Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 round-up part three

Best gig:

I was a Barrowland virgin prior to this year. This, despite the entreaties of various friends and colleagues extolling its virtues as a venue (hello Lesley Stokes!). In truth, it actually sounded faintly unpleasant; sprung ballroom floor, decor out of a 70s amusement arcade, unpromising location in the arse-end of Glasgow. Not exactly the Ministry of Sound. And, yes, at first glance the surroundings are exactly as described, a potential set from Life On Mars. But as is so often the case, the unpreposessing decor belies the experience to be had. Because Barrowland (or the Barrowlands as most seem to call it) has that indefinable, elusive quality: soul. Like Nottingham's Rock City and London's Forum, the venue has seen better days and looks frankly shabby in the cold light of day. But when the lights go down and the beer starts to fly through the air, it comes into its own.

Of course it helps if you're seeing the right kind of act at the Barrowlands. Motorhead, the Beastie Boys or The Cramps would kill. Devendra Banhart, The Blue Nile or Fleet Foxes, on the other hand, wouldn't really cut it. Luckily we saw The Streets, and he/they were absolutely made for the Barrowlands.

I was a Streets virgin, too, having nodded along to his output on the radio but not especially exerted myself to seek out his CDs. And while I wasn't exactly going to see him under duress, I'd be lying if I said I was greatly excited about the prospect of seeing The Streets live. However, as soon as Mike Skinner took the stage, he had the audience eating out of his hand. He's the consummate showman, cajoling, exhorting, and with a strong enough sense of dynamics to punctuate his set with moments when the assembled throng could go absolutely mental. He's a good improviser too; unlike so many bands now that refuse to communicate with the audience at gigs (see below), Skinner essayed an impromptu take on Daddy's Gone by Glasvegas, mashed up one of his hits (I can't remember which) with the Prodigy's Out of Space and generally whipped up the crowd into hysteria with his stage-diving and his professions of love for Glasgow in general and the Barrowlands in particular. Gig of the year, no question. You can get some idea of what it was like below:

I'd never seen The Fall live either up until October of this year, and despite my fears that it would be the Mark Smith cabaret hour, the band's current line-up proved to be adept and capable when I saw them at Edinburgh's Queens Hall. So for exceeding my (low) expectations, The Fall deserve a mention in this category, though points are deducted for singularly failing to acknowledge the audience (par for the course with MES, I suspect), and for John Cooper Clarke bottling out of his support slot.

Download The Streets The Sherry End (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)

Download The Fall Reformation! (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)

Best book:

Pop Babylon by Imogen Edwards-Jones. The latest in a long line of exposés of, variously, the airline business, the hotel business and the fashion industry by Edwards-Jones, Pop Babylon reads like Jackie Collins meeting Albert Goldman. Strung around a generic narrative featuring the rise of a fictitious boy band, the novel details various showbiz excesses, sharp practices and scandals, vouchsafed to the author by anonymous moles. Unusually, names are named, and Take That, The Spice Girls, Jay-Z, Simon Cowell and others all get it in the neck.

Best single:

Wearing My Rolex by Wiley. So he's a grime sellout. Who cares? This is totally aces. Despite the video, one of the year's WTF?! moments, and doubtless made without the input or consent of the artist.

Also, a mention for Q-Tip's Gettin' Up: a close second. And Please Come Back Home by Glasvegas, Phil Spector by way of the Gorbals.

Best album:

I haven't yet heard The Bug's London Zoo, which made a lot of end-of-year lists, so I'll have to reserve judgement on that. Otherwise, I'd have to plump for the Vampire Weekend long player. I half-expected the David Byrne and Brian Eno album of this year to sound like this. Typically, it didn't, and full marks for subverting expectations again, lads. But if, like me, you quite like a bit of scratchy, jittery, Afro-inflected buttoned-up preppy pop, two parts Graceland to one part Remain In Light, then Vampire Weekend were right on the money.

See you in 2009; first up will be Guns and Roses vs. Crass. You see, I do plan ahead! This stuff doesn't just write itself, y'know.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

2008 round-up part two

Gone but not forgotten:

Levi Stubbs, Paul Newman, Yves St Laurent, Eartha Kitt, Ken Campbell, Bobby Fischer, Arthur C Clarke, Jeremy Beadle, Freddie Hubbard, Miriam Makeba, Humphrey Lyttleton, Paul Raymond, Isaac Hayes, Harold Pinter, Oliver Postgate.

Biggest ego:
It's been a long time coming (cf his award show outbursts- "My video was the best 'cos it cost a million dollars and had Pam Anderson"- well that tells you everything about his value system...) but this year Kanye West's messiah complex went into full effect.  See, for example, his ludicrous posing as Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone, after his mom claimed that he was comparable to Gandhi, Jesus and Martin Luther King.  Sure he is, Mrs. West!  She later died during plastic surgery, which tells you everything you need to know about her judgement.  Now, egos are nothing new in music, and in American R&B in particular; most musicians need one, and occasionally they can back up their ridiculous claims with groundbreaking, innovative music (Prince, Michael Jackson, LL Cool J...)  This year, however, Kanye borrowed Cher's old Autotune, came up with some one-finger melodies to accompany his vocoder warblings and flung it in the public's face with the claim that we should be grateful for living in a time of such genius. The gulf between self-belief and recorded output has never been wider.

Self-fulfilling prophecy award:
Florence and the Machine have been announced as the recipients of the 2009 Critics' Choice Award at next year's Brits.  This is the new-ish award, the mechanics of which  where a previously (more or less) unknown act is anointed by the powers-that-be at the BPI as the next big thing.  Which is pretty much what then happens.  Last year's award winner was Adele, who at the time had yet to release any music.  Which tells you a lot about how the music biz operates.  
It all reminds me of a story that Bernard Butler used to tell, about how a nascent Suede were called into the office of the NME, and told they were going on the cover (prior to any actual singles being released) as it had been decided behind the scenes at the paper that they were going to be the NME's "Band of 1992".  "So that's how it works..." thought Butler.

Most uncompromising comeback:
Portishead Third: John Carpenter overtones, skronk jazz wailings and drums nicked from Trans-Europe Express.  Put that on yer coffee table, yer middle-class twunts!

More to come tomorrow...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

As the oracle predicted...

Just call me Mystic Meg...

Compare and contrast:

Personally, I think it was the horrible name that caused its present woes, rather than the collapse of EUK, but then, pace Mandy Rice-Davies, Iwould think that, wouldn't I?

Incidentally, I'm not gloating in the least over potential job losses, so I really hope the chain can get its house back in order. Changing its name back to Virgin would be a start...

Monday, December 22, 2008

2008 round-up part one

As has been traditional for, ooh, three years now at Irk The Purists Towers, it's time for the end of year round up. This year, I'll be stretching the awards over a few blog posts.

Worst CD cover:

A slam-dunk for The Kings of Leon, whose Only By The Night looked like an explosion at the Adobe Photoshop development lab.

Honorable mention to Keane's effort, the inaptly-named Perfect Symmetry, which resembled a ten year old's interpretation of Mondrian. It's a long way from perfect. And it's not even symmetrical.

Best TV show:

A few contenders here: Steve Coogan's Sunshine was a strong contender, as was Ashes to Ashes. But the hands-down winner for me was AMCs Mad Men, an American import. A look at a Madison Ave. ad agency in the pre-Kennedy era, the show was pitch-perfect (no pun intended). Morally ambiguous, subtly-detailed and superbly-acted, it's incredible to think that the normally astute HBO passed on this. The office interiors are to die for, featuring a parade of mid-century classic furniture by the likes of Eero Saarinen and Charles Eames, and much of the clothing on show makes Hedi Slimane look like Mr. Byrite. The characters are carefully delineated too by their mise-en-scene; the young, eager secretary Peggy's clothing, for example, is slightly farmish and frumpy compared to that of the vampish and worldly Joan (played by the astonishingly pneumatic Christina Hendricks), while the young newlyweds house isn't filled with early 60s classics as you might expect in a less nuanced production; instead Pete Campbell and his new spouse make do with outmoded, pre-war furniture that would have been passed down from in-laws.

But its the acting and scripting that really astonish. Characters are allowed to reveal themselves slowly, in a way that TV usually doesn't allow; Peggy's pregnancy, for example, was so subtly developed over the course of most of the last series that for about five weeks my wife and I were saying to each other "has she put on weight?". Most series would have had her fainting, patting her belly etc. , and generally underestimating the viewer's capacity for inference. This is one of those rare programmes that actually credits your intelligence and repays close examination.

As an example, just look at the clip above. It looks fantastic, for a start. It's an object lesson in design and marketing history (it's like
The Hidden Persuaders at 24 frames per second- and, incidentally, it's one of the programme's strengths that it uses real products and real ad agencies in its narrative). It's also superbly acted. While on one level the scene could be read as a schmaltzy, all-American celebration of family values in the service of sales technique, its moral ambiguity is laid bare when you know that senior ad-man Don, who's making the pitch based on his own wedding photos, is actually a philandering bum. But he's not making the pitch cynically, either. He wants to believe in the American dream. He just ends up falling short. Anyway, if you haven't seen it yet, do so with all due haste.

Incidentally, can I just lay to rest the canard that appears in the Guardian and other broadsheets with dispiriting regularity? The morons who write for these papers would have you believe that US viewers are spoiled for choice with a 24-hour diet of shows of the calibre of The Sopranos, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Larry Sanders and similar. Well, sorry to bust your bubble. American TV is
not inherently better than British TV. And there's nothing inherently better about having teams of writers on a show, either. 98% of US TV shows are cack, just like 98% of the shows that are made over here. The reason that US TV seems superior to ours is that we only ever see the good stuff! The vast majority of crud never makes it out of their country. Homeboys in Outer Space, anyone? The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer?

OK, rant over. Oh, merry Christmas, BTW. More 2008 round-up soon.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sunday, December 07, 2008

About Face

Any remaining regular readers will have noticed the paucity of blog posts in the past month or so. One reason for not putting finger to keyboard in recent weeks has been my discovery of the fantastic website of Ms Fiona Russell Powell. Those of you with long memories may remember Fiona as one of the best reasons to read The Face in its Neville Brody-designed heyday. The site (maintained, seemingly, by La Powell herself) is an archive of her best columns and interviews from The Face, Arena, Loaded, and answers quite a few questions about the seeming disappearing act she performed in the 90s. It doesn't answer every question, in particular the one I'd like to ask about what she's up to these days (I bet she's worn better than Julie Burchill, heroin addiction or no), but it's a damn good read nonethless. Especially if you can ignore the shortcomings of her OCR reader.

If you do remember Fiona's journalistic zenith, you may also remember her brief stint as one quarter of ABC, under the psuedonym Eden. Along with the mysterious David Yarritu, she was recruited by Martin Fry and Mark White for visual reasons rather than musical ability during the group's How To Be A Zillionaire period (their best album, just edging out Lexicon Of Love, IMHO)- Fry has since said he wanted the group to resemble a Fellini film. It's funny how ABC are (sometimes) tarred with the same brush as, say, Howard Jones or Kajagoogoo. I mean, just look at the videos for Be Near Me (below), or How To Be A Millionaire. You can see that Dee-Lite based their entire career on ABC, can't you...

Sadly, I couldn't find a clip of the group performing on The Tube; Fiona Russell Powell was playing keyboards wearing a bullet belt filled with vibrators, if I remember correctly. Instead, you can download A to Z below, in which you can hear Fiona saying a rude word, and you can marvel at Keith LeBlanc's drum programming.

Download A to Z by ABC (mp3) (deleted Aug 2009)

Read Fiona's 1997 take on her time in the band