Tuesday 23 September 2014

Clandestine Classic XXXIX - Antiphon

The thirty-ninth post in an occasional series that is intended to highlight songs that you might not have heard that I think are excellent - clandestine classics, if you will. Maybe they'll be by bands you've never heard of. Maybe they'll be by more familiar artists, but tracks that were squirelled away on b-sides, unpopular albums, radio sessions or music magazine cover-mounted CDs. Time will, undoubtedly, tell.

There was a time when I would buy, on average, an album on CD every other week. Sometimes more. My shelves groaned under their collected weight. But life changes. Life gets busy with other shit. Time for just sitting and listening to music gets eroded, especially now that I no longer spend an hour in the car commuting every day. And tastes changes too. I was going to write that my tastes have changed but let's be honest here, my tastes have stayed mostly the same and the world has moved on. I've just had a quick look at the current UK top 40 and do you know what? I don't know a single track in it. Not one. I couldn't even hazard a guess, a hum, at any of them. My taste has never been mainstream, but it seems what I like has never been so far removed from what is popular. Or commercial, at least.

I got to wondering recently when this parting of the ways happened. Perhaps these Clandestine Classics would provide a clue, I thought. So I drew up a graph, running from the year I was born to now, and I tallied up the 38 entries in this series thus far to see how they were distributed. This is the result:

Seems 1992 was a much better year for music than I remember! The big surprise here is the shortage of tracks from the early to mid Eighties, but then I guess the "clandestine" criteria for this series means I can't easily include The Jam, The Smiths, and many other bands I listened to a lot back then. I had a big 60s Mod revival thing going on then too - Who, Kinks, Small Faces - again, hard to categorise as clandestine. The consistent level throughout the Nineties is no surprise - I was out a lot, going to lots of gigs (mostly with The Man Of Cheese), avidly reading the music press, exploring new sounds. Then in the Noughties... well, I didn't grow up as such but life moved on around me. Then, in 2007 my life took a right-angle turn and I had time again to indulge, to seek out new bands, to try new things again. Even so, no Clandestine Classics since 2011.... I am not down with the kids.

So lets add a more recent bar to the graph. Midlake are a Texan folk rock band who've been plying their trade since 1999. I'll confess to not being familiar with their history or earlier work. I've since read that in 2012 their lead vocalist and primary songwriter upped sticks and left the band, and that 2013 album Antiphon was their first output without him. And what output! I heard the title track on the radio and was immediately hooked. Antiphon (a Greek word for a specific type of "call and response" religious chant) may be folk rock but it's choral in a way that definitely sounds ecclesiastical...but fear not, it's an entirely secular work. I think. Because the lyrics are a little obtuse at times; they seem to be anti-war, but also talk of the poor kneeling down before He who takes and defiles, and of idols who wore fine wool... so who knows.

What I do know is that the harmonies made by these, the remaining members of Midlake, are incredible, dense, layered. It's the sort of sound other bands would make with a computer. I found these sounds to be transportative, given the right mood. The record buying public disagreed - the album of the same name limped to number 39 in the UK chart, and didn't chart at all in the US. There was no single release which, given the aforementioned state of that chart, is probably no surprise. To get the most uncluttered perspective on those harmonies, have a listen to this live session version first - then head back here and revel in the depth, structure and sheer weight of the album version, here courtesy of YouTube. Oh, and is it just me or does the middle eight sound briefly like early Seventies Genesis?

I'm still not down with the kids, but I'm okay.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

I don't really "do" memes any more but...

I don't go on Facebook much, if I can help it. I don't really "do" memes1 on there either - it all feels a bit 2008 - but since this one is book related and I was nominated by a good friend (not just nominated, Dark Steps made it onto her list) then I thought I'd better do this. Here's the spiel. List ten books that have stayed with you, for whatever reason, then nominate others to do the same. Simple.

I've added an extra rule of my own: only one book by any given author. Anyway, in no specific order, here goes:

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. You think the film is intense? Try the book. Pitch perfect prose too.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Maybe not his greatest work but this is about books that stay with you...at the time in my life I read this, I was pump-primed, ready to be flattened by this book.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. The book that speaks to me most about being a bloke (and about being a record collector).

Vox by Nicholson Baker. Famously dismissed as a "toenail paring" by Stephen King because of its brevity, Vox is proof that word count is not the be all and end all. Intimate, shocking (still), thought-provoking and very special to me. I almost swapped this choice for The Fermata, by the same author, but since I read Vox first, it (just) gets the nod here.

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. An exercise in controlled horror. You've probably only seen the Will Smith vehicle, but wipe that film from your mind and savour the far-superior source material instead.

Skeleton Crew by Stephen King. I nearly chose The Stand. I nearly chose the recent (and brilliant return to form) 11.22.63. I should probably have chosen The Shining, as it's arguably his best work. But I chose this collection of short fiction instead, as it was the first King I ever read. It's probably not even King's best collection (that's Night Shift, I expect) but it does include The Mist and Mrs Todd's Shortcut. Most importantly though, it began a love affair for me that persists to this day.

Oryx And Crake by Margaret Atwood. If there's been a better (and more unnerving) slice of speculative fiction written in the last twenty years, I haven't seen it. Atwood is beyond compare, in my book.

The Death of Grass by John Christopher. Nowadays book shops, real and online, are awash with dystopia - everything is dystopian this and dystopian that. But this book, long out of print but now back in circulation, just pips The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham for proper, old-school dystopia.

The Outcast by Sadie Jones. I thought long and hard about whether to include this. It is a good book, of that there is no doubt. Have I read other, greater books? Yes. But this makes the because it stays with me, more than most others, because of the time in my life and the circumstances in which I read it.

Watership Down by Richard Adams. The book I have read more than any other (14 times, I think). In a book about rabbits, all human life is here.

And now a cheat, to mention a couple more books. Just bubbling under, not making the cut, Spaceship Medic by Harry Harrison, a book from my childhood, and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, from a time in my teens when I read an awful lot of science fiction. Oh, and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis which, I'd wager, stays long in the mind of anyone who reads it.

And that's it - ask me again next week and you'd probably get a different list. I know this isn't Facebook but the whole thing is about books that have stayed with me (me, me, me!) - that makes it personal, hence ideal blog material. No, it doesn't (just) mean I'm too tired to write anything else new. If, by slim chance, we're friends in Zuckerberg's empire, I hope you don't mind the repetition.

1. Is there a verb yet that means "to 'do' a meme"? Answers on a postcard to the usual address (i.e. post a comment). Cheers.

Monday 8 September 2014

And whilst we're doing lazy photo posts... misplaced hope

I do like the irony of this optimistic message, set against the whitewashed window of a closed-down shop...

(Unless you are the shopkeeper...)

As spotted in a charity shop window...

...in which Asterix, Obelix and the rest take on a rampaging hoard of kohl-eyed, back-combed teens, cutting a doom-soundtracked swathe through Gaul in their ill-fitting black clothes... not that I'm stereotyping, at all.

Asterix and the Goths