Friday, May 30, 2008

Top 10 albums of 2007

What do you mean this is late?

1 The National – Boxer
My sister casually said have you heard anything by The National, they're pretty good. At the time I was between chemotherapy cycles and, to be honest, didn't really pay much attention. But I did borrow four albums from her and they lay neglected in a corner of my iPod for a month or so. Finally one afternoon in hospital, idly flicking through artists, bored with all the music I knew, I happened upon this album. It didn't take too long for me to be completely hooked. First thoughts were of the Tindersticks and Stuart Staples in particular (or Vic Reeves' pub singer according to pootly1), but without the melancholy or heavy-hearted weariness. The music is dark and brooding, late night and smoky at times, but never portentous or forced. The drumming is amazing and the other instruments sparkle and spar over the top, surging from sparse and spare arrangements to dense walls of rhythm.

2 Burial – Untrue
The sound of walking for hours alone through London after the tubes have stopped running, all the night buses have fallen off the edge of the world and you don't quite know where you are going.

3 Sigur Rós – Hvarf / Heim
Five (sort-of) new songs and five live recordings from 2006. Sounded like a clearing-out-the-cupboards type of project – not enough ideas for a new album – but in fact it is pretty good. Not exactly Agaetis byrjun, but certainly no Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do either. I think it also figures pretty high on the list because of the wonderful DVD that came out around the same time.

4 Lucinda Williams – West
That voice. Until 2007 I don't recall hearing anything by Lucinda Williams. I had read reviews which sounded interesting, but was always put off by the stigma of buying something from the country and western section. Anyway in March I noticed that iTunes had Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for $10 and given the relatively anonymous nature of the transaction I was unable to find a good reason not to buy it. Straight away is was hooked. In classic country and western style this, her latest, album is all about pain – the death of her mother and a lost love – but the songwriting and music is so far removed from my understanding of country and western as to make the genre irrelevant.

5 Art of Fighting – Runaways
At times last year I found this almost too sad to listen to. While it is undeniably downbeat and even pessimistic in places it also often soars to the heavens, the lows somehow emphasising and accentuating the joyous.

6 Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Seems a long time ago now, but I played this endlessly when it came out. I like it even more than Funeral and that was a stunning album. Lots of reviewers mentioned Springsteen's influence, but I can't see it myself. Not that this would necessarily be a bad thing as I have always (well since 1985 anyway) been a huge Bruce fan. (Although 2007s Magic was a disappointment to me, sounding like a very workmanlike copy of a real Bruce Album. Even the song titles sound like cliché Bruce – Gypsy Biker, I'll Work for your Love, Devil's Arcade ...) The music is dark, apocalyptic and frankly pretty scary if your listening on headphones. Also great played gut-kickingly loud in a darkened room.

7 Malcolm Middleton – A Brighter Beat
I feel happy that Scotland has its own parliament now and look forward to them honouring Mr Middleton with the freedom of the country or some other suitable recognition for services rendered. Aptly named, this a more consistent and coherent set of songs than Into the Woods, but for me it doesn't have anything quite as sublime as Choir and Loneliness Shines. If you haven't heard the former please drop everything and go find a copy right now. This sounds churlish, and when you've got songs like Fight Like the Night, A Brighter Beat and Stay Close Sit Tight it probably is. (Oh, and full credit for releasing a song called We're all Going to Die as your attempt at a Christmas number 1.)

8 Idlewild – Start a New World
Nothing earth-shattering – Roddy Woomble's lyrics can still veer perilously close to pretentious bed-sit poetry, the music is a little more polished than their best work, but it's still great. Soaring choruses, crunching, spiky guitar riffs and even a little bit of trumpet. Listen to Make Another World, Once in Your Life or Finished it Remains and tell me that this isn't a great rock band.

9 Manic Street Preachers – Send Away the Tigers
I guess that this is the album that I hoped the Manics would make after Gold Against the Soul. It is direct, nothing superfluous, heart-on-sleeve, righteous-anger rock music and sounds like they are finally having fun as a band again. Your Love Alone is Not Enough is just magnificent and I find it hard to believe that anyone could be unmoved when the Nina Persson and the strings take off together around 1.10 into the song.

10 Gersey – No Satellites
Mining a similar vein to Interpol, but somehow when I went to buy Our Love to Admire I ended up with this instead. And undoubtably it was the right choice. While it doesn't have the range or passion of some of their early music it is (along with Idlewild and the Manics) another fantastic set of rock songs.

And an honourable mention for The Twilight Sad's Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Bill Henson

I am sadly disappointed Mr Rudd. I had thought that you were a thoughtful and intelligent man who could think and write about subtle and complex issues, such as the role of faith in politics. However, your ill-informed and hysterical comments about the NSW police raid on the Bill Henson exhibition last week sound more like the knee-jerk rantings of shock-jocks and tabloid journalists. I had hoped for better from you.

Perhaps something more like the letter penned by your guests from last month's 2020 summit. Thank you Alison Croggon and all the other signatories for providing some welcome context and sanity into the debate.

It is my opinion that none of Bill Henson's photos could be construed as pornographic and worth remembering that all his models (and their parents) have given their full consent to the taking of the pictures and their display in exhibitions.

However, I am biased. I think that Bill Henson is a great artist and someone that Australia should support and treasure, not vilify and misrepresent. And in fact, the mainstream media's coverage and response is far more likely to have had a damaging impact on those involved than anything that happened in Bill's studio.

Monday, May 26, 2008

'Difficult' third album

Sean O'Hagan in The Observer on My Bloody Valentine's imminent return to the stage (and a lot of other great stuff). I can't imagine there will be a gig I would rather go to this year than seeing MBV at the Glasgow Barrowlands. Not so sure about the festival appearances, but if they did make it to one in the Southern hemisphere I am sure I would be near the front of the queue.

A friend once asked me to list 10 albums that everyone should listen to. Top of the list was Loveless and at the time I said that it sounded unlike anything that I had ever heard or ever expected to hear again. So far that's true.

However, Kevin Shields is quoted in the article saying 'we are 100 per cent going to make another My Bloody Valentine record, unless we die or something'. I can't wait. Well I can. I've already waited seventeen years, so I suppose another one or two won't make much difference.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Giro d'Italia

First grand tour of the year kicked off in Palermo yesterday, so it must be time for some semi-informed guesses about the top three in Milan on June 1.

I don't think di Luca is going to manage to defend his title and I don't think that Contador will be up to the challenge. Although with the lack of Tour invite still fresh in their minds Astana will be pushing hard. I do think that Levi Leiphemer could be a surprise contender, but the mountains are probably just too tough for him and so it will fall to Andreas Klöden to put their case for le Tour to reconsider.

The mountains should favour Gilberto Simoni, but I don't feel that he has the legs to truly compete over three weeks anymore. So, anyway enough of who won't win it, here are my tips –

Maglia Rosa
1 Franco Pellizotti
2 David Zabriskie
3 Mauricio Soler
With Vladimir Karpets and Andreas Klöden just behind.

Maglia Verde
Maricio Soler

Maglia Ciclamino
Given that Mark Cavendish and Robbie McEwen are unlikely to get to Milan, I think I'll go for Robert Förster in the sprinter's jersey.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Book covers (or how not to sell me a book)

Compare the two covers for Graham Robb's recent book The Discovery of France

Hardcover above, paperback below.

The hardback made me think of merchant bankers who have just bought a farmhouse in Provence, who need a weighty historical coffee-table title to casually place in the lounge of their latest addition to the real estate portfolio. The paperback looks like it is designed to appeal to the same people who like jokey travel literature of the type invented by Bill Bryson, but more recently exemplified by authors like Pete McCarthy and Tim Moore.

Surprisingly, I don't fall into either of those categories. But having read a bit more about Graham's book (and watching him talk and read from it at Guardian Books) it sounds great. His discussion on the ebb and flow of the influence of Paris on the rest of the country and the process by which regional influences have reasserted themselves on the national psyche, sounds particularly interesting.

Also he mentions the Landes de Gasciogne shepherds (one can be seen on the cover of the paperback, bottom left) who, in my opinion, have always been unfairly neglected in English-language histories and studies of France. Because of the marshy shrublands where they grazed their sheep they used stilts to keep track of their flocks and watch out for strays. They also had an ingenious third-leg which allowed them to rest without having to remove their stilts – as shown by Claude Viseux's statue on the outskirts of Mont de Marsan.

I remember a particularly surreal French Orienteering Championships where, if I recall correctly, the prizes were presented by shepherds on stilts ...


Quite a lot actually. Thanks for asking ...

Friday, May 2, 2008

The wrong man

I have been trying to work out what is wrong about Gordon Brown for a while. In theory he should have been the perfect antidote to the Blair premiership, but something has gone devastatingly wrong with his ascension to the Prime Minister's job.

k-punk clarifies it all for me.

"Tell us about your mother, Gordon" ...