Thursday, December 27, 2007

Keep Hope Alive

Happy New Year
Top Trax of 2007 - Playlist



I've been listening again to my favorite tracks of 2007. Overall it was a damn fine year for music. I enjoyed plenty of rousing and transcendent pop (Arcade Fire, Clientele, Shins, Radiohead, The National), marvellous edgy rock (Liars, Yeasayer), creative explorations of folk and blues (Iron and Wine, Plant and Krauss), and the fabulous ambient emotiveness of electronica outfits like The Field, Stars of the Lid and Burial (album of the year).

My worst fears came true for hip-hop, but Saul Williams, Madlib, Pharoah Monche, Underground Kingz and Jay Z delivered the goods in small doses.

In the jazz area, I heard nothing as far ahead as Ornette Coleman's Sound Grammar from 2006, though Charles Lloyd, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden and Michael Brecker released excellent sets. The expanded version of On the Corner had me scurrying back to my Miles Davis collection, which is no bad thing. New Year's Resolution: Gotta hear more jazz in '08.

All of these artists reflect the difficulties of modern life in profound and beautiful ways. While their solitary epiphanies evoke the receding certainties of the past, they tentatively suggest new paths into the future. These are difficult times, and these cries from the collective unconscious demand that we articulate a humane alternative to the madness which divides us.

So here's to a brave new year. Let's rock on. And keep hope alive.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Main Man

Film: The Passing Show:
The Life and Music of
Ronnie Lane (2006)
Directed by: James Mackie & Rupert Williams

As a Small Faces fan I was charmed by this endearing documentary tribute to bassist Ronnie Lane. The movie follows Ronnie’s career from his mod glory days to his stint with the Faces and close call with solo stardom. The film also documents his rural 'drop out' phase, the ramshackle musical circus The Passing Show, and his final days in Texas and Colorado.

The movie is packed with fantastic footage, including early Small Faces live performances. It naturally includes the epiphanous Itchycoo Park, one of the greatest British singles of all time co-written by Lane. This man was a greatly underrated songwriter.

A number of British rock legends pay tribute to Ronnie, including Pete Townshend, Kenny Jones, Glyn Johns and Eric Clapton. Sadly conspicuous by his absence is Ronnie’s long time main man Rod Stewart. Hmm.

Reminding his friends that life was "only a short movie," for Ronnie Lane it was the music that counted. Like many a musician he was naïve about finances and was mercilessly exploited by unscrupulous management. At one point Lane, writer of the some of the greatest singles of the sixties, finds himself homeless and camping out in Pete Townshend's back garden!

The movie ends with a cautionary note: the royalties that should have come Ronnie's way would have greatly eased his suffering and eventual death from multiple sclerosis. A sobering thought in these days of illegal downloads and pop pilfering.

Watch Ronnie, Steve Marriot and The Small Faces, then Marriot with Humble Pie.






Friday, November 30, 2007

Kickin' Ass

Sewer Zombies (Psychotic Motor Punk)
Track: They Died with their Willie Nelson T-Shirts On (Subversive, 1985)



There’s something insanely, psychotically thrilling about bike wrecks - especially if you happen to survive one, I guess.

One time I was on the back of Sean’s Kawasaki GPZ burning up Pacific Coast Highway. We were totally fucken' ripped after partying all night with some Irish girls in Torrance. We struggled to stay awake as the sun rose over the Santa Monica Mountains.

Taking a hairpin curve outside Malibu we hit a patch of oil and felt the bike slide from under us. Sparks ignited as the tailpipe scraped the highway.

As we were going down I knew I was gonna die, but strangely enough I couldn’t help thinking about the red-head I'd spent that night with and the small baggie of grass I had stashed in my back pocket.

Time seemed to stand still as we skidded along PCH, parts of the motorcycle scattering in our wake.

But then a miracle happened. Operating on pure intuition, Sean somehow managed to pull us out of the skid.

We coasted to a rest area near Zuma Beach. As we dismounted we were laughing our asses off. We knew we’d almost bought it.

When we got home we rolled a joint and played Sonic Youth's In the Kingdom #19: “Screeching along the guard rail, scraping paint and throwing sparks like sheets of pure terror/Suddenly all is quiet there in the sunlight on the highway.”

There’s a million great rock ‘n’ roll songs about road accidents: Leader of the Pack by The Shangri-las, Come Back, Jonee by Devo, Always Crashing in the Same Car by Bowie, Airbag by Radiohead.

My personal favorite is the fantastic noise orgy They Died With Their Willie Nelson T-Shirts On by Sewer Zombies. It describes a gang of down home boys hell-bent on destruction as they haul ass to the next saloon.

You can smell it all: the exhaust, the flaming tires, the grease. Pedal to the floor, firing up 400 horsepower of pure NOIZE, these Florida thrash maniacs go out in an heroic blaze of glory.

Like the day Sean and I almost crapped out on Pacific Coast Highway, it's a deliciously edgy experience.

LISTEN to Sewer Zombies here

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Lay Off!

Britney Spears (Pop)
iPod Choice: Get Naked (I Got a Plan) / Piece of Me (2007)


Why is someone always knockin’ Britney?

I mean, I know the MTV Awards thing was a total embarrassment. But the disloyal creeps bitchin' about her looking out of shape should turn in their fan club cards right now.


After all, look what she’s been thru: divorce, drugs, rehab, child custody, misdemeanor hit-and-run. And there's always some sleazeball with a flashgun hidin' out in the bushes.


I mean, can you imagine? I’d go off the rails too if half the western world wanted a piece of me.


As if that wasn’t bad enough, now all these jerky critics are dissin’ her new elpee Blackout, bitchin’ about "studio trickery", an’ voice effects makin' her sound like a "Britney Bot". One BIG FAT STUPID UGLY DORK even said, "If a blow-up sex doll could sing, this is what she'd sound like."


BUT THAT’S THE FRIGGIN’ POINT, YOU GEEKS !


That’s why Britney’s voice is sliced and diced to shit, pitchshifted and manipulated so one minute she sounds like a guy, then a dalek or a chipmunk. It's state-of-the-art dance-pop with a m-e-s-s-a-g-e.

Jeez. Dontcha geddit?


Like, Piece of Me is totally about life in the public eye and losing your identity in the celebrity shark tank.

Or maybe that kinda social commentary is too sophisticated for those poopy-skin peabrains to understand.


And what about Get Naked (I Got a Plan). That’s gotta be the scariest, most delicious slice of pop sex imaginable. The woozy synth lines that creep you out. The unrelenting beat which feels like it could implode at any moment. Pure genius.

And on top of that, you get the hot sound of Miss American Dream purring: “What I gotta do to make you want my body?/If I get on top, you're gonna lose your mind.”
Oooh yeaaah…

So leave Britney alone, you morons.

I mean it!

The Music Instinct

Oliver Sachs
Book: Musicophilia (2007)



Orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning 13 years ago. Following his accident, an amazing transformation took place. Where previously he had displayed precious little interest in music, Cicoria became obsessed with at first hearing, playing then composing an "absolute torrent" of Chopinesque piano etudes.

Do we all, like Cicoria, have a hidden musical talent? In his new book,
Musicophilia, neurologist Oliver Sachs explores the range of human responses to music and suggests we might possess a music instinct.

Existing as a central force in all cultures,
it’s undeniable that music has incredible power. Like language it expresses abstract concepts and evokes powerful emotions, lying so deep in human nature that it must surely be considered innate. Clearly there is an intimate relationship between cognitive systems, the auditory and the emotional. All humans respond to musical patterns, and Functional Brain Imagery shows 20 or 30 cognitive networks respond to pitch, rhythm, timbre and so on.

Our musical systems are so robust that even after brain damage causes us to lose language, we continue to recognize and reproduce familiar music. The music instinct continues to live on among patients with advanced dementia, amnesia, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. C
hildren with Williams Syndrome often possess prodigious musical ability and have an overdeveloped frontal cortex, as do people with perfect pitch.

As to whether everyone can develop the music instinct, the absolute lack of musical ability - amusia - is rare, and we all seemingly have a certain musical potential. More than seventy members of the Bach family composed music, and many of us can remember a time when everyone learned a musical instrument.

So which came first, music or language? Hard to say, but it could be that hearing the sounds of nature – wind, animals, birds – encouraged communal musical instincts among humans. And there could conceivably be an evolutionary purpose for music, such as communal bonding during rituals and attracting a mate, as any self-respecting music fan or rock god can testify.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Cry From the Electric Heart

Burial (Dubstep)
LP: Untrue (Hyperdub, 2007)




The city at 4 AM. An eerie calm before the mad parade. Footsteps echo, each hollow tap an icy epiphany.

Streets pulse with hazy, phazy life. An old woman shuffles by, glances nervously. Do I know you?

I'm jolted upward on a mad rush of adrenalin, floating above the choking trees, the barking dogs, the sirens. So much pain, yet such beauty. Far off, an airplane is captured in a sunrise. Below, the city is a web of sleepy elation.

Everything’s true and untrue, each moment perfectly reflected in the next. All existence fuses into one blinding flash of clarity - a cry from the electric heart.

I see it all. The compassion. The oneness. The love.

Something touches me cold and warm, the blood pulsing in my veins as heart opens to the sky.

I’ve seen the light now. And it burns like heaven.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Conflicted

Are MP3 Blogs (like this one) Killing Music?


In posting mp3s on my blog am I ripping off artists or contributing to the death of musicians and record labels? Is my intention – to communicate a love of music – a naïve pipe dream?

I agree it is unethical not to pay for music. Musicians might not have the divine right to be millionaires but they certainly deserve the chance to make a decent living.

Having said that, I’ll come clean and admit I have done my share of illegal downloading. This has mainly enabled me to check out new tunes - like I did on the radio as a teenager - and satisfy my insatiable lust for music.

By way of sickening self-justification: it’s also true that I have spent a small fortune on music in thirty-plus years of fandom. And I’m not only talking about LPs, singles, cassettes, CDs and downloads. Then there are the innumerable concerts, t-shirts, posters, books and movies.

Studies suggest that downloading music leads to increases in CD sales, and artists now commonly offer free downloads as an incentive, though arguably only the largest bands and labels can afford to give music away for free, like the recent Radiohead release.

It’s more important I think to pay for music from independent bands and labels, since they are the first ones likely to go to the wall due to unscrupulous downloading. I played in an independent working band for ten years and never made a penny. In fact, like most musicians I lost money.

Free downloads can cheapen the value of music. With gigabytes of unappreciated songs accumulating on their hard drives, listeners become indifferent to their music collections. By contrast, if you have paid for a tune - as a friend of mine rightfully points out - you have more of a vested interest in the music and are more likely to spend time engaging with it.

There’s a huge conflict here between art and commerce. In other areas one doesn’t necessarily have to spend money to enjoy culture. Art galleries are often free and you don’t even have to pay for books, you can simply borrow them from your local library.

Perhaps the whole notion of music being inextricably connected with market capitalism has run its course, and musicians now need to explore more creative ways to finance themselves.

I doubt people visit music blogs in order to get free music. Rather it's to read opinions and get suggestions. I remain conflicted about this whole issue, but unless I hear objections from the artists concerned, I’ll keep posting songs on this blog. I’ll also continue to purchase music on CD and online while staying tuned for further developments in this debate.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

I’m a Believer

Josquin Des Prez/The Hilliard Ensemble (Sacred)
LP: Motets et Chansons (EMI, 1984)

It’s Sunday morning and I’m enjoying one of my favorite CDs - a Hilliard Ensemble recording of some enchanting motets written by Josquin Des Prez (c. 1450 - 1521), the master of High Renaissance polyphonic vocal music.

Known as the greatest composer of his age, Josquin's mastery of technique and expression was universally imitated and admired. Figures as diverse as the Renaissance courtier Castiglione and church reformer Martin Luther sang his praises.

Writing in a period of unquestioning belief in the literal truths of Christianity, Josquin's art is a reminder of a time when religion ruled peoples’ lives and the church was the principle sponsor of the arts. Soothing yet mysterious, ecstatic yet restrained, his music invokes a joy almost too deep to behold.

But you do not have to be a Christian to experience the profound mystery at the heart of Josquin‘s music. If the purpose of religion is to unite us with some essential part of our nature - the Latin religio means ‘to bind or connect’ - this suggests that there is a religious impulse informing all musical creation.

Just as the great religious works should be read as poetry rather than prose, the power and meaning of sacred music is to be found in the metaphorical, beyond words, beyond even language itself. Literalism here is the enemy of understanding.

Perhaps Brahms was mistaken when he condemned, “young composers who are atheists,” asserting that “they are doomed to speedy oblivion, because they are utterly lacking in inspiration. Their works are purely cerebral.”

On the contrary. The materialist who rejects supernatural phenomena in favor of a naturalistic view of life is neither denied religious experience nor prevented from engaging with 'religious' music. You do not have to be a Christian to be enraptured by a medieval mass, nor do you have to follow Islam to be thrilled by qawalli. Both are capable of alerting believer and non-believer alike to the mystery of creation.

Though I’m an atheist, Christmas wouldn’t be quite the same without the poetic hymns and carols so beloved of my childhood, and there’s nothing like the sound of church bells ringing on a Sunday morning to start me waxing nostalgic. John Lennon’s first solo album - the one on which he proclaims, "I don't believe in Jesus" - famously opens with the sound of bells which he identified as a throwback to his boyhood.

No matter that science has made a housecleaning of faith. When it comes to sacred music, I'm a believer. Despite the advances of technology, there remains a mystery to life which is approached in the very act of creation. And whether it’s Des Prez, Debussy, or Doo Wop, music – and art in general – will remain one of the essential means by which we engage in that exploration.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ghostly Groover

Roxy Music (Spook-Rock)
Track: The Bogus Man (1973)



Halloween is approaching and Roxy Music's ghostly groover The Bogus Man is the perfect soundtrack for gruesome goings on.

Hail Roxy. They blew my pubescent mind when they erupted onto BBC's Top of the Pops with Virginia Plain in 1972. For a twelve-year old it was a life-changing experience to see Bryan Ferry in leopard skin and eye-liner, Brian Eno poncing about in a feather boa, Phil Manzanera in glitter boots and shades. And the music was even better: literate, self-aware songs of decadent high life and seedy subversion.


Roxy sure made dressing up seem like fun, which reminds me that a couple years ago I won first prize in a Halloween costume competition at a Kyoto night club. If I say so myself I made a pretty convincing vampire, and I'll never forget the DJ playing The Bogus Man in my honor.


It's hardly more than a glorified jam, but its twisted nursery rhyme quality makes it one of Roxy Music’s most memorable songs.
It's a loose, deliciously disturbing ode to the bogie man, and the influence of Can is obvious in the plodding drums and insistent bass line.

Incidentally, another great Halloween track is Throbbing Gristle's disturbing Hamburger Lady. It's bloody terrifying and I only play it when I have company, otherwise I get the heebeejeebies. Download it if you dare. In the meantime, here's a cool animation of The Bogus Man. Have a scary Halloween!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Spellbinding

Radiohead (Post-Millenium Rock)
LP: In Rainbows (Self-released, 2007)



Radiohead have created incredible buzz not only by announcing their seventh studio album just 10 days before its release but also by inviting consumers to decide how much they are willing to pay for it. By going straight to their fans and cutting out the middle men the band stick it to the record companies and the odious RIAA. Good for them, I say.

I downloaded the album this morning – paying 5 pounds (That's US $ 10.25, or 1,176 Japanese yen.) My impressions after one listen:

1. 15 Step. The opener begins with squelchy electro drums. Is this LP gonna be another Kid A? Nope, the song quickly begins to sound more like the Radiohead of old. Perhaps the band are subtly hinting this represents a return to a more song-based approach: “How come I end up where I started?” Thom Yorke sounds as miserable as ever, and we wouldn’t want it any other way. An encouraging start.

2. Bodysnatchers. Distorted bass intro reminds me of Kid A’s The National Anthem. There’s a definite Beatle influence here (try singing “We were ta…lking/about the space between us all” over the intro) . The guitars which come gliding in at 2:07 are pure Radiohead and Bodysnatchers cruises on out in a beautifully fucked up fashion. Phew.

3. Nude. Oh…my…god. After one listen this sounds like a bona fide Radiohead classic to me. It's dreamy and regretful and features a spellbinding, heartfelt vocal. Sounds like the band have been immersing themselves in 60s soul. Gasp!, it’s just starting to rain and this moment is oh so perfect.

4. Weird Fishes/Arpeggii. By now it’s clear that this is very much a guitar album, albeit understated, and this song features more glorious arpeggios-a-go-go, not to mention ecstasy-inducing harmonies and synths. An uplifting song of underwater escape, therefore very Radiohead.

5. All I Need. Mysterious and ambivalent ode to romance provides a much needed breather after the headlong rush of the first 4 trax. I'm in heaven already.

6. Faust Arp. Beautiful string arrangement set against gently plucked 'Dear Prudence' acoustic guitar. Very White Album-ish. Lovely hushed vocal. A grower, methinks.

7. Reckoner. Again, elements of black soul in Thom’s vocal performance complementing the very Motownish percussion sample on this track. The lyrics to this record aren’t as impenetrable as before and seem mostly to be concerned with interpersonal relations: “Because we separate/it ripples our reflections.” A gorgeous song from what – no surprises here - is a beautiful sounding album, even if they did release this version at only 160 kbps.

8. House of Cards. “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover/No matter how it ends/No matter how it starts.” A very real song about relationships and here's that sixties vibe again, hovering above the eerie synth lines. On first listening, one of my favorite tracks.

9. Jigsaw Falling Into Place. Wow. Totally cool acoustic guitar intro - pure Radiohead - has a definite Paranoid Android feel. And more spooky, spine-tingling backing vocals. There’s a slightly formulaic feel emerging here, but I still like it.

10. Videotape. Somber, elegiac piano frames a splendid finale to a gorgeous album which I can’t wait to play again. It’s a lovely finish and I’ll just leave it to the band to sum it all up:

No matter what happens now
I won't be afraid
Because I know today has been
The most perfect day I’ve ever seen

So there it is. We’ll see how In Rainbows plays out in the days to come, but for now it sounds like a cracking effort from the Oxford boys and a definite improvement on Hail to the Thief.

HOLD IT. Let me take that back: I just decided In Rainbows is an absolute triumph and their best record since OK Computer. In fact, it might even be better than that milestone. There’s an organic, newfound freshness and a welcome approachability in evidence.

Instrumentally the band are admirably restrained and right at the top of their game. The album is packed with lush string arrangements and delicate guitars which represent a move away from the twisted experimental approach they’re known for.

Thom Yorke's performances throughout are formidable, with intriguing dollops of soul-influenced vocals and mindblowing harmonies scattered over every track. The subject matter focuses on the vagaries of sustaining relationships within the dizzying confines of the new millennium. Radiohead are back, and I think I can guarantee their fans are gonna love this release.

And now...please excuse me while I catch my breath.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Communion

Bugaku dance and music
Miyajima, Japan



Against the backdrop of one of the most iconic scenes in Japan - the Itsukushima
Shrine on Miyajima Island - my father Raymondo and I recently watched the traditional Bugaku dance.

Bugaku is a form of Gagaku, the music and dance originally performed and practiced in the Imperial court in the early 9th century. I’ve heard this may be the oldest extant orchestral music in the world.

Despite the crowds of day trippers and the garish modern architecture visible in the far distance, I felt incredibly moved by the performance, which was performed in honor of a newly married couple.

At the same time I couldn't help feeling we have lost some essential part of our nature. If Bugaku derives from a time of feudal domination, it also symbolizes a time of simplicity, elegance and leisure.


The tempo of gagaku is so slow that it seems almost devoid of a pulse. But the stately pace created by a single drum, percussion and flutes suggests a oneness with nature which is essential to the animist core of the Shinto religion. I don’t share the animist belief in souls, but in a deep metaphorical sense I can appreciate that the unification of matter and spirit plays a role in daily life.

This feeling of communion with nature grew stronger as we climbed the wooded mountainside of Miyajima. The shrines dotted along the way were a constant reminder of the eternal, that in its essence life is a meditation and that family, nature and the universe are in some profound way reflected in each other.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Songs of Hungry Ghosts

The Old Man in the Park
Hiroshima, Japan

As he reached the end of the main thoroughfare the old man turned a corner and was surprised to see the shell of the bombed out building directly in front of him. Its skeletal dome was illuminated from below, causing it to stand in sharp relief against the evening sky.

As he approached the monument he was afforded a more complete view of the surrounding area. Although there were now lawns encircling the dome and modern bridges straddling the river, the topography seemed strangely familiar to him from old newsreels and photo journals.

The closer he came, the harder he found it to focus on the building’s spidery form. He had been unaware of the mist which clouded his eyes and he struggled to suppress the unfamiliar emotions which now welled up inside him. He let out a heavy sigh, and cast embarrassed glances in each direction, concerned that others might observe his disquiet.

It was then that he noticed a mournful sound floating on the evening air. Across the river two young musicians were singing. Their position under a concrete bridge caused their verses to echo eerily around the park before flying down the river like hungry ghosts. Though he could not make out the words, to the old man they sounded like the saddest lamentation imaginable.

A bird flew overhead and the old man cast his eyes heavenward. Then it was here. He struggled to frame the thought.

In reply came a roaring silence followed by the distant hum of traffic. Such mysteries confounded explanation. Thereupon, shaking his head and wiping his face on his sleeve, the old man continued on his way.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Good American

Iron & Wine (Psychedelic Folk)
LP: The Shepherd's Dog (
Sub Pop, 2007)


Right now it's difficult to admire an America embroiled in a divisive foreign conflict which has created untold death and misery for thousands of innocent people. As someone who loves that fair country and lived there for a good many years, that saddens me deeply.

Yet Iron and Wine's superb new album The Shepherd's Dog quietly hints there may yet be redemption if only America can realign its moral compass. I've had this record on permanent rotation for days, and it’s hardly left my mind as its hypnotic mysteries unfold.

Homespun yet edgy, The Shepherd’s Dog is firmly rooted in an American folk tradition, with liberal applications of pedal steel guitars, acoustic slide and tack piano. However the use of vocoder, dub reggae, African rhythms and psychedelic effects create a contemporary, experimental feel.

The consistently immaculate songwriting and vocal/instrumental performances are matched by Brian Deck’s superb production. Featuring delicate abstract soundscapes and lush, multi-layered textures, great attention is paid to details which reveal themselves only after repeated listening.

Listening to Sam Beam’s breathy vocals one can’t help being reminded of Nick Drake and Elliot Smith, though Beam’s poetry is far less fatalistic and gloomy than those two beautiful losers'. The stunning arrangement of House by the Sea sounds as if Drake has shacked up with a psychedelic Appalachian Afro-pop combo, and the results are gorgeous: “And like the shape of a wave/The jealous sisters will sing on my grave."

Many of the songs invoke a joyous celebration of nature - seen here as a metaphor for all that's good and true in the American psyche - but Beam's lyricism also condemns riot squads, strip malls and the fascist abuse of authority.

What strikes me most is Beam’s quiet call for America to find itself at a time of inner and outer conflict : “I've been dreaming our love and our freedom." The Shepherd’s Dog is haunted by the spectre of Iraq, and there are constant references to violence, ghosts, and birds of freedom.

America
’s political leader is presented as a “cartoon king”, “righteous, drunk, and fumbling for the royal keys,” as his cronies send soldiers off to die while they claim the glory: “There ain’t a penthouse Christian wants the pain of the scab, but they all want the scar."

In Carousel Beam sings the pain of those who are almost home, of olive branches and doves, grieving girls with crosses around their necks yearning for a life without despair: "Give me a yellow brick road/And a Japanese car/And benevolent change."

The astonishing poetry of Resurrection Fern almost breaks your heart with its depiction of a town riven by decay and moral disarray, where the protagonist cries over “Our bravery wasted and our shame.” “I love this town,” he sings, “but it ain’t the same.”

If history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake, The Shepherd’s Dog urges the USA to rouse itself from its moral slumber. These luscious hymns suggest it might best accomplish this by emphasizing its finest traditions, acknowledging its failures and reconnecting with its poetic authenticity. If that were to happen, there could yet be a new morning in America.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Bells and Whistles

Musical Artifacts of the Zhou and Han Dynasties
The Museum of Shanghai, Shanghai, China


A highlight of my recent visit to Shanghai was a visit to the fabulous Shanghai Museum on People's Square.

Among the hustle and bustle of modern China, the museum provides an island of serenity and education. It boasts an incredible collection of ancient Chinese bronzes as well as impressive sculpture, paintings, jade and furniture exhibits. There’s a good deal to see, but it’s a very manageable collection.

Chinese music dates back to the dawn of Chinese civilization. It was fascinating to see artifacts indicating a well-developed musical culture as early as 1122 BC, and viewing the exquisite bronze bells and drums on display, it was easy for me to imagine the mysterious artistic atmosphere of the Zhou Dynasty (1122 BC - 256 BC.)

The fabulous bronze drums on display were used in rituals, battles, large gatherings and religious ceremonies. Interestingly they also served as storage containers.

Bronze drums. Western Zhou (Mid-9th century B.C.)

Intellectual, literary, and artistic endeavors flourished during the Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), considered by Chinese to be one of the greatest periods in their history. Indeed, to this day the ethnic majority of China still refer to themselves as the "Han people."

The notion of governments keeping tabs on subversive artist types is nothing new, and I was intrigued to discover that an Imperial Music Bureau was greatly expanded under the Emperor Han Wu Di (140-87 BC). It was charged with supervising court and military music and determining which folk music would be officially recognized.

Although in ancient China musicians were regarded as quite lowly creatures, music was seen as central to the harmony and longevity of the state. Emperors took folk songs seriously, dispatching officials to collect and inspect the latest tunes as reflections of the popular will.

The Ancient Chinese Sculpture Gallery displays some stunning sculptures including a pair of cheerful kneeling clay figures playing a bamboo flute and lute from the Eastern Han (A.D. 25-200). I was quite taken by these two charming fellows.


Flute & lute players. Eastern Han (25 - 220 A.D. )

Scholars have proved that the finger techniques used by musicians during the Eastern Han period were quite similar to those used today. Not only that, representations of musicians playing mouth organs from the period indicate that the design and playing technique of the instrument have remained unchanged since its creation more than two thousand years ago.

Such facts underlined in my mind the brevity of human history, and I couldn't help feeling a yearning connection with these musical misfits of the not-so-distant past.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Consolation

Bob Dylan (Rock/Confessional)
Ipod Choice: Most of the Time (Sony, 1989)



By the late 1980s a lot of folks - including Bob Dylan himself - felt he was washed up as a songwriter. Beginning in 1981, a disappointing run of albums - Shot of Love, Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, Down in the Groove - had received almost universally negative reviews. Depressing times for Dylan fans.

Then came 1989’s miraculous Oh Mercy. As with 1975’s Blood on the Tracks, Dylan rediscovered his artistic core by invoking the demons of heartache and loss. Filled with frank examinations of his own moral worth, and elevated by one of the most sympathetic productions on any Dylan album (courtesy of the estimable Daniel Lanois), the record was a triumph for America's greatest songwriter. Meanwhile a grateful public rewarded him with his best sales in years.

For me, one of the great songs of Dylan’s late career renaissance - and a highlight of Oh Mercy - is the marvellous Most of the Time, a meditation on irreconcilable regret and endurance. Anyone who has known the pain of a separation can find themselves in this song.

Most of the Time's gorgeous swampy sound reflects the fact that it was recorded in a turn of the century New Orleans mansion with a sensitive, restrained band. Dylan’s wisely sad vocal, delivered over a luxuriant wash of ambient guitars and weary drums, perfectly complements the lyric as bitterness and self-recrimination are held - only just - at bay.

An agony of experience is contained in each line: “Most of the time, she ain’t even in my mind/I wouldn’t know her if I saw her,” then “Don’t even remember what her lips felt like on mine."

If there is anything more heartbreaking than that, I don’t know where I’ve heard it.

Most of the time we manage to kid ourselves - and everyone else – that we are sure-footed and invulnerable. But in the quietest moments the darkness can no longer be held back. It's then that the majesty of great art provides a bulwark against cold reality.

I once hurt someone I loved very deeply. There’s no turning back now, and I don’t know if I'll ever find true consolation. All I do know is that Most of the Time rings beautifully, bitterly true with me. Perhaps that's because in each line I hear the voice of an artist who steadfastly refuses to cheat himself - in his art, at least - even if he has cheated others in pursuit of his own revelations.

Read the lyrics to Most of the Time here.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Gorgeous Racket

Fuji Rock 2007: Part 10
Bo-Peep


Heading for home we could easily have missed the ferocious grrrl-punk of Tokyo’s Bo Peep if we hadn't decided to stop by The Palace of Heaven. We heard their gorgeous racket emanating from the Rookie a Go Go Stage.

Bo Peep are wild girls with an enervating, edgy sound and there were plenty of admiring boys - including me - at the front of the stage. As my Aussie pal Andrew sez, there’s nothing like outtacontrol Japanese girls playing rock 'n' roll. I must say, he's got a point.

I loved the full-on antics of vocalist and guitar player Mika, she's wild. She's a good guitarist too. In fact all the members of the band are tight musicians. Bass player Junko had a contentedly manic smile on her lips while she was attacking her instrument and my friend said, “Whatever she’s on, I want some”." Drummer Ryoko is in the back, but you can't miss her aggressive wallop. As their sound hit me head-on, I began fantasizing about becoming a Bo Peep groupie.

There's not much that could blow away Bo-Peep, but Infernal Varanne’s Globe of Death came close. This kara-zy motorbike show had three riders circling a spherical cage which then separated in half with two riders roaring around the top part while their buddy rode in the bottom. Unbelievable!

Thanks, Fuji Rock. We had a blast. See you next year!


Supper: Absinthe, tequila, two pints of Guinness. 10 out of 10.

Bo Peep MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/bopeepjapan
Globe of Death: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8-EDcpZrMw

YeaaarrrGgHH!

Fuji Rock 2007: Part 9
Iggy and The Stooges


I’m a huge Iggy Pop fan, so this was always going to be the highlight of Fuji Rock for me. Even if - at sixty - Iggy shows signs of slowing down, he’s still one of the most exciting performers going.


The crowd is stoked and yelling “IggGeeeEEE!” as the lights go down. And then...HERE HE IS! Er, I mean here they are. It's Iggy AND The Stooges, on their world reunion tour, dontcha know.
That's right, punk. This is the LEGENDARY IGGY & THE STOOGES, who recorded three of the most cataclysmic rock LPs of all time in Stooges, Fun House and Raw Power.


My eyes fill with tears as James Newell Osterberg takes the stage. He looks beautiful as he explodes from the wings, jumping and preening like a teenager. I'm aware that I'm hopping up and down, waving my arms and screaming in a most unbecoming fashion, but whaddya expect? - it's my hero Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk. He's sixty, and he’s come for your daughters....and your wives.... and your grandma too.





Iggy immediately starts to fuck the bass player's amp. Looks like it's gonna be one of those nights.

The band launch into the no-nonsense punk classics which made their name: No Fun, 1969, 1970, I Wanna Be Your Dog, Dirt, Loose,TV Eye, Real Good Time. They're all there and to my overexcited ears The Stooges shake appeal remains intact.



At one point Iggy falls from the stage and after lying motionless for what seems like an eternity returns with a noticeable limp. A few minutes later he jumps off stage again and is hilariously prevented from climbing back on by a clueless security guy who thinks he's a fan. All par for the course for an Iggy show.



But then something strange happens. Five numbers in, after the initial feeling of euphoria has subsided, the band starts to lose the plot. Drummer Scott Asheton is sluggish and out of time, and guitarist Ron Asheton looks completely lost, like a biker who inadvertently took a wrong turn trying to find the beer tent. Bassist Mike Watt is awesome and edgy, but he's carrying the older dudes.


Could be The Stooges are jetlagged, or maybe they've been partying hard, but it all seems kinda routine. Iggy's leaping around half-crazed, as is his wont, but there's a look on his face like the band suck tanite and maybe this reunion thing wasn't such a hot idea.





In an effort to pump some life into the proceedings Iggy engineers a stage invasion, inviting fans to jump the barriers and join him in the spotlight. Before you know it there are three hundred Japanese on stage, most of them young enough to be Iggy's grandkids. They don't know why they're up there, but they're having a ball, wearing the Stooges t-shirts they bought yesterday and trying to grab a piece of Iggy.

It all seems unbridled and spontaneous until I remember that Iggy did the same thing two weeks prior at the Glastonbury festival. And that amp-fucking: didn't I see photos of him doing that at Glastonbury too?


Stage invasion - Iggy-style

I start to wonder if it's dignified for a 60 year-old man to be singing the punk anthems he wrote when he was 19. Or getting it on with guitar amplifiers. And what about me? Should I even be egging him on and hollerin' up a storm along with 30,000 Japanese fans?


But this is dumb-ass punk-rock man. It ain’t about dignity, it’s about letting go, BEING ALIVE to the POSSIBILITIES, prostrating yourself on the altar of rock ‘n’ roll and yelling “IggggyYY!” and going "YeaaarrrGgHH!"

And Iggy - this stupendous star whose records changed my life - does it better than anyone, so who am I to argue? Him and Ron and Scott and Mike are alive and rockin', and that's a miracle in itself.

Anyway the band seem to have recovered their groove, and the set cruises along to a triumphant conclusion. The encore is I Wanna be Your Dog, which they've already played once. Are they gonna do one more? No. It's over. The sound man is playing New Order again.

Well, we did it. We came, we hollered like a bunch of teenagers, we saw the legend. And if there was nothing spontaneous or edgy about the show, what did we expect? Iggy's an old man now, and I'm getting old too. He's got nothing to prove to me or anyone else and I'll play his records and love him till I die. His showbiz smile at the end says it all: another stage invasion, another yen. It's only rock 'n' roll, but Iggy's still the greatest, looniest punk there ever was. 



Dinner: Deluxe beef kebab. 9 out of 10.