkwindy at times. I suggest an album of that stuff, David. I thought of him when Jay Bennett died, as I know they had worked together in the past.

And here are three songs I have been liking: 'O Grace' by Magnolia Electric Company, 'I'm A Decent Man, I Kept Repeating' by Mike Bones and 'Sleepy Son' by Sleepy Sun.