Sunday, March 23, 2008

OK Commuter

Writing for this blog way back in 2005 I criticised Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke for not making much of an impact whilst appearing on a TV News discussion about Climate change and the British governments’ inaction up until that point.

Thom Yorke had been invited onto the programme as a representative of
Friends of the Earth, an organisation he has had an association with since 2003. During the discussion he was clearly ill-at-ease and made little effort to hold the then British Secretary of State for the Environment, Margaret Beckett, to account for the government missing its own climate targets. At the time I saw this as a missed opportunity and declared myself not impressed with Thom's muddled responses. However, I've since realised that his confusion about the issues at the time was shared by many. Knowing how best to lobby to make a positive impact in the battle against Climate Change is not always as straight forward and as clear cut as it may seem.

Since that appearance Thom Yorke has been as much in the public eye (in the UK at least) for his Climate Change campaigning as for his band Radiohead. His advocacy for Friends of the Earth and more specifically their
'Big Ask' campaign has lead him to guest edit the highly influential 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4 and make efforts at improving the green credentials of his band, including ruling them out of attending this years Glastonbury festival due to concerns over the availability of public transport to the site.

The latest stage of Mr Yorke's assault on Climate Change has involved him being asked by the Observer Newspaper in the UK to 'guest edit' it's Sunday magazine. Under his editorial control Yorke requests an interview with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, asks for a feature on the German town of Freiburg (which has been labelled 'the worlds' greenest') and oversees several other green features culminating in it being called the
'Climate Change Issue'.

His interview with the London Mayor hardly turns out to be a grilling, more an amicable chat, but then Yorke's no journalist and his candid manner is perhaps more successful in getting a response from Livingstone, that others would struggle to illicit. They talk on the Velib cycle system and the chances of a similar scheme implemented in London. Yorke wonders aloud at the level of resistance to change by big business and finance institutions in London and their attitude to helping the environment. He even wants to know if the UK is pressing ahead with Nuclear Power because the Prime Ministers' brother works for EDF, a major French power company which is behind many Nuclear new builds. Does he expect the Mayor to answer this following Gordon Brown's recent show of support for Mr Livingstone bid for another term in office? It is this style of questioning that allows us to hear (qualified) support for Tory leader David Cameron from the mayor and an insight into the complexities of working with people and organisations who in the past you may have criticised but whose partnership is now crucial in order to take action on the environment.

In his candid editor's letter Thom reveals that although he was pleased to support Friends of the Earth he did have reservations because, as he puts it, "I’ve based my life on touring and the rock industry is a high energy consuming industry". This might be in anticipation of criticism when groups like Friends of the Earth use high profile spokespeople whose lifestyles it may seem at first run contrary to the organisation's aims. However it seems that it was the unwillingness of FotE to be "holier than thou" and not wanting to preach, which led them to ask this otherwise high-carbon-emitting rock star to join their ranks.

This surely should be the point. Thom Yorke doesn't have to have the answers and can be as unsure and as confused with many of the often conflicting points about Climate Change as the rest of us. The article he requests on the green town of Freiburg, for example, turns up as many complications and questions as it does answers.
By his own admission he doesn't know what is always the best route to take, hasn't made much of an effort to speak to many politicians and is only latterly realising how his lifestyle and work contribute to changes in the Earth's climate. He is, then, just like all of us, and full of the questions and uncertainties that many of us hold when faced with a problem as big as Climate Change.

The battle to curb Climate Change is one primarily of education, awareness raising and activism. To this end, Civil Society - including Friends of the Earth with Thom Yorke - has played an enormous role in the lobbying of Governments and big business, in rasing awareness, and provoking action.

Thom Yorke's position, it seems, is that of a man without all the answers but who has a clear passion and commitment. He has made affirmative action in relation to his own profession and lifestyle, all solid and commendable commitments to lowering his personal impact on the environment.

Let us hope that it is because of his activism that Yorke is an optimist on the subject of climate change - "unlike pessimists such as James Lovelock, I don’t believe we are all doomed” he says. It is his belief in human behaviour - being able to be the the solution to climate change as well as the instigator - that is both endearing and commendable about Yorke. As he writes;

“...isn’t it funny how in the space of a year we went from listening to sceptics who denied this was happening to suddenly say we’re all doomed – how interesting that both scenarios demand that we do nothing. That can’t be right. You should never give up hope”.

Right on Thom!
[Blogging by Dan]

Thursday, March 20, 2008

leaping not looking

I experience the disorientating and exhilarating feeling of levitation for the first time.

Beforehand, I’m on the return leg of a longish walk through a wet field in Cambridgeshire, blossom and chlorophyll in the air . A man-made lake has burst its banks and is seeping into the grass, which is already lank hay like old hair because of an earlier flood. Twists of translucent plastic, weather-beaten, snake round tree saplings and bamboo shoots in dense rank and file along the meadow-edge, half of them already frostbitten, dead, dying. A few tendrils spiral keenly upward, searching for light. It’s a rare warm day.

The field is muddy in places, so I skip over puddles and bogs and use a broken tree branch as my walking stick. Along the river bank I note a young swan, its feathers not yet fully white, dipping repeatedly under the water for reed saplings. The river is high, and previous storms have brought beer cans and crisp packets up from the depths, filled with silt and stagnant water, and deposited them amongst the bracken and sedge.

Clambering over a stile, heading back, I note there are two routes available; up over the knoll and around or through a short sharp ravine with a metre of sopping mud cut through at the lowest point of the decline. I opt for the latter and begin to run half-pelt down towards it and leap at the last minute, sailing over the bog. My momentum is such that I realise I’ll bounce up again for another, involuntary leap when I hit the other side of the mud, so put my trainer down to cushion the landing.

It’s at this point that I realise I haven’t cleared the mud at all. My foot comes down bang in the middle of it and I feel the heavy squelch as my ankle is enveloped. I pull my foot out instantly and – it seems as if through sheer force of will – extend the jump to take me over to the dry bank. This second jump is wonderful, utterly weightless, freeing, and I hear my laughter ring through the field. I land and slow down, spinning round, looking for my trainer, which is submerged – but still visible – in the cold sludge.

I retrieve it with my stick.

Monday, March 17, 2008

stalin's ghost, by martin cruz smith

In the years since Martin Cruz Smith's 1981 classic, 'Gorky Park', the Californian novelist has penned no less than five follow-ups starring Arkady Renko, the put-upon Russian investigator perpetually pitted against Moscow's underworld parade of crooks and gangsters, government-sponsored or otherwise. The fifth is 'Stalin's Ghost', an exemplary thriller set in a much-changed Russia led by Vladimir Putin.

Perhaps the changes are illusory, however? Both Renko and Cruz Smith's prose-Moscow are instantly recognisable, the former soulful and intense and the latter dark and ominous, thick with a layer of "knee deep snow ... that softened the city". It's Spring and the snow is gradually melting, and the prologue reminds us what we know already, that "when the snow melted, bodies would be discovered". Twenty seven years on, that extraordinary opening, those three corpses found in Gorky Park, seem as cold and fresh as ever.

As the book's title implies, "Stalin's Ghost" is a book much occupied with memory, eloquent on the vital stand-off between the dark secrets of the past and nostalgia. Renko, charged with investigating the return of Stalin, who has been reported stalking the depths of Moscow's Metro system, discovers a network of corruption, murder and propaganda which has its tangled roots in post-Soviet politics, atrocities in Chechnya, and the events of the Second World War.

Cruz Smith has is an innate ability to spin complex yet accessible plot-lines around vital contemporary events; in this case, the transformation of the Russian underworld into the Establishment. But Renko himself is the author's finest achievement, and his centrality provokes the book's finest passages, particularly a dazzling sixteen page-long twist which had me exclaiming and thrumming my fingers against the spine in excitement.

Cruz Smith's touch is immaculate, allowing the novel's first half time to breathe and be dictated by personal concerns. Atmosphere is incubated, then a furious, breathless denouement is unleashed. The author has the reach to bequeath his characters real emotional complexity, combined with a ruthless touch which is equally befitting a serious novelist and a Russian gangster. Renko takes some blows for his unstinting morality, and the reader is the winner. 'Stalin's Ghost' is a bruising, superb read.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

tabloid shocker

‘Henry – homophobe from the Young Knives uses the word gay to mean bad’. Which, frankly, is not very left-wing or forward-thinking.
Nice interview with the Young Knives over at Drowned In Sound; I think the new album is very good, incidentally, without quite being VERY good, if you know what I mean.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

trains are mint

When I'm travelling round the UK for work I always try to keep an eye out for small press comics, and, though there are always interesting new ones, wherever I am I usually note that no-one makes comics with quite the same attention to detail and love as Rolling Stock Press, whose 'Trains Are... Mint' comics are beautifully drawn and reproduced. The fifth book in the series is out now - you can read more about the comic, and buy a copy here. There's a quick example of the artist's style below:

do the test

This is really pretty good; via Gromblog.

jane austen book club

It's probably not cool to say so, but I've pinned my colours to the mast on this one before so I have no reservations about repeating it; I absolutely love Jane Austen's books (and most of the film/TV adaptations, too). Anyone who tells you that they're drippy/romantic/boring/dated hasn't read them properly.

Over at her Of Shoes and Ships and Sealing Wax blog, Ayaan is a big fan too, and has decided to explain why she likes each book, and which book she likes best. I generally agree with her, so - without the detail - I thought I'd have a go at a top six.

1. Persuasion
2. Pride and Prejudice
3. Northanger Abbey
4. Sense and Sensibility
5. Emma
6. Mansfield Park

Anyone agree / disagree?

Friday, March 14, 2008

That Mitchell and Webb Conundrum

I can’t be the only person who, as a massive fan of Peep Show, tuned in eagerly to the second series of ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ only to find it utterly unfunny. Admittedly series one was no belter either, but it was at least stronger than most BBC comedy fare of late.

I like Mitchell and Webb. I first became aware of them on Radio 4 in ‘That Mitchell and Webb Sound’, which worked well on the older medium. It just doesn’t on TV. Much of the sketches are lifted from the radio show and they have already become tiresome. The lazy script writers sketch, for example, might’ve have seemed a good idea but in series two it's just too drawn out and badly written.

They were assisted in the writing of ‘Sound’, the radio show, by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, and, together, the four proved quite strong, although the list of writers at the end of ‘Sound’ was often very long. Later, with 'Peep Show', I have come to realise that they are more consistently at their strongest when they take a back seat with the writing duties. Perhaps Armstrong and Bain, who provide the majority of material for their C4 hit, have more of a talent for writing serialised comedy with strong established characters that the viewer cares for? I don’t know quite how much input Mitchell and Webb have in writing 'Peep Show', but it seems it's limited to the nuances that the characters of Mark and Jez add to each scene.

So why is 'Peep Show' brilliant, but 'That Mitchell and Webb Look' rubbish?

Here’s my suggestion (using a simple equation);

[surprisingly mathematical guest blogging by Dan]

rare music online

I've been using a lot of mp3 blogs recently, and concentrating less on the sort which provide the odd song and more on those which give full album downloads, so I thought I'd attempt a brief summing up of those I've found useful. My browsing has for the most part been confined to those blogs which offer not new records for free but rather obscure and out-of-print back catalogue stuff. In other words, for the most part, unless you're especially knowledgeable, you probably won't know many (if any) of the artists whose work is presented. I certainly didn't, but my grounding in folk, soul, funk and jazz is limited at best. The following blogs have just broadened my horizons - so perhaps you'll like them too.

Heavyweight Crates: beats and breaks and lots of library records.
My Favourite Sound 2: just 12" disco mixes, basically. Oh yes.
Raiders of The Lost Ark: amazing Philly Soul stuff.
Lost In Tyme: funk, soul, jazz and world; this Alice Clark record is an absolute stunner.
Lost In Tyme: this part of the blog concentrates on psych, folk, acid garage.
Lost In Tyme: more genres, another Tyme blog; here it's alternative, punk and new wave.
Pharaohsdance: great jazz stuff; look for the host of tribe records that are provided; they're ace.
Awesome Tapes From Africa: a long-time favourite, this - it does exactly what it says on the tin.

Hope some of that is useful.

jamming is for idiots

Me and James 'jamming' at my place late on a Friday night. I don't think Siobhan was much impressed.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

currently listening

I’ve gone all 70s retro this week, sorry.

1. Carl Craig – Sessions LP (unbeatable)
2. Alice Clark – Alice Clark LP (amazing soul record from 1972)
3. The Wave Pictures – ‘Long Island’ (love that line, “And you should know I am the real Slim Shady / And lady you are my natural home”)
4. The Young Knives – Superabundence LP (OK, not as good as ‘Voices of Animals and Men’, then. But it’s got several crackers).
5. Phil Renelin and Wendel Harrison – A Message From the Tribe LP (any any other mid-70s jazz on Tribe records, in fact)
6. Doctors of Madness – Figments of Emancipation LP (strange Bowie/pre-punk hybrid from 1976 – amazing)
7. Donny Hathaway - Everything Is Everything LP (more bruised, classic soul – from 1970 this time)
8. Benga – Diaries of an Afro-Warrior LP (loving the raw, dirty vinyl version of this dubstep monster. The CD version is more measured, apparently).
9. Moondog – Madrigals Rounds LP (can’t describe this; avant-psychadelic-jazz-classical nuttiness from 1969. Wow)
10. Giant Drag – Hearts and Unicorns LP (specifically the bit in ‘Kevin Is Gay’ when Annie sings “miaow miaow miaow miaow, miaowmiaowmiaowmiaowmiaow miaowmiaowmiaowmiaowmiaow”. That bit kills me).

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

autechre, cross medium

I'm a big fan of what you might call 'conventional' music journalism, even though there's plenty of rubbish out there. I grew up on Smash Hits and the Melody Maker, and am a big fan of several current music writers, although I'm pretty sure that the quality control on, say, the NME, has dipped alarmingly in recent years. So despite my interest in the web and blogging in particular, I still get the vast majority of my muso-journalism from the inkies, despite the presence of some excellent music blogs.

All the same - the following two reviews highlight how much potential there is either medium. For those who don't know, the popular but extremely wilful Autechre are performing their latest tour in a pitch black environment, which can be rather hard to take. Of the two reviews, one is a traditional write-up from the Guardian (albeit one which is brave enough to go against orthodoxy), the other a short, unconventional review from Pete Ashton's perennially excellent blog. It may not be music journalism per se, but it tells me as much as the first review.

Here's an excerpt from Dave Simpson's Guardian piece:

Stomach contents stay where they are, but their biggest prank is to mess with people's heads, as their own music is scrambled and mashed-up beyond recognition. Vaguely danceable rhythms are suddenly destroyed by sonic screeches.

Some brave souls look po-faced as if this is something terribly important; others look baffled. One poor man is so disoriented that he walks into a door. When the duo start speeding everything up to comedy levels you start to wonder if this will be the first time "intelligent dance music" has given an entire audience black eyes. It seems less like a performance than a bizarre experiment in human behaviour.
And here's Pete's extremely short review - written via the medium of text message. He lists the 'value of this review' as 'Slim', but it's not.
  • At a gig where the only thing to look at is a flashing green LED on the monitor speaker.
    Autechre on. Not convinced as to context of packed gig venue.

  • Music v good but I'm not getting it. Wanna be experiencing this elsewhere. Others seem happy tho.

  • Have moved to front. Makes a lot more sense now!

  • I think I need drugs. Or lots of coffee.

  • Well, that was out of my comfort zone. In a good way. Don't think I've been to a gig like that before.
I'm glad I read both, and I think I'd quite like to see the band live, so looks like Pete's done enough.