Monday, November 05, 2012

Film: Snow White and the Huntsman

“Snow White and the Huntsman” is probably best described as medieval fantasy adventure based on a popular fairy tale. It suffers from a common problem with adaptations of stories we all know – how to keep it interesting despite the fact we know what’s going to happen. Often this is solved by throwing the story away and just keeping certain elements. And in part this is that happens although the spirit of the story is kept with a few liberties taken with details. But this means there are very few surprises in terms of the plot.

Where the main surprise comes from is seeing big name actors (okay, big name British actors) as the dwarves. If you are going to have Ray Winstone and Bob Hoskins in a movie, don't make them dwarves unless they're hardened East End dwarves out to blag the Bank of Middle Earth. And I'm pretty damn sure that having full-sized actors play dwarves is exactly the same as having white actors black up. This more than anything made me feel uneasy about the movie. That and the fact that purity seemed to be a trait of royalty alone. Those and the fact the genre veered from fairy tale to medieval adventure to Narnia-style pseudo-religious fantasy road movie to Christian allegory to Joan of Arc knock-off to big-budget supernatural action movie. With a Shrek ending.

The Lion/Witch/Wardrobe segment stuck with me the longest, with the cameo from the Aslan-style hart (why was that there again?), and the classic mythological (and now very Christian) concepts of a redeemer who must die to save us all.

I enjoyed how they wrestled with making a movie about a story we all know, but can’t say I was engaged. I found it hard to care about anybody in it despite the best efforts of the film makers. And as for the central relationship, as dictated by the title, I found this highly under-explored. Especially as I was wondering the whole time what would the child of Snow White and Thor be like? What powers would it have? And if the three of all went back through the wardrobe to 1940s Britain, how awesome a movie would that be?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Greatest Songs of All-Time: What Jail Is Like - The Afghan Whigs

If you need me to explain why this is one of the greatest songs ever, you should delete YouTube from your computer and clear your ears out with molten lead.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Greatest Songs of All-Time: I Want To Conquer The World - Bad Religion

A song that goes from 0 to 120 MPH in the first note. As with the best Bad Religion songs, it'll have you reaching for indignancy stick with one hand and your dictionary with the other. I Want To Conquer The World is about internal anger at the unjust and misguided world. It's about fighting the tyranny of the "order of things" and the massed army of sheep-like followers of this.

"I wanna conquer the world,
give all the idiots a brand new religion"

It's a song so idealistic it would seem naive if it wasn't for the thick layer of cynicism and a dollop of tongue in cheek. With governments as they are and organised religions pretty much the same, this song will always be relevant.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


Robbie Williams UFO Hunter[ Picture from ]

Some of you may be wondering what happened to Robbie Williams. Some of those may even care. Fortunately, the answer is surprisingly interesting. It seems everybody's favourite ex-boybander (if you don't count Wham as a boy band; or Genesis) has taken a year off recording quirky dark-gilded pop rousers to track down UFOs. As tales of pop idols going off the rails (or off with the Raylians) goes, it sounds like a classic. But there is more to it than that.

From reports it seems UFOs are a major obsession with Robbie and he now tracks down sites of sightings and goes to conventions. He has grown a beard to blend in with ufologists and now appears to mumble one-to-one with similar beardies where he once shouted down at stadiums full of the unpubed.

Now, am I the only one who thinks this is the best idea for a TV show since Sliced Bread, the tale of tale of the French aristocrat (Francois Bread) and his crazy schemes to avoid the guillotine?

Suggested synopsis: "Former pop idol Robbie Williams gives up the fame, the adulation and all but one of the girls to start his own agency to investigate UFO sightings."

As a kid, I very much enjoyed a show called Project UFO (aka Project Blue Book) which was about two stiff airforce guys investigating UFO sightings and mostly refuting them, even though they really were caused by UFOs. It was a kind of "Men in Blue."

Our show would be a lot more like Jonathon Creek than Men in Black. A kind of Jim Rockford's Tales of the Unexpected. I expect it to be called "I'm Loving Aliens Instead" or perhaps "Let Me Anal Probe You."

Obviously Robbie Williams would play himself as he is already at that dangerous stage when singers start to want to act. His model girlfriend could also play herself, with some lessons. So all they need is a quirky sidekick. For maximum confusion, I would recommend Robin Williams. Coming soon to HBO.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Top 10 Albums 2005-6

I haven't done one of these for so long I felt I may as well cover two years. Plus I don't buy as much as I used to given my shelves are already full to bursting.

10. Subrosa Falcon Association - Where's My Rabbit
Everyone's favourite Portuguese-German Indie-Noise-Grungesters jump in with a confident first record.

9. Richmond Fontaine - The Fitzgerald songs about urban low-life.

8. Deus - Poket Revolution
Belgiam's greatest band produce a solid album, more accessible than most previous efforts and full of yummy moments.

7. Kaiser Chiefs - Unemployment
Art-Rock funsters bouncy, confident and well-written debut.

6. Nine Black Alps - Everything Is
With the same grunge-pop balance that made Nirvana's Nevermind such a tasty record, NBA show most modern bands how rocking should be done.

5. Maximo Park - A Certain Trigger
Groovy art-rock pop with some great lyrics and a certain "something."

4. Queen Adreena - The Butcher and the Butterfly
Arty-Punk-grungsters Queen Adreena continue what Daisy Chainsaw started and produce dirty and disturbing songs. But in a good way.

3. The Twilight Singers - Powder Burns
The Twilight Singers get into their stride and allow not only Greg Dulli's dirty, soulful voice to seduce us again but also remind us that Mark Lanegan still has a voice that can open tins.

2. Kent - Du & Jag Döden
Now no longer recording in English, they still produce wonderful, catchy, melodic songs that I have to gibber-sync to.

1. We Are Scientists - With Love and Squalor
Great album with pristine lines fresh from the rhyme laboratory.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Album: The Raveonettes - Pretty In Black

The Raveonettes are a Retro Country Rock’n’Roll duo from Denmark who specialise in slow ballads. They harp back to the 1950s at a time when slow urban Rock’n’Roll was often indiscernible from its Country cousin. The sound is simple, enjoyable and confident, however for me the vocals had a tendency to grate when they weren’t being bland, and the lyrics were rarely anything much. Sometimes there’s a modern(ish) edge, when a 1990s Indie influence creeps in, but this is not frequent.

The album opens with The Heavens, a plodding fireside ballad to a lost love or missing horse or something like that. It’s dripping in Country and, indeed, Western and there are frequent returns to the genre, particularly in the wistful Uncertain Times and Somewhere in Texas which is pure undistilled Country, not be taken neat.

Love in a Trashcan is clearly the single as it was stickered all over the front of the album. This is an upbeat garage tune which is pleasant if uninspired. Sleepwalking actually has some atmosphere, and could almost be Transvision Vamp returning from the grave, albeit toned down. And Here Comes Mary is like Buddy Holly backed by The Jesus and Mary Chain, although that makes it sound better than it is.

The mainstay of the album is the ballad, such as the typical If I was Young and irritating Seductress of Bums. Ode to LA sounds like cheesy Christmas Motown and My Boyfriend’s Back is a pop cover that will make you want to kill their manager.

The Raveonettes, like a lot of bands, take the whole retro thing too far, and rather than making it their own thing, they tend to be very faithful and thus uninspired. A nice afternoon pub band, but was a record contract really necessary?

Rating (/5): One Limp Danish Waffle.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Book: Making History – Stephen Fry

Slow Start. Historic Middle. Hollywood Ending.

150 pages into the book – where, in my opinion, the ideal book would be reaching a climax – this book finishes with its exaggerated introduction and begins in earnest. That’s 150 pages of pure set-up. None of this jumping into the middle of the action nonsense, this book spends a long time setting up the slightly irritating central character as well as establishing the threads of history that are going to be paralleled in the middle section. It takes about 125 pages too long to do this. What doesn’t help is it is written in a prosaic style which, whilst fitting the character of the narrator, seems very flat after the Wodehousian style of the author’s earlier works.

Towards the end of the first ‘book’, there’s an exciting bit, when the discussions and setting up have finished and the transition into the second part of the book is created. This is marked by the use of screenplay format. Screenplay format makes the pages turn faster because there are fewer words in descriptions and also makes the action more immediate as it is written in the present tense.

In the central section, we are back in prose, but now the prose doesn’t drag. The middle is where the meat is: It depicts a well-constructed alternate universe where the balance of power is completely different to how it is now. A world where the US is the underdog and stuck in the religious, homophobic, apartheid-like society of the 1950s. It’s a brilliant piece of “what-if” thinking. The question in this case, “What if Hitler had not been born and someone more calculating had filled the vacuum of power in 1930s Germany?” The realisation of the answer and the central character’s discovery of it and of how he played a part in it is compelling.

Of course after the great middle, it would seem a shame to go and spoil it with a lousy end. But that’s exactly what happens. In fact the rot sets in before the end of the middle section, with a less explicable return to the screenplay format. This time it is for the dullest section of the part of the book, where the hero studies history and engineers a meeting. Maybe some sort of reverse mirror technique was implied. But it didn’t really work. Why have any dull bits in your book? It made you realise that if the book were turned into a screenplay, this part would not be copied directly to the final draft, but severely edited.

I think the problem is Mr Fry wrote it with an intention to have it made as a film. (As far as I can see this has not happened yet, but these things take a long time unless the book’s a monster hit, then they get churned out in no time.) Because of this eye on Hollywood, the end is treacly and seems tacked on (the way Hollywood endings to book adaptations usually do). The odd thing is it gives the book a definitive end – attempting to return to how things were – despite the fact the author had a continuing theme (particularly at the start) that this was part of some cyclic story line that could start “anywhere and nowhere.” It is more accurate to say the story starts nowhere and ends nowhere, but in the middle really does go somewhere.

Rating: Three thumbs up (four if you only read the middle).

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Book: Ginger Geezer: The Life of Vivian Stanshall; Biographies in general.

Life and times of Bonzo Front Man, Troubled Genius and Great British Eccentric.

Reading this reminded me of why I don’t read many biographies any more. They are always depressing. The main character always dies. And always right at the end, just when you want something happy to happen.

It's my fault for only reading biographies of people I admire. You are emotionally connected more than in a novel because this person was real and you have (usually) experienced their work or seen them. Maybe even touched them or perhaps thrown your underwear at them. (Perhaps I should only read biographies of people like Adolf Hitler, so when at the end he shoots himself, defeated in a concrete bunker, I won't feel that sad about it.)

I guess the problem could also be circumvented by only reading biographies of the living. But there’s no point in doing that. Who wants to read an unfinished book?

There is a big difference between the structure of most novels and most biographies. In a novel there is a struggle ending in triumph. Most biographies have struggle, followed by a period of success, then usually a slow fade with even more struggling then tragic death. In a novel, the text moves towards the ultimate climax. In a biography, the climax comes somewhere in the middle, and the whole story works towards the death of the subject. All very morbid.

No matter when it occurs, the death is always tragic. No artist dies without any more work left in them. So even when they die peacefully in their sleep at 104, if you like their work, it is still a tragic death before their time.

Because of this, the book I mentioned in the title has been sitting around on my shelf waiting to be read for well over a year. A book co-written by someone on whose floor I have slept, about someone I greatly admire. It had to be read sometime.

There are lots of people these days, some of them on the surface not ignorant people, who don't know who Vivian Stanshall is. It is understandable, he has been dead for ten years and in the latter part of his life did not enjoy widespread success. In fact, not since the early 70s has he been involved with anything that has reached a mass market. Back when he was singer and musician in The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band. If that doesn't ring a bell, then your education has a very large hole in it. So, in any case, read on dot dot dot.


One of the supposedly searching questions people ask is "what time would you go back to if you could go back to any time?" Most people seem to say thins like, "back to the time of Jesus and see what he was really like," or "back to the Tsarist times and see what Rasputin was really like," or "go back to the dawn of time and see what came first, the chicken or the egg."

For me, History is History. It doesn't matter what Jesus was like because it won't change the popular mythology of the man today and it would just be frustrating to know he really was just an earnest rabbi with gift for communicating to crowds and not a real son of a god.

I would want to go back to just beyond my lifetime. To an early Bonzo Dog Band gig and experience the sublime mayhem of them in their prime. To see the delightful silliness and awesome invention of creative people enjoying the freedoms of the age.

People say that I am odd to want to do this when I could go back to the time of Napoleon and see if he died of natural causes or wallpaper poisoning.


The book goes into great detail in certain periods, such as the well-researched childhood years, but almost seems to skip through the art-school and early Bonzo Dog years. But then this was the late 1960s, and as they say, anyone who remembers the sixties wasn't really there. And all the Bonzos and everyone around them were really there. Big time.

What I feel I really missed was a good feeling of what it was really like to be in the studio with the Bonzos and even more of an impression of what those early gigs were like. That is not to say they are missing from the book, just not there in enough detail to satisfy my obsessive desire to relive what I can’t.

Periods later in life are better documented, although there are years and years that are practically missing. But this is what happens you drink and are addicted to tranquilisers. All famous drunks have months, weeks and years missing from their diaries. Periods where their friends have no idea what they are up to, but complete strangers have outlandish anecdotes.

Some biographies manage to pin down their subject and get you into their mind. The mind of Viv Stanshall is a vast and bewildering place and defies exploration without some sort of marvellous Heath Robinson / Rube Goldberg / Roger Ruskin Spear contraption probably shaped like a mechanical fish holding a basket of monkeys. As the great, late John Peel put it, "I fear that a single one of Viv's thoughts would blow my damn brains out." All we can really do is list what people remember and what Viv said and latch on to the infrequent insights he and others can give us. And this is where the book does very well, in its use of anecdotal and autobiographical quotations to get a glimpse into the troubled mind of a man plagued with raw genius. All the time treating the subject with respect, but not hiding the warts at all.

This is the sad story of man who spent his life fighting back the deluge of ideas in his mind sometimes drinking them away, sometimes honing them into a body of work which veers from oddness to sublime genius. It is a warm yet depressing book that I would recommend to anyone who has been delighted by The Intro and the Outro, tickled by Tent or awed by Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. Unless, of course, like me, you find biographies depressing.

Rating: Three oscillating pallindromiduses with wishtastically good rhinoledging up

Monday, January 30, 2006

Book: Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

Neglected anti-war classic that could have been called "Farewell To Arms, Legs and Face."
Who is or was Dalton Trumbo you may well ask? Well he was the writer behind some classic films including Spartacus and Papillon. He was also one of the many writers, directors and performers blacklisted by a paranoid regime in Hollywood during the 50s. He also wrote books.

Johnny Got His Gun was written shortly before the Second World War and is set during the First World War. Aka The Great War; Aka The War to End All Wars. But actually this isn’t really the setting, as the entire book is set inside one man's head. One man who wakes up confused and has to work out from data (or, more often, lack of data) that he has lost both arms, both legs, his eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The book mingles dream-like memories of his bodied life with the coming to terms of being trapped inside his own new body.

It is written as a stream of (barely) consciousness, with very little punctuation to interrupt the thoughts. In fact I didn't find a single comma in the whole 240 pages. It's a much easier read than the lack of punctuation implies. However, the subject is NOT easy digest.

The book brilliantly explores what happens to a mind isolated from the outside world except for a sense of touch, pain and of vibration. What happens? It has no choice but to think, to latch on to every piece of information it is lucky enough to get, and to be patient. What it can’t prevent is the slow drift towards a kind of frustrated mania obsessing about every idea it has. At points it is a great amplified description of what goes on in the mind of a writer, or other person who tends towards thinking rather than doing.

Johnny Got His Gun is a book against war, and even ends up being a pro-revolutionary polemic arguing for rising up against those who would send innocent young men and women off to be killed in the name of intangible ideas. But what other conclusion could the mind of a previously healthy twenty-year-old man come to, after finding that all that is left of him is his brain and his brain has almost no way to communicate with the outside world?

Towards the end of the book, Joe does find a way to communicate. But he has been trapped for so many years with only himself to talk to, that he sends out the same stream of consciousness that has been his monologue for years. His early patience has been replaced by a desperation. Even he can only conclude they think he has gone mad.

I loved this book. It was clever, insightful, inciteful, and gripping. A book against the terrors of war, without describing war very much. In fact most of the anecdotes about times at or near the battlefront were darkly amusing or even whimsical. The horror of war for Joe Bonham was not the actual war itself, but the terrible, isolated aftermath. And the fact that it should be allowed to happen at all.

At the end, you are feeling Joe’s desperation to be heard, but instead of the opening of a communication channel being his salvation, it is something other than that. We are left with the conclusion that to the outside world he seems mad and probably not worth continuing the communication with. Or even worth keeping alive.

This is an amazing book for its feat of taking you into a mind locked in that cruellest of cells – ones own practically dead body; tortured by that most evil of mental tortures – being allowed almost no sensory input and no movement; and having been put there by that most prolific dispenser of unjust punishment - War.

Rating: 5 dismembered limbs up.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Gig: London Calling, Paradiso, Amsterdam, Saturday 5 November 2005.

The bi-annual showcase for up-and-coming British bands has had a knack lately for landing on celebratory days. The first one of 2005 landed on Queens Day and the Saturday of the this one was on Museum Night. First time I thought it was bad planning, by the second time I am beginning to suspect it is deliberate. Although I don't yet know the reasoning.

Earlier this year, the line up was lead by bands on the verge of Stardom: Kaiser Chiefs, The Others, Tom Vek. This time all but one band was unknown to me, and that one I had to miss due other commitments on the Friday Night. But then, unknown bands and new discoveries are what this mini-festival is all about.

First up were Field Music, who perhaps could be called Green Pastures. It's a tough spot at the start of an evening and the band. They were nervous and failed to really engage. Perhaps they realised their 1960s guitar pop wasn't quite the thing for there and then.

Next up came Amusement Parks On Fire, who play that kind of processed noise and vocals thing which made every song indecipherable from the last. Kind of Nottingham Sea Power as in the sort band to play 4 songs in a 30 minute set. Very difficult to be engaged by.

The Guillemots play world music with feedback. Elements of Badly Drawn Boy meld with Rod Stewart, Jack, The O-Diddley Social Club and jazz-school musicians everywhere to form an experimental whole. Enjoyable to have dinner to.

Battle took the main stage next and provided the first band of the evening to really make you go, "ooh." When Hastings Financial Software went bankrupt, four of their hardest working employees went, "what the flip?" They shut down their computers, closed their ledgers and learned instruments to become a great indie rock band.

They are all short and geeky looking; Their bassist sports a tank-top, and not in an ironic way; their drummer made an attempt at being Rock'n'Roll by having no shirt, but it just looked even more geeky given the fact he was bright English pale. Plus he is the only drummer in existence to have NO tattoos. I expect after a bit more success, he may start to get it and get himself a tattoo, but I'm not sure how Rock'n'Roll "Linux" is. It's their look more than anything that makes you surprised how good they are and how much you allowed your prejudices to influence you. Geekophobia is one of the few bigotries the politically correctors have missed. Probably due to their own anti-geekism. And if the electronic music revolution has taught us anything it is the geek is king.

And now what I should have been talking about from the start of the last paragraph: their music. They sound like pop-era cure meeting current-era Editors. Their singer is not someone to half-heartedly mumble a song. He belts it out with a possessed charm. Backed by a band who all believe in each other and never want to go back to writing financial software ever again.

Next advanced ¡Forward Russia! a band who hark back to punk-era Cure (I hadn't realised there was such an era before this) but had their foot firmly in the that nu-old-skool where Maxïmo Park, the Killers, et al, et al dwell. Their energy and commitment were great, and they have it in them to do well. The only thing that put me off or rather did later is the fact their songs just have numbers. Or maybe it's just communist lyrical equality. The other thing that put me off was not their fault. It was the cameraman's obsession with the girl drummer. But thinking back she was possibly the only girl who played that day. What's up with that? Has laddism really taken over back home?

Then came the Dogs who win the prize as probably the most confident band of the evening. The Dogs (probably named after the Isle) are the result of a cloning experiment involving The Jam (probably named after the session) but where the material became contaminated by outside elements, including, bizarrely enough, The Levellers (certainly named after the alliance of civil war revolutionaries). But the Jam influence comes through more than anything, especially in their stage presence. Something that their fellow Jam-imitators, The Futureheads, fall down on. The Dogs were entertaining and played good tunes. And if you're gonna be heavily influence by any band, better it is The Jam and not Simple Minds.

Duels were nothing special. Well, they had a girl on keyboards, I think, but, their pop/new-wave sound seemed a bit dull amongst everything else.

Clor were the last band on the main stage, and as such could be considered the headliner. But clearly it hadn't been programmed that way. They are new-wave / electro-pop and I'm sick of writing new-wave, it happened 20 years ago.

The Test Icicles have the best name of the day, and their live show was a lesson in not coming on stage more stoned than your audience. They are a bit like The Fall or perhaps more accurately The Fallen Down. They shouted a lot and had incoherent gaps between the tunes.

Chiniki were the next surprise band of the evening, and suggested the geek thing is actually a movement. They are new-new-wave with elements of electro and happen to bring in bits from bands as diverse as Placebo, Air and Led Zeppelin. Their lead singer looks like a cross between Freddy Mercury and former Suck front-man, Evan Jones, and gives good shout. Meanwhile, on the bridge of the star-ship Keyboard, their lead-keyboardist plays like Napoleon Dynamite possessed by by lightning. Normally I don't like groups where the keyboards outnumber the band members, but here it actually worked. They had two keyboardists, although one was really a substitute bassist.

The whole band played with huge amounts of gusto and talent. They were enjoyable to watch but did however prove that keyboards, as befitting the geek image, are not cool. No matter how much you play them above your head or jump around with them, they are still keyboards and as such are one tenth of the coolness of guitars. But throwing yourself at them and playing with such intensity your thick-rimmed National Health glasses nearly fly off helps some way to redress the balance.

The final band of the evening came very late on to the proceedings (it over ran by quite a bit). So late that your unpaid reporter, with no editor to satisfy, decided to post an incomplete review due to his own weariness and the desertion of everyone else in his group.

So consequently I have no idea what the Infadels sound like. The program says they sound like the Clash, but then they all do these days, don't they?

To compensate, I will mention two bands that played the previous night, that I had enough report of from more dedicated followers of music to feel able to mention. Queen Adreena, the only band I really knew of before and do like immensely, apparently played a typically intense and overly-arty show. Katie(-Jane Garside) fell out of what is left of her dress and tried to hang herself with the microphone. The dirty guitars, twisted lyrics and little girl vocals is a quite, quite compelling mix. For me anyway.

The other mention goes to Kid Carpet who rocks out - or more accurately punks out - on kids instruments. I for one am sad I missed this. I am looking forward to the other bands in the genre: Sid Vicious-Price, The Intensive Care Bears, Mattelica.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Album: Richmond Fontaine - The Fitzgerald

There has been a movement of late to make Country cool. Let me put this out there, Country will never be cool. You may as well ask, will it ever be hip to have a pick-up truck in your front yard up on 4 bricks with grass growing out of it. No, it won't. Country may reach the heights of kitsch, occasionally be savvy, and even throw out the occassional good song. But cool? No way, Joakim.

In recent years there have been movements such as (Country Indie), serious cross-over attempts and even Country heroes covering Nine Inch Nails songs. Nice attempts, but these are the exceptions, not the norm. Country will always be the illiterate, illegitimate son of rock'n'roll and folk music. It will always live in backwater shacks with its sibling / partner, Western.

That doesn't mean that amongst the sewage you can't occasionally stumble upon a watch or ring that someone has dropped. If you'll forgive the imagry.

NB: Officiados of Country and Western music, won't mind a bit of what I say. They consider themselves a breed apart. Well, an inbreed apart. They probably welcome the derision of outsiders as the herecy of the non-believer. This attitude was best summed up in the film The Blues Brothers when they blag a gig at a giant shack of a bar. "What kind of music do you guys have here?" they ask. "Both kinds." replies the proprieter, "Country AND Western."

Richmond Fontaine belong to the recent movement. They are lo-fi balladiers, croniclers of bleak, dispossessed lives. A sort of Tindersticks from the sticks. Except they are not from the sticks. They sing of urban decay: desperate crimes gone wrong; sad and lonely deaths; cheap sex in unfulfilling motels. Don't expect to bounce up and down at a Richmond Fontaine gig. But do expect to be richly rewarded with beautifully-painted verbal-imagry, even if the palette is very dark indeed.

PS since writing the review, I did go to a Richmond Fontaine gig. They are a lot more upbeat live, than their last album suggest. More than Mourn-o-billy.

Rating: 3 dead ex-con thumbs poking up from the undergrowth.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Album: dEUS - Pocket Revolution

Not sure if the title of the latest offering from Belgian Art Rockers dEUS (sic) comes from the terrible chat-up line, "There's a Revolution in my pocket, want to join the revolution?" I doubt it as it's a terrible line. Especially as the come-back is, "You mean in your trousers it's revolting?" Anyway, I am digressing before I even start.

It's been a while since dEUS released an album. The last was 1999's An Ideal Crash. That's a long time. Oh, there have been numerous side projects and solo albums in that time, but from the group themselves, there have just been the occasional gig. This year there is a new album and more tour dates. The problem is, An Ideal Crash was such a corker of an album, it's not easily going to be topped. The album does not top An Ideal Crash, but it is their most approachable album yet - a long way from the impenetrable "My Sister = My Clock."

The usual mix is here: quirky lyrics, good tunesmanship, the rock/jazz/pop influences, the great production. It's an album that fits in very well with the current trends of today, especialkly with bands the likes of the Kaisers, the Franzes and the Art Brutes around. There aren't any real dancefloor fillers (although Nightshopping and Sun Ra come close), but there are plenty of head-nodders and a few lines that make you go, "ooh, nice."

So what are they link live now? Well, that I'll tell you next week.

Rating: 4 Thumbs to the clouds

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Band: The Goo Goo Dolls

For some reason I think I should not like The Goo Goo Dolls. I think it is because they are definitely on the edge of pop rock. I think also it is because the lead singer does look a little bit like Jon Bon Jovi. But I should look beyond such facial disfigurations.

The Goo Goo Dolls have a passion about them. They don't just throw out a few choice sentances that rhyme and fit the line, they write thoughtful (even intelligent) songs that hover in the grey area between euphoria and dejection. They also have the ability to write killer hooks. And these songs they sing with a poignancy and feint sinisterness that grabs you by heart and squeezes.

And even if I did hate them for reminding me that Bon Jovi exists and for the fact they are definitely in the pop camp, albeit in the rock corner, I would still have to admit that if someone started to play "Iris" (From 1998's fantastic "Dizzy") in the metro, I would find it impossible not to sing along to that glowing hymn to the bitter curse that is love.

Rating: 4 black nail-varnished thumbs up

Friday, October 07, 2005

Album: Part Chimp - I am Come

It's nice to hear an album that sends you back to those glorious days when grunge meant something dark and horrible, not a form of sordid pop. The whole point of Grunge was that it was never slick. It was dirty and only produced in as much as the noises made were somehow transfered onto vinyl and/or CD. That was before Nirvana came along, got themselves a real pop record producer and still claimed to be Grunge.

Part Chimp recall dirty grunge rock bands like The Bastards and Bullet Lavolta. They also recall the days when metal was dirty, like the early days of Black Sabbath. There's even some occasional 60s keyboards thrown in for that, stoned, garage band feel.

Rating: 3 skeletal thumbs up.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Album: The Killers - Hot Fuss

The Killers sound is very much of the here and now, super-influence, retrospective indie rock. Maybe that should be 'hear and plough' instead of 'here and now'? I'm not being harsh. The current trend for guaitar bands is very retro. Right now is a very good time to be a fan of Joy Division. On Hot Fuss there are several moments where you go, "Mmmmm. Whatever did happen to Joy Division? Oh, yeah."

But there are other moments where you go, "Mmmmm. Late Beatles," "Mmmmm. New Order," and even "Mmmm. Glam Rock." Don't let this put you off. The album has a nice sound, and when the strong influences are peeled away, you can get some great tracks. There are two absolute corkers on this album, but you know them as they have both been released as singles. But there are several other tracks that are very good indeed, but not floor fillers in the same way.

The corkers are of course, "Somebody Told Me," one of several songs on the album refering to pursuing girls in clubs. In this case feeling you are in with a chance with a girl because she went out with a boy who looks like one of your ex-girlfriends. But the trouble is, our lads are a bit too sensitive as is evinced by the other corker, "Mr Brightside." There has been much debate about what this song is actually about. Sure, jealousy is in there, as it is screamed fairly often. But what is the story? My take is that it is the tormet of a sensitive soul who during a party or the like kisses a girl, but she goes home (seemingly) with someone else. Thus our hero imagines all sorts of disturbing goings on (chest touching and dress removing), but he also realises this is just in his head, and this could be the start of something destinal. After all, he is Mr Brightside (he keeps telling himself).

Since then I have listened again, and I am now erring towards it being that the relationship is blossoming (but not started) and he sees her kiss someone, but not neccessarily sexually and all the jealous anguish he is going through. He has not kissed her yet.

It's a very reminiscent thematically of Rialto's epic "Monday Morning, 5:19," a classic tale of a man anguished by not being able to get hold of his girlfriend through the night who, he concludes, must be cheating on him. We never know if it is true or if she just switched off her phone.

Rating: 4 thumbs up.


Since I published the review, I now realise "Mr Brightside" is all in the mind of Action Man. This is because of the line, "Open up my Eagle-Eyes®"

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Book: Sword of Honour Trilogy by Evelyn Waugh

Answers to SoH FAQ for Evelyn Waugh was a man; Waugh is pronounced War; Yes his work has been filmed.

These three books follow the military career of Guy Crouchback. A career that lasted the length of the second world war. It is suggested that it is semi-autobiographical.

AtSoHFAQ: semi-autobiographical is not the longest word in the English language; The Second World War happened 60 years ago and was a war bet... yes there are films about it.

This is not one concise story, rather a series of badly-organised events separated by long periods of waiting and convalescence. Life in the army is not all battles and heroism, it is mostly spent being transported to one place and then back again. The men are not perfect heroes, but ordinary, somewhat damaged men. In Guy's case, men hoping for the war to redeem his neglect of self, family and country. They do not spend their days chopping off the heads of foreign guards as souvenirs or single-handedly attacking enemy outposts. That is if you ignore Brigadier Ritchie-Hook, who represents the spirit of gung-ho and is down an arm and and eye as a consequence.

FAQ: gung-ho: US-adopted meaning: "(almost recklessly) eager", from Chinese meaning "work together".

The waiting and recovering are not fun for those involved, but with such shatp writing you don't share the boredom, but do get the expectation. And there are some wonderful set pieces, such as the battle of wills over the 'thunderbox' and the 'show' outpost assault. It has been said this was the finest novel to come out of the war. For portraying the madness, disorganisation and frustration with wit, warmth and pathos, they could be right.

FAQ: War, noun, related to werra, ultimately from Frankish/Germanic, related to Werra, Old High German for confusion. Thus "War on Terror" translates as "Confusion about Terror."

Monday, August 29, 2005

Festival: Lowlands 2005 pt4 - Sunday

First band we looked in on were The Editors, a popular choice for 3:30 in the afternoon. Which is quite early at a festival. The Editors should team up with The Features to start a newspaper or maybe an Interpol fanzine.

Next up (with rocking Alkaline Trio providing the sound track for part of the walk) are Boston-Irish punk rockers, The Dropkick Murphys, who know how to entertain a crowd and sing about (American) Football and (Irish) Drinking.

The Dresden Dolls cancelled shortly before the shebang and were replaced by Scotland’s Sons and Daughters. This four-piece manage to sound like Siouxie and the Banshees and feature a singer who dances on stage the way drunk women do when they want to be seductive. It made for compelling viewing.

The next meeting point for most of the group were The Queens of The Stone Age who took the main stage and rocked the tent. It was great to find out this band were even better than expected. And fom the songs I knew I was expecting greatness. One for buying more of.

Due to a particularly slow coffee machine and serving practice, Only the last few numbers of Heather Nova’s excellent repertoire was heard. But I have heard the Bermudan lass let forth her tunes on many occasions and was fine to let her mostly pass me by this time. There will be other dates. Whilst we were sitting on the grass outside the tent, and extraordinarily handsome man wandered along carrying a baby. He pointed out the band playing on the screen to the child and then wandered through to the backstage area. I was glad I was not some obsessive fan, as I had to conclude this was Heather’s newishly-sprung sprog being shown mummy at work.

Next up on at the tent were sat outside of was Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. So we hung a round. A few people wondered over to see The Jam. The Modern Jam as they could be called, or the Future Heads as they exactly are called. The look, dress and sound like the Jam, but since Oasis made it okay to sound entirely like another bad from way back, there has been little shame in it.

Nick Cave put on a good show. Nick is not so much a rocker as a twisted balladeer. He sings songs of love girls he’s just murdered and profiles the sinister men in the shadows. We did however have to leave him early because a strange phenomenon in the shape of The Foo Fighters was drawing us to them. Sunday’s headline act did not disappoint; Did not put a foot wrong; and made you realise Dave Grohl is a musical marvel despite the world-wide success which usually suggests otherwise.

This being the last night, the feeling was to enjoy the night. The best dancing was to be had at the Silent Disco. If you don’t know this phenomenonal new way to club, you have missed out. It’s a Dutch invention and involves the attendees all receiving headphones which have 2 channels, meanwhile two DJs play different tracks and you can pick which one you dance to. This means people watching have no idea what you are dancing to, other than when you shout out along with the song (as does happen more than at a normal disco) and also that the person you are dancing with may not be dancing to the same song.

There is something about the Silent Disco that makes people dance that bit more theatrically, knowing as they do many of the onlookers can see them dancing but not the music. This tendency to dance sometimes camply as well as the fact I had my sleeves taped up to reveal my soak-on dragon tattoo made one guy come up to me and ask, something like “heb je ooit een pennetje van mij?” It seemed to mean have you ever been a pen of mine, so I queried the meaning in particular the word pennetje. The chap did a quick mime of taking several thin, blunt objects in his mouth. Basically he had asked me if he had ever blown me before.” I had to regret that situation had never occurred before but thanked him for the history lesson and bounded over to the little woman to pass on the benefit of my new-found knowledge. Not sure I’ll ever use the line, but next time it is used on me, I will not pull such a lost expression.

It was, in short, a great festival. In particular because of the large and very agreeable group. Even the wild card, James, who none of us knew that well except that he had good taste in music as is evidenced by what is played at the club he DJs at, was a great asset to the group.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Festival: Lowlands 2005 pt3 - Saturday

Throughout the weekend, the festival god kept us believing by keeping the sun out for much of the time, but occasionally throwing down a little rain. Not too much, just enough to let us know who was boss, and who could easily ruin the festival if he or she so decided. Saturday morning was hot again to wake up all but the comatosed. Even our small group had a couple of those.

We wandered into the ground early to pick up caffeine and (late) breakfast. We caught a little of pretty-boy Dutch rockers 2nd Place Driver, who were pleasant.

The first music we made after a period back at the tentstead was the end of El Pus. El Pus are crunk (Southern rap/hip hop) with guitars and were lively and requiring of more investigation. A little bit of Zita Swoon accompanied some food, but it wasn’t so long ago that I saw this great dEUS spin-off band at the Paradiso in Amsterdam, plus Death From Above 1979 beckoned. Death From Above 1979 are two seventies homosexuals who beat seven shades of shit out of drums and guitars to make interesting music. Compelling because it’s not often you see a full-on live rock group with own two members. Don’t expect to hum too many of the tunes.

Before the end, after a brief meet up, a very small contingent made their way to see Bad Religion. Bad Religion are one of the greatest bands ever to grace this small planet. Intelligent, tuneful punk with a social conscience. I could go on forever about how good this band is, but I won’t. Just to say that they still rock, performed well and did an interesting version of Generator.

Another brief meet-up to the tunes of The Arcade Fire, who are best described as Interpol. Nine Black Alps who had intrigued at London Calling cancelled at the last minute and were replaced by Art Brut, knowing, mischievous Art Punksters with the difference of being more 60s influence than 70s influenced. Best appreciated intellectually than any other way.

From here, it was time to speed over to the Grolsch tent for The Pixies. This time fully reunited (unlike last time which was only a partial reunion). The Pixies churned out their great old classics and were even enticed back for an encore for an enthusiastic audience. A definite walk down Nostalgia Alleyway.

The next destination was the Alpha tent for today’s headliner, Marilyn Manson. Marilyn’s inspired industrial phase has given over to a more mediocre Goth phase. Even people with their faces Marilyned up were leaving during the middle. He did 4 cover versions, none of which were surprising. In all it was a little disappointing, as I had high hopes for an entertaining show. Perhaps it would have been better if we were IN the tent. And huge fans. And on something.

Much of the night after this was spent enjoying (and later being annoyed by) the kitsch irony of dancing to 90’s dance classics of the kind that used to play in the clubs your friends forced you to go to. But it was nice to end the night chilling and dancing at the same time to the wickedjazzsounds DJs.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Festival: Lowlands 2005 pt2 - Friday

In the morning, the sun bore down on the tents baking the inhabitants and forcing them to rise early. Following the refugee feeling outside the border to ‘Paradise,’ it has to be said the camping at festival very much resembles a refugee camp. Thousands of mismatched tents packed close together. The major difference is that the festival goers are very happy, healthy and don’t fear leaving because of persecution. Although some of them will have to tidy their rooms when they get home.

We kicked aside the cold barbeque to realise that it had cooked something. A small square of burned grass outlined where it had stood. It seems the design of the barbeque was to cook what lay underneath it not, what we put on top. It wasn’t a good start to the day. Nor were the queues for the toilets and showers.

Lowlands presents you with a dilemma. At most festivals, the toilets are unvisitable after the first hour, and showers, if there are any, are so rare and delicate that if you queue for one the moment you arrive you might get one by the end of the weekend. At Lowlands, the toilets are cleaned regularly and the showers work. There is the matter of queuing for them, but it is maybe 20 minutes or something like that – nothing for people who queued for 4 hours to just get in.

This means that you actually want to have a shower, whereas at a festival, people usually just say, “Oh, It’s impossible,” and feel content to not be as fragrant for a few days. After all, everyone is in the same boat.

The first band of the first day was the perfect warm-up band. The Beatsteaks, German punksters with a sense of humour who aren’t ashamed to show their influences. They woke up the crowd and did great versions of both Rappers Delight (ironically as far as I could tell from that distance) and Sabotage by the Beastie Boys. The latter being a faithful barnstormer done without samples.

The Polyphonic Spree (hippy musical band – think Hair) and The Magic Numbers (Fat 60s retro group (think Mamas and Papas) who don’t like being called Fat, so don’t say the word ‘Fat’ in front of them) were wandered by before a little time was spent watching KT Tunstall, Scottish balladeer with some good songs.

The Kaiser Chiefs were next up, and as ever were their usual cheeky selves. Good songs, entertainingly delivered. The Bravery were too far away to make and eat, so were skipped. But think New Order in their rockier moments. The second Germanicly-name Cheek-rock band to take he Alpha stage were Franz Ferdinand, who proved why they were further up the bill than the Kaizers. It was good to finally see the Ferdies live.

The next band we saw were aging punksters Social Distortion, who I knew a little but had failed to really get into. They came on and said “Hello Belgium” and acted so much like they had something to prove that they were somewhat of a disappointment. Fortunately The Prodigy, who are always at festivals, and expected to find nothing special this time, thoroughly rocked the joint in a way most rock bands would kill to do.

Plans to party all night were abandoned for at least my small party in favour of obeying my protesting body. Others did party all night, but that’s their story.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Festival: Lowlands 2005 pt1 - The arrival

August 2001 is when I last used my tent and made a pilgrimage to hallowed ground near Biddinghuizen where annually is held the Lowlands festival. This sacred place (right next door to Wallaby World) is attended by 50,000 of the most faithful followers of good music and outside camping.

This year a group of 11 people went. Who will be designated A, B, C, D, I, J, N, P, R, S, and T. Or referred to by their names: Peter, Catherine, Rebecca, Nadja, Ian, Trista, Dave, James, Sarah, Ben, Andrea (not in that order).

The advance party (consisting of ABCJNPRandT) arrived on Thursday evening having travelled on the train from Amstetrdam. From the train, there was a longish queue to wait for the busses especially laid on to ship the festivallers from Lelystad to ‘Paradise.’ The queue moved quite quickly and everyone was too excited with anticipation to be got down by it.

Then came the coach journey, which lasted a lot longer than anyone had expected - longer than the train journey, but through this, spirits were high. We were all looking forward to the BBQ we had planned for the period immediately following the erection of the tents.

Now there was an advance advance party consisting of N’s flatmate and several of her friends. They were intending to get in, set up a base camp and have us join as reinforcements later. Alas the best laid plans of mice and festival organisers very often gang a-gley. It seems everybody turned up Thursday late afternoon / early evening, and outside the door there was a huge throng of people doing what the Dutch would call queuing and most other people would call laying siege. But being mostly Dutch, it was a good-natured siege. Whereas in many places a riot would have ensued, here the people waited like refugees at the border. Impatient, but not daring to surge forward for fearing being turned back to the horrors of war, genocide or their day job.

N’s flatmate, N, reported she had been in the throng for over 2 hours and was only just getting close to the front. We joined hoping it would move forward as somehow they must be able to cope with the number of arrivals some how. Rumours flowed through the throng - they ranged from ‘everyone was being thoroughly searched’ to ‘it was really some sort of extermination camp.’

The mood in the throng was that of perseverance in adversity. Humour was relatively high and the sought-after prize of a new life in the ‘Paradise’ of Lowlands, as well as the barbeque we had planned, kept us going.

It took us 4 hours to get into the camp. There was no ‘search everyone’ policy, just the logistics of trying to squeeze 10s of thousands of people through 8 doors one-at-a-time.

We were unable to camp near the advance advance party as we needed an area big enough for us to be roughly together and with spare space for the not-so-advanced party.

It was the wee small hours when we pitched out tent. Thank some wondrous deity it was not raining and we were soon tented and despite our tiredness, sat in a huddle hoping to prepare our much hoped-for feast. That same benevolent god can also mock. Due to some sort of design flaw or a lack of functioning brain cells at that time to understand the instructions, the disposable barbeque failed to take. Despite repeated applications of lighting fluid. We began to wonder was this coal or just black rocks. Eventually, we gave up: the coal was starting to glow a little, but it would be dawn before it would cook anything.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Gig: London Calling @ Paradiso, 30/4/05

Why the Paradiso scheduled this great gig on Queen's Day I don't know. Normally I love to go to this regular showcase of up-and-coming (usually) British bands, but the timing actually made it a tough decision. In the end, I went for the latter part of the second day rather than the whole thing.

When we arrived, already tired by a day spent floating in the sun, Nine Black Alps were already playing (they were not the first band). We only caught the end of them, but they sounded good. But without listening to more and/or undergoing deep hypnosis to remember it better, I can't comment any more than this. Will try to check them out and give you a more informed update.

After this, we crammed ourselves into the Kleinezaal and saw wunderkind, Tom Vek. Tom Vek makes you think of David Byrne and a little bit of Prince as I remember. But mostly David Byrne. He is a little enigmatic, but didn't seem entirely at home - a charge I would lay at the door of most of the acts there.

Next up came The Others, the answer to the question "Could Echo and the Bunny Men ever happen again?" The answer is an equivocal "yes." The music was enjoyable but nothing to grab you by the shirt collar and shake you. But there was something likable about them, and the fact they hang out with The Libertines (constantly in the British press due to drug abuse and the more shameful dating of supermodels) they will probably do well.

New Rhodes followed in the small room. Erm. My memory fails me here. I think they were enjoyable but not enough to make me go into the room rather than watching them on the screen. The live editing within the Paradiso was first rate. It was so good, it made you think you were watching a video that had been edited after the fact. Well done chaps.

Next up on the main stage were the band everyone was talking about, The Kaiser Chiefs. Kaiser Chiefs sit very much on the retro boat that pretty much all bands sit on these days. They have a similar sound / influences / attitude as Franz Ferdinand, who also have the Germanic name thing going on. The Kaiser Chiefs took the stage whereas other bands had just stood on it. The entertained and played their upbeat mix of influences. Sometimes making you ponder Madness in their rockier moments. Sometime making you say "Ooh, The Jam." But mostly you don't care about the influences, but enjoy a band playing good songs well together. Everything they do is tinged with humour and some lines just tingle. NB This was the only band I bought a CD for.

The small room then played host to Engineers, who follow the tradition also continued by British Sea Power of chugging out well-crafted tunes that you can't always hum, but that you don't mind that they can last for ten minutes.

By the time the last band came on, the place had emptied out considerably. It was the early hours of Sunday, and most people had been out wearing orange all day. Plus the last band, I Am X, apparently fronted by a former Sneaker Pimp, were pure electro. Retro electro. A New New Order with a harder edge, but after a long day in the sun and on the booze, not able to keep most people from their beds. Your reporter included.

In summary: British guitar pop music in better shape than it has been since the mornington glory days of Brit Pop. They all owe so much to The Clash in the same way that Brit Pop owed so much to the Beatles.

Pete’s tips for the future: There will be many, many more bands with Germanic names sounding like Franz Ferdinand / Kaiser Chiefs. E.g.: Der Wünder Bars; The Auf Wedersehen Pets; München Gladrags; Heil Kevin; Kapitein Zensible; and Einstürzende Neubauten.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

Book: The Small Bachelor by PG Wodehouse

The hero of this very typical Wodehouse novel is a Small Bachelor because he lives in what is described as a Small Bachelor Apartment. This book has all the usual elements of Wodehouse stories which even when transplanted from rural England to New York don't change too much. There are the usual Gentlemen of leisure, ineffectual criminals and efficient butlers. There are the lines that drip wit like an overweight jogger. And then of course there is the subtle twists of language that make you realise English is a modelling substance more like clay than Lego bricks.

There is no point in me spouting off about how good the writing is in the bad English that I am often tending to use (illustrative example), it's best to just slip in some of the better lines, albeit out of context...

"His lordship closed the door behind Mrs Waddington and stood for some moments in profound thought. He may have been wondering what was the earliest he could expect a cocktail, or he may have been musing on some deeper subject - if there is a deeper subject."

"Marriage is not a process for prolonging the life of love, sir. It merely mummifies its corpse."

and of course the fantastic exclamation... "Sweet artichokes of Jerusalem!"

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Book: Amsterdam - A Brief History of the City by Geert Mak

This book tells the story of the greatest city in the world from swampy bank to the top British Stag (Bachelor) Party destination.

It tells of a city of tolerence, even when all over europe, various religious groups were being ousted, toasted or forced to recant their crazy beliefs.

The story is often not told linearly, as certain [schemes] are followed from start to finished and then we jump back many years to follow the seeds and start of the next one. Occasionally years speed past in a matter of paragraphs, but the book is best when specific events or eras are deligtfully recreated. In particular the sad decline of Rembrandt paralleled with the life of the subject of one of his more unconventional pictures - the suspended body of an executed girl.

The book really paints some very evocative pictures of times long since sunk beneath the mud and bicycles that line the bottoms of the canals. I recommened it to anyone who lives here, lived here or wants to live here. If you're really keen, you can buy the Dutch-language original.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Book: The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

I started reading this because everbody else is. I am not particularly sheep-like, but as an improviser it is good to be knowledgable of the world around you. What people are reading, what people are watching, who are the people that people are following right now. (In both senses.)

Nobody has yet called out Dan Brown or The Da Vinci code as a book style in my presence, but maybe that will change when they make the film. As they certainly will. It's a very filmable book. But then modern thrillers tend to be very filmable, which I am sure is no accident. After all, you can make more on selling the film rights than on the book sales. It's something every financially-conscious novelist should bear in mind.

So what will I do when someone shouts out Dan Brown as a suggestion? Well, there is nothing at all special about the literary style. It is the same as a multiitude of other modern thriller writers. If you asked me the difference between Dan Brown and Dan Patterson, I'd have to say, "Er, they have different parents?" Probably.

No, the difference is in the subjects. If someone suggests Dan Brown, I will start making anagrams of everyone's name or discovering that van Gogh's sunflowers is really a map that tells us where William of Orange's hidden gold is. If someone shouts out Dan Patterson, I'll... oh, I'll have to read another one now.

In short: The Da Vinci Code is a great exploration of the Grail myth and explorer of the murky depths of religious history wrapped up as a conventional modern thriller. A thriller that pulls its punches by implicating then exonerating sinister, shadowy, religious groups such as Opus Dei and The Vatican.

"First left past Utrecht, turn south at the old windmill
and after 300 metres start digging at the X-shaped bush."

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Book: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

It was good to dip into the master again. Charles Dickens wrote well-constructed stories (if you ignore the occassional howling coincidences, but then these are a bit part of life) using delightfully constructed sentances. The language is very understandable - he is far less likely to over construct than many of his contempories. The characters are great - usually just a dog's hair larger than life, and showing us people really haven't changed all that much in the last 100-odd years. He is also a master of the catchphrase, and often done so subtly you don't realise there is a catchphrase going on. Despite the satire in many of the sections, his books are filled with compassion for us humans stuck in situations we made without even really trying.

Hard Times itself depicts a ficticious northern industrial town, where ordinary inhabitants aren't even considered full people, just 'Hands'. The people who run the behemothic factories that consume them every morning only to spew them back out into the smoggy town are shown to be false, self-deluding men of narrow ideals and no real understanding of anything other than figures. An amusing yet saddening book, funny in a troubling way. It would be nice to smile at this book as a picture of a time that has long since left us. A time where people were just fuel for the factories. But in many places in the world, this is still true. Coketown may not exist any more, but Niketown does.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Band: Rialto

Rialto make pop music. Ordinarily this is all I need to write in order to give a two thumbs down at the very best. But Rialto are going to get 4 well-dressed thumbs up. Why do I like them when they make twee-sounding pop? Well, because whilst the music has an edged, twee-ness to it, the lyrics do not. The lyrics are of relationship paranoia (Monday Morning 5:19), of drug-induced broken dreams (Broken Barbie Doll, Lucky Number), alcohol abuse (Untouchable, Milk of Amnesia), and stalking (When We're Together). It's because of their being dressed up as pop melodies, not despite that they are such good songs. The tunes a renice, but the key minor and feelings induced are a kind of pleasant melancholia tinged with nostalgia.

Rating: 4 well-dressed thumbs up.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Book: Batch of Improv Books

Put four experienced improvisers in a room and you'll have five different theories on how it works. (But they'll never argue.) The two main schools are: Follow the rules! and Rules are bad! Within each school there are a multitude of factions. What rules to follow? How to follow them? How to learn them? If you are to follow no rules, how do you achieve that? How do you learn something with no rules? Or are you learning the rules but only by example the way children pick up language.

The odd thing is, if you put a "Follow the Rules" improviser on stage with a "No Rules!" improviser, you are no more or less likely to get a good scene. The outcome is not so much to do with the underlying ethos, but the interaction between the two performers. Each performer will find the theory that works best to explain the way that they perceive the underlying system. But on stage they will play and support their partners just the same.

Other people's theories are very interesting because they show you a little how they think about performing and give you a new perspective.

"Improvise: Scene from Inside and Out" is the book of the theories of Mick Napier, founder of Annoyance Theatre and Resident Director of The Second City. He belongs to the no-rules school, believing it is best not to teach rules for improv as it gives people things to think about when they should not be thinking. He does, however, offer guidelines of things to avoid but stresses to apply them without thinking about them.

The book is not very thick, but this is mostly due to Mr Napier's succint style. Not for hom the flowing prose and endless examples. He makes his point and moves on. Mr Napier's theory applies more to the teaching of children or for people well able to practice extensively, in my opinion. But his dismantalling of the importance of the rules is very interesting. It tallies with my theory (of course I have one) in that there really is only one rule, and all the rest are guidelines.

One of the most interesting chapters, and actually annoyingly short, is the one on Improvisation and the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I would love to see this expanded to really explore the analogy. There is a whole book in this idea, I think. The other useful thing is a list of exercises to do on your own at home. I found I have already been doing them for years, but it was nice to feel that I wasn't mad. Or at least not alone.

The other book I have been reading on the subject is "Musical Improv Comedy" by Michael Pollock. Mr Pollock is Musical Director of The Second City, LA, so probably knows Mr Napier quite well. Mr Pollock does not come to us with a theory. He comes with a slightly thinner book and a CD full to the brim. Instead of theories, you get a practical guide on everything music improv. Despite the thinness of the book, it really does cover everything. And with the minimum of fuss and nonsense. Where the real content is on the CD. It has over [an hour and a half] of excellent examples and sample music for you to practice song styles and techniques with. In that respect it well is worth the asking price. There are about 10 examples of different musical styles which you could easily use in a show if you don't have a musician. (PS I do not advise doing musical improv without a musician. It's usually the musician that makes the singers look good.)

As a student of improv, I urge you to read a little on the subject, and go to see as much of it as possible. "Musical Improv Comedy" is great for groups who want to get into doing (more) musical improv and "Improvise: Scene from Inside and Out" is interesting for those who want to explore the world of improvised theatre in relation to modern theories of energy or who like to improvise best in the shower.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Book: UFOs Are Coming Wednesday by Eric Sykes

Eric Sykes is a great screenwriter. The writer for many shows, as well as short and long films. Star of his own series and director of several films, notably great silent shorts such as The Plank and Rhubarb.

But for some reason, it didn't translate into books. It failed to be more than mildly amusing, it failed to be original, the characters failed to be interesting and it failed to drag me in. I gave up.

I don't often give up on books. Normally I plow on. Taking forever to get to the end, plodding through in grim determination because part of me is interested in it. I think the last time I did give up on a book was Lord of the Rings part 1 when I was quite young. It is a long and complicatedly written book that is not accessible for kids. Even kids such as myself who had lapped up The Hobbit. So I put it aside thinking I'd go back when older. 20 years later, I have seen the film of the book, and can happily say that has satisfied me in that department. The book is just too long to embark on (and that's just the 1st part). UFOs Are Coming Wednesday doesn't have that excuse, but demonstrates the new less-patient me in action.

In short: don't buy this book. Rent a copy of The Plank instead.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Book: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Probably the best-known of all of Sherlock Holme's adventures, it's the tale of an old legend which begins to have deadly consequences for inheritors of an estate. Not very original, and probably not even so 100 years ago, whenn it was written. But of course, there is no dark magic, only a master criminal at work. Even this has been done to death since, most notably by Messrs Hanna and Barbarra, creators of Scooby Doo.

I'm glad Sir Arthur resisted the urge to bring in a younger, (supposedly) hipper assistant unlike Messrs Hanna and Barbarra. The exciting adventures of Scraplock Holmes never made it to press.

But it's always good to check in with the world's most popular detective. he's not as clever as the myth surrounding him suggests. But maybe he is more cautious in his later stories. In some of the early ones, he can tell all sorts of things from a coupld of scratches on a piece of wood. Things modern forensics would have trouble telling you.

Sherlock also lays off the drugs for the duration of this story. Something Scooby Doo could never manage.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Book: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The heroine of this book, Fanny Price, does nothing. Basically she just sits and hopes her cousin falls in love with her. Stuff happens in the book, don’t get me wrong, but Fanny is not proactive, not active, and not even reactive, except on an emotional level. It’s a very psychological book - Austen’s most Virginia Woolfish work.

And even when stuff does finally happen in the book - illness, elopement, adultery - Fanny is miles away and receives all the information in letters. But in the end, the heroine who does nothing wins through, marries the family member of her choice and sees off all those not pure of heart. Sounds terrible the way I described it, but it’s a damn good read if you like Austen’s gentle, satirical style.

This is not to be confused with Austen Park by Jane Mansfield in which the heavily endowed heroine is much more active and more prone to bikini-wearing. She too gets the man she wants. And his brother.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Film: Napoleon Dynamite

This is an odd film. A series of episodes and slices of quirky life, in which a plot is discovered quite late, but is really not so consequential to the piece. It was nice to see a film where all of the main characters were such utter odd-ball weirdos. It was amusing and interesting, but it didn’t grab me nearly as much as I would have liked it to. There are some good moments and some nice lines: “I caught you a delicious bass,” is delivered as a kind of nerdy chat-up line. I’m going to try it next time I get a chance. It’s a pity I went to Coronado beach before I saw the film, otherwise I could have used such a line and landed me some one just like Marilyn Monroe. Or at least like Joe E Brown. Conclusion: this is a film you may or may nor like. It depends on your taste. I have heard of people loving it. I thought it was diverting and sufficiently different to recommend it, although it was a little unsatisfying.

Film: The Bourne Supremacy

This is a sequel. That doesn’t mean it is a bad film. Being a sequel doesn’t always mean that. It just means that sometimes what often happens, you are made to feel cheated about something from the first. Usually this is the romantic interest. Usual story: In film 1, as well as defeating bad guys and saving world / school / Christmas (delete as applicable), said hero falls in love with someone. The end, after said planet / institution / season have been saved, the hero pops off sunsetwards with said love interest. Now comes the sequel. Hero needs a reason to act despite being felicitously happy with said woman / man / porpoise. Thus the usual answer is to kill her / him / it off. Thus giving the man reason to act and, frequently, the chance to fall in love all over again.

I haven’t seen any of the original versions of this film, but was given a summary by a friend which in the end wasn’t necessary, as the film gave its own quick-cut summary. The basic story is man with memory loss tries to find out and then come to terms with what he did. He used to kill people for a dirty branch of the CIA. He was very good at it, and is still the master of any situation. He won’t call anyone unless he can see them. It would make him an irritating friend, but a great guy to have in a crisis. And being trained by the CIA and authored by Robert Ludlum, his life is just one big crisis followed by another.

The film is shot in wobble-cam which helps make everything more exciting because it’s like you’re there being wobbled around or running with him. The car chases are spectacular and really show that cars are so much tougher in films than in real life. I was particularly impressed at the resilience of Russian taxis. Forget Volvos, these are the new ‘tanks on wheels’, able to stand anything you can throw at them.

The Bourne Supremacy is an exiting piece of film not stupid but not so believable. Likely to spawn several sequels: Bourne Again, Bourne: Free and of course the prequel: Bourne Yesterday. You chuckle derisively, but can you prove it will not happen?