Sunday, April 23, 2006

more montreal

I walk out from my hotel, not knowing quite where to go. I walk for ages. Later, I end up in Chinatown, which I spot from across a square walking back towards where I think my hotel is. I see that a billboard advertising Christ is framed by the oriental arch behind it. I am momentarily comforted by the fact that wherever one goes, Chinatown is always the same. I take a photograph, patronisingly, of a clutch of buildings, and walk on, staring at the LCD screen on the back of my camera. Immediately I step into a puddle which is at least two inches deep. My trainers, I notice, helpfully contain eight sizeable holes, as if for shoelaces, around the tip of my foot. These holes ensure that no part of my feet or socks remains dry. Thank you, Puma. I trudge on.

It had been a map-less journey where at times I thought I might not end up back where I began and would have to, in my stammering French or heedless English, approach a local with the name of my hotel, and ask directions. In the end I am lucky that my company booked me a hotel which was tall, and I recognise it climbing incongruously and strangely behind a cathedral (or a basilica, I forget which). The mixture of the old and new in Montreal takes me back. It is charming, not a pity.

First off, having determined that rain was no deterrent to my plans, I walked Downtown, realising as I walked through malls and sopping streets the extent of it, the distance from my continent. I had not, naively, expected Montreal to be so French. It's in Quebec, yes. But it's in Canada! Canada! They'll all speak English. Last night when I got a taxi back from the airport I cheerfully tried to engage my cabbie in conversation, and was horrified to discover that not only was his English not good enough for him to understand me, but that his English, however poor, was spoken through an accent so disdainfully French that I could hardly understand it. I had expected him to veer into an accent unfailingly American. Not so. His driving, incidentally, was unbelievably erratic. At one point he sped round a tight corner and skidded several feet through a puddle. While I clutched the seat in horror he expressed his disdain for the weather, entirely responsible, he felt, for the near-accident. Today, despite all the Francophones around me, the rain, it occurred to me, felt English enough - although much later, long after the Chinatown incident, when I had stood in my fourth puddle, I realised that it doesn't even rain that much in England anymore. The sky, however, was Sussex grey, with no variations detected.

I left the hotel early and, it being Sunday, the city was very quiet. It was very similar, actually, right down to the weather, to my first morning in Portland last year. After Portland (the most wonderful city, I thought, but one for which I was hopelessly unprepared) I determined that this year I would investigate a little about the city in advance. Where to go, what to see, where to drink, that kind of thing. I would arrive clued up and leave a connoisseur. I don't know who organises the CHI conferences, but whoever they are they must really love their indie rock. Anyone able to name two cooler cities on the North American continent than Portland (Stephen Malkmus, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney) or Montreal (Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, Stars)? No, me neither. But I saw little of that side of things in Portland and determined to do so here. Now, of course, I did no research whatsoever, which explains my disorganised wanderings earlier.

Actually, that's a lie. I bought a copy of the Rough Guide to Montreal. All the pages were bound in the wrong order. And the section on pubs, bars and shops was missing. The section on white-water rafting was provided twice, which I was grateful for, but overall felt somewhat cheated.

So having walked down through Old Montreal, down to the river, and back up through Chinatown, I eventually found the more up-market shops below the 'mountain' where all pretence of sophistication and elegance receded and I found what, in my secret heart, I was really hoping for. Yup, a Gap and an HMV. You travel right across the world, I hear you saying. Well, yup. But Gap is much cheaper here. Really, much cheaper.

Gap is cheaper in Canada than in Britain. It's for insights like that that you read this blog, I know. More cultural observations tomorrow, if you can wait.

Of Montreal...

So far Montreal remains mostly unseen, but for the view out of my window.

I'm spending the next week here and flew out yesterday afternoon from Heathrow, an easy, restful six hour flight which was made so much easier by the fact that I bagged the emergency door seats, hurray. Under this arrangement, I am obliged to be helpful in the event of a disaster, and also allowed to stretch my feet out theatrically when there isn't, glancing at other, less fortunate passengers as I do so, as if to say, 'Aaah. What a pleasure it is to stretch'. As it happens, stretching alone gets pretty boring across six hours, so I varied the experience with the inflight movies and lots of optimistic watching out of the window.

Two observations in this latter respect. Firstly, why do plane designers have to place the windows ever so slightly behind you, at shoulder level, so that in order to watch England drop away and the receding landscape, it is necessary to crane one's neck painfully and pull a muscle in the process? Secondly, as much fun as flying is, there really is fuck all in the Atlantic ocean besides a lot of water and a bunch of fish too small to be seen from several thousand metres up. Ships and fishing boats? Not that I can see. Majestic blue whales, sharks arcing out of the water? Nope. Volcanic islands? Nah. Big waves? Didn't even see any of them. When we passed Iceland we were above the clouds, if indeed we passed it all, and after that there's not much to look forward 'til Greenland.

And I'm not even sure that I saw Greenland, actually. It might have just been the tip of Canada. Either way, a few hours in I glanced out of the window and saw far below me what I thought was just a big wave, a big crest of surf. It was, I realised, ice, and shortly after a long, crisp curve of white filled half of the window and we negotiated a long coast of ice, mountain and snow which, although at times we veered away over the blue ocean again, was the most enormous, least hospitable landscape imaginable. Quite wonderful to watch. By the time we dropped down below the tree line we had, sadly, ascended above clouds again, so I didn't see anything else 'til Montreal, which looked from the plane window a huge, impressive and grey city, quite unlike anything in Britain.

Waking up this morning, having come straight to my hotel and crashed into bed last night, the city remains grey from my twelfth floor window. But it also looks vast, odd and exciting. Which is why, having had breakfast, I'm about to go and have a look around it.

Friday, April 21, 2006

daniel johnston, laura barton

A lovely article on Daniel Johnston appears in today's Guardian, enlivened as ever by Laura Barton's lovely writing.

There is certainly something naive about Johnston as he sits here this afternoon, thumb rasping at his cigarette lighter, and reminiscing about the time he bought every kind of pen Wal-Mart had to offer "just to try 'em out". He avoids my gaze, staring intently at the coffee table, unless I volunteer enthusiasm for his music, or Feuerzeig's film, at which point his eyes dash up to meet mine, round and glad and unblinking: "What did you think?" he'll demand. "Have you seen it? Did you think it was funny? Did you like the record? You did? How much?" I stretch my arms out to the size of a large trout. "Alright, alright," he smiles and nods. "That's good," and resumes gazing at the coffee table.
Everytime I see Johnston he looks more like one of his own drawings, or Everett True, or a character in a sad Harvey Pekar comic. I hope Everett True never googles his own name - I'm exaggerating, Everett, if you do.

You can listen to some of Daniel's songs here.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

silver jews live

You ever done that fantasy gig line-up thing? Or the ultimate festival line-up, even? It's kind of a boring habit of mine, when I'm too tired / bored / anxious to think about anything else. That and a fantasy Spurs line up which consists entirely of Robbie Keanes. When I do it I start with bands I missed because I was too young or stupid to go and see them before they split up - The Happy Mondays, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Dinosaur Jr - or people I could never conceivably have seen - The Clash, Can, Joy Division etc. Then I fill in the bands I love and have seen; Blur, Pavement, The House of Love, PJ Harvey. Finally I end up with the two still-going bands who I've never seen and would, frankly, die to see. XTC haven't played live since 1983 or something like that, and aren't ever likely to do so. So I end up with the band who are - in my meaningless opinion - probably the finest on the planet right now - Silver Jews, who never started touring in the first place.

Except of course that, more than ten years into their career, they've started. They've just played a run of dates in the US and are coming over to the UK very shortly. And... I'm going to be away when they come. Unbelievable, but I don't feel too bad as I had already assumed that I would never get to see them. And I figure, I'm gonna review 'em anyway, something which would have been impossible a few years ago, but with the wonderful advent of MP3 blogs I've managed to download four full concerts from the tour, including what is officially the first ever Joos concert at the 40 Watt Club in Athens, GA on March 10th. And, well, it was stunning.

The reclusive, remarkable, drug and alcohol ravaged genius that is Jews mainman David C. Berman has always been a bit of enigma, refusing to play live, refusing to read his song lyrics at poetry readings (he's the author of 'Actual Air', one of the finest collections of American poetry I've ever read), and sacking and reinstating Pavement's Stephen Malkmus, Bob Nastanovich and Steve West on regular occasions. His most recent album, Tanglewood Numbers, saw most of them back, along with Will Oldham and his wife, Cassie, but on tour only Cassie and Bob make the line up - the latter only for a few, nostalgic numbers. So there's no Malkmus. He's barely missed however - the show is all about Berman, who apparently has to perform with his (extraordinary) lyrics on a music stand in front of him as he can't remember them. And god, we've waited a long time to see him do this.

The outpouring of collective joy from the audience is immediately obvious the moment the band takes the stage. Berman's voice, greeting the audience, is surprisingly nasal. "You wanted the jews, you got 'em", he announces. "This isn't my speaking voice", he continues, "but I know you don't what it is, so I'm making you think this is it, fuck you". Then he counts to four, hits his guitar and sings "In 1984 I was hospitalised for approaching perfection / slowly screwing my ways across Europe, they had to make a correction". The audience wants to laugh but instead it whoops deliriously as the musics kicks in. The formula is set. Every lyric - "I know that a lot of what I say has been lifted off of men's room walls" - is met with hollers of approval. Is their another living musician who raises cheers with every other line? Finally the songs ratchets up to the point everyone is waiting for; Berman sings the pay-off "If you don't want me, I promise not to linger / but before I go I got to ask you dear about that tan line on your ring-finger". At which point, although I can't vouch for the spines of the "real" audience, mine seems to explode in a tumult of tingles.

It's by no means a practised performance; Berman's voice is even flatter and less expressive than on record (but this is the man who once sang "all my favourite singers couldn't sing"), and the band turn in an accomplished set shorn of Malkmus's pyrotechnics. None of this matters at all, however - the sheer pleasure of finally hearing songs that have lived like friends for years kills all possibility of disappointment. And Berman is clearly a beguiling frontman - frequently quietening the band down to tell jokes, praise the audience and address good-natured heckles. The set itself is drawn in roughly equal measures from across the band's five-album back catalogue. Berman says next year he'll learn 15 different songs and come back.

In the meantime, he's picked such glorious songs to play. Nastanovich - still the friendliest man in the world, by the sounds of things - comes out for an incredibly emotional run through of 'Trains Across The Sea', which unfurls like something heart-breaking by The Velvet Underground. "Half hours on Earth", Berman sings, "What are they worth? I don't know". The song over, he notes, new to this, "No-one ever told me, I just found this out this week, that it sounds shitty on stage, like I thought it would sound as good as it does in your car, or at home. It sounds worse! How are you supposed to rock out, it sucks!". It's funny to think that this stuff is new to him.

Elsewhere, 'New Orleans' is lovely but the first time I miss Malkmus, and several songs from Tanglewood Numbers sound super, but it's the classics that really sound amazing. 'Dallas' takes my breath away, alternately hilarious - "I passed out on the thirteenth floor / the CPR was so erotic"- and beautiful - "How d'you turn a billion steers / into buildings made of mirrors?". Guitars chime melodiously around Berman as he begins to spin stories, addressing the crowd. It makes me burn with desire to visit Dallas, not an experience I've had before. "Sorry if I'm harsh on a song that means a lot to you", he apologises afterwards. Hardly.

'Horseleg Swastikas' is equally fine. "And I wanna be like water if I can", Berman croons, "cos water doesn't give a damn". The song quietens down for a piano break and Berman observes, "you know, I guess this has been a pretty good first concert. There's been some screw-ups. But er, I only really started practising for the tour a few days ago. And I know you guys waited for a long time. I didn't deserve to do that to you". I think I know what he means.

'Slow Education' is another song packed with lyrics the crowd has waited a long time to hear him sing. "When God was young / he made the wind and the sun / and since then / it's been a slow education / And you got that one idea again / the one about dying". 'Buckingham Rabbit', from American Water closes the set and it's worn-out sounding and euphoric, Berman having relented and okayed an encore he was determined not to do, getting Steve West - "an excellent human being" - on to drum. It's another song which I associate so strongly with Malkmus that it's impossible not to wish he was there, but the Joos do an outstanding job without him. "So the rent became whisky / then my life became risky", Berman sings. Ain't that the truth. It's not long ago that Berman tried - and failed - to kill himself.

But it's great to see/hear him in such good form. "You know, I've caught a lot of you guys looking at my wife tonight", he jabs. As the guitars build and lead us out at the end of a remarkable set, a huge, warm cheer erupts from the crowd. "See you next year", he mutters, oblivious to the fact that half of this crowd is probably intent on following him round the States for the next couple of weeks. And, yeah, it looks like it'll have to be next year for me, David, but it's worth waiting for I suspect. In the meantime, I get lovely Pavement flashbacks as Bob comes back out on stage to apologise that there'll be no more music tonight and tell the crowd how beautiful they are. Still a gentleman after all these years.

Hear other dates from the tour here and here.

Monday, April 17, 2006

phone / westworld

Uch, I hate not having my phone to hand; drank too much last night and didn't eat properly so ended up either leaving my phone in the pub or at Dave's house or in the back of the cab. Too fogged by hangover to do anything about it today. But I'm delighed to see that 'Westworld' is on the telly tonight. Apart from having a secret and shameful liking for Michael Crichton novels/adaptations, I've wanted to see it for years. Ever since I heard the commendably crazy 'Jo Jo's Jacket' on Steve Malkmus's first solo LP, where he sings...

"I’m not what you think I am. I’m the king of Siam.
I’ve got a bald head, my name is Yul Brynner
And I am a famous movie star.

Perhaps you saw me in Westworld?
I acted like a robotic cowboy.
It was my best role, I can not deny I felt right home deep inside that electronic carcass"

...which I think would intrigue anyone.

Friday, April 14, 2006

euston manifesto

War in blogworld! Another predictable outbreak. For the last couple of weeks I've been - and remain - very interested in the activities of a number of activists and bloggers - some of who I know - who have spent the last couple of months working on a new cross-party manifesto which aims to clearly voice the ideas of what is variously called the 'decent left' or the 'pro-war left', and which is increasingly and not entirely unfairly characterized as the 'really-not-very-left-at-all left', although they entirely fairly point out that notions of left and right don't really work in this context anyway. The result, 'The Euston Manifesto', was published in yesterday's New Statesman, and has attracted a predictable mixture of acclaim and disdain across the web and disproportionately, for some reason, on the Guardian's generally excellent Comment is Free project. You can read the manifesto here, and sign it if you feel it strikes a chord.

And some, as we might expect, have met the manifesto with exaggerated howls of derision. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has used the section of my sidebar, right, which is dedicated to 'Political Blogs'. If you have used it, and have therefore spotted the increasing polarisation of opinions between the pro and anti-war camps (two almost completely well-intentioned groups, I might add), you'll doubtless be as frustrated as I am that neither appear able to moderate their contempt for the other.

Andrew, over at Bloggers4Labour, is frustrated, too, feeling that the sentiments of the manifesto are not being given a fair chance by the majority of bloggers, and he is quite right; we seem to have reached a stage where both camps are so firmly entrenched that neither is prepared to allow the other the oxygen required to make their case. Matters weren't helped by the New Statesman, whose decision to print the manifesto was in any case rather odd (given their anti-war stance), denouncing the Manifesto on its editorial page before anyone even got the chance to read it (it appeared, abridged, 12 pages later). At the same time, despite protestations to the contrary, and despite a good deal which is admirable contained within, it's very hard to believe that certain parts of the manifesto were not carefully calibrated to offend the traditional left.

I think it's a very worthwhile project, all the same. I'd like to see the anti-war movement come up with either an alternative or a constructive critique of its contents, and I'd also like to know how it is received within a Labour Party which is presumably as divided (and doubtless as aggressive) as the blogworld. Will we see any MPs signing it, I wonder? Most importantly, I want to see if the 241 people who have so far signed up will have input in how the project develops. I'd like to come back in six months and see a much-changed manifesto there; not necessarily one which has altered its principles, but one which has been expanded, modified and refined by intelligent discussion and debate. How flexible and responsive its authors are may prove how worthwhile the 'decent left' argument is.

Similarly, it would be nice to think that the 'stoppers' (ridiculous expression, not mine) could contribute without just slinging insults - but we are talking politics, and acting like an aggressive, macho idiot is, I'm afraid, par for the course...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

damon watch

Bored, I spent ten minutes last night trying to work out what's up next for Damon Albarn, seeing as he's coming to the end of his Gorillaz stint. The New York Shows didn't go down so well as the UK ones, I gather, but I think that has more to do with stuttering technology and the lack of Jamie Hewlett's visuals than it does the quality of the music. I've been watching the DVD of the Manchester show recently (of which, more to follow, all being well), and it's clearly a show of bewildering and stunning proportions. Anyway, unless Damon takes the show to Vegas, I've narrowed down his activities to:

(i) He's been back in the studio with the Blur boys recently and apparently the new record, rumoured to be very noisy and punk, should see the light of day this year.
(ii) He's written a Chinese opera, and I think this might again feature Hewlett's art, although I gather it's not going to be a Gorillaz project
(iii) There is, however, a Gorillaz computer game in the pipeline
(iv) and, apparently, one day, a film.
(v) Damon is still working on his Nigeria album, which I've seen described in various ways - it's gonna come out under his own name, it's not gonna come out under his own name, it's being produced by DangerMouse, it's being recorded with local musicians... Not sure what to make of this one. Looking forward to it though...

Damonwatch will be back next month.

Alright, it won't.

the shame of guantánemo

[warning: following post entirely cobbled together with cut and paste from the Guardian website - still worth reading though...]

A powerful and authoritive comment from an eminent former law lord, Lord Steyn, appears in the Guardian today. Steyn, who made international headlines in 2003 when he described the indefinite detention of terror suspects without charge or trial at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba as "a legal black hole" attacked Guantánamo Bay as "a stain on American justice" last night and said Tony Blair's refusal to condemn it was "shaming for our country".

Lord Steyn is now the chairman of the civil rights group Justice, and said (amongst other things - you can read his quotes in more detail here)...

"As a lawyer brought up to admire American democratic values, I feel compelled to say that Guantánamo Bay is a stain on American justice. Only the present administration of the United States tries to defend the utterly indefensible.

Unfortunately, our prime minister is not prepared to go further than to say that Guantánamo Bay is an understandable anomaly. In its feebleness this response to a flagrant breach of the rule of law, reminiscent of the worst actions of totalitarian states, is shaming for our country.

While our government condones Guantánamo Bay the world is perplexed about our approach to the rule of law. But I hope the world also knows that if the matter was within the jurisdiction of British courts, our judges would unanimously condemn Guantánamo Bay.

You may ask: how will it help in regard to the continuing outrage at Guantánamo Bay for our government now to condemn it? The answer is that it would at last be a powerful signal to the world that Britain supports the international rule of law."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

no thanks, alan

I would have posted something about Alan Milburn's hilarious hint that he might stand for the leadership of the Labour Party in the terrifying period of post-Blair rule somewhat earlier, but unfortunately I've been laughing too hard ever since Sunday morning, when he made his push on the BBC's Sunday AM show. But I'm pulled up a little short by Polly Toynbee's thoughtful column in the Guardian today, where she - although plainly recognising that Labour could not find a more unnapealing leader and that Milburn would be trounced by Michael Meacher, let alone Gordon Brown - points out that Milburn, true to form, is just indulging in a bit of unpleasent 'tribal warfare' and trying to destabilise his Chancellor. Following the grim sight of Milburn and Byers attacking Brown in the post-budget debate, Toynbee asserts that "this is less about policy than scorched-earth loathing of Brown".

Well, talking of loathing, here's an admission for you. I never managed to much hate Peter Mandelson. I dunno why, I think it was something to do with the fact that I kind of understood what he was saying, and understood why he said it, even if I didn't often agree. No, for me, it's always been Milburn who gets my goat - the deeply offensive macho posturing, the startling vacuity of his policy pronouncements, his shamelessness in financially benefiting from links with a company which, in turn, financially benefited from New Labour's obsession with contracting out services to the NHS. The sheer stupidity of his election campaigning last year, the absolute brainlessness of his 'forward, not back' party slogan. And now, obsessed with hatred for traditional Labour, he repeatedly attacks and undermines the few good things that this appalling government does.

I'll let Marina Hyde finish the job off.

"Nor has he shown himself averse to the wretched bowdlerisation of the political discourse favoured by, among others, George Bush, in which people are invited to "choose" between things like "chaos or unity", "a world of fear or a world of progress", "violence or freedom". Consider Alan's characterisation of the debate at the last election: "Do we keep moving forwards, keep the money going into public services, make sure you get more people off benefit and into work, give more help to first-time buyers," he demanded, "or do we go back into the bad old days when there was mass unemployment? ... That's the choice!"

I hope Milburn does stand against Brown, if only because that might prevent the likes of David Milliband from having a shot at it - but I suspect he won't; he's not that delusional, is he?

music is his radar

Woke up this morning to hear John Humphreys on Radio 4 declaring the marvellous but not exactly world-famous Nigerian drummer Tony Allen the greatest musician of the last 50 years, which was a bit surprising. Waking up a bit, I figured out in actual fact he was repeating Brian Eno's assertion - and in fact the subsequent interview with Eno downgraded Allen to the greatest drummer of the last 50 years - although calling Allen a good drummer implies that the man can keep a beat. His stunning, sprawling work on Fela Kuti's complex, sunny afrobeat - and subsequently in his solo work - goes well beyond that. It's marvellously appropriate that when Allen finally left Kuti's band in the late 70s, Kuti found it necessary to replace him not with just one drummer, but with four.

I've been listening to Allen's latest record, Lagos No Shaking, almost constantly in the last week or so (well, that and 1999's hard, minimal masterpiece Black Voices), so now is as good as any a time to offer up a few thoughts. Firstly, it's a simpler and less contemporary record than his fine 2004 effort, Homecooking, finding inspiration from Allen's hometown of Lagos, rather than London, and carrying a more nostalgic and direct afrobeat feel, although there are plenty of moments of dubby spaciousness, guitar chops, call and response lyrics and jazz-flecked trumpets to counterbalance his occasionally frenetic (and always breathtaking) drumwork.

When Allen left Kuti in '78 he headed straight for Paris, and spends most of his time in London these days. So there's something particularly heart-rending about his first all-African record in 28 years; it's a passionate love-letter to Lagos, featuring outstanding performances from a host of Nigeria's finest artists, young and old. In particular, Fatai Rolling Dollar and Yinka Davis offer up gorgeous contributions. And now that we're moving slowly into the summer, there's something glorious about blasting out warm, propulsive funk with lyrics imploring "Don't morose your face!" Definitely the first record of the summer, then.

some African records for the summer
1. Mulatu Astatke - Ethiopiques Vol.4: Ethio Jazz & Musique Instrumentale (1969-1974)
2. Tony Allen - Lagos No Shaking (2006)
3. Amadou & Mariam - Dimanche a Bamako (2005)
4. Fela Kuti - Expensive Shit / Him Miss Road (1974)
5. Konono No. 1 - Congotronics (2005)
6. Dhafer Youssef - Elecric Sufi (2001)
7. Tinariwen - Amassakoul (2004)

Monday, April 10, 2006

bye bye berlusconi?

Seeing as it really does look as if Silvio Berlusconi has lost the elections in Italy, is now an appopriate time to remind him that he promised to "sail off to Tahiti" if he lost the election? Seeing as he has been variously accused of "embezzlement, tax fraud and false accounting, and attempting to bribe a judge", perhaps it will be better for him if he does. Failing that, it would be a joy to see the old sod in prison in a year or so...