Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Day 23: A song I want to play at my wedding

Confession: I'm already married. To be honest, when the day actually arrived, I didn't worry for a second about the music. It came as a bit of a surprise to me - I'd envisaged complicated interactions with the DJ, demanding specific songs, generally directing the flow of music - but in the event, I quite simply had more important things to worry about. And everything went fine anyway.

I still wish I'd put my foot down a bit more firmly about the first dance, though. As requested by my parents-in-law (who, since they were paying for most of it, were thoroughly entitled to a say), we went with a traditional waltz, which went comically wrong when the DJ unsuspectingly played a Vienna box waltz instead of the more standard number we'd been expecting. Neither my wife nor I know how to dance a proper Viennese box waltz, which resulted in much hilarity. Still, you can't win them all.

If we'd gone for a slow non-waltz song instead, though, I'd have chosen this song.

The lyric is a bit more ambiguous than might be considered ideal for a wedding song ("The time has is nigh / When I must remove your wings / And you must try to fly"), but there's a swooning, elegant beauty to the melody which almost makes up for it. Quite simply, it's one of the most gorgeous songs I've ever heard.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Day 22: A song I listen to when I'm sad

This could go one of two ways.

What sort of music I listen to when I'm sad really depends on what kind of sad I'm feeling. Sometimes, if I'm just a bit down in the dumps, I want cheering up, so I'll go for something cheerful. There are songs which it's impossible to listen to without smiling - I wrote about one of them back on Day 3 of this project, in fact. But when I'm really cripplingly, my-puppy-just-died-and-my-wife-done-gone-left-me, capital-S Sad, then all I really want to do is wallow in it. And for that, I need a really heartbreaking soundtrack.

To be honest, the album I'm most likely to turn to under such unfortunate circumstances would be the Manic Street Preachers' 1994 masterpiece of pain and self-loathing, The Holy Bible. But I'll be writing about the Manics, and my longstanding - if troubled - relationship with them in a later entry, and I decided when I first started this project that I wasn't going to duplicate any bands across multiple posts. Besides, while it may be my first port of call, THB is far from the only such record in my collection. Sometimes, too, instead of dragging out the spectre of my inner tortured adolescent, I like to indulge in something a little more...well...classy.

It's hardly a fresh observation that a large number of African-American musicians, particularly in the first half of the 20th Century, were able to distill the desperation and pain of generations of abuse into magnificent, heart-rendingly powerful music. And this song is, perhaps, the ultimate expression of that - still one of the most brutal, devastating pieces of protest music ever produced. I must admit to finding something uncomfortable, almost obscene, about my ability to appropriate that agony as a way of indulging my own, rather less significant misery, but that's one of the reasons it's such a remarkable song - while the themes it addresses are very specific to their time and context, the emotions underpinning them still resonate powerfully completely devoid of that context.

Billie Holiday is, quite clearly, one of the greatest singers of the century. Her range may have been limited, her voice untrained and occasionally-thin, but the weight of emotion she could put into the words she sang remains unequalled. Given the sad story of her life, it's impossible not to read a strong autobiographical element into the frail, trembling vulnerability of her vocals - 'Strange Fruit' is the best-known, and possibly the best, example of this, taking the deeply-personal and spinning it into something universal. There's a rawness to her singing which bypasses any melodic weaknesses in the performance, and even after all these years, I still find it hard to hear without crying.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Day 21: A song I listen to when I'm happy

Happiness is a bugger to write about, it really is. So, I'm not going to. In a startling break from established form, this is going to be a no-waffle post. Honest, it is.

There's so much music that I listen to when I'm happy that selecting a single song was stumping me. So, as I usually do in moments of indecision, I asked my wife what to do. She said "do a song that makes you strut, you're always happy when you strut". And she's right, I am - it's laughably-easy to spot when something suitably-rhythmic comes up on my iPod, because my entire gait unconsciously changes - my stride lengthens, my posture loosens, and a slight swing works its way into my shoulders. I probably look absurd, but I don't care. Because I'm happy.

And when it comes to songs to which I can really get my strut on, there's one example which stands out head and gently-swinging shoulders above the rest.

If that rhythm doesn't get you moving at least a little bit, there's every possibility that you are actually dead. Seriously, you should probably get that checked out.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Day 20: A song I listen to when I'm angry

This is going to be a tricky one, because I don't tend to listen to music when I'm angry. It's possibly the only emotional state which I find actively antithetical to music, in fact - I can (and do) listen to music when a bit tetchy, but that's as close as it gets. When I'm full-on, properly angry, it's the last thing I'd ever think of.

So, I'm going for the nostalgia option, and looking back to when this wasn't the case. As a teenager, I was angry a lot. Most of us were, I suspect. It's a hormone thing. And, as angry teenagers are wont to do, I was terribly fond of storming off to my bedroom, slamming the door, and listening to angry music at an antisocial, deliberately parent-bothering volume. Then I'd get all righteous and indignant when I was, most unreasonably, asked politely to turn it down. Teenagers are like that.

I sort of wish now that I'd been into metal as an adolescent - there may not be a genre in music so perfectly-suited to the expression of raw, inarticulate rage. But it wasn't until quite a bit later that I really got past the surface-level silliness of so much metal, and learned to appreciate it despite - and, in some cases, because of - that silliness. Besides, as I've mentioned before, it was discovering progressive death metal - bands like Opeth, specializing in a noodly flavour of heavy that you can really stroke your chin to - that softened me on metal in the first place, and that's not really the best sort of angry music.

Back in those days, my choices were much more limited - I'm thinking of a time before I'd even discovered Public Enemy, another group who do rage exceptionally well, albeit with rather more sophistication than the majority of metal acts. But back then, between the ages of - let's say - 14 and 17, the hardest, heaviest, angriest music I listened to was usually somewhere on the border between punk and hard rock.

I had plenty to choose from, obviously. The world is hardly short on punk/rock albums filled with anthems of adolescent rage. But - for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who's heard it - more often than not, the album I'd choose to blast would be Therapy?'s Troublegum. It even contains a song which begins with the line "Masturbation saved my life", perhaps the most universally-recognizable sentiment imaginable to anyone who has ever been, or for that matter even known, a teenage boy.

As punk/metal albums go, it's not actually especially heavy - there's loud guitars and furious vocals, but the whole thing is underpinned with a melodic sensibility which keeps things surprisingly accessible. Like a lot of the best punk bands, Therapy? were, and remain, at their heart very much a pop band - just a very ANGRY pop band. And they're all the better for it.

The song I was going to choose would be 'Brainsaw'. That's mainly because it's sung in character as Jesus, if Jesus were the angriest man in the world. And that would give me an excuse, however tenuous, to post this picture, which is one of the funniest things I've ever seen:


It's from a comic written, although sadly not drawn, by legendarily-awful artist Rob Liefeld, and yes, it really does show the Lamb of God jumping down from the cross to beat the living hell out of the pantheon of Greek gods. Why? Because Rob Liefeld, that's why.

But sadly, there isn't a decent version of 'Brainsaw' on Youtube right now, and while I could obviously just upload an .mp3 myself, that's not the way I've been doing things so far, and I don't want to start now. Besides, there are other songs on the album, many of them good, and many of them angry. So, I've gone with the blindingly-obvious choice instead:

"With a face like this, I won't break any hearts / And thinking like that, I won't make any friends"

I can't think of any songs which have ever captured the frustration and rage of adolescence significantly better than this one. It's not deep, it's not big, and it's not clever. But it's catchy as hell, and it's the perfect soundtrack to a proper, bedroom-door-slamming tantrum. And sometimes, that's just what you need.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Day 19: A song from my favourite album

My favourite album isn't really an album at all. Not the version of it I like, anyway. There was a double-album release in the mid-'70s, calling itself The Basement Tapes and containing at least some of the performances which make up the original set of Basement recordings, but it's a bastardised, second-rate imitation of the real thing, capturing very little of its ramshackle glory. Sure, some of the most notable compositions Dylan wrote during those pivotal few months in Woodstock are present, but too many others are bafflingly-absent, and the eight Band originals included, recorded separately and with no involvement from Dylan, are completely superfluous at best, distracting at worst.

Most damningly, by focusing solely on the more 'completed'-sounding material (and adding after-the-fact overdubs to clean much of it up for official release), it completely fails to capture the essence of those otherworldly tapes, that slapdash looseness, the jokey covers, the thrown-away jams, the half-formed skeletons of songs which would never be completed. The true worth of the Basement Tapes is far, far stronger than the sum of its frequently half-baked contents. Taken as a whole, these fragments of music take on a stronger life of their own, evoking what Greil Marcus so memorably termed "the old, weird America" in a mysterious voice which no other album I've ever heard has quite managed to replicate.

* * * * * * * * *

I should probably backtrack a little here, just to explain something of what I'm actually talking about for the benefit of any unfortunate souls who've never encountered The Basement Tapes.

By 1967, after spending most of the past five years turning the world of popular music on its head and becoming one of the most famous men in the world, Bob Dylan was in desperate need of an escape. Seizing the opportunity presented by a (relatively-minor) motorcycle crash in 1966, he cancelled all forthcoming concert dates, and disappeared from the public eye entirely for a prolonged period.
During his time off, Dylan spent a lot of time just hanging out with various musicians, mostly the members of his former touring companions The Band, in an isolated house in upstate New York (the house was, and remains, known as Big Pink - the bulk of The Band's debut album, Music From Big Pink, was recorded during this period).

They drank a lot, smoked a lot of pot, and most importantly, they played a lot of music - most of it comprising songs written on the spot, covers of standards both old and new, instrumental jams, drunken joke songs, and the like. Some of these performances were recorded, using whatever equipment happened to be on-hand, and it's these widely-bootlegged recordings which make up The Basement Tapes.

Dylan's absence from the public eye corresponded fairly directly to the height of the psychedelic movement, and - not by coincidence - his return to the public eye corresponds even more directly with its end. Indeed, it wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that he was, to some extent, responsible for the dramatic shift back towards rootsy, folk-and-blues-infused music which began to take hold in late 1968. He was, and remains, openly dismissive of the more indulgent excesses of the psychedelic era, and the often-archaic material recorded at Big Pink constitutes a very conscious, deliberate counterpoint to that excess
(many of the songs covered are literally centuries old, and even the Dylan/Band originals hark back very deliberately to the styles and forms of traditional folksong).

A sampler of notable songs extracted from the Big Pink sessions was circulating in music-industry circles by the early summer of '68, and copies ended up in the hands of, among others, George Harrison and Eric Clapton - both of whom duly played them to their respective bandmates and other musical friends.

All of the Beatles have acknowledged that the tape was a massive influence on their change in direction between the psychedelic pomp of Sgt. Pepper and the back-to-basics nature of much of the White Album - and where the Beatles went, the world followed. Clapton's dissolution of Cream and subsequent move back to more traditional material. The Stones' 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', and the subsequent classic folk/country/blues triptych of Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. Clapton's dissolution of Cream, Hendrix's post-Electric Ladyland change in direction. All seismic cultural landmarks, hugely-significant to the development of rock/pop for much of the next decade, and all directly traceable to the twin influences of Music From Big Pink and The Basement Tapes.

But of course, there's far more to the Tapes than dry academic interest or historical significance. First and foremost, they're an astonishing, unique collection of music - richly-varied, atmospheric, strange, and spontaneous. It's the sort of ad-hoc, rough-hewn primitivism which would, in the hands of most musicians, be barely-listenable, but thanks to Dylan's genius and the peerless chemistry he shared with Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, they become something uniquely-special. They are, without a doubt, my favourite collection of music ever recorded by any group of musicians, and the fact that so much of this remain unreleased is truly baffling, particularly in light of the otherwise-splendid work done by the compilers of Dylan outtakes/rarities for the justly-lauded Bootleg Series.

Even before the release of 1975's bastardised, half-hearted official version, numerous Basement songs had been released in one form or another, either as covers or recorded by the Band themselves. 'Tears of Rage', 'Quinn the Eskimo', 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere', 'This Wheel's On Fire', 'Crash on the Levee (Down in the Flood)', 'I Shall Be Released' - all among Dylan's finest songs, and all originally recorded in the Basement. But plenty of significant recordings remain the sole preserve of bootleggers, and the sort of fanatical fans who eagerly seek them out (*ahem*). Chief among these was, until recently, the song I was hoping to choose today - 'I'm Not There', which finally saw the light of an official release two years ago, on the soundtrack to Todd Haynes' splendid film of the same name. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a copy of the Dylan version of the song on youtube right now, although anyone who's particularly keen to hear it might consider checking out Sonic Youth's excellent cover version, recorded for the same soundtrack.

It's a half-finished song, with ambiguous, ad-libbed lyrics and a meandering, dreamy melody played with delicate looseness by the Band. Sonic Youth's version, while inevitably cleaned-up slightly for the studio, captures more of the original's evocative magic than I'd ever have imagined possible, but still, inevitably, falls short of its slapdash perfection. I'm actually quite glad that Dylan never went back to finish this song, as he did with a few of the other pieces recorded during the same period, because I can't imagine any polished, properly-completed version of the song quite living up to the sketch which survives.

In the absence of that song, then, I've cheated slightly, and dug out a couple of the rougher cuts from the full bootleg - jams and covers which, while lacking the sophistication of some of the more obvious highlights named above, illustrate the other side of the collection, the rough-edged looseness and low-fi charm which is such an important part of their timeless appeal. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Day 18: A song I wish I heard on the radio

As I said yesterday, I don't listen to a huge amount of music radio these days (I still listen to vast swathes of BBC Radio 4's output via podcasts, but that's not especially relevant here. Although I'm now totally wishing I'd chosen the theme from The Archers for yesterday's post). I go through phases where I listen to the radio avidly for months on end, really immerse myself in nothing but the music which is getting a lot of airplay right now...then drop it for just as long, relying instead on magazines, websites and blogs to alert me to any new records in which I might be interested. When it comes to finding new music I love, neither approach seems to be significantly more or less effective than the other.

But the bulk of the new music I discover from the radio tends, on the whole, to be chart pop. As I'd hope would be clear by now, I have absolutely nothing against commercial pop - quite the contrary, in fact. Lots of it is spectacularly wonderful, and the past ten years have been something of a golden era for radio-friendly unit shifters - compared with the pop radio of my middle teens, in the dishearteningly-bland days of the mid '90s, the sheer range of technological innovation, stylistic imagination and straight-up CHOON-tastic melodies which have been hitting the charts and getting widespread radio/TV attention over the past ten years has been remarkable.

A decade ago, the sort of production techniques which have become commonplace through the likes of the Neptunes and Timbaland were the stuff of cutting-edge electronic/dance music: today, they're radio fodder. Going back to yesterday's entry, just listen to some of Lady Gaga's output - a mere decade ago, you'd not have heard anything even vaguely similar to some of those beats on mainstream radio. Yes, she's just following in Madonna's footsteps - but one of the ways she's doing that is by working with the most exciting, innovative producers in the world. Same old same old, but made new and different through judicious application of technology. The world is moving faster than ever, and if you're not especially interested in keeping up - which, to be fair, many of us aren't - then you're bound to end up lost.

I've had friends suggest that the last ten years have been a wasteland so far as great music is concerned - I couldn't disagree more, but I see why they might feel that way. If your tastes veer towards the traditional, it's been a rough decade - it's not that there haven't been plenty of spectacularly-wonderful records released, but if you're not actively-engaged in the scene, you've got to look a lot harder to find them. The positive sides of an increasingly fractured, diverse music scene are myriad - it's easier than ever for an aspiring artist to produce their own work, and get it heard by a large audience without ever going near a major record label - but the downside is that if you favour a particular sound or genre, you've got to look a bit harder to find the best examples of it.

On which note, for all my love for contemporary pop, metal, electronica and hip-hop, I've still got a traditionalist, reactionary-luddite streak a mile wide. As one might reasonably have inferred from my selection of 'Johnny B. Goode' as my favourite song ever, however hard I try to pretend otherwise, my heart will probably always lie with good old-fashioned, boring, outdated rock'n'roll. With a bit of country and folk thrown in, just for the sake of variety. I'd go mad if that was all I ever listened to, but it's probably the genre I return to more often than any other, and my love for it knows few bounds.

So, on that front, the last decade has sucked. Not for the quality of music being produced - quite the contrary, it's been an amazing decade for almost any genre you care to name, trad rock very much included - but it's not been getting a lot of radio play. Ever since The Strokes made their bafflingly-inexplicable rise to fame in the early years of the decade, mainstream guitar-based rock music has been driven by the sort of angular, chiming post-punk produced by a hydra-like collective of bands called The Somethings. The definite article has been the most in-demand fashion accessory of the decade for young white men with guitars, and while I've got absolutely nothing against the sort of music they produce - some of my best friends, and all that - it just doesn't really float my boat. I liked Joy Division plenty the first time round, and don't really need to hear it again. Give me something different, any which, of course, I mean something even more outdated and retrograde. Shut up, I never pretended I was being reasonable or objective. Unoriginality and pastiche are fine, so long as they're the right sort of unoriginality and pastiche.

Which brings me, belatedly, to today's song.

I mentioned this one way back in, I think, my third '30 Days...' post - as I said then, if I didn't know better, I could fairly easily have mistaken this for a classic Rolling Stones number from the early '70s. The Truckers aren't just a nostalgia act, of course - while their sound is fairly traditional, their lyrics are both distinctive and superb, and they're one of the best live acts of the past ten years. Since they first drew major international notice with 2001's Southern Rock Opera - a hard-rockin' concept album loosely-based on the real-life rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd - they've put out five consistently-superb records, blending classic hard rock'n'roll with Stax-derived soul and Chess-style country with a sharp, modern edge. They're an unusually-democratic outfit, to boot, with at least three top-notch songwriters and singers all taking turns in the spotlight, although main frontman Patterson Hood still tends to write the bulk of their recorded output. While his work is excellent, though. he's not my favourite Trucker - since the departure of former member Jason Isbell, that title would probably have to go to Mike Cooley.

'Marry Me' is one of his songs, and it's about as good an old-style rock song as you could hope for. The impeccably-arranged three-guitar howl, a tight rhythm section, set to witty, knowing lyrics (
"My daddy didn't pull out, but he never apologized / Rock 'n' Roll means well but it can't help telling young boys lies" is about as good an opening couplet as I've heard this decade). Time-worn ingredients, perhaps, but they still work - and, in the hands of a band who really know what they're doing, they've still got a freshness which blows away any notions of lazy nostalgia. And it's the sort of thing I wish I heard on the radio more often.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Day 17: A song I hear often on the radio

I don't currently listen to a lot of radio. But when I do, this song is all over it.

Admittedly, it loses something without the video. And it's not actually one of her best songs (in fact, I'd say it's the first significant wobble in what had, up to this point, been about as flawless a series of pop singles as has been produced this decade), although it has grown on me since I first got the album. But sweet merciful jebus, what a magnificent video. It's completely ridiculous, of course - overblown, self-indulgent and utterly, gloriously vacuous. But that's why it works. It's so gleefully self-aware, puncturing its own pomposity at every turn, that it's hard to resist. It cracks me up every time.

I have nothing else to say about this today. I'm pretty sure there's a long post in me about Lady Gaga and why I rate her so highly as a performance artist (which, in this case, is a bit like being a performing artist, only more so), but it's not coming out today, so it'll have to wait for another occasion. In the meantime, watch the video. If you've already seen it (and if you haven't, where have you been?), watch it again.


Oh, come on. Let's.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Day 16: A song that I used to love but now hate

I've previously mentioned the cassette tapes which my father's friend Martin used to send us when we lived in Africa. I can still remember what was on each and every one of those tapes, and could probably recite word-for-word several of the albums, even though I haven't listened to some of them in well over a decade. I'm quite certain that just about everyone could tell similar stories about how their early tastes in music were heavily-shaped by what their parents listened to, and this was like that only much more so, because those tapes - and a few local African bands - were literally the only music I heard. To my 6-year old ears, this was all music had to offer, and I was quite happy to make the most of it. In the absence of music radio, Top Of The Pops or the like, it took a long time before I really developed any sense of what I liked, as a separate entity from what my parents listened to. Consequently, those albums loom very, very large in my early memory.

None of the above is, I suspect, anything like as special or unique as I used to think it was. But still, it's my story, so it matters to me. Which brings me, neatly as ever, to today's song.

Before you get the wrong idea, I should stress that I'm still genuinely, unironically fond of quite a bit of Dire Straits. Yes, it all went a bit horribly-wrong there towards the end, and Mark Knopfler's solo career is as perfect a demonstration as you'll ever find of the truism that musical virtuosity isn't any sort of guarantee of interesting music. But unfashionable as they are, I still maintain that there's a lot more good than bad on three out of their first four albums (the less said about the almost-unbelievably-awful second side of Making Movies, the better). There's an understated, bluesy charm to their first record which might surprise anyone who's only familiar with their mid-'8os stuff, 'Sultans of Swing' is still an inescapably, undeniably wonderful song, and like all good North-Easterners, I can't listen to 'Going Home: Theme from Local Hero' without thinking of wandering past St James' Park in Newcastle on a match day, and remembering those few brief years in the mid-'90s when Newcastle United were genuinely worthy of their fans' incomparably-passionate devotion.

But ye gods, does Brothers In Arms sound shit. Not the entire record - if you can get past the horrifyingly-thin production (aargh, those drums! Those horrible, tinny, overly-reverbed drums!), then 'Money For Nothing' is an endearingly-dumb bit of simplistic pop/rock (albeit marred by a completely gratuitous Sting, for which there really should be some sort of Parental Advisory sticker), and the title track is a masterpiece of sombre, po-faced Adult Contemporary. Near-painfully sincere and polite, perhaps, but a decent tune for all that - so good, in fact, that Metallica paid it the ultimate compliment in 2007 by brutally eviscerating it with a cover version so mind-bendingly awful that one might almost assume that they did it on purpose. If nothing else, though, it really hammers home just how much better the original is, and isn't that the best thing about all truly bad covers?

The rest, though? Eurgh. Like any number of albums from the mid-'80s, the record has a distinctly 1950s feel to it - unfortunately, coming as it did at the dawn of the CD age, it was produced and mastered by tone-deaf gibbons, presumably gigglingly-high on a lethal combination of Brand New Digital Technology, their own giddy genius, and cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine.

Every note on the album is recorded so crisply, so cleanly, and so utterly without an ounce of soul or humanity, that contemporary listeners could have been forgiven for giving up on these new shiny discs in disgust, and going back to their 8-tracks. It would have been unfair and wrong, of course - I don't want to sound like a lunatic analogue purist - but still hard to entirely blame them. Instead, though, the buggers embraced the album in unprecedented numbers, resulting in a wave of sound-a-like overproduced monstrosities from just about every other then-big name in popular music, setting back mainstream digital recording by a good half-decade, co-inventing Stadium Rock, and - just for good measure - killing Dire Straits. Admittedly, as band-killers go, being elevated to Best-Selling Group In The World is arguably preferable to most of the alternatives. After all, it's hard to imagine that degree of success not going to just about anybody's heads, let alone a group who'd started out as a virtuoso pub-rock band in the punk era, which made them just about as uncool as it's possible for professional musicians to be. But got pretty ugly.

Just listen to 'Walk of Life'. The song itself is innocuous enough - a bit on the twee side, but not too hideously offensive, and if you imagine it being played by Buddy Holly, for example, the cheesy upbeat-ness becomes a lot more tolerable. The production, though. Oh my bleeding ears, the production. Those crisp, bone-dry vocals. Those plastic-sounding guitars. Those FUCKING DRUMS. It's not as obviously-dated as some of the synth-and-drum-machine embarrassments from the same era, perhaps, but disposable pop is meant to date badly. That's part of its charm. This, on the other hand, was presumably intended to last, and is therefore bad on a rather more profound level - CDs wouldn't sound this awful again until at least the compression-mad days of the early 2000s and on.

But as a kid, I absolutely loved it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Day 15: A song that describes you

OK, I know this is two days in a row with my '30 Days...' post being a bit on the brief side. But if you'll excuse the glibness...

If I were to take today's entry entirely seriously, I'd probably choose Dylan's 'Visions of Johanna', simply because there's a brief moment in that song which captures my insecurities with such devastating precision that I'm still a little uncomfortable repeating it*. But that's just a few lines, rather than a whole song, so I've gone for the cheap gag instead. 'Cos I tend to talk too much, right? You see what I did there?

Yeah, of course you do. Sorry.

To be honest, apart from the title, 'Bigmouth Strikes Again' isn't especially me (I'm not sure its especially anybody, outside of Morrissey's head). It's still a bloody good song, though, and perfectly encapsulates what I love about The Smiths that is almost entirely-absent from Morrissey's solo career (a subject on which I could elaborate for hours on end, but which boils down, essentially, to "Johnny Marr"). The lyric is a good one, and Morrissey delivers his vocals brilliantly (including the backing vocals on the chorus, sung by Moz but sped up to give the illusion of a female voice, and credited in the sleeve as "Ann Coats" in a joke which probably doesn't make a lot of sense to anyone who's never been to Manchester). But the true beauty is in the way the band play the song.

It's not got an especially-complex chord sequence - not by Smiths standards, anyway, although it's still a fair bit more sophisticated than it sounds at first - and there are no polyrhythms, lead guitar breaks, eccentric arrangements or any of the other flashy tricks generally employed by a band trying to show off their musical chops. Instead, there's simply an impeccably-tight group of musicians wrapping themselves around a melody, with no egos and whip-sharp timing - the guitar break at around 2:10-2:16, in particular, is among the finest displays of right-hand precision which you'll ever hear from anyone this side of Keith Richards. Marr might lack the more overt virtuosity which is the usual hallmark of an iconic guitar hero, but he can still chime out a rhythm with a unique musical voice, which remains almost impossible to imitate - check this out for an example of Morrissey's current live band entirely failing to do this song justice, for instance. How many genuinely great Smiths covers have you ever heard, anyway?

Of course, like all truly great songwriting/performing partnerships, they're both vastly lessened without each other. Morrissey still has a winning way with a turn of phrase or melody, and he's still a terrifically-charismatic performer, both live and on record. Marr remains a wonderful guitarist. But without Marr's instrumental sensitivity, Morrissey's more tedious pub-rock inclinations become dishearteningly-evident, while Marr's incendiary brilliance has been largely wasted on faceless session work, or bands packed out by charisma-free non-entities. He recently described the latest album by The Cribs as being "as good as anything I've done", a statement so mind-bogglingly, self-evidently untrue that one is forced to wonder what on Earth possessed him to say it. Meanwhile, Morrissey's solo career continues along a well-worn path of complete and total adequacy, with a handful of brilliant songs which would, without fail, be vastly improved were they performed by more interesting musicians, and an awful lot of must-try-harder self-indulgence which cries out for the stimulation and challenge which only a true collaborator can provide.

But for those few brief years that Morrissey and Marr were able to set egos aside and collaborate, they created magic. There's probably a lesson to be learned there, somewhere.

*"Little boy lost, he takes himself so seriously / He brags of his misery, likes to live dangerously". If you knew me in my teens/early twenties, you've probably got a fair idea of why that stings me quite so harshly as it does. If not, I doubt I could ever adequately explain it, and I'm not sure I'd want to.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Day 14: A song people wouldn't expect you to like

I've already written the best end of 2,000 words for this blog tonight, so this is going to be a short one. I've not got a lot to say about it, anyway.

I like musicals. Les Miserables is, quite clearly, one of the most rousingly-entertaining pieces of pure theatre to be found anywhere - I was tempted to choose the 'One More Day' mass medley from that for today's post, but it's so self-evidently magnifient that I can't believe anyone would be surprised to learn that I like it. Even the writers of South Park are clearly fans, as the spot-on homage/pastiche of it in the South Park movie demonstrates. 'West Side Story' features some of the best American songwriting of the 20th century, and even the likes of 'Chicago' can be great fun (the movie was terrible, mind). I don't generally listen to musical soundtracks much at home, but I've seen plenty of them on stage, and I'm always happy to take the chance to do so.
I'd imagine that might surprise a few people, so it seems like a reasonable subject for today's post.

I even like some Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals, although he's not a favourite - generally his shows have one, maybe two memorable songs, padded out with plenty of filler, and he's obviously a profoundly-dislikeable human being. But when he's good, he can rip off Puccini as well as anyone in the business.

Cats is, frankly, a fairly terrible show. But this song, saccharine and melodramatic as it may be, has a genuinely beautiful melody, and when sung well - as it is here - it can soar. That's worth something.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Small Beautiful Events

"For some people, small beautiful events is what life is all about!"

-The Fifth Doctor, 'Earthshock' (1982)

I tend to view Doctor Who in terms of the small, beautiful moments. I think it might be a hangover from my earliest days, because I've been aware of Doctor Who since long before my young brain was capable of processing actual narrative. Moments after my younger sister was born, my parents were so struck by her greyish, wrinkled/squashed appearance that they gave her the nickname "Davros" - as you might imagine, this rather stuck with me (and, I suspect, with her, although possibly in a slightly less happy way). My friends and I used to eagerly dissect the latest episodes on the way to and from primary school, but it was never the plots which got us truly excited - I seem to recall Ralph Bisset doing a pretty good approximation of Sylvester McCoy's histrionic "If we fight like animals, we die like animals!" the day after Part 3 of 'Survival' aired. The imagery and iconography of the show is imprinted on my brain at such a deep, all-encompassing level that my response to the revived series has frequently erred towards the Pavlovian – if it looks, sounds, and quacks like Doctor Who, then the odds are that I’ll be tickled pink by it, whether it’s actually any good or not. That the show has, for the overwhelming majority of the past five years, been both very Doctor Who and very good indeed, is somewhat remarkable.

I generally avoid clip shows - they tend to bore me, and rarely capture the essence of whatever it is they’re trying to represent. But I could, and occasionally do, watch compilations of moments from Doctor Who for hours on end. This montage,
from a 2007 episode of Doctor Who Confidential, genuinely brought a tear of joy to my eye the first time I saw it, and still fills me with a palpable sense of delight:

It's not that I can't appreciate some of the stronger plots with which Who has occasionally deigned to provide us - 'The Caves Of Androzani' is a masterpiece of tight, economical writing, and it's probably my favourite serial from the entire classic era. Steven Moffat's 'Empty Child' two-parter remains, I think, his finest work for the show, and it's still one of his most cleverly-plotted scripts. Even my favourite Russell T. Davies stories - and rightly or wrongly, he's not a writer known for his intricate, rigorously-constructed plots - tend to be the more tightly-plotted ones, like 'Smith & Jones', 'Gridlock', 'Midnight', or even 'The Christmas Invasion' (although I do retain a definite fondness for some of his less consciously-structured flights of pure, wild magic imagination). But if I had to settle on what really makes the show sing, for me, it all comes down to the moments.

So, it shouldn't really come as a surprise that I loved last night's 'The Beast Below' more-or-less unreservedly. Mild spoilers to follow, scroll down past the gerbil if you don't want to see them.

The plot, to be honest, was middling-at-best, and the societal structure and history of the Starship UK don't make a whole lot of sense if you really try to piece them together. Significant amounts of vital information were left completely un-filled-in (why was Britain the last country to leave? Why, since the other countries presumably managed just fine, were the Brits unable to put together a starship with an actual engine? What, exactly, were the Smilers for, and why were some of them half-human?). The escape-from-the-whale's mouth sequence, combined with the physiognomy of the creature itself as seen in the final shot, does rather beg the question of why the Doctor and Amy weren't just vomited directly into the void of space, and I'd love to know how they were able to dry their clothes so quickly for the subsequent scenes. But none of that matters at all, because so many of the moments we were given along the way were so wonderful, so note-perfect, and so essentially Doctor Who that I don't care for a second if the details of the backstory add up or not. Besides, the story of the episode wasn't really about the day-to-day details of the setting - that was just background colour, and it served the purpose admirably. The real meat was in the cataclysmic impact the Doctor's arrival has on that society, and that was delivered with delightful, and uncharacteristically-unrestrained, aplomb by new show-runner Steven Moffat.

This was, as a lot of people are pointing out, probably the least Moffat-esque script that the man himself has written for the show since 2005. None of his usual timey-wimey paradoxes, relatively-little overtly-comic banter (which isn't to say that it wasn't funny), not a hint of romance, and at no point did an almost-but-not-quite human figure repeat anything even vaguely reminiscent of a catchphrase. In fact, the lurching-monster quotient was surprisingly-low, with the Smilers failing to make as much of an impact as their appearance in earlier trailers might have suggested. It did, however, really hammer home what I think is going to shape up to be the fundamental difference between Russell T. Davies' Who and Steven Moffats – for all the scares in ‘The Empty Child’, ‘Blink’ or ‘Silence In The Library’, his vision of the show is ultimately lighter, more optimistic, and without the nihilism which was often lurking just below the superficial frothiness of Davies' vision for the show.

Just think of the Toclafane, from 'The Sound Of Drums’/’Last Of The Time Lords' - the inevitable future of mankind, to degenerate into a callously-homogenised army of hideously-mutated Steel Balls of Death, who kill, slaughter and maim their own ancestors for the sheer glee of it. And for all the sometimes-justified criticism of Davies’ reset-button endings, that one’s never fixed – that’s now the official Whoniverse End Of Humanity. Never mind shadow-piranhas or creepy statues which jump out and say "Boo" - that's how you do "dark" in a Doctor Who story. In the finest spirit of post-apocalyptic horror being served up to a post-football Saturday evening audience, it's one of the most shockingly-bleak ideas in the show's entire history. Nothing Moffat has ever done is that genuinely dark, and I seriously doubt that it ever will be. His mind simply doesn't work that way. His stories tend to be a lot more complicated than Russell’s, but at the same time, they’re arguably less complex, at least emotionally.

They're also, generally, a lot less freewheeling, more tightly-controlled and elaborately-structured. Which is why ‘The Beast Below’ came as such a delightful surprise (it’s also, I suspect, why it seems to have been a bit of a ‘Marmite’ story within Who fandom at large). Instead of exhaustively wrapping every idea, every loose plot strand up into a neat, intricate package, this was a sprawling mess of a script, packed with more ideas than it really had space to properly explore, and it was all the better for it. Watching the accompanying episode of Doctor Who Confidential, I was delighted to see that Moffat’s explanation for the half-human/half-Smiler creatures amounted, essentially, to “I just thought it was a cool idea”. It didn’t turn out to be intrinsic to the episode’s plot, as has been the case for most of the apparently-incongruous elements of his previous stories. He wanted a cool monster, so he stuck it in there, and trusted his audience to simply accept it because it felt right. That’s pure Doctor Who, and now that Moffat’s shown that he’s willing and able to let his imagination run unfettered when it seems appropriate, I think I’m finally ready to relax, and just enjoy his era on its own merits.

Speaking of merits…Matt Smith IS the Doctor. Brilliantly-so. If I had any reservations after ‘The Eleventh Hour’, it was that a lot of his dialogue, and a few mannerisms, were heavily-reminiscent of David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor – this episode absolutely blew those concerns away. While the character retains that innate essence of Doctor-ness which has been in place for well over forty years, Smith is bringing a lot to the part which is fresh and new. Simultaneously, though, he's cherry-picking elements of older Doctors, particularly Patrick Troughton, which weren’t really present with either Eccleston or Tennant. His freewheeling, unforced eccentricity is infectious, but there’s a lot more to him than just wackiness or mania – there’s an analytical, professorial air which is in sharp contrast to his immediate predecessor.

Very astutely, given Smith’s relative youth, both this episode and ‘The Eleventh Hour’ have included prominent scenes where he gets to interact with children – not only does he have a charming, easy-going chemistry with the young actors, but by placing him in that context, we get to see him from their perspective – not quite an authority figure, perhaps, but still as someone Old, who radiates wisdom and kindness in equal measure. That instinctively colours our impression of the character - it’s a very clever touch on Moffat’s part, and it’s worked magnificently.

Karen Gillan, as new companion Amy Pond, is similarly-excellent – she was split up from the Doctor for quite a bit of this story, which gave Gillan a welcome opportunity to show how the character fares alone. Happily, she more than holds her own. I’m trying hard to steer clear of the adjective “feisty” – not only does it seem to come as standard for all red-headed actresses, but it’s also been applied to every female Doctor Who companion since the ‘60s, and has become terribly-stale as a result. She blatantly is, though, which makes it rather hard to avoid. Independent, intelligent but clearly troubled – partly as a direct consequence of the Doctor’s appearances throughout her life, which gives an interesting twist to their relationship – it’s clear that there are still depths to her character which we’ve barely seen hinted at, and much of the meta-narrative of this season is presumably going to be devoted to the Doctor’s attempts to draw them out. Shades of the Seventh Doctor and Ace, perhaps, but hopefully rather better-written. That should fit well with the Troughton-isms in Smith’s performance.

The story was, like ‘The Eleventh Hour’, distinctly-reminiscent of a number of previous episodes – but where that one drew heavily from Moffat’s own back catalogue, this was a far more haphazard blend of elements from what I like to think of as RTD’s “mad future” stories – ‘The End Of The World’, ‘Gridlock’, and even ‘The Long Game’ were brought to mind, although it remained still very much its own entity. It reached further back, too – most notably to Tom Baker’s ‘The Ark In Space’, whose 29th Century exodus from Earth was directly referenced. There was also a sizeable chunk of Sylvester McCoy in there, with the Doctor effortlessly bringing down a whole corrupt society in a few short hours, just as he did in ‘Paradise Towers’, ‘The Happiness Patrol’, and so many of the Virgin New Adventures novels.

This Doctor may be good with kids and quick to crack a joke (the “escaped fish” gag was inspired), but there’s a steeliness, an unwillingness to compromise, behind that youthful fa├žade, and it’s intriguingly-different from his predecessor’s “no second chances” persona. Quieter, less bombastic, but more intense and possibly more frightening – the moment in the torture chamber/pilot room, where he coldly dismissed Amy without a second thought, was genuinely chilling. We haven’t seen that side of the Doctor since Eccleston unceremoniously dumped hapless would-be companion Adam back on Earth, and that cold brusqueness was even more un-nerving here, directed at a character who we actually like. It’s good that the new Doctor is likeable, but it’s even better that we can’t always be entirely comfortable with him, either.

OK, here’s the gerbil.


I’m trying hard not to get too carried away, but if the show maintains this sort of standard, then not only are we in for a very strong season, but Matt Smith may just shape up into one of my favourite Doctors ever. So far, so very good indeed.

Saturday, April 10, 2010


OK, I was totally lying in the previous post. There are totally some songs from which I derive a sick, morbid pleasure, and about which I feel almost (but not quite) as guilty as I probably should. I tend to collect such treasures and play them to my wife when she's least-prepared for it, as a form of aural torment.

Here are a few of the best/worst examples. If you can make it to the end of any of them, you will emerge as a Changed Person, able to see the world in new and surprising ways. And nothing will ever be able to hurt you again.

Shockingly-poor Death Metal band Six Feet Under have an ongoing side-project, which I like to call Making Good Songs Suck. They've been at it since...ooh, ages ago. Seriously, they're awful. Hilariously, wonderfully awful.

Next, the music of Alan Partridge's dreams. This kid is clearly far, far too into his sister. Apparently she's sixteen, too, which I suspect makes me some sort of Pervert In The Mind. Also, having looked around online, I'm 99% sure that this is not a piss-take. Real people actually made this music, and they thought it Good. Think on that for a while.

And finally, the greatest Bad MIDI File ever produced. Ignore the waffle at the beginning of the video - in fact, ignore the video entirely, just close your eyes and bask in the horror - wait until the swannee-whistle noises begin. Seriously, stick with this. If you're not in tears of pain and/or laughter by the end, then there is something seriously fucking wrong with you.

Day 13: A song that is a guilty pleasure

I'm not fond of the idea of "guilty pleasure" music. For starters, there's the cognitive dissonance in the very phrase - if I squint, I can see it applying to, say, a particularly distasteful sexual kink/fantasy, but music? Fuck off. If you like something, that's because there's something about it which you find enjoyable, in which case why feel guilty?

That's rather borne out by the sort of examples which tend to crop up in "guilty pleasure" lists - they're invariably dominated by commercial pop acts. The very notion exists primarily so that oh-so-serious fans of so-called "REAL" music (ie., music produced by white men with guitars, bass and drums, none of this synthy crap) can admit to enjoying pop music without having to acknowledge that some of it might be, you know...good. Which, since I think a lot of pop music is very good indeed, offends me at a fairly base level.

All of which said (and here's where I contradict myself horribly), I can come up with a few fairly-good examples if I twist my mind around the term a little. It goes back to my comments last week about how the only songs I really hate tend to be by bands/artists I otherwise love, because that means that I care so much more when they produce something crap. I can work with that. So, resisting the obvious urge to go with something from Sandinista...

Grind/Death Metal pioneers Carcass are one of my favourite bands, no question. Their earliest work is a little raw for my tastes, mind - I can appreciate grindcore in limited doses, but find it a little too hard to listen to for whole albums at a time, and Carcass' first few records are good examples of grindcore at its most inaccessibly brutal. Once they mellowed slightly, though? Magnificent band. To be fair, I used to have a similar prejudice against just about all extreme metal - I could appreciate the musical sophistication, but those cookie-monster vocals? The often-sludgy production? That intense, domineering drum sound? No, took a while for me to come round - and even then, it wasn't until I discovered Swedish prog-metal behemoths Opeth, the first band I'd heard who successfully combined 'clean' and 'growled' vocals as complementary elements of their overall sound, that I really started to appreciate the coarse, harsh sound of growled metal vocals as anything but a hindrance to the enjoyment of the music itself. Give it a chance, is probably what I'm trying to say here. It took me a while, but I'm glad I did.

Carcass developed, though, as they moved further away from the gore/grind obsessions of their early work, pushing their sound towards slightly-more melodic, conventionally-structured songs. In doing so, they inadvertently ended up at the cutting-edge of a developing genre - the melodic, highly-technical guitar work and song structures, combined with the still-brutal riffing, drumming and vocals would prove hugely-influential on melodic death metal, throughout the '90s and beyond. In fact, I'd rate Carcass right up there with Death (seminal Florida death metal group, probably set to feature in a blog entry of their own later on in this project) among the most significant figures in the development of DM into a musical form which I enjoy. Their third and fourth albums - 1991's Necroticism - Descanting the Insalubrious and 1993's Heartwork are, for my money, among the finest heavy metal records ever produced, and somewhere between the two records' contrasting styles - Necroticism is noticeably rawer, less polished and more aggressive, while there's a cleaner, more melodic side to Heartwork - lies my Platonic Ideal for Death Metal. I wouldn't want to have to choose between the two albums, and fortunately, I don't have to.

Unfortunately, as so often happens when a band's career progression develops along such a linear path, they took it too far. Their final album, Swansong (1996) essentially completes the transition into a polished, radio-friendly sound...and it doesn't work. It's certainly not a "sell-out", or anything equally-trite - it would have been far more dishonest for the band to continue forcing themselves to adhere to the extremity of their earlier music when that clearly wasn't what they were interested in doing, anyway - but still, it's a failure. The ugliness which had given texture to the more commercially-inclined material on Heartwork is almost completely absent here, and without it, there's an emptiness to the music. There are still some good riffs, Jeff Walker remains a strong vocalist, and the band are still impeccably tight. But it lacks 'oomph', for want of a better term - if I had to sum the sound of Swansong up in a slightly-clumsy soundbite, I'd probably say something along the lines of "It's like Megadeth meets post-Bon Scott AC/DC, but with heavier vocals". Which it isn't, really, but if you listen to the record, you might just see what I'm getting at anyway.

'Rotting In The Free World', today's song (and yes, that's a terrible pun), is the first song on the album. It encapsulates so much of what I don't like about the whole enterprise...and yet, I can't help but sort of like it. It gets my foot tapping, even as I'm thinking about how much less effective it is than any of the band's earlier work. Like the latterday Rolling Stones, there's a certain charm in hearing them go through the motions - yes, Keith Richards could construct those open-tuned, hammer-on-hammer-off riffs in his sleep by now, and very probably does, but he can still play the fuckers better than anyone else in the world. Same goes for Carcass, for the duration of this song, at least - never mind the manifestly-inferior songwriting, just listen to the band.

I still don't feel especially guilty about enjoying it, though. Sorry.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Day 12: A song from a band I hate

There aren't really many bands or artists who I'd genuinely claim to hate - plenty that aren't to my tastes, and plenty that I don't think are any good, but hate? That's a strong word, and I try to reserve my hatred for those people and entities who truly deserve it. Liars, hypocrites, child-abusers, the know, real arseholes. Simply making bad music isn't usually enough to warrant that sort of ire, and life's too short to waste valuable hatred on the merely-distasteful.

There's Sting, of course. There's always Sting. But he's not technically a "band", and besides, as the Artist Formerly Known As The Police he'll always be able to fall back on the fact that his early stuff was, much as it pains me to admit it...pretty good.

But however hard I try to pretend I'm above that sort of petty shit, there are always going to be a few exceptions. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any currently-active groups which I truly loathe, but if I look back a few years, to the turn of the millennium, and cringe as I recall this bunch of knuckle-dragging, cretinous dickheads who were once among the biggest bands in the world...

You see that face? Take a good look at that face. Violence may not be the answer, but I'm small and petty enough to admit that Fred Durst has a face I'd really, really love to stamp on. Hard.

I'm not prone to hyperbole*. But if Hitler and the Devil got together one night and fucked themselves up a little hatebaby, and the mutant hellspawn grew up mean and ugly....if that happened, then Limp Bizkit would be the Bad Kid who leads little Damien astray as he hit his teens. Bad, ugly people making bad, ugly music for an audience of bad, ugly morons. The quintessential soundtrack to the mindless violence-and-rape-fest of Woodstock '99, the point where rap-rock finally, irrevocably lost its way, the forerunners of all that would truly stink about mainstream rock music for most of the decade to come...I really, really hate this band. This is the first song by them which I recall being fully aware of, so while it's far from their worst, it's still probably the one which best sums up quite why they still set my teeth on edge.


Yeah, I suspect that the point of this entry was probably supposed to be to find a song I like by a band I hate. But there really aren't any - plenty of decent songs from bands I otherwise dislike (if it makes you feel any better, pretend I chose 'Light My Fire' by The Doors, and mentally fill in the blanks), but I honestly can't think of any produced by a band I genuinely hate. So this monstrous carbuncle on the arse of popular music will have to suffice.

Don't worry, no-one's going to force you to actually listen to it.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Day 11: A song by my favourite band

My favourite band, eh? I was girding myself up for at least a paragraph's worth of self-righteous, self-important bollocks about how hard it would be to narrow down all the myriad bands I love to just a single favourite. But then I mentioned this to my wife, who laughed at me, and told me that I was just going to end up choosing the Rolling Stones anyway, so why waste my time fussing about it? And of course, she was completely right. She often is.

So, given the entire back catalogue of The Word's Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band* to choose from, which song should I go for? The obvious choice would clearly be 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' - one of the finest rock singles ever recorded, and a solid runner-up when I was trying to settle on my favourite song for the first post, almost a fortnight ago - but the problem with obvious is that it's also boring. While I'm writing this blog primarily for my own sake at this point, I can't imagine that anyone reading it could possibly not have heard JJF dozens of times before, and it'd be nice to at least occasionally point someone towards a song with which they weren't already intimately-familiar. So, steering away from the band's (justly) much-lauded peak era, today's song is an overlooked gem from 1994 instead.

*Offer valid 24/05/1968 - 26/07/1972. No refunds, terms & conditions may apply.

Admittedly, this song isn't quite as overlooked as it used to be, since it was deployed to powerful effect over the montage which closed the final episode of the second season of The Sopranos. It was the perfect choice - moody, contemplative and uncharacteristically mature, it's as brilliant as it is atypical for the Stones, and I'd suggest that it's also the best song they've recorded in nearly forty years.

It's sung by Keith Richards, too, which is a good sign - his one or two songs-per-album since the '80s have consistently been highlights of otherwise-mediocre records, and this is no exception. He can't sing worth a damn, of course, but that doesn't mean there isn't pleasure to be derived from his ruined, smoke-and-age-raddled creak of a voice. The lack of melodic charm is more than compensated for with his voice's rich texture and obvious sincerity, and it's the vocal which dominates the first half of the song. In a magnificently-uncharacteristic display of musical restraint, it begins with an intimate, stripped-down vocal-and-guitar arrangement...and then continues in the same vein, waiting for well over three minutes before the rest of the band kick in. The slow-burning tension of the intro is never quite lost, though, the band providing a sombre, groovy backing as a confident, controlled Richards simply repeats the melody and lyrics from the first half, but with more intensity. It may lack the more obvious genius of a 'Gimme Shelter' or even a 'Brown Sugar', but it's still a superlative recording, and a rare example of the latter-day Stones breaking away from by-the-numbers self-parody and recording something which sounds fresh, even new - the first time one could say that sincerely since at least 1982's 'Undercover of the Night', and even that was a one-off.

The live version posted above loses some of the intricacy of the studio recording, but the underlying tension is still very much on display, and the band play with a tightness and relative lack of bombast rwhich perfectly offsets Richards' more ragged, endearing sloppiness. I could do without the backing singers, but that's the nature of the beast with the modern Stones, and to be fair, the rest of the backing musicians perform admirably. The two-song mini-set which Keef has performed at just about every Stones show for the past few decades is typically used by more casual fans as the perfect visiting-the-toilet opportunity, indicating beyond doubt that these unfortunate souls don't have a clue what they're missing. It's easy to mock the band as wrinkled has-beens - fun, too - but a group of musicians can't play together for nearly half a century without learning a few tricks, and there's an effortless assurance to their performance, particularly the impeccably-timed interplay between Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, which is hard to resist. The old bastards still have some life in them after all.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Day 10: A song that makes me fall asleep

Honestly, except in the somewhat hyperbolic sense of "a song so boring it sends me to sleep" (in which case, Paul McCartney's 'Mull of Kintyre'), I can't think of any song which actively sends me to sleep. However, I do tend to listen to music in bed, so there's plenty of music to which I can fall asleep comfortably, which I suppose is close enough. Perhaps the album I listen to most often at night is William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, and today's video contains an extract from one of them.

I've just spent the best part of an hour trying to write a halfway-decent short essay about these eery, other-worldly recordings, and why they're among my favourite pieces of recorded music. Hell, I'd go further - I think they're among the most unique works of art I've ever encountered, in any medium. But I'm still feeling like crap, and the words just aren't coming together at all. It keeps coming out as either pretentious or banal, neither of which really does justice to the music, and while that's never really bothered me before, it's bothering me today. I didn't want to put this post off for another day, though, so I'm afraid this is all you're getting.

For the full story behind the creation of these loops, I'd recommend reading this review, which is actually the piece which persuaded me to listen to them in the first place. Basinski's own liner notes in the CD set are also enormously worth reading (yes, I just wormed my way out of actually having to write about something simply by linking to someone else who's done my work for me already. Sue me, I'm ill). If I'm feeling better tomorrow, I may come back and edit this to add a few more thoughts of my own ( EDIT : I didn't ) - in the meantime, sorry to anyone who turned up today expecting actual content.

But the history of how the music came to exist, while fascinating in itself, wouldn't mean much if the loops themselves weren't so powerful on their own. Repetitive without true repetition, violent without dissonance or ugliness, hypnotic without tedium - they're simply wonderful as music, entirely disconnected from their history. With that history, of course, they become something a little more profound - music which wasn't so much composed as carved into being by the passage of time itself, an audible demonstration of the power of entropy.

But on a rather less pretentious level, they're also a great soundtrack to fall asleep to. Hence my writing about them today.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I was due to post a new 30 Days Of Music piece this evening, but I'm ill, so I'll be going to bed instead. So the Doctor Who review below is your lot for today, I'm afraid. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

In lieu of "a song which sends me to sleep", have a rather nice montage from Who's 40th Anniversary, back in 2003, set to an abbreviated remix of Orbital's version of the theme tune, as mentioned in my previous post. If Doctor Who had been on the air during the '90s (we do not speak about the McGann Incident, OK?), I'd like to think that this is what the music would have sounded like.

Leadworth Cutaway

So, my favourite TV show in the world returned on Saturday, for its thirty-first season, the fifth since the 2005 revival, and the first under new producer/showrunner Steven Moffat. Review follows.

WARNING: Spoilers will, obviously, abound, and footnotes for the uninitiated will not. So don't bother reading this unless you (a) watch Doctor Who, and (b) have already seen 'The Eleventh Hour'.

I haven't figured out how to code a proper "read further behind the cut" blog post, so for the time being, a good old-fashioned stretch of Spoiler Space will have to do. Scroll down to the picture of a gerbil if you don't want to be spoiled, everything after that should be safe.
There, that should be just about enough.

I'll start with the negatives, just to get them out of the way. First and foremost - quite literally, since aside from a brief TARDIS-crashing-to-Earth opening sequence, it's the first thing we actually see - the new title sequence is seriously weak. Not the visuals - while not quite as dramatic and fast-moving as the previous, slightly nausea-inducing version, they're pretty straightforward - but the new arrangement of the theme tune. To be fair, I'd cheerfully concede that I'm nearly impossible to please on this particular score (no pun intended), since I'd rate the original, 1963 arrangement of the theme produced by Radiophonic legend Delia Derbyshire as one of my favourite pieces of music ever, and all subsequent reworkings as manifestly-inferior demonstrations of the law of diminishing returns. Short of restoring the Derbyshire original in its full glory, or switching to the splendid version produced by UK dance titans Orbital back in the '90s, there's virtually nothing the production team could do to wholly satisfy me with the theme music, so any criticisms I have to offer should be taken with a fairly hefty pinch of salt. But compared with the dynamic, orchestral take on the theme which we've been given for the past few years, this new one seemed mushy and lacking impact - the opening beat going on for just a few seconds too long, and the first howl of the melody - "ooooEEEEEEEOOOOOHHHH..." oddly-buried behind an inappropriately-straightforward, martial drum beat. It's the same mistake made in the marching-band arrangement used for the 1996 TV movie, and consequently, it fails to move me in much the same way. Ho, and indeed, hum.

To be honest, that's about it so far as unequivocal criticism goes. The spitting-out-food sequence near the beginning went on a lot longer than I'd have liked - the joke wore thin fairly quickly, although Matt Smith delivered it well enough - and at 65 minutes, the episode felt oddly-paced. It wasn't exactly padded or slow, but compared with previous season-openers, there didn't seem to be enough plot to really warrant the extra twenty minutes, particularly as the time wasn't spent giving extra depth or breathing-room to the main narrative, which felt slightly-rushed as it approached the conclusion. The slightly more relaxed pace of the opening sequence was welcome, though, and to Moffat's credit, "The Eleventh Hour" is a perfectly-good, if obvious, pun.

Indeed, the plot itself was surprisingly-thin, although not in a particularly dissatisfying way. There were at least a few contrivances, hand-waves and plot holes (why were the coma patients calling for the Doctor, anyway?) which would have been fiercely pounced-upon by many of the people raving about this episode had they cropped up in a Davies script, but that's hardly the end of the world. Given a new Doctor and a new companion to introduce, Moffat sensibly stuck to a comfortably-familiar scenario, which was probably the best way of easing younger viewers into the new era.

The B-plot was heavily-reminiscent of 2007's 'Smith & Jones', still for my money the best season-opener the revived show has produced (alien convict hides out in a hospital disguised in human form, clodhopping Space Police show up to catch him/her with little regard for collateral damage, leaving the Doctor to both capture the prisoner and protect the human bystanders from inadvertent destruction), with several key bits of structural trickery and plot elements lifted directly from Moffat's earlier episodes. After 2008's slightly-disappointing 'Silence In The Library' two-parter, in which Moffat also recycled several of his earlier plot ideas to slightly-diminished effect, this could be a slight cause for concern, but I won't be worrying about it unless the same tropes are brought out again later in the season. Something to keep an eye out for, perhaps, but certainly not a problem - besides, the 'Girl In The Fireplace' set-up is an effective one, so there's no real reason not to use it again, given a slight spin, from time to time. Repetition certainly never did the old "base under siege" formula any serious harm.

I do, however, think that some of the praise the plotting has received is more than a little over-the-top - it really wasn't significantly tighter than most of Davies taut, economical season openers. It was, I felt, unequivocally-superior to 2006's 'New Earth', and more effective as a story than 'Rose', but then again, it had rather less to do than that one did. The tone was different, but the plotting here was certainly no more sophisticated, complex or coherent than that of 'Smith & Jones' or 'Partners in Crime', even with an extra twenty minutes to play with. Given Moffat's knack for a well-turned narrative structure, though, I'm looking forward to seeing what he does with this year's season-long arc and doubtless epic finale - there were plenty of hints dropped here, but it's still far too early to have any clear idea of the plan.

But the B-plot, as in Davies' opening episodes, was almost irrelevant compared with the far more important story, which was the introduction of a new Doctor and a new companion. Matt Smith's introduction was, perhaps, the least troubled regeneration since the concept was first introduced - there was still a slight sense of a new personality bedding itself in (I enjoyed the subtle ways in which his performance became less and less Tennant-esque as the episode progressed), but it wasn't central to the story in the way it typically has been in the past. It's still too early to really make any firm judgements on the Eleventh Doctor's character, but Smith absolutely owned the role from his first moments onscreen, with an unforced eccentricity and easy-going authoritativeness when required. I look forward to seeing how his performance will develop over the next thirteen weeks. I was less fond of the occasional hints of preening braggadocio - the "I'm the Doctor, google me" approach to threat resolution grated on me in 'Forest Of The Dead', and I didn't like it any more here. That seems to be part and parcel of the modern show, though, and provided it doesn't get drawn out too often - and provided it's balanced, as it was here, with plenty of Doctorly smartness, resourcefulness and wit - it's something I'm happy to live with. It seems to have gone down well with the show's core audience of young and casual viewers, too, which is far more important than my more fannish nitpicks.

Amy Pond was, perhaps, a little less clearly-developed - we got a strong impression of her character type, but the finer details of her personality were rather more thinly-sketched. We'll doubtless be getting to know her better over the course of the next however-many weeks, though, and there was plenty of potential in Gillan's performance. The lengthy preamble with Young Amelia (exceptionally well-played by Karen Gillan's cousin) set up the basics of her character nicely, and we'll get to see how those early experiences have really shaped her adult personality as the series progresses. Could have done without the kissogram thing, but that's Steven Moffat for you, and Amy was generally a strong enough character that it didn't initially strike me as too problematic.

Speaking of Moffat, while his plotting may not have been quite as elaborate as usual, he still excels at snappy, quotable dialogue - far too many great lines to mention, although I was particularly taken with "I'm the Doctor - I'm worse than everybody's aunt!" The handful of lines and images reprised from earlier episodes, like easter eggs for the attentive viewer, were also appreciated, and reinforced my impression that the familiar structure was a conscious choice, rather than laziness or self-plagiarism.

Right, gerbil time:

I could have gone on for a lot longer, but this post is already over-long, and I'm beginning to ramble. Overall, then, an extremely promising start to a new era. Nothing too revolutionary - and wisely-so - but an assured, confident debut for the new producer and star. Most importantly, it made me eager for the next episode, which is all you could reasonably ask for in a season-opener.

Again, again.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Day 09: A song that I can dance to

Like pasty white nerds the world over, I've never thought of myself as much of a dancer. I'm competent enough at a ceilidh, I can hold my own in a mosh pit on the rare occasions I venture into one, I play a mean air guitar, and when suitably-intoxicated, I can move rhythmically to music in a reasonably unselfconscious way provided others around me are doing the same thing, and not too many people are watching. I've got decent natural rhythm, and I'm far better-coordinated than I used to be, but there's almost always a quiet inner voice telling me that I'm still the gangly, uncoordinated teenager whose brain isn't quite sure where his limbs end or begin.

If I simply went out and actually did it more often, I'm quite sure that I'd get the hang of it - it's worked with just about everything else I've ever learned, after all - but to be honest, I've never really felt the need. I enjoy dancing as and when I do it, but it's rarely my first choice for a night out, especially since - happily-married as I am - I don't really have a pressing need to go out on the pull, which is perhaps the only arena where an ability to dance really well offers significant, concrete advantages.

So, the handful of exceptions - artists who really do get my pulse racing, my fists pumping and my legs twitching - stand out somewhat. I've actually been to quite a few dance gigs in the last year or two - perhaps most notably, the Prodigy's recent, long-overdue return to top form, coupled with an Oslo concert, got me up and shaking my skinny arse in no uncertain terms. But at heart, my favourite dance music is the sort of dry, mathematical bleepy stuff to which a suitably-pretentious soul can really stroke his/her chin. Like, for example, UK electronica colossii (colossi? colossuses?) Autechre, whose concert I was at last night.

The piece I've posted today (and yes, the reason I chose this specific track was largely down to the title) is a relatively-early AE number, before they moved quite so decisively into the increasingly-abstract field they've been ploughing for most of the past decade. I love the likes of LP5 and the Gantz Graf EP dearly (I've not heard as much of their most recent output), but the mathematical complexity of the music on those CDs is so alienating that it's hard to actually dance to (well, I think so, anyway). Live, however, while still aggressively amelodic and texturally-abstract, the music is far more heavily beat-driven, giving it a hypnotic quality which utterly transcends anything else. I'd be hard-pressed to consciously/soberly demonstrate the sort of dancing this sort of thing might induce, but the pools of sweat I was able to wring out of my t-shirt upon leaving the club after their set last night, and the aching in my legs and arms when I woke up this morning, suggest that I did quite a lot of it anyway.