Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Pastures new...

I've finally had enough of Blogger periodically losing paragraphs from published blogs so I've emigrated over to Wordpress. All old content and new posts can be found at:

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Desert Island Discs

A discussion which has brought an uncharacteristically interesting debate in middle class households throughout Britain has been - 'What would be your Desert Island Discs?' Well having finally heeded the call the good people at Radio 4 have given me the chance to make my choices official. Before you rise up in outrage that a nobody such as myself has been given such an honour you best realise that anybody can! Go here to post your own. For those unfamiliar with the format this is the BBC explanation:

'' The format is simple – a guest is invited to choose eight discs, a book and a luxury to take with them as they’re castaway on a mythical desert island.  They’re given the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible.  During the interview they explain their choices and discuss key moments in their lives, people and events that have influenced and inspired them and brought them to where they are today.''

Track One:
Elizabeth, you were born to play that part by Ryan Adams

I've written about this before so won't repeat myself. Quite simply I consider this the greatest song ever written. The purest demonstration of love is sacrifice and this song communicates that better than any other. The back story is Ryan wrote it from the point of view of one of his friends who's wife had suffered a miscarriage. It is a twist of fate that along with Brick by Ben Folds Five such a tragic subject matter could inspire two of the finest songs ever produced. My own connection with it is ongoing - it was one of a clutch of songs that I sought solace in when my good friend Ryan passed away, and it continues to be the song I turn to when I need to reflect and truly appreciate both what I am lucky enough to have and have had.

Track Two:
Don't Think Twice, It's Alright by Bob Dylan

Choosing which Bob song to go with was a truly hellish task - would it be the introspective beauty of Visions of Johanna, the merciless social comment of It's alright Ma or the comforting optimism of Forever Young? I took the easy option and went for Dylan most-simple, the song that made me fall under his spell in the first place. I remember listening to this as a 19 year old reeling from the break up of my first 'real' relationship and Bob's words seemed to not only reflect how I was feeling but point me in the direction of recovery. For a song to have that level of emotional connection forty years after the time of writing speaks volumes of its enduring genius.

Track Three:
Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach

Again this has appeared on the blog before so I will be brief. A truly magical piece of music that formed the soundtrack to my honeymoon in Tuscany.

Track Four:
Hoppipola by Sigur Ros

Ditto Track Four basically although replace honeymoon in Tuscany with adventure holiday in Peru where I proposed. I know of no other song that can simultaneously soothe and stir the senses so effectively.

Track Five:
Livin' for the City by Stevie Wonder

Where to start? Arguably the outstanding track on my favourite album. Wonder mixes up the political consciousness of Dylan and spices it up with some funk. This song reminds me of growing up with parents who regularly filled the house with the sounds of Stevie and it is a tradition I intend to follow when I start my own family. Not only has this song impacted on me directly but along with the rest of Wonder's golden period output it has influenced so many other incredible artists from Prince to Outkast to the Fugees.

Track Six:
After the Goldrush by Neil Young

Some songs are just utterly faultless. The imagery of the lyrics, the frail purity of Young's voice combined with the simple, sublime backing infuse to form a near perfect whole. I'm ashamed to say that despite working with a Neil Young fanatic for a short period I never gave him a chance; probably owing to his failure to appear on an American Pie soundtrack. Thankfully it didn't take me long to wise up and thanks to some wise men of Kendal I was soon appreciated the wondrous majesty of Young at his best. The song evokes great memories of a particular barbecue celebrating a friends birthday where Young formed the soundtrack whilst great company was enjoyed.

Track Seven:
My Name is Jonas by Weezer

The intro to this song is like a time machine. I'm 17 years old, my (admittedly crap) band were going to make it big, life was a never-ending succession of great nights out with the best friends in the world. Such is the bewitching power of this tune that ten years on in a basement club in Camden for three minutes I was transported back to a time where my whole life was in front of me. For all his sins over the last ten years for Blue and Pinkerton I can forgive Rivers Cuomo anything.

Track Eight:
Oh Happy Day by Children of Agape

This song has a series of extremely strong emotional connections. I first heard it whilst volunteering in South Africa when totally unprompted some of the kids at the Orphanage burst into song. It turned out some of them and their siblings had formed a choir that was beginning to get recognition in an effort to raise money to rebuild their orphanage which had been burnt down in a fire. Despite my lack of connection with the religious content of the song their was an undoubtedly spiritual power to the infectious joy of their song. At the risk of sounding like one of those gap-year types my spell in Africa has a profound effect on me. It changed my perspective from one of intentions to actions and most importantly of all it was sharing this experience that confirmed for me who I should spend the rest of my life with. It was fitting then that as we signed the register on our wedding day the jubilant voices of the Agape Choir filled the Church.
As part of the show you are expected to nominate one song above all the others and for obvious reasons for me it is Oh Happy Day.

The other two decisions are book, and luxury item. As tempting as choosing Robinson Crusoe would be for handy tips it has to be 'The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.' It's a book I never tire of reading and Shakespeare and the Bible should give me plenty of variety. The luxury item would be my acoustic guitar - on an island miles from civilisation there would be no-one to complain about my extremely limited musicianship and atrocious singing.

I'd love to know what you'd choose so please leave comments.

PS - You may have noticed I've opted for Grooveshark over youtube. Sometimes I fear that videos for the sake of it - especially of poor quality - can detract from the music so I'm paring back the amount of videos I use within my blog. Hopefully this will be evened out by posts offering a selection of interesting songs with videos to match.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

I really should like them shouldn't I?

One of the great things about ageing is developing a greater sense of perspective and shedding the adolescent stubbornness that characterises so many young males. The jury's out whether this makes up for the onset of hair loss and susceptibility to crippling hang overs. As a youth, in between declaring my devotion to Noel Gallagher I would take time to spout vitriol about the Manic Street Preachers. A number of my friends were big fans of the Welshmen and took great pleasure in attacking my love of the Beatles and their subsequent clones. Like many at that age I was fundamentally unable to distinguish musical output with the personality of the creators. Nicky Wire's attention seeking provocative endorsement of Mark Chapman's slaying of Lennon ensured I was firmly in the anti-Manics camp. As you'll suspect, in older age this view has changed dramatically. I still believe Nicky Wire to be a bit of a wanker, but can appreciate the brilliant feistiness of early Manics and have enjoyed their recent resurgence, particularly their 'Journal for Plague Lovers' album. It seems we both have aged for the better.

Last night my twitter feed was overwhelmed by exaltations for late eighties-early nineties indie bands. It centred largely around two bands who were routinely hailed as the finest the world has ever known. One was The Stone Roses, and though I stop short of declaring them untouchable, I heartily agree that they were a truly magnificent band. If you remain unconvinced have a listen to Mersey Paradise, which was only a B side. The other band drawing such a lofty praise inspired me to write today's blog after a month's hiatus. Reactions to my disclosure of 'not being a fan' of this band have ranged from disbelief to fevered outrage. Rob Blanchette gave a typical response 'the greatest band of all all all time bar none. Best lyricist. Best guitarist. Genius of epic proportions.' Covering this territory yet again I thought I'd share with you five artists who I'm constantly told I should love yet am yet to catch 'the bug.' Starting with the centre of last night's storm...

The Smiths
The Smiths remain a source of continual frustration for me. They are like a phobia I need to conquer - much like how abseiling down a cliff in Cornwall dealt with my vertigo issues, I continue to search for a cure to my aversion for a band that more than any other, people tell me I should adore. Even my leader in life Ryan Adams considers them the best. They're right; I know they're right! The melodies are imaginative, the musicianship on the money, and lyrically I can appreciate how for many they are poetry. To make matters worse I have actually become partial to a Smiths cover - This Charming Man , Ask and There is a light that never goes out. So why have I failed to cross the Rubicon and embrace their alleged greatness? One simple reason:
All is going well until he opens his mouth. As hard as I try I can't get passed the irritating maudlin wail that Morrisey emits. It is like toothache when you are trying to enjoy a delicious meal. It is always there, preventing you from appreciating what you know to be good but you just can't enjoy it.

Pearl Jam
Another band who I should probably like but do nothing for me. I find Eddie Vedder pompous and they to me always give off an impression of inflated self-importance. I was quite fond of 'Jeremy' for a time but the frankly comedy lyrics meant it soon descended into farce. It also upsets me that Vedder in particular spends so much time massacring artists I hold sacred with abhorrent cover versions. I once had the chance to see Pearl Jam at Leeds Festival but much to the ire of a few of my mates watched Maximo Park instead. Je ne regrette rien.

Doves and Muse
These two deserve co-billing as they fall into very much the same category. Both brought out first albums that had me crowing to all and sundry that they were the future of music, blah blah. Both have spent the remainder of their career seemingly doing their utmost to prove me embarrassingly wrong. They have fallen in to disregard for contrasting reasons - Muse have become overblown showponies who seem to value histrionics over songcraft, and Doves appear to be on a mission to produce music so anodyne and dull that they could cure insomnia. Like The Smiths and Pearl Jam I have often been told how great they are but whereas there is still hope for me if I can conquer my Morrisey antipathy, these two I fear are lost causes.

New Order

Joy Division were an incredible band. Ian Curtis is rightly considered one of the finest lyricists of his generation and his energy and magnetism characterised what made the band great. There is not greater testament to the brilliance of Curtis than the result when his influence is tragically taken away from the band. I had the misfortune of seeing New Order at Glastonbury in 2005 and the fact that the highlight was chanting for John Barnes gives you an indication of the poverty of entertainment on offer. The decision to play some Joy Division tracks was somewhat masochistic in the way it exposed for all to see the startling contrast between the thrill of their previous incarnation and the turgid dross on show. Their are some who have extolled the virtues of New Order to me, some going so far as to cite the tedious Blue Monday as a landmark moment in Dance music. To me New Order are the musical equivalent of men in their late thirties hovering around on the perimeter of the local nightclub they should long since have consigned to their lost youth.

Comments welcomed, particularly your own similar experiences of bands you should like. 

Saturday, 9 April 2011


Glorious sunshine means no proper blogging today. Instead have these sensational videos of some amazing artists performing from Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop at South by Soutwest festival. One day I'll chuck in teaching, save up my pennies and finally go to the best festival not called Glastonbury.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

The sound of conflict

''The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself.''
John Stuart Mill, 19th century English economist and philosopher.

What difference does it make to the dead, the orphans and the homeless, whether the mad destruction is wrought under the name of totalitarianism or the holy name of liberty or democracy?
Mahatma Gandhi

War has been a hot topic in the news with events in Libya bringing arguments for and against military action centre stage. I'm certainly not going to dwell on these arguments on a music blog - for fear of losing what's left of my readership after 21 days of inaction which is tantamount to blogger suicide (in my defence I was busy sorting the aftermath of being burgled!). To return to the point, war has been a subject addressed by many artists over the years and the whole gamut of views have been covered. Edwyn Starr's 'War! (what is it good for?)' stands apart as one of the greatest protest songs in history yet there have also been many gems supporting war. I strongly recommend this site  which has proved invaluable to me as a history teacher. Josh White's 'Berlin Blues' from 1943 is a superb example of the quality of writing engaged in the propaganda of war. In this blog I will choose five songs linked to the theme of war and offer my views on each.

'Masters of War' by Bob Dylan

It would be remiss of me not to include a slice of Zimmerman on here and although this might be a bit obvious I make no apologies. This song appeared on the wonderful 'Freewheelin' Bob Dylan' and contrary to popular misconceptions is an attack on the military-industrial complex rather than a condemnation of the act of war itself. The song was written around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and reflected the sentiments of Eisenhower's closing White House address when he warned of the growing influence of the arms industry. Dylan is at his most blunt, eschewing the abstract word play of his later work to offer a extremely simple address to those in power which is all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

Like the majority of great protest songs the message was far from heeded and within a couple of years of its release the United States were embroiled in a war where the only winners were the manufacturers of Napalm and Agent Orange.

Here are three versions I find particularly interesting as it shows how the message endures through a variety of interpretations:

'Just War (feat. Gruff Rhys)' by Dangermouse & Sparklehorse

Dark Night of the Soul is an absolutely stunning album bringing together the unique talents of Sparklehorse and Dangermouse with a sprinkling of perfectly chosen guest vocalists (including David Lynch!). It is so consistently excellent that choosing a favourite is all but impossible. On this track the vocals are provided by Gruff Rhys from Neon Neon and the Super Furry Animals. The appeal of the track is how the bleak subject matter is contrasting with the lilting, almost jolly backing. Whether this was an intentional comment on the ease with which we accept the need for military intervention or purely coincidental is secondary to the primary enjoyment of a successful combination of seemingly hostile elements. I've chosen a video which uses a brilliant animation from 1982 which compliments the song perfectly.


'Ballad of the Green Berets' by Sgt Barry Sadler

I suspect my affection for this songs comes more from its value to me as a history teacher rather than an admiration of its composition. The melody is basic but the lyrics are a fascinating depiction of war as glory and the fact this song topped the US chart in the mid-60s shows how public opinion was once in favour of the Vietnam Conflict. It is easy to dismiss it as disposable propaganda yet when considered as a tribute to fallen friends as the writer intended it is actually tremendously moving and far more affecting than the plethora of sanctimonious anti-war songs latching on to a public mood to revive their own flagging career (cough* Greenday*cough)

'Two Tribes' by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

I used to hate the eighties. Perhaps it was reaching my teens in the following decade which made me loathe the prior decade. It seemed so bombastic, cliched and full of atrocious music usually sung by men wearing make up. It was only when I bid farewell to my teen years that I began to discover that lurking beneath the surface of excreta was some of the most brilliant, socially aware music ever committed to record. In the case of Frankie Goes to Hollywood they managed to combine a wit and eye for parody with challenging messages. Two Tribes is a sublime comment on the Cold War which manages to avoid polemics and instead offers a withering rebuke to both parties.

'Landlocked Blues' by Bright Eyes

One of the highlights from one of my favourite albums ever made. I won't linger on analysing the song as it stands for itself but one angle that I'm not sure others share is how this song reminds me of this scene from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I remember the first time I heard the lyric about 'kids playing guns in the street' it cast my mind back immediately to this scene. It seems like a cruel twist of fate that the facet which drives human kind to achieve great things - namely competition and desire to be the best - is also the catalyst for so much pain and suffering.

That's it from me, I'll try not to leave it so long between blogs in future. A word of warning; I managed to get Ryan Adams tickets for June so expect even more Ryan worship than usual as my excitement builds.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

So what's my motivation here?

Tonight's blog is about concept albums. It always tends to make my heart sink when I hear the news that a band I have grown fond of  announce their latest record is a concept album. It might be considered blasphemy but I consider Dark Side of the Moon downright pompous and it seems for many to be the benchmark for concept albums. However despite this doom laden intro there have actually been some pretty damn fine concept albums. Here are five, with a brief description of the concept and a song to get your teeth into. The format seems to be increasing in popularity with major releases in the last year from Arcade Fire and Janelle Montae offering their own interpretations of the concept album formula. I'd love to know your opinions so it'd be just the ticket if you posted your comments below.

In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
Rightly revered as an Indie classic this is loosely based around the unusual concept of the life of Anne Frank. The beauty of the approach is you could happily enjoy the album without knowing this yet once you do it makes the album far richer and poignant. In fact if I'm honest I could take it or leave it before the idea was explained to me and ever since I have grown to love it.

Songs for the Deaf by Queens of the Stone Age
Like many the involvement of Dave Grohl drew me to this band originally. What I never expected was such an exciting, thrusting, sonic experience based around the simple concept of a drive from Los Angeles to the Mojave Desert. The genius is how each song is supposedly from a different local radio station and there is genuine wit to some of the radio announcements; "We play the songs that sound more like everyone else than anyone else" being my personal favourite.

A Grand don't come for Free by The Streets
I suspect some of you will be reasonably disgusted by this choice as Mike Skinner appears to have divided opinion. This story constructed around the disappearance of a thousand pounds and the consequences is the most linear of the concept albums I'm featuring here. I actually think when you look past the admittedly grating single 'Fit but you know it' you find some gems. It is an ambitious idea and unlike with the albums that followed Skinner succeeds admirably.

The Fitzgerald by Richmond Fontaine
Grizzled, downbeat alt country songwriter holes up in Reno hotel; that isn't the concept it's how the album was written! The result is a stark but deeply moving document of events where the protagonist is trying to avoid being sucked into the dark. In contrast to the bleak sound scape the message of the album is undoubtedly optimistic as it recognises the daily triumphs of good over temptation.

Yoshimi battles the Pink Robots by Flaming Lips
As barking mad as the title suggests this is a special album to me as it became part of the soundtrack to my first year at University. A fantastic flatmate of mine was studying Japanese and we used to spend many an enjoyable afternoon playing Pro Evo whilst listening to the tale of a young woman battling evil pink robots. The undercurrent is actually an intuitive analysis of the fragility of global confidence post 9/11 but I prefer not to dwell on that and immerse myself in the wonder of the glorious world. Coyne himself denies that it is a concept album - pointing out that the 'concept' only really holds for four songs but they are utterly glorious and deserve recognition on here. In an act of moving bromance I gave my copy to my flatmate as he set off on his Japanese adventure and just a few years later he was raking it in as a James Bond lookalike. Dreams really do come true.