Friday, February 28, 2014

[record review] Neutral Milk Hotel "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea"

This is one of those famous records that lots of people like but which had somehow passed me by. I have had it vaguely on my radar as a record to pick up sometime, my interest piqued partly by the great All Tomorrow's Parties that Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel curated. The other thing that had me interested in this record was the range of people that talk about how much they like it, running from the likes of Charlotte Church to my friend K—.

I finally bought a copy in certain well known record shop, one of those famous independent record stores. The owner of the shop is an interesting presence on the internet, with insightful things to say about the plight of the little record shop today so I was curious to see how the shop was getting on.

Sadly, the shop was pretty much as it was last time I was there, several years ago. It feels like a shop about to close down at any moment, with hardly any new stock and a lot of unappealing locking old second hand vinyl albums and CDs in disorganised piles. And what new stock there was did not seem to have any obvious order to its organisation. I know from watching other records stores in decline that they run out of stock, as the record companies decline to supply them with anything for fear they will go bust and leave debts unpaid. Yet with this shop, it seems to have hung on in this strange half-life for years.

While I was browsing around, looking for something, anything I might buy in good conscience another punter came in and picked up the new Mogwai album and went to the counter to pay for it, striking up a conversation with the owner about the state of the record store business. Well, he may not so much have struck up a conversation as asked how things were going, which led to a long exposition on the nature of the business today. I am not sure if this was actually to the taste of the punter, though it was not uninteresting, if broadly similar to the kind of things the record store man says online. Basic summary: record stores are fucked. True enough I suppose, but it is a bit of a downer to have to listen through if you are just popping in to buy the latest kewl album and not something you have to go through when you are buying online.

Anyway, at this point I chanced upon the Neutral Milk Hotel and thought that, yes, I would make the plunge and buy this. So I did. Fortunately the owner's attention was still mainly focussed on the other punter so I was able to quickly hand over my money and scarper with my record and change.

So yeah, the record itself. Well I still have not listened to it too closely, but it is definitely likeable. One thing I did know about it was that one of the other band members went on to form the Gypsy-Balkan-etc. band A Hawk And A Hacksaw, but I was surprised by the extent to which this album nods in that direction. It is by no means a Gypsy-Balkan-etc. record but it has these undercurrents that make it unsurprising that the drummer went that way.

I may talk more about this album in due course, if it does indeed prove to be one of the greatest things ever or just something that is quite good or an album that would only appeal to people who were there at the time.

My beloved asserts that the album is too loud.

image source (Wikipedia)

Previously on Inuit Panda: A Hawk and a Hacksaw on record and live

Charlotte Church on In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

[live music] A trip to Cafe Oto

While in London recently I paid an exciting visit to that Cafe Oto venue place up in Dalston. This was exciting because I had never been there before and have long been marvelling at its fascinating line-ups in the pages of The Wire and elsewhere. This was for a night of music from some Glaswegian lot of music promoters called Cry Parrot, recommended by one of my Frank's APA pals. It proved to be a fun evening of eclectic music, helped by the good seats we had near the front thanks to our queuing outside in the bitter cold before they opened up and let us in.

First on the bill were Final Five, a kind of jazz trio, except I thought that maybe they were more improv than jazz. They boasted a guitarist, percussionist and a guy on double bass and they were on the forward thinking free jazz spectrum. They were entertaining enough but I found myself thinking that they lacked a certain sparkle.

Tut Vu Vu from Dave Allen on Vimeo

Act two was an outfit called Tut Vu Vu. Their thing was surfy guitars and warped loungey sounds, basically ending up making the kind of music that would be perfect for a David Lynch soundtrack. Indeed, they sounded not too different to a lot of the music I had heard at The Drowned Man on the previous night. We liked them.

The last act was Ela Orleans. She played on her own, doing funny synthetic stuff and that sampling her own voice to add texture to her vocals. That self-sampling thing can be very dull and formulaic but she was a real master at it. I notice that the Cafe Oto website blurb says that people often compare her to Broadcast, and listening again to a track there I can see where they get that, as there is a similar kind of dreamy retro-futurist quality to her music. We all thought she was great.

One unfortunate feature of the evening, however, was the amount of yappers in the audience. My friend D— had to politely ask some punters to be stop talking during the set of Ms Orleans. Afterwards he said that they appeared to be either people who had been onstage earlier or associates of the Cry Parrot people. This was a bit poor.

Image source (Cafe Oto's own guide to the artists on that night)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

[Live Music] Rocket From The Crypt

I went to see this lot playing in a pretty packed Button Factory. They are this somewhat punkish US band who wear matching shirts and have a brass section. I came away from them thinking "Why don't all bands have brass sections?" But I also thought "Why have a band called 'Rocket from the X' if you are not going to play the likes of 'Ain't It Fun'?" by Rocket From The Tombs. I bet they love people saying this.

It is now a month or two since I saw this concert. While I certainly enjoyed the music, the thing I most remember about it is a story told by frontman Speedo (his real name) that began the last time they played in Dublin. After their show he was wandering around town taking in the sights when someone, deliberately or accidentally, pushed him out onto the road and into the path of traffic. A car (a taxi, I think he said) ploughed into him, leaving him with severe injuries. A random passerby brought him to hospital for treatment. Mr Speedo unfortunately did not have medical insurance and was poor in the way that rock and rollers generally are, but this random passerby picked up the tab for his treatment and put him up during his rather long convalescence, all out of the goodness of his heart. Stories like that make me think that theories of the fundamental badness of people are rather exaggerated.

'Ain't It Fun'

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

[record review] Eleni Karaindrou "Medea"

This is an adaptation and a setting to music by Eleni Karaindrou of the famous play by Euripides. It was apparently performed live in Epidauros and in the Odeon Herodes Atticus in Athens in 2011 and now it is available as an album on the ECM label. I bought it because I am all about the Ancient Greek stuff and because Medea is one of the few Ancient Greek plays I can quote any lines from in Greek (er, actually the only one), mainly thanks to the magic of having studied it in school. As you will recall, the play tells the story of the sorceress from Colchis who had helped Jason and the Argonauts fleece the Golden Fleece. Now, though, Jason is divorcing his weirdo foreign wife in order to marry into the royal family of Thebes, but Medea decides to enact a terrible revenge by murdering their children. The play is odd in how it manages our sympathies; obviously no right thinking person supports the idea of child murder as a way of getting at your ex, but in the play our sympathies lie always with the crazy foreign witch and never with smarmy Jason.

I have not listened to this record very closely (as is true of most records), but I am struck by how undramatic it is. One of the things I most remember from the play itself is smarmy Jason, but he does not seem to get much of a look in here. Euripides has some great scenes in which Jason tells Medea he is divorcing her and running her out of town, and then he expects her to be happy about this because he is doing such a sensible thing by marrying the local princess. But here we seem to just have music with occasional bits of singing rather than the kind of sung dialogue or speechifying you would imagine it this was a play set to music. I am not sure what is happening here. Maybe they have heavily adapted it to make it even more woman-focussed by cutting Jason's direct appearances, or maybe in performance the music here accompanied spoken dialogue not reproduced on the record.

The other odd thing about this is how restrained it all is. Medea is a play about madness and despair, about the chaotic and irrational triumphing over rational self-confidence. But there is none of that in the music. The music is pleasant to listen to, the kind of thing that I would happily put on while reading a book or resting, but there is nothing about it that suggests it accompanies the story of a woman who kills her children.

ECM's site for the record (and image source)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Monday, February 24, 2014

[record review] World of Twist "Quality Street"

So this is a CD reissue of the classic album by the World of Twist. Oh you know World of Twist, they came in at the end of all that Madchester stuff even though they were not really like that, making music that more sounded like a kind of pop version of Hawkwind (by which I mean they had at least some catchy tunes and wooshy synthesisers). They released just this one album, it did not do that well and they split up. The lead singer fell into heroin addiction and died some years later, as I think did at least one other key member of the band.

Listening to it all again I would have to say that, yes, it is certainly rather appealing but I am not sure that if you played this to one of today's young people they would believe any claims that this was some kind of lost classic. I mean, the music is pretty good, but so is a lot of music. The one thing that this really has going for it is the big song: 'Sons of the Stage'. This is it, a combo of big monster riffs, aforementioned wooshy synths and vocalist Tony Ogden going for it like he is the pop star he dreamed of being. This song is such an instant classic that it is hard to believe it not to be a song you have heard before. Sadly it has been tarnished recently be being covered by Beady Eye (the band of that Liam Gallagher character), but as no one I know likes them you will not have heard their version. To hear the World of Twist version is to wonder how this band did not become all conquering.

Quietus review of reissue of this record (and image source)

The Beady Eye version of 'Sons of the Stage' (if you dare)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Owls to the rescue

The long and thin country of Chile is in the grip of a terrifying hantavirus plague. This contagious disease is carried by long-tailed pygmy rice rats, who are themselves immune to its terrible effects. These rodents traditionally live in forests and usually it is only people who go out foraging for bamboo who catch it from them. Recent forest fires, however, have pushed the hantavirus carrying rice rats into urban areas, where they have spread the disease into the human population to an unprecedented extent.

The Chilean forest service is responding to this crisis by trying to swiftly increase the numbers of owls. The flying predators like nothing better than to devour the long-tailed rats, so they could function as a "biological regulator".

There is only one problem to this plan. Many Chileans have a superstitious fear of owls, believing that their hooting near a house means that someone in it is about to die. The Chilean authorities hope to convince people that the owls are in fact a signifier of protection from the plague, but they have their work cut out for them.


An inuit panda production

[record review] Tom Glazer "A Treasury of Civil War Songs"

I am well known for my interest in the American Civil War (also known as the War Between The States, The War Of Northern Aggression, The War Where Johnny Yank Took Away Our Property etc.), so I snapped this up when I saw it in Coda Records in Edinburgh. It is a collection of songs from that era given sensitive sing-a-long renditions on this Smithsonian Folkways record. Glazer accompanies himself on guitar and a small ensemble of others join in with other instruments and backing vocals. While well put together, it has a rough and ready quality that goes well with the songs, which would have been ones sung by soldiers or people in their homes rather than by choirs and orchestras. It even-handedly includes rousing political tunes of both North and South, as well as more apolitical songs about the suffering of soldiers.

The Tom Glazer version does not sound anything like this

My favourites here are probably 'The Battle Cry of Freedom' (obv.) and other rousing northern tunes like 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic', but there are other treasures here. I am reminded again what a great tune 'Dixie' is (one tune that I think suffers from not having a huge brass band accompanying the vocals). 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' is another corker, but the real star of the Southern sky here is 'Maryland, My Maryland'. Like many of the tunes on this record, it sets its words to a pre-existing tune, in this case 'Tannenbaum'. The song is an appeal to the good folk of Maryland to rally to the cause of the Confederacy and I recall reading that the marching bands of the Confederates played it when they launched their ill-fated invasion of that indecisive state.

Some of the Northern songs deal directly with slavery. They suffer a bit from being clearly written by white people who had very limited experience of interaction with African Americans. Their tendency to talk about "darkies" also strikes an odd note. But the song 'The Year of Jubilo' has a certain something, with its freed slaves laughing away as their shitehawk of a master has to peg it away at the approach of the Union army.

A performance of 'The Year of Jubilo' by one Mr Will Fly

The most famous song I had never heard before was probably 'Marching Through Georgia', a somewhat fanciful account of General Sherman's march from Atlanta to the sea with his destructive Union army (a march that either broke the back of the Confederacy or prolonged the war with its needless cruelty, depending on who you talk to). The song makes it all sound like a bit of a romp, the army greeted as they go by Georgians rejoicing as they are freed from the iron jackboot of the Confederacy. But anyone with the slightest knowledge of the war knows that Sherman's army laid waste the country it passed through; apart from runaway slaves, I cannot imagine anyone cheering its arrival. I am curious as to whether the composer and people who sang the song knew or cared about the truth of Sherman's march.

So there you go. This record might not be for everyone but anyone with my strange interest in the civil war of a faraway country will find it fascinating. And even if you are not a big fan of the American Civil War, hearing 'Dixie' and 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' on the one record cannot but put you in mind of Elvis classic 'An American Trilogy'.

Image source (Smithsonian Folkways)


An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

[science] Dogs and their understanding of human voices

Scientists in Hungary have been investigating how the brains of dogs and humans react to different noises. This has involved training dogs to lie still while undergoing MRI scans. The trainers used positive reinforcement strategies ("lots of praise", says Dr Attila Andics of the Hungarian Academy of Science's Eotvos Lorand University).

The scientists then played a variety of noises to their human and dog subjects. These included dog vocalisations, human sounds and various environmental noises. They discovered that when dogs and humans heard the human noises, in both cases there was activation in the same part of the brain (the most anterior part of the temporal lobe). Furthermore, the activity in human and dog brains was remarkably similar when exposed to emotionally charged human sounds (such as the sounds of laughter and crying).

For other sounds, human and dog brains reacted differently. The human brain responded far less strongly to recordings of dog vocalisations. And dog brains seemed far more engaged by environmental sounds, which is not particularly surprising to anyone who has ever seen a dog excited by a barely perceptible sound off in the distance.

These differences in human and dog responses to other noises make the similarities in response to human noises all the more fascinating. Dogs have of course been selectively bred for closeness to people for a long time now, so it is not too surprising that they would have some sensitivity to human voices. But the apparent emotional engagement with human vocal sounds is rather interesting and suggests perhaps that our canine friends really are able to tell when we are happy or sad.

More (BBC article by Rebecca Morelle, from which come the images)

Even more (Article in Current Biology, so you won't be able to read it unless you have a subscription)

An inuit panda production

[film] "Epic of Everest"

Epic of Everest is a reissue of a silent documentary film by Captain John Noel from the 1920s, with a new score by Simon Fisher Turner. It tells the story of the il-fated Mallory Everest expedition. It starts off as an anthropological jaunt through Tibet (inter-titles informing us that this is a country whose people never wash from the day they are born to the day of their death, apart from having butter rubbed into their skin when they are babies) and then becomes more serious when the climbers reach the mountain. At that point the bulky cameras of the time are less able to travel upwards and eventually have to halt their ascent and merely film the climbers from far below.

It is the mountainside sequences where the film really comes into its own. The musical soundtrack is of the unnerving variety, featuring both electronic and acoustic instruments. Its eeriness is added to by the inclusion of the uncanny sound of the whistling Himalayan wind. The inter-titles talk of legendary snow monsters and as storms descend it does seems like a malevolent presence is demanding that the climbers vacate the mountain. At one point some of the climbers were cut off in a higher camp by a sudden storm; on being rescued they reported hearing the terrifying sounds of monsters out in the snow storm. Yet George Mallory, the team leader, takes advantage of a break in the bad weather to set off for the summit with Andrew Irvine, his climbing partner. The film sees them in the far distance through a telescopic lens, a speck on the face of the mountain. And then it sees them no more. It is like the mountain came alive and took them. Mallory's body remained undiscovered until 1999; Irvine's has never been found and to this day no one knows whether they succeeded in reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

The film is a brilliant evocation of the heroic age of mountain climbing, when Everest was not overrun with tour parties and amateur climbers queuing up for their turn on the summit.

image source (BFI: with information on the film, its restoration and the new soundtrack)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Friday, February 21, 2014

[theatre] "Assassins"

I saw this Stephen Sondheim musical a bit before Christmas. It was being performed in a relatively low budget production by the well known Irish theatre company Rough Magic. This lot are no strangers to the musical, having treated us previously to Improbable Frequency, a musical play featuring John Betjeman, Erwin Schrödinger, Flann O'Brien and various fictional characters hanging out together in neutral Ireland during the Second World War. Rough Magic is a company whose name I see as a reliable mark of quality; or did until that Canadian unpleasantness of some years ago, of which I will speak no further.

Assassins is about assassins. In particular it is about people who have assassinated US presidents, or had a crack at one of those leaders of the free world. Partly it presents all of the assassins (successful or not) in a strange surreal otherworld, and then separately we have vignettes of each of their lives, either showing them as they get ready for their crack at Mr President or else some other formative experience. Perhaps in an attempt to shoehorn some kind of overall plot, things climax in with all the assassins joining Lee Harvey Oswald in the Book Depository, urging him to shoot Kennedy rather than kill himself.

There is quite a range of thematic mood in what is on offer here. Some of the stories are rather poignant (that of Leon Czolgosz, say, the lone wolf anarchist who murdered President McKinley). Others are dealt with more humorously (e.g. the tale of Samuel Byck, who tried to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane and flying it into the White House).

Assassins presents its subjects mostly as dysfunctional individuals who tried to kill the President as a way of validating their pathetic existences or for other similarly inconsequential reasons. That works for some of them more than others. My sense is that Czolgosz was not the loser motivated by a sad infatuation with Emma Goldman, as shown here, but someone genuinely motivated by a desire to effect social change by striking at the top man of capitalist society, as was a common enough idea in anarchism of the time. Likewise with John Wilkes Booth, murderer of Abraham Lincoln, presented here as another saddo. I am in no way sympathetic with his pro-slavery and white supremacist views, but it seems to me that Booth was a committed ideological assassin and not the delusional fantasist he is presented here as.

On the other hand, John Hinckley Jr. (the guy who shot Reagan because he was obsessed with Jodie Foster) and Samuel Byck are probably presented accurately as fucked up saddos. Because saddos are funny, Assassins gets a lot of mileage out of these two, with some of the stuff with Byck being quite hilarious on a number of levels. Byck seems to have been one of those crazies (as they like to be called) who recorded tapes outlining his view of the world to send to famous people. One of the people he recorded tapes for was Leonard Bernstein, the conductor and composer, Sondheim's previous collaborator on West Side Story. I have no idea how well or badly Sondheim and Bernstein got on together, but there is something funny about a Sondheim musical in which a character rants and raves at Bernstein. Jack Olohan's performance as Byck was an impressive one.

Byck's actual attempt to kill Nixon resulted in his own death and that of an airport policeman and pilot; he shot another pilot but that man survived. The plane he tried to hijack never left the ground.

Possibly because it gets to have dialogue between two assassins (who in real life I think never met each other), the scenes with Sara Jane Moore and Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme are perhaps the best in the play. Fromme and Moore separately tried to kill Gerald Ford a few weeks apart in 1975. Moore was an eccentric far leftist while Fromme was a member of the Manson Family who had until then somehow escaped conviction for serious crime. Assassins presents them both as oddballs, but Fromme comes across as the more driven and less delusional one of the two, with Moore presented as more of a flake, someone who had slipped into the whole assassination business almost by accident and certainly without thinking things through properly. The performances of Clare Barrett as Moore and Erica Murray as Fromme are probably the most striking in Assassins, though that might be because they have the most meaty roles.

I will stop there lest I bore you with an outline of everyone who ever tried to kill a president and how Assassins deals with them (but you should definitely investigate the strange career of Charles Guiteau). One thing I will draw to your attention as I finish writing about the show is the music. Careful readers will by now notice that I have said nothing about it. And in truth, that is because it has not lingered in my memory. I did enjoy it while I heard it but I would not know be able to hum a single tune sung in the show. This may be why Assassins has proved so much less successful than such other Sondheim musicals as Sweeney Todd or A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

image source (Flickr set of shots of the play)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

[theatre] "The Threepenny Opera"

People who fancy themselves as advanced lovers of music scoff at musicals, yet recently I found myself attending two of them. This was the first, the adaptation by Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht of the 18th century Beggar's Opera by John Gay. It is pretty famous and you have probably heard at least one of the songs from it before, that song being 'Mack the Knife' (the more alliterative 'Mackie Messer' in German). You may also have heard the Pirate Jenny song or read the somewhat unpleasant League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic that dramatises it. This production of the Threepenny Opera was in Dublin's Gate Theatre, a place that has a reputation for being commercially driven and keen to service the desires of its well-heeled clientele. As with all productions there, the show begins with the Gate's front of house manager making a short announcement about how people must srsly turn their mobile phones off before explaining various ways in which he is there to help with their post-performance needs. I was struck yet again by what an amazing man this guy is. He has such an air of poise and assurance that I could imagine people going up to him after the show and asking for help with the most existential of crises and yet finding him able to offer calm words of sensible advice. I really think it is time someone wrote a play about him. Or that the Gate just charged people money to hear him dispense words of wisdom and calm assurance.

The Threepenny Opera is notionally set in London at some point in the past, but this production seemed to have adopted an approach of deliberate abstraction. The actors avoided any attempts at adopting London accents and the clothes they wore did not suggest any time or place in particular, apart from seeming generally old fashioned. The various low-life characters mostly talked with something approximating to Dublin working class accents, but this was not so overdone that I felt like I was being treated to a performance of the Skanger's Opera. I liked this approach. Brecht and Weill's setting was always a bit stylised, and with the passing of time the danger of going for more specific period detail is that you end up with something that is a retro nostalgia fest. The lack of a specific setting here makes it more abstract and mythic, a tale for all ages.

I feel like everyone in the world has seen a production of the Threepenny's Opera but I will recap the plot quickly. It begins with the 'Mack the Knife' song, sung by the suave narrator (played by David Shannon) about that terrifying man, and then the story proper begins, with notorious criminal Macheath (Mack the Knife of the song) having married a pretty young bride while said bride's creepy parents try to have him thrown in jail so they can get their daughter back (having her around was good for business).

There is an odd piece of cognitive dissonance here. In the song, Macheath is presented as a maniac, a force of malevolent destruction with whom it is impossible to sympathise, someone that any sensible person would want to see carted off to jail at the earliest possible opportunity. But in the drama itself Macheath is a far more sympathetic character. He is still a thoroughly disreputable character, a treacherous thug who will sell out his nearest and dearest, a sinister exploiter of women. And yet, and yet… the play largely tells the story from his point of view, so it is hard not to slip into seeing him as the protagonist and to sympathise with his struggles against incompetent subordinates or equally treacherous old friends. I am guessing that this ambiguity is there in the original, but I am sure that here it is greatly assisted by the direction of Wayne Jordan and David Ganly's strangely sensitive performance are important here.

I was also struck by how Macheath's innocent young wife Polly (played adroitly by Charlotte McCurry) manages to take over his criminal empire while retaining this sense of being an ingenue in a big nasty world. And Hilda Fay as Pirate Jenny brings a great air of ancient sadness to the role of a jaded and beaten down brothel keeper, someone who has suffered terrible abuse at the hands of Macheath and yet is still bound to him. And again there is that strange ambiguity to her character and that of Macheath. Just as 'Mac the Knife' paints him as a maniac and yet we see him as something a bit more sensitive and appealing, so Jenny's song details the abuse he has inflicted on her but their interaction displayed onstage is relatively tender (though not without its ambiguities and betrayals).

I understand Jenny to be one of the great theatrical roles for any older woman actor (i.e. anyone past her early 20s) and Ms Fay really seizes it. Like some other people I found her performance revelatory. From what I hear she is not someone who hitherto has found roles to match her obvious talents and I hope she is able to use this success to her advantage.

I am in danger of just listing everyone who was in the play and talking about how great they were so in the interests of brevity I will just make clear that this was a piece with a great ensemble cast. I am glad to have finally seen the Threepenny Opera and to have found that it lives up to its reputation.

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

[film] "The Missing Picture"

This film has stuck in my mind. It is about this Cambodian geezer Rithy Panh looking back over his childhood during the years of rule by the Khmer Rouge, those crazy fun-loving communists who embarked on one of history's most bizarre reigns of terror. Mr Panh (or Mr Rithy as it might be) was one of the people who was forced out of Cambodia's cities when the Khmer Rouge took over. He was then sent to a rural area where he and his family lived in slave-like conditions as starvation gripped them.

The presentation of the story is highly unusual. Panh does not dramatise his childhood with actors or present the narrative as a conventional documentary, with the camera panning over the gulag he called home or the fields in which he toiled while a variety of talking heads tell us all about the wacky Khmer Rouge. Instead everything is presented through unmoving clay figures and model dioramas of the situations under discussion. The camera moves across these model scenes and landscapes but the figures in them are static. Combined with the deadpan narration, the effect is deliberately distancing, lacking the pornography of horror we often get to enjoy with narratives of awful experience. The only moving images are taken from footage made by the Khmer Rouge themselves. These fall into two categories: newsreels of the Khmer Rouge leadership and clips from propaganda films made by the regime. Excerpts from a Khmer Rouge film depicting the struggle against the US occupiers suggest that their film industry was run by people who would have dismissed Fatal Deviation as too slick and polished.

For me the one moment where the mask of detachment slipped was when they played the song 'Jam 10 Kai Theit' by Ros Sereysothea (later recorded as 'New Year's Eve' by Dengue Fever). Ros Sereysothea was a popular singer in Cambodia; like most of her kind she was exterminated by the Khmer Rouge. As I have often said, there is something terribly sad about the uplifting sounds of pre-KR pop music from Cambodia and the terrible fate its practitioners met when the communists seized power. Perhaps because the emotion in Ros Sereysothea's voice contrasted so much with the detachment of the narration, her song triggered a strong emotional response in a way that the rest of the film did not.

As you know, the Khmer Rouge were led by Pol Pot, the Brother Number One. He had started life as Saloth Sar and spent time as a student in Paris, where he studied under Louis Althusser and was active in left wing circles. I do not think he was considered particularly remarkable then, as there were so many other earnest young men in Paris who dreamed of sweeping away the bad old world and building something new and better. I suspect that many people who knew him in Paris would have been surprised and aghast at the horrors he unleashed in his homeland. But when I think of that, I think of my own friends in the world of the far left, and I wonder which of them had it in themselves to become Ireland's Pol Pot had the dice rolled differently here. There is no way of knowing, and I bet it's not the ones you think.

image source (a review of the film by Daniel Kasman)

Dengue Fever 'New Year's Eve'

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

[theatre] "The Drowned Man"

Punchdrunk - The Drowned Man Trailer from The Difference Engine on Vimeo.

A friend in Edinburgh suggested going to the Punchdrunk show The Drowned Man when I went down to London. So I did. This proved to be one of those immersive theatre pieces, performed in a former post office building near Paddington Station. The audience wear masks and walk around watching unmasked actors performing scenes from a drama set around a film studio, set vaguely in the early 1960s. The audience is unguided, so you have to decided for yourself whether to follow individual characters around, to stay in one place and see what happens there (probably a bad move), or drift around exploring and seeing what you come across. The place is dimly lit and atmospheric music plays. The non-linearity of the plot (an inevitable consequence of the audience being unable to see everything and not necessarily seeing what they do in chronological order) together with the slightly creepy voyeuristic aspect of things made me feel like I was wandering around in a David Lynch film.

The whole thing is very dance-oriented. The fight scenes are so choreographed that they flowed seamlessly into and out of dance routines. This all added to the strange surreality of it all. And the featureless white masks of the audience members give them a ghostly appearance as they cluster around the actors.

If you are my friend on Facebook you may have seen a gentleman commenting on how he found The Drowned Man to be a bit unsatisfying, largely because an audience member misses so much that he felt like he was not getting the full experience. I can see where he is coming from, but for me this was all about being swept along and seeing what you see rather than trying to see everything and having a full understanding of what is going on. Going with someone else and then separating from them seems like the best way to approach this, as you can compare notes afterwards, or half way through in the bar. So I was able to tell my friend K— about the very David Lynch dance routine that turned into something approximating to an orgy and then he told me how he was taken aside into a tiny room by one of the cast for a special encounter (he was afraid, but the cast member was afraid too).

So I loved it and am already thinking about going again, partly to see different things and partly because it was so much fun the first time. On a second visit I reckon I would knock back a double whisky before going in, to heighten the sense of unreality. And because everything is better with booze.

image source 1 (Official London Theatre)

image source 2 (The Bespoke Black Book)

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

I sang with the Unthanks

I went to another one of those singing weekends hosted by popular band The Unthanks. We flew into Edinburgh and took the train down to Berwick on Tweed, noting how the town's fortifications are already being renovated in advance of the referendum's outcome.

In broad terms this singing weekend worked like the last one (an account of which is linked to below). Attendees hung out with the Unthanks, Rachel and Becky Unthank taught us songs and got us to sing them in three part harmonies, other members of the Unthanks cooked for us, we went for a walk, sacrificed one of our number to Gruad, had sing-songs, and so on. This time the weather was good enough for us undertake a good long walk, that brought us by the ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle, where we sang a song; then we walked on to Newtwon-by-the-sea to visit a pub called The Ship Inn, where we drank pints and sang sea shanties, to the delight of regular attendees. Yarrrr!

There were some novel elements this year. As well as having George Unthanks (father of Rachel and Becky) and shanty superstar Jim Mageean along, we also had as guest stars the local geordie singing group The Young'Uns. These fellows are amazingly good at the vocal harmony business and are also of the roffler persuasion. What was most amusing about them, however, was that they look like three young hipsters, the very last people you would expect to be singing songs about mythical personifications of Newcastle industrialism or mediaeval radical priests until they open their mouths and do just that.

The other innovation was the addition of an early Burns Night element to saturday night festivities (combined with a bit of wassailing and the like). We were treated to not one but two separate instances of Scottish people performing Burns' haggis poem. The combination of highly deliberate delivery and extreme actions had me wondering whether this was something that all Scottish people learn in school. Hearing a series of Burns poems (including the one about the mouse and all that) had me thinking that maybe there is something to this national poet of Scotland; I also found myself wondering some more about Scots English.

Saturday night also saw some unusual festivities. I was secretly pleased that there was no Finnish Sailor Wrestling this year, but there was a re-run of Face To Face. This game sees two people stand very close together, eyeballing each other, and they then both sing at each other until one of them forgets their words or is disqualified (for jigging around, smiling or being over intimidating). It is a popular diversion in a certain folk club of the North East. I gave it a go, psyching myself up to sing 'Your Party' by Ween in as deadpan a manner as possible and was I think on the brink of winning when I had a blank with the words; oh well, a clear moral victory. My beloved, on the other hand, treated her opponents to some terrifying Georgian yodelling tunes, bludgeoning them into submission until she won the coveted prize: a mug made by Becky Unthank herself. As I won such a mug myself at the Finnish Sailor Wrestling last year, we are now a two mug household and I am thinking how we can have a competition to establish which of us is the greatest champion.

I will mention a couple of the songs we practiced over the weekend. One of them was the simple round 'The Waters of Babylon', which I remember from folk masses of yore. It has the same words as the Boney M classic but a different tune. The god bothery theme continued with 'Dark December', a Graeme Miles tune that starts off being about how winter is rubbish before suddenly reminding us that the little Baba J was born in December. Then there was an odd Alasdair Roberts tune called 'The King's Hand', about meeting the King on the beach alone, drinking his wine, touching his hand and then snuggling up to him. What King, was this, I wondered. In some ways it was like a continuation of the religious stuff, with the King a divine figure, perhaps Christ returning to the world. But the lyrics had the King bearing a wedding ring on his finger. Perhaps the sense of the lonely King still having this aura of quasi-divinity is an evocation of the mediaeval sense of monarchs as above lesser mortals. Either way, this song was a bitch to sing, with odd phrasings and harmonies that jumped all over the place.

Alasdair Roberts sings 'The King's Hand', without the harmonies

I think that the real star tune was 'The Magpie', a composition by David Dodds. The cunning corvid is here presented as a clever and mocking presence who must be placated lest she bring terrible bad luck down. If you are singing the low parts this was a real corker as the chorus features a repetition of the line 'Devil, devil, I defy thee'; on the third repetition the low part goes low that it felt like I was no longer singing but channelling a subterranean vibration. The effect was rather eerie, which is funny for a line that is meant to express defiance of the Evil One.

The Unthanks - The Magpie from Anthologies on Vimeo

Another memorable tune was 'Shallow Brown', where we sang the refrain ("Shallow, Oh Shallow Brown") while Becky Unthank sang the verses. It is a simple enough tune and I think we sang it with it without any big harmonies or fancy stuff like that. It did not need them, such is its beauty. The words tell of a sailor bidding farewell to his true love as his ship departs for the sea. While we all know what sailors get up to while away from port and we all know the stories of their having an endless series of lady friends in every port they visit, yet there was something wonderfully poignant about this piece, largely down I think to Becky's subtly expressive delivery.

I had a crack at singing myself when it got to party piece time on the Saturday night, treating the assembled throng to my rendition of US Civil War classic 'The Battle Cry of Freedom' (Northern version). People joined in a bit and someone asked me about it the next day, suggesting to me that I did not completely butcher it.

So it was all good fun. I was particularly pleased to renew acquaintances from the previous year, and so on.



Your Party

An inuit panda production; this post appeared in issue 138 of Frank's APA.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

ATP End of an Era: Part 3 — Sunday

This is part three of my account of a trip to the last ever UK All Tomorrow's Parties festival. Part 1 can be seen here & Part 2 here

On Sunday morning most of my chalet mates went off to see either Dungeness or to visit Rye, but Irene and I made our way to the downstairs venue at the unnaturally early time of 12.30 pm to catch a performance by Josef van Wissem. He is this Dutch guy who plays a lutey thing and has previously collaborated with the likes of the United Bible Studies as well as releasing a zillion records of his own. His instrument is this huge stringed thing like nothing else I have ever seen. He himself looks like he would be more at home playing guitar for some grease-rock band or carrying things around for Hawkwind, but his mastery of the lute is incredible. His tunes were all instrumental and I think all original compositions rather olde folkie songs. I liked them and came home with a Jozef van Wissem album, which I also like.

Van Wissem did a fair bit of striking poses with his lute. At first I thought this was because he needed to turn around the instrument to get at particular stings, but soon registered that this was not the case. Rather he was showing off the lute to us. It also made him look incredibly rock and roll. Towards the end of the concert he left his seat and the mike stands and walked along the front of the stage, playing the lute and letting people get a closer look at it. What was very striking to me was how loud it was – even without amplification, it was still clearly audible.

We should maybe have gone to see Tall Firs as they were entertaining at a previous ATP, but a walk on the beach beckoned. On returning, we made our way upstairs to see Michael Rother, the genial veteran of Neu and Harmonia. I think he had some other old fellows from the German music scene of the 1970s playing with him – people he described as his “chaps”. Sadly they were not all wearing tweed jackets, sporting astonishing moustaches while smoking pipes; such is life. But they did play some great tunes, music that was surprisingly dancey in the live context. Rother himself was a bit of a roffler, albeit of the extremely deadpan sort, and spoke with the kind of very deliberate English that I associate with Germans.

I caught the last two or three songs by Wolf People (Rarrrr!). They seemed pretty entertaining in a blues-psych-stoner rock kind of way (as in I cannot really remember too much about them but do recall liking them and am trying to guess what they sounded like on the basis that my retro friend M— is a pal of theirs). After that I saw The Magic Band. These are some former members of Captain Beefheart’s band playing the music of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band with some other musicians. I gather this particular outfit were conjured into being to play an ATP some years ago. Quite a few people I know were a bit sniffy about them before they came on, claiming that they are little more than a Captain Beefheart tribute act (something that the world is apparently over-laden with). John “Drumbo” French was also criticised for abandoning the drumkits and instead becoming the band’s frontman, with many seeing it as grossly inappropriate that anyone should try to imitate the good Captain.

But I myself loved this lot. Beefheart-esque music is not something you get to hear often in a live context, which is surely a bad thing. Getting to hear it from people who had some part in making the originals is a treat for all people of forward thinking musical tastes. And as M— pointed out, members of the original Magic Band suffered doubly from the fickle cruelties of an indifferent public and from the harsh rule of a musical genius not too big on apportioning credit or treating colleagues like human beings. On that basis it seemed only fair to give them some overdue respect.

The Magic Band seemed happy to be onstage playing to an appreciative audience. And contrary to what I had previously heard, John French made for a great frontman. Still, it was funny hearing him talking about how they formed the Magic Band to keep the music of Captain Beefheart alive. It must be weird when your own main claim to musical fame was being sideman to someone with whom you had a problematic relationship.

Goat were from Sweden. By the time they came on I had changed into my tuxedo and donned my fez, as the ATP organisers had declared a black tie dress code for Sunday night. I knew nothing about Goat, but had taken a punt on them being interesting by buying one of their t-shirts, as it had an interesting design on it (of a goat). The font on the t-shirt (similar to that used by BATHORY) and the slightly demonic image suggested that Goat would be some kind of Black Metal outfit. This was not to be the case.

Goat are one of those bands where there are loads of people onstage and they all wear funny clothes. Most of them were masked or had their faces somehow obscured – perhaps in Sweden they all have secret identities and do not want anyone to know they play music. They were fronted by two women (at least, I think they were women) who sang and danced, and had an army of others playing various instruments. It all made for great visual spectacle but maybe the music was for them a bit of an afterthought? My recollection is that it started off being almost neo-folkie but did head off into more psych-rock territory as the performance went on. They certainly seemed more musically engaging by the end and I found myself thinking that I would like to see them again sometime. I am also open to investigating their recorded output.

After a trip back to the chalet for some refreshing alcohol (far less time consuming than trying to queue at the bars in Pontins, proud employers of the world’s worst bar staff), we returned to catch the latter half of the set by Mogwai. It was only towards the end of this that my amaze brain remembered that the Mog had curated the first ever ATP, something I had missed because I tend to think of the Bowlie Weekender at the actual first. And as with ATP 1, I found myself less than enthusiastic about seeing them play, but rather impressed once I had them in front of me. There is a power and grandeur to their music, as well as an elegiac quality that matched the occasion well.

But the greatest moment in ATP history ever occurred after Mogwai finished and 'Teenage Riot' came on quietly over the PA while they started clearing the upstairs venue. People started dancing to this and eventually the sound people turned up the volume as everyone went increasingly mental to it. The whole thing made for an intriguing and completely unplanned communal end to the festival.

Though it was not the real end. We ended the night downstairs, where Barry Hogan (ATP Fuhrer) was DJing. He played a variety of gangsta hip hop tunes, which went down well with the white audience, and then finished off the night with the Velvet Underground & Nico’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, a tune that it is impossible to dance to. Things got a bit emo. I found myself wondering how I would discover new TV programmes to buy on DVD without ATP (this year’s find being the IT Crowd, a programme you have no doubt all been watching for years).

On Monday we walked into Rye and went first for lunch and then for a little drink in the Mermaid, where we said hello to some other ATP randomers. And then back to Gatwick and home.


Jozef van Wissem

The Magic Band

Michael Rother

An interview with GOAT

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Monday, February 03, 2014

ATP End of an Era: Part 2 — Saturday

I am continuing to tell the exciting tale of my trip to the last ever UK All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Camber Sands. Part one can be seen here.

Saturday began with the traditional walk along the beach, after which we went into Rye. There we bought things and met my beloved who was only now arriving off a train thanks to the ministry of Satan. We went for lunch in the Mermaid, that olde worlde pub & hotel that everyone who goes to Rye loves. We thought about coming back to Rye and staying in the Mermaid, which would probably be amazing.

Back in Camber Sands the first band I saw on this memorable day was The KVB, playing on the downstairs stage. They were a duo, with a bloke who did vocals (and played guitar) and a woman who did stuff with synthesisers and keyboards. They both wore black and looked pretty goth. The music was a bit goth too, calling to mind the claustrophobic gothgaze of bands like Curve, though the programmed beats had a certain glitterband quality to them. They are apparently supporting the reformed Loop on their UK tour, so if you are going to that I recommend catching them.

Also playing downstairs were Dirty Beaches. They were three guys playing somewhat avant-garde music that was still beaty enough that they could jump around and dance to it. They were alright, but again I thought they were maybe not as cool as they thought they were.

Hookworm upstairs were being done no favours by the ropey sound, but even with that I think they were not really that good, for all that they seemed to be a band playing the kind of music I ought to like (muscular end of gaze music, can you dig it?). I did like their star struck story of having previously come to ATPs as punters and now getting to play the last one. Even my not liking them that much will never take this away from them.

23 Skidoo playing downstairs were one of the bands of yore who had been added to the bill. I think now I will discuss them together with another olde band who played upstairs, The Pop Group. They are both reformed bands from the post-punk era, and both in their heyday were a bit avant-funk. There was a tendency to compare them, with most people seeming to prefer The Pop Group, with partisans of 23 Skidoo sounding a bit defensive. The Pop Group’s secret weapon was their frontman, Mark Stewart. On record he has failed to impress me, coming across as some annoying shouty man, but live he provides an energetic focus for the audience. Conversely, 23 Skidoo do not really have a frontman. They do have a bloke who does whatever vocals feature in their songs, but he also played other instruments and did not serve as a focus in the way that Stewart did. He seemed in fact to be deliberately anti-charismatic, remaining quite static and affecting an aloof demeanour. It could be that he was just *shy*, but I think there was a different aesthetic approach on display here, something designed to be less populist. I suppose what I mean is that the superficial avant-funk similarity of the bands masked a deep difference in approach that made it possible to like one without thinking them better than the other.

And then there was Loop. Old-timers may remember Loop, they were contemporaries of Spacemen 3 and the other proto-shoegaze bands. I mansplained them to Irene by saying that they sounded not unlike Spacemen 3, but only like their more rocking songs (i.e. not the smacked out tunes where the Spacemen get all god-bothery or start extolling the virtues of a romantic other who is clearly just a metaphor for heroin). They were playing upstairs, as befits the headliners of the festival.

With the passage of time I had somehow let myself develop the idea that Loop were a bit second division and nothing like as iconic as their contemporaries. Thus I was a bit surprised to see them headlining the last ATP – it would be like a Britpop festival headed by Menswe@r [sic]. Yet Eoghan’s enthusiasm for seeing Loop again swept me along and I found myself towards the front of the venue getting ready for them to come out onstage. When they did, two things immediately struck me. My memory of Loop back in the day was that they were a bit hairy-beardy, like a lot of bands back then, but tonight they were all clean cut and nicely dressed, as is so often the case with people when they have moved on from their youth. The one of them who did vocals and seemed like the main guy in the band looked less like a dirty drone-rock boy from the early 1990s than as the kind of guy who might show up at one of those retro events Mark goes to. That is what his hair and nice shirt said to me, anyway.

The actual commencement of the concert cast aside rapidly any nonsense about Loop somehow being a second division outfit. They rocked like a train and I found myself transported back to the happy days of the early 1990s. The crowd went batshit crazy and started acting like they too were remembering the early 1990s or wished they had been there. So the powerfully muscular sounds of Loop were immediately responded to by the most full-on moshing I have ever scene yet an ATP, which is just what you would have got in days of yore. I could not hold myself back for long and soon threw myself into the fray, albeit engaging in a short mental debate about the potentially problematic gender politics of moshing and its possibility for creating an exclusionary male space at the front of concerts; seeing that in fact there were people of both genders being thrown around satisfied me this was an affair with at least some pretence towards equal opportunity. At the front I was continuously thrown about by the roiling sea of people, forever on the lookout for crowdsurfers, of which there were many. And there was music, music, pounding music. Small wonder I came away from this determined to dig out all my old Loop vinyl. Small wonder either that the next day saw me buying a triple CD compilation of music by this amazing band. I hope they come to Ireland on their reunion tour.



KVB image source


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Sunday, February 02, 2014

ATP End of an Era: Part 1 — Friday

Join me, gentle reader, as I tell the tale of my trip to the last ever All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in the UK. I have been to a fair few of these over the years so I felt I had to see them out, making my way back to Camber Sands (near Rye) for this festival, curated by the reformed Loop. Camber Sands was where ATP started so it was fitting that it ends there too. Returning there I found that things were largely unchanged — the chalets are slightly less pokey than they used to be (with new floors preventing the night-time slug invasions that could often prove problematic) but they still have that annoying fold out bed in the living room that stops you having somewhere in your chalet that isn't a bedroom. But hey, we weren't there to hang out in our chalets.

This is one of those festival write-ups where I chug through the artist I saw without trying to arrange things thematically. Be prepared for lots of yap about people you have never heard of before and possibly never will again.

The first people I saw were in fact Les Colettes, a French trio all of whom were women. Because I am very sexist I somehow developed the idea that they would be three glamour girls trading on their looks. This proved not to be the case, as they were musically interesting. They played music that seemed to owe debts to Irish or Breton folk music, but also with drone elements (the one who played the violin did so far more to add drone than to add diddley iddley noises). The instrumentation was quite minimal, with the only percussion coming occasionally from the singer. The most conventionally “rock” element to their sound was probably the guitarist, but overall their Spartan musical approach reminded me the most of the Young Marble Giants. They mostly played original songs, but they did also play an intriguing version of the woman-in-the-radiator song from Eraserhead. I think they would be worth further investigation.

I saw a couple of minutes of Om, before registering that despite their impressive drone rock name they are not really my cup of tea. The weedy sound in the upstairs venue did not do them any favours either. So I made my excuses and left. Later I returned to see Fuck Buttons. They are one of those bands who seem to play at every ATP but whom I have somehow never managed to see. Previously I have avoided them because of the gratuitous swearing in their name and people telling me they are not up to much, but as this was to be the very last ATP I decided to check them out for myself, as otherwise I would never get to hear them. And I am glad I did, because they are amazing.

I had previously made the acquaintance of Fuck Buttons offshoot Blanck Mass, purveyors of dark ambient sounds used to great effect in that film A Field in England. The music of Fuck Buttons themselves is curiously like that, except that it comes with added big chunky beats you can dance to, which makes them sound a bit avant-garde and dancetastic at the same tyme. Live they had a great stage set up – the two of them playing strange synthesiser things facing each other, with funny visuals behind them onto which silhouettes of them playing were projected.

So yeah, they were great and people in the crowd were really getting into them. I do not know if it was the power of their music or excitement at this being the last ATP, but for some reason there was a sudden outbreak of mass crowd surfing at Fuck Buttons. And a surprisingly high proportion of the crowd surfers were women (like at least a third, possibly as many as a half). In some ways this seemed strange – one associates crowd surfers with punk gigs rather than electronic dance outfits – but it seemed to fit the kind of ecstatic abandon the music was trying to engender.

I mentioned that many of the crowd surfers were women, but the most noteworthy was a man – a man who was crowd surfing while holding a half full pint of beer in one hand. He seemed not to spill any of the beer, at least until he fell down himself.

After this awesomeness, self-described “lean, loud, retro-futurist party-band” Civil Civic had a lot to live up to, and they largely failed to do so. Their retro-futurist party music turned out to be basically an evocation of certain types of music from the 1980s that are best left un-revived. That said, I cannot fault their musicianship and should admit that they won over the crowd in the downstairs venue. But I think they could have done with a vocalist and even if they had one they are just offering an art-ponce version of what local covers band Spring Break do far better.

I was feeling a bit tired when I went up to see Shellac playing upstairs, which may have been why my initial impression was that for all their reputation as stars of the alternative scene they were just treating us to unexciting cock rock. But I warmed to them somewhat when they played early Shellac classic ‘Wingwalker’, which features a strange playful moment when the three band members pretend to be aeroplanes while still playing their instruments. There should be more of this kind of thing.

As the evening wore on I was feeling very tired indeed (having had to get up early to catch flight after a busy week at work and being late to bed the night before blah blah blah) so I decided to catch only the first couple of songs by Slint as a way of investigating whether this other band of ATP stalwarts have anything going for them. I found them a bit dull, but this may be the tiredness speaking. More annoying, though, were the noisy drunken cockfarmers my friend E— and myself found ourselves standing near. When I left after a few songs it was partly to get some sleep and partly because I feared that a fight would break out between E— and them (which I realise means that I was leaving a friend to face the drunken gobshites on his own, but he is a lean mean fighting machine and I would only have held him back). Did a fight break out? Only E— can tell you. And only my other friend N— can tell you of the downsides of being at a concert with loads of crowdsurfers.


Les Colettes

A Field in England

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[film] Fantasy Double Bill

Someone needs to arrange a double bill of these films.

Zulu image source

Carry On Up The Khyber image source

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