Sunday, December 25, 2011

Song for Sunday

Mercury Rev – Holes

Band/artist of the week: M83
Song of the week: All India Radio – Rippled

Best albums of 2011

1 Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
In the past, when people have asked me who my favourite band is they would get a long and quite possibly boring disquisition covering a number of candidates for this honour, but also the difficulties of making a definitive judgement due to variations dependant on mood, selection criteria and associated weighting and how much I am trying to impress the person who asked the question.

But from now on I am just going to say Mogwai.

I can still clearly remember my first encounter with their singular genius in the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street. They had Ten Rapid on a listening post on the first floor and something about the striking cover design featuring a small square photo of a freeway bridge with railway lines underneath and a large white m drew me to pick up the headphones. About twenty minutes later my then girlfriend eventually found me and insisted that it was time to leave. Unfortunately there was still another thirteen minutes of the album to go, so she ended up leaving on her own. I am not saying this was the main reason, but the relationship ended quite soon after.

Luckily Mogwai have been a lot more understanding and our relationship is still going strong fourteen years later.

Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will is their seventh album proper (not counting live albums, EPs and compilations) and it is, it has to be said, a triumph. For a band that deliberately limits their sonic palette they still manage to make the most bold and adventurous music.

From the opening delicate arpeggiated guitar of White Noise to the dying chords of You're Lionel Ritchie every single track is a glorious demonstration of their vision and power as a band. White Noise builds from the delicate beginnings to a swirling crescendo, underpinned by some lovely piano and Martin Bulloch's solid drumming.

Mexican Grand Prix is as close to pop as they are going to get with its hazy vocals, shimmering organ riffs and pumping beat. Back to more familiar Mogwai territory for Rano Pano and its monster distorted guitars and driving percussion.

The delicate and beautiful Letters to the Metro opens out onto the joyous and bouncy George Square Thatcher Death Party. The vocals make a reappearance here and although you can't comprehend the lyrics the sentiments are clear from the title. In my alternative world this would be the Christmas number one this year.

How to be a Werewolf takes a while to get going, but when the drums kick in and the warm tender bass line comes to the front of the mix it irresistibly draws you in and, although joined by a bit of searing guitar and crashing cymbals they remain constant under it all, to be revealed again as the rest of the instrumentation fades away at the end.

The final track, You're Lionel Ritchie, references the classic Mogwai template with almost silent quiet passages interspersed by some of the heaviest and lumbering guitar lines, before dying away in a cloud of distorted chords.

Valhalla Dancehall gave this a good run for their money, but for the sheer exuberance and enjoyment the band have for their music, the way they manage to keep refining and honing their sound to push their boundaries and for their singular vision it had to be Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Best albums of 2011: competition!

Numbers ten to two have been unveiled, almost time to reveal what my favourite album of 2011 is, but first it is time for everyone to take a guess what it might be. Anyone that gets it right will be rewarded with a copy of said album, or if (as is highly likely) you happen to already own a copy, any other album of your choice on the list.

And I know you are all waiting to hear what number one is before weighing in with your own personal top tens, but I still want to know what is on everyone else's lists.

Best albums of 2011

2 British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
Over the last five or six years British Sea Power have gradually become one of my favourite bands. I had heard a bit about them earlier than that, but 2005's Open Season was their first album I bought, beguiled by song titles like North Hanging Rock, Victorian Ice and Oh Larsen B combined with a fiercely intelligent indie rock backing.

Third album Do You Like Rock Music? continued the trajectory with songs about The Great Skua, Canvey Island and eastern European immigration. The music was still loaded with tuneful, catchy indie rock, reproducing all the best bits of their legendary live shows in the studio, but with a bit more light and shade than on Open Season.

In Valhalla Dancehall they tackle the current state of British politics and society. Released in February the first song Who's in Control sounds eerily prescient about the summer riots, decimation of public services and occupy movement:
Were you not told?
Did you not know?
Everything around you's being sold
Do you not care?
Were you not there?
Everybody else was going spare
What's yours and mine?
Does this escape you all the time?
Sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night
It is also a superbly exhilarating bit of crunching, jump around rock music with a nod to 70s punk like the Clash. Second song, We are Sound, ups the energy even further before winding it back a little on the slow building Georgie Ray. Another furious charge through Stunde Null and Mongk II, before another respite on the sparkling Luna and soothing Baby. Living is so Easy's scathing commentary on rampant consumerism and its corresponding apathy brings us back to the state of British society.

A couple of more abstract songs, one angry burst of sub-two minute punk and we hit the twelve minute epic Once More Now which builds gently for about seven minutes, before collapsing under its own weight and then gently dissipates over the remaining four minutes. Album closer Heavy Water has an elegiac, melancholy feel, but is oddly uplifting with its worries about being on the wrong side. Valhalla Dancehall certainly proves that they should have no worries on that count.

Best albums of 2011

3 M83 – Hurry Up, We're Dreaming
A huge great sprawling double album with everything and the kitchen sink thrown in, made by one man. There are saxophones and slapped basses, walls of synths and I wouldn't be surprised if there was a key-tar in there somewhere. All things I normally hate and the opposite of most of the albums I have loved this year. And he is French. (I am not one to disparage a whole nation, but it is a truism – the French and pop music don't mix. How many great French rock stars or albums can you name?)

However, this is amazing: 22 tracks and not one dud. Quite an achievement. It is so improbable that I keep disbelieving it myself, but every time I put it on I am totally transfixed. I suspect it is a good old-fashioned concept album, only I have no idea what the concept is. The music moves from thumping, big synth-dominated dancefloor fillers to delicate acoustic lullabies and stories about frogs.

The first and last tracks are labelled intro and outro and that seems exactly right. You enter this extraordinary different world, travelling through this incredible imagination, before gently returning to reality. I find it almost impossible to explain why it is so good, so I will just recommend that you get a copy and lose yourself in this alternative world for an hour and a quarter.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Best albums of 2011

4 Gil Scott-Heron – I'm New Here/Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx – We're New Here

I know, I know I'm New Here was actually released in 2010, but I didn't find it until well into this year. And I can justify including it here by pairing it with his collaboration with Jamie xx We're New Here which was released this year and offers a brilliant counterpoint to the original. I still prefer the original version, but the updated record offers some fascinating different angles on these songs.
I want to make this a special tribute
to a family that contradicts the concepts
heard the rules, but wouldn't accept
and womenfolk raised me and I was full grown
before I knew I came from a broken home
Bookended by On Coming From a Broken Home parts 1 and 2 these two tracks sketch out a wonderfully vivid picture of Scott-Heron's upbringing and the early influences that shaped his life. Part 1 lays out the facts and from there we move straight into the next phase of his life with the ominous Me and the Devil. With a minimal backing of clanking percussion, handclaps and a supremely unsettling, needling synth he takes you right into the head of that young man struggling with and not making the best decisions.

The soothing acoustic guitar of I'm New Here provides a welcome change of perspective and has one of the best lyrics I have heard for a long time, including the wonderful line:
I'm the closest thing I have to a voice of reason
Your Soul and Mine steps back into the darkness again, but like a story that you would tell a child to keep them out of mischief, and there is a sense here that there may be a way out, some way to resist. This is reinforced with the short spoken word interlude about descendants and into the next track I'll Take Care of You. Beginning on a pure string note, backed up with chiming piano chords and its lovely protective promise to look after the unnamed lover or child. 

The demons return on Where Did the Night Go and New York is Killing Me, which sound like the descendants of those old Delta Blues songs, with their simple sparse backings and tales of sleepless nights and yearning for the Deep South.

Running sounds like a funeral procession and at this point the hard-won wisdom has been gained, but also knowing that time is running out. Nowhere left to run, running out of time, no point in running for cover. Turning even deeper into the dark The Crutch builds from a lone heartbeat into a swirling, desperate final reckoning.

And then we are back, full circle to his mother and part 2 of On Coming from a Broken Home. Only, as he says:
I came from what they called a broken home
But if they ever really called at our house
they would have known how wrong they were
We were working on our lives and our homes
Dealing with what we had
Not what we didn't have
My life has been guided by women
But because of them I am a man
And you understand that he has made sense of a chaotic and eventful life, gaining true wisdom, resolving and reconciling his past and heritage.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Best albums of 2011

5 Dead Letter Chorus – Yearlings
This was released back in August in the depths of the Australian winter, not that the depths are really that deep (even down at 37°47' S), which is strange because it is one of the sunniest, happiest albums I have heard in a while.

Opening with a delicate acoustic guitar and intertwined male and female vocals Covered by Snow quickly builds into a pounding joyous plea to a potential lover, fading back to almost nothing before winding it all up again. It's the well worn Nirvana quiet verse/loud chorus dynamic, but channeled through this wonderful backing it sounds fresh all over again. Both vocalists – Cameron Potts and Gabrielle Huber – are equally strong and I love the contrast their different voices bring to these songs, sometimes working together other times taking turns.

In Yellow House they share the vocal equally and it is stunning the way various words and phrases bring out one or the other. The acoustic guitars are high in the mix and there is beautifully straightforward electric guitar run in the background that burrows deep into your conscience and has you humming along for hours. Either that or pressing the back button to play it again. Three minutes thirteen seconds of perfection.

There are ups and downs in this set of songs, it would be a bit too sacharine if there wasn't, but their blend of delicate, catchy indie-pop is overwhelmingly upbeat and affirming. There are tinges of folk around the edges and this gives the songs a slightly out of time feel – they don't feel entirely rooted in this second decade of the twenty first century. Not escapist or a retreat from the world of 2011, but a welcome respite from some of its more draining complications.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Best albums of 2011

6 Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu – Rrakala
I wrote about Gurrumul's first album back in 2009 when it was on my best of list for that year. That album was breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty. One man, his guitar and the most incredible voice. Songs sung in traditional languages of Arnhem Land, no translation necessary, with the barest of accompaniments.

This is his second album and it follows a similar template to the first. The voice is the same, but the sound is fleshed out a bit with some stately piano lines, brushed drums and understated electric guitar picking. Building slowly on the opening four songs to the catchy and surprisingly up-tempo Ya Yawirriny the album then moves into a more reflective and melancholic phase for the rest of the songs. Although the melodies are just as lovely, they are less stirring and more contemplative. The structures of the songs seem less traditional, building in blocks with repeating phrases and melodies cycling and reappearing later. The eight and a half minute Warwu being the best example of this and, for me, the centrepoint of the album.

As the esteemed Robert Foster notes every addition and overdub that Gurrumul and his producer, Michael Hohnen, resisted only makes the songs sound bigger and increases their power. Hohnen also plays the stand-up bass, almost inaudibly on some tracks, on the album and legend has it that he spent ten years persuading Gurrumul to record that first solo record. If this is true, and presumably he also helped get this one released only two years later, then I am immensely grateful to him. Almost as much as I am to Gurrumul for allowing these songs into my life.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Best albums of 2011

7 All India Radio – The Silent Surf
It seems appropriate that the cover artwork for The Silent Surf features a huge moon hanging above a tropical looking sea, as this is undoubtably late at night music. Whereas Burial is to me the sound of after midnight in London, All India Radio are late into the night on warm Melbourne summer streets, just enough breeze to make having the windows open worth it, the sound of distant sirens and occasional boy-racers.

Their music is languid and rolling, with gentle percussion, warm enveloping guitars and occasional fragments of vocal rolling in from next door's radio. On first listen it sounds simple and delicate, but concentrating a bit harder you notice how much depth there is, how many layers need to be accumulated to create such a beautiful balance between all the different elements. As Dean Wareham once said about Galaxie 500's music, it isn't the notes you play it's the space between them.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Best albums of 2011

8 Glasvegas – Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\
Since the beginning of time, or at least the music industry, second albums have always been a problem.

First albums sometimes sound completely new and original, crammed with ideas and stories from before the band became stars and set-up sky-high expectations for the next record. A lot of this is down to critics and fans always on the look out for the next big thing, but it also helps that the bands tend to not really know anything about the music industry and just do their own thing without too much record company interference.

The first self-titled Glasvegas album fits this model perfectly. It was a perfect combination of working class Glaswegian stories about absent fathers, social workers and stabbings delivered with soaring vocals and thumping wall of sound that sounded like The Jesus and Mary Chain produced by Phil Spector. I loved it and my favourite song, Polmont on My Mind, made my best of compilation for 2008. Glasvegas made all the best of lists for the year, was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and even seemed to sell pretty well. (Later I discovered a download of the demo tapes for the album and amazingly most of them are even better than the final re-recorded versions that made the album. Do a search for 'Glasvegas artist promo' if you don't believe me.)

Following a first album like that is always going to be trouble and what normally happens is that bands in this position start writing songs about how difficult it is to be in a successful band, take too many drugs and start taking the record company's advice seriously. Glasvegas certainly looked like they were following this script with the band decamping to Santa Monica, lead singer James Allen disappearing for five days when he was supposed to appear at the Mercury Music Prize awards, their drummer leaving before writing had even started and super-producer Flood drafted in to oversee the recording.

Given the background it's not surprising that Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\ can't really be described as an un-qualified success. The songs are more vague and ambiguous, less specific and consequently less powerful. The music also ups the bombast and further polishes off the rough edges, losing a bit of the variety and charm in the process. Luckily though they prove the old maxim that you can take the boy out of Glasgow, but you can't take the Glasgow out of the boy. The stories here are more personal and shift the focus more firmly onto James, but they are completely lacking in self-indulgence and the usual rock-star concerns. As the title suggests many there is a lot of pain and heartache here, relationship troubles and shame about sexuality in a young life without many options.

The album starts with Bladerunner-esque synth lines and a voice intoning the title Pain Pain Never Again in French before James' voice arrives with the English version, building slowly into a menacing deluge before kicking straight into the anthemic The World is Yours. There are plenty more big anthems and even a power ballad – Whatever Hurts You Through the Night – that could stand in for Take My Breath Away in the proposed Top Gun sequel. Penultimate track Lot's Sometimes is the cathartic big finale, but subverted by placing the low-key Change as the album's last track. The one track that probably wouldn't sound out of place on the first album, this is an emotive pledge to turn his life around from a young man being released from prison to his mum. James' mum contributes a spoken reply which ends with her advising that 'before you change for me, change for you'.

Song for Sunday

Destroyer – Savage Night at the Opera

Band/artist of the week: British Sea Power
Song of the week: British Sea Power – Remember Me

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Best albums of 2011

9 Holly Throsby – Team
It seems that there is only room for one female singer-songwriter in my affections at any one time. Last year it was Laura Marling, but even though she released another excellent album this year my affections have been stolen by Holly Throsby.

Not to be confused with that other antipodean songstress called Holly, this Holly specialises slightly off-beam songs about relationships and their associated trials. The lyrics are always interesting and her backing is generally exquisite: simple guitar and piano lines filled out with delicate touches of strings, cello, double bass, drums and vocals that are looped and layered.

In the album opener What I Thought of You she is looking back on a relationship and wondering how different things look in hindsight. A couple of kids piano chords start things off, with a quick scratch of cello before the guitar riff starts, setting the scene perfectly for the this bittersweet recollection.

The absolutely gorgeous strings and a slightly breathy vocal delivery on It's Only Need cover up a desperately sad brush-off to an unwanted partner, while Here is My Co-pilot is more up-tempo and seems to be recounted from a more positive perspective. The vocal layering looping around the background is particularly effective here and builds to a lovely gentle crescendo.

The remainder of the album is more low-key compared to the superlative start and the later tracks dip in intensity a bit, but still offer up plenty of charms if you are paying attention. Also highly recommended is the singer-songwriter supergroup album – Seeker Lover Keeper – which Throsby recorded with Sarah Blasko and Sally Seltmann.

Oh, and we've got a washing line exactly like that in our back garden ...

Friday, December 16, 2011

Best albums of 2011

10 Wild Beasts – Smother

This record snuck up on me and I am still not completely sure what it is that I like so much. It's also one of those albums that I find it hard to recall what individual songs are called and which tracks are the ones I really like. Not that the songs sound the same, but more that there is a definite feel to the whole album which pulls you in and seems to induce a lack of caring about such trivia.

Initially I found the vocals just a bit too mannered, but was won over by the combination of disconcerting and outlandish lyrics with the wonderfully lush, laid back musical backing.
Our love, Frankenstein in nature and design, like the Shelleys on their very first time, when our bodies become electrified, together we bring this creature alive ...
The music reminds me a bit of The Blue Nile at their luxuriant and velvety best, but without the chilly digital constructions. Wild Beasts are more louche dive bar than shiny, spotless cocktail bar. Happily, they also look like a fantastic live band and do a great job of recreating the sound and feel of the album. (Have a look at their performance from the Other Voices festival if you need any convincing. Before watching, however, I feel I have to warn you to view with caution if you are of a nervous fashion disposition. Oxblood leather jacket with polo neck, that's all I am going to say ...)

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Best albums of 2011: the near misses

Only ten days to Christmas and I still haven't started on the best of lists. If I've calculated correctly we can still fit the top ten album rundown in before falling asleep after Christmas lunch, but I'd better get organised ...

Just to heighten the anticipation here are three favourites that just missed out on the final ten. Looking forward to hearing all your lists and, as last year, there will be prizes for anyone that can guess the number one. No clues, but it is probably a lot easier to guess than last year's choice.

Trembling Blue Stars – Correspondence EP
It is only called an EP, but at over thirty minutes it would have been an LP in olden days. The Trembling Blue Stars were another band that I thought had probably split up ages ago and now, apparently, after this record they have. First track, The Light Outside, starts with about six minutes of swirling static and interference which almost coalesces into the sort of love-lorn, minor key track that is their stock-in-trade before dissolving into the background mist again. It is an oddly wonderful effect and every time I hear it is like overhearing a beautiful gem of an unknown song on someone else's radio that leaves you with the knowledge that you've heard something magical, but without being able to say what it was or anything about why it was so special. The rest of the songs are more traditional Trembling Blue Stars, but all demonstrate why Bobby Wratten is one of the most brilliant British song writers of the last twenty years and I still can't fathom why he is so cruelly overlooked. There is also a fantastic cover version of Wire's Kidney Bingos which on its own is worth the price of the whole album; all shimmering guitars and stunning male/female harmonies.

Pains of Being Pure at Heart – Belong
A big old blast of early 90s shoegazey indie-rock repurposed for 2011? Not everyone's cup of tea admittedly, but for someone who still listens to those old Ride records regularly this will do nicely. As far as I can tell these guys weren't even in primary school in 1990, but they have obviously been paying attention and this is a near perfect slice of noise-pop. Bet it goes down a storm at all the indie discos, if such things still exist.

R.E.M. – Collapse Into Now
They could easily have been in the top 10 (and not just because I am feeling all sentimental about them splitting up), but they had to spoil it by including a couple of howlers like Mine Smell Like Honey and Alligator Aviator Autopilot Antimatter. There are about five tracks on this album that remind you of the days when they were not only the most interesting band in the world, but also one of the most successful. Überlin and Oh My Heart are probably the two best songs they have recorded since Automatic for the People so I shouldn't complain too much, but if they had released a record with ten tracks as good, then they really could have retired as the best band in the world.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Friday, December 9, 2011

Ghost libraries

Lovely short piece about ebooks in the November 3 London Review of Books (I am only currently one issue behind in my reading, which for me is pretty good going, but anyway you don't read the LRB for its topicality ...) by James Meek. It is only short and you can read it in full on their website, but some choice quotes below.
Once there were private libraries; then there were public libraries; now there is the ghost library, where poltergeistic fellow readers may not only be reading the same book as you at any moment but actually underlining the page of the book you are reading seconds before you get to it. They may be next door; they may be in Kamchatka; they may be anywhere, so long as they have Kindle and wifi.
The lightness of the ebook medium, literally and figuratively, holds a terrible allure and an insidious threat to the heavily booked-up among us. How many marriages, seemingly held firm by the impossibility of moving several hundredweight of vinyl or CDs out of a family-sized home, have already foundered post the digitisation of music? How many more will break if apparently inseparable and immovable matrimonial libraries become something that anyone can walk out with in their pocket?
The last paragraph is particularly lovely, but I will let you read that for yourselves.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Song for Sunday

My Bloody Valentine – Sometimes

It is twenty years this month since Loveless was released and I would still say it is probably my favourite album ever. Certainly one of my essential Desert Island Discs. Twenty years ago I was living in Durham and although I don't think I actually got a copy until sometime in 1992 (probably prompted by the review in Select magazine) I do remember being told to switch it off many times by friends and neighbours not convinced of its genius. The stories about the album are legendary (how it almost bankrupted Alan McGee's Creation Records and if it hadn't been for Oasis it probably would have gone under) and the band never made another album despite signing for Island Records for a large sum of money.

The only time I got to see them play live was the legendary Rollercoaster tour a few months later with Dinosaur Jr, Blur and The Jesus and Mary Chain at the Glasgow SECC. Blur were just about to take off and most of the cool kids were there for them. The Jesus and Mary Chain were slightly over the hill and the less said about Dinosaur Jr the better. I am sure that not everyone would agree, but basically My Bloody Valentine ripped them all to shreds. They were second or third on the bill and it was like standing behind one of Concorde's engines when the pilot opens up the afterburners. To this day it the loudest concert (loudest anything!) I have been to and it was a thrilling, petrifying, bowel churning, glorious forty-five minutes (twenty of which they spent playing the same chord). Most people thought it was the ideal time to risk the SECC's bar, I thought it was awesome.

The anniversary seems to have gone by pretty much unnoticed, apart from a nice article by Scott McDonald here. But that's okay, give it another twenty years and I am sure everyone else will finally be convinced of its greatness.

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: Portishead – It's a Fire

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Song for Sunday

Dead Letter Chorus – Yellow House

Bank from our early spring holiday in the sun to a chilly and dreary Melbourne (I have a cold already!), so in need of a bright blast of summery, poppy, catchy escapism. Dead Letter Chorus don't disappoint and I would be surprised if you aren't humming the nonsense chorus for the next week. It certainly worked in our house today – the rest of the family came back from the Lion King all singing Hakuna Matata in unison. A couple of plays of this soon knocked that on the head ...

Band/artist of the week: Malcolm Middleton
Song of the week: Malcolm Middleton – Total Belief

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Song for Sunday

R.E.M. – World Leader Pretend (live on the Green Tour 1989)

So, farewell R.E.M., one of the greatest independent rock bands of all time splitting up after 30 years. To be honest my overriding feelings were nostalgia for a time around when this was recorded rather than grief that there wouldn't ever be anymore new music from them. My interest levels have waned since Bill Berry left the band in 1997 and, although I have always been interested to hear what the latest record sounds like, there hasn't been anything that matches up what they produced in late 80s and early 90s. Ironically their last album Collapse into Now was probably the best thing they had done for a decade, with a few songs that would probably sneak into an all time top 30. The time I saw them at the Glasgow Barrowlands on the Green World Tour is still probably the best concert I have ever been to and that will always be how I'll remember them. Anyway, enjoy the retirement guys and thanks.

Band/artist of the week:
Song of the week: New Order - Bizarre Love Triangle

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Song for Sunday

Sigur Rós – Festival (Live)

It has been a while since we had any Sigur Rós on the blog. New live album is on the way and this reminds me that I should get their Heima DVD out of the cupboard again for another viewing.

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

Cadel's suitcase of courage*

Well I was wrong about Contador and wrong about the Schlecks, but at least I was pretty close with Cadel. It was probably the most exciting Tour that I can recall – wide-open and tremendously exciting right from the first stage.

Cadel winning was more of a relief than anything else. I did wonder if he would always be one of those riders remembered for the almosts, what-ifs and second placings rather than the big win he deserved. It seems a bit unfair to say that about someone who has won the World Championships and perhaps that day in Mendrisio did mark the turning point in his career. After that he certainly seemed less awkward and more confident about his own talents, happier and willing to take risks.

The win hasn't been as big a deal in Australia as I thought it would be. Obviously it will make a big difference to Australian cycling, but in this sport obsessed society it is unlikely to change much in our sporting landscape. Personally I'm quite happy about that. I don't want the big commercial channels muscling in on the coverage and cocking it all up like they do with the Olympics. Everyone who has watched the Tour over at least a few years knows what a huge achievement it is and how hard it is to win the greatest annual sporting event in the world.

My green jersey predictions weren't too bad. I got the winner and no-one could deny that Thor had a great Tour. I would be surprised if Rojas figured in anyone's predictions for the sprinter's prize but he put up a great fight even though he couldn't compete with Cavendish's all out speed.

My top two maillot à pois predictions failed to fire and I was happy to see Sanchez take the top spot. He is a great climber and worthy winner of this jersey. Finally, hats off, as they say, to 'little' Thomas Voeckler and his superb tenure in the yellow jersey. Unfortunately I think that's the last time the big teams will ever let him get in a breakaway, however, with a bit more investment in the team and bit of good luck he could well be a genuine contender for the yellow jersey in Paris next year. After Cadel, of course.

*Thanks to Paul Sherwin for this bon mot from the Alpe d'Huez stage

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Friday, July 1, 2011

Tour de France 2011

Another second place for Cadel? I think so, but whether that will still be the case on August 3 that's another question. Contador is certainly the favourite – no-one could touch him in the Giro and you cannot imagine anyone putting much time into him in the mountains or in the time trials. It will be interesting to see how much a very hard Giro did take out of him and whether he is completely recovered, but his winning margin was so great that even with the superior field at the Tour there doesn't look like anyone who could realistically knock him off the top spot.

Cadel looks much improved this year and I think he can really challenge Contador. His team is much stronger and winning the World Championships seems to have given him a much needed psychological boost. It will be interesting to see if he can attack in the mountains, but with good team and individual time trials it may not matter.

It would be great to see Wiggins and Sky get on the podium. They have a really strong team and I think will surprise a lot of people this year. I am worried that Bradley may have peaked slightly too early and think that he will lose a bit of time in the third week, but hopefully that should still be enough to hold onto third place.

Gesink and Roche are both a bit of a long shot, but I think that they are both riding well and ready to step-up to highest levels. I am so impressed with Roche that he even made the cut in my Tour de France fantasy team.

But there is one big name that we haven't mentioned yet: what about Andy Schleck? His form seems to be off this year and unless he has been doing some serious bluffing I don't think he will be one of the contenders this year. It is possible that he may ride himself into form over the three weeks, but I would bet that his brother Fränk finishes higher than him this year.

This will be the year that everything goes to plan for Mark Cavendish and I am looking forward to seeing him take the green jersey in Paris for the first time.

And my favourite jersey – the maillot à pois – will again be the consolation prize for a plucky unheralded Frenchman. This year I think it will be Jean Gadret's turn, followed closely by last year's winner Anthony Chartreau.

1 Alberto Contador
2 Cadel Evans
3 Bradley Wiggins
4 Robert Gesink
5 Nicolas Roche

1 Mark Cavendish
2 Thor Hushovd
3 Tom Boonen
1 Jean Gadret
2 Anthony Charteau
3 Samuel Sanchez

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Song for Sunday

And now the Big Man. Very saddened to hear that Clarence Clemons died yesterday. Always the perfect foil to Bruce on stage, those songs will never sound the same again.

Band/artist of the week: All India Radio
Song of the week: All India Radio – Rippled

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Song for Sunday

Gil Scott-Heron – I'm New Here

I came to Gil Scott-Heron pretty late. I had heard plenty of his earlier work, but never paid enough attention for it to really sink in. It was only with last year's I'm New Here album that I realised what I had been missing. That album and his recent collaboration with Jamie xx were met with a welcome resurgence in interest and seemed to suggest an exciting and productive new chapter in his 'colourful' life ...

Unfortunately it wasn't to be and as news of his death filtered through yesterday my sadness was tempered by a selfish joy at finding out lots more than I already knew about his life and work, and hearing all the heart-felt tributes and stories from other artists and fans. Gone, but certainly not forgotten.

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: All India Radio – Rippled

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Song for Sunday

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Into My Arms

For some reason this song has been in my head lots this week. Maybe because it makes a good lullaby, provided you don't listen to the lyrics too much ...

Band/artist of the week: Bruce Springsteen
Song of the week: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Into My Arms

Monday, May 16, 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Song for Sunday

All India Radio – Rippled

Apologies for the late posting. I forgot on Sunday and by last night Blogger was broken. Anyway, this is well worth the wait. Enjoy!

Band/artist of the week: Bruce Springsteen
Song of the week: Bruce Springsteen – Dancing in the Dark

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Song for Sunday

Mogwai – How to Be a Werewolf (in Thirty Century Man)

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: Mogwai – George Square Thatcher Death Party

Spot the theme anyone?

Romanno Bridge

Sometimes I am up for a bit of heavy-duty non-fiction, experimental novels or multi-layered literary fiction with fractured timelines. Sometimes though, all I am looking for is a cracking yarn.

Andrew Greig's Romanno Bridge certainly doesn't disappoint on that front. Reprising his characters from The Return of John MacNab a few years on he entangles them in a far more dangerous and brutal adventure. John MacNab had a very genteel sense of British fair-play compared with Romanno Bridge ...

Starting out with a suicide deep in Rothiemurchus Forest the plot plunges headlong into ancient secret societies and the search for the real(?) Stone of Destiny, racing all over Scotland with diversions to London, Canada and Norway.

Often with this type of story the reader has to allow the author a bit of leeway to get beyond some of the more far-fetched elements, but even so there can't be any holes in the plot or characters with defects or who aren't believable. Some of the characters do seem to turn-up in exactly the right place at the right time and I had heard comments from some who felt that Kirsty could only ever exist in a male novelist's head. There are elements of her that are almost too good to be true, but it was never a problem for me. I wanted to believe, so it all felt real.

Of course everything works out all right by the end and the good guys prevail. Even so he keeps you on your toes right up to the last pages and the ending avoids any whiff of sentimentality. It just feels right, and sometimes that is exactly what you need from a book.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Song for Sunday

The Rural Alberta Advantage – Stamp

New album (with this song on it) out this week!

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: Mogwai – George Square Thatcher Death Party

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Alex's Adventures in Numberland

Last time I looked Alex Bellos was The Guardian's correspondent in Brazil and his one published book was a wonderfully idiosyncratic and entertaining look at Brazilian football (or futebol as the Brazilians would say) which actually turned out to be a pretty good historical and sociological primer for the whole country. Read along with Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil there probably isn't much more that you need to know about this most intriguing (at least to me) country.

So, getting back to the point, I was mildly surprised to find out last year that he had written a book about mathematics called Alex's Adventures in Numberland. However, it turns out he has a degree in philosophy and mathematics (they didn't mention that in the blurb on the football book!) and a boundless enthusiasm for seeking out the quirky and fascinating amongst the numbers and equations.

Starting out with Munduruku people living deep in the Brazilian Amazon who still lead a hunter-gatherer existence and have no words for numbers greater than five. Mainly because, as Alex demonstrates, they don't have any need for them. And even these five numbers aren't a precise match for the quantities one to five translating more correctly into one, two, threeish, fourish and a handful. This leads into a fascinating discussion on how children learn to count and understand numbers. Studying young children and isolated indigenous peoples gives a fascinating insight into innate mathematical intuition compared against taught concepts. (The numerical equivalent of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct.)

From there we move through number systems, numerology, Vedic mathematics, Pi, algebra, number games, the golden ratio, probability, statistics and on to infinity (the concept not the size of the book ...). He has a journalist's eye for an interesting story and the writing is always clear and intelligent, even when he gets into some fairly high level concepts. Pleasingly, the text is also accompanied by plenty of well-drawn diagrams, illustrations and photos which help with the explanations and let you see what mathematicians really look like. There are also plenty of equations, but what did you expect? It is about maths after all.

Along the way he tracks down some fascinating characters, some well known, most not. For example Wayne Gould, a retired judge from New Zealand who found a Sudoku book in a Tokyo bookshop and although he couldn't read any of the instructions he managed to work out how to solve the puzzle. He then spent six years writing a computer program to generate Sudokus and went on to sell the idea to newspapers in the USA and UK sparking a craze which now has over 100 million regular players. I had always presumed that Sudoku was an ancient Japanese puzzle which was just popularised recently in the West, but it turns out to have been invented by Maki Kaji, a Japanese puzzle-maker who refined a puzzle that he had seen in an American puzzle magazine which had in turn been created by Howard Garns, a retired architect from Indiana.

At 450 pages he covers a lot of ground, but it flys past and I was very sad to see it finish, although my head was hurting a bit by the end. By the last chapter we are up to non-Euclidean geometry, hyperbolic crochet, Georg Cantor's 'set theory' and the Hilbert Hotel. Luckily he also has an excellent blog where he updates some of the stories that appear in the book and any other interesting mathematics that he finds.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Borders, REDGroup and Australian bookselling

In November 2009 I started a post entitled Is Borders evil? so as you may guess the news that they had placed themselves into voluntary administration on Thursday didn't cause too much heartache around here. As a chain-bookshop ex-employee I do feel sorry for the shopfloor staff who now face irate customers with impossible demands and the likely loss of their jobs.

I came to the conclusion that they probably weren't inherently evil as much as incompetently nefarious, so I never did publish the post, but charging well above RRP on about 90% of your stock did seem like a strange strategy for a bookshop looking for customer loyalty and longevity. The half-empty shelves, poor stock selection and lack of key backlist titles over the last few years also seemed to point to some problems with management and strategy.

Around this time the government was also looking into the parallel importation laws and book pricing in general, so there was plenty of media coverage about the disparity between book prices in Australia and those in the USA and UK, but bizarrely there was no coverage anywhere about one of the major book retailing chains over-pricing the vast majority of their stock.

It wasn't always like that, however, when Borders first opened in Carlton in early 2003 it was a well stocked and pleasant spot to browse. I still never bought much there, but occasionally one of their discounted bestsellers like William Gibson's Pattern Recognition or something more esoteric not stocked elsewhere would persuade me to get the credit card out.

Unfortunately in 2007 the Borders US group started getting into difficulties and the UK and Asia Pacific parts of the business were put up for sale. The Australia/NZ side was bought in June 2008 by the REDGroup who are in turn owned by Pacific Equity Partners (PEP), a private equity firm who clearly weren't buying because of a love of literature. The REDGroup already owned the Angus and Robertson chain in Australia and the Whitcoulls chain in New Zealand, so it was fairly obvious that PEP thought they could merge Borders into the existing business, streamline back office functions, maximise profit and sell it on as soon as they could get a good price. (The financial background is explained well in an article in yesterday's Sydney Morning Herald by Michael Evans.)

Straight away you could see the change in the shops: backlist wasn't replaced, shelves got empty, prices went up across the board and non-book products became more and more prominent. I am probably not the average book-buyer, but it wasn't long before I stopped buying anything from them and quickly realised that it wasn't even worth going in to the stores as it would just annoy me.

Not as annoyed, however, as I was when it was revealed soon after the announcement that Border's chairman Steven Cain had written to the government blaming them for the chain's failure because of the overseas internet shopping GST loophole and parallel importation laws. Sure, internet booksellers will have taken a some of Borders market, but the parallel importation laws have very little to do with the problems the REDGroup encountered. For their management to try to shift the blame from their failings to others over two issues which they were well aware of and should have had strategies for dealing with is pathetic in the extreme. It is also telling that Dymocks and other, smaller independent chains, like the ever excellent Readings, can survive in the current climate when they are dealing with exactly the same issues, albeit far more successfully.

Most of the articles about the collapse have made much of the impact of overseas online booksellers like Amazon and Book Depository (some even going so far as to predict that this is the beginning of the end for all shops!) who are undoubtably grabbing a bigger and bigger share of the market in Australia and many have pointed out that the widespread take-up of ebooks will squeeze the bricks-and-mortar bookshops further. Personally, I think that big and bland chains will struggle as more of their custom goes online, but am optimistic that smaller and more customer-focused shops should still be able to thrive. Their role will change slightly as all the bestsellers go digital, but provided they focus on the things that on-line and ebooks can't provide like author events, discussion groups and great customer service then I think they will be all right. Of course they may need a bit of help from the publishers in all of this, but that is another story which can wait for now.

There is bound to plenty more coverage over the coming weeks and the whole industry will be watching intently to see what happens. In the meantime, if you want to know more here are some of the best sources and stories:
John Birmingham – Borders' demise: why the book chains are doomed
Bookseller + Publisher blog – Things we keep repeating
Bookseller + Publisher blog – Round-up of stories on REDGroup entering voluntary administration
And my favourite, Ross Honeywill – How Mark Rubbo killed Borders books

Song for Sunday

The Delgados – No Danger

I can't help but feel vaguely cheated that I haven't seen this before. It isn't surprising that it didn't make it onto CD:UK, but surely there must have been other music shows on UK TV that would have shown something of such total and utter genius? I can highly recommend American Trilogy as well, which seems to feature the Banana Splits on a day trip to Manchester Velodrome.

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: Mogwai – George Square Thatcher Death Party

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Song for Sunday

Mogwai – Rano Pano

Fantastic! I hope you are all getting excited about the new album Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will out a week on Monday. The perfect Valentine gift for the significant other in your life. Trust me ...

Band/artist of the week: Mogwai
Song of the week: On Volcano – Acceleration of Heartbeat

(Song of the week is also completely brilliant and you can download a copy completely free from here.)

Monday, January 31, 2011

Books of 2010

Complete list is in the sidebar way down somewhere on the right. 39 was quite a long way short of my stated goal of one a week. I started well, but quickly tailed off with a too-late surge in the last three months, as you can see from the chart below. This year I am going to aim for 52 again, but suspect that anticipated lack of sleep from late May onwards may make it hard to achieve again.
More worrying, however, as the following graph clearly illustrates is the gap between books read and books acquired. Luckily most of my 2010 Christmas books actually arrived in January, otherwise the gap would have been even more alarming.
Top ten is below, with statistics underneath. Apparent again is a heavy bias towards fiction, male authors and books published in the last three years.

Top 10
1 Let the Great World Spin – Colum McCann
2 Waterlog – Roger Deakin
3 The Magnetic North – Sarah Wheeler
4 A Lie About My Father – John Burnside
5 Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson
6 Zeitoun – Dave Eggers
7 Zero History – William Gibson
8 The Stars in the Bright Sky – Alan Warner
9 The Broken Shore – Peter Temple
10 Men in Space – Tom McCarthy

Fiction: 29 titles
Non-fiction: 10 titles
Number of authors: 39
Male authors: 32
Female authors: 7

Books published in 2010: 11
Books published in 2009: 13
Books published in 2008: 6
Books published in 2007: 4
Books published in 2006: 3
Books published in 2005: 1
Books published 2000-04: 1
Books published 1990-99: 0
Books published 1980-89: 0
Books published before 1980: 0

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Song for Sunday

Broadcast – Winter Now

Very sad to hear about the death of Trish Keenan from pneumonia. Broadcast were always one of those bands that I felt I should like more than I actually did. Their left-field, wilfully experimental side always seemed to pound the tuneful, bewitching pop side into submission. But there were always enough moments when the two sides combined into something magical to make me give them another chance whenever a new record came out.

There is a lovely remembrance here, along with some more clips of their finer moments.

Band/artist of the week: The National
Song of the week: British Sea Power – Living is so Easy