Wednesday, June 29, 2005

here's where to start, western pop purists

Mike Troubled Diva's Rough Guide to World Music MP3 is up and available to download. mExcellent - Go get it.

Mike, who is normally pretty quiet on the subject, says:

"reading about "world" music is not only beside the point - but, well, a little bit boring, like a coursework assignment. Better by far to sidestep all the fascinating facts, all the "Is it representative?", "Am I being marketed to?" head-f**ks, all the cultural tourism baggage...

...and just enjoy the music. Which I do, constantly."

Now we can too. Here's his post; part one of the guide is up now.

jane austen book club

Anyone out there read Mansfield Park? I really like Jane Austen and am reading it at the moment but really struggling with it - so far it has very little of the wit and insight I was expecting; rather it is a series of (doubtless well-observed) social set-pieces and little else. Granted I am only about a hundred pages in, but so far it seems to be lauding quiet respectability and compliance rather than intelligence or originality. I'm sure that will change.

Nevertheless, I'm finding it very dark, flat and featureless thus far. Any comments? Should I press on?

podcast query

I've had a couple of emails and a comment asking about the origins of the Steve Malkmus live track on the last Assistant podcast - a bit of info, then.

Stephen played two gigs in Seattle over the course of one day on the 24th May 2005 - the first, a radio broadcast for Seattle's KEXP Radio, took the form of four stripped down songs and a short, mildly sycophantic interview, and the second, from which the live version of 'It Kills' was taken, was a similarly back-to-basics live performance instore at the same city's Sonic Boom Records. You can download both concerts (legally!) via Bittorrent and Acid Casualties, as well as a load of other SM stuff which I've mentioned at length before.

Here's another link to the podcast in case you missed it.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

big brother; force for good or apartheid?

Two slightly conflicting articles in the Guardian today about the first Big Brother which I have not bothered watching. The first reports that Trevor Phillips is to confound his growing reputation for saying idiotic things in public by, er, claiming that BB is evidence that we "seem completely uninfluenced by issues of race and ethnicity" when it comes to the whole eviction shebang. Well, he's broadly right, although whether BB is indeed a force for good and a slap in the face to ethnic stereotypes I'm really not sure. Still, Trev is. All of which is well and good, were it not for the fact that, by all accounts, the BB house is descending into something resembling apartheid bedlam. According to another article in today's paper,

"In one corner (the living room, actually), we have Anthony, Saskia, Maxwell and Craig. All four are white. In the other (anywhere in the house that is not the living room), we have Makosi, Kemal, Science, Vanessa and Derek. All five are non-white.

On Sunday night it exploded. As usual, the source of conflict was alcohol, and who had stolen whose cider. But the subtext was more disturbing. Over the previous week, this racial split had been developing. Indeed, Vanessa had noticed how funny it was that "us ethnics" were forming one team, while the others, the Anglo-Saxons, were forming another. Then came the alcohol row, and our worst suspicion was confirmed. Any early waverers who had not yet nailed their colours to the mast joined their similarly skinned brethren, and all of a sudden we were watching a TV programme that could have been a product of PW Botha's South Africa."

That all sounds like a fair amount of hyperbole to me, although if it's true that's certainly interesting (and appalling). So after giving up my self-imposed ban and watching Eastenders for the first time in a few months on Sunday I might have to watch Big Brother tonight and see what this is all about.

Thursday, June 23, 2005


When I was about sixteen I went on my last family holiday - to Cintra, where we stayed with an artist friend. I breezed down corridors lined with watercolours, filled disposable cameras with photographs of communist street grafitti, and wrote songs on my acoustic guitar, pausing occasionally to stare meaningfully at the horizon.

This weekend I travelled back to Lisbon for a work conference, and discovered that in a little over ten years my creative energies have dwindled to a general desire to sit around in the sun not doing anything (which sadly was not much permitted) and a more specific desire to steal a golf-buggy and drive into a bunker.

On our trips into Lisbon the coach journey was enlivened by the very charming conference host, who insisted on pointing out every single hut and fishing boat, as well as the highly regarded (but now sadly closed) Lisbon lung hospital ("for tuberculosis").

The weather was wonderful and the air conditioning startlingly efficient (bordering on a bit chilly). Back in my kitchen I am hot and uncomfortable. I would swap their coast for my coast, or my air for theirs. On the other hand, my time is my own and I may sit where I choose. Hurray, then.

kicking kids out of football

"In the 19th century America's white suburban cricketers strove mightily to avoid any contact with Negroes, Germans and (shudder) the Irish. As a result the sport all but died and baseball inherited the earth.

Amazingly, in the first decade of the 21st century, US soccer might be making the exact same mistake."

The above comes from a fascinating article by Stephen Wells on the racial divide in US soccer - it's well worth a read. Despite the presence of four African-Americans in the US national team (one of whom, Freddy Adu, is one of the best young footballers in the world), football (or soccer, as they'd have it) is overwhelmingly white; the basketball it's safe for the kids to play, evidently.

Very interesting, if depressing, stuff.

the band that sued itself

Er, this is a bit odd. According to Alex James, Blur are currently in the process of suing eachother. This doesn't mean however that it's the end of the band. No, course not.

Peculiar. I think I might sue Pete.

Friday, June 17, 2005

lots of links and links and links

Bit of a links-splurge from me tonight, hope you can extract something worthwhile:

The Culture Vulture is the Guardian's new arts blog. Is there anything the Guardian does not have a blog about????

Note to self: get round to registering for the Summer Burn this year... a must. They say...

  1. Signup with your address details using the form below (don't worry, we're not some nasty spamming site and we won't do anything other than use them for this)
  2. Burn 2 CDs of your favourite summer tunes.
  3. On the first day of Summer you'll get an e-mail from us telling you who you should send 2 CDs to.
  4. Post them off to the addresses you receive from us you have within a week of receiving the e-mail
  5. Sit back and relax, and wait for yours to come through the post from the people that have been selected to send you one!
  6. ... and thats it! You get 2 new CDs full of music to while away the summer heat to. Great innit?
What could be more simple, and what could be more fun. I'm gonna do it this year.

Elsewhere, Dirk is blogging again, yay. Here's her latest post. And she says,

"If you've given up on me...

I completely understand. In my attempt to forge a stronger bond with my immediate world I have negelcted to explain my life in excruciating detail."

Sorry, you don't give up on someone when you've subscribed to their RSS feed. You just get a pleasant surprise once in a while.

Two great links via Submit Response:
1. Guanoboy has started scanning and archiving old copies of the wonderful Nation of Ulysses fanzine, which is fantastic. I never saw this at the time, but I used to obsess over the N.O.U articles in Ablaze and other fanzines in the early nineties. And I still get shivers down my spine when I hear 'Plays Pretty for Baby'.

2. This Russian kid mixes with a turntable made of tape decks. Fantastic. Samples available to download, but be warned, the author points out that....

"I apologize for curvature in the first mix - it because Donna Summer strongly groaned :-)"


The Bedsit Bomber blog is back, too, btw. More jokes, more poems, more songs please Andrew...

Lastly, I'm slow to get round to linking this, but as others have pointed out before me, Jonny B's magnificent protest song 'Don't Close The Post Office' is the most laugh-out loud funny, sophisticated thing on the web right now - imagine Mike Skinner crossed with John Shuttleworth. Absolutely spot-on. You can download it here.

Ok, that's enough linking - go find Big Blogger 2005 yourself, should be easy enough.

podcast tracklisting

Podcast tracklisting:

Show 2 (June 2005)
1. Ivor Cutler - Episode 2
2. Stephen Malkmus - It Kills (live in-store performance)
3. Maximo Park - The Coast Is Always Changing
4. Bjork - Cocoon (live)
5. Jonathan Fire*Eater - Search For Cherry Red
6. Sway - Flo Fashion
7. PODCAST REVIEW: This American Life
8. Blur - Tender (Cornelius remix)
9. Ivor Cutler - Jungle Warning: Owl
10. Sleater-Kinney - Modern Girl
11. Wire - Outdoor Miner

And here's Show 1 (May 2005) again, in case you missed it:
1. The Fall - Theme from Sparta FC 2
2. Ghostface - My Guitar
3. New Order - Waiting for the Siren's Call
4. Assistant - What It Means
5. AFX - Where's your Girlfriend?
6. Section 25 - Looking From a Hilltop
7. New Fast Automatic Daffodils - Fishes Eyes
8. The Wedding Present - I'm from Further North Than You
9. Pavement - Fight This Generation

Here's a link to the other podcasts available on Pete's radio station.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

assistant podcast number two!

Assistant Blog Podcast Number Two is up and available, for those of you who aren't already subscribed to the feed. More info on it tomorrow, but for now, you can download the entire 48 minute show here, and if you do, you'll encounter all the usual banter plus tracks by the likes of Stephen Malkmus, Sleater-Kinney, Jonathan Fire*Eater... and a couple of appearances by Scotland's glorious Ivor Cutler. H'rray.

Assistant Blog Podcast Archive HERE.

comments craved...

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

books meme

Yay, Andrew BB has invited me to do the book meme which is doing the rounds at the moment... OK, here goes.

Total Number Of Books I've Owned.

I really don't know – lots. At the moment I reckon there are about four or five hundred in the flat, about which half are mine and half are Vic's. We've sold an average of about a hundred a year for the last three or four years, so we must have had a thousand between us in the last five years or so. And I had at least as many books when I was a kid and a teenager, a great deal of them unread (I was and am a compulsive charity shop book-buyer). So I reckon I've personally owned about, oh, 1500 books or so. Could be a lot more or a bit less I suppose.

The Last Book I Bought

Two at the same time; Marina Lewyka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go – the first of which I have read and the second I have not yet. Both were bought in Gatwick airport as expensive 'airport editions' during a moment's last minute panic-buying – and despite the fact that I already had about four books in my bag for a meagre week's holiday.

The Last Book I Read

Justin Cartwright's The Promise of Happiness, which depicts a scattered family on the brink of a reunion; it's a pleasing, unsentimental story about goodness, disappointment and frustration; it feels like a bright, timely story.

Five Books That Mean a Lot To Me.

1. Martin Amis's Money is the book which had the most profound impact on me when I was a younger and slightly more voracious reader; it seemed then to represent writing at it's most bold and irrepressible, unassailably confident and rich, and with a savage, hilarious satirical streak. It was the first book I read which really united my interest in politics with my love of writing – not because it is a political book, but because it is a book which could not have existed without the politics of the 1980s – reading it I felt for the first time that I really understood the context of something beautiful and profound. It's still the first book I reach for if I want dazzling writing.

2. The slow decline of quality in the writing of Salman Rushdie (and, indeed, in Martin Amis) came as a massive disappointment to me when I thought, five or six years ago, that I'd found the two authors who would always stay with me. The Moor’s Last Sigh is the Rushdie book I loved the most; absolutely epic and full to burst with wonderful ideas about painting, cartography, authenticity and religion. It's probably not his best book, nor the one I've re-read most, but it's the one I remember fondly as a book whose world – from Moorish Spain to India - I inhahabited totally when I read it first.

3. Good Morning, Midnight, by Jean Rhys, gave me a real shock when I stumbled across it at University. It’s a slim, sombre novel about a woman who – alone in Paris after the breakdown of her marriage and the death of her child – does nothing but wander the streets of the city, drunk and alone, trying to put back together her life. It was a novel which left a lingering feeling that I had been punched in the gut, and a massive surprise to me at the time, when I was absorbed with writing by Amis, Bellow and Updike.

4. I read several Jean Rhys books, with mounting horror, and then went back to my old white guys – more Bellow, Philip Roth, the absurdly youthful (by their standards) Julian Barnes. Then I left university and went on reading these weighty, serious books, until one day I picked up A Summer Bird Cage, by Margaret Drabble. Short, precise, bright, eloquent and articulate, it was like a re-discovering of what I had liked best in Jean Rhys. A Summer Bird Cage – and the two books I read at the same time, AS Byatt's The Game and Iris Murdoch's The Bell – changed my whole understanding about writing, which until then (I had forgotten about Jean Rhys) had all been about expressing the arcane and the beautiful. Writing about the mundane and the ordinary seemed utterly nonsensical to me, until I read these.

5. I think the older you get the harder it is to find books which really mean something to you; it's much less likely that you'll find 'your author' as you get past your teens and early twenties, because it's in those years that the impression art and music make on you is the greatest. But my mid-twenties did mean discovering Pamela Hansford Johnson, who is a rather old-fashioned writer, not a million miles from Margaret Drabble, perhaps. But a volley of her books, 'The Holiday Friend', 'An Error of Judgment' and, particularly, 'The Humbler Creation', read in quick succession a year or two ago, completely blew me away; her novels deal with one or two characters in a very normal situation where one, usually the man, makes a very small decision which impacts in significant ways. The novels are not expansive or showy, nor particularly gripping. But they are incredibly even, detailed, realistic works which transmit an almost philosophical brilliance to me. So I found my favourite writer a good way into my twenties, after all.

I have to pick five people to take this challenge onwards now; so I’ll go for Assistant Pete, Vik Blackwell (who has been quiet for a while now but will hopefully get going on her blog again soon), Quin, Pete Ashton and Dan, once he gets blogging…

Obviously if any of them don't like these meme things, or have already done them, they should just ignore me, or send me a rude message.

Friday, June 10, 2005

good writing / royksopp

Perhaps surprisingly, given my fondness for distraction, I'm really not very interested at all in the Michael Jackson case. But the latest dispatch from Santa Maria, by the Guardian's Dan Glaister, makes for interesting reading, simply because it is a wonderful example of good writing.
"The media stand around like confused cattle, unable to comprehend a change to their routine. Every day we sit in this car park until 2.30pm. How can we leave at 11am? Where do we go? What do normal people - the people who don't stand around in car parks interviewing each other - do at 11 in the morning?"

Talking of good copy, I never got round to linking to the interview with Royksopp in the Guardian a week ago. I'm even less interested in their music than I am in Michael Jackson (although you should download their remix of The Streets's 'Weak Become Heroes' sometime), but they're articulate, funny interviewees.

Forgive the lengthy quotation but I can't be bothered working out which the best bit is! "Royksopp", the article begins,

"have developed their own theories regarding songcraft: the Seven Stages of Songwriting Enlightenment. It has an impressive name, and comes with an impressive caveat. "It's probably going to take up a lot of space to explain," cautions Brundtland. "You may need to call your editor and ask if he can clear a few pages."

"And we are only ourselves on level three, out of seven," Berge frowns.

"We're mere rookies. We haven't had complete enlightenment yet."

"In order to go a step up, you've first got to go out of yourself," says Brundtland. "We are in a situation at the moment where we are still in ourselves, and see ourselves mirrored. You need to go out of yourself, remove the mirror and see yourself from the outside. When that happens, we will be at stage four and will receive further instructions."

I'm sorry, but I'm not really following this. Berge sighs. "It's all about transcending to an astral plane," he says, before attempting a different tack. "Stage one is very easy. You are at a party, trying to impress a girl, and you get out a pen or pencil. You write something and you look very poetic. Perhaps you can boost this a little bit by smoking a cigarette, a Gitane perhaps if you want to go the French way, like Serge Gainsbourg.

"And," he adds, "you need to have a very loose wrist when you strum the guitar."

His partner vigorously agrees. "Yes, you are not just plucking" - he pronounces the word "plooking" - "on the strings. So that's stage one. Stage two is when you learn to steal properly. You must take three totally useless books, let's say, a cookbook, a book about human anatomy and . . . " He thinks for a moment. "And a porno magazine. If you can use at least three words combined from each, and paste them together into your own thing, you are invited to level two."

"Then there is stage three. First of all, obviously, there is the hair and the beard." Berge gestures towards his head, which is indeed considerably more hirsute now than when the duo first emerged three years ago.

"Also, it is important to be able to name-drop the big singer-songwriters and say you're into Costello and Dylan, and obviously Leonard Cohen, and also to be in touch with themes such as religion and politics, in a subtle way."

He sits back, satisfied with his explanation. A considerable proportion of the hour I spend in Röyksopp's company passes like this. The conversation keeps lurching off at perplexing tangents: questions about Melody AM's vast success or their roots in the isolated town of Tromso are greeted with lengthy answers that end up touching on everything from pre-industrial revolution architecture to the duo's favourite American presidents ("Abraham Lincoln," says Berge, "because of his hat")."

The Perry Bible Fellowship

The Perry Bible Fellowship

Damn, these comic strips are just too big, funny and beautiful for me to be able to read them at my desk without people noticing. (Thanks to Troubled Diva, though, for the link.)

Call the huskies and collide into their fur

Okay, this is my last SM post for a while - but I've got lots of shiny Malkmus presents to dispense before I stop. Lots of good links, anyway.

The always reliable Fluxblog is first out of the traps, with a brief review of SM and the Jicks's performance at Irving Plaza and two live tracks available for download; 'Grace' and a stripped down version of 'Carl The Clod' (neither of which SM has released proper recordings of yet). There are more versions of the same tracks over at Acid Casualties, including a storming full band version of the latter, along with live versions of most of the tracks from SM's excellent Face The Truth album. There's a whole bunch of bit-torrents there too, excellent. You have to register but it's easy. There's more stuff over at Lukas's Jicks site too, more probably.

Meanwhile, over on his official website, Stephen may not be blogging as such, but his update board provides plenty of delights - a lot of stuff about Bush and the War, thoughts from the road and as many record and book recommendations as you could want for the summer. He's enthusiastic about PG Wodehouse, Muriel Spark, Middlemarch and Iris Murdoch. More literate pop stars please. And don't worry, he's still doing the cut up, fucked up writing stuff.

"for you today who visit the site
shred trends
youll never know --
you feel it, you do it
theres no gain inmind
nike doesnt want you to know $$$$$$
wideman kennedy doesnt want y9ou to know$$$$

SEE THROUGH IT Kant style be smart avoid the stash
and once and for all fuck the tiny awt syndicate with a sour stick. so weak it makes me want to be a jock"

Um, right. Don't worry, it's not all like that.

Read his diary updates here.

And the last bit of SM news: he's playing The Concorde in Brighton on the 28th October. Shepherd's Bush Empire the night before for yoo London kids.

damon on the radio

Nice to hear Damon Albarn talking good sense on the Today programme this morning,

"This country is incredibly diverse. More than ever, black culture is an integral part of society, so why is the [Live 8] bill so damn Anglo-Saxon?

If you are holding a party on behalf of people, then surely you don’t shut the door on them. It’s insensitive and it also perpetuates this idea that Africa is separated in some way. In a way Live 8 does that – it doesn’t make you feel closer to Africa, it treats it like it’s a failing, ill, sick, tired place.

My personal experience of Africa is that yes, I have witnessed all those things there, but it’s incredibly sophisticated – the society and the structure of people’s lives is as sophisticated, if not more sophisticated in some ways, than in the West."

You can listen again here, today only, I think.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Willets vs. Davis?

A good post on the Observer Blog about David Willets, one of those middling tories I've never taken much notice of. In fact until I checked (just now), I thought it was him, not Andrew Lansley, who was after rebranding the tories 'Reform Conservatives'.

You can imagine the thought process. "Labour... Unelectable. New Labour... Electable! Conservatives... Unelectable. Reform Conservatives...".

But no, Willets seems a bit more sensible. The speech quoted on the blog is good Tory Common Sense (if such a thing exists), and his interview with the Guardian on Monday suggests that he's identifying and dealing with real issues facing his fast-fading party. Like, Geoffrey Wheatcroft, author of The Strange Death of Tory England, Willetts is concerned about:

"The retreat of institutions which he admits "are not as central to our national life as they once were" - and which used to embody Tory feelings towards society and what he calls "non-state collective action".

By this he means the Church of England, the armed forces ("lots of Tory MPs were in the army"), landed estates and local government in which people served. "These were the unstated values that provided a counterbalance to the economic reform and freedom agendas. Those values have been submerged, I am trying to rediscover them."

Not sure I like the idea of relocating these traditional instincts, but he seems a good bet for a more sensible kind of Tory leader.

He hasn't got a hope...

Friday, June 03, 2005

make me normal on C4 last night

Fairly sure that this is a pointless question, but did anyone happen to video the Channel 4 documentary about autism that was on last night? It was called 'Make Me Normal' and I clean forgot to watch it, and I really wish I had. If anyone did and would be happy to lend me the video (I'll pay the postage) I'd be really grateful. Failing that, anyone who wants to tell me anything more about it than I already know would be very welcome to do so...

Update: Looks like I'm not the only person making appeals on the web today; anyone with a spare D string for a double bass please get in touch with James, and admire his fine story about vomiting.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

more on the turner

Further to my post about the Turner shortlist, here's how the Turner Prize judges describe the finalists:

Darren Almond's work addresses the themes of time, geography and memory. He uses a wide range of media, including film, photography and sculpture to explore the passing of time and the marks that it leaves on both social and private histories. He is shortlisted for his exhibition at K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf.

Gillian Carnegie explores the properties of painting. She works within the traditional genres of landscape, still life, the nude and portraiture, incorporating a wide variety of subjects and techniques to both celebrate and question the medium. She has been shortlisted for her solo exhibition at Cabinet, London.

Jim Lambie makes exuberant installations and sculptures that make reference to pop music and youth culture. He uses everyday materials, including coloured tape and glitter to transform spaces and familiar objects. He is shortlisted for his exhibitions at Sadie Coles HQ, London and Anton Kern, New York.

Simon Starling transforms and reframes existing objects through a rigorous process of research. In his complex sculptural installations he creates poetic narratives by drawing together disparate cultural and historical references. He is shortlisted for his solo presentations at the Modern Institute, Glasgow and the Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona.

Gilbert and George / Turner Prize 2005

"What did you think of the match the other night?" We are meeting a few days after Liverpool's glorious Champions League victory over Milan in Istanbul. Gilbert looks disbelieving, then blank. "Are you mad?" George arches an eyebrow and takes a deep drag on his cigarette.


A cracking, crackling little interview in the Guardian with the always good-value Gilbert and George today, and a poster size pull-out of one of their recent works too. Their new works - produced digitally - are centred round hooded figures (often Asian or West Indian) and sound as if they are, well, in the words of Gilbert (or George), "up to date, on account of their subject, their form, their meaning, the feelings they arouse. It's not a pensioner's art."

"A fascinating garment, yes?" George remarks of the hooded top. "The only garment, we feel, which combines the qualities of the foreskin and the condom in one piece".

Elsewhere, the Turner prize shortlist has just been announced:

Gillian Carnegie

Darren Almond
Jim Lambie

Simon Starlings

Stephen Malkmus; back on top form

Steve Malkmus launches into another guitar solo. I'm feeling worried. Not because another of my heroes has succumbed to the desire to draw out songs for eight minutes so that they can squeeze another florid show of notes into the mix. No, Malkmus has been doing that for a while and, while we've had words, me and my Malkmus records (me and Pig Lib hardly talk), we've come to a truce over the issue.

But I'm about, oh, five listens into his new Face The Truth LP and it's disconcerting. A few more seconds pass by and I hear another distorted guitar note come in. He's going to do it again! But I just think, fucking great. Me and Face The Truth are getting on like a house on fire.

It didn't used to be this way. When I first heard Pavement they were a wonderful release from the perfectionist streak and the guitar solo – their sound was curiously brittle and free of excess (if not chaos). They were skewed, awkward, irreverent and singular. Now, Stephen Malkmus is still all that (obviously), but I'm not the only one who took to his first LP Stephen Malkmus and the more recent Pig Lib – as well as the last Pavement album, Terror Twilight - with a bit of reluctance. Out went the most obvious aspects of Pavement's indie-rock repertoire and in their place arrived long guitar workouts, classic rock harmonies, peculiar arrangements and a subdued sounding Malkmus, a million miles from the kid who screamed "No Big Hair!" all those years ago. He was growing up, godamnit.

Now Malkmus is 39 but he sounds fresher - and like he's having a lot more fun – than he has since Brighten the Corners. 'Pencil Rot' is the perfect opener, perhaps not a perfect example of what's to come, but an indication that this time round Steve is hanging a little looser. It begins with a squall of synthesisers and segues into a terrific new wave guitar line and a terrific drumbeat. Malkmus plays most of the instruments this time round and the sound is fresher as a result. You get the feeling that – for all the famous 'slackness' – Malkmus really knows what he wants his stuff to sound like. The song's best moment is the delightfully deadpan rap middle section. "I'm here to sing a song, a song about privilege / the spikes you put on your feet when you were crawling and dancing / to the top of the human shitpile. Shitpile!", he sings.

It's the first of about a dozen great moments on the record (yes, including one or two guitar solos which would have J Mascis glowing with pride). Several tracks follow the blueprint of his recent solo work, but the eight minute 'No More Shoes', for example, is a hugely improved take on the prog workouts he brought to the table on Pig Lib. In other places, he gets pretty damn close to prime-era Pavement. The tremendous 'Freeze the Saints' could be an outtake from Crooked Rain and 'Baby C'mon' recalls our hero at his frenetic, splendid best. Often, these days, Malkmus sings in totally different keys to those that made his delivery the blueprint for a thousand copy-cat bands, but on the slight, lovely 'Post-Paint Boy' his vocals roll back the years to that warm, sunny California drawl. He even drops in a disco beat and a vocoder on the impossibly playful 'Kindling for the Master', and it still sounds ace.

Now, there's no point in pretending that Face The Truth is another Crooked Rain or Wowee Zowee. Several tracks ('Mama', 'I've Hardly Been') are listless in comparison, and although part of me admires Malkmus as a brilliantly eccentric and original arranger, some of his decisions are bewildering. Listening to the LP for the first time, album closer 'Malediction', which sounded amazing when Steve played it live last autumn, sounded implausibly flat, knobbled by Malkmus's decision to sing it in a lower pitch and add some crazy overdubs. 'Loud Cloud Crowd' combines a slight, folky guitar line with a sweeping New Order synth line. It just about works.

But Malkmus is just too astonishing a song-writer to let such surface details kill the songs completely. Now, several listens in, songs like 'Malediction' sound a great deal more impressive; the odd arrangements which Malkmus favours begin to sound less wacky and more inspired; odd, intriguing sidesteps, unexpected melodies. The record needs to be lived with. It may (notable instances like 'Pencil Rot' and 'Baby C'mon' aside) lack Pavement’s immediacy, but there are just hundreds of tiny, temporary details which need to be located and understood.

And of course, there's the lyrics, which – as always with Malkmus – deserve another review all of their own. At times he still comes over as a devotee of the Mark E. Smith school of lyric writing, ("The shab ability to locate quagmire hearts on the map", he manages at one point), elsewhere you can see he’s just having fun (the "villain in his head" in 'Pencil Rot' is identified as 'Leather McWhip'). But he’s always been able to write directly, too – the first few lines of 'Mama' are gorgeous ("Mama's in the kitchen with onions / Daddy's in the back with Old Hank / Talkin' 'bout the lasers and bunions, talkin' disability rank/ No, we didn't have too much money / just enough to make the dead ends meet”), and the chorus to 'Freeze the Saints' glides along with the repeated phrase "Let me languish here". On 'It Kills' he sighs, "nine times out of ten I'm not the guidance type / I’ve been sitting on a fence post for the brunt of my life".

What Malkmus has done in the years since he broke up America's finest alternative rock group is reconciled the many influences that lay behind his songwriting. Starting out sounding like a cross between the Swell Maps and The Fall, his songs have gradually swelled as his talent has grown; now he combines the art-rock instincts of early Pavement with the mature, REM-tinged melodicism of their later work and, finally, the eventual demonstration of his love for 70s MOR and prog which first informed his love of music.

Bur rather than settle down and start producing a bland composite, he retains his enthusiasm and keenness to experiment. Fittingly, Face The Truth is his strongest LP in years and also his strangest. It’s also the latest instalment in what is increasingly the finest body of American songwriting of the last couple of decades. Nice work.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

tories like opposition

Interesting stuff in the new Telegraph YouGov poll, which assesses what members of the conservative party want from their next leader. Unbelievably, they're still banging away at the same old stuff. 74% want a tougher line on immigration and crime. Only 3% think that a more moderate party line would be desirable. Basketcases. The question they should be asking themselves is never mind how desirable a move to the centre is, how essential is it?? Unless that is, they've just grown used to sitting over on that side of the House of Commons.

As for leaders, they want David Davis, predictably enough - which should suit people on the left down to the ground.