One of the lovely things about being back in my adoptive hometown of Leeds is finding new places amongst the familiar. The pace of change in a city like this is rapid (and occasionally rapacious), and a couple of years away means whole swathes of waterfront are no longer a building site but a fully-formed, bright and shiny piece of regeneration, a poster child for the city’s renaissance and the newest, hippest place to eat tapas, drink cocktails and people-watch.
Granary Wharf is indeed very lovely. So far, it seems to be doing better than most at shaking off the inevitable feeling of artifice that comes with extensive regeneration and the endless canyons of plate-glass that tend to accompany it, perhaps because the wharf itself, the actual dock, has been left mostly untouched. The stonework is uneven, worn, and rather lovely in the evening sunlight. It stlil looks more like an architect’s drawing than anyone’s home, mind.
You can eat, drink and admire the view in the shadow of Bridgewater Place, better known to taxi drivers, locals and Whovians as The Dalek. I happen to rather like the Dalek. You can see it as you come into the city, rising into the sky like the funnel of a lost ocean liner with its colour-changing lights and saying “Look at me!” It makes for a skyline to be reckoned with.
As I wandered though, I worried. The legacy of Clarence Dock looms large over each new stretch of waterfront regeneration. Another ghost town in waiting? The slums of the future? I think of the city centre as pizza dough in mid-air (bear with me here, people!); you can only tug it so far in every direction before you either run out of dough or tear a hole in the middle. Clarence Dock is too far out, and the city centre can’t stretch that far without cheap, fast transport links that don’t currently exist. Trinity Leeds, on the other hand, will tear a hole somewhere else, because the city just can’t support that much square footage of retail space. Something has to give.
I’m not convinced by the housing either; yet more flats that aspire to be called apartments and will inevitably mean that the older, less attractive, less well-marketed blocks elsewhere will struggle for tenants. The services aren’t there; sure, I’d love to live there now, but at the first sign of a partner/child, I’d be off. I wonder how many people making the kind of money you need to live there actually want to live so close to the station you can hear the announcements, right on top of a tapas bar.
I’ve long thought that we’ve raised a generation to believe that everyone lives in New York. It’s worse than that; we’ve raised a generation that believes everyone lives on sets in the Hollywood hills that look a bit like New York but have six times the square footage and no fourth wall. Thanks a bunch, Friends.
Places are shaped by technology, and America looks the way it does because of the railroad and the car, New York because of the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. I can’t help but think that Leeds (and indeed Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff) are being shaped by TV and the internet, by the unbridled, self-aggrandising confidence of Generation Y and their desire to live like they are extras on How I Met Your Mother.
A note: Prompted by the time of year, I dug this out of my drafts folder and finished it. 90% of it was written a while ago, but I smoothed the rough edges and added a little perspective gained with the benefit of time to reflect further. Great book. If anyone has read Brightness Falls and not read The Good Life, they should do so. Read it anyway, even if you haven’t. Hell, read both!
SPOILERS: I’ve done my best to keep this spoiler-light and have deliberately avoided a detailed discussion of the ending for those who haven’t read The Good Life, in the hope that reading this might encourage exactly that. Nevertheless, I can’t guarantee that you won’t pick up some plot points that you would rather not have done.
I am a completist. I don’t deny it. It’s hard to do so to anyone who knows my bookshelves, CD racks or iPod, laden as they are with late-period mediocrities by once-great artists. I once owned every single recorded note Joni Mitchell ever produced, when anyone will tell you that you should stop at Hejira for your own good, thereby saving yourself the best part of a day of enduring her descent into jazzy irrelevance. I did the same thing with Springsteen, although that line is harder to draw, more of a rollercoaster than a one-way ticket. I do it with books, too, ploughing manfully on in the face of the critical gatekeeper’s unheeded cries. “Don’t bother!” they say. “He never bettered the one you’ve already read!” Fie, I say.
The latest beneficiary of this excess of faith in dwindling artistic output is Jay McInerney. McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis are, it seems, irrevocably tied together and, having now read Ellis’s entire oeuvre, it seemed only fair to move on to McInerney. Bonded by more than just the Literary Brat Pack label of the 1980s, the two are apparently good friends. However, whilst Ellis can still stop traffic with the launch of a new novel (I should know, I attended the London leg of the Imperial Bedrooms tour), McInerney seems to me to have drifted into relative obscurity (to the point where I was able to pick up more or less his entire published works for £2 or £3 a pop at my local FOPP) and a wine column for the WSJ. As you may have gathered from a previous entry, I struggle to grasp why McInerney is considered a middle-aged mediocrity whilst Ellis’s every tweet sets the twitterati a-flutter.
Like all New Yorkers, Ellis and McInerney were connected by the events of September 11th 2001. McInerney’s initial response to those events was published at the time by The Guardian, and makes fascinating reading. He visits his friend Bret and they try, and inevitably fail, to make sense of what is unfolding in front of them.
5 years later, McInerney produced a fictionalised response to 9/11 in the form of The Good Life. Nominally a sequel to Brightness Falls, it shares little except a core of characters, and even then there’s plenty of new ones added to the mix. (more…)
I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor
I bought Philippe Petit a round
And asked what his high wire was for
He said, “I put one foot on the wire,
One foot straight into heaven”
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.
I was in a bar when they rigged the towers
Trying to leave all my sins
The barmaid asked my order
And where my mind had been
I tried to recall the high wire
Philippe and his foot in heaven
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.
The Low Anthem’s last album, Smart Flesh, is well worth your attention. This track in particular is one of the most glorious, articulate, intelligent responses to the events of 11 years ago I have heard.
With each passing year, the memories fade a little. With each passing day, Freedom Tower rises a little further towards its eventual 1776 ft height. Each September 11th, we are all New Yorkers for a moment.
Well, I’m not making any progress with anything new, so here’s something old.
The escalator down to the platforms was deserted. Ascending on the other side, however, was a substantial crowd. The contrast between the rush of people coming up and his solitude made him self-conscious, standing still, leaning on the handrail, wanting to dash down the left hand side but having no-one to impress by doing so. He stood and tried to find somewhere to rest his eyes that wasn’t a poster for a West End show or the onrushing stream of humanity climbing upwards, out into the light.
Stepping off the escalator, he heard a train moving, felt the rush of diesel-stained air. He turned left and ran down the stairs two at a time, to discover that it was leaving. In the same moment, he saw a silhouette. Head cocked slightly in front of the map on the far wall of the tunnel, she seemed puzzled. There had been no-one in front of him on the escalator; she must have been there for at least a couple of minutes already.
He passed behind her and took up a place on the platform an appropriate distance away, just far enough to seem anonymous, yet just close enough that if, as he predicted, she sought advice, it would be his to give. (more…)
It’s been a little quiet around here, I know. I should be grateful that I’ve got plenty of work happening at the moment, which leaves little time for writing for fun. Still, I found time to put down some thoughts on the Ruth Moody gig I saw last month, and they’ve just surfaced over at theRSL.com.
Go, read, and then have a look around. Ryan and co are doing something rather special over there, and it remains an undiluted pleasure to count myself a small part of it.
It’s that time of year again. Actually, it’s a few days late because I couldn’t decide what to put in, but let’s gloss over that and get to the good stuff. Strap yourselves in and prepare for a whistle-stop tour of music I enjoyed in 2011, laced with witty asides and the occasional marginally relevant anecdote. In two parts because it got a bit unwieldy as a single post once I’d embedded videos; this post covers albums, the second one will take in gigs and miscellany. Where I’ve already written something about the gig/album in question, the subtitle will be a link.
In a move deeply predictable to those who know me, I think a Counting Crows album is the best release of the year. I’m cheating on at least two counts here, firstly because it’s a DVD, and secondly because it contains no new music. In fairness, it is also a CD/download album, but its well worth getting the DVD. Town Hall is beautiful, the lighting designer needs a medal, and Adam Duritz is still a be-dreadlocked whirling dervish of a frontman. He’ll never be particularly cool, but in 1993 he wrote some beautiful songs and in 2007 he performed them in front of some cameras. That’s really all there is to it.
June Tabor & Oysterband – Ragged Kingdom
It was a good year for reunited folk-rock colossi, and Shrewsbury Folk Festival had them both. But then they would, and this is why we love them. I saw a full set by June and the band in Nottingham in November, a gig marred by some of the worst live sound I’ve heard all year, but nonetheless a great night. Tabor’s voice ages like a fine wine, and the band are a more nuanced, delicate instrument than they were 20 years ago when they made Freedom and Rain. Their choice of material is eclectic but brilliant, and the result is an album garnering award nominations.
Graham Colton – Pacific Coast Eyes
The first four tracks of Pacific Coast Eyes are pure summer pop perfection. It’s not that the rest are bad, just that the first four are inspired,dovetailing beautifully into a little song-cycle of unrequited longing, nostalgia and sunglasses. It also features the runner-up in my Best Sappy/Cute Lyric of the Year Award, narrowly pipped by Teddy Thompson (see below):
You weren’t standing with who you came with,
You told me your name, it was short for Elizabeth.
You don’t drink cos you can’t stand the taste,
You talk like a boy but you still like a little chase.
(As an aside, the fact that people have started writing nostalgic premature-midlife-crisis songs about being born in the 1980s (see below) is making em feel dangerously grown up.)
File away until the sun comes out again, then roll down the windows and enjoy.
Lucky Now is beautiful. Musically it wouldn’t stand out if you dropped it into the middle of his first album, but lyrically it has real immediacy. It is a song of sober, 2011-vintage Adams looking ruefully back. It’s also a song of New York. The rest isn’t quite as lovely, but nonetheless a worthy addition to Adams’ substantial discography.
The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
Suffers in comparison to their live performance only because they appear to accomplish more with less. Their vocal performances have grown since they made this record, and most of the overdubs don’t bring much to the party. If you can, see them live. I’ve got tickets to see them in Leeds in March, and there are still tickets for some of the tour dates at the time of writing. That said, this is still a pretty remarkable clutch of songs.
Wilco – The Whole Love
Continuing Wilco’s slide towards middle-aged mediocrity, or the best instalment yet of their third age? The Whole Love has convinced me that Wilco are alive, well and maturing like a fine wine. Those of us who had our concerns around the time Sky Blue Sky emerged and were only partly assuaged by Wilco (the album).
It reminds me a lot of REM’s Automatic for the People. There are string arrangements and Wurlitzer electric piano textures. There’s also a sense that the best has probably passed by now, as has any sense of trendsetting or avantgarde, but that none of that really matters. It’s good stuff, it’s very Wilco and it has none of the hesitancy or laid-back laziness that at times killed Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (the album). It’s the first album on their own label, dBpm, and between that and their own festival (SolidSound) they’re fast turning into a cottage industry. Try the first track, below, and revel in the wonderfully bipolar nature of Wilco in 2011, swinging from weird, ambient noisemaking to glorious Nels Cline guitar solos via Jeff Tweedy’s driving, sinister verses. Long live Wilco!
Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing
Glorious retro-fest filtered through 21st century indie rock sound. It’s the Rolling Stones via the Black Crowes with Eagles harmonies as played by the bastard offspring of Band of Horses and Wilco, and it makes me grin like an idiot. This record has so much groove it’s ridiculous. I tried telling someone it sounded a lot like T.Rex and Led Zeppelin, and they looked at me like I’d gone mad. Had I continued and told them that there are hints of early Elton John or early Bowie in “Astronaut”, I have no doubt they would have asked me to stop flaying their sacred cows and leave. It’s true though; “Street Fighting Sun” is pure Zep, “Your Crying Eyes” is Bowie’s Suffragette City for a new generation. Is it original? Not terribly. Is it fun? Hugely. Is it bizarrely cool this year? Apparently so. And, thanks to the benelovent indie god that is SubPop, you can listen to whole thing for nothing on YouTube (below). Do so, then decide you’re going to buy a copy anyway.
Teddy Thompson – Bella
I guess it’s good loving that I want the most
Someone who turns my bread into buttered toast
but would qualify anyway, with a slew of catchy melodies and clever lyrics like this. Teddy’s voice gets better with every passing year, as does his sense of a good pop song. I have the feeling he’s building towards a truly brilliant album at some point, but until then this is a very, very good one. If you can, see him live, especially if it’s just him and a guitar in a cathedral.
The Wailin’ Jennys – Bright Morning Stars
More than ever before the Jennys are pulling in three disparate directions. David Travers-Smith produces once again, but there’s too much slow, jazzy contemplation. Opening track Swing Low, Sail High is gorgeous, but the good vibes dissipate quickly and leave behind a disparate, patchy collection of songs. Lovely in places, but I haven’t bonded with in the way I did with Firecracker.
Gillian Welch – Harrow and the Harvest
Eight years is so long to wait for an album that it’s almost impossible for it to meet with expectation. Not bad by any stretch, but part of a trend towards inconsistency that started with Soul Journey. That said, if your decline starts with Time (The Revelator), there’s a lot of room to make good music on the way. Revelator is desert island stuff for me, and probably something of a miraculous one-off even by the high standards of Welch and Rawlings. The Harrow and the Harvest is good, great in places, but dull in others. At its best, you believe every word Welch sings, and yearn to sing along, to join the tales of lonesome souls. David Rawlings is still a genius, his guitar parts and vocal harmonies top notch as ever.
Not a bad album, but suffers from being compared to Hayes’ remarkable and underappreciated back catalogue. Her first album, the Mercury-nominated Night on my Side is gorgeous and her third, The Hollow of Morning, is a delicate, harrowing collection that still transports me to a transcendent set at the Bodega in Nottingham whenever I hear it. I played it nine times the following day; I doubt I’ve played Let It Break nine times since I got it.
OK, so that’s albums. Tomorrow, good gigs I went to, EPs and assorted other musical things that aren’t full-length albums and a few thoughts for 2012.
A little delayed by work and Christmas, here’s my full review of this gig. Parts of the below formed a piece I wrote for Ryan’s Smashing Life, written as a preview of the Staves’ support of the Civil Wars next month in the States.
A new venue is always cause for celebration, albeit sometimes with caution. The Navigation is a pub by the canal and isn’t really new at all, but is under new management and they’re booking music. They’re also playing host to what smelled like a pretty remarkable burger-making operation. Note to self: next time, don’t bother having dinner before you go.
It’s probably a good thing I can’t remember the name of the first act, a local support, because his Jeff Buckley impression was so painstakingly, studiously crafted that to watch it fall so inevitably short was really quite uncomfortable to watch. It should be obvious to anyone that it’s a futile thing to attempt, but it’s also about 15 years late.
Moving swiftly on, the first two proper acts up was Paul Thomas Saunders. By way of a disclaimer, or at least some background, I should say that I’ve known Paul a long time. We went to school together for a while, and he was in the better of the two teenage rock bands that formed around that time. We played at some of the same gigs. I then had the good fortune to end up in Leeds at the time his previous band reached their peak. It could be said I’m fairly au fait with his oeuvre, if you’ll excuse the rampant francophony of that sentence.
With that taken into account, it’s all the more astonishing that he managed to deliver a set that was at once surprising and familiar to me. Above all it was impressive. During songs Paul and band oozed confidence, overcoming the challenge of the sound, not to mention a few talkative audience members, to deliver their carefully crafted slices of ethereal pop.
Paul has assembled a stellar band of sonic magicians. A guitarist who plays his effects pedals like another instrument, layering textures and fading chords into complex walls of delay, aided by keyboardist Kate’s Wurlitzer chords and strong backing vocals. Long-time drummer Ali leant power and poise to the arrangements, giving them huge dynamic range.
With this trio behind him, Paul is free to sing, something he is really rather good at. His vocal range is huge, extended by a smooth, powerful falsetto that lends itself to the dreamy, echo-drenched songs that populate his set, typified by Appointment in Samarra, below.
Our headliners took the stage around 9pm.
I first encountered The Staves supporting The Civil Wars at the Union Chapel Islington in September. I wrote at the time that
Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.
In essence, not a great deal has changed since then. With no Grade I-listed venue to add gravitas and reverb, it wasn’t as dramatic a performance. Instead, we were treated to an intimate show with plenty of chat.
The Staves are Camilla, Jessica and Emily, sisters from Watford. Conveniently blessed with complementary vocal ranges, they sing in close harmony, accompanied by Jessica’s simple-but-effective Paul Simon-like fingerpicked guitar.
Whilst on first listen they belong somewhere in the Fleet Foxes/Midlake/Low Anthem ballpark, seeing them live reveals that they’ve taken these ethereal close-harmony stylings and done something distinctly English with them. Unlike the Mumford/Marling-type response to that particular US nu-folk pack, they’ve done something that appears both genuine and natural, powerful but never forced. They are wise old heads on young shoulders, and if you’re ready to spot them you can hear the influence of Simon & Garfunkel or Crosby, Stills & Nash in their harmonies and Joni Mitchell in their phrasing. They sing with an awareness of the power they wield, more knowing than naive.
They also sing with astonishing precision, seemingly able to start and stop singing together, moving from solos or duets to full three-part harmony without cues, snapping suddenly into unison for a line before swooping gloriously back into lush, full harmony again.
Their Mexico EP is out on December 11th:
Their debut album, the first ever collaboration between father and son producers Glyn and Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year.
They support The Civil Wars on tour in the US in January 2012, followed by more UK dates in February in support of Michael Kiwinuka.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that I managed to write an entire piece about them without once mentioning cunnilingus. Unlike the Guardian.
I reviewed the eponymous Tender Mercies album at Ryan’s Smashing Life. It’s a great record, and an honour to write my first piece for RSL. Go and read it, then have a browse of everything else Ryan and co are doing. If you subscribe now, you’ll get his near-legendary end-of-year best of list, which never fails to unearth something that I’ve missed during the year.
Prompted by answering a couple of questions about the sounds on Ghosts & Heroes (no, seriously, people ask these things!), I thought I’d write a short piece on the guitar that did most of the heavy lifting in those sessions. Some of this is going to be a little heavy on the guitar-geekery, but I’ll do my best to keep it interesting for a broader audience.
There are many things to love about my favourite electric guitar, a 1998 Godin SD. It is beautiful. It is, I believe, a unique and clever hybrid. There aren’t many of them on this side of the Atlantic. It was also a screaming bargain on eBay, which always helps.
Why Godin guitars are so relatively affordable is hard to understand; they’re all made in Canada (with the exception of some of their electrics, like this one, which are assembled over the border in the US state of New Hampshire from Canadian timber for reasons that I suspect have to do with minimum wage laws/healthcare/dental plans). They depreciate significantly, because they’re not Gibsons or Fenders, I suppose. The loss of the crowd-following types is the gain of those of us in the know! (more…)
Ah, Ryan Adams. A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma if ever there was one. Music hacks seem to revel in trying to simplify his narrative into pithy one-liners, usually centred on how prolific he is and/or the latest phase of his apparently cyclical relationship with various substances. I don’t have a copy, but whoever wrote the one-sheet for this album seems to have laid on the “Ryan got clean” narrative pretty thick if the mainstream reviews are anything to go by. If anything the clean-and-contented shtick seems a little late. I saw Ryan and the Cardinals in November 2008 in Leeds, and they were on fire. Not the wild, debauched, freewheeling, stumbling kind of Grateful Dead-worshipping Cardinals we once knew but a powerful, cohesive force playing, by DRA’s standards, practically a greatest hits set. Gone were the 12-minute jams and 5-minute inter-song gaps, replaced by well-judged moments in the spotlight for Neal Casal and Jon Graboff. His worst addiction at this point seemed to be Diet Coke and he was, we now know, mere months away from his marriage to Mandy Moore upon which everyone seems so intent on pinning the reflective, joyous tone of Ashes and Fire. To borrow an Americanism, I call bullshit.
So, PR-driven sobriety narrative aside, is it a good album? If his prolific tendency has taught us one thing it is not to expect a gem every time. For every Cold Roses there’s a Jacksonville City Nights, for every Love is Hell a Rock N Roll. And of course, for every actual album there’s a comedy black metal album about alien invasion. No, really.
It opens with “Dirty Rain”. If you were to play the game of trying to fit this into said back catalogue, this one belongs on Gold. It quickly becomes clear that Benmont Tench (borrowed from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) is not here to make up the numbers or add a recognisable credit to the sleeve; rather, Johns has him playing a lovely retro Hammond organ part. The soulful vocal seems to belong on side two of Gold as well. So far, so good, if not exactly revolutionary.
The title track follows, and captures a joyous mood rarely seen on his albums of late. A jaunty waltz-time and a Gram Parsons-esque delivery make it rare if not unique in his canon, but whether either were a good move remains to be seen. Perhaps we ought not to wish for too much reinvention of the wheel here. I think I prefer the acoustic solo version he put on YouTube before the album came out, which has a certain authenticity and purity that the album version lacks. Suck it and see.
“Come Home” is more like Heartbreaker than anything else. Pedal steel, gently shuffling snare, a longing lyric that seems to promise the safety and security that Heartbreaker spent most of its time looking for. I’m not the first to point out the connection. Produced by Glyn Johns (Beatles, Stones, The Who, Eagles and, notably, father of Ethan Johns who produced Heartbreaker and Gold), there are moments that could slip unnoticed onto the inevitable deluxe edition of Adams’ solo debut a decade ago. “Rocks” is another of them, delicate, fragile and sweet.
There are glimpses of irresistible, melodic Ryan we saw on Cold Roses; “Chains of Love” betrays his love of Noel Gallagher’s best songs, if Noel had come from Jacksonville, NC, that is. “Kindness” has that Harvest groove that so much of Heartbreaker used so well, helped along by Tench’s piano.
Other bits drift past with no discernable hook; “Save Me” makes no impact whatsoever and “I Love You But I Don’t Know What To Say” makes me recoil. Your mileage may vary depending on your susceptibility to cute, or indeed to Adams songs with long, unwieldy, narrative titles (“Elizabeth, You Were Born To Play That Part” anyone? “I Taught Myself How To Grow Old”?).
By this point, you’re not sure what to make of it. For an album with a fairly consistent sound, it is nonetheless all over the place in terms of style, delivery and influences. Just as well, then, that “Lucky Now” comes along.
The dedicated/obsessed have been listening to it for weeks now, but “Lucky Now” remains a glorious piece of pop perfection. I expect it may remain so for a while yet. Even Ryan Adams albums you don’t particularly like usually have one song where he hits it well and truly out of the park; “Dear Chicago” on Demolition or the title track of Rock N Roll. This is that one, destined to show up in encores years from now, already careering with tragic inevitability towards a million iTunes playlists.
I get the same sense of compact, to-the-point poppy efficiency I got the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark”. It gets in, delivers its beautifully-weighted point and gets out again. The music geek in me revels in the simplicity of the IV-vi in the chorus that drives home the first and third lines:
And the lights will draw you in
And the dark will take you down
And the night will break your heart
Only if you’re lucky now
In the end, the album is encapsulated in the change between the second and final choruses, when the lyric becomes:
And if the lights draw you in
And the dark can take you down
And love can mend your heart
But only if you’re lucky now
Stop press, Ryan Adams believes in love. Probably. If you’re lucky. Perhaps it’s a reflection on the fragility of the place he finds himself, an expression of the fear that it might all disappear with the same roll of the dice that he thinks brought it along in the first place.
At this point in his career, Adams doesn’t need to, nor could he, try to encapsulate his entire career in one album. This isn’t definitive, nor is it his best album, but it’s a stop on a long road. It won’t change the world, or even the world’s perception of him. It won’t get more than a track or two onto my Best Of Ryan Adams playlist either, but at this point that’s probably about all we could reasonably expect.
Ashes & Fire is streaming at Ryan’s Smashing Life, where you can read Chris Fullerton’s take on it and make your own mind up.
Before I get the main event, a deserved mention for the support act. Given the unreserved seating at the Union Chapel I was never going to dawdle on my way to the Northern Line but when a music journalist friend said that The Staves were “the best new band in the country”, I made doubly sure I was there on time. Hundreds of people were queueing round the block at 7pm, and we were not disappointed. The Staves, a trio of sisters, appear to have taken the ethereal close harmony stylings of Fleet Foxes and done something distinctly English with them. Stunningly precise and accurate singing, charmingly humble chat and elegant writing. Their debut album, produced by Ethan Johns, is out on Atlantic early next year. I’ll be queueing up.
Tuesday night caught Joy Williams and John Paul White in an exceptionally playful mood, toying with their songs, flirting with one another. At one point Williams remarked “Outta the palm of my hand,” and she was right. From the moment they took the stage to the moment they finished their second encore, the audience lapped up everything they had to offer.
I’ve had a hard time in the past trying to explain what The Civil Wars do. “It’s sorta folky, country-ish but soulful, y’know?”, I said to the friend who was coming to the gig with me. In the end, they explained it themselves better than I could have done, telling the story of how they met at a kind of songwriter’s speed-dating event, where writers were paired up for an hour in a room with a piano and had to create something. Joy Williams’ heritage lies in California (Beach Boys, Carpenters) and her parents’ jazz records (Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald) while John Paul White grew up in Alabama listening to Johnny Cash. The result has elements of all of those influences; Williams’ vocal delivery owes a lot to Ella and White’s tenor is capable of everything from authentic Appalachian high-lonesome delicacy to rough, bluesy growling. Shorn of their studio overdubs and accompanied by White’s robust guitar playing, their songs are compact, potent things. (more…)
I realised after I’d posted yesterday that I’d missed out perhaps the most powerful intrusion of the War On Terror (TM) into my life, the liquid explosives plot of August 2006 which happened the same week I flew to Chicago. It also happens to be the funniest, in a maudlin kind of way.
It was 14th August 2006, three days since three men attempted to smuggle liquid explosives onto airliners. Flights were cancelled, and whilst everything was now in theory back to normal, the backlog of flights and the lengthy security checks means the reality couldn’t be further from that. Check-in times were extended, which for a flight which left before 8am now meant a 4am checkin time, which meant a National Express coach at 12.10am.
I have certainly said before now that Friends Don’t Let Friends Take the National Express, a mantra I stick to so strongly that I once drove to Heathrow (a round trip of 250-odd miles) to pick up an American friend to spare her that fate. This attitude was forged that night, principally because it was a perfect illustration of Trains Good, Coaches Bad. Trains are long. This gives trains the crucial advatage that should you find yourself near someone or something noisy/scary/unpleasant, you can pretty much rely on being able to stand up, wander along and pick a new place to sit. Trains have also worked out that whilst toilets are useful and neccesary things, they are best positioned between carriages where you can ignore them until such time as you wish to use one. The humble coach, however, has no such luxury. No-one should have to witness the terror of a toddler who is convinced the bus toilet is going to swallow him up, or the stuggles of his mother trying to convince him otherwise, or indeed the smell that results because she is crouching in the doorway trying to reassure him and thus cannot close said door. Sleep? Nothing could have seemed more distant and unattainable. I arrived at Heathrow in the middle of the night, bleary-eyed and promising never to travel on one of these infernal vehicles ever again.
That morning, Heathrow was like a warzone; policemen with machine guns, kids wrapped in space blankets, families who had been stranded for three days trying to get home, backpackers camped out on their rolled-out foam mats by check-in desks. I had my shoes sniffed for explosives, we checked in all our hand luggage and carried passport and boarding pass in a clear plastic bag. No inflight movies, nothing to read, no-one really in a talking mood either, strangely enough. There was an exception to that rule in the shape of a tall, 50-something, extravagantly camp American Airlines steward with a DeVito-esque Noo Yoik accent who wandered down the aisle of the 767 exclaiming, “Would ya like the calzone or the folded pizza?” The children, of course, were seriously considering this non-choice. Every so often an adult with a working knowledge of what a calzone was would make eye contact with him, and he would return their gaze with an imploring look that said “Please don’t ruin this for them, we could all use a laugh this morning.” He was right about that.
As the first flight to O’Hare that day, we managed to get take-off and landing slots. I learned later that the next two were cancelled. I came very close to joining the ranks of the space-blanketed, kipping on a bench and living off fried chicken in Terminal 3 to await a seat.
Border control at O’Hare were jumpy, perhaps understandably, and lone male travellers aren’t exactly their favourite thing anyway, but after a brief, intense set of rapid-fire questions about whether or not I could prove I had a return ticket (difficult without my luggage, but I eventually found a print-out of my Travelocity receipt; what might have happened if I hadn’t bothered putting that in my see-through plastic bag we will never know), I was admitted to the Land of the Free, Home of the Preternaturally Suspicious.
By that afternoon I was, admittedly in a somewhat jetlagged state, looking out over Lake Michigan from a tiny beach by the north shore suburb of Winnetka IL. Lucky doesn’t begin to cover it.
A few thoughts on the events of ten years ago.
We all remember where we were. I was at school. Rumours flew, a memo went round instructing teachers to turn off televisions, senior management terrified of traumatising kids. By the end of the day, everyone knew something had happened and no-one knew what that thing was. It was a sensation we were unused to; peace had reigned in Northern Ireland for some time, we were a post-Cold War generation with no real idea of what a threat to our way of life would look like. This changed the moment my brother and I walked through the front door to find our father watching BBC News 24.
Television was how most of the world experienced the events of September 11th 2001, and the subsequent events of the decade since that day. I remember watching the live footage of Baghdad the night of “shock and awe”, the fall of the Saddam statue, Col Tim Collins’ speech (both the original and the subsequent dramatisation). I finally saw United 93 this year, which is as shocking because of the chaos and incoherency of the initial response as it is moving because of the bravery of the people on the plane. Both live and after-the-fact with the gloss of Hollywood applied, the pictures were thrust into our living rooms.
And then there were moments when the shockwaves invaded your real life. I watched the 7/7 London bombings unfold on the news, but two weeks later on the 21st was in London, a 17-year-old work experience kid, when a second set of backpack bombs failed to go off but nonetheless brought the city to a standstill. Panicked phone calls, confusion, loved ones not knowing where we were. I had a tiny taste of the chaos wrought on my capital.
There is a scar on the landscape of Manhattan. Your first view of the skyline is a shock, even years later. My joy at crossing the Queensboro Bridge in a yellow cab from Kennedy airport and seeing Manhattan strung out along the night time horizon was tempered by the knowledge that the far southern tip of that string of lights was not how it used to look, how it looked in pictures or on TV. Three days later I made the pilgrimage that every tourist makes now. By this time, October 2009, there was little to see. Construction proceeds apace.
I haven’t really shown these photos to anyone before, simply because they are not of much photographic or artistic merit. Still, they stand as memories, the moment I went and bore witness to the rebuilding.
Whilst Ryan Adams has never truly ceased to be prolific, the stream of new material has slowed in recent years, at least compared to the glorious three-albums-in-11-months period that gave us Cold Roses, Jacksonville City Nights and 29. Halcyon days indeed. Oh, it’s not like he’s gone silent: we’ve had III/IV, a double album of Cardinals archive material that served mainly to demonstrate why none of the songs made it on to Easy Tiger, and of course Orion, an album of unlistenable metal about aliens. Yay.
All that, however, seems to have allowed Adams to return to something simpler and more elegant. There’s a delightful sweetness to “Lucky Now”, the advance track. It’s classic Ryan Adams, but less tortured than Heartbreaker or Love is Hell; not unreminiscent of Easy Tiger actually. Could it be that marital bliss suits him? Praise be to Mandy Moore!
There are a few other reasons to be excited about this album. It is produced by the legendary Glyn Johns (Eagles, The Who and, bizarrely enough, Fairport Convention’s Rising for the Moon) which just might make Adams the first artist to work with both Glyn and his son Ethan Johns, who produced Adam’s debut album. It also features among its guests Norah Jones and Benmont Tench (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), all of which bodes well for an album positioned firmly at the tight, focused, 3-minute-song end of Adam’s artistic spectrum.
and the aforementioned “Lucky Now”:
Ashes & Fire is released 11th October.
Asking me to write an objective review of anything by Counting Crows is like asking a child to review a bowl of ice cream. Sure, it might not be quite the right flavour and there’s never enough of it, but you’re unlikely to catch me looking a gift horse in the mouth. Given how rare new material from them is, us Crows fans are prone to fits of rapture when it does appear.
Having duly shot myself in the foot as far as my credibility is concerned, I shall now proceed to tell you that this is a stunning piece of filming, a powerful performance and a restatement of the profound emotional depth of these songs which you should all rush out and buy, immediately.* Don’t believe me? Watch the video.
What we have here is a performance of Counting Crows’ debut August and Everything After. Released in 1993 and an out-of-the-blue success the following year, it went on to sell more than 7 million copies. The original is a fragile, beautiful thing of sparse elegance and staggering, heart-rending power. It frequently crops up in critics’ lists of the best albums of that decade. They never matched it for commercial success or critical acclaim, and to some extent have been living in its shadow ever since. Still, as legacies go, it’s not a bad one to be stuck with.
Only three of this band actually appear on August as members of Counting Crows: Duritz, keyboard player Charlie Gillingham and guitarist Dave Bryson. David Immergluck has the unusual status of having played on the album as a session player before eventually joining the band full-time in 1999, whilst Dan Vickrey joined the band shortly after they finished August in time for the 16-month tour that accompanied it. Two drummers and one bass player have come and gone since then, but the incumbents are more than worthy. Jim Bogios in particular is a potent addition, matching the drama and dynamic range of the songs with effortless competence.
Given there are three times as many guitars as there were on the record, it is both impressive and near-miraculous that the trio manage to add to the songs without treading on each others’ notes. If you’ll excuse a moment’s wild rock-journalist-hyperbole, I have been known to compare the arrival of Immergluck in Counting Crows to the introduction of Don Felder to the Eagles. Both arrived first on “difficult” third albums and brought a more natural, instinctive rock voice to their respective bands, liberating the other guitarists to do more interesting things in the process. Immergluck also plays mandolin and pedal steel, broadening the palette further. If you’ve pressed play on the video at the bottom already, you are by now experiencing Immy’s pedal steel abuse; I’m fairly sure that doesn’t appear in whatever the pedal steel equivalent of A Tune A Day is. Actually, I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing and that all pedal steel players are mutants from the planet Zog, so little sense does that miraculous instrument make to the rest of us.
Vickrey is a charming country-rock guitarist, but he also has a wonderful, underappreciated voice; he nails the backing vocal on Time and Time Again, a beautiful echo of the lead. (Those of you who’ve seen Crows live know he also sings the good stuff on Goodnight Elisabeth and A Long December, and has a nice line in hats.)
Headgear notwithstanding, Bryson is without a doubt the coolest. Les Paul Juniors, Gretsch hollowbodies and a distinct lack of histrionics, Dave is just getting on with it. He has so many of the crucial little shapes and figures that make these songs, some of them no doubt dating back to when these songs were nothing more than him and AD at an open mic somewhere.
August opens with Round Here. Less a song than a creed to Crows fans (I have actually seen people, admittedly in the States, entering a state that closely resembles rapture in the middle of performances of Round Here…). It’s such a powerful song, such a sprawling musical object, that the album, and thus the show, runs the risk of struggling to follow it up. In this form, with Raining in Baltimore shoehorned into the middle, it runs to almost 12 minutes. There’s not much I can do to describe what they do to this song live, but seeing as you’ve already gone to the bottom of this post and pressed play on the YouTube video, I don’t need to. Ah, the wonders of modern technology… (more…)
Oysterband and June Tabor are making a new album together, the follow-up to their 1990 collaboration Freedom and Rain. The new album will be called Ragged Kingdom and is released later this month. Given that Freedom and Rain was probably the last great English folk rock album, I’m not sure how this news passed me by for so long. I feel like people ought to be shouting from the rooftops. Instead, a throwaway line on their website was the only sign of it for months, and even now there seems a relative lack of buildup for an album that seems, to me at least, to be the most interesting thing to have happened on the English folk scene in ages.
In anticipation, it seemed appropriate to post a few thoughts on their first album together for anyone who hasn’t heard it already. So, forget for a moment the imminent return of this collaboration, find your copy of Freedom and Rain and consider with me just why it holds a place in the hearts of so many of us, 21 years on.
The executive summary runs something like this: in one corner, you have England’s finest living interpreter of traditional song. In the other, a young, lean, hungry and well-drilled folk-rock band. Together, they distil the essence of the nation’s folk-rock heritage, throw in a few choice covers and produce a modern classic.
Freedom and Rain sits in an interesting point in both their careers. Tabor is established, respected but yet to record some of her best-known works (including her harrowing versions of Eric Bogle’s First War laments And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda and No Man’s Land, two recordings that presented her to new audiences). Oysterband are young, but evolving. They are still The Oyster Band, yet to drop the definite article and the gap, and yet to release the definitive, revisionist 1994 release Trawler and thereby imprint on the public imagination new versions of some of their best-loved material.
Into this unknown territory, our collaborators stepped, forging new musical partnerships and creating something new, unique and perhaps a little strange. A cocktail of traditional songs and contemporary covers, a rock album with uncommon musical and emotional depth. (more…)
I’m sat by my window, watching the last of the inky blue drain from the sky, replaced by the dull orange glow of the motorway and silhouettes of houses and trees. I’m sipping a dram of Bowmore 12. The soundtrack to this moment is an album by a New York band called Hem.
Eveningland is an impossibly beautiful album. At first glance it seems almost Disney-soundtrack-esque and chintzy, but it runs deeper than that. It’s a country album made by city-dwellers, a folk album made by people writing their own tradition, an album full of the high, lonesome sound of the pedal steel then layered up with the orchestral strings and woodwind to give an appropriately cinematic scale to what critics have variously called their “countrypolitan” or “chamber folk” sound.
It’s tough to pick highlights; part of Eveningland‘s charm is how cohesive a piece it is, how coherent and pervasive the themes are. It is full of stories of fear; the fear of loss, the fear of change, of losing the things we care about.”The Fire Thief” is a lullaby of sorts, the refrain ‘Leave the light on…’ plays on the child’s fear of the dark, a theme that returns in “Hollow”:
But it’s a hard road that we follow
The saddest cities, and the darkest hollows
There are musical moments as frequent as the lyrical delights: “Redwing” has a double bass line that drives the pre-chorus along, arriving at a euphoric, jubilant vocal that makes every right-thinking person grin uncontrollably. “An Easy One” is just a delightful songwriting premise perfectly executed.
The album moves from merely lovely to downright astonishing somewhere in the second half. “Strays” is adorned with clarinet and, eventually, vocal harmonies that drive home the power of the melody. I’m even rather fond of their cover of Johnny Cash’s “Jackson”, a song I could take or leave before I heard this slow, langourous, light-as-air version.
But the undoubted highlight is “Pacific Street”, the first song of theirs I ever heard, thanks to a friend who sent me the track and then directed me to the album from which it came. (Your musical companionship is much appreciated, as is your predilection for Chablis…)
It is preceded by the title track, a 62-second instrumental where the clarinet and violins take turns to lead a simple ascending three-note motif before a harp plays a VI-minor chord, accompanied by shimmering strings. The listener is unsettled by the surprise minor chord and this feeling remains in the ensuing silence. Into that uncertainty comes Pacific Street, the musical equivalent of being wrapped in a blanket of softness and reassurance. Sally Ellyson’s smooth, Karen Carpenter-sweet voice tells a simple story of two people meeting on a street corner, two relative strangers seeking mutual comfort, perhaps both running from the same unspecified something. For me, it has the same jaw-droppingly elegant, simple perfection as Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark;” it gets in, says its piece and gets out, deceptively simple yet somehow profoundly moving. You find yourself going back wondering how they did it, looking for some musical trick of the half-light.
Eveningland is the soundtrack to countless happy evenings. What in the cold light of day might seem facile or mawkish in the evening becomes perfectly-weighted, delicate, exquisite. Pour yourself a glass of something good and give it a spin.
Sometimes the best gigs are a little out of the ordinary, one way or another. It’s certainly not often you find major-label acts with Radio 2 A-list singles under their belt inside the relatively modest walls of Sheffield Cathedral. Unfortunately, rather than seeming like a remarkable piece of good fortune, this felt more like an admistrative blunder. Can it be true? I found myself wondering, checking Teddy Thompson‘s official website, double-checking the ticketing page. This was a one-off solo gig for Teddy, having toured new album Bella with his band earlier this year, and I can’t quite work out how it came to be, or indeed why it wasn’t better publicised; the audience can’t have numbered more than 300, and with tickets at £10 something wasn’t adding up.
Support came from Teddy’s younger sister Kami, mostly seen thus far featuring in the many Thompson-Wainwright-McGarrigle extended-family gigs that seem to happen every once in a while (For anyone not versed in the lore of English folk-rock, Teddy and Kami are the offspring of legendary couple Richard and Linda Thompson, who made six albums between 1974 and 1982. Richard is a good friend of (and collaborator with) Loudon Wainwright III, who married Kate McGarrigle, mother of Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Keeping up? Good.). Those of us who keep an eye on the every move of Rufus, Martha and Teddy (writing songs about one another, singing backing vocals on each others’ albums, swapping producers…) have been wondering for some time if Kami was destined to join their little cabal. This tale of two siblings holds plenty of parallels between the pair, but at the end of the night (nay, at the end of the first song of Teddy’s set) it was clear why one of them gets top billing. (more…)
It is the fate of most artists (at least those who achieve a modicum of success; van Gogh probably didn’t have this trouble) that their later work is viewed through the prism of their earlier triumphs, particularly if their debut was nominated for a prize as illustrious as the Mercury. It is, then, difficult to give a new Gemma Hayes album a fair write-up. In the name of full disclosure, I consider two of her three LPs to date works of near-genius. On the one hand, I’m rooting for her, but on the other I’m the ultimate tough crowd, holding this new album up to the highest of standards.
So then, to Let It Break, which has crept into the world with less of a bang and more of a whimper; it was released in Ireland on 27th May, but only available digitally elsewhere until the following Tuesday, and then only through HMV UK, who claimed 14 days for delivery. Hardly a blaze of glory, but then nowadays Gemma is self-releasing, a casualty of Virgin’s purchase of Source, her one-time label. (more…)
Apologies for the lengthy absence. Am finally carving out some time to write a few things and hope to have a series of posts for your delectation as the week progresses. New theme! Prize, as yet unspecified, for the first person to tell me where the image above was taken and why it is significant.
I am something of a John Mayer apologist. I bashed this out in response to a Tumblr post but I thought I’d put it over here where more people can read it in its own right.
The assertion, by Kasey Anderson (singer, songwriter, Tumblr-er) was that John Mayer engaged in “incessant blustering about making art that is ‘true to himself,’” only to then “produce [...] banal, toothless music.” Anderson then suggest that “no one would begrudge Mayer his success were he just to say, “I like making a shitload of money and I’ve figured out a way to do it on a consistent basis.”” However, he puts forward an alternative:
Maybe, when John Mayer reaches deep within himself and grapples with The Muse, or whatever it is he needs to do in order to make his art, what comes out is that tepid vanilla custard sound. Maybe that’s his passion. If that is the case, then The John Mayer isn’t infuriating at all; he’s just sad.
Every interview, live comment and “exclusive in studio video” I’ve seen suggests that Mayer is being honest, or at least thinks he is. He believes his own hype. He really does look inside himself and discover dross like Your ‘Body is a Wonderland’ and ‘Waiting on the World to Change’, both of which sound like they belong on a Sting solo album.
That said, sometimes he comes up with some genuinely satisfying stuff; I am very fond of most of Heavier Things; ‘Clarity’ is gorgeously produced and has a fantastic horn section, ‘Bigger Than My Body’ needs some sort of award for the best use of an innovative effect (the AdrenaLinn modulation on the intro). (more…)
Until Thursday night I was utterly unmoved by the prospect of a royal wedding; the wall-to-wall media coverage, the “buildup” and the “anticipation”, the mindless speculation about dukedoms and dresses; I could scarcely have been less interested. No, that’s not quite true; in fact, I was enjoying being scathing, cynical and generally sceptical about the whole affair. It was, after all, irrelevant, expensive and a waste of everybody’s time, jamming yet another bank holiday into what is fast becoming a two-week period of uninterrupted sun-drenched lazing about; fine if you haven’t got much to do, but not a lot of use for those of us trying to get people in offices to actually pick up the phone from time to time.
Then, lo and behold, I saw the news footage of William going for an impromptu walkabout on Thursday evening to greet some of the (how to put this kindly?) enthusastic fans preparing to camp out to keep their places on the crowd control barriers outside Westminster Abbey. This, we were told, was no planned PR stunt but a spontaneous decision. From then on we were supplied with a steady stream of moments like this that reminded us that this was the coming of age of a new generation of royals. William and Harry arrived early, leaving time to talk to their friends before the ceremony. When Catherine reached the choir and Harry looked over his shoulder, his impish grin spoke volumes. We are told by a forensic lip reader employed by a news agency that William’s words to Catherine at the altar were “You look stunning, babe.” How very human. How unlike his father, who one senses could have summoned neither the emotion nor the words for such a moment. The newlyweds’ departure from Buckingham Palace in a gorgeous blue Aston Martin DB6 Volante, borrowed from Charles, was a moment of delightful spontaneity, the sort of youthful impetuousness we had learned not to expect.
I also saw what a lot of other people seem to have seen today, a young couple in love. They’re excited about this, just as much as any of the people who camped out on the Mall. A generation of Britons scarred by the footage of Charles and Diana’s wedding, replayed over and over with the benefit of hindsight, has had its fairytale renewed, amplified even, by the intervention of a relatively ordinary girl from the Home Counties who today managed to look a million times more poised, prepared and comfortable than the terrifyingly young Diana did in 1981. (more…)
This started out as another of my gushing “Isn’t modern technology wonderful?” posts, I’m afraid. It didn’t quite end up that straightforward, for reasons that will become clear if you read on…
Things I like about my new laptop
First, for those who speak geek, some vital statistics:
Intel Core i3-370M 2.4 GHz
4Gb DDR3 RAM
500Gb SATA-150 HDD
and a host of useful goodies including a DVD+-RW drive, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet and an HDMI port.
And now, satisfied that it has enough of all of the above numbers to compare favourably with just about any machine under £1000 should you feel the need to compensate for something, let’s talk about real world things.
It is both small and light enough to carry. This was my primary goal. With 22” flatscreens now available for £100 (and good ones for £150), it seems silly to me to carry around a 15 or 16 inch laptop. If you’re going to move it around, 13.3” is surely the way to go, and hook it up to a big screen (and a keyboard if you must) when you’re at your desk.
It has awesome battery life. I managed to watch a 1hr40 DVD and emerge with more than 50% battery remaining; laptops of yore would have collapsed halfway through, wheezing.
It has Windows 7. Those of us with any sense avoided Vista like the plague, sensing (correctly) that not even MS themselves really believed that it was appropriately stable for everyday use. The jump to 7, therefore, was going to be quite the gaping chasm. Tending as humans do to be wary of change, and fond of my nice, comfortable XP-based world, I thought this might be a Bad Thing, but it turns out to be quite the opposite. It’s quick, stable, nice to look at. It has found drivers for everything, automatically. It has networked with a house full of XP machines flawlessly, including finding two printers, seeking out Win7 drivers for them online and installing them. It plays DVDs natively, fullscreen, without asking 27 silly questions or downloading codecs. It finds, and connects to, BT Openzone WiFi in motorway service areas, again quicker and more elegantly than XP ever did.
Of course, it would be too good to be true if this had all happened without a hitch. Just when I was beginning to think that Microsoft had written an operating system that was useable by people without a decade’s experience in maintaining temperamental installations of older versions, it bluescreened. Twice. Half a dozen restarts and some judicious googling later, it turned out to be the Synaptics touchpad driver, which had updated itself while I wasn’t looking to a version that conflicted with x64 versions of Windows 7. Yes, the operating system actually downloaded and installed a driver that is widely known to cause a conflict so great it can’t actually complete a boot cycle once it’s installed. Now, if you’re me and you spent your formative years under the hood of 98SE, 2000 and XP, you know how to boot to safe mode, roll back the driver and restore the system to usability. Most people are not, and would have spent a long time on the phone at great expense to someone in Mumbai who would have painstakingly guided them through using the restore media to return the machine to its factory state, whereupon two days later it would have installed the same driver again, to the point where they would eventually have returned the infernal contraption to the point of sale. You’ve come a long way, M$, but there’s still a lot further to go before I’ll consider Windows an operating system usable by the masses. Fortunately for them, said masses are too terrified to do anything about this, Linux is still massively less user-friendly (and/or just plain intimidating) and Macs are expensive. Gadgets are great, but if you have to be a gadget freak to use them effectively, they’re missing the point.
Of Mice and Men
If I were a feature writer for a technology magazine, I’d write something entitled The Value of Quality HIDs. You see, my readers would already know that a HID is a Human Interface Device, better known to most of us as a mouse or a keyboard, occasionally a trackball or one of those clever digital drawing tablet things I suppose. Regardless, this is really just a longwinded paean to my Logitech MX 620 Laser mouse, which I have had for years and is as close as I have ever encountered to the Platonic Form “Mouse”. It is wireless, and connects to my computer with a tiny USB receiver. It is powered by two AA batteries that I can find in any corner shop should I run out of power, but the chances of this happening are miniscule because the batteries last over a year of daily use and the driver can tell me to the day, hour or minute how much power is left, enabling me to be near a fresh set of batteries when that moment arrives. It tracks with a laser and does so on every surface I have ever presented to it, including but not limited to my desk, the floor and my denim-clad right leg, without so much as skipping. It has forward and back buttons where my thumb rests, reducing the amount of pointless reaching for browser buttons dramatically; I actually miss these when I’m using other peoples’ mice, and have been known to reach for them only to find unresponsive plastic, curse and haul the cursor to the top left of the Firefox frame just to get back where I came from. In short, it does everything a mouse should do, very little that it shouldn’t and has outlived my last two computers.
In a world where we spend hundreds or thousands on computer hardware with astonishing regularity, spare a thought for the humble mouse; it just might make your life a little more comfortable.
A little something I wrote for Folktales on LSRfm, Sunday 6th February 2011, 3pm. It belongs next to this track. If you tuned in as you were encouraged to a couple of hours ago, you’ll understand how it works. If you didn’t/couldn’t, you should be able to listen to the show here when it’s available. Enjoy.
He opened his eyes. Everything was rotated, out of place. Lying on his side, sofa cushion forcing his neck into painful contortions. The ceiling flashing blue, white, blue, reflecting the light of the TV, left on all night. He looked up at the window; dark, the sodium glow of the streetlight turning the window frame amber. He glanced down at his watch. A little after 5pm. Wednesday had slipped by unnoticed.
On the screen, a young man in a white t-shirt and black leather jacket stepped out of a car, wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead and ran his hands through his slicked-back hair. He stood for a moment then was knocked stumbling back into the side of the car, embraced by a beautiful girl. Detroit perhaps, Motown itself. Dark streets, rain, streetlamps and stop signs, spots of colour reflected on the wet roads. Camaros, Thunderbirds, girls in denim, chrome-plated glory. (more…)