Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Unthanks and the Keelers - live in Wicklow

Folk sensations the Unthanks toured Ireland recently. Although they played a concert in the Pepper Canister Church in Dublin, I did not go to that; nor did I go to see them in the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. No readers, I made the long trip all the way to another county and saw them play in the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray, Co. Wicklow. And I did so because this was the only date on their tour where they were going to be supported by the Keelers, the Geordie folkies in whose ranks are found George Unthank and Jim Mageean (who had taught us loads of great sea shanties at the Unthanks singing weekend), as well as two other gentlemen most skilled in the arts of singing. I think we were hoping the Keelers would include 'Chicken on a Raft' in their set and so we would be able to astonish other members of the audience by joining in with the chorus.

As it happened, there was no 'Chicken on a Raft' to be had, but there were a number of other top nautical and landlubber tunes, many of which feature on the new Keelers album. The two of these that most stuck with me are the one about some admiral who commanded the fleet blockading Brest during the Napoleonic Wars, who was well known for always being there to stop the Frenchies busting loose, and a song about Nelson's corpse being brought home pickled in rum after Trafalgar, with the conceit being that the dead admiral was still giving orders to the crew as they brought him to England for the last time. I have no more fondness for Nelson than for anyone who fought well on the wrong side, but there was a poignancy to the tune that sticks with me.

At the interval I sent my beloved to buy a copy of the Keelers album and then hid from the Unthanks in case they had all been practicing Finnish Sailor Wrestling since the weekend and were determined to now administer to me a sound thrashing.

Musically the Unthanks were playing with a somewhat stripped down line-up (though I only know this because they said so - I can no longer remember what a full and unadorned Unthanks line-up looks like). They played a variety of their folkie tunes but what I really found noticeable on some original compositions was a distinct influence of contemporary classical - in particular minimalism. If there is some kind of Unthanks-Reich team-up in the near future I would not be at all surprised. They also played many folk-tastic songs (of which the one whose lyrics are the 19th century testimony of a woman coal miner was particularly poignant) and their endlessly moving cover of Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song'.

For the grand finale they were joined onstage by the Keelers to sing 'Tar Barrel in Dale', George Unthank's song about a bizarre folk custom in some Northumberland locality whereby people bring in the new year by going around with barrels of burning tar on their head; I think this is in a region untouched by modern health and safety legislation. The song has become something of an Unthanks anthem and we knew it well from the singing weekend (and from being made to sing it at previous Unthanks concerts), so we were able to join in. Huzzah!

After the concert I did not wait to say hello because I am shy and because we had to run to catch the last train out of Bray, lest we end up staying overnight in that Wicklow town.

Unthanks singing weekend: part 1 and part 2

Chicken on a Raft

Keelers image source

Unthanks image source

Thursday, May 16, 2013

SPARKS - live!

Oh yeah, I went to see Sparks playing in the Button Factory. Back in… October, was it? And I never got round to writing about it until now, when I have largely forgotten about it. Er, yes, who are these Sparks again? Er, they are the ones who… well there's two of them, isn't there? And they are a brother and a sister or something, only one is white and the other black? And they are from Scotland and they sing songs with strange vocal harmonies while accompanying themselves on vintage synthesisers?

Oh no wait, that is someone else. The actual Sparks you know full well are the two brothers, Ron and Russell Mael. Ron plays keyboards, Russell sings. They were very famous back in the 1970s, in Britain, when they had chart hits and would be on Top of the Pops all the time. Bouffant-haired Russell would jump around like a poor-man's Jagger, while tooth-brush moustached Ron would stand impassive behind the keyboards, leading to frightened conversations in school about that weird guy on TOTP the night before. Then they became less famous but they kept going, to undergo a bit of a revival in the 2000s as their old music became cool again and they released a couple of albums that people realised were actually very good and not just in a Bowie-style return-to-form. Thus it was that they found themselves ending a tour of Europe or somewhere in Dublin.

They were playing in the Button Factory. No support. The magic of Twitter revealed that in London the night before they had come on very early, so I cautioned all my friends to make sure they got down as soon after the doors opened as they could. We then sat around for ages waiting for Sparks to appear at the same time that bands always appear in the Button Factory.

The Maels were playing without other musicians, so their tracks had a fairly stripped down musical palette. Some of the songs that would have had guitar, bass, drums and so on were now re-arranged just for piano sound-alike. Others sounded a bit more full on synthpoppy, but I think these were from some of Sparks' more synthpop-oriented records.

i.e. they did not look like this:

The concert was enjoyable, but the reduced line-up seemed to favour some songs over others. 'The Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us' seemed a bit thin without the drums and guitar kicking in after the break. On the other hand, other tunes seemed to be perfectly acceptable with the smaller line up, particularly the ones I was hearing for the first time. My beloved reckoned I was just not missing elements that were on records I had not heard.

I reckon there were two highlights to this set. First of all, there was the excerpt from Sparks' bizarre opera about a fictional visit to Hollywood by Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film director. Then there was the even more bizarre bit where the Maels swapped places. Russell took over the keyboards (now largely programmed to stop him fucking them up) and Ron came centre stage, not to sing but to dance! He proves to be a surprisingly groovy mover and still looks like a dapper lunatic.

Apparently this was their first time playing in Dublin. I hope that one day they will return.

The Brothers Mael

Black and white band image

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

"Singing In The Rain" (1952)

I saw this classic musical while away with friends and did not really like it - it seemed too much like the studio had taken whatever songs they had lying around and thrown them into their latest film. I have seen this before and, once again, I found myself sympathising with the woman with the funny voice whose career was being destroyed by the talkies. I also have problems with the title song thanks to that horrible film A Clockwork Orange.

Still, the film is a piece of blah blah cinematic history and I would not have enjoyed The Artist as much if it did not have this to play against.

Image source

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New Music Dublin - a live event

Louis Andriessen De Staat (1976)
Arvo Pärt Symphony No. 4 (2008)
A Winged Victory For The Sullen (2011)

In the past there was this thing called the Living Music Festival, at which music by contemporary classical composers would be played. Since the advent of the current economic crisis such fripperies have disappeared and it appeared as though there not be much of anything large-scale going in the contemporary classical world. Sure, the likes of Kaleidoscope would continue to fly the flag for small chamber pieces, but if you wanted to listen to live performances of contemporary orchestral music then you would be best advised to leave the shores of Erin.

So it was a bit of a surprise that this New Music Dublin thing sprung into being this year. It seems to be broadly similar to the Living Music shindig, in that it was a series of concerts on over a weekend. It was a collaboration between the Arts Council, the National Concert Hall, RTE Orchestras and the Contemporary Music Centre. Unlike the latter years of Living Music, it was not focussed on a single composer. In fact, it seemed more focussed on performers, with a number of somewhat famous artists and ensembles appearing.

My own attendance was somewhat limited. I was having some kind of work meltdown and so could not make any of the events on the Friday. On the Saturday I was feeling lethargic and so missed the interesting avant-garde events they had on for free during the afternoon and also a screening of a documentary on popular Irish composer Raymond Deane in the early evening.

But I did eventually rouse myself sufficiently from torpor to make my way down in the evening to catch a double bill of pieces by Louis Andriessen and Arvo Pärt performed by the RTE Concert Orchestra and conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, a Dutch gentleman. The Andriessen piece was called De Staat and featured a lot of brass, but brass playing sustained brash notes rather than the more usual kind of thing one associates with brass in the world of classical music. I like this piece for its unapologetic in-your-face quality. I think it may have had some kind of political meaning to it but I cannot really remember what that was.

Arvo Pärt's Symphony No. 4 also touched on the world of politics, being dedicated to Putin's imprisoned enemy Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of the more shifty people to have ever become an icon for freedom. Pärt is of course well old enough to have remembered the casual disregard for bourgeois freedoms that characterised the old Soviet Union. In dedicating the piece to Khodorkovsky, Pärt is obviously making the point that the new Russia is not so different to the old Soviet Union, at least with respect to the arbitrary power of the state.

But what about the music? Well it was a bit Pärty and featured a lot of delicate little stringy bits. It made for a relaxing follow-up to the Andriessen piece and could have been a perfectly adequate end to an evening.

For me, however, this was not the end. There was another concert on late in the National Concert Hall as part of the festival, a collaboration between some composer and some guy who was in some band, and I decided on spec to buy another ticket to go along to it (first walking the mean streets of Dublin alone as I did not want to sit in the bar of the Concert Hall skulling back drinks on my own).

This event was called A Winged Victory For The Sullen, which was also the name under which the two guys who were directing it were trading. The composer guy is this lad called Dustin O'Halloran, while the guy who was in the band was one Adam Wiltzie. Mr Wiltzie was a sometime member of a band called Sparklehorse, whose main member was this guy called Mark Linkous. Mr Linkous topped himself a while back and the A Winged Victory For The Sullen thing was a tribute to him. I know nothing about this Sparklehorse and have never knowingly heard anything by them, but they seem to have been popular with a lot of people to the extent that the passing of Mr Linkous was a big deal for them. Maybe you know all about Sparklehorse and can advise me on how to proceed with them.

Their actual concert consisted of a small ensemble (piano (played with some difficulty by Mr O'Halloran, who had broken some bones in his arm), guitar, some strings) playing music to an accompaniment of relaxing visuals, of which my favourite was the very slowly moving picture of the moon. It was a bit more like a rock music event than a classical one, not least because the individual pieces were relatively short and people applauded in between them rather than waiting to the end. The music was droney and relaxing, living up to the programme's description of it as the late night record you have always dreamed of. One obvious point of reference for me was Eno's Music for Films. I find myself thinking that maybe the future is concerts is this kind of snoozey relaxing music, as there is nothing I like more than a nice bit of shut-eye.

Mr Wiltzie did comment that Mark Linkous particularly enjoyed a concert he played in Dublin, mentioning that he was very taken with how into the music the crowd in Whelan's had been. He seemed to actually mean it rather than just be doing the usual "You guys in [Town we are playing in tonight], you're the best" crowd-pleasing. But it is always so hard to tell.

I liked this concert enough to buy the accompanying album and have been using it as my own late night special ever since.

Gratuitous Pandas

Winged Victory image source

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

"Les Misérables" (2012)

This is an adaptation of a stage musical that in turn is an adaptation of a French stage musical that was adapted from the famous huge 19th century novel by Victor Hugo. It has the kind of rambling plot these kind of novelistic porkers tend to feature, but the central spine follows this ex-con Jean Valjean who has broken his parole, adopted a new identity, become rich and respectable and acquired an adoptive daughter, but is being intermittently hunted by Javert, a police inspector. It climaxes with a doomed uprising in Paris against the French monarchy, in which Valjean takes part. There is also a bit of a love story angle between Valjean's adoptive daughter and a young fop who is one of the leaders of the ineffectual revolution.

Now, before going to this I was hearing about how emotionally exerting it all was, with people talking about how the film had them all blubbing in their seats by the time it ended. I, however, found it emotionally unengaging. This might partly be because of how fucking freezing the cinema in which I saw the film was, but the film's own characteristics played their part in its not striking a chord with me. For a long film, much of it seemed rushed and perfunctory, with characters appearing, singing a song or two, and then dying. I suppose it was these deaths that were meant to be reducing the audience to tears, but the characters were too unfleshed out or the deaths too random to warrant a strong emotional response.

I think maybe the film's status as a musical is part of the problem here. Les Misérables is a big novel so any adaptation of it has a lot to cover. This is a long film, so that should not be a problem, except that with so much of the time devoted to introspective songs the narrative has to be truncated. This can be the fundamental problem with musicals - the viewer often ends up thinking "shut up with the singing and get on with the story". I understand that in the relatively recent past the creators of musicals came up with the idea of taking parts of the narrative and turning it into songs, instead of having the songs as a break in the story. This is not really an approach used by the creators of this film of Les Misérables.

I also felt that that the songs in this film were not that great, which is a bit of a problem for a musical. That, obviously, is a controversial comment when said of a film adaptation of one of the most successful stage musicals ever, but I found the songs to be mostly flat and unmemorable. There were some exceptions to this, like the 'I dreamed a dream' song or the revolutionary anthem, but most of the rest seemed whiny and inconsequential.

The politics was maybe a bit thin too. The revolutionaries seemed like a bunch of fops with no programme beyond "Liberty!" and the like. At one point it looked like you were meant to think they were naïve idiots, but there was a shift in their tonal representation after they stage their revolt and are crushed. At the end of the film it is even suggested that heaven is one giant barricade full of people singing revolutionary songs - a truly terrifying prospect.



Monday, May 06, 2013

Johann Sebastian Bach "Organ Works" (1986/1708-14)

Bach plays with his organ! Actually no, this is a recording of some guy called Ton Koopman playing a number of Bach's organ pieces, including the famous phantom of the opera music and the music Kenny Everett used to do mime to.

READER'S VOICE: "This is not a review!"

image source

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Holly Herndon: Live in Dublin

Not merely is this a review of a live performance, it is an account of a visit to a pub and the conversations that there occurred, combined with a terrifying discovery about one of my friends.

I went to see Holly Herndon playing in Twisted Pepper, a music venue. It was a Friday night. When I arrived I was struck by how young and boisterous the crowd was. I came into the bar and then joined a queue for the venue area, noticing that the young ladies ahead of me were a bit more mad-for-it than the usual kind of people you see at alternative electronic events. It was only when I reached the front of the queue and presented my printed ticket that I discovered I was at the wrong place - Twisted Pepper was having different events in different bits of the building, and I needed to go down to the basement. The Twisted Pepper basement is a suitably atmospheric place. Part of that atmosphere comes from its strange and largely unpleasant aroma, which may be the lasting residue of some obscene demonic entity summoned in a black magic ritual but is more likely to be the product of a leaking sewage pipe. Trying to find a position that allowed both for viewing the performance while minimising exposure to the foul stench proved to be one of the most exciting parts of my evening. Unlike the bar area and upstairs venue, the basement of Twisted Pepper was a largely woman-free zone… once you ignored the performers.

When I arrived some people were playing music on stage. As one of them was a woman, and, as I had no idea what Holly Herndon looked like or if she would be playing solo or not, I had to ask my friend Mr B whether this was her. But it was not, it was a support act, Catscars. At the time I thought they were a band called Catscars, but it turns out that Catscars is a woman (Ms Catscars), joined tonight by two male assistants. Assistant A banged on some kind of strange electronic drum kit. Assistant B did some vocals but seemed to spend most of his time fiddling with a collection of cables and connector things on a table. Ms Catscars played a stylophone and some more conventional keyboard driven apparatus as well as providing more vocals. The vocals were more of the being-treated-to-make-strange-noises than the singing-with-lyrics type. The music was of the broadly beaty dancey type (as opposed to the abstract undanceable electronic type). It often called to mind early synthpop tunes, but sounded a bit more odd and experimental. One point of reference for me would perhaps be that LA Vampires record I mentioned a while ago, though I think Ms Catscars was more consistently interesting than that was.

Holly Herndon herself was just one person. She did things with a laptop and did vocally stuff into a microphone, with vocals being fairly treated and abstract rather than lyrical. Her set started off being very abstract indeed, making me think I was basically going to be in for a no-fun set of chin-strokey "interesting" music, but it then got very rhythmic. I enjoyed it, but I think I liked it less than some of my fellow attendees, who seemed to find it revelatory.

Unusually, I was standing in a place where I had a good view both of Ms Herndon and the mixing desk. Particularly at the start of the set, she would signal to the soundman to turn up the sound on some piece of apparatus. But he would not see her because he was staring intently at his own apparatus. Ms Herndon would then become annoyed and signal again more vigorously, until some random member of the audience would poke the sound guy and he would look up and realise that he being required to do something. Then it would happen again. I have never worked as a concert soundman and have no real idea as to the requirements of the job, but I did find myself wondering whether the mixing desk really does require so much attention that you have to largely ignore the performer.

Holly Herndon's set was a bit short, seeming to me like it was getting into its stride when it ended. But there is enjoyment to be had in quick things. There was more music being played after the live set finished, but we decided not to stay, largely out of fear of being overcome by the noxious vapours. So we made our way up the road to The Oval, one of those pubs I had walked by but never entered. I had formed the vague idea that it was the kind of place where non-regulars are not particularly welcome, but in fact it seemed like a north-side branch of The Palace, with all the cosy old-school charm that suggests.

Unlike the Palace, however, there was piped music being played. Quite early on, 'Rhiannon' by Fleetwood Mac came over the speakers, followed by a couple of similar tunes that had me wondering if my English friend "Thom" was on a surprise visit to Dublin to DJ for our pleasure. There was also an appealing tune by Credence Clearwater Revival, a fascinating band I have never engaged properly with.

In the pub with me were Mr B---, Mr W2--- and one Mr Iglesias. Mr Iglesias mentioned something he had seen on YouTube - a tribute performance of 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps', with various old duffers like Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne and Steve Winwood showing off their chops. But then, almost half way through, the camera swings over to a little fellow in a red jacket and fedora who starts to solo, reminding us of the astonishing guitar abilities of the one and only Prince, for it was he. Mr Iglesias affirmed that this was astonishing to behold, and having since looked it up for myself I can concur with this assessment.

But this led the discussion on into directions that made me wonder whether we really had Mr W2--- with us - for I began to suspect that we were actually in the company of some kind of replicant? What set off my suspicions were the strangely easy-going opinions he was expressing - "Nine Inch Nails are good, but they are not really the kind of thing I like", he said, in stark contrast to the more Zoroastrian Mr W2--- we know and love, for whom all music is either Good or the Worst Piece Of Shit He Has Ever Heard. Similar comments were made about the likes of Tom Petty. I will continue to make further observations in case this replicant blows his cover completely and starts patting the heads of children and investing in some funky new clothes.


A review of a record by LA Vampires, referenced above.

Catscars image source

Holly Herndon image source

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Four Record Reviews

Jonathan Richman I'm So Confused (1998)
Miles Davis Miles in the Sky (1968)
Murmansk [untitled] (????)
v/a Grass, Food & Lodging (2012)

These are some records my friend Mr W--- was unloading. Or maybe they are CD-Rs. It is so hard to remember. The Miles Davis one is enjoyable enough in a "Jazz - what's not to like?" kind of way, but may not be the greatest album he ever recorded. The Murmansk record I have not listened to for ages but I remember it being an enjoyable slice of down tempo ambient electronica, so much so that I have added it to my sleepy snoozey bedtime iPod playlist. The Jonathan Richman record is probably the winner of the single artist albums, a live sounding collection of lovelorn tunes that I need to listen to more. It comes from a period when I probably was seeing Richman live reasonably often, so I may even have heard these songs live.

Grass, Food & Lodging is a compilation Mr W--- made himself. Well done Mr W---. Readers may be surprised to hear that it has a bit of a drøggy theme. I like it. The two tracks that most stick in my mind are 'It is so nice to get stoned' by Ted Lucas, in which Mr Lucas affirms how nice it is to get stoned, and a wonderfully atmospheric and strung out rendition of 'Sister Morphine' by Eileen Warshaw (though it is a long time since I heard the Marianne Faithful version so maybe if this were put next to that it would not sound quite so good?).

You can hear an excerpt from that version of 'Sister Morphine' here, and possibly even buy a compilation album on which it appears.

Sister Panda