Monday, December 21, 2009

The Decade in Music #13: The Ting Tings, "That's Not My Name"

Sometimes when you're cooking, whether it's crushing the cashews, slicing the garlic or just chopping the chicken, one simply has to funk it out; otherwise, what would be the point? Mere sustenance can achieved by the inhalation of Pringles. I make it my life's mission to introduce dance-cooking to the masses.

Happily, our current kitchen in Hanwell is large enough to permit a certain amount of righteous shaking of the tail-feathers.

The song that got our kitchen rocking most in 2009 had to be the Ting Tings' "That's Not My Name". Now, I'm not a girl and no-one ever calls me darling, much to my chagrin. So you might say there's something faintly ridiculous about me shaking my rump and singing along to an anthem of female empowerment.

Yeah, you might say it, and with good cause. But I would say TUSH! and FIE! I ignore you and say, get outta my kitchen, dude's gotta strut. This is a classic:

[Lee was not harmed in the making of this post.]

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Decade in Music #12: Kylie Minogue, "Slow (Chemical Brothers remix)

While it's true that I was dying with excitement to get to Australia, one thing that I could really do without, in fact, the one thing that gave me significant pause if not the outright heebie-jeebies, was Australia's reputation as the Mecca for all the world's most brutish and downright evil arachnids. If you're a young and up-and-coming spider who wants to make it as a really first-class terrorist, you know you have to go to Australia and earn your stripes. The stories are legion: the redbacks that apparently like nothing more than hiding in toilets to get first dibs on a tourist's arse; the huntsman, a spider the size of a small but malevolent dog, that likes to hide in a car's sun visor so that it can fall into laps, the better to cause maximal cardiac arrest; the white-tail, a spider with a bite that, according to popular lore, causes one's skin to go black and die; Atrax robustus, the Sydney funnel-web, infamous for falling into swimming pools and not dying or climbing into babies' cribs and into urban myth.

But my years in Oz were notable for a complete lack of encounters with our eight-legged f(r)iends. This I achieved by the simple expedient of living half way up a tower block. Job done. The only spiders I saw were the stupendously large and comically evil golden orb weavers, slinging giant webs across the cliff tops of Clovelly. If you're so inclined, you can see a picture of such a spider — eating a bird. Yes: a bird.

But my first encounter with a live huntsman is fixed in my memory. I was staying in a friend of a friend's flat, moving between Clovelly and Balmain by way of Newtown. Unlike the bracing airs of the Clovelly and Balmain, Newtown has the air of a reclaimed swamp: there's something oppressive and more than a little fetid about it. Anyway, I would use their office to listen to music on their giant PC while they were at work. One day, I was strewn across their giant leather seat, I came face to face with a huntsman on the wall. How it stayed attached to the wall was a feat of natural engineering that baffles me still; surely it weighed as much as a small grapefruit. I sat riveted for 20 minutes, willing the spider to move and break my trance. It did not move. I managed to back out of the room in a cold sweat, then ran round the house trying in vain to get my sang-froid back. When, in order that I might get a better look at my adversary, I willed myself to poke my head round the corner, it had completely vanished. I wonder if you've ever read Julio Cortazar's wonderful short story, "House Taken Over"? It's about a couple who gradually are confined to one half of their house, then a single room, by undescribed assailants or invaders. Eventually they are forced to leave:

Before we left, I felt terrible; I locked the front door up tight and tossed the key down the sewer. It wouldn't do to have some poor devil decide to go in and rob the house, at that hour and with the house taken over.
That was pretty much how I felt about that room, and then that house. In practically no time, I was safely installed in a Potts Point antiseptic tower block with nothing more horrifying to worry about than the odd roach and the unceasing and implacable mosquito.

What's this got to do with Kylie Minogue? Honestly, not a great deal. But the track I was listening to, and greatly enjoying, at the moment of this momentous encounter with a mobile nightmare unit, was the fantastic Chemical Brothers remix of Kylie Minogue's "Slow". And that's enough to get it into my list. Enjoy (but don't think of a giant huntsman while so doing):

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Decade in Music #11: Elbow "Grounds For Divorce"

My band of the decade has to be Elbow. I’m a hopeless fanboy when it comes to Radiohead but, like any obsession that sometimes translates into a state of anxiety ("but why don’t you like them? What do you mean "Pyramid Song isn't the greatest single recording of the last ten years?" etc), I'm often driving to exasperation. But Bury's finest and loveliest have been nothing but an amber-scented bath of delight.

I was there when they held the Camden Falcon hypnotised in 2000. I chatted to Guy when they came in to be interviewed for I was there, obsessively checking and rechecking the Sydney branch of HMV for a copy of Cast of Thousands, many months after its UK release. I've recounted here my bizarre dream of meeting Guy at a garden party (I know, I know: tell a dream, lose a reader). I've regularly eased into the soothing bath of Garvey's Finest Hour. But now, when I think of the Elbow, the following story immediately comes to mind.

It’s 2006, and a boutique music festival called the Playground Weekender has just been launched in the splendid surroundings of the Hawkesbury River, an hour or so outside of Sydney. Splendid? Ridiculously lush would be more accurate. Siuated on a sheltered bend in the river and overhung on one side by mossy cliffs that afforded the site's only shade, it was a long way from the concrete nightmare that’s The Big Day Out, not least because of the gigantic kangaroos that would nose around the tents.

The festival had been set up by a couple of English chancers, and they in turn promoted it mostly around the hostels of Kings Cross. The upshot of this unintentionally niche marketing campaign was two-fold. Firstly, backpackers, largely British, were over-represented. (Ivan Millat would have had a field day). And since the good burghers of Sydney had failed to show any enthusiasm for this upstart affair, the festival was nowhere near its capacity. Which was perfect: you could set out your picnic blanket in the sun, get a cheap jug of mojitos and listen to Tom Middleton play a totally zonked set of mid-afternoon psychedelic classics.

So we had this spectacular site and its bands more or less to ourselves. It was a great line-up too. Laurent Garnier, Tom Middleton, The Avalanches on DJing duties. The White Lies, The Presets, !!! playing live. The incongruous highlight, since they barely fit the electro-rock template, was Elbow. Now, I’m not saying Guy seemed chemically altered. He was just looking very very happy. So happy, in fact, that during some blissed-out mid-section, he wandered down to the front row and kissed a bunch of girls. Including Shana. On the lips, mind. The full works, if you please. Whenever she now recounts this story, Shana gets a kind of misty, faraway look, like she’s auditioning for Cate Blanchett's role in Lord of the Rings.

Elbow played one new song that night, and I didn’t think a great deal of it. Lots of clanging, Guy enthusiastically hitting things, and then some big dumb blues riff. Boring. The song later turned out to be "Grounds for Divorce", and I could barely have been more wrong if I'd tried.

Here’s a quite wonderful version of "Grounds for Divorce" recorded with the BBC Orchestra.

Here’s our Flickrset from the Playground Weekender. Interesting note: seems I once had a tan.

The Music of The Decade #10: Portal's GLaDOS

Warning: this song is from a computer game. Don't say you weren't told....

This exceptionally lovely song came from the very end of Portal, one of the games of the decade. Throughout the game, GLaDOS has revealed herself to be one neurotic, untrustworthy, cynical and deeply psychopathic computer. It was a shame that you had to be concentrating elsewhere during the final confrontation, because more than anything you just want to listen to her wheedle, rant and fulminate. “Well you found me. Congratulations. Was it worth it? Because the only thing you’ve managed to break so far is my heart”:

Come the game’s ending, we got two things. A: the cake. Rumours of its nonexistence were circulating but there it was, with a little candle and everything; B: this rather beautiful song, the melody to which was subtly prefigured in a tinny bossanova style on the little transistor found in the fugitive’s cell. Some game endings are so crappy–that means you Bioshock—that you feel hollowed out by the wasted hours. But this was unexpectedly touching, a sweet touch in a game full of them. I mean, just listen to this compilation of the gun turret’s voices:

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Music of the Decade #9: LCD Soundsystem, "Someone Great"

Well yeah, of course, everyone loved "Losing My Edge" It's still ludicrously fresh and hilarious and just a bit painful. While I would like to be able say that this ode to hipsterism and its discontents was awfully close to home, that would be an almighty fib: when this song came out the last thing I was doing was hanging out with the Sydney-side cool kids. In fact, mostly I was just hanging out with Cordy, one of my very favourite girls in the world, taking in the sun and harbour air.

When the fuss had died down, we were left with "Someone Great". How to write a wrenching but glowing song about grief without so much as a minor chord? Like this.

The lyrics are wrenchingly uneuphemistic and desperately moving. The only hint of self-pity allowed is when the singer bitterly notes that the weather hasn't had the good grace to be sympathetically gloomy:

The worst is all the lovely weather,
I'm sad, it's not raining.
The coffee isn't even bitter,
Because, what's the difference?

Buy LCD Soundsytem's Sound of Silver [UK/US]

"Someone Great":

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Decade in Music #8: Beth Gibbons & Rustin' Man, Out of Season

The second half of 2002 was spent in the unexpectedly not-at-all unpleasant surroundings of Walthamstow Village. In one memorable day in August, I had moved all my worldly possessions from N16 to a new place in E17 and then, after nothing more stimulating than a brew with new flatchap Will, I went back into town for B's memorable stagdo in Shoreditch. It was a busy day.

When I think of this time, the music I hear, rather incongrously, is the supremely melancholic Out Of Season by Beth Gibbons and Rustin' Man.

It just so happened that Will, who's now head of press at EMI, was friends with Mr Paul Webb (aka Rustin' Man), a member of the cherished Talk Talk, and he (Will) would come home from what sounded like jolly hunting trips in the country, excitedly chattering about a new record which he claimed was going to be "the greatest record ever made". Should it need saying that that's exactly the sort of hype to put me off for life? So when I finally heard the record, I naturally loved "Mysteries" and "Tom the Model" but I largely ignored the rest of the album, thinking it was barely-there and wintry, too sketched, too skeletal.

But Lee! Don't you love music with those qualities? Yes, and that sound you here is me slapping my forehead repeatedly. Out of Season uncannily effectively splits the difference between late Talk Talk, Nick Drake and Portishead. It frontloads the aforementioned songs and keeps its real secrets for those who can get past the big numbers. Hunker down the record and you're rewarded with little gems that make "Tom the Model" seem like a gauche barn-burner: mournful torch songs ("Romance"); the sort of fire-lit folk that Goldfrapp hinted at on their last album ("Drake").

Buy Out of Season [UK/US]


Monday, December 07, 2009

The Decade in Music #7: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker

Here's Clive James on Sydney Harbour:

"Sydney Harbour remains one of the Earth's truly beautiful places. Apart from the startling Manhattanisation of its business district, the city was more or less as I remembered it, except that for the twenty-one years I lived there I never really appreciated it — one of the big things that can be said in favour of going back, partly offsetting the even bigger things that can be said for remaining an expatriate once you have become one.

The late Kenneth Slessor, in his prose as much as in his poetry, probably came nearest to evoking the sheer pulchritude of Sydney harbour. But finally the place is too multifarious to be captured by the pen. Sydney is like Venice without the architecture, but with more of the sea: the merchant ships sail right into town. In Venice you never see big ships — they are all over at Mestre, the industrial sector. In Sydney big ships loom at the ends of city streets. They are parked all over the place, tied up to the countless wharves in the scores of inlets (‘You could hide a thousand ships of the line in here,' a British admiral observed long ago) or just moored to a buoy in mid-harbour, riding high. At the International Terminal at Circular Quay, the liners in which my generation of the self-exiled left for Europe still tie up: from the Harbour Bridge you can look down at the farewell parties raging on their decks. Most important, the ferries are still on the harbour. Nothing like as frequent as they once were, but still there — the perfect way of getting to and from work." Clive James, Postcard from Sydney

For the first few month of my life in Australia, I worked in North Sydney, which meant catching the ferry to and from Balmain. The job, though I was grateful for it, was awful beyond words; but the daily journey! The details of it are etched in my memory: the waters of the harbour, glittering in the morning light, criss-crossed by boats of all sizes and speeds; that moment when the immensity of the Harbour Bridge came into view and you had to suck in your breath.

This was also the time that I finally heard Ryan Adam's Heartbreaker and fell for it completely. I would sit on the wooden platform at the North Shore ferry point, listening to "Oh My Sweet Carolina" and try to guess which of the distant twinkling lights were going to turn into my ride home.

"Oh My Sweet Carolina"

Buy Heartbreaker [UK/US]

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Decade in Music #6: Royksopp, "What Else Is There? (Trentemøller remix)

Well of course there are too many contenders for dance remix of the decade. That’s just ridiculous right? I suppose the decent thing here would be to attempt a scholarly post on how MP3 blogs made the discovery of new remixes a thing of almost indecent ease.

I could talk about The Knife’s superb Heartbeats, which is unendingly fantastic for so many reasons: that crypto-atheistic chorus: “To call for hands of above to lean on/Wouldn’t be good enough for me, no”; the enigmatic lyrics of the middle-eight: “And you, you knew the hands of the devil/and you kept us awake with wolves’ teeth”. While the original sounds like something from A-Ha’s junkie brethren and José González’s finger-picked guitar version is silkily beautiful. But no rational argument can be made that Rex the Dog’s remix is not king. Here it is:

Remix of the year though? Not quite. What about something from Stuart Price in his Thin White Duke guise? I lost count of the number of superb makeovers he delivered over the last few years. Unfeasibly massive reworkings of Madonna, Gwen Stefani, Missy Elliott; and this, my personal favourite, Fischerspooner’s “Just Let Go”. Playing that on headphones transformed my otherwise bucolic walk to work across the calm green expanse of the Domain into a harrowing flashback of some deeply wrong night in a Taylor Square club.

Points must also be awarded here for that ticking clock which also made an appearance in his production of Madonna’s “Hung Up” and his remix of Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?”

But the following remix is the only one that made Marshall H hijack my stereo at one in the morning and crank it to maximum volume for the duration. That I didn't get ejected the next morning still seems a minor miracle. Maybe they were grooving too. The track was also played at carnage volume on car journeys across desolate parts of NSW.

It’s the Trentemøller remix of Royksopp’s "What Else Is There?" There's so much going on here. Karin's skipping voice as the breakdown comes; those New Order guitars; that ugly five-note riff that anchors the song. Listen:

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Decade in Music #5: Dominik Eulberg, Kreucht and Fleucht

"[…]I found that getting high often left me feeling apprehensive, hypercritical of myself, and prone to an unwelcome awareness of my life as nothing but a pile of botched and unfinished tasks. Over the course of these pot years I graduated from college, got a master’s degree, wrote a number of novels, paid my bills and my taxes, etc. I was never arrested, never got into any kind of trouble, never broke anything that could not be repaired. Mostly it had been fun, sometimes hugely; sometimes not at all. Marijuana could intensify the sunshine of a perfect summer day, but it could also deepen the gloom of a wintry afternoon; it had bred false camaraderies and drawn my attention to deep flaws and fault lines when what mattered—what matters so often in the course of everyday human life—were the surfaces and the joins." Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs, 2009, p. 34-35

For much the same reasons as Chabon's, I gave up the smoke completely one day in 2006. We’d just returned to Sydney from a trip to California. It was a glorious sunny day and, although I felt some depression about the end of a fabulous holiday exploring Yosemite and Big Sur, everything was more or less just swell. What followed, from a cursory toke, was two or three hours of the most debilitating mental agitation; what I suppose we must call paranoia, even though the word does faint justice– it's more like being forced to look at yourself and everyone you know through a microscope fitted with distorting horror lenses. Enough was enough.

The album we were listening to that day was Dominik Eulberg’s Kreucht and Fleucht, which means, according to this Pitchfork review, something like “creeping and flying”. Before the agitation took hold, I can remember being awed by the glistening polar textures of disc one. It was a fresh reminder of just how miraculous music could strike you in, let's say, the right mood: the apparent perception of new dimensions and details, how freshly scrubbed the sound could seem; the sheer awesomeness of it all. I can dimly remember how the strange chants and mechanical clanking of tracks like “Leuchtturm (Wighnomy's Polarzipper Remix)” took on an oppressive air of creeping Lovecraftian dread: like witnessing some ancient tribe in the dead of the jungle night, in the midst of some unspeakable ritual. Yeah, it was that good.

The Flying disc, which I listened to quite a bit later, is the more trancey, with fantastic tracks like Holden & Thompson "Come To Me (Last Version)" and Chaten and Hopen's "An Area (Hrdvision remix)" building a crescendo of deeply fucked-up techno with vocal samples morphing from the sensual to the incoherent precisely evoking a night out, the streaks and smears of club lights behind the eyelids. But it’s still just possible for me to glimpse, between the seamlessly dovetailed beats and the architectural detailing, something vertiginous and cold and dark.

Buy Kreucht and Fleucht [UK]

Here are a couple of beauties from Disc Two:

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Decade in Music #4: The Divine Comedy, Absent Friends

So we've had one break-up record. Apologies: here's another one. But the gap between Elliott Smith's Figure 8 and the Divine Comedy's Absent Friends can be measured in light years. If the first is a black mirror, the second weighs far less heavy on the heart.

Before we get to Absent Friends, let's look at Regeneration, the album that finally convinced this Divine sceptic.

In my imagination, I’m swimming against the tide; taking a stand, if I can mix the metaphor, against received opinion. Of course, this is largely fatuous bollocks. Mostly I'm just behind the times. Regeneration is a case in point.

Just about everyone I knew who'd had a good word for Neil Hannon's archrock project now seemed suddenly united in their disapprobation of Regeneration; shocked , hating the way it too eagerly threw off the fine smoking jacket of the preceding records and took up the Hoary Plaid of Rock. The wit and suavity had been ditched, or so they said, in favour of clod-hopping guitars and hairdos that could be politely called umkempt. Worse, they could only hear, in Nigel Godrich’s portentously atmospheric production, a cut-price Radiohead. And what were the songs even about? Previously, Neil Hannon would have sung about, I don't know, the National Express or hay fever or somesuch. Now he seemed to be singing about his feelings. This would never do—oh dear me no. So, Regeneration = Bad.

Which is where I shuffle in. Where long-time fans were choking on the stifling atmospheres, I was breathing in something delicious and quickly realising this was an album to which I could give a piece of my heart. I ended up listening to this album more in 2001 than I did any record except Elbow's Asleep in the Back.

Fast forward to late Australian summer of 2004. The end of a thing: I've just moved out of our water-side flat in Balmain to an apartment overlooking Sydney harbour (plus) that also houses an accountant (negative). A traumatic move by any measure: I'd moved to Australia for love, but that was over, and hear I was moving from west to east with just clothes, some books, and a few CDs for company. Including Absent Friends.

Absent Friends is Neil Hannon's masterpiece. It's a spring of melancholic positivity. Even when it flirts with outright sentimentality, I forgive it completely. If I recall, none of the songs address heartbreak per se. But the songs have a new directness and romantic sweep. "Come Home Billy Bird" brings back the wit, being a comic travelogue closing with a triumphant final line.

Listen to the best song, "Our Mutual Friend”. The music yearns and swells like a particularly swooning Hovis ad, even while the lyrical details stay touchingly ordinary:

On our friend’s settee
She told me that she really liked me
And I said, “Cool. The feeling’s mutual”.
We played old 45s
I said, “It’s like the soundtrack to our lives”
She said, “True, it’s not unusual”

This record was my constant companion during these hesitant weeks. Because what I remember most of this time alone in Potts Point is the feeling of possibility. Listening to this record and gazing out across a strange and beautiful city in late summer light, I was sure of only thing: it would all come good in time.

Buy Regeneration [UK/US]
Buy Absent Friends [UK/US]

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Decade in Music #3: Electroclash

It's 2002, and I find myself entirely seduced by the genre they're calling Electroclash — a genre that's going to vanish quicker than you can say "I too would like wear my sunglasses at night."

Now, I suppose it’s just about conceivable that we’ll be having a nu-electro movement in a year or so. But the accelerating atomisation of dance music suggests otherwise. And who'd want it back?

But back then, I fell hard. I mean, what wasn’t wasn't to like? Frosty mittel-European vocals from bored models? Check. Spangly covers of obscure 80s classics. Definitely. Super-trebly synths? Par for the course.

First came the love: That'd be Kittenz & Thee Glitz from Felix Da Housecat. The genre's great albums can be enumerated on the fingers of one silvery mitten and, in truth, I’m not sure that even Kittenz counts as great. But the first five or six songs are a blueprint that not even Felix could improve upon. “Harlot”, “Walk With Me” and “Silver Screen Shower Scene” are among the scene’s ur-songs, dirty synthy poseurs all of them, strutting and pouting and full of gakky disdain like a singing Helmut Newton photo.

The affair levels out: we go to a house-party, science postgraduate students, somewhere out East. I see fit to commandeer the stereo and replace whatever anaemic nonsense they’re playing with a hardcore electro-clash compilation, featuring the wondrous “Sunglasses at Night” from Tiga and Zyntherius, the disturbing “Rippin’ Kittin” (Jude Rogers has more here) from Miss Kitten and the Golden Boy and, um... not a great deal else that's worth remembering. Oddly, the popularity and good vibes I had thought to generate were not forthcoming. People can be so fickle right?

It’s all over: Fischerspooner, handed somewhere in the precinct of a million quid by Ministry of Sound, did two great things early on before buggering off into an amyl-scented fug. One was "Emerge", a bona-fide classic. The second was their where-you-there? gig at the Arches in London. Six songs, all mimed to a backing track. Costume changes for each song. Fake blood. Wind machines. Strobes. The sort of ambition that seemed to vanish in the middle years of the British musical decade.

Electroclash as a genre was eagerly retired, even as its DNA metastasised into the chart mainstream. They'd be better and harder dance music later in the decade. But for the time there, these songs were my irresitably sexy shiny baubles of fun.

Here's "Emerge":

Here's "Rippin Kittin":

And "Sunglasses at Night":

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Decade in Music #2: Samuel Barber and John Adams

2001. I'm the editor at the ill-fated Network Of The World in lovely Chiswick. It's basically a TV station producing daily music packages. Being a TV station, our open-plan office has massive plasma screen everywhere. Normally they're showing our own output: sports shows, tech, games, something called life which consisted of, um, whales. It's all a bit blurry.

So I'm working at our ridiculously high-powered PCs, fighting the temptation to get back on Napster, when I become aware that the office has emptied. Then I see that’s not quite right: everyone's gathered around the chief designer's dual monitors. Not being one of nature’s joiners and sort of just assuming they're all watching some viral video or other, I ignore the commotion.

My interest is only piqued when some sort of collective laugh or gasp issues from the group. OK, you've got me, I think. I get up and go take a look. I’m confused: I don’t immediately see what’s so interesting about a plume of smoke billowing from the World Trade Center.

And so it was that the afternoon unfolded, surreally, nightmarishly, numbly. Back at my desk, IMing friends and paranoically imagining highjacked planes crossing the Atlantic, we watch the iconic collapse on the huge plasma screens. That night, on the way to something or other, conversation is stilted: we’re numb. Only the debut of Blue Planet on the BBC is some kind of respite. The permanence of nature is a comforting message. But beyond horror, emotion was hard to come by.

It was, of all things, the Last Night of the Proms that helped unfreeze me and bought some measure of cathartic sadness. It so happened that Proms that year had been especially dedicated to American music. Leonard Slatkin, an American citizen himself, was conducting a hastily revised programme, dropping the jingoism for something more reflective. In tribute to the victims, there was a minute’s silence. Then played Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Slatkin’s face says it all.

Some years later in Sydney, I went to the Opera House to hear a performance of John Adams' On The Transmigration of Souls. Especially composed to commemorate the attacks, the piece featured speakers set around the auditorium playing verbal fragments from letters found in the wreckage. The effect was to give a human face to those otherwise incomprehensible weeks.

So, not pop music. Nevertheless, two of the most intense musical experiences of my decade.

Buy On The Transmigration of Souls
An interview with John Adams on the composition of the piece.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Decade in Music #1: Elliott Smith, Figure 8

Release date (UK): April 18th, 2000

Ah 2000, I hardly remember you. And for that, I’m mostly grateful.

Where 1999 had been a fabulous year of adventures and hi-jinks — London! — the first year of the new century, the early part at least, was mostly a bust.

At the tailend of 1999, I embroiled myself in what was in hindsight an disastrous relationship with someone who, as I later discovered, was rather more attracted to hard drugs than she was to me. Whoops! She left for Barcelona on May Day 2000: the day we voted in Ken Livingstone as the Mayor of London: naturally I was distraught.

Which is were Figure 8 came in. I’d first heard the lo-fi version of Elliott Smith in 1997, on a cassette from a friend over from Portland. As 2000 came around, I would have said my favourite album was XO, a masterpiece of guitar playing, waltz-time balladry and almost baroque pop harmonising. (I’m still no nearer to replicating the amazing beauty of “Independence Day” or “Tomorrow Tomorrow” on guitar today. Slow down!).

But Figure 8 seemed from the first to be over-stuffed, too rich, lacking the killer songs, too long. But, post-heartbreak, the album stood revealed as somehow written about, and sung to, me. How was such a thing possible? Listen: “Everything Reminds Me of Her”. Already the title. And then: “I never really had a problem because of leaving: But everything reminds me of her, this evening”.

Listening again today, all that emotional turmoil long since forgotten, it seems a trick of the light, or, at any rate, of the heart. It's not a depressing album by any measure. And knowing what we know about Elliott and his own misery, the record is ultimately hopeful. The middle eight of “In The Lost Of Found” has, to a great swell of strings: “day breaks every morning when he wakes and thinks of you”. And, right at the end, the direct devastation of “I Better Be Quiet Now”.

While the decade would never be so raw again, I can listen to this album, a record which made a profound connection at a dark time, and just about detect the aftershocks of those narcissistic pre 9/11 days.

Buy Figure 8 from Amazon

Sweet Adeline, the best Elliott Smith site.

My Decade in Music: The Best Songs and Albums of the 2000s

Well that's ten years done almost done with. Ten years of happy and heartbreak, of England and Australia, of dancing and chilling and hands-in-the-airing. Of listening to music on CD then MP3 player, then iPod. Of listening to albums entire to shuffling between playlists. From buying the odd record to obsessively scouring the MP3 blogs. From Napster to iTunes to Spotify. Can I shape the last ten years, after all only my third full decade of listening to music, into something with even the faintest accordance with my slippery memory. Let's give it a go.

Now, it’s so easy, isn’t it, it’s just so easy to scoff at those websites and magazines that have decided to publish their lists of the top albums of our splintering age, only to then have the likes of you and me point and laugh and tweet our outraged hilarity at the notion of, say, a Bob Dylan album anywhere near the top 50.

But what would make my list? Freed from having to meet demographic expectations and unrequired to satisfy a massive or medium or even discernable readership, I’ve compiled a list of the albums and tracks that have meant the most to me over the last ten years of my life, that have soundtracked my stately passage from an immature 25 to a marginally more rounded 35.

Some of the following selections may not even have been released during the decade but hey: I'm in charge, right? One thing that’ll be immediately obvious: despite my fond opinion of myself as a listener with an ear-thumb in every flavour of sonic pie (wait: is that disgusting? Or delicious?), the blunt fact is that my tastes aren’t particularly catholic. Hip hop, jazz, metal, you name it, they're all conspicuously under-represented. I can only plead honesty: if the selection strikes you as revealing a shockingly prejudiced quasi-bigotted, Phil Collinsy collection of records, well... you've got me.

One other thing: this list is more or less in chronological order. If life is just long enough to write this in the first place, it’s not quite long enough to put these records into order of preference. And anyway, would it really be fair to compare a record I've loved for almost ten years with something released only in 2009? Course not.

OK. Let’s get on with it. I'll try to publish a new piece every day. Let's start as the new century gets under way....

1: Elliott Smith, Figure 8
2: Samuel Barber and John Adams
3: Electroclash: Felix da Housecat, Miss Kitten and Fischerspooner
4: The Divine Comedy, Absent Friends
5: Dominik Eulberg, Kreucht and Fleucht
6: Royksopp, "What Else Is There? (Trentemøller remix)
7: Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker
8: Beth Gibbons & Rustin Man - Out Of Season
9: LCD Soundsystem, "Someone Great"
10: Portal's GLaDOS song
11: Elbow, "Grounds for Divorce"

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Mistaken For Strangers

I've always loved this song. The lyrics just keep getting better:

You get mistaken for strangers by your own friends
When you pass them at night under the silvery, silvery Citibank lights
Arm in arm in arm and eyes and eyes glazing under.
Oh you wouldn't want an angel watching over -
Surprise, surprise! They wouldn't wannna watch
Another uninnocent, elegant fall into the unmagnificent lives of adults.

Friday, August 28, 2009

God in the Quad

James Wood in the New Yorker writes about the new academic defense of religion, principally Terry Eagleton's largely incoherent attack on Dawkins et al. Annoyingly the piece is behind a subscription wall, so I can't link to it, but it's well worth a read.

This quote struck me:

"When the pianist Andras Schiff says, as he did recently, that , while Beethoven is human, "Mozart was sent from Heaven, he's not one of us," is he merely making use of a post-religious language, or is an actually religious language using him? ABolishing the category of the religious robs non-believers of some surplus of the inexpressible; it forbids the contrails of uncertainty to pass over our lives. What is most repellent about the new atheism is its intolerant certainty; it is always noon in Dawkin's world, and the sun of science an liberal positivism is shining brassily, casting no shadows."

Why Evolution is True has no truck with such fine shading.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

One Night To Speed Up Truth

Lord knows how I missed this.

Mew - No More Stories

Discovering an undiscovered hankering for Danish proglite, I've been feeling Mew's No More Stories.

Here comes music journalism: there's a song called "Silas the Magic Car". With a children's choir. Mmm.

Yeah, exactly.

Here's the video for the first single, "Introducing Palace Players", a song angular in much the same manner as the Giant's Causeway, but with a brilliant little video:

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Leviathan, or The Whale

High on the list of books I must read this decade, certainly much higher than any number of gloomy Russians or periphrastic Frenchmen, is Melville's Moby Dick. It was James Wood's essay, unpromisingly titled "The All and the If: God and Metaphor in Melville" that got me hooked on this shaggy mammal story. The way Woods tell it, Melville is second only to Shakespeare in his awesome attempt to encircle a world with a mad effusion of words. I've tried before, only to be done in by the awesome tedium of that chapter-long sermon which, I'm ashamed to say, occurs before our heroes have even left the land.

Clearly I'm just going to have to skip the damn thing, having just read Philip Hoare' quite wonderful Leviathan, or the Whale. The book, an intoxicating hybrid, mixes W.G. Sebald's gloomy peregrinations and gnomic musings with a bloody history of whaling. Hoare, depressed by the murk of London and the death of his mother, travels to New England and meditates upon the obscure biology of the sperm whale, describing how a great American industry was founded upon the wholesale slaughter of this fabulous beast. We see just how uniquely dangerous the life of a whaling Nantucketer really was, as they rowed in their tiny boats to the Whale's blind side, hoping to harpoon it before it panicked and stove in their puny vessel. We also follow the feckless Herman Melville, the new enfant terrible of American letters who's hoping to write a great adventure novel but who instead meets Nathaniel Hawthorne and is gripped by the transcendental fever that would elevate Moby Dick from the merely picturesque into a new American mythic.

We've killed hundreds of thousands of sperm whales in the last three centuries. Whale oil has been used in surprising ways, even lubricating the moving parts of the Voyager satellite. Here's a video where the balance is, however fleetingly, redressed:

Friday, August 14, 2009

Carol Brown

They said it wasn't as good as the first season. Pfft. 'They". They know nothing.

Thursday, August 13, 2009


We saw Tom Stoppard's Arcadia last night. I don't need to tell you that it's a wonderfully mind-bending couple of hour that touches on literary authenticity, 18th trends in gardening, the second law of thermodynamics, Lord Byron and his devilish ways, the heat death of the universe, iterated equations and much else besides.

Iterated equations? Yes. Feed X into equation, get Y. Let Y be the next X and repeat. From such humble beginnings can come all the patterns of nature. For instance, take a look at these truly extraordinary computer generated flowers:

This dance is like a weapon

A new song played at Latitude:

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

From Normblog:

The claim made by Richard Dawkins, and mentioned by Martin in passing here, 'that imposing parental beliefs on children is a form of child abuse' surely merits some clarifying explanation before we assent to it. It is, of course, easy as well as necessary to draw a distinction between putting a belief to children in a way that makes it plain to them that there are alternatives to, questions about, disagreements over it, and insisting on the belief as the sole unchallengeable truth. There's a difference between trying to educate children in a spirit that encourages interest in the world and finding out about it, on the one hand, and indoctrination, on the other. However, teaching people anything at all must involve putting across some points, beliefs, theses, in a more favourable light than others. If nothing else, education in a non-doctrinaire spirit means explaining the different modes of holding a belief and why leaving them open to falsification in the light of counter-evidence or the demonstration of internal inconsistency is an intellectual virtue. Again, must we not discriminate better from worse as between maintaining some standards of personal cleanliness and not doing so, or between behaving with consideration and kindness and being rude and dishonest? More generally, educating children involves, willy-nilly, the imparting of moral beliefs. This cannot be done without the presentation of some things as good and others as less good or downright bad. Even done in a non-doctrinaire way, it must involve a degree of active direction. It's misleading, therefore, to pretend that only dogmatists and fanatics narrow the minds of their children to the available sum of human beliefs. Everybody does it to some extent. Socialization of any kind would be impossible without it. It begins with the teaching of language.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Abstinence Teacher

My better- or rather, my vastly superior - half recently bought a copy of Tom Perotta's The Abstinence Teacher from Shakespeare and co in Paris. Since I had only brought How to Lose Friends and Alienate People along as holiday matter, I needed a new book, and stat (not because Toby Young's memoir is awful - it's not. It's just that it's one of those little pamphlets you can hoover up in more or less a single sitting: cf. those of Marcus Trescothick and Michael Atherton; I scanned the salient chapters--the crack-up, the Ashes--in various Borders around town). Anyway, I wheedled and pouted like a sad champion until I was allowed to read.

It's actually brilliant. I sort of knew it must be at least a bit good, since it had been hugely well reviewed just about everywhere. It's a nice question, therefore, why the book I never trained my voracious I MUST BUY THIS kleig lights upon the book for even a fleeting moment. Anyway. The book is about a sex education teacher in a small American town, whose turf gets encroached upon by an incongruously gamine Christian pushing her abstinence-only program into the school, and who also has to deal with her daughter's soccer coach who, after much drinking and drugging, is now born-again.

Apart from the brilliant interior voices of the assembled pastors, sad-sack teachers, ex-wives and husbands, defiant teens and jarringly perky Christians, what stands out is Perotta's compelling facility with dialogue and plot. Fantastic set pieces, such as the recalcitrant teachers having to relate a "sexual experience I regret" or the born-again convention, are powered forward by the smooth engine of the plot, all its part moving in lovely harmony as the book's smooth groove's crescendo hits a surprising note at the climax.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009


Some thoughts about the movie Antichrist, about which I hardly know what to think, which seems to me puts it three quarters of the way to greatness.

Now, heaven knows, it seems a lifetime since we had a honest-to-goodness movie scandal, an attempt by the redtops, in the name of all that is decent and holy, to foment outrage over what they would have you believe is some squalid awful little movie fit only for immediate banning, then the burning of all involved. Not so very long ago, when we were still being treated as innocent lickle bunnykins by the State, you only had to say "Cronenberg!" and the offending piece of celluloid would be removed from our sight, never to be seen again.

I remember in the early days of VHS coming into possession of strange almost samizdat catalogues that listed thousands of titles that I could never hope to see, with strange and impossibly exotic titles: Clockwork Orange; Straw Dogs; I Spit On Your Grave; Driller Killer; Last Half on the Left; Texas Chainsaw Massacre. What on earth did these titles portend? And when the original video nasty scandal got them all banned (I seem to remember Videodrome being held up as a paragon of all that was evil. Why?), naturally I became all the more curious. These movies all but promised to freeze my young blood, harrow up my very soul, make my two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres and, since we're on the subject, cause each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porcupine. Fantastically scary shit, in other words.

Now, with every two bit video nasty finally released and detoxified and with even Cannibal Holocaust watchable over the webular intertubes, we've all got a bit blase. Who's gonna shake us from our slumber?

If the papers are to be believed, and there's a statement that needs strong shoulders, then Lars Von Trier's latest noisome concoction is just the thing to reawaken outrage muscles not flexed this millennium. The way the critics are telling it, Antichrist is little more than horror porn, Hostel or Saw taken to a shocking new extreme. Real penetration? Genital mutilation? This is one sick snuff movie that must be banned forthwith.

Actually, it's nothing of the sort. Rather, it's a beautiful and bleak film with a talking fox.

Yes, Antichrist is surpassingly strange and disturbing, a fever dream of a film. It reminded me of a more elliptic Whicker Man, with its obsession with rituals and symbols and the pagan heart of nature beating beneath a veer of Christian respectability; although it should be said that Antichrist made that film look like Carry On Pagan - there are no songs, or Christopher Lees or prancing virgins in this.

Rather we have a movie that spends its first hour in a sickly trance of anxiety, less film than a high gloss version of the DSM V. It's a case study of pathological and profound depression, as Charlotte Gainsbourg's unnamed character tries to get through the anxiety attacks that plague her since the death of her and Willem Dafoe's child. He's a therapist; he treats her; tries to get her off the drugs; has a therapeutic nostrum for all her symptoms. Gainsbourg is all too believable as she struggles with tremors and paralysis and numbness and his impotent rationalism. Von Trier says that he identifies with her character; the film was born from a period of profound depression he suffered. It's all up their on the screen.

At this point, Defoe wants the couple to go to the woods where Gainsbourg had previously attempted to finish her PhD concerning the torture of women (by women?) throughout the centuries, a thick tract entitled Gynocide, replete with photocopies of medieval woodcuttings and modern outrages. He wants her to confront her fears. It's fair to say that things don't go quite according to plan. From here on in, there's a great deal that's symbolic, referencing (I assume) animistic traditions, folklore and paganism, even shamanism. A constellation called the Three Beggars becomes important (even though, as the man points out at one point, "there's no such constellation"). Foxes, crows, deers. Ants and acorns. Nature as Satan? Sure. It's all in there.

I'm not at all sure what it all means. That's part of why I thought it was fantastic. Any film that features, in no particular order, beautiful ultra-slow motion black and white scenes of snow and sex soundtracked by Handel, a hand covered in ticks, a miscarrying deer, a hatchling bird being devoured by ants, an oddly unkillable crow, weird lensing effects, such that the forest seems to be a living and devouring thing, a most terrifying dead tree, the aforementioned fox with its terrible message, childishly scrawled titles, a classic "book that explains the madness" scene, and an epilogue that is both very moving and not entirely comprehensible, is worth the experience.

The genital mutilation? I closed my eyes.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Michael Jackson R.I.P.

Michael Jackson died just over an hour ago.

Thriller was the first album I ever remember listening to on headphones, just a little kid in the darkness watching the twinkly green lights on our NASA-era stereo. I'd always fall asleep before I got to the end. I was mesmerised by 'Human Nature'.

And then, the Bad tour came to Wembley Stadium. It was the first stadium show I ever saw. I'm not sure any subsequent gig has come close to the electrifying thrill of seeing Jackson, in his prime, no need to call himself the King of Pop, everyone knew he just was, dancing and singing like no-one before or since.

And then, later, when you started to learn a bit about music, came an appreciation of the sheer fucking irresistible groove of those best songs. That bassline. That guitar solo. The ecstatic yelps and sighs, the chirruping vocal tics beyond language.

In the days and weeks and years to come we're gonna hear plenty of lurid stories about his last years. I'd be lying if I said I won't be reading them with as much prurient interest as the next guy.

But for now - here's to Michael for all those tunes, and the memories they'll always trigger.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Declare Independence

I've identified a plausible candidate for that gnawing empty feeling. It's that I haven't seen Björk play live in years. What a terrible oversight. I'm blaming the fact that I didn't listen to Volta a great deal, which says more about my lazy listening than it does about the record's intrinsic quality. Oh wait, it also says that any album that prominently features the vocals of Anthony sends me running in the opposite direction lest I be flattened by the schools of amourous sirenians sure to be attracted by his penetrative mating call. I digress. I've seen Björk play three times, and each time she was increasingly and absurdly brilliant. The first time at the Opera House in Covent Garden was absolutely magical, nape-prickling stuff. This video, of a song that struck me as kinda meh in its recorded form, is a reminder that we really ought to, to paraphrase Auden, see Björk immediately or die.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Sorry but this is funny

I have no words, so I'll let Sasha explain:

Sometimes consensus is better than a hot tip. Even if we can’t agree on the big things—like whether or not free-market capitalism itself is the condition that produced the current economic malaise—we can all send each other the same funny video at the same time. (When our own Ben Greenman and Dita Von Teese agree on something, I think we are close to consensus.) The video for “Total Eclispe Of The Heart,” below, makes good on an Internet challenge meme: narrate the images in a video, literally, by creating a new version of the song that inspired the video.

I'm still frankly staggered at the suggestion that this is based on the real video. Even with the literal lyrics, why didn't a nation throw up its own pelvis laughing?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009



In somber forest, when the sun was low,
I saw from unseen pools a mist of flies,
In their quadrillions rise,
And animate a ragged patch of glow,
With sudden glittering – as when a crowd,
Of stars appear.
Through a brief gap in black and driven could,
One arc of their great round-dance showing clear.

It was no muddled swarm I witnessed, for
In entrechats each fluttering insect there
Rose two steep yards in air,
Then slowly floated down to climb once more,
So that they all composed a manifold
And figured scene,
And the seemed the weavers of some cloth of gold,
Or the fine pistons of some bright machine.

Watching those lifelong dancers of a day
As night closed in, I felt myself alone
In a life too much my own,
More mortal in my separateness than they –
Unless, I thought, I had been called to be
Not fly or star
But one whose task is joyfully to see
How fair the fiats of the caller are.

— Richard Wilbur

Collected Poems 1943-2004 (Waywiser, 2005), copyright © Richard Wilbur 2005

Sherlock Holmes

Along with every other right-thinking Englishman of good breeding and temperament, I loathe, dispise and generally disdain that infamous vulgarian Mr Guy Richie, on the unimpeachable grounds that he is a debaser, a corrupter and bespoiler of all that is good and right in our culture.

But on the other hand, my admiration and joy when surveying the works of noted theatrical gent, Mr Robert Downey Jnr. Esq. are without parallel this side of the capital's most delectable fleshpots.

So I don't know how I feel about this:

One espies the presence of Jude Law. As long as Moriarty isn't played by Shia Leboeuf, I'm reasonably interested.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Road

"Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery." - Last lines of The Road.

Synecdoche, New York

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye, said a clever man, and films about death are as rare as hen’s teeth. Real death, that is, not Hollywood death in a hail of bullets or from some fatal but apparently mostly painless disease, contracted perhaps as the result of questionable moral choices in the Sixties. Synecdoche, New York is about the shape of life and then “the only end of life”. It’s perhaps the strangest and most involuted film I can recall. It’s also intensely sad, although rarely in a heart-tuggingly manipulative way. It's more about the steady accumulation of defeats, that slow motion pitiable crash of most people’s lives. Synecdoche is a figure of speech where the part stands for the whole; keeping track of the levels of correspondence, from character to character, from director to character, from Kaufman to Caden Cotard, is all but impossible; you keep getting floored by sudden connections long after the film has finished. There's none of the comedy of Kaufman's previous screen-plays, though there is much narrative and visual wit. Mostly there are melancholic echoes and disturbing revelations and jolting narrative jumps and morose proclamations; all the epiphanies turn out to be fleeting, provisional. Like life.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Whither posting?

You're always on soggy ground when you have to apologise for the lack of posting. But that's what I'm reduced to: begging your patience and asking for an extension. Let's just agree that the dog ate my homework and also my keyboard and motivation. Posts to follow, on a range of ostensibly exciting topics

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Confessions of an English Mystic, being a review of the latest album by Bat for Lashes - Two Suns

Just a couple of Monday's ago, as I lay adrift in the adoring sunshine, I found myself falling and rushing, as if sucked through a tunnel, into a laudanum-induced dream, a delightful fugue state whereby a horde of homunculi danced jazzily across my mind's eye before dissolving and abstracting into a most pleasant delirium of fluttering geometries, bejeweled ziggurats and byzantine topographies. Then, sailing through this most queer inner cosmos, I saw great planets on fire, plunging and shattering against a crystalline sun. I saw dark hearts blazing while they beat and an orchard strewn with vastly swollen fruit. All these sightes were set in a rippling landscape, as if the very Earth herself desired transfiguration and deliquescence.

And there, in a lush valley threaded with streams and brooks and gurgling oases of honey and ambrosia and possibly the juice of cranberries, I saw a majestical iridescent fortress, fretted with golden fire, from which emerged the most fantastical chimera, a creature of such impossible provenance I am loath to describe it lest I be removed to Bedlam. It was as if the Lord had taken the body, legs and tail of the proud unicorn but then combined it, somehow, with the head of a horse... this was, as you imagine a sight most fearful and awesome to behold. Indeed, it was deeply mental.

More than this I cannot remember, for I was rudely plucked from my delerium by an insistent knocking on my door. It was a fellow trying to sell me his wares. He claimed to be from Porlock. I told him that I had no use of wares, thanks, this being the 21st century, and just where the Tooting Bec is Porlock anyway? Making the tenacious limpet seem positively irresolute by comparison, our man continued his pitch, convinced that his wares were of the highest quality. I eventually got him to leave whereupon I retired to my bed, eager to reawaken my visionary state. Alas! Ecstatical slumber proved elusive: each time I tried to relax and coax back the lost world, my mind became bepopulate with the mere fancies and flimflam of this drear world. All that remained were fragments; shards of the dream now lay shattered about.

Happily, Natasha Khan of Bat for Lashes seems to have visited this same undiscovered country and brought back not glimpes and shards but whole songs; a rich and vivid tapestry full of the fevered denizens and mind-wrong architecture of that other place. Two Suns, on the surface simply an album, and a second album at that, is in fact, a travelogue from this undiscovered country, a glimpse of a better place from an artist who’s peeked behind the curtain to reveal an unsuspected truth: that there are worlds and wonders unseen by you and I and also Lady GaGa.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Speaking in Code

Can I see this now please?

More info about Philip Sherburne.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty)


Forget tincture of henbane or other such homeopathic nonsenses. As far as I know, there is but one universally agreed and empirically proven method of inducing witch-hood: you must first fetch yourself to a local churchyard, preferably on All Hallows night, then you walk widdershins thrice round the church. You should find, crouched athwart a tombstone, the Devil, most likely in his cankerous black frog form (try again if he’s not there. Any multiple of three ought to work). Close your eyes and kiss those puckered amphibian lips, and Bob’s your... well, in fact he’s no longer your uncle but a happy reminder of the mortal world you’ve just left behind. Old Nic has transformed you into a weird sister, no strings attached. For the rest of your natural life, you'll enjoy trouble-free naked cavorting with the Great Goat himself, drinking the blood of virgins whenever you’re in the mood and generally having amazing witchy larks. One word of advice: steer clear of any local folk who invite you to their barbecue.

The real centrepiece of a witch’s life, leaving to one side for the moment the business with the broomsticks, is the coven, which is really just a chance for you to let your copious and surely jet-black hair down. As with weddings or Bar Mitzvahs, the difference between a desultory gathering and a hot diabolical shindig often comes down to the tunes. Many's the virgin about to be rent by the Knife of Kris who's suddenly had to halt proceedings to get Girls Aloud off the stereo. Avoiding such faux pas is all important to a well-done blood rite. And that’s where Heavy Ghost comes in.

Perfect for any self-respecting middle-class sacrificial rite or suburban satanic mass, Heavy Ghost is a lurid and sulphurous album brew, rich with the tang of forgotten magiks. You can practically taste the eye of newt.

Twitching the strings at the centre of this antic puppet-show is DM Stith, an acolyte of Sufjan Stevens. Stith has clearly learnt at the feet of his master. But Stith takes Steven’s sacred patterns and inverts them. He’s more the mysterious gardener coaxing and training the tendrils of his organic sound until you’re listening to a wall of hawthorn festooned with poison berries, the nests of strange birds with human voices and impossibly thorny branches. Seriously.

DM Stith's sweet voice hangs entranced at the centre of these songs and keeps them from flying off into chaos. "Heavy Ghost", for instance, is a messy bricolage of voices that knit together creating drifting clouds of harmony and sunshine, flying free in the way only messy bricolages can. "Braid of Voices" shows the trick, or the art, to best effect: minimal song structure, numinous chords, reverent chanting, building up wizard-you-will-not-PASS-style, before winding away into a scary nowhereness. It's The Drift reimagined by Jeff Buckley. (The resurrected corpse thereof).

If you like Radiohead's “We Suck Young Blood”, you'll like this. It has all that song's claustrophobia and stem-wound complexity. Also the airlessness and lack of obvious feeling. What's powerful here comes mainly from the sense of a spell cast; once it's all over and you're back blinking in the daylight, you can’t quite remember the structure of the experience. Then you notice you've been expertly eviscerated.

If this doesn’t go down a treat at your next vampires and vicars party, you’re probably just a human.

More information on Heavy Ghost here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Video: Fever Ray - If I Had A Heart (2009)

It someone seems wrong to describe oneself as a "fan" of The Knife. God knows, we absolutely caned their last two albums of bone-chilling hardcore horror techno pop (that's right), with Silent Shout being my album of 2006 (at the gym, it was a headphone tonic to all that aspirational house they pump in to really make you "go for it!"). It struck me as formally perfect and terrifying with it, much like the electronic wails which play over the opening credits to The Shining: somehow and at the same hugely addictive and massively bowel-loosening. I'm fairly sure this some our their pitch-shifting effects are outlawed by the Geneva Convention. But a fan? Seems like the wrong word. Maybe acolyte?

Anyway, singer Karin has a new project called Fever Ray. An album review will follow if I can get hold of a copy; in the meantime, here's the video for the single. That still is so Knife perfect it's almost a cliche. Still, I'm keeping the lights on tonight.

Ever Since Darwin

Here's my latest article for Orange Travel. The brief was to survey some of the stranger species discovered since Darwin's day. I had a slightly more esoteric list, which included the rather marvelous megamouth shark, but unfortunately we were limited to photos we could source from AP.

How many different species of animal and plant are there?

Astonishingly, we’re no nearer an answer today than we were when Charles Darwin attempted to explain the amazing diversity of life 150 years ago.

It’s estimated that there are an amazing 5-8 million species of beetle alone, with new species discovered every day. And it’s not just beetles. Scores of new birds, reptile and even mammals have been discovered in just the last decade. Darwin would have been awestruck...

To celebrate the great scientist’s bicentennial year, we take a tour of the planet and meet just a handful of the weird and wonderful new species discovered and named in the last 100 years.

From a hauntingly beautiful wild cat and a shrew with an odd nose to a dragon with gruesome feeding habits, find out what amazing species live where - and how to see them in the wild.

1. Komodo dragon

What is it? The largest living species of lizard, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodensis) is a huge monitor first discovered by western science in 1910. It grows up to three metres long can weigh as much as 70kg.

Where does it live? These almost prehistoric creatures live on the island of Komodo and some neighbouring islands in Indonesia where they are the largest predator.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): In 2005, a team of researchers discovered that the dragon’s bite was poisonous. As if that wasn’t enough, the dragon’s saliva also contains a bacterium which causes septicaemia; if the prey should survive the initial ambush, the dragon will simply wait for it to die of the resulting infection.

2. Grey-faced sengi

What is it? Discovered by motion-detecting cameras in 2005, the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) is a previously unknown – and unexpectedly large – species of elephant shrew and one of the handful of new mammals that get discovered every year.

Where does it live? This odd-looking creature (its Latin name means “snouted dog”) was found living in a small village community by scientists in the high-altitude Ndundulu forest in Tanzania’s Udzungaw Mountains.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Elephant shrews are very hard to see, being both incredibly wary and highly camouflaged. They build special pathways through the forest which they patrol looking for insects, using that long snout as a sense organ, and down which they dash if threatened.

3. Yeti crab

What is it? The oceans, which cover over seven-tenths of the earth’s surface, continue to reveal bizarre new species. This shaggy crab was discovered by a Californian team diving in the South Pacific Ocean and was quickly dubbed the yeti crab (Kiwi hirsuta) due to its covering of blonde hairs or cetae.

Where does it live? The yeti crab was discovered by submariners some 900 miles south of Easter Island at a depth of more than 7,000 feet.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): The crab, which looks more like a lobster, lives on hydrothermal vents near to the mid-ocean ridge. It is thought that the crab, which feeds on green algae and shrimp, uses its extraordinary covering of hairs to filter out the poisonous minerals being continually belched out of the vents.

4. Golden-mantled tree kangaroo

What is it? First described by scientist Pavel German in 1990, the golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus) is named for the colouration on its shoulders. This adorable creature leaves in the mountain forests of Papua New Guinea - a habitat thatʼs shrinking every year.

Where does it live? In the Torricelli Mountains of Papua New Guinea and the nearby Foja Mountains in Indonesia.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Newly discovered animals are often at risk of becoming extinct before they can be fully described by science. This highly specialised animal lives in the trees in high mountain regions and was previously much more widespread. Itʼs now confined to two small regions, making this perhaps the most endangered of all marsupials.

5. Bornean clouded leopard

What is it? “Scientists Discover New Beetle” is not exactly headline news. But the discovery of a new species of big cat? That’s a big deal. Although long known to local tribes, western science first heard of this cat’s existence from a tantalising description by a French naturalist in the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 2007 that existence of the Bornean clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) was finally confirmed.

Where does it live? It keeps itself to itself in the deep tropical forests in Borneo and Sumatra.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): The Bornean clouded leopard has a local name which means “tree branch tiger”, suggesting that this immensely secretive feline is a skilled climber. It’s also effectively camouflaged in the dark undergrowth of the forest.

6. Nectophrynoides sp.

What is it? This fantastically-coloured toad is the most recently-discovered animal on our list - so new that it hasn’t yet been given a scientific name yet. It belongs to a genus of toads that are found only in Tanzania. It has a distinctive “plink” call that can be heard echoing throughout the valley it calls home.

Where does it live? This particular genus of toad all live in the jungles of the South Nguru region of Tanzania, with this species being further restricted to a single valley.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): All the toads of this genus have one characteristic that distinguishes them from other toads. The females are viviparous, which means they give birth to live young, making them the only toads in the world not to lay eggs – an advantage when there are plenty of egg-eating predators around. This particular species is covered in glands, bumps and assorted protuberances. Why? To date, no-one knows.

7. Swimming batfish

What is it? Discovered in 1958, the swimming batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) is a kind of angler fish that makes its living on the ocean floor, feeding on fish, crustaceans and polychaete worms.

Where does it live? Darwin would have kicked himself – the swimming batfish was discovered in the waters around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific ocean.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Despite its name, the swimming batfish is not a good swimmer. Instead, it uses its spiny pectoral fins to walk on the ocean floor. Like other angler fish, the batfish dangles a lure to catch its prey. But, instead of using bioluminescence like its cousins, the batfish secretes chemicals into the water which many smaller fish find irresistible.

8. Samkos bush frog

What is it? First described by a team of scientists in 2007, the Samkos bush frog (Chiromantis samkosensis) is a new species of moss frog known from only a single specimen. The frog’s appearance is down to its translucent skin, through which it’s possible to see its green blood and turquoise-coloured bones.

Where does it live? In the remote Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Very little is known about this frog. It’s quite possible that it’s already extinct because its habitat is under threat from local road building. Frogs like this one are able to breathe through their skin, which must be kept moist at all times, else they will suffocate.

9. Lepilemur seali

What is it? Even though primates are our closest cousins, new species are still being discovered. Lepilemur seali is a brand new species of lemur, first described in 2005 by veterinarian David Louis and yet to be given a common name.

Where does it live? All lemurs live on the island of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Lemurs belong to an ancient family of primates called the prosimians. They arrived in Madagascar while it was still attached to the African mainland. When the island split around 160 million years ago, the lemurs were left in isolation to develop into hundreds of separate species. It’s thought their name derives from a Latin word meaning “spirits of the night”; if you look into their huge and haunting eyes, it’s easy to see why.

10. Smoky honeyeater

What is it? Proving that new species of bird are being discovered every year, the spectacular wattled smoky honeyeater (Melipotes carolae) was among a number of new species unearthed in 2005 by a team of researchers trekking in Western New Guinea (the Indonesian territory of Irian Jaya).

Where does it live? In the remote forests of the Foja mountain range in Western New Guinea, at altitudes of above 1,000ft.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Honeyeaters are a large family of birds similar to hummingbirds. Both families feed on the nectar of plants, though the honeyeaters are yet to master the art of hovering. Males of this are able to flush its distinctive wattle as a way of attracting the opposite sex.