Friday, June 28, 2013

The Plant That Eats Sheep

A giant carnivorous plant has been imported to the UK by naïve scientists. The monster, a Puya chilensis, originally from Chile, is expected to flower in the next few days. The plant has giant spikes on which it snares sheep and other animals, which then starve to death and fertilise the soil in which it stands.

"It's growing in the arid section of our glasshouse with its deadly spines well out of reach of both children and sheep alike," reports horticulturalist Cara Smith of the National Botanic Garden of Wales. Sources from the garden affirmed that there is no danger of the plant seeding its young outside the glasshouse and spreading a giant forest of death across Britain. Reports that other specimens of this deadly plant are already flowering in the open on the Scilly Isles have been dismissed as "nothing to worry about", as are rumours of nocturnal visitors to the National Botanic Garden of Wales and strange sounds of chanting coming from the Puya chilensis' greenhouse.

More



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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Four Short Record Reviews

Josephine Foster Blood Rushing (2012)
Laurel Halo Quarantine (2012)
The Raincoats Odyshape (1981)
Dirty Three Horse Stories (1996)

What do we have hear? Why it is four albums that a friend whose name I cannot reveal gave to my beloved and me as CD-Rs for Christmas. The Laurel Halo record was the Wire's number one album for last year. It features electronic stuff and vocals. I have given it a few listens but I do not really understand what it is about it that some people like so much - to me it seems pretty non-descript and unengaging. The Raincoats album has not captured my imagination either, though I seem to recall that it does not sound like the godawful shite I feared hearing after their uninspiring ATP set. The Dirty Three record has not made too much of an impact on me either - I am sure it is pretty good but I do have a lot of other records to listen to and seem also to have picked up a load of Dirty Three records (er, three) recently, so they all blur into each other. Also, for all that I love the Dirty Three, for me they are primarily a live band.

So that leaves Josephine Foster. As you know, I saw her at Hunters Moon last year… or would know if I had reviewed that awesome festival. She is an American woman who sings in something approximating to a neo-folkie style. Her voice is very expressive but also somewhat mannered. One thing that really strike me about her is that she comes across as like a weird combination of an outsider weirdo artist and an insider artist making very carefully fashioned music. By which I mean that there is a clear craft to what she does, but there is also a slight oddness to it too. That might come from the effect of seeing her live. Anyway, this one is a hit to me and I look forward to spending actual money on Josephine Foster product.

As noted above, I have let the side down by failing to review the 2012 Hunters Moon festival, but they have revealed on Facebook that they are putting on another one this year. You should go.
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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Film: "World War Z" (2013)

This is the film adaptation of Max Brooks' novel from 2006. The book was subtitled "an oral history of the Zombie War", which gives you some idea of its subject and how it is approached. In the book, a researcher interviews people around the world who describe what they did and saw during the recent war between the living and the undead. The book is an endlessly fascinating depiction of many different types of people in strange and terrifying situations that are nevertheless described with an unflinching realism.

The film is not like that. At some early point in its gestation, Brad Pitt came onboard. The problem with attaching a big Hollywood star to a film like this is that it has to start being about the star. The book has no single character that you could imagine turning into a heroic figure played by Brad Pitt. I had assumed that they would bundle a load of characters together to create one super-character for him. Instead they largely threw away the book and made his character the hero of a film in which people race around the world trying to find a solution to the zombie problem before everyone's brains are eaten. Pitt plays Gerry Lane, a former UN investigator.

So, if you had read the book and went to see this film in the hope of seeing something bearing some relation to it, you would be largely disappointed. There are nods to the book - Israel being one of the few countries to respond adequately to early warnings, the sense that something very strange has happened in North Korea (albeit something different to the book), people in North America being encouraged to run north. But the overall thrust of the narrative is completely different, making the end product less rich and satisfying.

But in its own terms, this is not such a bad film. The early scenes showing the zombie outbreak in Philadelphia are pretty terrifying, as are the following scenes in Newark to which Lane's family flee. After that the film largely becomes a succession of action sequences as Lane travels around the world, ostensibly trying to track down the source of the zombie outbreak though in narrative terms this is clearly a device to let us see how some other countries are doing.

In its own terms, this is broadly enjoyable, but there are still problems. The big budget means they have to go for a mainstream audience, which means the gore and horror are somewhat toned down. You never get that classic zombie horror thing of people having to kill their zombified friends and you never see too much of the undead biting away at people. The film also seems to trail off slightly. The last sequence is in a WHO research centre in Wales, where the surviving staff are all respected non-Hollywood actors like Ruth Negga, Peter Capaldi and Moritz Bleibtrau. There are some scary bits here but it all seems a bit low-rent for the climactic episode in a film about a world war.

To end on a positive note, the combination of music and sound design in the film is very atmospheric. There is particular creepy zombie noise they use a lot in the film to great effect, making everything feel edgy like something could eat your face at any moment.

As I exited the cinema auditorium, the film made me look more concernedly at the people waiting in the foyer, as their aimless loitering looked suspiciously like the shambling of the undead. And then I walked out from the Savoy into O'Connell Street, where the living dead walk among us.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Lion and dog are good friends

In an American zoo with a laxer approach to animal welfare than we might be used to here, a lion called Bonedigger has struck up an unlikely friendship with a little dachshund called Milo. Here we see Milo giving Bonedigger a kiss (or trying to get at something in his teeth).

It turns out that Bonedigger is not just friends with Milo but with an entire pack of dachshunds. The mystery of why he sees the little fellows as his friends rather than lunch might just be explained by his own background. Bonedigger had been bottle-fed as a cub, which may have habituated him to people and to the more general idea that non-lions are not necessarily things to be eaten. He also seems also to have been introduced to dachshunds at an early age, so now he sees them as playmates rather than prey.

I would still have to question the wisdom of letting small dogs play with a fully grown lion, but I agree that it does make for great pictures.
More (Guardian, with video of Milo and Bonedigger, image source for Milo and Bonedigger)

Even More (The Blaze, image source for little Milo and dachshund)

Both links feature footage of Milo and Bonedigger.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

C is for "Chill Out"

Chill Out is an album from 1990 by the KLF. The KLF comprised Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty and were best known for their big dance hit singles - 'What Time Is Love?' '3AM Eternal', 'Last Train to Trancentral' and so on, as well as 'Doctorin' the TARDIS' (recorded as the Timelords). Chill Out is not like that. Instead it is a record of ambient music, possibly the first ever example of what became known as ambient house. The album takes the splice and dice approach of sample-tastic house music but instead of putting the results to a dancefloor beat we are given largely beatless enveloping sounds. I think the idea is that you listen to this while engaging in relaxing pursuits or perhaps while falling asleep.

The album is vaguely conceived as a night journey across the western United States, with nods to old-timey Americana (steel guitar features) and appearances by Elvis Presley and random voices, as though they had just popped up on the radio. There are also the sounds of sheep and even some very down tempo performances of KLF hits, together with things of a bucolic and pastoral nature pillaged from sound effects records. It is all very atmospheric and it continues to be a record to which I listen over and over.

Previously:

B is for Baader Meinhof

A is for "After Murder Park", by the Auteurs

image source

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Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ambitious Cat Enters Politics

Cats have taken the Internet by storm - and now one cat is trying to replicate that success in the world of politics. For the Mexican city of Xalapa's next mayor might just be the black and white feline Morris. El Candigato, as Morris is known, is believed by his supporters to be ideally suited to rid the body politic of the various rats who have infested it.

Morris now has some 138,000 likes on Facebook and his campaign reportedly has the established Mexican parties worried. And his campaign is not without controversy - a local journalist has suggested that his campaign is a trick by the dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional, designed to lure voters away from other opposition parties. Morris has not commented on these allegations.

Xalapa is not the only Mexican town where an animal is running for public office. In Ciudad Juarez, a donkey is running for mayor, in Oaxaca a dog, and in Tepic a chicken. None are however proving as popular as El Candigato Morris, though public officials point out that he is not actually eligible for public office on account of not being human.

More:
Cat stands for election in Mexican city (Guardian) (image source)

El Candigato Morris (Fecebook)

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Film review: "Good Vibrations" (2012)

This is a film about a shop - not the popular Dublin sex shop, but a record shop of the same name in Belfast. That said, the film is really about the proprietor of that shop, one Mr Terri Hooley (played by Richard Dormer), who apparently played a big part in the development of the punk scene in Northern Ireland.

The film begins with Terri Hooley as a small child having an arrow shot into his eye by some other small children because his socialist father is seen as some kind of "fenian-lover". This sets you up for what a charming wee town Belfast is. When Hooley grows up he gets into music and DJs in pubs and clubs, only then people in Belfast start shooting each other and blowing up their city so hardly anyone is interested in going out to listen to music anymore. The early scene of him playing to no one in a heavily fortified pub probably does more to bring home the grim reality of Belfast in the early 1970s than anything else in the film - the pub is surrounded by grilles and chicken wire, with the door locked from the inside to deter random nutters with machine guns showing up for a spray job.

In this unappealing environment, though, Hooley meets the woman who becomes his wife, though there is something a bit bizarre about their courtship. Seeing her dancing on her own like a vision of 1970s womanhood (and played by Jodie Whittaker) Hooley says to himself "This calls for the Shangri-Las" and throws on 'Past, Present and Future' before strolling over to her. Now, the Shangri-Las are great and 'Past, Present and Future' (the one that uses the piano line from 'Moonlight Sonata') is a great tune, but is a song about date rape really the kind of thing someone should play when making the move on that special person? Whatever, it works for Mr Hooley and the woman (whose name is Ruth) becomes his wife.

Hooley hits on the great idea of opening up a record shop and lures one of Ruth's male friends into this nothing-can-go-wrong venture. He buys off loyalist and republican paramilitaries with vintage records (one of the more bizarre moments in the film) and then sets up shop in a central Belfast street that had been blown to shit over the previous years. And then one day some snotty kid comes in and asks for something called 'Orgasm Addict', insisting that it is something he heard of on John Peel. Hooley goes to a Belfast punk gig and has an epiphany while watching a performance by the Outcasts (or was it Rudi).

That scene got to me a bit, because I do not think we will see its like again. Or I will never experience it. With our endlessly recycled world, it is hard to imagine anything being so striking that on first exposure it changes the listener's life. I may well hear music again and think "that's pretty good", but I cannot imagine ever feeling that I have heard something the like of which I have never heard before.

After his epiphany, Hooley becomes a punk evangelist, turning the shitey pub in which he met his wife into the city's premier punk venue. He starts promoting gigs and travelling around Northern Ireland with his bands (not always the most sensible thing to do, as anyone who has heard of the Miami Showband massacre will understand), eventually setting up a mini record label to release music by these people.

Now, it is part of the general mythology of Belfast that punk rock basically saved the city, and the film taps into this. By the late 1970s Belfast was shutting down as no one wanted to go out at night for fear of being the latest victim of a sectarian murder squad. In this view of history, the punks turned this around by going out to gigs as musicians and audiences from across the divide. In doing so they revitalised the city and in some tenuous way paved the way for the peace process of the 1990s. I am not entirely sure I buy this - I get the sense that a lot of the punk kids drifted back to the gobshite sectarian politics of their parents after a nihilistic and apolitical punk youth. Even so, the punk scene does seem to have been a vision of another way of living in the city.

The films rolls on. A high for Hooley is when he releases a record by a Derry band that is clearly the best thing anyone from Northern Ireland has ever or will ever record, a piece of music so good that John Peel breaks the habit of a lifetime and plays the track twice, leading to the kind of scene you only really get in films where every character in the film just appears from nowhere to dance outside Hooley's house to the sound of 'Teenage Kicks'. Less great is when the shop fails and Hooley loses it, his house and his wife.

I was uncomfortable with the latter sequence, even if it was based broadly on real events. It seemed to tie into the less savoury bacchanalian aspects of the rock 'n' roll myth. Hooley here is the otherworldly seer who is not going to be tied down by such petty concerns as needing to keep a roof over his wife and child's head as he pursues his vision. I suppose what I mean is that this made me think that he is capable of quite pricky behaviour (but aren't we all?), for all that the film portrays him as a saintly figure.

There you go. The politics generally of the film are somewhat oblique - in keeping with the nihilistic gloss of punk, mainstream politicians are seen as gobshites, socialists like Hooley's father are quixotic, the RUC are kill-joy busy bodies, the Peace People are "fucking hippies", the loyalist paramilitaries are a bunch of thugs, the IRA are "cops in balaclavas", and so on. British squaddies are portrayed in a surprisingly sympathetic light, perhaps because of their fish-out-of-water aspect. Beyond that the film does not really have much of a political message apart from a general sense that the world might be a better place if people did not blow up their city and shoot people they disagree with on political and religious matters.

There does not seem to be a soundtrack album accompanying Good Vibrations. The film nevertheless serves as a great pointer to a fascinating time, one of grim politics mixed with exuberant music and great clothes. The costuming and art design of this film in general are all impeccable and a big part of what makes it so appealing.

Here is the film's official trailer:

(I think it has now left the cinemas, but maybe you will be able to see it on DVD or whatever it is the young people use)

And here is John Peel playing 'Teenage Kicks' twice, to an unembeddable montage of interesting images

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Monday, June 17, 2013

v/a "Before the Fall"

This is a compilation from Ace Records of tracks that have been covered by popular band the Fall. Some of these I had heard before, some I had not. Overall there is a bit of a bias towards '60s punk and broadly that kind of music, which I suppose reflects the kind of tunes that the Fall play themselves. But there some odd side steps, like 'Lost in Music' by Sister Sledge. The Fall covered that on The Infotainment Scan, the first Fall album I ever heard, and their version remains surprisingly disco, for all its Fall arrangements.

With other songs where I was hearing the original for the first time, the difference was sometimes rather striking. On 458489 A-Sides, 'There's A Ghost In My House' has an almost gothic post punk quality. On this compilation, R. Dean Taylor's original is revealed as a Tamla Motown stomper.


An odd track here is 'I'm going to Spain' by Steve Bent, a tune whose cover by the Fall I have never heard. It is a gentle song about some guy who has had enough of rainy England and is heading off to live out his life in Spain. But for all it's 'I'm off to the sun!' qualities, there seems a poignancy to it, as though the singer's heading off to Spain effectively marks the end of a life of failure. He does not actually seem that excited about his impending emigration and it might not be projection to imagine that his moving to Spain is code for suicide.

My beloved tells me that apparently 'I'm going to Spain' has some kind of reputation on some hipster website as the worst song of all time, which seems a bit unfair. I would not describe it as one of my all-time favourites, but there are definitely far worse songs in the world.

FURTHER RESEARCH reveals two astonishing things:

1. I have heard the Fall's version of 'I'm going to Spain', as it is on The Infotainment Scan, but I had forgotten this as I have not listened to that album in years as aside from two great tracks (not this one) it is a bit dull. Listening to the Fall cover again I would have to say that it is inessential.


2. It seems that it was actually Kenny Everett who invented the idea that 'I'm going to Spain' is the worst song in the world, by including it on a compilation called The World's Worst Record in 1978.

One song that is definitely far worse that 'I'm going to Spain' is 'African Man' by Iggy Pop, again a song whose Fall cover I have never heard. This is a song from the shite period of Iggy's solo career (i.e. nearly all of it) and it features Iggy singing basically racist stuff about the kind of primitive and fairly bestial life lived by African men, one of which he proclaims himself to be. The music is rubbish too.

[Oh wait, I have heard the Fall's version of 'African Man', as it is appears on Are You Are Missing Winner, a record I do not listen to that often as it justifiably has a reputation as the worst Fall album ever]

I will not go through all the songs, save to mention that there are many classics here, many of which you may have already heard. I suspect that most of my readers would find this record interesting rather than enjoyable, as you would have to have some interest in the Fall to enjoy it - enough to be curious as to the originals of these songs but without the kind of musical knowledge that means you have heard them all already.

Image source (from Ace Records, with a more useful description of the record's contents)

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Saturday, June 15, 2013

EUROVISION 2013

One great thing about the arrival of broadband into Panda Mansions is that we can now stream big TV events and watch them on our computer screens. Thus it was that we found ourselves able to take part in the viewing of the Eurovision Song Contest, an event for which I have always had great affection.

This year's song contest seemed a bit low on ridiculous onstage gimmicks. There was the usual array of guys treating us to interpretative dance but the most memorable completely ridiculous slices of Eurovision nonsense were the woman from Moldova who seemed to be a human volcano on the brink of eruption and the lady from Belarus who emerged from a giant disco ball (in which she seemed to have mislaid the bottom part of her costume). And there was that rubbish song from Azerbaijan, which had a guy dancing in a perspex box for no obvious reason; this proved inexplicably popular with the voters.

The tunes were the usual kind of up for it Europop, though as always there were a good few songs which reacted against this. An odd tendency in the non-pop tunes was what seemed like a definite Belle & Sebastian influence. Malta's song about Jeremy who worked in IT really could have the kind of thing in days of yore Stuart Murdoch would produce on an off-day, while Hungary's entry suggested that its creators had some exposure to the great band of the 2000s. A more generic kind of lamer indie music was represented by the Lithuanian entry - it started with an impressive PJ Harvey guitar lick and then mutated into a load of emo nonsense.

There was a trend among some songs to nod towards folkiness, usually without actually being folky tunes. The Greek and Danish entries did this (of which more later) while the Spanish entry began appealingly with some nice piping before degenerating into a lamer power ballad.

The songs I considered particularly notable, but not always in a good way, were:

1. The French entry, sung by Amandine Bourgeois, that opened the show. It was somewhat rocky and sultry and somewhat disabused me of the idea that the French fundamentally do not get Eurovision (though I do not think it did that well in the voting)

2. The Belarus song was pretty good, notwithstanding the gimmickiness of the disco ball and the missing bottom half of the singer's outfit, but I cannot really be liking Eurovision entries from dictatorships (speaking of which, where was the Vatican's entry?)

3. The Armenian entry was written by Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath. If you were hoping for a blatant knock off of 'Iron Man' or 'Paranoid' you would have been sorely disappointed - this song was False Metal.

4. The Netherlands entry was a song called 'Birds', sung by a woman called Anouk who appears to have no surname. It seemed to be the most defiantly un-Eurovision song of the night. It did credibly enough in the voting but seemed to have wandered into the contest from another dimension and maybe would have been more at home at an event for lady singer songwriters. Although it was never really in contention as a Eurovision winner, it struck me as the kind of thing that I could imagine appearing on albums that people would buy. Anouk is an established artist in her own country, which does not particularly surprise me.

5. Many people liked the Romanian entry, in which a man dressed as a vampire sang in a very high voice. It did not really do it for me.

6. The Icelandic entry was sung by a guy who looked like THOR but instead of being a monster metal tune about doing battle with Goblins and Giants it was just a load of boring emo shite.


7. The Greek tune (performed by Koza Mostra, with the assistance of one Agathon Iakovidis) was a weird mix of Hellenic folkiness and high-octane ska music performed by a load of guys in kilts. At the time I felt that it deserved to win, as it was perky, upbeat and ridiculously catchy, but the people of Europe disagreed, though it did make the top 5.


8. Norway presented us with Margaret Berger, a blonde Servalan who fronted a surprisingly full-on electronic dance tune with great crunchy synth sounds. I liked it.

And then there was Denmark's entry, sung by Emmelie de Forest. My notes say "drums flutes star quality". It was not my favourite while we were watching but it is hard not to like, with its seamless blend of folky elements (aforesaid flutes and drums, obviously they are chasing the Northern Ireland vote) and more traditional Eurovision electropop stylings. Yet the song was not just an unambiguously up for it dance floor filler, with the title ('Only Teardrops') suggesting the sadness behind the perkiness. Ms de Forest was able to suggest a sadness and vulnerability that hauled in the votes. In the end the song won resoundingly (beating Azerbaijan's perspex box bollocks by a margin of 47 points). In retrospect I have decided that it probably was the best after all.


The Irish entry was a fairly forgettable tune involving some buff topless men drumming while sporting fake Celtic tattoos; it came last, suggesting that the whole thing about Eurovision being a predominantly gay event may be a bit exaggerated. And the British sent us Bonnie Tyler, who delivered a credible power ballad. Neither of these over troubled the voters, leading to the usual hand-wringing about biased political voting.

I should also mention Petra Mede, who presented the event and then performed an amusing song and dance routine in the interval, during which various jokes about Sweden were made. She radiated an effortless star quality and seemed the perfect Eurovision host to such an extent that I cannot but think they should make her the permanent host.

In a fit of Eurovision excitement, I went mad and downloaded five Eurovision songs - the entries from Greece, Norway, Netherlands, France and Denmark. I am not sure why I picked the Netherlands one as I did not like it that much on the night, but it struck me as something that might just be worth listening to again [READER'S VOICE: "That's what YouTube is for, Ian"]. Let us see if I continue to like the others as much as I did on the night.

Belarus entry picture

Click here to see the performances of all the other entrants

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