Thursday, October 31, 2013


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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