Thursday, May 31, 2007

5x5 pilot

What happens when five Art Of Noise correspondents are given five unmarked songs by five artists being touted as next big things? Simon from Sweeping The Nation has tasked himself with finding out, and you can see my comments, alongside erudite track reviews from Ben SWSL, Damo, Swiss Toni and Mike from Troubled Diva, over at the blog. If you enjoy reading it then do leave a comment, and perhaps we'll turn it into a regular feature. I think it's a great idea.

OK then, the pilot run of 5x5 is here.

Bands covered are The Ting Tings, The Teenagers, Joe Lean & The Jing Jang Jong, Does It Offend You, Yeah? and Laura Marling.

Not sure The Teenagers will like what they read.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

ditto treatment

Beth Ditto is big news, you'll have noticed, although it seems to me that she is being totally patronised by pretty much every magazine and newspaper who laud her as being, wow, fat and intelligent, such a remarkable combination, when in fact she is just a normal, brightish confident woman in no need of fawning treatment, particularly when it is thoughtlessly meted out.

She's on the cover of the NME this week and, oh my god, she's naked! Naked and fat! Wow. I think the NME is trying to make a point about something with this but, alas, I can't work out what it is. Simon, over at No Rock And Roll Fun, has a go at unravelling it, and gets further than me. Excerpt below:

The trouble is, it's all a bit muddled.

Because NME, for all its other faults, doesn't usually have FHM-style covers, so the value of putting Ditto on the front, without pants, is a little lost. Kate Jackson, it's fairly safe to say, hasn't been lined up to slip out of her corset for the next Long Blondes piece, because that would bring a stream of letters calling them for trying to flog magazines with sexist pictures. Likewise, the Twang don't turn up with only a well-positioned tree to preserve their modesty.

So, is NME they saying it's okay for Beth to be on the front nude, because she isn't 'conventionally attractive'? And if that is the case, isn't that simply endorsing the idea of there being 'conventionally attractive' in the first place?

Or does the paper feel that a naked Beth Ditto is, from its reader's point of view, every bit as desirable as, say, a naked Amy Winehouse? In which case, isn't it a little bit Felix Dennis to be selling music magazines with female flesh?

Well meaning, but not thought through.

Click here to read his full article.

hair and history

From the age of 13 through to the age of 16 I was absolutely desperate to be Tim Burgess of The Charlatans. He was awesome; cool, beautiful, self-possessed. In those days he even wrote mysterious, meaningless lyrics which I sang sotto voce and didn't understand ("mouth like sugar, shiver / finger lashes, stick on"). And he had cool hair.


From the age of 14 through to, er, now, I was, and am, absolutely desperate to be Stephen Malkmus, of Pavement and the Jicks. He is awesome; cool, clever, self-possessed. He writes mysterious, meaningless lyrics which I sing sotto voce and don't understand ("seventeen anteaters / sequestered in a room / with the sisters and mothers of famous gluttons I don't know"). And he has cool hair.

It's Tim Burgess's birthday today! And Steve Malkmus's! Happy birthday chaps.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

see you again, nat

My friend Captain Natalia moved away from Brighton this weekend, and has returned to Barcelona - she's also deleted her blog, which is the first one in my essential blogs list down to the right. Anyway - two messages: Nat, firstly, we'll all really miss you and we love you lots, and are looking forward to seeing you again before too long. Secondly, start that bloody blog up again. Now that you're so far away we've all the more reason to read it so that we can know what you're up to! I think Blogger need to add a feature that only deletes blogs completely after seven days, so that you've had sufficient time to mull over whether you did the right thing or not. I suspect that thousands of decent blogs have disappeared into the ether as a result of an impetuous and much regretted decision. Ah well. Lots of love from me and all in 7 Dials, Nat.

the cribs - men's needs, women's needs

There's a bit of a contradiction at the heart of Wakefield's indie rock trio The Cribs. They've carefully cultivated a reputation as unfocused and scruffy dissenters against the fashion-led UK indie scene. They deride 'scenesters' wherever possible, record their records with scant regard for production quality, and play blistering live shows calculated to make the likes of Bloc Party look tame and weedy. Although their music is identifiably British, undeniably a product of these post-punk referencing times, their influences are different - a recent podcast they assembled for Drowned In Sound contained punk-poetry by UK riot grrl noiseniks Huggy Bear, idiosyncratic pop courtesy of Daniel Johnston and several slices of awesome alternative rock by Comet Gain, Stephen Malkmus and Sleater-Kinney.

On the other hand, after several years making raucous records at the edge of the indie scene, looking scornfully in, they've never broken through and have made the decision to recruit fan Alex Kapranos (of Franz Ferdinand) to produce, in their new 'Men's Needs, Women's Needs', a much cleaner and more listenable effort than their previous albums. 'Men's Needs', the first single, is noticeably slower than their live take. They've called in their dues at the NME, got a proper marketing budget and, clearly, now is the time to make a concerted effort to storm the top 40. Will it happen? The Young Knives didn't quite manage it. But all the same, The Cribs do have the songs, bouncing around between the disparate poles of the stated contradiction.

'Men's Needs' is probably the best example. A furiously catchy and belligerent pop song which will doubtless tear up every hip indie disco in the country, it nevertheless starts with a typically cutting put-down. "Have you noticed", Ryan jabs, "I've never been impressed by your friends from New York and London"? The angular, dead simple riff could easily come from a Franz record, and yet Ryan's brother, Ross, handling the chorus, conjures up an impressive rasp more reminiscent of Kurt Cobain than Alex Kapranos. And although the latter has certainly smartened up the Cribs' sound, it's still agreeably rough and ready.

The song's flip, 'Woman's Needs', better showcases the band's versatility. Boasting a fat Pixies-style bassline and squelching synthesisers, it's both gorgeous and wilfully difficult, boasting an offbeat, chanted chorus that could easily have been penned by mid-period Pavement. Their debt to that band is, unsurprisingly, all over the record - tell me that a band which calls a song 'Major's Titling Victory' is not made up of Malkmus nuts. But on 'Moving Pictures' it's Scott Kannberg's melodic Pavement input, complimented by reverberations of noise that recall Echo and The Bunnymen, that the band evoke.

'I'm a Realist' is one of the catchiest songs; the brothers trading lines over commercial Britpop licks. "I'm a realist. I'm a romantic", they sing, "I'm an indecisive piece of shit". Despite the tuneful production, however, there's something endearingly sloppy about the vocal delivery - the effect is that they're singing along, rather than delivering a careful vocal take. It's to Kapronos's credit that he didn't force a more professional effort out of them.

Not everything works - they pack the better songs in the front end of the album, and 'I've Tried Everything' aims for a subtety which their rumbustious style doesn't suit - they can harmonise well, but I'm not sure I want them to. Again though, a Malkmus-esque guitar line rescues proceedings as the song progresses. Talking of indie icons, for 'Be Safe' they pull off the not inconsiderable feat of getting Lee Ranaldo (Lee Ranaldo!) into the studio. He recites some passable poetry over their churning guitars. The sheer impressiveness of having a member of the Sonic Youth carries the song, but there's nothing actually remarkable there, disappointingly. It's unclear whether he plays some guitar as well as sings, but I can't hear him in the mix.

Er, guys, you got probably one of the best five or six guitarists in the world into your studio. Make him pick up a fucking guitar next time. All the same, there's a nice moment at the end where Ryan notes, "that [take] were alright. Wasn't my best one but who cares?". Ranaldo laughs approvingly, concluding "that's the spirit".

That they don't quite pull off a completely consistent record is, though, a minor complaint, and the overall feel is of a band not so much comfortable with their sound as utterly self-confident to the point of belligerence. But while their music is often raucous, they never feel less than inventive and they're certainly intelligent, recalling at times the dry Northern wit of Mark E. Smith, Jarvis Cocker or the more youthful Arctic Monkeys.

It's a pleasure to hear a band drawing on a different palate of sounds without feeling obliged to replicate them directly - 'Ancient History' is a marvellous hotch-potch of Dinosaur Jr and Pavement repackaged into the format of an English new wave pop song, tuneful and thunderous by turn. It's not original, but the Cribs are moving towards the mainstream without sacrificing their instincts, and it's good to hear.

They're still annoyed, prickly and riotous, but they're turning towards their potential audience (dismissed quickly in the first song as 'our bovine public') with a bunch of songs that might elevate them to the status of the big league. Hope so - they're about a million times more interesting than the likes of The Rakes, The View or Bloc Party.

chuckle violence

Dave has been mocking up some really funny stuff over at his Lever Pulled blog recently, am most impressed. It's deeply annoying to have a friend who is a lot funnier than you, but you do get some good laughs sometimes too. I hope he doesn't mind me reproducing this on my blog - good work Dave.

passive agressive communication

This is a lovely little idea; a blog which collects examples of that most delightful method of communication, the passive-aggressive note. Is there a single one of us, anywhere, who cannot recall an example of an intemperate message we have found directed at us at one point or other? Such a shame I didn't think to keep examples that I received (or left) over the years. As much as the angry ones are funny, it's the 'friendly' notes I like best, for they so obviously mask the deadliest hostility. The following is taken from the site - take a look at their other examples, it's well worth a look. (via)

we be the echo

Went to the pub with Dan, Dave, Sam and Laura last night. Somehow we got to talking about serial killers.

Dave (looking closely at Sam's beard): You know, Sam, you look a bit like Peter Sutcliffe.

[Peter Sutcliffe, for those of you who don't know, was The Yorkshire Ripper.]

Sam (amidst much laughter): Oh, thanks a lot!

Laura: No he doesn't. Peter Sutcliffe was a bit more, er, rugged.

Sam (with his head in his hands): Oh my god, have you just compared me unfavourably to Peter Sutcliffe?!?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

record shopping

It's ridiculous that my record collection still exists in two places, but unfortunately it's the case that the vast majority of my vinyl is still, years after moving out, at my parents' house. I'm there now and trying to work out what to bring home with me. So many records were bought over fifteen years ago and while the excessive amount of time I spent poring over the sleeves means I still remember how they look and feel, so often I forget what they actually sound like.

Just how good were The Jesus Lizard? Good enough to do a split single with Nirvana, so perhaps I should bring back one of their LPs. But then, I've got three albums by them, somehow, and a clutch of 7"s. Did I really love them, or something? Why so many? Why can't I remember which album was best, so I can just bring that one?

Did I just buy a ridiculous number of records by bands whose names I only dimly recognised from reading Melody Maker or Lime Lizard?

Yes, I did.

But I've got some great stuff to take home with me and it's a bit like record-shopping, only I get some new music and a momentary glimpse at a valued memory, all wrapped in one. Bargain.

liverpool at night

Friday, May 25, 2007

Stephen Hawking

Amazing caption to a great photo of Mr. Hawking over at Dave's blog - take a look. Ha ha.

away

I'm writing this at a sun-drenched window at my parents' house near Cambridge, getting ready to go up to Liverpool to see my cousin getting married. That bit of pointless information was really just a preamble to the following; no updates for a few days, sorry chaps. Don't think I'll get the chance to operate a computer 'til the end of the weekend. Am annoyed to be away because I'm missing Nat's return to Brighton, but it can't be helped - and I like a good wedding.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

adding an h to my name

Scout Niblett at the Komedia

In support of her lovely new EP, which itself trails a full Albini-produced album shortly to follow, the wonderful Scout Niblett showed up in Brighton to play a set at the Komedia this week. Having really enjoyed the show I went and spoke to her afterwards and complained that I always mean to see her live, and then find that the show has sold out, or I become suddenly lazy, or something happens to prevent me doing so. So while her recordings have occupied much of my time I was never able, 'til now, to see her live.

The first thing I notice is the way she plays guitar; attention is obviously heightened because for much of the set it's the only sound you hear, intricate guitar lines echoing out around the dark space between verses, but it's almost immediately clear that her playing is tremendous. She's incredibly intuitous, knowing exactly when to emphasise a note and when to merely suggest it, and the moments where she rocks out are blissfully loud and tremendously satisfying. I'm constantly reminded of Kurt Cobain's way with a melody, but Scout picks out unpredictable guitar riffs recklessly, introducing moments of crunching drums at peak moments.

New single 'Dinosaur Egg' is a treat - the simplest of guitar lines and Scout's sweet vocals marking out the track as musically delightful, but the key here is the lyrics, written by David Shrigley. "Dinosaur egg / oh, dinosaur egg / when will you hatch?", Scout asks, "I've got a million people coming on Friday / and they expect to see a dinosaur / not an egg". Towards the end she adds on some lyrics I've not heard in previous renditions, eliciting a round of laughter from the room - I can't remember exactly what she sang, but it was something about the fact that she'd much rather be a "ball of light" than a human. Or rather, she'd like to be "a ball of light... but still have sex".

After a few brilliant songs on the guitar she puts down her first instrument and expels the drummer from his seat, taking over for a brilliant run through of 'Pom Poms', noting that "everybody needs someone to spell out their name in a little song". Shuffling through tempos and stopping and starting, she manages to conjure something illusive and remarkable from the most basic of ingredients. Switching into 'Your Beat Kicks Back Like Death' she pounds the drums and screams "we're all going to die". By the sixteenth repetition I spot some people looking around the room rather nervously.

But despite the weird, bluesy guitar lines and screamed vocals, much of the set is profoundly pretty and Scout herself is smiling and informal, chatting between songs and occasionally forgetting lyrics. At one point she takes a breather and asks us where the term 'sweating cobs' comes from. The audience looks back, bemused. "Don't you say that down South, then?", she asks, in her broad Nottingham accent, "I say it all the time". She lives in Portland, Oregon these days, so I wonder what they make of that phrase over there.

Finishing up a set which I never for a moment wanted to end, Scout played a bruising, bluesy take on 'Just Do It', which is also on the new EP, and headed out to the bar, where I grabbed a couple of moments to jabber my enthusiasm in her ear. I bought a poster which she kindly signed, although I kind of wish I'd bought a record instead.

But after forty minutes of her unpredictable, peculiar, beautiful music dancing inside my head, I wasn't really thinking straight.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

admission

Here's a new song I've written in the last day or two - I wrote it after getting back from the pub last night and recorded the drums and guitars before I went to bed. Finished off by adding some vocals and a hint of feedback this evening, and mixed it up double quick. There's a few off notes but I'm really proud of it. It's only a small file so I'd appreciate it if anyone fancies downloading it and leaving any thoughts in the comments box.

Assistant - Admission (home demo) [2 mins, 2.7mb]

currently listening

This week's top six:

1. The Cribs - Men's Needs: Anyone else get the feeling that The Cribs are going to be very massive, very soon? If so, they'll thoroughly deserve it. I had their 'You'll Never Lose Us' pegged as a big hit a couple of years back but it's taken them this long to break through. They're kind of like a Franz Ferdinand or The Rakes who actually have the tunes to back up the energy and attitude, and I love this.
2. Children Collide - Frozen Armies: saw this lot at The Great Escape and was blown away by them; heavy, noisy Australian indie rock somewhere between early Lemonheads and Nirvana - brilliant riffs and bags of energy, but they've got proper songs, too.
3. Blonde Redhead - 23 (LP): This, along with the really good latest album by The Ponys, which Dustin recently copied me, has provided me with the rest of my week's quota of Sonic Youth guitars. It's great to have Blonde Redhead back after a few years away - still as good as ever.
4. Cold War Kids - Hang Me Out to Dry: I'd heard a few songs by this lot and not been impressed, but this track, which I just heard today, is just awesome - the heavily off-kilter guitars and pianos work a treat, and the whole thing just shakes and saunters it's way into my memory vault, so I keep twitching with the rhythm; ace.
5. Micah P. Hinson - Drift Off To Sleep: Another highlight of The Great Escape, this dark country music is the kind of thing I'd could have admired but never loved five years ago, so measured and authentic, so beholden to tradition - but it's truly lovely. And if that means I've grown up, then so be it.
6. Dizzee Rascal - Sirens: Both musically and physically, Dizzee seems to have just come back much stronger; this track is bruising and compelling, a dense cacophony consisting of slabs of rock guitar, beats and sirens, with Dylan telling us "I break the law, I never will change" over the top.

history via r. crumb

When I was over in San Francisco I managed to miscalculate how much time I'd have on my last day, and woke up early, packed my bags and checked out of the hotel. Sitting having breakfast in a diner around the corner from Powell St, I pulled my itinery out of my rucksack and worked out how long I had until my flight - six hours!!! It was a happy realisation, a little gift of time which I hadn't bargained on, enabling me to do one last thing before I returned to the UK.

I knew immediately what I wanted to do. The day before I had headed over to the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts hoping to see an exhibition of Robert Crumb's comic book drawings, which included a selection of new stuff as well as old, but was disappointed to find that the museum was closed on Mondays and had to miss out. So I jumped on the underground and dashed over, only to find the place still closed. Only because I was too early, though. As I've mentioned before, the weather in San Francisco was ludicrously hot, so I sat prone in the sun at the neighbouring park, allowing the fine spray of a nearby fountain to cool my arms. Soon enough, the doors sprang open and I raised myself and went in.

Crumb's drawings are fascinating - all are highly detailed, allowing no opportunity to document the texture of skin to be passed up, and many highly immature and adolescent, raising a contrast between Crumb's naivity and his interest in social degredation and sex. Some of the drawings portray women in a pretty unforgiving light, yet Crumb details men's failings, sexual and otherwise, with an equal frankness. Perhaps the most moving drawings are those which deal with Crumb himself, particularly an inability to vocalise his feelings - which manifests itself in one particularly lovely comic strip where, standing to face the reader, he can think of so little to say, and feels so awkward, that he is reduced to singing a song, moving from nervous to enthused and back to awkward in a series of highly comic frames. His interest in ennui means some of the drawings really do explore life in some philosophical depth - and yet others remain frank, filthy and funny.

By far my favourite is a drawing I've written about on this blog before, but can't resist reproducing again. His 'Short History of America' (below, click to enlarge) is just magnificent, one of my favourite works of art of the twentieth century - I don't care that Crumb is a comic book artist; the 12 frames of this drawing buzz with meaning, emotional currency and history. Brilliant stuff, and a brilliant exhibition.

Monday, May 21, 2007

viva la revolution

This is Ant. The consequence of spending the last four days dashing around from gig to gig and venue to venue is that between myself, Vic, Ant and Anne-Sophie, we have accumulated enough humiliating and embarrasing photographs of each other drunk, tired or gurning to keep this blog ticking over for a lifetime. However, I'm mindful that lots of photos of overtired Brightonians is of marginal interest to the casual reader, so I shall try to keep daft posts to a minimum. Still, like I said, this is Ant.

youthmovies at the great escape

Hard to know how to categorise Youthmovies without using a surge of hyphens; if I was looking to construct something out of all the familiar labels I might go for something like avant-jazz-prog-mathcore-pop, or something similarly pretentions and meaningless. So let's not bother with that, and we'll talk about the feelings they provoke.

1. Annoyance: perhaps this is only a problem if you aspire to be a good musician yourself, but watching a band who make extraordinary musical proficiency look effortless is bound to induce a little ill-will. Why can't this furiously good guitarist lose a finger in a threshing machine, I uncharitably wonder, as he unleashes a sequences of dazzling notes with such clarity and speed. How dare this violinist, who has never even rehearsed with Youthmovies before, play so instinctively and easily. Hmph. Well, technically, then, Youthmovies win the weekend prize for dazzling musicianship.

2. So Admiration naturally follows. Not only do they play well, they repeatedly set themselves challenges, each song full of stylistic and melodic about-faces, weird time signatures and moments of disciplined chaos. They're never content with sitting still, so one band member is variously employed, in the course of a single song, with playing trumpet solos, hammering out filthy keyboard riffs and conducting the string section. The singer, whose technical dexterity has already been admired, is a small, shy type who plays with a lop-sided hair cut and a slim grin. He doesn't put a foot wrong, despite the many twists and turns of the music.

3. Familiarity. Although they're undoubtedly out of step with prevailing trends, there's much to recognise in Youthmovies' sound. The guitars churn with all the controlled fury of DC hardcore, the cherubic vocals remind me of Thom Yorke's, the trumpets of NOU's unusual orchestration. There's more than a hint of Yes's epic prog rock, and that isn't as bad a thing as you might think. All the same, they manage to sound unlike all the other bands at the festival while not seeming entirely original. That's not to detract from the fact that they're interesting though.

4. Fatigue. We left a song before they finished. I meant no disrespect, and indeed enjoyed their set, but after half an hour of furrow-browed, complex rock it's hard not to feel a little worn down - every element of their sound demands attention and there are few moments of calm or release. That may sound like an odd complaint, and unappreciative of their quickness and grace, but by the time the set was winding down I was ready for some more straightforward pop music.

Still, a fascinating proposition, if not actually fun.

me drinking in the pub tonight

No, really.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

don't call it a day

Okay, so we've already established that we have to take every rumour concerning Blur reforming with a pretty massive pinch of salt. The latest round of speculation looks very positive, but the only problem is that it's hard to find a concrete source for the original quotes. Either way, the latest stuff sounds positive, although it's telling that the quotes once more come from the band member who seems most invested with encouraging a band reunion. According to, well, pretty much every music website in the world, this is the latest from Alex James:

"We're all heading into the studio together this summer - Graham's coming too. We're gonna see if we've still got it. If not, I think we'll just call it a day."
They've still got it in them. I hope this comes about. I know I'm a bore about Blur, but I'd be so happy to have one more record. Just one more really would be great.

more on blair

Everyone seems to be agreed on how brilliant Peep Show is this series, and I'm just watching, wide-eyed, the last one in the series, which I taped the other night. My favourite line so far crops up when Mark and Jez are arguing in the car on the way to Mark's wedding. At one point they start wrestling over the steering wheel in the middle of the road. The car judders to a halt as they shout at each other.

"I am not going to be known as Mark the jilter for the rest of my life!", Mark cries.
"Mark, we're in the middle of the road", Jez says, "you're going to get us killed for the sake of your legacy!!! Stop it, you're not fucking Blair!".

Genius.

blair and america

I'm not someone who normally spends a lot of time castigating Blair for the nature of his relationship with George Bush - not because I think it's been a success, but because I detect a very real and rather daft strain of anti-Americanism from the argument whenever I hear it. I'm all for a 'special relationship' with America, so long as it doesn't compromise a special relationship with Europe or, for that matter, anyone else with whom we have shared interests. And I totally sympathise with the government in that they have to deal with whoever runs America, even if it is a bunch of right wing fucks. Of course Blair has to have good relations with the US government, and I can even to an extent sympathise with his notion that if we offered support on Iraq we might have been able to exert influence on other matters, such as Palestine, even if that did not come to pass.

However, I do think his relationship with Bush did harm Britain's relationship with the world and our international standing, and I continue to regard Iraq as a terrible, foolish mistake. Anyway, my point in saying all this is that while I do not often slag off Blair for being close to America, I was interested to read the comments attributed to Jimmy Carter, who went further than most in high office have in damning the actions of our two administrations. Carter, a former US president himself, is obviously not anti-American (although certain Republicans would doubtless claim that he was) so his opinions seem worth hearing, uncoloured as they are by a certain fashionable disdain for all things Stateside.

Asked on BBC radio how he would characterise Blair's relationship with Bush, Carter replied:

"Abominable. Loyal, blind, apparently subservient. I think that the almost undeviating support by Great Britain for the ill-advised policies of President Bush in Iraq have been a major tragedy for the world".
Hmm. Pretty much what I reckon.

fear of flying at the great escape

My first experience of queuing at The Great Escape was not too painful, and actually a precursor to what would happen ahead - which is that somehow, apart from briefly on the last day of the festival, I managed to get pretty much straight into every venue I wanted without any delay. Outside Audio on the first evening, the queue snaked around the side of the venue and looked stationary as I approached.

But I spotted a friend, Liliana, and performed a seamless and subtle swerve into the front half of the queue, just in time for the doors to open and the line to inch forward like a caterpillar. The psychology of The Great Escape is really quite strange, because - unless you have to queue a lot - the experience is rapid and urgent, quite different to the ordinary experience of gig going, where you do a lot of standing around in half-empty venues watching supports, the venue slowly filling out around you.

We hit the bottom of the Audio stairs and the cavernous gloom below, and I felt suddenly that I was in one of those high speed stop videos; the venue in a matter of moments was transformed from an empty space, everyone inching forward in the darkness, to an absolutely packed room. The band were on within moments.

Fear of Flying are much hyped, I gather, and probably with good reason - they're young, handsome, keen and spirited, and their music is bright, aggressive and melodic. A three piece who seem to share a close shared vision, they amused me by trading vocals yet sharing a distinctive drawl - while the music is fast and jerky, their vocals seem almost to be a lagging a note behind, each holding their note longer than usual. I suspect it comes from the same influence that seems to drive their sound, which is an admiration for David Byrne's Talking Heads, but they reminded me variously of The Smiths, The Young Knives and Blur.

They certainly went down well with the crowd, perhaps as well as anyone else I watched, which is a fine recommendation for a band occupying the 7 o'clock slot. If I were an A&R man, I'd probably think to myself, impressed, that there's nothing that Fear of Flying do which the majority of their peers do any better, and they look eminently saleable. I wonder if they've not come of age (they're very young) at a time when critical mass for jerky post-punk bands has actually been reached and people will soon be wanting something different, but, all the same, they were a decent young band and doubtless one who'll be a success.

Friday, May 18, 2007

tiger triplets

This is amazing. The other night me and my friends, being high-brow intellectuals, spent a couple of hours in a Brighton restaurant arguing over who would win a fight between a tiger and a lion. We did not, however, discuss what would happen if a tiger met a dog, thinking it fairly unlikely that such an event would merit debate. But the Guardian today shows just what would happen if such a meeting occurred.

To quote the paper:

A Chinese dog has become the surrogate mother of tiger triplets born at a zoo in the country's eastern Shandong province.

The mongrel bitch called Huani is suckling the tiger cubs, imaginatively named One, Two and Three by staff at Jinan Paomaling Wild Animal World, because their mother rejected them.

The zoo manager, Chen Yucai, said: "The family is getting along well and seems to enjoy each other."

pointless, incessant barking

Anne-So just sent me this - I think she is trying to tell me something, but I am not sure what...

day two of the great escape

Not sure how today will play out, given that this afternoon I am attending Sandra's funeral (stomach already in knots about that), but I enjoyed putting together a plan for last night's Great Escape gigs, so I'll do the same for tonight even if I'm not sure what I'll be doing. To be honest, I don't think today's line-up is generally as good as last night's, which is why I've left off a few of the bigger acts who I'm not bothered about. It's jerky punky indie night, basically, and everyone sounds the bloody same. But the following bunch are much more interesting.

7.30
Navel at the Ocean Rooms: They still listen to Nirvana in Switzerland, hurrah! Well, Navel do, at least. The lone representatives of a slow-starting grunge revival, apparently, Navel do the quiet/very fucking loud Seattle thing surprisingly well. Tempting.

7.45
Cocoon at the Hope: tender, very melodic pop in an acoustic vein by this Parisien duo; everything I've heard sounds delicate and precise, and rather marvellous.
The Ripps at Kabuki: tuneful but noisy britpop-esque indie from Coventry (they even cover The Specials), The Ripps do snotty, bratty Coxonesque pop music, with lots of straight lines, and that suits me.
I Was A Cub Scout at Zap: tapping into the electronic and emotional indie sound of the Postal Service and stuff like that, I Was A Cub Scout are from Nottingham and make mini electronic epics with live drums - they sound good.

8.10
The Kissaway Trail at the Concorde 2: This lot trade in that nice, atmospheric vein of wide eyed and naive indie, recalling Mercury Rev and Daniel Johnston. Hailing from Denmark, they sound like a good alternative to all the shouty stuff on tonight.
Lay Low at the Pavillion Theatre: a female take on warped country blues, this lovely music actually comes from, of all places, Iceland, which you'd never guess. Sounds brilliant.
The Early Years at the Pressure Point: Nothing new about this lot, but you have to go some to beat their Stereolab/Spaceman 3/Neu style krautrock - all metronomic drumbeats, droning guitars and layered atmospherics.

8.30
Oh No Ono at the Beach: ultra-mathematical Clor/Devo/80s synth pop from Copenhagen, this sounds completely bonkers. Bonkers and ace, and confusing. Ok then!

8.45
Help She Can't Swim at the Arc: it would be churlish of me to leave HSCS off the list just because they're a local band, but that does mean I'm much less likely to go see them this weekend, even though their furious indie/DC punk stuff is a proven pleasure.

9.00
We're Marching On at the Prince Albert: a bit out of the way, geography-wise, but then We're Marching On are from Canada. They sound ace, quite unusual and awkward - not immediately accessible but very interesting, kind of like a Midlake, Arcade Fire hybrid. Worth a try.
We Are The Physics at the Pressure Point: more quirky Devo-inspired powerpop, and very interesting. Angular guitar lines, yelped vocals, buzzing synths and stop-start melodies. I like the sound of We Are The Physics.

10.00
The Rakes at the Concorde 2: Bound to be one of the big draws of the evening, I've always found myself conflicted on the Rakes - although the first album contained several great tunes ('Strasbourg' and '22 Grand Job' were ace) the lyrics were really unlikeable. The second album is less interesting musically but not as sneery. Either way, this is an option for the headline slot.
Spencer McGarry Season at the Prince Albert: Pretty, chiming indie pop recalling an ultra tuneful Talking Heads having a go at Motown and 50's doo-wap. That's probably a terrible description. they sound quite good, though.
iLIKETRAiNS at the Pressure Point: Yes, I know, the presentation of their name in that mix of big and small caps is just unbearable, but iLIKETRAiNS did release one of the most interesting singles of last year, in their brilliant 'Spencer Perceval', which outlined, over nine and a half minutes, the only successful assasination of a British Prime Minister. And this is likely to be one of the gigs of the weekend. What do they sound like? Like a lazy blend of British Sea Power and Leonard Cohen.

10.30
Art Brut at the Corn Exchange: The CSS of the evening, you suspect, Art Brut are just fantastic and this is sure to be one of the best gigs of the weekend; fiery, savvy punk-pop with smattering of knowing hilarity.

10.45
Willy Mason at the Pavillion Theatre: The grown up option, this is sure to be lovely, and if you were sensible you'd probably note that you're far more likely to see Art Brut and The Rakes around Brighton regularly, whereas having Mason's gentle lilting teenage country folk over here is a real novelty, and worth catching.

11.00
Enid Blitz at the Prince Albert: I was in the pub with a couple of this lot last week, although didn't do much more than wave accross the table. They sound good, actually, clean, melodic indie pop with nice lyrics - very much the gentle, cheerful option and could be a good way to wrap up, if you can't stand the thought of the queues elsewhere. A night at the Prince Albert, all the way through, by the way, could be an unexpected option for the tired but curious.

1.15am
Foals at the Concorde 2: I'm not actually very enamoured with Foals' take on the whole bleepy nu-rave thing, but then I don't like Klaxons either. But they're undoubtedly very hip and this'll be the place to go if you want to chuck glowsticks around and gurn like you're on ecstacy, even though you're not really and are just drinking Stella Artois.

2.30am
The Dub Pistols at The Beach: 2.30am!!! Goodness me. I'll be long tucked up in bed.

Right, so what is my route going to be? I dunno this time. I'm tempted to write off the big headliners, but I think Anne-So and Vic will want to see one of them. And I'm very tempted to just spend the entire evening at the Pressure Point, or even the Prince Albert. Or go to the Crescent and have an evening off! But I'll have a go at piecing together a varied agenda...

7.45 The Ripps (Kabuki)
8.15 Lay Low (Pressure Point)
9.00 We're Marching On (Prince Albert)
10.00 iLikeTrains (Pressure Point)
10.45 Willy Mason (Pavillion Theatre)

peter van poehl at the great escape

It's so weird and so nice seeing Brighton overrun by attendees of the Great Escape. Truly a city has never known so many skinny jeans and asymmetrical haircuts, nor seen such a polite teenage revolution. There was no vomiting on doorsteps tonight, no breaking the no-smoking ban at the city's venues. It was an evening of excellent behaviour and paperback novels, with hairclips.

My first show of the night was Peter Van Poehl upstairs at Audio. Me and Vic spent the afternoon shopping in town, which mainly meant traipsing around clothes shops, noticing that we were on a circuit with about fifteen other hardy customers who seemed to be trailing us shop for shop. Afterwards we walked down to the seafront and queued for our wristbands. I thought the girl dolling them out was quite pretty - afterwards Vic shook her head, saying "did you see her chipped nail-varnish...?"

Vic went home for a breather and I decided to stick around for the first show of the festival. Peter Van Poehl, from France, played mainstream, rather romantic rock alone with a guitar. He was beset by technical problems. The first song was brought to a premature end by a sudden, monstrous drone emitted from the speakers. He looked shocked.

"It makes me think", he said, seeming nervous, "about something I read recently".

He paused, as if wondering whether to continue. "It was about how stars are made. And when they're made, it's by an explosion".

There was another pause. The audience began trading small talk and consulting their phones.

"And when the explosion happens", he continued, quietly, "there's a tone. And the tone is an F".

I thought that was quite delightful - me and a few others laughed politely.

"That's not all", he whispered. "Preceding the F, there's another tone. And that tone is a C".

He wrapped his fingers around the appropriate frets, and strummed a chord.

"This is a C", he told us.

"But that has nothing to do with this next song".

He can come back to Brighton any time he likes.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

day one of the great escape

Tonight is the first day of The Great Escape, a three day mini-festival distributed evenly across the venues of Brighton - and I'm just trying to work out the options for tonight. Stand-out options so far are looking like...

6.15:
Peter Von Poehl upstairs at Audio: AM pop from France, it says on the Great Escape website. But the stuff on his website is weirder than that; orchestrated and romantic sounding stuff, this had me thinking of something like My Life Story on first listen.

7pm:
Kubicheck at Zap: The most agreeably noisy band on the bill so far, Kubichek are great - heavy, Mogwai-influenced guitars twinned with the elegant North-Eastern pop aesthetic of Maximo Park and the Futureheads.
Fear of Flying downstairs at Audio: unsigned but heavily hyped britpop from Ealing, I like the sound of this lot; highly literate indie pop recalling Blur and The Smiths. Stephen Street is a big fan, as you might imagine.
Minotaurs playing at Hectors: this sounds like a good upbeat early gig. Their stuff on myspace is lovely, whispered vocals, ultra melodic guitars, nice folk melodies and driving rhythms. Kind of like a sunny BSP / Orange Juice combo, at a glance.

7.45
Youth Movies at Zap: Very taken with this lot; progressive Oxford types who seem equally enamoured with Field Music's wistful melodies and Fugazi's DC style stop-start fury. They sound awesome.
Magenta Sky Code at the Gloucester: Appealing because they sound very different to anything else on offer so far; imagine tying the bleak electronica of early Autechre, Underworld or Black Dog with chiming guitars and cold, epic 1980s vocals. Bizarre, interesting. The new Japan, god help them. Except from Finland.

8.30pm:
1990s at Audio (downstairs): snappy, heavily harmonied indie rock from Glasgow, recalling Franz Ferdinand and Ziggy-era Bowie.
Victorian English Gentleman's Club at Kabuki (Sumo): very tempted by this one; an awkward, intense post-punk brew from Cardiff, recalling nothing so much as The Fall (yay!)

9.00
Hot Club De Paris at the Concorde: Occupying the very desirable CSS support slot, Hot Club De Paris should be a good bet in their own right - it's more itchy, credible post post-punk pop, basically, and from Liverpool this time.

9.15:
Loney Dear at The King and Queen: Dan's tip for the festival; beautiful, heavily textured folk from Scandinavia. Also playing at the Komedia at 8.30 but that seems to clash with more stuff.

9.30:
Patrick Watson at The Corn Exchange: engagingly eccentric sounding, Montreal's Patrick Watson claims Debussy, David Lynch and Nick Drake as influences. Soundwise, we're talking Jeff Buckley-esque piano led folk-pop, and quite intriguing perhaps, and a touch flamboyant. Problem is, Keane have ruined the piano for me.

10.00
CSS at the Concorde: Yeah, obviously everyone's gonna be trying to get in to this one. Hmm. It'd be amazing to see 'Off The Hook' live, but not sure I can handle the queuing. That said, the Concorde is quite big.
Shoreline at the Komedia (downstairs): This is the one Dan would envy us for, I think - eccentric folk in the way of Vashti Bunyan or Iron and Wine. The good news, Dan, is that they're from Brighton, so you'll get plenty of second chance. They do sound ace.
Land of Talk: Another band from Montreal (when I was in Montreal I didn't see a single band, hmph), Land of Talk are the louder, rock and roll option, and sound quite appealing - heavy guitars and simple structures but nice hooks and strong female vocals.
The Lionheart Brothers at the Ocean Rooms (upstairs): fey but noisy post-shoegaze psychadelic rock from Norway that occasionally sounds a bit more like the Boo Radleys than Mercury Rev - not sure if that was the aim. Effect-pedal-a-rama.

10.15
Nouvelle Vague at the Corn Exchange: The main competitor to CSS for tonight's main draw, I reckon. At first I dismissed Nouvelle Vague as a bit of a gimmick, but listen, they make beautiful songs sound beautiful in a completely unexpected way. How can you argue against that?

10.45
Archie Bronson Outfit at the Pavillion Theatre: A definite for the end of the night, The ABO are awesome - singular West Country rock which recalls Polly Harvey in both sound and intensity. They've signed to Domino and are my prediction for band of the night.

Of course, things never work out the way you plan them, and set times slip, and friends want to do other things, but if it was simple, this would be my agenda for the night I think:

6.15 Peter Van Poehl (Audio, upstairs)
7.oo Minotaurs (Hectors) or Fear of Flying (Audio, downstairs)
7.45 Youth Movies (Zap)
8.30 Victorian English Gentleman's Club (Kabuki)
9.15 Loney Dear (King and Queen)
10.oo Shoreline (Komedia, downstairs)
10.45 Archie Bronson Outfit (Pav Theatre)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

boring

I'm posting this while I'm waiting for an email to open in my unusually slow yahoo mail. I do know, however, that the message is from Dave, and that it's a comment on the last post I wrote. Before I read it, let's do a little test. I think it consists of one word, and the word is boring. Here's a link to the comments thread - why not see if I was right?

thoughts on labour

It looks, judging by the latest updates on the Labour leadership election, like left-wing Labour MP John McDonnell is going to have serious difficulties drumming up enough nominations to go head to head with Gordon Brown. He needs 45 nominations and is currently still 16 off that figure with only 26 undeclared Labour MPs left to woo. I think he may be sunk. I would have loved, however, to have seen the faces of Millburn and Byers as they reluctantly put in their nominations for Brown. Hilarious.

It will be a pity if McDonnell doesn't get to stand. He is a respectable MP whose hard work over recent months has done much to reinvigorate the labour left, although he's plainly not really leadership material at all, and as much as there is a lot to admire in his manifesto, I don't think it's really a plausible base upon which to stand. Brown would be a far better PM.

The point, however, is that a large left movement exists within the labour party and I would like that section to have a voice. We couldn't get Ken on the ballot paper in 1994, but one left-wing MP, Jon Cruddas, has put together a very well-judged, moderate and thoughtful campaign for the deputy leadership, and has already secured enough nominations to stand. It seems ludicrous that the grassroots of the party will be able to vote for him as a deputy but have to put up with a coronation for the leader. Of course McDonnell, or Meacher, could not win, but the party would be better, healthier and more open for one of them being able to stand.

In terms of the deputies, I like Cruddas a lot, although I have to admit that I would be stumped on who to vote for in that election. I wouldn't vote for Johnson or Blears, obviously, nor would I vote for Benn, who looks like he won't make the cut anyway, but I'd be more than happy with a deputy leader of the calibre of Harriet Harman or Peter Hain. Or, indeed, Jon Cruddas.

The big question of course, is whether Brown will do enough to persuade the left to re-embrace their natural party. I hope so.

Monday, May 14, 2007

even mindless violence seems boring today

I promised Dave that I would give a full and frank account of his contribution to the pub quiz last night, as he was miffed that I spitefully left him out of my last appraisal of our team's fortunes (still top of the league!). I am happy, therefore, to rectify matters, although any account which fails to take into account that Andrew got us to third place pretty much single-handedly, would be slightly disingenuous. Nevertheless, it was jolly nice to have Dave chipping in, as it was the other members of our unusually large team last night.

The majority of us (well, everyone except Andrew) rolled in kind of late last night, arriving after a first round which we miraculously did pretty well on (thank god it was Andrew who arrived early, rather than me), just in time to start being slightly louder and more disruptive than necessary, probably because we'd all had dinner and several bottles of wine first. Mike, who is the quizmaster, gave us stern looks and looked at his watch, pointedly.

Dave, wanting a good write up, began his quest for notoriety by, erm, pretending to fall asleep and occasionally murmuring 'oh god', but was soon livened up by me and Dan taking an interest in a copy of Socialist Worker on the table, inciting him to start crying "it's all so boring!!!", repeatedly. Suitably woken, he spent the rest of the night shouting out answers, swearing, and drawing pictures of swastikas on every bit of paper he could find. We played our traditional drawing games, where you have to draw something and the next person writes it down. After a bit, Dave just started writing 'Dan is a Nazi'.

I realise that in describing him in this way, I have made him sound almost exactly like the psychopathic Vyvyan from The Young Ones, but he is in fact a mild mannered and sensitive young man.

Actually, thinking about this, it occurs to me that I repeatedly sound, both in this blog and in real-life, like the pretentious, egotistical, pseudo-liberal saddo Rik, which is a disturbing parallel.

Damn, wish I'd never started this now.

sea-lions video

Apologies for the lack of decent updates since I've been back in Brighton; still clearing out a few photos and videos at the moment, and suffering from a bit of post-trip blogger's block. Should be some decent stuff up soon. In the meantime, here's my last post about sea lions for the forseeable future. Like the other video I updated to youtube, it goes all grey at the beginning, which I don't understand, but it gets its act together subsequently.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

fascinated by the sealions

I mentioned how, provoked by the drama of the sea lions' noise-making, a little dog decided that he wanted to join the party down on Pier 39 in San Francisco last week. It's a shame that while a photo can just about capture the animal's rapt attention and fascination, it can't do justice to his furiously wagging tail, trembling body. or frantic, eager barks. Anyway - here he is. Good lad.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

san francisco dancing

This kid was amazing - his dancing, down by the cable car turnaround at the bottom of Powell St in San Francisco absolutely delighted everyone, and I couldn't resist making a short film. I did stick five dollars in his jar, too, yeah.

three policemen bitten

salty sea-dogs

One of the most charming sights in San Francisco is the colony of sea lions which gather by Pier 39 down at the front of North Beach. I knew in advance that the animals could often be spotted between the pier and Alcatraz, and so when I walked down to the seafront on my first evening in the city, I skirted round the right hand side of the pier, looking out for any rocks where they might be perched. Alas, I didn't see anything and just took a couple of rather grudging shots of the prison before my camera battery ran out.

When it did, I turned to my left and began to walk around the other side of the pier, and within moments heard a curious, discordant symphony of barks and grunts. Turning the corner, I saw the following, delightful spectacle.

I had no idea there would be so many! They don't congregate like that all year, by any means, so apart from the remarkable weather it seems I'd timed my trip particularly well. The sea lions themselves can't be done justice by photo, or even video - they were charming, fat and silly, most electing to stretch out in the sun and soak up the warmth, while a feisty few amused themselves by jumping up on the docks and ejecting others from their positions. Others merely contented themselves with honking loudly and repeatedly, often falling into time with each other.
My favourite was an enormous animal stretched out on top of several other dozing sea lions. He was easily the biggest fellow there, and set about wriggling and stretching until he had pressed all his fellow sunbathers out to the edges of his dock. Only when he had achieved a truly central position and stretched out as far as he could possibly could, did he settle.

Annoyed that my camera was down, and fearful that this was a one-off event (on this scale, at least), I returned the next evening to find the wharf almost as busy, and the sea lions possibly even louder than the night before. I noticed a lot of Americans call them sea-dogs, and they do look rather doggy, but I suspect the reference refers as much to their bark-like honk as anything - at one point a fellow animal-watcher lifted his pet dog up so that he could get a better look. Cue much barking, wriggling, and sniffing, as the animal clearly recognised a common, dog-like bond.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

goodbye san francisco

i'm hot, happy and absolutely knackered. Flight's in two hours - I'm coming home, England.

assistant blog digest ep. 2

It occurs to me that I was in such a rush to leave for the US last week that I never got round to publicising the fact that the new episode of the Assistant Blog Digest podcast was released on the 27th April. Just in case you didn't get it automatically (if you subscribed to the original then it should have just turned up automatically in your iTunes library), here's the place you need to go to get it from iTunes. If that doesn't work for you, try the XML feed (which is compatible with bloglines, iPodder etc) or, failing all else, just download it as a straightforward MP3 by right clicking and saving on the link below.

Assistant Blog Digest - Episode Two.

Any comments much appreciated - it's a bit rougher round the edges than the first one, but still enjoyable I think

FYI, it seems to download way faster if you grab it through iTunes, dunno why. You can get the first episode in the same place, obviously, or here.

on chesil beach

This afternoon I finished reading Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach', a curious and slight book which I thought was rather well written, yet somehow flat and unenjoyable. It centres on the wedding night and failed consummation of Florence and Edward's marriage, in 1962, a mere year before, in Larkin's words, 'sexual intercourse began' - and examines in deliberate, exact language the clash between their expectations and the failings of their pre-sexual liberation vocabulary, which means that the embarrasment of their failed intercourse can not be discussed.

As you might expect from such a premise, the book is small and evasive, a micro-portrait of an age where McEwan's prose is sometimes lovely (particularly when describing the transition of Edward's pallete as he meets and falls in love with his conspicuously middle class inlaws), and often irritating. Like several of his peers, since his appalling 'Saturday', McEwan has let his changing personal politics infect his prose, so just as in that book his account of the build up to the Iraq War was bizzarely one sided, here he takes every opportunity to decry the naivity of Florence and Edward's CND membership. More seriously, he frequently adopts an intrusive historian's tone into the narration, frequently telling us that this was before this, or this before that. He paints a bright enough picture of the age without having to signpost his references in this schoolmasterly way.

I finished the book feeling a bit let-down - impressed by his stylistic grace but unsure as to why he bothered. The book ends with Edward observing 'that an explanation of his existence would take up a minute, less than half a page'. This isn't true, and the author casts a subtle, realistic light on a short moment of that life - but the tone is mournful and stern rather than sympathetic, and too imbued by a present tense sense of 'they should have known better'.

map-making

Whenever I go somewhere new, I find myself creating mental maps of the place, both unconsciously (because I love maps, and it's instinctive) and deliberately (because it helps me get about). Another kind of map is a kind of map-plan which lays out the things I want to do in the order I want to do them. Being in San Francisco for only a few days means I have to do this quite carefully, observing the nearest points across the map and across the city and watch for ways to tighten the thread of my movements without the thread become tangled. Does that make sense? Perhaps not.

I had it in mind all week that one of the first things I would do in SF is go to the Museum of Modern Art, and funnily enough it was one of the first buildings I passed, getting a cab from the Caltrain station to my hotel that first evening. Then, somehow, getting excited about the things to do and the great advice that various friends have given me, I left it off all my maps and forgot to do it. Today I got up lateish and decided to jump on the Bart over to Montgomery and walk up through Chinatown to North Beach, specifically so I could go to City Lights and stop by at Vesuvio, which was recommended to me by both Dave and Dustin.

Getting to Montgomery, I suddenly remembered that I had forgotten all about SFMOMA, but remembered that it was close by so tracked back and found it. I'm really glad I did. I didn't pay to go into the Picasso and American Art exhibition, and was disappointed to find that the photography work was out of bounds today, but I did spend a calming hour and a half walking through the cool, white curved corridors of the building, admiring the paintings. Seeing some was a revelation - Jasper Johns' Flag (below) occupies the same place in my subconscious as Kerouac's On The Road, a vital, instructive work which informed the tap-tap progression of my interests. Less pretentiously, I was about 14 when I discovered both the beats and the pop art painters, and both blew my mind.
Best of all in the museum, though, was the magnificent exhibition of paintings by Brice Marden, which took in his pavement style slabs of colour, more refined flag-style triptychs, his stunning Cold Mountain squiggles and pages from his notebooks, which were more jagged and erratic. The Cold Mountain paintings, and his amazing Study for the Muses (below) were the highlight. I spent about quarter of an hour following the lines, falling into a reverie. When I was little, besides drawing maps, I liked drawing mazes, and watching the undulating curves of his work reminded me of the process of creating them.

Finished there, I walked up to City Lights. Crossing the door into the bookshop felt stupidly significant, like a step I was always going to make and finally did, which I suppose, in fact, is true. I went up to the poetry room and stood there in the silence, grinning, then went and touched all the books I read when I was a teenager - Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Faulkner, Kerouac, Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Steinbeck, Burroughs.

I smiled when I saw a copy of David Berman's Actual Air out on the recommendations table, and thought of one his simpler lines - "half hours on earth / what are they worth? / I dunno". And I felt like I had a slightly better idea, now.

Monday, May 07, 2007

against the skyline

still eating

Some updates on food and drink; I'm stuffed, basically.

Last night I met up with a friend, Zoe, and a bunch of her chums and we ate at a really nice restaurant somewhere in the city (I lost track of where); it was a nice Italian-skewed seafood place with a lovely outdoor seating area and lovely food. I had a very tasty Polenta and Dungeness Crab for my starter (and tried, and liked, Zoe's chilled marinated asparagus with shrimp) followed by a rich, tender pork chop, and a few glasses of red wine. It worked out at about thirty quid for a couple of courses and a share in the three bottles of wine - not bad.

Afterwards, we headed into Mission and met up with some more people and trailed round a few bars - I switched to Anchor Steam, then lager, and drank a shot of something which miraculously appeared in front of me at some point. Zoe is the daughter of a couple of my parents' friends, who relocated to the States thirty years ago, and I met up with them this morning for brunch. Knowing that we were going out last night, she was told that it was her job to ensure that I was fresh and bright for meeting them this morning and responsible for ensuring I was not too hungover. She did, it must be said, a spectacularly bad job of this, but her and all of her friends did an ace job of making a newcomer to the city feel like part of things, so I had a great night.

This morning, after standing open-mouthed and blinking in the shower for about an hour, I freshened up sufficiently to enjoy a great brunch and a champagne cocktail at the lovely Absinthe brasserie, in Hayes. I had a lovely American breakfast - Canadian bacon, eggs over easy, potatoes and bread. It was nice to be able to trade gossip about my parents and get some more insider information on what to do and see in my final couple of days in the city.

Finally, no dinner tonight, because I ended up having another lunch a bit later, having done more ludicrous walking and built up a second appetite. Nothing flashy this time, but the grilled ham and cheese sandwich, below, was as good as any other I've had.

An ice cold glass of beer, on the side, helped a lot.

ocean beach, san francisco

haight to the ocean

Haight St remains the hippy centre of San Francisco; a long, straight road climbing parallel through the centre of the city and lined with amazing little shops - one gets the sense that it's more of a tourist destination than a still-thriving community (there are whole shops dedicated to selling Grateful Dead T-shirts), but it still yields remarkable finds; little boutiques selling fiercely original stuff, record shops with indie rock sections the size of a small Sainsburys supermarket, and the occasional stoned old-timer for whom the universe is perpetually 1967. I stopped at a store selling art materials - as much to cool down as anything - and overheard the shop assistant warning a customer to be careful of the guy looking round at the back of the shop, because 'he's on acid'.

Once I had walked the length of the road I stopped to hire a bicycle and rode through Golden Gate Park until I hit the ocean. It was a long ride, and I remember noticing after a while that I had done a lot of freewheeling, it dimly registering that an uphill pedal on the way back would be required. It was, but that scarcely mattered. Half an hour in, despite the blue sky, it began getting really windy, and then suddenly I turned a corner and saw the Pacific. I wheeled my bike down onto the beach and ran my fingers through the fine sand, amazed to be there.

dogs in buena vista park

Saturday, May 05, 2007

buena vista park

I'm not sure if I can keep up this much walking for the whole time I'm in San Francisco - I think I must be walking five or six miles a day, minimum, at this rate, and about 40% of that must be up steep, steep hills - agh. I'm sitting writing this in the Red Vic Peace Cafe ("where good food and good people meet") on Upper Haight St, and although I'm superficially stopping to update my blog, I'm really just giving my aching legs a break.

This morning I set off from Union Square and walked through Tenderloin and past the Civic Centre and up Lower Haight, stopping for breakfast and a read of a British paper at a lovely Irish cafe. Then I climbed, extremely slowly in the baking sun, up to the higher end of the road and to the opening to Buena Vista Park. The problem with visiting somewhere so hilly is that every corner provides another climb and the knowledge that that climb would yield a better view than the one currently available.

So I resolved to climb a few flights of the steep path upward, through a dense forest of rich smelling cyprus, pine and eucalyptus trees which stretch up infinitely towards the sky. The first level behove a glimpse of far away skyscrapers. The second a patch of blue in the far off bay. Climbing become harder and conversely became a compulsion, so I drove onward, after a while ignoring the view and tramping upward. Soon I became aware that I had scaled a considerable height and a bright patch up ahead told me that I was approaching the first high-up clearing. I walked towards it, keeping my eyes on the ground, and finally fell to an exhausted rest on a wooden step. I looked up, finally, having resisted so long, and was greeted by a stunning panorama of the city; buildings tall and short, straight roads straddling hills, and the rust red Golden Gate bridge over the water. To my left, the Pacific ocean. It was amazing.
Knowing that the view could not be bettered, I ploughed upwards anyway, reaching a grass clearing occupied by furiously happy dogs. I lay on the grass and stared at the grey green trees, allowing the animals to run rings around me.

what a bitch

Well, I was perhaps going too far lauding the notion of polite Americans. Yesterday, during my first foray through the city, I wandered up a block or so to Union Square, which is by no means the most picturesque part of the city but, it being the first I encountered - and impressively huge from my English perspective - I decided to take a few photos of the main area and the buildings. Having snapped three shots, taking care not to allow any cars to obstruct my view, I heard someone shout 'hey'.

I turned to my left and saw a woman climbing out of a parked car just to my left.

"You want to explain why you're taking photographs of us?", she asked aggressively.

I glanced down - her mother, or an older woman, was sat in the passenger seat, looking tired.

"I'm sorry", I said, a bit taken aback, "but I wasn't - I was just taking a photo of the square".

"You really wanna ask permission in future", she barked, and climbed back in the car.

A bit stunned, I didn't know what to say, but a pair of young men, strolling past, had heard the exchange, and one turned to me and said, probably loud enough for the woman to hear through her open car window, "it's public property, you don't need to ask anyone for permission".

He glanced at the woman. "What a bitch", he said, loudly.

My knight in shining armour! I could have hugged him!

Bottom of the Hill

Had an absolutely amazing night tonight - saw one of the best gigs of my life in an isolated, far out of the way part of San Francisco. I arrived in the city at about three o'clock today, and made immediately for the seafront, scenting immediately the sea air and wanting to see the Pacific. But it's not as easy as that, and San Francisco is amazingly hilly, as well as complex geographically. Almost immediately I encountered an improbable hill, and, temptingly, a tunnel running straight through it. But that didn't seem right somehow, so in the severe California sun I climbed to the summit at an angle I'm not used to walking and looked down, in raptures, at the most beautiful city I've ever seen.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. I visited the bay (although not the Pacific, because it's half fresh water - need to head over to the other side of the city), cooed over the sea lions (of which, more later) and tried in vain to work out how the trams worked. Then I rushed over to the city library to see a reading by Chuck Palahniuk, but he turned out to be boring, so I jumped in a cab to a far-off warehouse district, hoping to catch Canadian folk-heroes Frog Eyes play a date in Northern California. I succeeded - and it was one of the best gigs I've ever seen.

First up were a local band - from Oakland - Port O'Brien, who played decent, sometimes interesting indie rock with a bar band approach; outgrown hair and baseball caps. Their songs were best when they touched on SF life - songs that ringed with references to fishing boots, canneries and anchors. The interplay between the bassist and the absurdly pretty banjoist (this is America, remember) drawing the attention from a slightly drab frontman who had, in fairness, a few really decent songs. Unfortunately - and I can testify this having been in a perenially third on the bill band - they were utterly upstaged by the two bands which followed.

First up were New York's Alex Delivery, who I've never heard of but who quickly mesmerised me - setting up with keyboards and rave-style hoodies I expected a horrible new rave cacophony, or at best a CSS rip-off, but in fact they were utterly singular and incredibly impressive, indulging in long percussive work-outs which made me think of Too Pure mainstays like Moonshake, as well as the inevitable Can and more arcane comparisons like Terry Riley. Occasonial bursts of monstrous, eerie guitar recalled nothing more than My Bloody Valentine - and you can't make a better reference than that. Easily the best band I've seen in a while...


...'Til Frog Eyes came on, that is. In the UK, you have to be a distinct kind of indie rock saddo to know who Frog Eyes mainstay Carey Mercer is, but if you do you'll know that he - as he well knows - is well overdue a breakthrough moment.

"So listen", he tells us, "you think if I go on hunger strike til we get a number one single we'll finally get a hit record?"

Well, no, sadly, but I'll tell you what - Frog Eyes are better than pretty much everyone in the charts this year and last, and tonight they put on an incredible, inspiring performance of raw agression and precision. The early signs are not good - Mercer looks like an estate agent from Chingford - but his energy is infectious and his guitar playing incendiary - add him to the very short list of indie rockers who can turn in a decent guitar solo: J Mascis, Steve Malkmus, Bob Mould, him. That's it.

The show is relentless; barnstorming song after song; Frog Eyes recall the hyper-enegry of 70s Bowie, 90s Fugazi and the Arcade Fire. It's impossible to take your eyes of Mercer, who unleashes electric bursts of guitar blues at a second's notice. It helps that his back up is so good, but his playing is extraordinary - vital and deliberate.

Afterwards I can't find Carey, so I grab a couple of pretty girls from Alex Delivery, and tell them they were ace and would be huge in England (er, think that's true, but my instincts aren't always right - and obviously I mean indie huge, rather than actual huge). They're really nice, and, spotting a chance, I steal one's tumbler of whisky, and race it down, grinning madly.

The evening belonged, though, to Frog Eyes. And San Francisco.

Friday, May 04, 2007

everyone is so nice

I've said before that I find the overwhelming friendliness of people over here in the States quite amazing, and it's hard to gauge how genuine it is. I think it's pretty genuine - it's not at all unusual here in the Silicon Valley to see a complete stranger stop another in a street and exclaim, "that's a wonderful shirt!" - I've seen it happen twice. Amazing.

In shops and restaurants, it's more excessive, but it still feels pretty genuine, despite all the cliches. Since I've been in the US I've been charged - dunno why - with static energy, giving myself shocks on every plug socket, escalator and door handle I've come into contact with. I think it's because I'm walking round on trainers all day on the conference centre carpet. Just now I went into a shoe shop (titled 'Shoe Palace', no less), wondering if I should find some alternative footwear. I am immediately approached by a member of staff, who says something quickly which I don't quite catch.

"No thanks", I say, in a rather clipped English way, not meaning to be rude, and assuming he'd asked if I wanted help.

He looked at me with absolute astonishment.

"What?", he said, disbelieving.

I tried to be a bit more friendly. "No thanks, not right now", I said, smiling.

He still looked amazed. "No thanks to Hi?!", he asked.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

book launched

The main reason I'm over in San Jose is for a book launch - a party to celebrate the publication of a textbook which has occupied a lot of my time over the last couple of years. Of course, as every host knows, giving a party is never as much fun as attending one, and I spent a lot of yesterday afternoon and evening worrying about whether people would turn up, whether they'd find the room and whether they'd like the party once they arrived. For a little while, at the beginning, it did seem that we were suffering from competition from the other events in the hotel at the same time.

However, once I'd dashed around looking alarmed for a while, I sought solace in a well earned glass of wine and some hors d'oeuvres, and looked up to see the room filling and wall to wall smiles, to boot - it was very gratifying, and from that moment onwards I really enjoyed myself and had great fun talking to the authors and their friends and colleagues. Towards the end, I realised that a speech was needed, and nervously banged a pen against my glass, bringing everyone's conversations to a rude end. I stepped up to the little podium and, expecting nothing but 'nnng' sounds to come out of my mouth once I started speaking, began to address the room...

And it was okay, good even - it was only a minute or so but I think I managed to convey my gratitude to the authors for producing such a great book, thanks to the attendees for turning up, and enthusiasm for their community. Now, writing this, I feel proud that we put on a good show, and relieved that I have only a morning of work to go before I head over to San Francisco.

Internet access will be much more limited once I'm there, so I may only get a fleeting chance to post, but will be back to full speed once I'm back in the UK next week. In the meantime, the usual suspects are posting lots of good stuff for you to read. Now go and vote!

vote (update)

It's funny being across the Atlantic on voting day in the UK - I feel very distant from it all, and uninvolved, even though I've cast my postal vote - it's the first time I've been away from an election in the UK since I've been eligible to vote, and I miss the excitement. As it is, I'm thousands of miles away, and all I can suggest - not that you should care less - is that you vote for (pretty much) anyone but Labour, unless you have an exceptional councillor. But you'll do your own thing, of course, so what I say is irrelevant!

Update (8 hours later): Hmm, I've been having pangs of conscience about writing this, predictably enough - and not that anyone will listen. A labour council will be a better council than anything the Tories or the Liberals can offer, so it doesn't really make sense to register a protest vote which will have negative implications for one's own community. There are some excellent councillors out there. At the same time, I simply feel such boiling, frustrated anger at this so disappointing government and the Prime Minister. Is there a way to resolve this without allowing the Tories back in? I think I'll feel a whole lot better once Blair announces his resignation (hopefully this week). I might even vote for them again, you never know.

But at the moment... I just can't do it.

But you probably should.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

left bank

Having finished up my unwise shop in Urban Outfitters last night, myself and my friend Sam headed to a restaurant in Santana Row for dinner. As I mentioned, everything there is decorous and flash, but the food, as is the trend here, was not too pricey - so we found a French restaurant by the name of 'Left Bank' for dinner.

Being in a more high-end part of town, where European sophistication is seen as a recommendation not a slur, (the big hotel in Santana Row is the Hotel Valencia), we were pleased to find that for the first occasion the 'all-American experience' was not on the menu, although - a brief flirtation with an unfriendly waitress aside - the service came up to the usually high, occasionally stifling, standards we'd become used to this side of the Atlantic. The waiter, who elected not to affect a French accent (although this was the only aspect of the restaurant where conspicuous Frenchiness was not on offer) was immediately upon us, complicating matters by adding to the depth of choice on the wonderful menu by seducing us with offers of lobster and other delightful specials.

To start with, I went for the mussels, steamed in a white wine sauce with shallots and spinach. Of course, perhaps the best thing about being on the Pacific coast is the awesome array of seafood on offer, so it was no surprise that the meat was huge, rich and incredibly tender, delicately drenched in the delicious sauce. I scooped handful after handful of sour dough bread into the juice and demolished the results. Of course, the starter was roughly the same size as a generous main course, so I gave up after a while and concentrated on my wine.

My main course was a delightfully rare and tender duck in orange sauce with rice - the meat was terrific, although it's hard to avoid the conclusion that as awesome as much American food seems to be, they still can't cook rice. Or rather, they can but use a different grain and a quite different style - it works okay, in truth, with Mexican or Cajun cuisine, but I'm not sure American Long Grain rice cuts the mustard with proper French food. Nevertheless, the main course was very nice indeed.

Finishing up, we decided to get a cab to a micro-brewery not far from our hotel, but remembered on the way that to get served in an American bar one invariably needs ID, and we didn't have our passports with us. So we paused at the hotel to pick them up, allowing me to don my new and profoundly silly jacket, and hot-footed it up past the museum towards the North of the downtown area, which we hadn't traversed yet. Noting with interest but no alarm the number of police cars cruising the streets, we found the road, decorated in a tribute to the San Jose Sharks, but found our bar closed at the ludicrously early time of half eleven. Happily the Irish, unlike Americans, do know how to drink in the classic British Isles style, so we located an Irish bar and Sam, to his delight, managed to procure a decent pint of Boddingtons, of all things.

For my part, I ended the night with a Sierra Nevada (which I remember little better than the one I had the other day, except that it was rich and strong), some injudiciously imparted gossip, and a lusty singalong of 'Happy Birthday' for the barmaid which, because everyone in the pub seemed to be very drunk indeed, was sung at half-pace.