Tuesday 29 December 2015

Okay, it's not "Who's on first?" or even "Four candles" but....

Okay, it's not "Who's on first?" or even "Four candles" but today, in my search for change for a ten pound note, I had literally one or two seconds of light relief from my misunderstanding of "I've got £2 coins" as "I've got two pound coins."

Oh, how we laughed. Bet you're glad you stopped by now, aren't you?

Actually, for a bit of added value (I'd feel bad for such a shite blog post otherwise), here's the 21st Century equivalent of "Who's on first?"

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Clandestine Classic XLIV - Generator

The forty-fourth 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.

As I continue to address the paucity of clandestine classics in this year's blog posts, it occurs to me that I should probably try to balance out the downbeat, some would say morose, tone of the last entry in the series. Here, then, is about as upbeat a number as you can get. Now I don't know too much about The Holloways, beyond what can be gleaned from Wikipedia, but I do know Generator was a track from their superbly-titled 2007 album So This Is Great Britain? I bought that, and it's full of mostly perky, jangly guitar pop, but Generator stands heads and shoulders above the rest. For a start there's that incessant, driving beat which, trust me, is excellent at worming its way into your subconscious. Then there are the twin vocals of Alfie Jackson and Robert Skipper (I think), in close harmony, delivering lyrics at infectious, breakneck speed. And then there are those lyrics, as follows:

I can get a record player, and a generator,
Generate the music that makes you feel better.

I don't live in poverty, I got a little bit of money
And I've got a healthy body.
I'm not going to let stuff get me upset
And I won't let all the little things get me depressed.

When I was a young boy I got a stereo
And I taped all the songs straight off the radio.
The sounds that the bands made, and the melodies
Was all I need to make me feel free.

Sometimes you get so low, you don't know why
Or a little upset all inside.
May I remind you? That you don't live in poverty
You got your youth, and you got food in your belly!

I can get a record player, and a generator,
Generate the music that makes you feel better.
I can get a record player, and a generator,
Generate the music that makes you feel better.

By Christ, that's an optimistic song, isn't it? Essentially, yes, life can be a bit crap sometimes but don't let it get you down, play some great music, and all will be well... And of course that's simplistic nonsense but I always feel better for playing music I love, and I suspect you do too. Plus this references that simple pleasure from days gone by of taping a song from the radio - for me, this meant bending over the stereo with a finger on the pause button during the chart run-down, and I know I'm not alone there. Today's equivalent is performing a dodgy download, which somehow seems so much less exciting...

But I digress... like I said, I know little about The Holloways, and their debut album is the only record of theirs that I own. I love this song though, and the way it gets into your head. They carry the "cheer up, it might never happen" vibe into the video too, as you can see:

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Clandestine Classic XLIII - New York

The forty-third 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.

It occurs to me that, prior to today, I have only posted three clandestine classics during 2015. I've dropped the ball, in other words. Between now and the end of the year, I will try to remedy that, starting right now with a track from Stephen Fretwell's 2004 album Magpie. I first saw Stephen live, supporting Travis, in my previous life, way back in 2005, and I was a bit blown away. Here was a singer-songwriter with terrific acoustic chops, laying down slice after slice of bittersweet melancholia. So much was I impressed that I went straight out the next day and bought the album, and then... Then. Then, I was a tiny bit disappointed, truth be told. Magpie is a solid album, of that there's no doubt, but some essential aspect of the Fretwell I'd seen live hadn't translated to the studio recordings I was listening to. Having said that, there were moments of gold on there. What's That you Say Little Girl is beautiful, for starters, and the terrific Run got picked up as the credits music for Gavin & Stacey, assuring Stephen a flirtation with a wider audience (you'll have to wait until about 1:54 in for the bit you'll recognise).

So I could have chosen either of those songs but instead went for New York. It's heartfelt but downbeat, and that's exactly how I felt back then, as long-term readers of this blog may (but probably won't) recall. Back then, a NSFW chorus that begins "Fuck what they say. Fuck it if they talk" was exactly what I was ready to hear. As was the notion of upping sticks with a lady friend and heading off to chase dreams, regardless of how people might react. I was pump-primed, in other words, more receptive to this song than I would ever be at any other point in my life.

As it turned out, I didn't up sticks and run off with an inappropriate woman (not then at least, ba-doom-tish!). Looking back at this song now, I can appreciate the delicate interplay of guitar and piano, the careworn delivery and, most of all, the fine observational narrative lyrics, to whit, "I'll get a job in a bar, you could be a waitress and serve cheap cigars to fat moustachioed men in suits - you'll look cute." It's the cute pay-off that makes this, I think.

So there we are. New York is probably not Stephen Fretwell's crowning achievement, nor is it necessarily even the best track on Magpie, but it is today's clandestine classic because, let's not forget, these are supposed to be songs new to you that are beloved of me. Me, me, me. Even when I'm writing about Stephen Fretwell, or anyone else for that matter, secretly it's all about me, you see. If a boy can't navel-gaze on his own blog, where can he? So here's that debut album, if you have money to spend. Or there's always YouTube:

Monday 14 December 2015

That was the year that was: 2015

2015 is...outatimeIt's mid-December and so, with the weary inevitably of a crass Trumpism or an X-Factor Christmas single, it must be time for a recap of what's been good this year. NAOTY 2015, or Just Another Subjective Award 2015, if you prefer. This is the fifth time I've recapped a year like this (for completists, here's 2014, 2013, 2012 and 2011) and, taken together, all these reviews really do is demonstrate just how parochial my tastes are (Michelle, in the unlikely event that you're reading this, you get more right about that every year). Let's press on.

Best album

"A Comfortable Man" by Cathal Smyth - a quiet album of bittersweet melancholia from the Nutty Boy formerly known as Chas Smash. Truly exceptional, and an album that would currently sit in my "top ten releases of the 21st Century" should I ever compile such a list. You can read my full review here.

Honourable mentions: "Magic Whip" by Blur, which is far, far better than anyone had any right to expect; "My Love Is Cool" by Wolf Alice; "Chasing Yesterday" by Noel Gallagher's High Flying Birds.

Best song

"I Broadcast" by Blur - however much I love having new Blur material, the songs I like best are those that sound most like Modern Life Blur, so this and "Lonesome Street" were vying for the nod here.

Honourable mentions: "Are The Children Happy?" by Cathal Smyth, the most gut-wrenching song about divorce you will hear; the audacious "I Can Change" by Brandon Flowers.

Best gig

The Who at Hyde Park, with a cracking Coombes/Marr/Weller undercard. I mentioned it in passing at the time.

Honourable mentions: It's been another quiet year, gig-wise, but Madness was special, and felt like a homecoming, musically and literally, as were From The Jam, touring the 35th anniversary of "Sound Affects"; Belle and Sebastian were also very good, upbeat and interactive.

Best book

Sorry to be so predictable but it's "The Bazaar Of Bad Dreams", the latest collection of short fiction from Stephen King. For someone who's known for writing such long novels (too long, some would say), I love that some of King's very darkest thoughts emerge in short form. Very hard to put down, this kept me up way past my bed time...

Honourable mentions: a bit of a cheat here because I haven't read it all yet but "Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink" by Elvis Costello looks to be remarkable; having been very impressed with Paula Hawkins at the Write On Kew literary festival, I was also very impressed with her novel, "The Girl On The Train"; "Elizabeth Is Missing" by Emma Healey is also excellent.

Best film

A difficult category, because nothing has really blown me away this year, but the nod goes to "Wild", for Reece Witherspoon's portrayal of Cheryl Strayed's extreme rehab (and because Witherspoon is so undervalued).

Honourable mentions: at the start of the year, I espoused the various virtues of "Birdman", "The Theory Of Everything" and "Paddington", all of which are good in different ways; "It Follows" delivered real chills; there will moments of surreal beauty in "The Falling"; talking surreal, I loved the invention of "The Lobster" (which also scored points for Rachel Weisz-ness); and "Cobain: Montage Of Heck" was a decent, if ultimately flawed, documentary.

Best television

As last year, the most fiercely contended category. The award goes to "Humans", Channel 4's re-imagining of the Swedish near-future "what if?" William Hurt and Katherine Parkinson were both exceptional, and I got a bit enamoured of Gemma Chan too.

Honourable mentions: yet another good year for TV (it's the new film, don't you know?), so there are lots. The BBC's "River" deserves a nod for blending conventional crime drama with a Scandi twist (the lead man) and Sixth Sense-style seeing of a dead person; series two of "Fargo" is sublime, with nothing else like it on right now; talking of second series, there was a welcome return for, er, "The Returned"; the Beeb's adaptation of Sadie Jones's "Outcast" was worth a look; series two of "Inside Number 9" slipped under a lot of people's radar, but was brilliant; and although Danny Baker can be a bit of a Marmite figure, "Cradle To Grave" was, for my money, enjoyable viewing, TV as comfort food.

Best comedy

Last year's runner-up, "Modern Life Is Goodish", in which Dave Gorman continues to show his working as he goes along, scoops this year's entirely subjective award. Modern life is, actually, pretty ridiculous in many ways... but there's much fun to be had in exploring that ridiculousness.

Honourable mentions: Nina Conti and Pippa Evans, both of whom I saw in a not-ideal festival setting, but both of whom were engaging and properly funny.

Best theatre

"Elvis Costello in conversation with Nick Hornby" might not count as proper theatre, but it took place in one, so... Declan P. MacManus was everything you'd hope, ran his own slideshow from a tablet and concluded the Q&A with a three-song unaccompanied acoustic set of Beyond Belief, Indoor Fireworks and Share Your Love With Me. And I met him at the after-show book signing too. What a night.

Honourable mentions: I'm struggling a bit here, because once again I haven't seen as much on stage this year as I would have liked, but poet Eddie Argos was very good at Latitude, doing his "how to make it in a band" schtick in the Poetry Tent.

Best blogger

Retaining his title for the third consecutive year is Andrew Collins, whose "Telly Addict" video blog for The Guardian is twelve minutes a week of essential viewing. On top of this, Andrew also writes, albeit sporadically, the music blog "Circles Of Life", in which he seeks to catalogue his favourite 143 songs of all time. Oh, and the excellent "other" blog, "Never Knowingly Underwhelmed". Andrew is, once more, my blogger of the year.

Honourable mentions: blogging seems to be a dying art, sadly, but there's still some good stuff out there, not least "Crying All The Way To The Chip Shop" from Lee; "The (New) Vinyl Villain" from JC; "My Top Ten" from Rol; and "Cultural Snow" from Tim.

Man of the year

Jon Snow - no, not that one. The mainstay of Channel 4 news for more than a quarter of a century continues to conduct incisive, ego-puncturing interviews (IDS, Gove and Osborne have all been subject to Jon's scrutiny), and there can't be many other broadcasters in their late sixties prepared to get stoned on camera for research and journalistic purposes. We'll miss him when he retires, and British news reporting will be a far, far poorer place.

Honourable mentions: whether you agree with him or not (and for the record, I don't think I do), it was hard not to be impressed with Hilary Benn's oratory in the debate on whether to bomb Syria.

Woman of the year

Jessica Ennis-Hill, for proving that you can come back in sport, returning to competition after a long postpartum lay-off and not only being competitive but actually landing another world title. So often the SPOTY bridesmaid, I hope she scoops the Beeb's big prize this year.

Honourable mentions: if Jess is my woman of the year, then I must give fellow heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson a nod too, as she looked like she might upside the Ennis roadshow until her World championship crumbled in the sand of the long jump pit. Oh, and she set national records for the indoor high jump and long jump (no mean feat for a multi-eventer!), and broke Jess's national indoor pentathlon record too. Rio next year looks good for KJT, fingers crossed.

Tool of the year

An easy win for Donald Trump, given what goes on between his ears and what comes out of his mouth. A fool, yes, but a dangerous one. Imagine a contemporary Cuban missile crisis, with Trump and Putin in a stand-off. Ye gods...

Honourable mentions: Tyson Fury - fair play, he ended Klitschko's long reign as heavyweight champion, against the odds, and that's some achievement (even if Wladimir looked to be in decline)... so what a shame, then, that the current holder of one of the biggest titles in world sport can't be a good role-model.

And that's it. If you've read this far, what do you reckon: agree/disagree? What have you loved and loathed this year?

Thursday 10 December 2015

Clandestine Classic XLII - Open Your Heart

The forty-second 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.

What do you think of if I say The La's to you? More than likely, There She Goes, a track of such universally accepted excellence it's become an indie staple, a song that transcends its generation and genre, a track so often covered, a tune that even makes it into film soundtracks (and So I Married An Axe Murderer is actually a better film than you might think from that title). But beyond There She Goes, what else do you think of? The critically acclaimed, eponymous debut album, beloved of the music media and all indie kids around my age, famously not so loved by the band's creative maestro (by that point), Lee Mavers. Maybe, now I've mentioned him, you'd think about Lee, forever trying to commit to tape the same kind of jangly indie-skiffle that the band achieved live, and never quite making it, in his own view. And maybe, just maybe, you'll make the leap from Lee to bassist John Power, who went on to arguably bigger, if not better, things with Cast.

What you almost certainly won't think about is today's classic, Open Your Heart, which dates from sessions prior to the debut album, when band founder and original creative maestro Mike Badger was still with the group. The track is co-written by Badger and Mavers and features both on vocals (although I think Mike takes the lead). I say "think" because I'm no expert on pre-debut La's, and for once the Internet has not been a massive help. But I digress - today's classic. It's a deceptively simple song, intro'ed with a snippet of whimsy that would not be out of place soundtracking P'tang Yang Kipperbang (I know, I'm really showing my age now), before launching into a slightly discordant, guitar-driven, insistent riff and a close-harmonied chorus that, at times, makes you wonder what a lo-fi Scouse Proclaimers would sound like. There's a beautifully delicate guitar middle eight too. And the whole thing is over in a whisker over three minutes.

So there we go (see what I did there?). I used the phrase "indie-skiffle" earlier - I can't claim that, sadly, it's been used before, but it seems to me to perfectly summarise The La's' sound, especially at this early stage in their career. And this, Open Your Heart, is the finest example of that early style, in my book. It later surfaced on the slightly patchy pre-debut round-up Breakloose: Lost La's 1984-1986, which may well tempt you. Or you can have a little listen below, courtesy of YouTube:

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Second prize: two Robbie Savage books

Do not enter, you may accidentally win...

An excellent waste of time

It's nearly Christmas, and in case you work in one of those offices where everything winds down about now, and you find you need to be there but perhaps, shall we say, not be working too hard, here are a couple of things to occupy your time.

First off, go and sign this petition, but read it all first. Assure yourself that it's satire, not serious. There's been enough outrage about it online already, from people who are either too lazy, too challenged or just too angry to take it for what it is. Which, let me repeat, is simply a rather neat satire, both of Mr West's self-mythologising and also of 21st Century Britain's petition overload.

Then, go and play this. Not only will it fill those quiet days in the office between the 28th and the 31st, but it may help scratch your travel itch too.

You're welcome. And P.S. Did you know you could buy a whole town in the American mid-west for less than the price of a London shoebox?