Saturday, December 27, 2008

Delicious Intensity

Sounds of 2008
16. TV On the Radio: Family Tree

A long, long time ago I was smitten by a red-haired beauty. We were as happy as any lovers could be. Until I met her family.

They were a dysfunctional coven of religious maniacs who despised our contentment, and endeavoured to undermine it at every turn.

As perverse a lovers' ballad as you could imagine, the disturbing imagery of Family Tree - "Brought down by an old idea / The shadow of the gallows of your family tree" - brings back those dark days with delicious intensity.

Does blood run thicker than water? Since those days I've never been sure.

Video: Family Tree

Friday, December 26, 2008

Neo-Soul Gem

Sounds of 2008
15. Erykah Badu: Telephone

I've had a major bee in my bonnet for some time now about the bandying about of the term "r 'n' b."

Far divorced from traditional rhythm and blues music, r 'n' b has become a catch-all term for black - or black-influenced - music as a whole, anything from hip-hop to neo-gospel and 2-step.

Thus, anyone from Anthony Hamilton to Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey or ('scuse me while I barf) Craig David - are likely to be described as r'n'b, even where there's precious little rhythm or blues to be found in the grooves.

There's no doubt, though, that Erykah Badu's New Amerikah Part One LP deserves the moniker of r ' n ' b as it goes some way toward arresting the depressing decline of soul music over the last two decades.

Though it's defiantly hip-hop in tone, New Amerikah hearkens back to the heyday of avant-garde soul and invokes the spirits of Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder and Funkadelic.

At a time when hip-hop has lost its way, ricocheting between self-parody and implosion, that can only be a good thing, and Badu surrounds herself here with fearless hip-hop/neo-soul avatars like Madlib and 9th Wonder.

Whether this record heralds a resurgence of black power I don't know. With a black president about to take office, it's not unimaginable. If D'Angelo ever gets around to releasing a follow-up to his definitive neo-soul masterpiece Voodoo - and if the recent re-emergence of classic soul in hip-hop becomes something more substantial - we might see the emergence of a new power in black music.

At any rate, this is an awesomely expansive, ambitious, politically charged record. Songs range from oblique inner explorations to biting social commentary.

Though it's occasionally frustrating in its high-art indulgence it's always a challenging and thought-provoking listen. One of my favorite tracks of the year was Telephone - an elegiac neo-soul gem.

Erykah Badu MySpace

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Open Range

Sounds of 2008
14. Drive-by Truckers: The Monument Valley

During my time in The United States I took two fabulous road trips through the glorious scenery of Arizona.

From the spectacle of Canyon De Chelly to the overwhelming Grand Canyon, Arizona offers one stunning experience after another.

But my favorite place in Arizona is Monument Valley. It has a calmness and spiritual atmosphere unequalled in the west.

The trip I took there with my dad was special. He's a big fan of western movies, particularly the John Ford classics which were shot in Monument Valley.

It was a dream come true for my dad as he gawped at the astonishing western scenery. He could hardly believe he was standing in the very place where his childhood movie fantasies were created.

Another time I visited Monument Valley with my friend Ian. I'll never forget the profound feelings I experienced while gazing through the 'North Window' across the magnificent plains.

As my mind reflected on the Navajos' unique bond with their land, I had what I think was the single most religious experience of my life. It became manifested in a sense of deep connection with the earth and a joyous awareness of my own insignificance.

Later that day, while dusk was falling, Ian and I sat on a butte overlooking the canyon as the local indians chanted ancient songs and beat their drums. The sky ran blood red, and as the echoes of indian lamentations filled the valley we were moved to tears.

On this year's fantastic Brighter than Creation's Dark LP, Drive By Truckers sing about "a time to turn your back on the comforts of home/ and wander round the Monument Valley alone." It's then you'll feel the pain and glory of history and the profound beauty of the open range.

Listen: Drive-by Truckers MySpace

Friday, December 12, 2008


Sounds of 2008
11. The Ting Tings: That's Not My Name

Popular culture seems to confirm the fact that, in terms of sexual politics, we've come a long way since I was a teenager.

TV Shows like Britain's Life on Mars ironically mock the boozy sexism - up with which women had to put - of the seventies. In the USA, Sex and the City humorously explores the modern woman's uneasy rapprochement between independence, body clock and libido.

On the music scene, powerful women are everywhere. The stance of Third Wave 'Riot Grrl' bands like Bikini Kill has influenced mainstream rock. On the contemporary scene Li'l Kim, Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, Beth Ditto, and many more are highly visible, in-your-face performers.

Despite that, many of my generation - those who came of age during an era of issues-driven punk defined by Rock Against Racism and the raucous feminism of The Slits - have been dismayed by the lack of awareness displayed by many young British females.

Confusing yobbish dissolution with emancipation, they indulge in gross behavior such as binge drinking and sexual self-abasement, the latter shamelessly exploited by internet porn barons.

It's the noughties female equivalent of New Laddism - shallow, reactionary, and most unhelpful to the cause of women.

Matters aren't improved by the appallingly crass level of public discourse - chiefly male-driven - recently seen rearing its head on mainstream British TV.

Lewd and inappropriate comments chat host Jonathan Ross made to his 'guest' Gwyneth Paltrow were offensive and beyond the pale. Is this how women are to be addressed - in 2008 - in a public entertainment forum? Shameful.

Consciousness-raising is perhaps not what British indie popsters The Ting Tings are about - the title of their album is We Started Nothing.

The duo are far removed from grrl power - they're half male for a start - nevertheless I think I detect the hint of a feminist message in their catchy single That's Not My Name: "Are you calling me darling? Are you calling me bird?"

I'd like to see The Ting Tings become a tad more upfront about their sexual politics, since their schtick is neither subversive nor original enough - it rips off Toni Basil's Micky something rotten.

But I have to admit That's Not My Name has a contagious chorus which I wish I'd thought of first, and it's a track I've greatly enjoyed all year.

Video: That's Not My Name

Thursday, December 11, 2008


Sounds of 2008
10. Wiley: Wearing My Rolex

If u had no clue what electro-grime was at the beginning of this year, u sure did by the end of the summer when 'Roll Deep' Wiley had a major hit on his hands.

It was hardly deep and meaningful, but it was irresistible from start to finish. And made even better by the brilliant fan video which reimagines the song as a Macca nightmare. Check it out!

Video: Wearing My Rolex (fan video)


Sounds of 2008
9. Randy Newman: A Few Words in Defense of Our Country

I say with no sense of satisfaction that when Dubya first got elected president I predicted the consequences would be woeful for America and the world.

Not exactly a hard call for anyone with half a brain, but in the end things turned out worse than even I expected.

It's a far from impressive record. Thousands dead in Iraq. Human rights abuses in Abu Graib, Guantanamo and elsewhere. An ineffectual response to Hurricane Katrina. Hubris and deceit on a grand scale from a closed-minded administration which refused to listen to reason.

Bush's legacy: terror unabated, America's economy in tatters, its reputation abroad in shreds.

Randy Newman nails Bush and his cronies - but real good - in A Few Words in Defense of Our Country, one of the highlights of this year's excellent Harps and Angels album. His chief weapon, as usual, is an hilarious sense of irony.

Americans aren't bad or mean, he reasons. Nor are her leaders - noxious as they are - the worst the world has ever seen. Not, that is, when compared to The Spanish Inquisition, Caligula and Hitler.

Newman also takes vicious - and completely justified - swings at the Supreme Court and Bush's misguided policy of color-coded terror.

They're obvious barbs at easy targets. But set against arrangements which echo Newman's superb movie soundtracks they work splendidly.

Although he ends with the words, "The end of an empire's messy at best / This empire's ending like all the rest," you can tell that amid the disappointment Randy still believes in the American Dream and the healing power of a good belly laugh.

And since a Norwegian university study recently concluded that people who easily find humor in real life situations outlive those who don't, I've no doubt Mr. Newman will continue as one of our sharpest social commentators for years to come.

Listen: A Few Words in Defense of Our Country:


Sounds of 2008
8. Burial: Etched Headplate

As if Burial's amazing 2007 debut wasn't enough, with 2008's Untrue he refines his sound, finding dignity, serenity even, amid the urban grime.

It's difficult to make out the words, which is intentional. What emerges through the haze is a portrait of a soul grappling with survival.

Deep, soulful, and miles ahead of the competition, it's a stark yet tender portrait.

LISTEN: Etched Headplate:

How did we get here?

Sounds of 2008
7. Flobots: Handlebars

Last Saturday I recovered from a hangover after drinking too much sake, felt a pain in my left eye, had a lunch date in Japanese, cooked coq au vin, went drinking with a Scottish software consultant and enjoyed sexual congress, though not with the Scotsman.

Sometimes I wonder how we manage to hold it all together, this fantastic,unlikely existence lived in bars, offices, trains, restaurants, cyberspace and bedrooms.

New to me, if not to the hipsters, Flobots' Handlebars starts out as yer common rock-rap bragfest before mutating into something more substantial - a celebratory lament for the dizzying range of possibilities facing a human life.

Asking "How did we get here?" it's also an investigation into the uneasy co-existence of creativity and oppression, and the fact that as a species we humans are simultaneously innocent and terrifying.


Sounds of 2008
6. Qu'ran Recital, Kuwaiti Mosque

I discovered some stunning Qu'ran recitations on You Tube one balmy summer evening this year.

Ironically, I came across them while I was browsing some of my favorite atheist clips including many featuring the estimable Sam Harris.

Whatever your religious beliefs, this is a profound, affecting devotional, a reminder there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Sounds of 2008
5. Radiohead: Bodysnatchers

Even though it came out in 2007, this thrill-a-second joyride from In Rainbows refused to budge from my playlist for most of this year.

From one moment to the next Bodysnatchers is absolute perfection. The opening riff echoes The Beatles' Within You Without You (sez I, no one else seems to agree with me) then the band switches to full attack mode in their own inimitable style.

Thom Yorke expounds on familiar Radiohead themes of sensory overload and post-millenium angst (“I’ve no idea what I’m talking about / I’m trapped in this body and I can’t get out”) and the crushing pressures of fame (“You can fight it like a dog / It brought me to my knees / They got scared and they put me in.”)

And it just keeps getting better: the growling bass, the snarling guitars, the ranting vocals, the glorious moment at 2:08 where the guitars slip into one of those sublime Radiohead ultraglides. Bea…uuutiful.

Listen: Bodysnatchers

Unknown Treasures

Sounds of 2008
4. Fleet Foxes: Mykonos

One glorious afternoon last August I was swinging on a beach hammock in Koh Phangan, Thailand. Feeling reflective I gazed across the shimmering waters at the island of Koh Tao.

I had recently come out of a relationship and I suppose in that kind of setting any great pastoral pop could send shivers down the spine. But Mykonos is truly special and its lyrics got right under my skin: “With a vision of a gentle coast / And a sun to maybe dissipate / Shadows of the mess you made.”

The chorus of “Wherever you go" made me feel I could never be alone again, while the Neil Young vocal cadences, insistent thrust of the guitars and gorgeous accapella section created a feeling of pushing away from disaster toward the bounty of as yet unknown treasures.

Listen: Mykonos

Pop Heaven

Sounds of 2008
3. Plants and Animals: Lola Who?

Montreal seems like a bottomless pit of musical talent these days, the ambitious pop of Plants and Animals being a case in point. Their expansive, symphonic sound is recognizably pop but still like nothing you’ve heard.

I’ve been in thrall to this one since I first heard it. The song – a tribute to feminine perfection methinks – builds and builds until the ardor is too much to contain. Then Kinks-style guitar jabs and Revolveresque riffs propel the tune into pop heaven. And these guys are only a trio? Jeez.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Orange County

Sounds of 2008
2. Bon Iver: Flume

Last March this song washed over me in a torrent of sadness while I was staying at my friend’s house in Orange County, California.

Talk about bad timing. I’d just heard about the death of a close friend and Justin Vernon’s lyric, “I am my mother's only one / It's enough / I wear my garment so it shows / Now you know” caught me at a delicate juncture.

It wasn't so much the words as the way they were sung - heavy-hearted but wise - which affected me so deeply. Pop music has worked its spell on me a million times, yet I am constantly amazed by its bittersweet epiphanies.

Thus may it ever be.

Star Fantasy

Sounds of 2008

2008 has been a spectacularly good year for music and for me few moments were not illuminated by one killer tune or another. In no particular order here are my top musical highlights of the last twelve months.

1. MGMT: Weekend Wars

MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular album struck me as minor masterpiece when its delights first tickled my earlobes, and I must say time has not diminished its allure.

Owing not a little to Ziggy-era Bowie and the psych-pop of Flaming Lips (Lips’ Dave Fridmann being their producer), MGMT's star fantasy has postmodernistically come true as they stand on the threshold of major pop stardom.

Packed with ideas and energy, the hallucinatory genius of Weekend Wars would be a classic track in any year. It’s a gorgeous, dizzy cocktail of acid-tinged irony.

Much has been made of the song’’s neo-psychedelic lyrics: “Once I was too lazy to bathe / Or paint or write or try to make a change / Now I can shoot a gun to kill my lunch /And I don’t have to love or think too much.”

Whether they refer to a damaged relationship, ecological woes, or even the end of the world, who cares? It’s great pop, and that’s all that matters.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Rock Steady

Confessions of a Fashion Victim

In an effort to cool down during the boiling Japanese summer, and pay tribute to my reggae heroes - King Tubby, Tapper Zukie, The Congos, U-Roy - last July I purchased a vest proclaiming the legend ‘Jah Rastafari’.

This refers, of course, to Jamaica’s Rastafarian religion, which originated in the 60s as a fringe movement celebrating African roots. It proclaims a biblical belief in the messianic qualities of Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie.

But as an atheistic materialist who rejects non-rational explanations of phenomena - including religious dogma - was I wrong to purchase and wear this product?

Surprisingly, none of my friends took issue with my fashion choice, even though Rastafarianism proclaims the kind of goofy beliefs which they know I could never subscribe to.

They include the dubious notion that Haile Selassie was God incarnate and that his 1975 death was a hoax designed to hoodwink non-believers.

Many Rastas still believe that Selassie will one day return to liberate his followers, counting themselves as physical immortalists. They insist that only the 'chosen few' will continue to live forever in their physical bodies. Parallels with numerous religions and loony cliques here.

The most celebrated example of this is Bob Marley's refusal to make a will despite his impending death from cancer. An attachment to such worldly concerns would have meant Marley was - unlike we lesser mortals - abandoning himself to death, thus forgoing his chance at ever-living life. As if Bob wasn't already assured of immortality through his musical innovations.

I imagine Marley's religious dogmatism didn’t go over too well with those who had to withstand the resulting legal controversy over the distribution of his fortune, including a lengthy court battle with Bunny Wailer – Bob’s friend and band mate – which the Marley family eventually won.

Women might also have reason to feel aggrieved at Rastafarianism. In its early years, it famously demanded that females be subordinated and excluded from religious and social ceremonies, especially during menstruation when they were regarded as ‘unclean’.

Times have changed and Rasta women now have far more freedom to express themselves. But when I was a student and rabid reggae fan, this nonsensical belief jarred with my liberal philosophy.

The Rastafarian principle of repatriation to Africa also seems dodgy to me, partly because of the financial and logistical difficulty of relocating thousands of Rastas, but also because - according to my research - only a moderate trickle of Rastafarian immigrants have ever repatriated to their 'spiritual homeland' - Shashemene in central Ethiopia. Since 1966, when Haile Selassie extended an open invitation, fewer than 200 Rastafarians have settled there.

However, despite its barmy side, there’s also something to admire in Rastafarianism.

Like all religious beliefs, its teachings should be viewed in their historical context and understood as symbolic rather than literal.

Rastas say that Jah, in the form of the Holy Spirit, exists within every person. Thus they often refer to themselves as "I and I". It's a phrase I've always admired though rarely used at the risk of sounding like a complete prat. It just doesn't sound the same delivered in a West Midlands accent.

I reject misguidedly literal interpretations of religious ideas, but on a metaphoric, poetic level I’m in full agreement with my Rasta brothers and sisters that brotherhood and godhood live in everyone, and it's up to each of us to bring it forth.

I also generally agree with Rastafarians’ celebration of ‘Ital’ (Vital) food, the idea that food should be natural with no chemically modified or artificial additives. In this sense, Rastas were ahead of the trend for vegetarianism and organic food which took off during the 1970s, and which makes even more sense in the context of global warming, overfishing and the depletion of natural resources.

In addition, Rastas’ rejection of western society (or, "Babylon") doesn’t seem entirely unsound when you look at the chaos of modern life and the prevalence of greed, wage slavery and consumerism.

Rastas espouse a peaceful lifestyle which proclaims ONE LOVE. For most, their philosophy is not a "religion" at all, but rather a "way of life". Most do not claim any sect or denomination, encouraging their brethren to find faith and inspiration within themselves.

One way to do this is by enjoying the more than occasional 'ital' spliff.

The spiritual use of cannabis is a well-known preference among Rastafari, and as an occasional partaker of the sacred herb I have to say - health issues aside - what’s wrong with that?

It's not for everyone, but it's way more righteous than most religious practices I could name. Unlike certain spiritual maniacs I doubt you’ll see Rastas committing any heinous acts of terror. They’ll be far too busy chillin’ over the chalice and shaking their natty dreads to some irresistible riddims.

Obviously there’s a huge Rasta influence in Jamaican music, and if you're a fan, this is the clincher: the thousands of inspiring albums, singles and 'version' which have been committed to vinyl in the name of Jah.

For me, Roots is where it’s at, and I'm sure I’ll never stop loving the seriously righteous riddims of U-Roy, Tapper Zukie and their brethren. Their message of love and peaceful co-existence is simple and direct, and is delivered over some of the most groovy, intoxicating vibes ever recorded.

So let I and I rock steady, and if you don’t mind, continue to proclaim "Jah Rastafari" in a spirit of love and unity.

Max Romeo & The Congos - Give Praises:

Sunday, November 9, 2008


David Sylvian (Ambient / Installation)
LP: When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima
Soundscapes composed for Naoshima Island, Inland Sea, Japan. (Samadhisound, 2007)

Through their traditional temples and gardens, Japanese designers have long explored the interplay between art and nature, and in a modern context there are few places where they integrate as seamlessly as on Naoshima Island.

Known for its many contemporary art museums - including the celebrated Benessse House and
Chichu Art Museum - Naoshima offers a unique aesthetic experience.

Indeed, with its remarkable juxtaposition of fauna and human creativity, the island is the exhibit.

Its romantic - if somewhat recherché - ambience derives from the dialog between its lush landscape and rarefied modernist artworks: buildings, installations, paintings and sculptures by Tadao Ando, Claude Monet, Walter De Maria, James Turrell, Yayoi Kusama and others.

A companion piece to the Naoshima experience, David Sylvian’s When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima CD couldn’t strictly be called music. Rather it’s a collection of acoustic patterns and voices, a detailed soundscape which reflects Naoshima’s island environment.

superimposition of aural landscapes seems directly inspired by the multi layered dimensionality of the island. For instance, the way the Chichu Art Museum is situated underground, its collection illuminated by ghostly natural light which projects downward from skylights far above.

When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima may be alien and avant-garde, but neither is it forbidding or unapproachable. If it’s ‘formless’ or disorientating, it's no moreso than our daily experience, and Sylvian succeeds in inspiring an awareness of other levels of reality whilst enhancing, contrasting, and amplifying the present moment.

Like Naoshima itself, elements on the recording haphazardly (?) interact, and the contrast of natural sounds with found recordings mirrors our relationship with nature as we contemplate and interact with our environment.

cool aesthetic - observationally detached yet emotionally engaged - is an appropriate aural corollary to Naoshima's serene eco-modernism.

LINK: Benesse Art Site, Naoshima

Friday, October 24, 2008


Esbjorn Svensson Trio (Jazz)
LP: Leucocyte (A.C.T., 2008)

The death of Esbjorn Svensson this summer was a huge tragedy for his family and also for jazz fans who recognized the importance of the innovative Esbjorn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.)

Inspiration behind what was perhaps the definitive postmodern jazz group, Svensson constantly expanded the possibilities of the traditional trio, conjuring a daring mix of jazz, classical, rock, electronica and ambient noise.

In some regards E.S.T. were jazz’s counterpart to Radiohead, sharing the British rock band’s edgy ambivalence toward technology as well as the ability to express moments of sublime emotion and quietude.

This was demonstrated to stunning effect on 2007’s Live In Berlin LP - the only E.S.T. record I was previously familiar with - and again here on the staggering Leucocyte.

This superb collection of free improvisation is dominated by two extended suites: Premonition: Earth and Leucocyte: Ad Mortem.

The first begins with a muted funky bass riff which pulses and weaves, gradually being joined by a sparse piano exploration which gradually takes over, building and building until its boldness and intensity is almost too much to bear. It’s an amazing and superb improvisation, a modern jazz milestone which will shake up the purists.

Premonition: Contorted recontextualizes that masterstroke with jarring electronic effects which somehow complement Svensson’s gorgeous piano study. Jazz begins in the otherwordly domain of Supersilent before it slides into a jazzy parallel universe with more than a passing nod to Keith Jarrett.

There are moments where the going gets a tad heavy and abstracted. Still, a sparse piano piece overladen with effects - didn’t hold my attention. Likewise, Leucocyte: Ad Mortem will defeat many listeners, though together with Leucocyte: Ad Infinitum it features a stunningly elegiac chiming piano figure.

Those who dismiss this kind of jazz as contrary, self-indulgent or irrelevant are dead wrong. Constantly reinventing itself, the driving lyricism of E.S.T. was always about jazz’s present, not its past.

While it may not always make for comfortable listening, E.S.T.'s art always comes straight from the heart. A near-classic, Leucocyte’s challenging, beautiful, even disturbing emotionalism stands as a marvelous tribute to a great talent whose genius has been sadly curtailed while at its creative peak.

E.S.T.: From Gagarin's Point of View:

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Wet Cheese Delirium

Gong (Space-Rock)
LP: Camembert Electrique (Virgin, 1971)

1973 was a strange year.

Flailing at school, I spent my time learning guitar licks from Bowie records, reading existentialist novels and getting spaced out listening to Gong, the stoned freak collective formed by Aussie Daevid Allen after he quit Soft Machine in 1967.

I picked up their psych-out masterpiece Camembert Electrique for 49 pence as a "loss-leader" during the newly established Virgin Records’ introductory promo campaign.

It was the first prog-psychedelic album that grabbed me. Its heavy space rock, free form jazz, electronic experimentation and wig-out hippy humor was like nothing I’d heard.

Another reason this LP captivated my adolescent brain was that my parents despised it in exactly inverse proportion to my newfound devotion.

As I cranked Camembert on my Fidelity “music center”, the cacophonous closing jam Fohat Digs Holes in Space - suggesting an orgasmic cosmic orgy - was greeted with howls of execration by my father. He especially hated Gilli Smyth's wordless "space whispering" - actually a piercing screech that could crack a lava lamp at ten paces.

As you can imagine, his pleas for me to remove the offending platter from the turntable merely increased my desire to spin it with increasing volume and regularity.

If you could get past the caterwauling, Fohat Digs Holes in Space had an ambient, trancelike feel which was way ahead of its time. History shows that Gong were precursors of the fire-twirlers and dayglo armband brigade who typified the proto-ravers of the 1990s. Members of the band later went on to form System 7, Eat Static and other key techno outfits.

Another Camembert classique, And You Tried So Hard, features a splendid lyric which proclaims:

A hand flutters in my brain
Silken cords trembling into the waterfall
Where the wise brown frog
Gives princely advice.

If you’re the skeptical type, maybe you got a problem with wise brown frogs dispensing princely advice, or titles like Squeezing Sponges Over Policemen’s Heads. Or how about Wet Cheese Delirium, the track which closes Side One and features backwards tapes and a stoned French hippy droning the priceless incantation, “Tu Veux Camembert? Tu Veux Camembert?”

Andt if you think that's weird, Camembert Electrique marks the birth of Daevid Allen's tongue-in-cheek Planet Gong mythology - the subject of the band's subsequent three albums. It describes a utopian interplanetary psychic communication between we Earthlings and - ahem - the "pothead pixies" from the distant planet Gong.

Unsurprisingly, the Gong mythology makes a lot more sense if you happen to be stoned senseless. Their songs are about a kind of cosmic freedom, I guess, even if it is the freedom to marmalize your brain with “tea” and “mushrooms”, eat cheese and discover your inner pixie.

Gong were never remotely fashionable, and by the time the New Wave had struck, irrepairable cracks had fractured the prog-rock façade. The days of hallucinating freedom were over, to be replaced by life-changing, punky revelations.

To be sure, no one loved getting high more than my bondage-clad friends, but it had become demonstrably old hat, and - more importantly - fatally uncool, to admit a predilection for such hippy-dippy nonsense.

Moving on to edgier frontiers, I never bought another Gong LP, and when their Floating Anarchy Tour visited my town during 1977's summer of punk fury, I wisely kept my own cheesy counsel.

Oh yes, I had been a fan. But when my friends barked “Fuck off, hippies!” at the patchouli pixies proudly prancing on stage, I - sheeplike in my treachery - unashamedly joined in with their chorus of derision.

GONG, Fohat Digs Holes in Space:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Miles Ahead

Randy Newman (Pop)
LP: Harps and Angels (Nonesuch, 2008)

All hail Randy Newman. This American institution long ago staked a claim to the title of "greatest living songwriter" with his early masterpieces 12 Songs, Sail Away and Little Criminals. His Trouble in Paradise LP (featuring the not-altogether-ironic classic I Love LA) was a key touchstone for anyone living in SoCal in the mid-1980s – me included.

As memory of his early ironic/iconic masterworks has faded, Newman has perhaps become better known for a long line of superlative movie soundtracks, including The Natural, Toy Story and Monsters, Inc (for which he finally nabbed an Oscar).

He's also adapted Goethe's Faust as a musical and his old chestnut Louisiana 1927 became the unofficial anthem of the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe after a rousing rendition by Aaron Neville at the Hurricane Relief concert.

But here we are in 2008 and the satirical genius finally drops another big one with Harps and Angels, the title referring to a near-death experience he recently had.

Intelligent, sensitive and capricious, the album is filled with incisive, moving songs which tackle familiar Newman themes: bigotry, political outrage, aging and the perils of American culture. Needless to say, it contains heavy doses of the ironic ambivalence and bare bones emotionalism he's known for.

A Piece of the Pie is a lament for the lost American Dream and a call for his countryfolk to live out the true meaning of their creed ("Living in the richest country in the world/Wouldn't you think you'd have a better life?") As he sympathizing with the plight of illegal immigrants, Newman even takes aim at himself, squirming as one of the “have-mores.”

With characteristic drollness, Korean Parents pokes fun at Asian stereotypes, race in public schools and parental responsibility (“So sick of hearing about the greatest generation / That generation could be you / So let’s see what you can do.”)

Following that, Potholes is an amusingly tart paean to failing memory which anyone aged 40 or over can probably relate to ("God bless the potholes/Down on memory lane/Everything that happens to me now/Is consigned to oblivion by my brain.")

Then comes a bona fide Newman classic. Hearkening back to 1972's Political Science, A Few Words in Defence of our Country is a barbed attack on the most lamentable government in recent American history and its policy of color-coded fear. Its amusing thesis is that the Bush administration really isn’t so bad - compared with Hitler, Stalin, the Spanish Inquisition and the excesses of the Roman Empire!

But for all the mordant, satirical genius on this record, the heartfelt Feels Like Home is the clincher for me. It's tender message of love and gratitude is expressed through deceptively simple poetry which never comes across as trite or shallow.

Musically and lyrically miles ahead of most of his contemporaries, Newman once again demonstrates how nothing beats good, old-fashioned songwriting, and also how depressingly few competitors he has in his field.

So what if takes him the best part of a decade to lay another masterpiece on his fans? When he does, the "bard of barbs" is so awesome he leaves his contemporaries waaay behind. Harps and Angels is a leading contender for album of the year.

VIDEO: Randy Newman "A Few Words in Defence of our Country"

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Everything in its Right Place

Live: Radiohead / Modeselektor
Osaka Municipal Gymnasium

They arrive in their thousands, crammed into air-conditioned train carriages, conveyed by escalator and elevator to the arena concourse.

Approaching the auditorium they form lines to purchase souvenir products embossed with slogans and logos which celebrate their heroes. Vendors stand to attention, expressionless and mute.

Buyers watch with self-conscious anticipation as barcodes are scanned and purchases placed into souvenir bags. Later the shrink-wrap will be torn away as t-shirts and compact discs are removed for inspection. They give off a reassuringly familiar aroma which proclaims a synthetic modernity.

At the entrance to the arena NPO stalls promote environmental causes. Keen-eyed young women seize the opportunity to press reading materials into the hands of concert-goers who have strayed in their direction. But mostly they stand gazing in resigned envy at the busy souvenir stands.

As they enter the arena, audience members are swallowed by the vastness of a space which drowns them in sublime anonymity. The dim lights on the ceiling far above resemble a spaceship from a Hollywood film. It threatens to touch down at any moment, engulfing and consuming the tiny individuals below.

The respectful silence of the crowd is broken by polite scattered applause as the opening act - a duo of German electronic musicians - approach their finale. A perceptible wave of excitement takes hold as the crowd anticipates the main attraction.

Sequestered backstage, the headliners complete their preparation ritual, mentally compartmentalizing familiar sensations of nervous excitement and ennui. When they finally appear they are dwarfed by their hyper-modern stage set.

Fluorescent tubes of white light reach down from the sky. Paneled video screens erected far above display multi-angle monochrome images of the performers' faces and instruments. Artful and precisely composed, they affirm the group’s sense of artistic experimentation, simultaneously proclaiming and - in their obtuseness - distorting the musicians’ celebrity status.

Digitized, assimilated, stored and adored on a million disk drives, the music begins. Yearning anthems contrast with the band's gorgeously combative avante-gardeisms. As the momentum builds, observers slowly enter a state of contented stupefaction.

The singer - a stubborn, uneasy star - remains tightlipped between songs. When he finally murmurs a brief “Arigato”, his cursory utterance is welcomed by a thunderous roar of approval from a sea of faces whose eyes are fixed on his every gesture.

He has accepted long ago the contradictions inherent in his position. He has embraced the freedom and limitations which adulation has conferred upon him.

The artistic explorings which have led him here tonight are beyond the wildest imaginings of those present. But none doubt the sincerity, the reaching for of their idol. He reflects the hopes, fears and insecurities they have projected upon him.

The pristine, numbing perfection leaves no room for surprises. None, in any case, are expected. Everything is in its right place. All that remains is a hushed, orderly migration toward the EXIT signs.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008


Summer Reading:
John Peel: Margrave of the Marshes
(Chicago Review Press, 2007)
By John Peel & Sheila Ravenscroft
Clapton: The Autobiography (Century, 2007)
By Eric Clapton

A laconic, hard-working obsessive, John Peel was one of the most important DJs in rock history. He brought untold thousands of left field recordings to the attention of legions of appreciative listeners.

As a teen I spent many a night with my ear firmly glued to his late night show on the BBC. It was through Peel that I received my greatest musical education, discovering Euro-rock, high-life, punk, dub reggae and much more.

Peel’s autobiography - a dryly humorous love letter to rock ‘n’ roll - describes his soul-destroying years at an oppressive public school, relatively calm military service, his metamorphosis into a Dallas disc jockey and later canonization as the UK’s most influential - and beloved by his fans - arbiter of musical taste.

There are some intriguing nuggets of information, such as the fact that during his Texas period Peel schmoozed his way into a Lee Harvey Oswald press conference shortly after the JFK assassination. He is to be seen quite clearly in photos of the event.

Peel fans may be surprised at revelations that during his early rise to fame he had few qualms about exploiting his status as ‘top dj’ to indulge a rapacious sexual appetite. Sounds fair enough to me. I was also unaware that Peel was on pretty friendly terms with fellow Scouser John Lennon.

Since Peel had only completed 50% of his memoir before his untimely death, his wife Sheila relates the second half of his story. There is thus an abrupt shift in style, and I rather missed the great man’s lugubrious, self-deprecating tone. But Sheila provides insights only a wife could offer and does a great job under what must have been trying circumstances. This is a hugely informative and entertaining biography of a major figure in British music.

During Peel's rise to fame Eric Clapton was creating his own legend as the central figure in the British blues boom, originator of the power trio, ‘super group’ and blues rock, and a hugely successful songwriter who later created yet another niche as an MOR concert draw.

Clapton's excellent autobiography is disarmingly forthright, providing many insights into his multifaceted career. Moody and distant from an early age, he’s honest about the musical snobbery which caused him to abandon The Yardbirds in 1965 and wrongfully disdain many pop innovations of the early 60s.

Britain's guitar god is compellingly upfront about his feelings of sexual inadequacy and the head spinning variety of addictions which have plagued him throughout his life. The book is filled with tales of dissolution and tragedy but they're related from a touchingly philosophical perspective and never seem gratuitous or self-aggrandizing.

As a confirmed Beatles freak, I was delighted to finally get Clapton’s take on the legendary Plastic Ono Band performance at 1969’s Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival.

His account of being summoned by John Lennon to do the gig - joining him ‘on spec’ at Heathrow Airport - is priceless, and ends up with Clapton snorting prodigious amounts of cocaine backstage with Lennon before staggering on stage to unleash one of the great sets in rock ‘n’ roll history. It's all there on the classic Live Peace in Toronto album, one of Eric’s finest moments.

Despite all the madness, Clapton is most comfortable with his family, and my favorite passage - among all the rock 'n' roll hedonism - describes an eccentric uncle’s curious predilection for vinegar! I’m not a huge Clapton fan, have only ever bought one of his records, but I came away from this book with a new appreciation and respect for him as a musician and survivor.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Kaleidescopic Koncoctions

Morphic Jukebox (Morph-Rock)
LP: Kaleidescapes (2008, Independent)

What do you get when you mix your own songs with hints of Paul Weller, and Van Morrison, then throw in some Tindersticks and Bob Dylan for good measure?

A Morphic Jukebox, that’s what.

This Kyoto band has been drawing enthusiastic crowds on the local pub scene for some time, as well as snagging some cool festival and TV appearances.

Their self-produced debut release, Kaleidescapes - cool cover art by Kyoto artist Oliver Kinghorn - would in my day have been called an EP (extended play) since it features a very manageable six songs.

I wish more bands would do this. Say it loud: "Bring back the EP!"

Are Rob Cross and Russ Hubert Kyoto’s Lennon and McCartney? This transplanted Brit and New Yawker democratically divvy up the tracks three-apiece and offer an eclectic mix of self-penned material. Between them they tackle an impressive variety of instruments including banjo, harmonica, keyboards, trumpet, guitar and dobro.

The modest Nao Hattori provides excellent support on stand up and electric bass. Live, the band are augmented by new percussionist Ted Taylor.

Kaleidescapes is an apt title, because the record morphs into a variety of styles while maintaining its own identity. Highlights include Shine a Light, a wistful ode to destiny from Hubert, whose heartfelt tenor reminds me of Stuart Staples of the UK’s Tindersticks.

Hubert’s topical CNN Blues actually starts with the words, “I woke up this morning” but then tackles the decidedly modern theme of media saturation. Bandleader Cross contributes some effective Hendrix wah-wah, and I really dig the way Russ sings, “Hell no!”

Cross’ Get Away is a song of escape whose chorus has firmly planted itself in my brain for two days with no let up. If you’ve ever had the hankering to run off and forget your troubles - and who hasn’t? - I think you'll be able to relate.

Morphic has gotta be the perfect word for a band which switches effortlessly between folk, blues, country, trad-jazz and rock, and Kaleidescapes features solid musicianship.

Make it Last
and ChoCho-chan Boogie both contain excellent finger picking guitar which - amateur studio buffs take note - has been recorded quite impressively. On the aforementioned ChoCho-chan Boogie, talented engineer Russ Hubert crafts a great trad-jazz pastiche. Respect.

Fast becoming a fixture on the Kyoto scene, Morphic Jukebox tell me they have come a long way since recording Kaleidescapes and are raring to get back into the studio. I must say I’m looking forward to hearing what they conjure on their follow-up, but for now Kaleidescapes - an exceedingly nifty debut - will do nicely.

Band website:
Oliver Kinghorn:

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thai Diva

Soontaree Vechamont
Chiang Mai, Thailand

During a recent visit to Chiang Ma, Thailand my friend and I ventured out to Huan Soontaree, a fabulous restaurant owned by Thai pop diva Soontaree Vechamont. If you don’t know who she is, don’t feel bad. It just means you haven’t been living in Thailand for the last 30 years.

A bona fide icon, Vechamont is revered by Thais, perhaps like a western star such as Shirley Bassey or Dionne Warwicke - though in a more restrained Thai manner. Living out her autumn years in this wonderful setting, Soontaree entertains her old fans with a nightly performance of her hits.

Huan Soontaree is a decent taxi ride from the city centre and rests on terraces by the River Ping. It’s decorated on a spectacular scale and has an exotic, romantic feel. The huge open space is dominated by a magnificent lantern featuring Chinese zodiac characters. Unlike downtown Chiang Mai, not much English is spoken here, adding to its out of the way, authentic feel.

The menu is decorated with photos of Soontaree Vechamont during her musical heyday, including studio and live shots as well as pictures of those who contributed to her successful career.

The food is excellent Lanna (northern Thai) cuisine, thus with a Burmese influence and featuring river fish, fiery curries and chili sauces

Before Vechamont takes the stage, her backing guitarist offers some insipid renderings of western easy listening classics, including Jim Croce’s I’ll Have To Say I Love You In A Song, The Beatles I Will and some Carpenters fluff. Thai pop tends toward the mellow so his selection is somewhat predictable. Even though I’m on vacation and chilled to the max, I’m ready to strangle someone by the time he‘s slogged through a weary rendition of Yesterday.

A special pot of tea is reverentially placed on the podium to indicate that zero hour is approaching. The so-called ‘Songbird of the North’ is about to make her grand entrance.

Vechamont has one of those classic showbiz stories - country girl sings old folk songs, moves to big smoke (Chiang Mai), works in shop next to recording studio. Studio owner connects her with Thai star Jaran Manopetch, who takes her under his wing. Hey Presto! A star is born, enjoying a distinguished career before slowly fading into the shadows. Finally returns to her roots and opens nitespot - Huan Soontaree Vechanont - where she relives her glory days. And why the hell not?

I've now demolished more than my share of Thai beers, and the tension is almost unbearable as Soontaree, looking elegant and diva-like, takes to her private stage, bestowing her regal smile upon us all. The pop diva delivers pleasingly off-kilter pop, a cooler version of Japanese enka, which is heartfelt and characterized by weird 1/2 note modulations which have a kind of Chinese inflexion. Like most Thai pop it’s naïve yet charmingly emotive.

As we leave, Ms. Vechamont returns our traditional gesture - hands clasped in prayer - and her assistant treats us to a tour of the wonderful garden. With Soontaree cooing beguilingly in the background, we feel we’ve experienced something exquisitely, uniquely Thai.

Huan Soontaree Vechanont is located at 46/1 Wang Singkhum Road in Chiang Mai.