Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An account of my travels in Greece, Part 1: Athens

In September I went to Greece. I went there without flying, travelling to London by a strange combination of boat, car and train, then using the Eurostar and TGV to reach Milan, the Italian train system to reach Bari, and then a ferry boat to reach Patras in Greece. It was all very exciting. Milan was a nice place to spend a day but, as anyone who has visited there will say, the majesty of the Duomo cathedral always seems a bit oversold when you have the Milano Centrale railway station to compare it to. The latter is an astonishing piece of architecture, I think from the Mussolini era. It certainly establishes the notion that the State is big while you are small.


In Greece I was in Athens and some places on the Peloponnese (you know, the bit that is almost an island but is not). Athens was a bit of a pleasant surprise. Before I went there, people kept saying,"I hear Athens is a smelly polluted kip." But the city seemed to lack a polluted atmosphere or any kind of all pervasive pungent aroma. Instead it was a surprisingly pretty place, with lots of great things from antiquity to see. I crossed off a list of key things here - the Acropolis (with the Parthenon and Erechtheum); the ancient Agora, which is basically a park full of evocative bits of rubble but also a nice little temple to Hephaestus; the Temple of Olympian Zeus, one of those temples that was once enormous but is now just a number of huge pillars; the Theatre of Dionysos (Roman theatre built on the site of the theatre where the plays of Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus would have been first staged); etc.

I visited the Acropolis twice. The first time in the early afternoon was very busy, full of visitors wandering around, photographing each other, admiring the buildings and the view. I was fascinated by how people approached Acropolis photography, as they seemed to be mostly trying to take pictures of the buildings without other people in the background. To me that seemed like both a futile effort but also to be misrepresentation of what the crowded hill was actually like. My own pictures deliberately show the site with all its teeming humanity.

One other photographer I was intrigued by was this guy in a black vest who kept trying and failing to get a woman (most likely wife or equivalent) to photograph him just the way he wanted it. She was not attuned to his artistic vision, so I kept hearing him say things like "That's not the picture I want, I'll show you the picture I want". I found it hard not to think of him as a bit of dick, but there was a twinge of recognition for I was once that soldier. But I am older and wiser now and know that if you want to be in photographs you need to take them yourself.


I had quite a few people, members of couples or other groups, asking me to take photos for them. One nice Australian woman offered to return the favour. I declined, but I was reminded of Rob Newman in the Mary Whitehouse Experience, half yearning to go up to happy couples with my camera to say "Excuse me, would you mind taking a picture of me, on my own?"

My second visit to the Acropolis was in the evening of the night before I flew home. That was quieter in terms of visitor numbers, which lent it a different atmosphere. The sky was clearer and the low sun provided us with lengthened shadows. I took in more of the place's ambience and pondered how a flat hilltop with only two ruined buildings (not counting the cluster at the entrance) can feel so otherworldly. And then a bunch of Greek squaddies marched in to take down the flag on the Acropolis' Second World War memorial.


I also wandered around on the hills near the Acropolis, stumbling onto the Pnyx, the hillside where the citizens of Athens met and decided public business, bequeathing democracy to the world. I also found the cell where it is said that Socrates was held before his execution, though the attribution is somewhat fanciful, and a small shrine to Pan that is mentioned by Herodotus (he reports that it was built after a messenger to Sparta met the God on his journey, with Pan complaining to the runner that the people of Athens were not showing him proper respect; Herodotus' account suggests a certain scepticism). The hilly bit of Athens is a strange and oddly otherworldly place, probably the part of Greece where I most imagined I might stumble onto some fauns or maenads, for all that they lie in the heart of the city.

Click here for Part 2 of my account, in which I visit the Italianate town of Nafplio, the unbelievably ancient site of Mycenae, and the famous theatre at Epidauros.

More pictures:

Athens!

The Acropolis of Athens

Classical Stuff in Athens

All my Greek pictures

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Secrets of the Cat Burglar Cats


Cats are well known for their habit of bringing little gifts for their owners - usually half-eaten mice or mangled birds. But an important report on the BBC News website concerns two cats somewhat more ambitious in their gifting. Theo, a Siamese cross from Ipswich, has previously presented his owners with stolen clothing items, phone chargers and cat toys. This year, however, he has got into the festive spirit by bringing home a variety of Christmas decorations believed to be filched from neighbours' Christmas trees.

The same article reports that Luton cat Denis typically brings home underwear, shoes and similar items, acquired in a less than legal manner. After Christmas, however, he impresses his owners by delivering piles of Christmas wrapping paper to them.

Both cats are apparently not very good at catching birds or small rodents.

Cat experts believe that behaviour like this is typical of felines who were not thought to hunt properly as kittens. When they grow up, they become fixated on cat toys and human objects and retrieve them instead of launching murderous campaigns against other animals.

More (BBC)

Denis Cat Burglar Newman (YouTube channel)

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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Film: "The Wicker Man" (1973)


This was recently back in the cinema, celebrating 40 years since its original release. It is another of those films that everyone in the world has seen by now. Like The Manchurian Candidate, it is one of those films that it is easy to take for granted, but seeing it again brings home what a great piece of work it is. And as this was my first time seeing the film since I got the the soundtrack album, it was nice being able to delight the IFI audience with my joining in with all the songs.

It strikes me, oddly, that one great 20th century artist to whom this film owes a considerable debt is Franz Kafka. Like the protagonists of The Trial or, perhaps even more so, The Castle, Sgt Howie finds himself in a world where everyone else knows what is going on and no one is willing to help him. He is increasingly baffled by the opaque rules that surround him and his attempts to treat things as he would in a normal situation lead him deeper and deeper into the morass.

The version of the film being shown was supposedly based on some more complete print conveniently rediscovered just in time for the 40th anniversary re-release. Pre-publicity said that this would finally allow the film to be shown as originally intended or something. But it looked more or less identical to the long version of the film on the DVD I borrowed from Laser a few years ago. It has Howie in church on the mainland at the start and then he spends the full two nights on the island. Like the DVD release, you can see the film stock change where they switch to the scenes copied from an inferior print. And there were none of the extra episodes I have since read about (which is probably just as well as many of them sound completely superfluous). So does anyone know whether there is actually anything new in the version recently shown in the cinema?



See also:


website discussing various Wicker Man versions and extra scenes etc.

image source

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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Film: "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962) - a short note

Ages ago, in the run-up to the release of Only God Forgives, the IFI were trying to drum up some interest by showing some related films in a season called "Wanna Fight?" ( this being one of Gosling's few lines in the film). One of the films shown in that season was The Manchurian Candidate. I have of course seen this before, but not for some time. My main interest on this occasion was to address a niggling doubt I have had for a while about it - the fear that maybe, just maybe, once you get away from the stunning brainwashing scene the film might actually be a bit plodding and mechanical. The brainwashing scene, with its panning camera and seamless moves from a ladies club meeting in a hotel to a lecture theatre full of Chinese and Russian spooks is one of the great scenes of cinema. But could it be that this is the one flashy moment in an otherwise predictable tale of spies and sinister communist plots? Not having seen the film in a very long time, this disturbing theory was just about credible.

But of course, I was wrong. The rest of the film is great too, driven by an intriguing and multi-layered plot and great performances in complex roles from Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Carter. Even the sinister foreign villains have a bit more pizazz to them than you might expect from an example of the Red Menace / Yellow Peril genre.

I could say more, but what would be the point? Most people have already seen this classic and they do not need me telling them how good it is. And people who have not seen it should have the pleasure of watching it for the first time without preconceptions.



Only God Forgives

image source

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The sensual growl of the male Koala


Scientists have long been astonished by the low growl of the male koala. The marsupial bear emits this strange burping sound to let lady koalas know that he is in the area and ready to see to their sexual needs. What has confused scientists is how such a small animal has been able to make such a low pitched noise. Were their vocal tracts to be structured in the normal manner, koalas would apparently need to be the size of an elephant to make such strange rumbling tones.

But the vocal tracts of koalas are not like those of other animals. Scientists have discovered that, as well as their larynxes, koalas also have an extra set of vocal folds specially designed for male koalas to sing their sensual song.

It is unclear as to exactly what the male koala communicates with his low rumbling moan. Perhaps lady koalas can identify individual males from their calls and decide to stay away from that cad who gave them koala chlamydia last autumn. Or perhaps the quality of the growl is a signifier of the health and reproductive fitness of the male koala. Or perhaps, as the Guardian suggests, the purpose of the male koala’s growl can be understood with reference to certain human sexual behaviours.


more:

Koalas bellow with unique voice organ (BBC) (image source)

Is it a snore? Is it a burp? It’s a male koala trying to attract a mate

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Thursday, November 07, 2013

Film: "Stoker" [2013]

A while ago I saw this English language film directed by that Korean guy who did Old Boy, Lady Vengeance, and Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. His name is Park Chan-wook. It centres on this odd teenage girl, India Stoker (played by Mia Wasikowska) whose father dies just before the start of the film. An only child, she is now alone in a Southern Gothic setting with her unstable mother (played by Nicole Kidman), until the father's brother shows up at the funeral and moves in with them temporarily. Uncle Charlie (played by Matthew Goode (i.e. Ozymandias in the Watchmen film) then proceeds to ingratiate himself with the mother, who seems only too willing to transfer her affections to this man she has never met before (he has been travelling the world as a writer or something). More creepily, Charlie also seems to be developing an interest in India that goes beyond the paternal. An atmosphere of menace develops.

The film boasts an impressive score from that Clint Mansell fellow who does all kewl music scores these days (with Philip Glass making a guest appearance for a piano piece that Charlie and India play together. It probably has good sound too.

I liked this film, but I have reservations about it. As with Old Boy, it centres on a disturbing revelation in the later part of the film. But I found the denouement a bit disappointing. India does turn against Charlie - and yet she seems sufficiently tainted by him to have lost any real moral compass by the film's end. I am not sure either whether the hinted supernatural element (the suggestion that there is something not quite human about India and Charlie, with vampirism implied, not least by their surname) that is advanced and then retreated from is clever misdirection or an annoying tease. But I would not want to let quibbles think that this was a film I did not enjoy. It is a wonderfully atmospheric piece of work, a dark gothic horror film in a domestic setting, in which we are treated to great performances by the film's principals.



Image source

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Monday, November 04, 2013

Film: "Only God Forgives" [2013]

This is another music-heavy film, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. It is set in Bangkok and stars Ryan Gosling, the human corgi. Or rather, he is the best-known actor in it. You could argue that the actual main character is some Thai guy who plays a local detective, but as he is not famous in the West it is Gosling who gets top billing. It also features Kristin Scott Thomas in a stunning performance as the Gosling character's terrifying mother.

The film is driven by murder and revenge but has an abstracted feel that stops the narrative being its main focus. Instead we get a lot of long scenes shot with unusual camera angles while the dark ambient music of Cliff Martinez plays at us. Dream sequences (not featuring dwarfs) merge into or prefigure reality. Cops go to karaoke bars and sing songs. People do not say very much (Gosling utters some 17 lines in the course of the entire film). Acts of horrific violence occur, but often portrayed in a manner that engenders a certain detachment from them.

The Thai cop (played by Vithaya Pansringarm) is the most active character. He is also ambiguous, a man who clearly has a strongly developed sense of justice and honour, but one that is no barrier to his using torture to extract information or to his murdering suspects rather than bringing them before the court system. The Gosling character and his brother are drøg dealers, with the brother committing some misdemeanours that lead to the cop engineering his death. The brother's mother flies in and demands that the Gosling character avenges his brother's death, though he is initially reluctant to do this, explaining to his mother that the brother had it coming.

JULIAN: It's not that simple. He raped and murdered an underage prostitute.

CRYSTAL: Well he must have had his reasons.

In another charming scene the mother explains to Julian's "girlfriend" that Julian was always jealous of his brother because the brother had a bigger cock.

As you can imagine, by the end of the film nearly all the characters are dead. In its horrific violence and obsession with violent retribution it reminded me of one of those great Jacobean tragedies of revenge. The additional element Only God Forgives is the disorienting effect of the cinematography and music. I recommend it highly and have since then derived much enjoyment from the soundtrack album.



Poster image source

Corgi or Ryan Gosling?



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Saturday, November 02, 2013

The Unthanks "Diversions Vol. 2: The Unthanks With Brighouse And Rastrick Brass Band" (2012)

I picked this up at that Unthanks singing weekend I was at in January. The Diversions series present live recordings of the Unthanks playing stuff a bit away from what you might think of as their standard repertoire. One volume saw them playing tunes written by Antony (of Antony And The Johnsons) and Robert Wyatt, an interesting pairing that ended with me saying "More Robert Wyatt!". Another served up the tunes they played at that concert about the shipyards of Newcastle.

This one, as the title suggests, sees the Unthanks team up with a brass band. I think the deal is that the record boasts new brassy arrangements of some old Unthanks favourites together with a few new tunes. The opening track, 'The King of Rome', begins with a stirring brass fanfare, but afterwards the brass is mostly a colouring for the songs rather than being overly fore-grounded (with an exception of a jazzy big band rearrangement of 'Queen of Hearts', a traditional tune that appeared previously on the Unthanks album Last).

I do not like this album as much as maybe I ought. To some extent, I prefer the Unthanks live rather than on record. But I think maybe the promise of the brass band is not fully realised. Or maybe I just wanted a different type of brass band, as the things that spring to my mind when brass is mentioned are the likes of New Orleans marching bands or the University of Southern California Trojans blasting out 'Tusk'. Though of course neither of these may actually have been suited to the Unthanks vocal style. With this record I can generally admire the tunes without actually liking them.

Image source

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Thursday, October 31, 2013

F is for… FIELDS OF THE NEPHILIM

In the pages of Frank's APA we are going through the letters of the alphabet, writing about artists, songs, or albums beginning with each letter. For the letter F I opted not to write about The Fall.

Fields of the Nephilim are one of those Goth bands. I came a bit late to them, initially put off by the idea I had developed that they were some kind of slavish Sisters of Mercy copyists, an idea that came mainly from their singer having a deep voice. Gradually though I came to a sense that they had their own aesthetic. My original exposure to their music came as a two pronged attack - a friend gave me a copy of a tape of loads of Fields of the Nephilim single b-sides and then separately I mysteriously acquired a copy of the band's first album, Dawnrazor. I cannot remember where that came from, but it may have been a gift from one of my glamorous ladyfriends.

I am not sure I would say that the Nephilim were necessarily better than the other Goth bands of the era but they were certainly different. They seemed much more serious about what they did and did not come across like they were playing an elaborate joke (as was the case with Andrew Eldritch of the Sisters of Mercy). Nor were they amiable chumps like Robert Smith or Wayne Hussey, fellows who were just larking about with all this doomy Goth stuff. I am not sure if Fields of the Nephilim did interviews much, but I cannot really imagine Carl McCoy (the band's lead singer) telling interviewers about his favourite football team. The band played doomy music and seemed to be genuinely doomy, or at least they presented an impressive front of such doom. That maybe made them easy fodder for humorists; this is life.

The music and look went together. In appearance they looked like extras from Once Upon A Time In The West, that most gothic of the spaghetti westerns. Their music had a kind of rock Morricone feel to it, particularly with the first album, which opened with the sound of a steam train arriving and then the 'Harmonica Man' tune from that film, played on guitar. After that it is gruff vocals that are either sinister or comical, depending on your tastes, coupled with a rock sound, shimmering guitars and heavy basslines.

There are three Fields of the Nephilim albums. Dawnrazor and The Nephilim feature some wonderfully unnerving tunes, a mix of epic long tunes like 'Dawnrazor' itself or 'Last Exit for the Lost' but also shorter and surprisingly poppy yet still doomy tracks like 'Moonchild', possibly still a dancefloor staple in Goth clubs. The lyrics are of course all to do with returning revenants, damnation, Lovecraftiana, the cursed spawn of unnatural unions between humans and supernatural beings, and so on. The third album, Elizium, is less appealing. By this stage the band were using lusher and programmed production, moving away from the more direct approach with which they started. It is a long time since I listened to it, but my recollection is that Elizium is over-cooked and lacking in good tunes.

After that the band split and my sense was that nothing the individuals did afterwards was as interesting. There was a partial reformation many years later but I have not engaged with it.

So there you are. Fields of the Nephilm are not really a band for everyone, but I have long had a certain fondness for them and have had to endure the taunts of the less tolerant for it.


Other letter

Image source (2005 interview with Carl McCoy; he still does not talk about football)

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Creedence Clearwater Revival "Best of"

I have been thinking for years that I should really engage properly with the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. I have never been that familiar with their music, apart from 'Bad Moon Rising' and 'Proud Mary' (and the latter mostly through covers) but have always liked what I heard and picked up the idea that the band are both good ("great tunes!") and interesting ("the first retro band!"). Plus, when I mentioned CCR on Twitter they were recommended to me on the basis that their frontman sings like a sexually aroused bear.

So I took the plunge and got myself a copy of this compilation, which looked like it was reasonably extensive and not put together by someone the owner of the music rights had not just met down the pub. Because you are all much cooler than I am you probably know all these songs already so I will not bore you with a run through, but I can reveal that my new favourite song in the world is 'Fortunate Son', in which Mr Fogarty of CCR sings about he was not born into privilege and did not get to dodge the draft or avoid his taxes (all in tones so up for it that the song is often mistaken by morons as being all about how the USA is number one). The cover of 'I Heard It Through The Grapevine' (or 'I Hoid It Through The Grapevine' as Mr Fogarty sings it) is great too, though I am a bit annoyed to have the cut down version rather than the one that goes on for ten minutes.

One general thing I am struck by with these songs is how on a first listen they come across as being deceptively basic, but on closer attention the playing and composition are a lot more complex. Maybe this juxtaposition is what makes people like them.

Image source

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

Film: "Muscle Shoals" [2013]

This is a film about music made and recorded in the eponymous Alabama. It was also about the star producer/recording engineer (one Rick Hall) there and about the musicians who started off as his house band before going off to set up their own rival studio (they acquired the name the Swampers). It was a subject I knew next to nothing about before seeing the film. I do not think I was even aware of this Muscle Shoals place or its recording studios, though once I saw the film I realised that I knew loads of music recorded there.

The film tells an interesting enough story, Mr Hall and the Swampers being oddly fascinating in their ordinariness. Or maybe they are all actually crazy guys and the film just made them come across as people with the temperament of shipping clerks. But even if they were not drøg-addled shaggers there was a clear sense of all of these people as being deeply committed to their music. Hall comes across as a rather intense and driven character, the musicians as considerably more easy-going - I can see why they might ultimately have been happier not working with him. All of these guys are white as well, despite the classic Muscle Shoals records having been made by black artists.

There were however some unsatisfying aspects to this documentary. My beloved pointed out one big problem - for all that people in it kept going on about the importance of Muscle Shoals as a place, the film gives very little sense of what that place is like. Is it a little town or village? Or is it a purely rural area with a building here and a building there but no civic centre? Another problem with the film was that it begins with U2's Bongo telling us all about soul music and the Muscle Shoals sound. And then he kept reappearing throughout. I do not know why he was in the film. There were other white talking heads in the film, but they had all recorded in Muscle Shoals. If Bongo had ever been there, he kept pretty quiet about it. And for all his willingness to talk about anything I find it hard to take Bongo seriously as a purveyor of wisdom about soul music and old-school R&B. That said, I have heard him say more annoying things than anything he said in this film; it was more the incongruity of his very presence that jarred with me.

The film is also a bit slick, which ran rather counter to the gritty subject matter. From the first shots of the fields around Muscle Shoals it was obvious that this was a documentary with a big budget, far removed from cheapo music documentaries like Art Will Save The World. Yet I bet its actual budget was probably comparable to films like Beware of Mr Baker or Searching for Sugarman, for all that neither of those managed to end up feeling as polished and almost clinical as this.

But I should not be overcritical. A real strength of the documentary is that it features loads of great music. You know, loads of soul classics and stuff, I love it. Also southern rock, a genre of music I find increasingly fascinating. After seeing this film I found myself wanting to acquire a load of records:

- The Aretha Franklin record she partially recorded in Muscle Shoals before decamping to New York to finish it with the Swampers.
- The Wilson Picket album with his cover version of 'Hey Jude'. The fragment played from this sounded incredible.

[the whole thing sounds great too, particularly after the break - Picket's voice and Duane Allman's guitar playing off each other… Jesus]
- Partially inspired by the previous and without any direct link to Muscle Shoals, that Ace compilation of Black America singing the songs of Lennon and McCartney
- That SoulJazz compilation of Southern Rock. Yeeeharrrr! One fascinating thing (that everyone else probably knows already) that I discovered from the film was that the main Allman Brother started off as a session player in Muscle Shoals, allegedly persuading Wilson Picket to cover 'Hey Jude'. Lynyrd Skynyrd also recorded material there.

Mentioning Lynyrd Skynyrd brings me to an item that the film touched on a bit but did not really engage with that much - race. In this regard it was rather different to a documentary I saw some of at an ATP about Stax. As noted above, Rick Hall and the Swampers were all white, yet he artists they worked with initially were all black. There is a casual mention of them working in the studio as equals and of eating out together, attracting some dirty looks from the good (white) folk of Muscle Shoals (though it is mentioned that the dirtiest looks they got was when they were in diners with long hairs like Allman or Lynyrd Skynyrd). We also have Bongo shiteing on about how the integrated nature of the Muscle Shoals studios somehow brought about an end to racial problems in the USA. BUT - for all the racial bonhomie the film mentions, footage shows Lynyrd Skynyrd playing concerts with a Southern Cross emblem behind them. The film completely fails to engage with whether this is in any way problematic, which I feel is a shame.

Some final random points:

1. Rick Hall's life of woe almost becomes a bit comedic as the film goes along. There is a certain way they would shoot and light things when he was telling a story that was not going to end well that would make this film very parodyable if you were someone with hard heart and cold blood.

2. Keith Richards is a very engaging interviewee. Unlike Bongo he actually did record in Muscle Shoals (and asserts that he would have come back if he hadn't been barred from the States at the time due to drøg busts etc.) and he does give the impression of knowing what he was talking about with respect to black American music. There is a great bit of footage of him in a Muscle Shoals studio with the Rolling Stones back in the day, tapping his toe and mouthing along while Jagger sings 'Wild Horses'.

3. The film went a bit overboard on trippy shots of fields of wheat or corn pulsing as the wind blew through them; I felt at times like I was having a flashback to Ben Wheatley's A Field in England.

4. The young Aretha Franklin really was amazing - astonishingly talented and stunningly good looking, even if further developments suggest that like a lot of people she never really knew what to do with her gifts.

5. The film also introduced me to popular recording artist Alicia Keys, exposure to whom I have thus far somehow escaped. I think she shows up in the film because they realise that they have too many crackers explaining black music to us so maybe it is about time they wheeled in someone from the world of African-Americans. I thought Ms Keys was at least somewhat interesting, suggesting a certain continuity with the glory days of soul music etc.. Irene thought she was rubbish, however, suggesting that yet again I have been led astray by a pretty face and engaging manner.



Muscle Shoals poster image source

Aretha Franklin image source

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Friday, October 25, 2013

Film: "Upstream Color" [2013]

I saw this in London at the ICA. This is the new film from that Shane Carruth guy who made the intriguing Primer some years ago. Part of the appeal of Primer was that it was made for buttons but managed to punch way above its budget in terms of ambition and achievement. Upstream Color clearly has had more money spent on it and features a cast not limited to Carruth and his close personal friends and family members. Like Primer, though, it has a broadly SFnal plot but one where exposition is limited, so that the viewer spends a lot of time a bit confused as to what exactly is going on and as to how exactly the various odd events in the film fit together.

It is a hard film to say what exactly it is about. I mean it is hard for me to tell you what exactly it is about - if I was talking to someone who had seen it we could have a fruitful discussion on the narrative, but talking to someone who has not seen it makes it difficult to talk about without getting into the world of spoilers. So much of the appeal of this film is working out how the succession of scenes slot together, with the result that knowing too much about the film in advance would remove a lot of the enjoyment that comes from seeing it.

All I will really say is that the overall plot is driven by something that would appeal to people of forward thinking musical tastes - a man is stealing people's souls in order to make avant-garde ambient records. For all that this is very much presented as a terrible thing to be doing, any true music aficionado would have to wonder whether this is maybe a price worth paying. It would obviously be a bit rubbish for the people damaged by the extraction of their true selves, but the benefits for the rest of us would be quite considerable. Carruth I think shares this ambivalence, with the man who steals souls (in the credits as The Sampler) portrayed as sympathetically as someone who steals souls can be. As with Primer, Carruth does all the music in Upstream Color (broadly the same kind of low-key unintrusive ambient music that The Sampler is making), and although filmmaking is his game he must have a certain feeling for anyone making that kind of music.

Carruth is one of those total auteur filmmakers who writes, directs, does the music, and acts in his films. Budgetary concerns may be relevant here. In this one he does not play the lead, or even The Sampler, but a man who becomes romantically involved with the actual lead. She is played by Amy Seimetz and is someone whose soul has been stolen, suffering terrible collateral damage in the process. Aspects of their relationship I found rather confusing - were we meant to take it that he had suffered the same procedure? That would explain some things, like their shared tattoo and scenes where they were confused as to which of them had had particular past experiences. But the woman seemed so much more damaged than he was, which made me less convinced that he was like her, for all that the film does through pointers to suggest that.

That for me was part of the film's appeal - it suggests rather than explains, never giving us a "So basically what is going on is X" scene of blah blah blah exposition. I can see other people finding this frustrating and it may be a factor explaining Upstream Color's short run in the cinema.

One final thing I should mention is Amy Seimetz's hair. In the course of the film she manages to have three different hairstyles, all of them lovely.
A friend saw Carruth introduce Primer some years ago, and he spoke about the importance of hair in that film as a signifier of time passing. In this case it is both that and something that shows the Seimetz character in her initial happy state, then in the aftermath of psychic trauma and near total personal disintegration, and then finally as she takes on and overcomes her demons.

And here is the trailer:


Watching that makes me want to see the film again. Like Primer it is the kind of film that cries out for multiple viewings.

And here is the trailer for Primer:


Watching that makes me want to see that film again.

Image source

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A short post on a trip to the Kaleidoscope club

Kaleidoscope is a monthly contemporary classical event which takes place on the night I work late, so I do not get to it much. When I am there I always end up stuck on the duff seats at the back and say to myself "I really will come along early next time".

The last time I was there was back in June, which is ages ago. There were a number of things on that night, details of which you can see on the Kaleidoscope website here.

For me the event had two highlights. One of these was the performance by two visiting New Zealanders, Rob Cunningham and Horomona Hora. They began by doing a version of the Haka, that camp yet threatening dance the NZ rugger buggers do to intimidate their opponents. I was intimidated but also excited at getting to see it done in real life, something I had never expected to happen as wild horses could not get me near a game of rugby. Then they played music that seemed to draw heavily from Maori traditional stuff, with Mr Hora in fetching ethnic garb.

The other great thing was a piece called Strange Country, in which Kimberly Campanello read poetry about Sheelagh-na-Gigs (grotesque carvings of women exposing their lady parts often found on very old Christian churches in Ireland and elsewhere) to uilleann pipe music composed by Benjamin Dwyer and performed by Donnacha Dwyer. I am famous for my dislike of poetry, but something of this really clicked for me. I think it was Campanello's steady tone of voice and the intriguing and allusive nature of her content that made it work so well with the music.

Sheelagh na Gig image source (and Wikipedia article on this subject)

Strange Country image source

Monday, October 21, 2013

Daniel Higgs & Woven Skull

These were playing ages ago in Molloy and Dowling Opticians, one of Dublin's more unusual venues. Woven Skull are kind of an all-star band of the people involved in all that Hunters Moon festival business. They did some enjoyable freakout improv music. I liked it.

Mr Higgs is an older fellow from America or somewhere who used to be in a band and now is not. He played a banjo-like instrument and provided his own vocal accompaniment. The vocals were of a slightly idiot savant manner (with Mr Higgs himself coming across as being a bit eccentric), but the banjo playing was incredible, flitting between simple strumming and incredibly complex sounds of strangeness. The lyrics on their own might have been almost comedic, but they combined with the playing to accentuate the sense of otherness. The experience was a magical one.

Image source

more amazingly insightful reviews coming soon!

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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fragmentary Memories of a Hunters Moon Fundraiser

Back when it was still sunny I went to fundraiser organised for the benefit of the Hunters Moon festival in The Joinery. I took notes that were grossly inadequate and have reached that stage of my life when I can no longer remember things, but I can say a number of things about this event:

(a) I somehow missed Cat Piss Brain Rot, who clearly have the best name of any band ever.

(b) Many of the other performers also had great names, like Feral Barbershop Quartet, School Tour, and Luxury Mollusc.

(c) A highlight was this guy called Boris Belony who just read excerpts from his book of short fiction. He turned out to be a bit weird, albeit in a quirky manner. My beloved bought a copy of his book, and I should have a look at it to see if it is as entertaining as he is.

(d) Sea Dog did not sound as much like an avant garde version of Thin Lizzy as previously, but they do still rock, weirdo style.

And next week we have the final Hunters Moon festival in Carrick on Shannon, at which some of the above artists are performing, and also other people. More details here.

You may have read my review of the 2012 Hunters Moon festival (see here), where I greatly praised the joint performance of Jennifer Walshe and Ludo Mich. Some of that turns out to be on YouTube.


See also:

Boris Belony

School Tour

Luxury Mollusc

Sea Dog

The Joinery

image source

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Aja play in JJ Smyths

Aja play the music of Steely Dan. I have been meaning to go and see them for years. I have for a long time been curious about Steely Dan and reckoned that seeing this band would be a good introduction to their music. Aja have a good reputation on the Dublin scene. The music of Steely Dan is something of a minority interest, so no one is going to become rich covering them - these guys are more doing it for the love.

I went to this concert with my beloved (who has some familiarity with the Dan). I had also arranged to meet a curious Dan fan from work there. But this was not to be - although we arrived within five minutes of the advertised door opening time, the venue was already full and we only just squeezed in. When my workmate showed up, he was refused entry. Apparently popular radio DJ Ronan Collins had mentioned the gig on his show that afternoon and an army of impressionable people had shown up.

Inside I noticed that audience members were mostly older than I was (an increasingly rare event for me). There were two women in front of us who looked like they had escaped from the 1980s - possibly a mother and daughter, though the "daughter" was of such indeterminate age that they may have been contemporaries. There were also at least some trend people present - I did overhear one woman loudly telling people near her that she did not really like Steely Dan but had come along anyway. That's nice, I thought.

The band themselves were also not of a spring chicken character. There was eight of them - drummer, guitarist, bassist, two saxophonists, keyboardist, a bloke on lead vocals and a woman on backing vocals (she also played some mean cowbell when required, in a rather demented manner). I suspected they might be jazzers. The event certainly had a jazz quality to it, with the players taking a break in the middle and people applauding solos. I understand there was always a jazz element to Steely Dan, so all was appropriate.

It was strange listening to a covers band play songs I basically did not know. The highlight for me probably was one of the two songs I had heard before, 'Rikki don't lose that number', sung by the bassist. I have probably never listened closely to this before, but the entreating tone of the singer's voice captured the doomed longing of the song. I probably also would have liked 'Do it again', if they had played it. I was somewhat indifferent to 'Reeling in the Years' - as my beloved pointed out, it is noticeably less complex musically than the other tunes, so small wonder it was a big hit.

Further investigation of the music of Steely Dan may be required. As may be attendance at a concert by Aja that has not been hyped up by Ronan Collins.

IMPORTANT QUESTION: does referring to Steely Dan as "The Dan" mark you out as terminally uncool?

Image source (and information on next Aja concert

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Clever Dog Helps Child

Charlie is a Great Dane. He lives in Co. Clare with the Lynch family. Three-year old Brianna Lynch suffers from a form of epilepsy that means she suffers from frequent seizures, during which she can injure herself. Charlie however is able to tell when Brianna is about to have a seizure. And he has learned this important skill without any training. When he senses that a seizure is imminent, he holds Brianna gently against a wall to prevent her hurting herself and waits for someone to come to her attention.

Charlie does not just look after Brianna when she is having a seizure. He also makes sure that the Lynch's other dogs do not knock her over when they are engaging in boisterous activity.

Brianna's parents are trying to raise money for the purchase of an ambulatory EEG machine in Limerick University Hospital. This which would help identify where in her brain the seizures are occurring.

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Monday, October 14, 2013

Power and Exploitation among the Meerkats

The Meerkat is a popular little animal that lives in desert regions of southern Africa. They famously live in large social groups, taking turns to watch out for predators and looking very cute while they do it. But there is a dark side to meerkat society. Although they live together, their societies are not ones based on friendly cooperation. Rather, the cute little animals live lives that are hierarchically ordered.

Meerkat groups are led by a dominant female. It seems that these boss meerkats reinforce their position by preventing junior females from breeding. The matriarch keeps the juniors down by killing their young or else by expelling them from the group. Expulsion is akin to a death sentence - in the harsh environment the animals live in, a solitary meerkat falls victim easily to predation.

But the dominant meerkat is not content with stopping the other females from breeding. Scientists, including Kirsty Macleod from the University of Cambridge, have discovered that the dominant female extracts a rent from the junior females - they are forced to look after the matriarch's young as a price for acceptance in the group. As well as minding the little pups, lactating females are obliged to serve as wet nurses for the matriarch's offspring.

At present the junior meerkats seem to be taking it from the alpha females. If they have any plans to improve their situation, it is through individual aspiration to replace the boss lady meerkat at the top of the ladder. This atomisation supports the maintenance of the current power structure. There are rumours, however, that some meerkats are beginning to whisper to each other that a truly cooperative reorganisation of their social relations is required. It is even reported that some meerkats are beginning to form a vanguard party that will be able to strike for freedom when the time is right.

The roll of male meerkats in all this class conflict is curiously unmentioned in the one article I have read on the subject.

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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Sleepy Owl Delays Wedding

When Sonia Cadman was marrying Andrew Matley, she decided to introduce a novel feature into the service that would appeal to her fiancé's interest in falconry. She arranged for a barn owl called Darcy to fly down the aisle and deliver the rings to the couple. But when the moment arrived for Darcy to make her surprise appearance, the owl decided that instead of flying to Mr Matley with the rings, she would instead swoop up into the church's roof. The owl then went to sleep and could not even be lured down by the promise of a treat.

The wedding was delayed for nearly an hour until someone fetched a ladder and retrieved the sleepy owl.

Ms Cadman insists the owl's misbehaviour did not spoil the wedding. "We thought it was funny and the guests were in absolute stitches," she commented.

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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

City Birds Fare Better in Cold

Scientists have long been interested in whether animals do better in urban or rural environments. In the case of blue tits, scientists from the Angela Ruskin University have been comparing the progress of bird colonies in the city of Cambridge with ones living out in the Brampton Wood nature reserve. In the past they found that the country birds "fared significantly better" than their urban friends, also breeding more successfully.

In 2012, however, the situation reversed. The cold and wet weather of that year hit the country birds much harder. The city birds bred more successfully, laying more eggs and hatching out chicks much more quickly than their rural counterparts.

The main food source of the blue tit is the caterpillar. In the harsh weather of 2012, there was a reduction in the availability of these tasty grubs. This hit the country birds hard. However, the urban blue tits were more used to looking around for other food sources, so they were better able to find other things to eat.

Scientists speculate that if global warming leads to more extreme weather conditions then this may work further to the advantage of the urban blue tit.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013

Film: "Beware of Mister Baker" [2012]

This is a documentary film about the drummer Ginger Baker. The title comes from a sign by the gate of his compound in South Africa. It begins with a bit of a conversation between the film director and Mr Baker, who is now pretty old and walks with a stick. The conversation turns into a disagreement, whereupon Baker starts laying into the director with his walking stick. That sets up the film's view of Ginger Baker as an ornery character prone to sudden and irrational rages, a man inclined to alienate people who might help him. The film itself then goes on to largely present the other side of the story - Baker as the musical genius, possibly the greatest rock drummer of all time. But the film keeps nodding to Baker's self-destructive side - not just his cantankerous rage, but his problems with drug addiction and unwise business decisions.

The film is very well made, an impressive mix of archive footage and interview material, both with Baker himself (a surprisingly engaging interviewee, for all his grumpiness) and then with various other figures - family members and past musical collaborators (pretty much all of whom have fairly problematic relationships with Baker), with good use of animation for sequences that would otherwise just be a visually unappealing montage of talking heads. But there was a slight problem with the film that had me doubting its veracity and wondering how accurate its portrayal of Baker was. Basically, any time we had the director providing narration or asking Baker questions, I found that he (the director, one Mr Jay Bulger) came across a bit of dick. If I was being asked questions continuously by this guy I would probably have got a bit annoyed over time and I could imagine finally cracking and laying into him, for all that I am not a man known for his violent tendencies (any of those people I have hospitalised in fights will testify that they started it). Still, I feel bad saying that, because for all that I found Bulger's manner irritating, it's not like I know him or anything, and he has made a great film.

The film as a whole follows Baker's career from his early years and rise to prominence as drummer with Cream. After that we get a succession of bands, wives and countries, as things do not work out for Baker somewhere and he has to hightail it somewhere else. Financial travails remain an ongoing theme. At one point during the discussion on Cream it is mentioned that all the Cream song-writing money goes to Jack Bruce and some other guy who wrote the lyrics, with the result that Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker have made relatively little money out of that popular bands' recordings. This is presented as a terrible injustice and a reflection of how unfairly the music industry is biased against drummers and in favour of melody writers (a point reinforced by Stewart Copeland of the Police, who pops in to have an implicit moan about his band's melody writer). But two things struck me. Firstly, a more astute player would have negotiated a deal before Cream was formed that songwriting credits would be split three ways. Secondly, even if Baker had made loads of money on Cream he would probably have blown it all. Later in the film he plays in a Cream reunion concert, pocketing some $5,000,000 for his trouble; this money is all gone a couple of months later.

With many music documentaries, the recurring plot is about the musician who ruined themselves with drøgs. Baker did have his problems in that area (notably a long addiction to heroin), but what seems to really have ruined him was a love of horses. While living in Nigeria (he was mates with Fela Kuti) he somehow developed an interest in polo, joining the local polo club and then starting to buy and breed horses for the sport. This basically was a disaster for him - hanging out with the polo set alienated him from the more radical associates of Fela Kuti, while horse-breeding proved to be a money-pit into which Baker spends the rest of the film throwing away his cash. Don't do horses, kids.

Still, for all Bakers' grumpiness, problematic relationships with family members, business travails and so on, it is really the music that will stick in my mind from this. Before seeing this, I only really knew Baker as the drummer with Cream and as someone who played with Hawkwind for a short period (an episode not mentioned in the film, apparently because Bulger does not like Hawkwind - see, I told you he was a gobshite). The film uses a lot of footage of Baker playing to bring home what a great player he is. So we see him in action with Cream, but also in Nigeria, playing in the States with jazz drummers (in drummer face-offs, clearly the best thing ever if you like two drummer action), with his son (another drummer), and so on. Possibly the most intriguing music in the film for me was that of Ginger Baker's Air Force, a large ensemble he formed after Cream and Blind Faith broke up. Although I do not think he had made contact with Fela Kuti at that point, there seemed to be a real Afro-Beat vibe to this, with its brass and poly-rhythms, and I found myself thinking I would like to hear more of it.

One final oddity. I reckon the only interviewee in the film who unproblematically has good things to say about Ginger Baker is… John Lydon, who talks about him as an inspirational figure and someone who was great to work with. But then the film says nothing whatsoever about their musical collaboration. Further research revealed that he did indeed play drums for a couple of tracks on Album (now available as Download?), though apparently he never actually met Lydon during the recording process.


image source

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

More analogue photography

I took some more pictures with my wonky Holga camera. Some of them are of cats, feral and domesticated.

Eager cats

Furtive cat

Bruiser

Others were of things seen on the streets of Dublin.

Fence doll

Street art

As is traditional with cheap film cameras, I accidentally exposed one frame twice.

Double Exposure!

And I clipped the top of an object I was photographing.

head cut off

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

When Museums Expand

Jewish Museum exterior
The Portobello area in Dublin was once the centre of the city's Jewish community. With the passage of time, that community has moved away from the area, leaving two relics of its presence behind. One is the Bretzel bakery, which continued to obtain kosher accreditation for its products long after it came into non-Jewish ownership. The other is the Irish Jewish Museum, located on Walworth Road, a quiet residential street.
"No to the un-neighbourly over-development"
There are plans afoot to expand the Jewish Museum. They seem to be meeting opposition from some people in Portobello. Walking around the area, one can see posters opposing the expansion stuck to trees and lampposts. They are also visible in the windows of many houses, including houses beside and across from the museum on Walworth Road itself.
Beside the Museum
It is hard to know what to make of all this. On the one hand, the posters do suggest a certain petty-minded nimbyism. Yet they are right to say that Portobello is a quiet neighbourhood, and having lived next door to a building site myself once I know how disrupting a large construction project can be. But there is still something a bit disturbing about the posters. Ireland is a country with planning rules and procedures, so if people have legitimate concerns about the expansion project there are channels through which they can contest the process. The anonymous posters seem a bit creepy. They call to mind the less enlightened past when members of the Jewish community had to endure persecution and hostility from their non-Jewish neighbours. In this conext, I wonder if it is significant that the various posters keep referring to the "Walworth Road Museum", never mentioning its Jewish character.
"No to the un-neighbourly expansion"
For all that, I am myself ambivalent about the expansion of the museum. As it stands, the museum is one of Dublin's little gems and my fear would be that any expansion would remove its appealing character. From one report in the media, it seems that the original synagogue inside the museum is to be demolished and reconstructed, which arguably would affect the site's authenticity. I would also have concerns that the general expansion could sterilise a museum that currently is a direct relic of the community that once lived around it. But I have not studied the expansion plans and so cannot say whether these concerns are justified. In any case, if there is to an Irish Jewish Museum anywhere, expanded or not, Portobello is the place for it.
"Save our neighbourhood"
Links:

Residents appeal against redevelopment of Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin (Irish Times)

Proposed expansion to Irish Jewish Museum (from the Come Here To Me blog about Dublin life and culture)

In Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, Museum Begins Expansion (Irish America)

Irish Jewish Museum website

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Residents to appeal decision

Monday, August 26, 2013

E is for 'Ebeneezer Goode'

This is a track by The Shamen. It was released as a single in September 1992 and also appears on their album Boss Drum. The Shamen were on a bit of an upswing at the time. Partly the world had caught up with their electronic dance music sound, but I think also they had managed to craft their work into something sufficiently polished to attract daytime radio play.

By this point Will Sin, one of the classic Shamen duo, had died in a drowning accent in the Canaries. The reconstituted Shamen comprised Colin Angus (the other one of the duo) on music and one Mr C on rapping, with various other musicians and singers on bits and bobs. I think I saw this line-up, pre-'Ebeneezer Goode' at Glastonbury in 1992, and I did not like it. My recollection is that Mr C was annoying and that their "raved up" music attracted a rather unruly element to hear them play.

But 'Ebeneezer Goode' changed my tune. The track is a euphoric up-tempo dance tune, but what really makes it is the contribution of Mr C. He raps the tale of some shifty promoter from the early days of rave, the eponymous Mr Goode, but to anyone with half a brain this promoter is more than that - he is a human stand in for the popular dance drøg Ecstasy. Mr C raps about how this Mr Goode character is responsible for all the good times on the dance scene, that he is perhaps a bit edgy and must always be respected for all that he is the main geezer and a real crowd pleaser. And the chorus, where even the especially hard of thinking must have started wondering if there was something else going on:

"Eezer Goode! Eezer Goode!
He's Ebeneezer Goode!"

In the ponderous words of Wikipedia, "the first part […] is audibly identical to, "E's are good" – 'E' being common slang for the drug ecstasy". Despite this, the song went to number one, was played on the radio and the Shamen even got to perform it on Top of the Pops (it is said that Mr C told the BBC that his cries of "Underlay! Underlay!" were not a nod to Speedy Gonzales and amphetamine use but rather a "gratuitous rug reference").

I suppose this was the moment when all this crazy dance music started being semi-respectable and impressionable young people started thinking that it might be worth engaging with, and perhaps, just perhaps, this mysterious death drøg Ecstasy might itself be worth giving a go.

Wikipedia

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Friday, August 23, 2013

I went to Cork

Cork is Ireland's second largest city. It has everything Dublin has, and more. I went there and took some pictures.

Found.. is being well looked after
Someone found a dog. It is being well looked after.

I also went up Shandon Hill. This is a mysterious old neighbourhood to the north of the city centre.

Mother Jones
I saw a plaque to Mother Jones, the American labour activist. She was born in Cork.

Fishy Church
Shandon is famous for the church at the top of the hill, over which there is a weathervane in the shape of a fish. I have long suspected that the church serves a congregation of Deep One hybrids.

Flegs
There were loads of flags flying from ropes connected to the church.

Flags
Loads of flags.

Silhouette
I did not photograph anywhere else in Cork.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Film: "A Field in England" (2013)

This is the latest film from that Ben Wheatley guy, who made Kill List, which I have yet to see.

This one is set during the English Civil War (actually during the Second Civil War, history fans, as there is a reference at one point to the Engagers; see dull historical note below), which made it essential viewing for me as that is one of my most beloved periods of history. It focuses on four guys pegging it from a battle (battle not shown for budgetary reasons). Three of them are soldiers and the other is something else - some kind of scholarly servant of someone who has had things taken from him. Quite what he is doing in the battle in the first place is not adequately explained, like much of what happens in the rest of the film.

The four guys tramp across some fields looking for a pub one of them reckons is in the vicinity, but then a series of transitions occurs. One of the four is not what he seems. A fifth character appears, one with his own sinister agenda. There is a wonderfully horrible scene in which he takes the scholar into a tent and does something to him, something that makes him scream while the others stand outside looking horrified. Then the stranger brings out the scholar who seems physically unharmed, yet somehow transformed.


The film is notable for its strange logical leaps and discontinuities. The characters are doing one thing - and then they are doing something else. Some events occur that do not seem to make any sense at all (like the rope they are all pulling on at one point, what was that all about?) And there are a series of odd tableaux in which they seem to be posing like characters in a painting for the camera (of which some feature in the clip above). In these regards it reminds me more of a continental European arthouse film of the 1970s more than anything else being made around now.

What it does have is a great visual look. It is filmed in black and white, which suits the odd and surreal nature of the film (though lurid colour probably would have done the same). The baggy 17th century costumes are wonderfully realised and did have me thinking that it would be great if people started dressing like that again. And there is a fantastic representation of the effects of imbibing magic mushrooms (it is that kind of film).

The sound is also intriguing. There is some old English folk music, sung by the character themselves. The overall soundtrack mixes in folky motifs with orchestral and electronic sounds to create a generally disconcerting aural environment, mirroring the fear and confusion of the characters. The soundtrack is mostly by Benjamin Power, but a pre-existing piece by Blanck Mass called 'Chernobyll' also makes an appearance.

Overall, this is an intriguing if perplexing film. I think it is one best appreciated by people who enjoy the feel and atmosphere of films rather than their simple plots.



Dull Historical Note

The First English Civil War is the famous one in which the armies of the King and Parliament laid into each other at such battles as Edgehill, Marson Moor and Naseby. Parliament allied with the Scots and eventually overwhelmed the King. He surrendered to the Scots and they handed him over to Parliamentary forces.

The Second Civil War was an attempt by the King's party to reverse the results of the first. English Royalists staged a number of uprisings. The imprisoned King also reached a secret alliance (known as the Engagement) with some of the Scots. This Scottish faction, known as the Engagers, sent an army into England. However the Parliamentary armies were able to crush the Engagers and the English Royalists, after which the King was put on trial and executed.

None of this historical information is needed to enjoy the film; I have merely posted it to show how clever I am.

Image source

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Monday, August 19, 2013

The shortest way with unruly children

Burying beetles are one of those insect species where mothers take an interest in the early lives of their offspring, bringing their larva tasty treats to eat. Hungry larvae pester their mothers for food, as is the case with many other species. Scientists have discovered, however, that exasperated burying beetle mothers have a direct punishment for any of their young who beg too much for food - they eat the greedy little bastards.

"It's the only language they understand", commented a burying beetle mother, whose young are careful to only beg for food when they are very very hungry.

Scientists have cautioned against a similar approach being applied to human offspring.

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My Life in Music

In the pages of Frank's APA I somehow found myself reminiscing on music and my early life. Read on to join me in a trip down memory lane.

My recollection is that my parents did not listen to music that much when I was young, though the things they did listen to they listened to a lot. So I remember my dad having a Neil Diamond compilation that he played all the time. My dad had - and has - a fondness for extreme heat, so I associate the Neil Diamond record with sitting in a stifling hot front room on a Saturday evening. My dad also had some tapes of music by Planxty that would get played in the car. I remember being a bit scandalised by some of the risqué lyrics.


My parents had some older vinyl records, which we would listen to on a Dansette that was given to my sister and I when my dad got himself a more advanced sound system. I think these included a couple of musical soundtracks, with a cast recording from a stage production of The Sound of Music particularly sticking in my head.


At some point I started developing my own interest in music and mastered the art of taping songs off the radio. However, I was only able to do this for a while, as before too long the taping facility of my dad's sound system packed in. If those tapes still existed and were playable they might be an interesting record of my own pop tastes back in the early 1980s.

What might be especially fascinating would be the tracks I taped from when one of the pirates counted down through the songs its listeners had voted as their favourites, a concept that was entirely new to me at the time. I was very excited by this and expected that it would reveal the official greatest songs ever. I can still remember some of the songs in the top ten, and they were a pretty sorry bunch of late 1970s softy rock - 'Lying Eyes' by The Eagles, 'Follow You Follow Me' by Genesis, shite like that. But the number one track was 'Stairway to Heaven', and I think this would have been the first time I heard it.


The first record I ever bought with my own money was a cassette of Adam and the Ants' Prince Charming. But more iconic for me is my first vinyl album, a second hand copy of Geoff Love and His Orchestra's Star Wars and Other Space Themes (officially the first record I bought with my own money, though a cassette copy of Prince Charming by Adam And The Ants may actually have that honour). This is an odd record. Geoff Love (and his orchestra) play a number of themes to science fiction films and TV programmes. In several cases, they rearrange the tracks into disco tunes. At the time, this rather annoyed me, but now it is a key part of why this record has remained in my collection. The cover is also amusing; the record company clearly did not have permission to reproduce identifiable material from the various films and programmes, so the cover shows things that look similar to but not too like recognisable space ships and characters.

In secondary school I did not really hang out with the kewl kids who liked kewl music, so I did not pick up anything from them. Most of my friends were largely indifferent to music although one of them was a bit more seriously into it, though his tastes failed to rub off on me. As I grew older I remember getting a number of records as Christmas presents, because I asked for them - the likes of U2's Unforgettable Fire, The Very Best of Christ de Burgh (pre-'Lady in Red'), Kate Bush's The Whole Story, Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms and, on cassette, Talking Heads' Little Creatures. A copy of Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet had also come into my life. I remember also having a strong interest in musicals around this time, largely through being in them at the time and having naïve aspirations towards writing them with a more musically talented schoolmate.

Time passed, I went to college, and I met the people who became more formed influences on my musical taste. For some reason it was only at this point that I registered the existence of the music press. Not too long after leaving college I joined Frank's APA, a collective of people who have remained the biggest shaper of my musical interests.

Neil Diamond His 12 Greatest Hits

The Very Best of Chris de Burgh

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Saturday, August 17, 2013

Neil Young and Crazy Horse - Live at the RDS

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Neil Young & Crazy Horse played a lot of feedback heavy electric tunes. This annoyed members of the audience who were hoping for non-stop acoustic Neil action, but it pleased more forward thinking members of the audience. Towards the end of the concert a man sitting a bit away from me did something funny.

I went to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse playing in the open-air bit of the RDS, one of the few Dublin venues I had not previously been to. I went with some foreboding - the RDS has a reputation for dreadful sound, and I would also have to go on my own, with all the risks of terrifying social alienation that involves. But I resolved to give it a go anyway, partly driven by a listen or two to the likes of Rust Never Sleeps.

I missed the first act on the bill, some local act who would have played to a near empty arena after the gates opened. I did catch some of Los Lobos, who were playing as I arrived and acclimatised myself to sitting up in the stands and reflecting on how far away the stage was. So I found their set slightly alienating.

Initially they seemed to be not that great, serving up what seemed like an unexciting stew of old school rock 'n' roll of a kind you can hear from any rock standards covers outfit. But as their set progressed I liked them more. Maybe I was just overcoming that stadium rock alienation, but their playing some Tex-Mex numbers finally brought forth their unique selling point. They also played a Johnny Thunders cover and finished with a storming version of 'La Bamba', dealing with the one-famous-song problem by basically singing the lyrics to an entirely different tune, in this case 'Like a Rolling Stone'. The latter part of their set also featured a red-haired woman in a red dress and boots dancing below on the pitch, more or less alone. This will be one of the abiding visual memories of the event for me.

After that I got talking to another person attending on his own who was stuck in beside me in Billy No Mates corner (the event had reserved seating). I initially thought he was a bit odd (no sane man goes to a stadium concert alone), but then discovered him to be an interesting enough character, someone who liked music a lot, albeit music very different to what I go for myself. I tend to think of stadium rock attendees as being people who go to one or two gigs a year, but he seemed to go to loads and would travel to catch favourite bands who were not playing Ireland. And he had basically come to see Neil Young & Crazy Horse on spec, not really knowing their music that well but wanting to cross a legend off the list.

The Waterboys were the main draw for my neighbour, being one of his favourite bands, and they were on next. I was not excited about seeing them but I liked them a lot more than I expected to. They had an impressive stage presence and appeared to have successfully integrated traddy elements into a big rock sound, with Steve Wickham's fiddle taking the place of lead guitar in several of the songs. And they also reminded me of how many catchy tunes they have - aside from bunjo anthem 'Whole of the Moon', there were such toe-tapper sing-a-longers as 'Fisherman's Blues', 'A Girl Called Johnny' and 'Don't Bang the Drum'. They also had a few songs that saw Yeats poems set to new bluesy music, which I found surprisingly un-embarrassing.

All in all I was impressed by the Waterboys and found myself (gasp) contemplating the vague possibility of listening to them on record.

And then Neil Young & Crazy Horse. For the benefit of people who live under a stone, Neil Young is a Canadian musician who sings and plays guitar, and Crazy Horse are his sometime collaborators, associated with Young's more hard rockin' musical efforts. When they all came onstage I was so far away that it took some time to work out which of the people onstage was Mr Young (it was the guy in black). And from the word go, it was clear that this would be would be be a no-frills show. I had already seen that there would be no big screens, but there was also no big light show (perhaps because it was still bright when they started). It was just some old guys on stage, rocking hard.

They opened with something from Ragged Glory, from the get-go opting for a rough and distorted sound (helped by the sonic problems for which the RDS is famous). I somewhat think of Ragged Glory as being only alright rather than awesome, but the tracks from it worked well live, being very suitable for a Crazy Horse chugathon.

Over the whole concert they did not play that many individual songs, with each tune being stretched out by soloing and/or false-endings that led into prolonged feedbacky messing. Some people liked this, some people did not. I loved it, obv., and the two mad for it older women in front of me seemed to be enjoying the rocking out, but quite a few attendees felt the lack of the nicey acoustic songs from the likes of Harvest.

Things became seriously hairy with a song the Internet suggests is the currently unrecorded 'Hole in the Sky'. As the song came to what would normally have been its end, the band launched into what became some ten minutes of feedback and tuneless guitar noise. I thought this was the best thing ever, but quite a few members of the audience actively hated it, with some slow hand claps and the like coming from further up the stands behind me. Other people were just a bit bored - you could hear the kind of crowd noise you get when people lose interest and start talking to their mates.

What this all reminded me of was something like the first time My Bloody Valentine did The Holocaust, before it was something expected, when it was still something that would have audiences reacting with confusion and awkwardness. Both then, and with Neil Young & Crazy Horse, there must have been people thinking "Holy Jesus, are they going to keep doing this for the rest of the night?" (to which I would have said, "Bring it on!").

Eventually that stopped and almost as a concession to the hostiles Young switched into solo acoustic mode, doing one of his own nicey songs and then treating us to a cover of 'Blowin' in the Wind'. The nod to Dylan may have been meant to remind more astute attendees of how Bob had once upset his fans by going electric. Either way it settled the more contrary members of the audience. "Now that's proper Neil Young!" commented a previously disgruntled character sitting near me.

This acoustic interlude provided a perfect opportunity for me to avail of the facilities. On returning, I found that Crazy Horse were back onstage and the concert was electric once more. There was no repeat of the extended messy feedback outro from before the break, but it all remained rather ragged. The disgruntled character mentioned above became disgruntled once more and took to booing at the end of every song, though he was drowned out by others' applause.

One great thing was a performance of 'Fucking Up' from Ragged Glory, which featured this big long bridge where it all went surprisingly funky on us (or as funky as a load of old white rockers can be, you dig?). My sense is that the crowd generally loved it, but the grumpy guy was not having it. As the song ended and people were applauding he booed a bit and then called out to like-minded souls, "Am I missing something? It's not just me, is it?" His wife was embarrassed.

After a storming version of 'Hey Hey, My My' the band went off and then came back for an encore. By now, a lot of the lightweights had left, realising that they were not going to be getting 'Heart of Gold' or 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'. Mr Grumpy himself got bored with his booing and made his way to the exits as the opening chords of 'Cortez the Killer' started to waft through the stadium… only to suddenly appear back at his seat after the vocals had started.

"It's my favourite song!" he exclaimed.

And that, pretty much, was that. I had a ball, enjoying both the music and the confrontational nature of the performance.

As a treat for anyone who has made it this far, here is a live recording of 'Hey Hey, My My', apparently made on the Ragged Glory tour in 1991; it features the most rock and roll audience reaction shots ever filmed:


An inuit panda production