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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Song of the week - Wishing afterwards was over

This week’s song is ‘Wishing afterwards was over’, taken from Gum’s first album.
It drives along in a pretty muscular style, which might be a surprise for those who thought that the band relied upon electronic atmospheres and textures. The track certainly has its share of atmospherics, but the bongos and distorted wah-wah guitar give it a slightly rougher edge than usual. The distorted effect on the backing vocals works particularly well and, as always, we tried to make it an interesting headphone experience, with lots of little details buried in the mix. 
The song is memorable on a personal level, as it was one of the first specifically written for Leigh Myles at the start of the Gum project.  I had an old track with the same title, but –after tinkering with a few changes to the chords and lyrics- ended up completely re-writing the piece for Leigh.       

The lyric is about getting out of a situation, getting angry and (maybe) getting even.   
The protagonist is revisiting a scene from a recently-ended relationship, looking for what modern psychiatrists might call ‘closure’.  The line about “that stupid song” alludes to the sweet poignancy of ephemeral pop music, the way it can mark, or remind us of, important moments in our lives.  
 I’d be willing to bet, for instance, that everyone reading this can remember exactly where they were the first time they heard ‘It’s Chico time’.  Or maybe not. 
Gum - Wishing afterwards was over

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

When 'the story' isn't the story

The murderous attack on the American consulate in Benghazi has been followed by further assaults on other western embassies. It is claimed that the ‘reason’ for these so-called riots is that locals have taken offence at the content of a low-budget film produced in the US. The film, "Innocence of Muslims" (by all accounts, a pretty amateurish production), portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, a ruthless killer and a child molester.

Depressingly, much of the reporting of these terrible events has chosen to focus on ‘who’ made the film and ‘why’ they made it, as if any of that matters. Some commentators even decided to focus on how certain Western political figures interpreted the attacks.
One particularly striking headline in yahoo news -"Romney politicises embassy killings"- provided a near-perfect illustration of the ‘let’s-just-put-our-blind-eye-to-the-telescope’ approach some people have taken to this story.
The truth is that ‘the story’ here isn’t about why or how a bunch of amateurs made their little film. Nor is it about how a politician who isn’t even in power reacted to the events. The story is that innocent people got murdered by an ugly mob intoxicated on a heady mix of belligerent ignorance, a childish sense of grievance and sheer political opportunism. All of this, we should not flinch from pointing out at every available opportunity, is depressingly underpinned by a myopic, literal, atavistic interpretation of a text written around 1400 years ago.

To pretend that the motives of the folk who made the film is somehow the story or that Mitt Romney’s reaction to events is somehow the story, is to collude in giving the murderers an easy ride. Instead of apportioning blame in the right places and making some rational judgements on an irrational, pre-medieval set of superstitions and values, some have chosen to retreat from responsibility and focus instead on what they perceive to be the political bad manners of the film makers and the Republican party candidate.

Let’s get this clear: Mitt Romney didn’t ‘politicise’ this event; the act of attacking the American consulate was not only hugely symbolic, but explicitly political. To deny that is to patronise and belittle those who carried it out. Radical Islam has a global political vision, about which it is deadly serious. None of us really know exactly how much of a threat it carries, but it has enough of a track record to suggest that we should at least accord it the respect of taking its political acts and political intentions seriously.

Another egregious element of that headline was the clearly pejorative use of the word ‘politicise’. To use ‘politicise’ as a dirty word demeans political discourse. Politics doesn’t have to be about consensus and constraint. It can be awkward, dirty and rife with conflict. By denying ‘politics’ -that is, adult, frank, no-holds-barred political discourse- we willingly diminish our cultural options. Little wonder then, that today’s political landscape is as sterile as Teletubbyland, wherein each photogenic protagonist is merely a colour-coded deliverer of the latest vapid sound bite.

It is this very de-politicisation of politics that has helped smother our cultural discourse. Framed within the stiff, formal and stifling boundaries of political correctness and cultural relativism, we are reduced to interpreting events like the Benghazi attack by focusing on anything other than the naked truth.

Sadly, the US government, by asking youtube to ‘consider’ its policy on sensitive material, now seems to believe that freedom of speech is not such a noble cause, after all. By bringing the film-maker in for questioning, the administration also appears to have adopted the same view on "Innocence of Muslims" as the folk who burned down the consulate.
These actions alone will have confirmed to the ‘rioters’ that they are on the right track. It’s hard to see how they could conclude anything other than the fact that they can, with impunity, carry out similar attacks on American and other western embassies.

But some folk still want to put that blind eye to the telescope. Some folk still want to believe that ‘the story’ isn’t really the story.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Song of the week - Mr and Mrs Frankenstein

If Elvis Costello wasn’t doing jazz opera (or something) and he decided to write a song about a crazy celebrity couple, this sneering rant on hypocrisy and hubris would probably be it. The idea was to scratch the glossy surface of celebrity and find, not just vapidity, but a real heart of darkness … but in a funny way.  Imagine a TV show, something like ‘I’m a celebrity get me out of here’, in which a famous singer and his surgically-enhanced showbiz wife have to film a pop video in a shanty town somewhere on the edge of a major South American city.  The song lingers among the sights, the sounds and the smells, but the biggest stink by far comes from the attitude of the global superstar, believing –as he does- that he’s “off to meet the savages with a pocketful of beads.”
This track was recorded for an American podcast a couple of years ago and I think it’s actually better than the version that appeared on the first Eisenhowers album.  The album version is perhaps a bit fussier than it has to be, while this cut gets pretty directly to the point of the song.

The Eisenhowers - Mr and Mrs Frankenstein

Friday, 14 September 2012

This is not a review

I can’t be alone in having had the experience of reading a review of a film or a book or an album and thinking: “Did that idiot see the same film /read the same book /listen to the same album as me? Did they actually watch the film /read the book /listen to the album?”
Judging by the quality of some reviews, I’d guess that ‘phoning it in’ after a cursory perusal of the work is not that unusual an occurrence. Some might say that would constitute a rather dishonourable practice, but I wonder if that is necessarily the case? Might it be possible not only to write, but to justify a review of a piece of work that you have not experienced in its entirety?

I recently abandoned reading a novel, around fifty pages in. The book in question was ‘The Quiet Girl’ by Peter Hoeg and had been on my ‘to do’ list for a while. I really liked one of his novels from the early nineties -'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow'- and was looking forward to seeing if the rest of his work was up to that standard.
Giving up on a book is not something that I do lightly, but, struggling with what seemed like an almost Joycean density to the text, I first considered chucking ‘The Quiet Girl’ about twenty pages in. I was suffering from information overload, but the good stuff I had in the bank from ‘Miss Smilla’ gave me the resolve to soldier on in the belief that things would surely settle down.

Unfortunately, about fifteen pages later, my initial misgivings had mutated and grown, like mould on yogurt. Numbed by the relentless accumulation of detail in the text and irked by the cryptic dialogue, my rising tide of irritation was compounded by the extraordinarily detailed descriptions of the lead character’s incredible auditory powers (in which every sound had hidden sharps and flats or underlying minor and major chords). And, to be honest, there is only so much detail one absorb about street names in Copenhagen or the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. So, for the second time, I gave serious thought to abandoning the book, but -for reasons too tedious to analyse- decided to give it one last push.

Then, alas, somewhere around page fifty, wading through the bog of another annoying, self-consciously illusive episode involving a ‘mysterious’ young girl, I had to admit defeat; ‘The Quiet Girl’, for me, had taken its last surrealistic leap into cryptic irrelevance.

Now here’s the thing: I believe that I could now write a perfectly valid review of that book. I think my review would include the phrase: 'self-regarding’ and would posit the opinion that the book wasn’t written to enthral and entertain the reader. I would suggest that it was a book written to score intellectual and stylistic brownie points for a writer who must have felt that he had something to prove. I would suggest that, while the author may have intended to expand the techniques of his profession, he had succeeded only in wandering up a cul-de-sac of pretension and obscurity.

I’d like to think that my review would acknowledge that I had given up on the book. By way of mitigation, I would suggest that, had I sat down to a meal in a restaurant and the first few mouthfuls had tasted like old shoelaces marinated in vinegar, it would not have been entirely unreasonable for me to assume that it was likely that the rest of that meal would also taste like old shoelaces marinated in vinegar. Unless I was determined to somehow acquire a taste for old shoelaces marinated in vinegar, I could not only excuse myself from the obligation to eat the rest of the meal, but could legitimately warn my friends to avoid the ‘old shoelaces marinated in vinegar’ option on the menu.

So perplexed was I by this spectacular difference in quality between one of Mr Hoeg’s novels and another that I decided to carry out some research. I quickly came across this revealing phrase from the Danish literary critic Poul Behrendt: "The cold reception of the 'The Quiet Girl' was due to its complexity and scope, which the critics didn't understand".

I get it now. The fault was almost certainly mine. Perhaps, in order to write a proper review of the book, I will have to train my palette to appreciate old shoelaces marinated in vinegar.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Song of the week: Asleep at the wheel

This is an acoustic re-working of a song that, in an ideal world, would have been made famous by Gum.  It was recorded for their 2003 ‘Low-flying Kites’ album, then later given a lush makeover for single release.  The original demo was a little bit 'down and dirty' before the band transformed it into something in the folky-electronica vein.  This version is probably closer in style to my original demo of the song and the slightly bitter tone of the vocal seems to suit the subject material.  Stripped right back to basics, this acoustic version manages to retain the kind of condemnatory vibe befitting what is -in effect- a piece of character assassination.  As usual, the names have been left out in order to protect the guilty.
Asleep at the wheel (Raymond acoustic)

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Let's have a fair fight

Now that the gloves are coming off in the run up to the US presidential election, I’m hoping that the media coverage improves on the execrable example of 2008 and that there is at least a modicum of impartiality and the possibility of something approaching reasoned discussion and debate. Last time around, the mainstream media was very firmly behind Obama, generally perceived to be the fresh, attractive and culturally significant candidate in what many folk viewed as a landmark election. It was certainly a landmark election for the BBC, in the sense that the corporation pretty much abandoned even the pretence of impartiality in favour of pushing the received narrative, namely that Obama was the chosen one.

I am not unsympathetic to the notion that there were all kinds of cultural reasons why the election of an African-American president was unequivocally a good thing, but there was very little discussion about the actual politics, beyond repeated use of those campaign bromides about ‘hope’ and ‘change’.
It seemed that so much emotional and intellectual capital was invested in the Obama project that barely a dissenting voice was tolerated. Caught up in what, at times, seemed like an almost messianic zeal, some reporters hinted that only a ‘racist’ Republican vote could have kept Obama out, seemingly unaware that the decisive element of any racist vote, by definition, would have to have come from the Democrat side. It is very rare indeed for the hard core Republican vote to fall below 40% (George W. Bush had polled 50.6% in the 2004 vote). Before Obama, the last Democrat to get 50% of the popular vote was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Since then, no fewer than four Republican candidates had polled more than half of the popular vote, none of them running against a black candidate. To have imputed race as a motive was a disgraceful slur on the American electorate.

On a personal level, I found myself surprised -more than once- by some of the throwaway remarks that folk were prepared to make. They seemed not to understand that, if it is wrong to make a negative judgement on someone because of the colour of his skin, then it must also be wrong to make a positive judgement based on the colour of his skin. Some of those remarks may have come -as the saying goes- ‘from a good place’ but we shouldn’t forget that those ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’ are merely aspects of an equation in which the key component is that willingness to pass judgement based on skin colour.

Beyond the race issue, some of the day-to-day coverage also left a lot to be desired. I recall one particular example, a vivid illustration of the lack of perspective and balance that was all-too-common.

Dom Joli was hosting a Sunday morning news and current affairs show on Radio Five Live and was interviewing a number of guests on the subject of the election. At one point in the discussion, the American goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann –at that time resident in the UK- was asked if he would be sending in a postal vote. He replied in the affirmative, stating that his family, from several generations back, was firmly Republican.

Joli said: "Oh ... that's a bit weird". An awkward pause followed, before Mr. Hahnemann, to his credit, handled the slight with good manners and no little grace, allowing the conversation to move on.

A couple of things were remarkable about this incident. First, Joli was clearly confident that he had license to be rude to a guest and to write off about 46% of the American electorate as ‘weird’; in other words, he was comfortable with being explicitly partisan on a news and current affairs show.

The second remarkable thing comes from the realisation that Joli's bewilderment about Hahnemann's support for the Republicans was actually genuine. He was truly shocked that the goalie could have those political views.

The word 'bias' is inadequate in a case like this, because the notion of bias infers an understanding that you are favouring one position as opposed to another. If you are biased, you choose to discriminate because you are aware that you have a favoured position. What should we call it when someone is literally unable to understand or appreciate that other folk might have another, entirely legitimate, take on things?

It would be nice to think that the race issue can be parked and that the records of the individual candidates will be the focus of the discussion. It would be nice to think that our state broadcaster will seek to uphold standards of probity, honesty and impartiality.

It would be nice, but I’m not going to hold my breath.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Song of the week: Miles until morning

In answer to, literally, a request, I’m going to start posting a 'song of the week' on this blog.  I’ve been doing it on my website for a while, so it’s about time some other folk got to suffer for my art.  The idea is simple: each week, we’ll feature a different song from my extensive back catalogue of non-hits, along with a little bit of background information on each track.  Many of these songs could have been successful, but only if they had been written, produced and recorded by someone more talented. 

This week’s track is ‘Miles until Morning’ taken from the second Eisenhowers album ‘Film your own Atrocities’. 
A couple of years ago, I was playing with a band that was doing some work with the charming singer Sam Brown and I had the notion that this song might have suited her down to the ground.  Abject cowardice (and a fearsome minder in a suit) stopped me handing my demo to Ms Brown after a gig one night in Perth.  That’s Perth, Scotland and not Perth, Australia.  Who knows what might have happened had I managed to seize that particular moment?  Anyway … Sam didn’t cover the song, but she did once borrow the piano on which it was written and recorded.  Perhaps rock historians might one day deem that fact to be significant … but probably not. 

Backing vocals on this track are provided by Kelsey Hunter, a splendid young Scottish singer about whom you may well be hearing a lot more.

The Eisenhowers - Miles until morning

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Nik Kershaw - 'Ei8ht'

Nik Kershaw was -as the saying goes- big in the 80s, particularly in 1984 and 1985, when a string of hit singles and platinum-selling albums had him sharing the stage with the rock and pop A-list at Live Aid. As his sales took a dip towards the end of that decade, he embarked upon an extended period out of the spotlight to concentrate on writing for other artists (and famously penned ‘The One and Only’ for Chesney Hawkes). He returned to the fray in 1998 with the splendid '15 minutes', the first album in his ‘post pop-stardom’ phase. He’s been on that path ever since, quietly producing thoughtful, tuneful, adult pop music without ever threatening to trouble the charts.

His latest release, ‘Ei8ht’, features another diverse selection of excellent material. Crafted middle-of-the-road pop music might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but Kershaw’s melodic gift is such that these songs work their way into your head very quickly and then stay there.
The current single ‘The sky’s the limit’ would be a huge hit if Take That recorded it, while ‘You’re the Best’ has a chorus so absurdly catchy that you’d think he must have stolen it from an old playground chant.

His music is more acoustic and folky these days and some of the material could be bracketed alongside Crowded House, albeit with more focus on the melodic jugular vein. ‘Stuff’, an observation on the perils of rabid consumerism, has echoes of Ray Davies, while ‘Runaway’ contains one of those killer lines (“if you leave me, can I come too?”) that seems so obvious that you wonder why nobody has used it before. He has a nice line in self-deprecating humour and ‘Shoot Me’ is his jaunty take on the notion of old pop stars on the comeback trail.

Although he is very much a pop artist, Kershaw displays a willingness and an ability to explore big themes. A song about death might not sound that promising, but ‘The Bell’ is a beautiful acoustic piece in which he runs through the images he’ll have in his head when the Grim Reaper comes calling. Among these snapshots are images from his childhood, from a family holiday and a moment lying next to his wife. Most touching of all, he recalls an everyday domestic scene with these beautiful and poignant lines:

"There are high hopes in a high chair, sitting in there is a king-to-be;
and he’s smiling his little heart out as he holds out his little arms out to me".

That appeals to the parent (and the sentimental sucker) in me, but in a medium that is all too often mired in cliché, calculation and irony, it is refreshing to encounter unadorned honesty.

The melodies sparkle and soar throughout this album and the arrangements are always slick, but the odd pudding does get over-egged: the catchy refrain of ‘Enjoy the Ride’ perhaps overstays its welcome, while one or two moments feel like they’ve been polished for rather longer than is necessary. But those are minor concerns; the truth is that if we lived in a world in which it was possible for a singer in his fifties to have hits, several of these tracks would have ‘single’ written all over them.

‘Ei8ht’ is further proof that it is possible for a pop star to evolve and age with dignity, grace and humour. Nik Kershaw is an artist who is past the point of worrying about where his music fits in; he’s just writing lovely songs and enjoying life. This album might not push the boundaries of the modern pop song to the limit, but it showcases a very catchy set of tunes from an accomplished singer-songwriter.