Friday, September 24, 2010

Indietracks: Day In Day Out Day In Day Out

I will not go through all the subsequent Indietracks bands in such detail. For many, little need be said. In fact, for many nothing need be said, at least by me. One band who were talking about, however, were Greek art rock sensations The Callas, who we saw on the Saturday. There were three of them, two blokes and a woman. They all wore sunglasses and had an air of snarling uncommunicativeness (possibly driven by their not being Anglophones, but it worked for me). Their drummer was rather impressive, though this might have been just in comparison to the shite programmed drumming of an earlier band whose name I am not at liberty to divulge. And the music of The Callas had a much more full-on rock attack than any of the other bedwetters we had seen earlier that day. This made The Callas something of a new favourite. I also liked when the drummer took over the bass and the lady keyboardist replaced him behind the drum kit, standing photogenically and banging away on her instrument. I was nevertheless left with the feeling that The Callas have room for improvement – they may need a ball breaking manager to crack the whip and say to them: "Keep doing what you're doing – but do it better!"

At some point on Saturday afternoon I became separated from my beloved and, after drinking some unusually strong ales, I found myself in a very appreciative frame of mind. I drifted along to see The Just Joans for no better reason than that Mr Chris Gilmour mentioned them in his film treatment*. I went with low expectations but found their Scottish miserablism rather appealing. There was one song that had a chorus something like:

'If you don't pull
you'll go home on your own
if you go home on your own
you'll wake up on your own'

And so on. Oh wait, is this just a rehash of 'How Soon Is Now?'? Well imagine it being sung by two sadface Scots, one male and one female, and imagine the whole new dimension of misery being brought to it.

Then I went to see The Smittens. I always think of this lot as being the archetypal Indietracks band. For all they play surprisingly low down the bill, they are always one of the bands that the typical Indietracks attendee most wants to see. They are from the United States of America, have lovely teeth, and are rather perky. We took against them last year, but this year I found them more enjoyable. There is a cheery quality to them that makes them genuinely difficult to dislike (though I fear they would not go down too well if opening for Iron Maiden at Castle Donnington). Part of my change in sentiment came from one of their singers mentioning in passing that many of them bat for the other team – suddenly some of their more perplexing features made a lot more sense.

When I re-encountered my beloved again, she was a bit perplexed by my new appreciativeness. We nevertheless squeezed into the Chapel venue to see two acts. Firstly, there was Cineplexxx, some Argentinean guy's one-person band. He was playing today on his own, mostly acoustically, and proved to be a bit of a snappy dresser. The Chapel was a good place for him, as he looked a bit like Jesus, and we enjoyed his folky tunes. That he sang in foreign was also rather appealing.

The following Chapel act was White Town. It said in the programme that White Town had had an actual chart hit (albeit one we could not remember), something of a rarity for the underachieving Indietracks mainstream, so that piqued our interest. The Town turn out to be this one bloke who used to be in the Socialist Workers, and his tunes often nod to that world. He seemed not to have entirely left ultra-leftism behind - at one point he refused to play a song about Alain Delon, because Delon has apparently become a fascist since it was written.

I kind of liked White Town, but I found his lurches between acoustic songs and ones with big, loud, and pre-programmed electropop flourishes a bit awkward. When he finally played his hit ('Your Woman'), it sounded rather familiar, but it might just be that some bit of it has been sampled by a hip-hop act.

I was looking forward to seeing the Swedish indiepop sensations Love Is All, as the one track I heard by them sounded almost like post-punk with its screaming brass and relentless rhythm, but they had cancelled. Their slot was instead taken by Tendertrap, the current band of Amelia Fletcher (the singing economist and Queen of Indiepop). They seemed to have mastered the large indoor venue's hopeless acoustics and were able to bash out a good beat, but after a couple of songs it struck us that, basically, if you have heard one Tendertrap song you have heard them all. I started wondering if this applies retrospectively to the Heavenly tracks I think of as classics – do they only seem to have unique qualities because they are the ones I heard first?

And finally for Saturday, we had The Primitives, the recently reformed indiepop band of the late 1980s. I was really looking forward to seeing them, having loved them back in the day and greatly enjoying them when I saw them in their later years. But they turned out to be a big disappointment. They sounded lumpen and plodding, making me wonder if they had actually never been any good.

The best is yet to come.

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* It is called Glasgow Indie Eye-Spy but could more appropriately be entitled The Life and Opinions of Christopher Gilmour, Gentleman. I gather this project is currently in hiatus.

"The Last Exorcism"

Just a quick note to say – if you like being scared, go and see this film in the cinema. It is very scary and lacks any of that ironic pomo crap that has been bedevilling horror films recently. And it has no vampires or zombies either.

The film's premise is simple enough – a disenchanted Southern US preacher and exorcist is having a documentary made in which he is going to demonstrate what a load of bunkum the whole exorcist business is. What the preacher intends to be his last exorcee turns out to be of a home-schooled teenage girl living on a farm with her religious lunatic father and creepy brother. The father has called in the preacher because the girl is apparently sleep-walking at night and mutilating farm animals, remembering nothing when she wakes. Piece of piss, thinks the preacher. Things turn out to be more complicated.

The whole film is supposedly footage shot for the documentary. The actors all seem to be unknowns, or at least people I do not recognise, giving it a certain cinema verité feel. The film starts out jauntily enough, as the preacher shows how he goes about his everyday work of ripping off people, but the atmosphere becomes oppressive once we get out to the farmhouse. It is easy to see that there is something very bad going on here, but the film keeps you guessing as to whether it is demonic possession or a disturbed and vulnerable girl undergoing psychotic episodes. Either of these would of course be a disturbing explanation for what is happening.

The actors deliver some fine performances. I must particularly salute Patrick Fabian as the preacher, who gives us an engaging mixture of smarminess, exploitativeness, and yet a troubled sense of self and drive to do what is right. Ashley Bell as the girl is also very impressive, equally adept at portraying troubled innocence and the awfulness of apparent possession. The subtle performance of the father is also very striking, but all the others in this small cast do their job very well, managing to come across like they are not acting and so maintaining the illusion that this is really happening.

Watching this film on a weekday afternoon made for a particularly spooky experience. I had the Savoy 2 more or less to myself, and there is nothing like combining the disorientation of emerging from a darkened cinema into the bright afternoon with the aftermath of a film as shocking as this.

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Indietracks: Start Together

The first actual band I saw was Veronica Falls. I liked them from the get-go. Their music seemed a lot more based on fuzz guitar, reverb, distortion and all that, meaning that this felt like proper old school indie music like mama used to make, not that apologetic crap the bedwetters like. The shambolic nature of their set was endearing – they kept starting and stopping playing instruments semi-randomly, with their songs being a ramshackle combination of elements rather than anything polished to perfection. They were also battling some hopeless sound engineering, with the various instruments having their volumes raised and lowered continuously for no obvious reason. And in true Jesus & Mary Chain style, they only played two chaotic tunes before stomping off the stage.

It was only when they came back on and resumed playing that I realised that I had been won over by their sound check. The actual set was also pretty good, pretty much as described above except without the elements that make them or the sound engineers sound like loveable incompetents. That said, one of their songs did have a lurching chord change as atonal as the one in 'My Lovely Horse'. Veronica Falls had a somewhat doomy overall air to their sound, with the wonderful track 'Found Love In A Graveyard' sounding almost Goth. So yeah, a great start to the festival.

The last band on Friday had the wonderfully snappy name Everybody Was In The French Resistance… Now!. They were one of the big draws for me, as their lead vocalist is Eddie Argos of Art Brut, one of the bands who served up a set of total win last year. EWITFR…N proved to be a rather different band, eschewing Art Brut's art rock attack. Instead, they came on to the stirring tones of La Marseillaise, arguably the world's greatest national anthem. There were three of them on stage – Eddie Argos on vocals, some geezer on guitar, and the lovely Dyan Valdés of The Blood Arm* on keyboards and backing vocals, with Ms Valdés fetchingly attired in a short tricolour skirt and a rather racy top.

EWITFR…N began with an eponymous tune giving us a surprisingly accurate account of the French Resistance's development in the Second World War. Then they launched into a series of songs that were all answers to other songs. So, they had a tune called 'Billie's Genes', sung as though from Michael Jackson's lovechild, or 'GIRLFREN (You Know I've Got A)', replying to some song in which Avril Lavigne is trying to steal some other bird's bloke. I also liked their rejoinder to 'Jimmy Mack', which Eddie Argos introduced by suggesting that poor Jimmy Mack might well have been drafted off to serve in Vietnam – the poor guy is sweating it in the jungle and now his bird is telling him that she is going off looking for action elsewhere unless he somehow manages to get home sharpish. Several of the others were ripostes to tunes with which I am unfamiliar (notably the one that had a great line about how no one loves you when you smell of chip fat).

But what did it all sound like? Well, many readers will be familiar with Art Brut. Musically, they are all rock all the time, with Eddie Argos basically speaking his vocals. EWITFR…N are not so rock – for all they have the geezer on guitars, it is more about the keyboards. But Argos' vocal delivery is pretty much the same. In overall execution, my beloved reckoned they were like a reverse engineered Black Box Recorder – arty, conceptual, with an attractive woman playing a key role (here as a musician rather than as lead vocalist).

Before leaving EWITFR…N, let me mention one odd incident. In one of their later songs, possibly a reply to 'My Way' or 'You'll Never Walk Alone', Argos suddenly switched into a Bongo style caterwaul and, yes, launched into the chorus of 'With Or Without You'. And then he started walking through the crowd. What was odd about this was that he was rapidly surrounded by people taking pictures of him. I wish I had had the presence of mind to whip out the camera and take a picture of them photographing him, as it looked really bizarre and illustrated well the over-mediated nature of society today.

Do not worry, EWITFR…N do not normally sound like U2. And they finished with a song specially composed for Indietracks – the wonderful 'Look At Us, We've Got A Side Project'. These were more or less the entire lyrics, so they sang them several times.

It all proved to be rather appealing package. Small wonder that I picked up a copy of their album – of which more anon.

More Indietracks fun coming soon!!!

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*a band with whom I had not hitherto been acquainted.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Indietracks: Deus Lo Volt!

As you will recall, Indietracks is the festival that takes place in the Midlands Railway Centre, which you will find in Butterley in Derbyshire. As well as trains and real ale, the punters also get served up a selection of bands from the indiepop end of the musical spectrum.

It would have to be accepted that the musical palette at Indietracks is a bit more restricted than at most other festivals. The centre of musical gravity here tends very much towards earnest white people playing guitar driven tunes with some vague approximation to pop music. If this is anathema to you then do not go to Indietracks – you are not going to encounter Konono No. 1 or Omar Souleyman chugging away on one of the smaller stages. You would also struggle to find anything that rocks out or that owes anything to the electronic dance music or hip-hop traditions. That is not to say that Indietracks is just a festival for a succession of Field Mice tribute acts, as there are people here who push the musical envelope somewhat, but there are very pronounced limits to how far the envelope can be pushed.

As you might have picked up from the previous, my own relationship with Indietracks is somewhat ambivalent. I cannot in all honesty describe myself as a big indiepop fan. At festivals I would prefer to encounter music that was a bit more innovative and challenging. So, what was I doing at Indietracks? Well, the festival has a couple of things going for it. First of all, it is a small, human-scale affair. I do like the massiveness of something like Glastonbury, but there is a lot to be said for a festival where it takes less than five minutes to move between the stages, where you recognise a significant proportion of the other attendees by the end of the weekend*. Indietracks is also something of a wanker-free zone – you do not really get trend people or beered-up twunts wandering around in jester hats looking for their hole or generally being messy.

The railway setting, meanwhile, adds a frisson of mechanical excitement, and the lashings of real ale that Indietracks serves up also make for a fun event. And in fairness, there is always some actually good music to be had at Indietracks, once you accept that none of Acid Mothers Temple, Omar Souleyman or Scooter will ever be asked to play. And maybe I should stop apologising for the music at the festival – it is like I have adopted the apologetic bedwetter mindset or something. Be indie and be proud, that's what I say.

One thing we did this year that greatly enhanced our enjoyment was that we camped at the nearby Golden Valley campsite outside Alfreton. This meant that we avoided hour-long bus journeys between Nottingham and the festival and did not have to run off to catch the last bus instead of enjoying the later bands and ensuing discos. For someone whose only adult experience of camping is Glastonbury, the campsite was astonishing – it had proper toilets and showers and stuff like that! Plus there were no crazy Scots mentalists blasting out Gabba all through the night in the next tent. Truly amazing.

Come back soon for discussion of some Indietracks musical performances.

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*Some of these became figures of fascination – like Indie Tom Ewing or the Grebo guy here for his second year on the trot. The latter won the prize for least indie person at the festival. I kept wondering what his story was. Maybe he was under the mistaken impression that Turbonegro or a reformed Prolapse were going to be the surprise headliners. The recent contestant on Mastermind whose specialist subject was Belle & Sebastian was another Indietracks face.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Things I have learned about Korea

I have been reading about Korea. Expect an exciting post on my other blog at some stage in the future. My current favourite Korean fact, however, is that c. 40% of Koreans have either Kim, Park, or Lee as their surnames. And as well as North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il, there is also Kim Jong-Pil, a former foreign minister in South Korea, and Kim Yong-Il, a one-time senior official in the North.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Stephen Baxter - "Ark"

I read this for Science Fiction book club. It is the sequel to Flood, the book in which the world is drowned (over the course of several decades) by water erupting out from subterranaean reservoirs. Or it is kind of a sequel – Ark begins before the other book ends, though it goes on for decades afterwards. Each book could be read independently of the other, more or less.

In Flood the narrative followed quite a few characters and jumped around the world. With this one, though, things are a bit more focussed. The main thrust is on these youngsters being trained up to take part in a spaceflight that should hopefully allow enough humans to escape the drowning world to ensure the survival of our species. These people – the candidates – live largely in a bubble of privilege and comfort as the rising sea levels cause the wider world to go to shit. We get occasional glimpses of that wider world through the eyes of people guarding the space programme's facilities from people trying to flee the rising waters. Like with the first book, Baxter seems very adept at painting a grim picture of a world falling apart. Maybe because of the more precise geographical focus (pretty much all of the earthbound stuff takes place in Colorado), the effect is maybe even more disturbing than in Flood - the book communicates a vivid sense of the horror of the endless retreat from the rising waters and the loss of human decency that this brings with it.

The second half of the book follows the spaceship (called, amazingly, Ark) after its launch into space. Because near future humans have handily managed to develop a warp drive, it is able to travel to the stars in less than centuries, but it still ends up taking decades to get anywhere interesting. And of course a relatively small group of people on a cramped spacecraft is a perfect recipe for an unpleasant hothouse of human emotions, with things getting almost a bit Batavia's Graveyard at one point.

I think maybe the earthbound stuff was the best part of the book, but the space travel stuff still cracks along. The dysfunctional internal politics of the space crew is rather fascinating, but it might have been more interesting if the characters were better drawn. Like a lot of SF writers, Baxter seems more comfortable with the sciencey stuff than in convincing characterisation, and it does seem like the deterioration of one character in particular into a monster is a bit two-dimensional.

Purely as a matter of taste, I found the use of a predatory paedophile as a plot device in the first half of the book a bit distasteful – more for somewhat over-graphic description of a nonce-crime episode. It could just be me, but maybe this is one situation where tell is better than show.

As with Flood, I am a bit ambivalent as to whether Ark is *that* good, but there is no denying the effect Baxter's description of the drowning world has been – I have been having intermittent nightmares about floods since I started reading these works. I suppose that counts as a result.

And in case you are wondering what our next SF book club is, then wonder no more – it is Stranger In A Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. I look forward to seeing whether Heinlein is as bad as his reputation suggests. Join us in the ILAC Library on the second Tuesday of October to discuss it.

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you could click here to help victims of flooding in Pakistan

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Classic Book Club: "Tristram Shandy" AND Exciting News For All Readers

Sirs! Those of you who came along to talk about Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy will recall how hard to read we all found it. I managed to get 52 pages out of the way but cannot see myself finishing the book in any realistic timeframe. The book became this chore hanging over me, keeping me from other things – I began to think of all the lovely non-fiction books I could storm through in the time I was taking to read (or to not read) Laurence Sterne's opus.

What I find difficult about Tristram Shandy was its lack of any clear narrative thread. The book* seems to be just an endless series of digressions and rambling asides. I suspect that when you get into the book you learn to love the endless tangential moves, but I was finding that nothing about the book was making me go back to it or keep reading it – it was almost completely lacking in any unfolding plot that would call you back to see what happens next or how the characters develop. So I have given up.

One book this reminds me of, and one that has been compared to Tristram Shandy, is Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds. That's another book I gave up on, as it just seemed to an endless rambling series of narrative meanders rather than anything resembling a true novel. Still, I found what I read of At Swim Two Birds to be more enjoyable, maybe because I could make more direct connection with what he was writing about.

Still rambling digression is not all bad – Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men In A Boat is almost all digression, with only the most shadowy connection to anything resembling a plot. But it is also a work of comic genius. Tristram Shandy feels like it is meant to be funny, but in the first 50 pages I was not feeling the roffles.

So to the next book. First things first – from now on, I am only going to send out notifications of classic book club stuff by e-mail. If you want in, drop me a line. This is the last book I announce here, and the book is… Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. When I first floated Classic Book Club, some people expressed an interest in reading this, but then dropped out of our fold. Maybe putting this on the agenda will bring them back again.

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*or, at least, its first 52 pages seem

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Sunday, September 12, 2010

Indietracks 2010: Executive Summary

I will in due course talk about the Indietracks festival at great length. In the meantime, here are thumbnail comments on the bands I saw. If you are pressed for time, just read this and skip what comes later.

Veronica Falls: Doomy faux Goth, enjoyable.
Allo Darlin': Great name ruined by Bangles cover.
Everybody Was In The French Resistance… Now!: Look at them, they've got a side project; band of the festival.
The Hillfields: did not play 'Master of the Universe'.
Red Shoe Diaries: Weezer influence, run away.
Linda Guilala: Preprogrammed.
[REDACTED]: Whiny, insipid.
The Callas: Greek sunglasses art rock.
Betty And The Werewolves: shared taxi.
The Just Joans: Enjoyable Scottish miserabilism.
The Smittens: How can anyone be this perky without drøgs?
Cineplexxx: Snappy dresser, appealing folk-tinged iberophone sounds.
White Town: No platform for Fascists.
Ballboy: I remain unassimilated.
Tendertrap: Heard one, heard 'em all?
The Primitives: I wish they would stop killing me.
M.J. Hibbett: needs more self-awareness.
The Specific Heats: need to be saved from indiepop.
The Loves: "It's like T-Rex out there".
Internet Forever: Moustaches, Dire Straits Cover
Standard Fare: Anything but as run of the mill as their name suggests; possibly the best guitar band of the festival.
Secret Shine: Reformed Sarah shoegaze sensations.
Shrag: Star quality.
Slow Club: I liked them; they were funny and musically interesting.
The Pooh Sticks: E=MC5.
The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart: The indiepop Manowar.

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Friday, September 03, 2010

RIP Cedric

Cedric the Tasmanian Devil has been euthanised. The fierce little fellow had developed untreatable facial tumours which would ultimately have prevented him from feeding and let to his starvation. The plague of facial tumours is devastating the Tasmanian Devil community, but hopes had originally arisen that Cedric was somehow immune to the disease. This has proved not to be the case.

Tasmanian Devils spread the facial cancers to each other by biting each other while fighting. Scientists have suggested that if they do not moderate their behaviour there is a real likelihood that they will soon be extinct.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Masked Man on Armoured Car

Commando: The Phantom's Revenge, by Norman Adams and Keith Page

You know Commando, the British library title for somewhat unreconstructed war comics. This one suggests that they are maybe running out of ideas for straight war titles, as it sees the Nazis squaring up against a mysterious caped and masked figure who undermines their occupation of Paris – Fantomas joins the resistance. Only the Phantom is actually a disaffected German officer in disguise! Sacre Bleu.

This is not great. The deviation from the more undemanding up-and-at-'em storyline does rather expose the limitations of the Commando writers, while the art does not capture the vaguely expressionist effects (shadows, rooftops, sewers, capes, etc.) that it is aiming for.

Maybe I should leave Commando comics alone. It is not clear to me who they are aimed at now. Everything seems a bit too basic for serious comics readers, but I would not have thought there was still enough of a kids' audience for comics to keep them in business. Any ideas?

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