Saturday, October 31, 2009

kurrana & the wolfnotes

It's always nice to be taken by surprise with a band, as I was with Kurran & The Wolfnotes, who I'd never heard of before I saw them co-headling The Hope in Brighton with Exlovers in October 2009. Theirs is an enthusiastic, high-octane blend of UK indie and folky Americana, and their songs are extremely memorable. Debut single 'Whatabitch' is available to pre-order now, and the following clip - which shows them playing 'Thanks A Lot Noah' does a lot to demonstrate their promise.

Click here for another video.


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

joe columbo's smoke glass

The following is one of many interesting design projects I looked at while at an Engineering conference in Budapest recently. The design, by Joe Columbo, makes use of negative space to design the 'Smoke glass'.

joe colombo - ‘smoke glass’, 1964
the sculptural shape of this unusual glass speaks for itself. its unique stem invites you to grasp the form. the name of the design was born from its function: with the balance between the forefinger and the thumb it is possible to hold both the glass and a cigarette with the same hand.

the cylindrical form is in perfect harmony with the foot.

the ‘double’, which are two glasses in one make it possible to turn the glass over for a sip of water or aperitif.

More pictures and info here.

noah's misery

My impression – I may be wrong - is that the new Noah and The Whale record has underwhelmed quite a few people. It feels like the fans who liked the upbeat arrangements of their debut album are bewildered by the introverted, melancholic seam running through The First Days Of Spring. Equally, the people who understandably took against the contrived, Wes Anderson-influenced trappings of the band’s image and first record have not been convinced by the earnest, mature stylings they’ve followed it up with. Accompanying the new album with a full-length DVD film may be their biggest mistake; a brave, admirable artistic endeavour which nevertheless feels desperately pretentious.

Anyway – as you’ll know if you’ve spent some serious time with The First Days of Spring, it’s an excellent record; a big improvement on Peaceful The World Lays Me Down and a really rewarding, emotional account of what sounds like a pretty fucking awful year in the life of the band’s songwriter, Charlie Fink – whose break-up with Laura Marling doesn’t just dominate this set of songs, it positively defines them. On ‘Stranger’, my favourite song, he sounds positively wretched, musing on the sense of shame he feels after a night of casual sex with a new acquaintance. It’s a peculiar topic (for a man, particularly) to write about, but it’s oddly moving – once one has reconciled Charlie’s lyrical approach with a natural aversion to cliché.

My first reaction to the set of songs on The First Days of Spring was that Fink had written an extraordinary, brooding, lilting set of instrumentals but been unable to find words to express his heartache without resorting to a set of anodyne, stock-phrases to voice his anguish. That may well be the case – there’s an interminable amount of cliché here. But there’s something more complex going on here too.

A year or so ago I was confronted by a very strange, emotional experience. In a venue in Hove, surrounded by my friends, I watched a couple of musicians perform a song for a shared friend which was informed by a sense of loss and regret and love. It was a completely beautiful, spine-tingling moment. Yet I mused afterwards that if I had heard the same song on the radio, unaware of the context, I would probably have written it off as mush; as mawkish, middle-of-the-road stuff. All of a sudden, an alarm went off in my head. All my life I have written off songs with unimaginative or sentimental lyrics as ‘meaningless’, without really given much thought to the fact that they might, despite their failings, be essentially truthful, heartfelt and honest.

Listening to The First Days of Spring now, it’s impossible to argue that Charlie’s lyrics are not predictable and clichéd – and yet something about the completeness of the narrative, the tone of his voice, and the sheer brilliance of his arrangements, persuades me that they’re entirely real, entirely true. When Charlie sings about "songs for the broken hearted", or needing "your light in my life", I think, why adorn these despairing sentiments with beautiful embellishments if the plain sentiments get to the heart of the matter? In as much as I believe that anyone's heart can be broken, I don’t doubt that Charlie’s truly was.

And of course, 'Stranger' is just particularly pretty – built, like, most of the record, around simple, ringing, circular guitar lines played on a clean-toned electric guitar, and rich with Charlie’s heavy, regretful vocal. “Last night I slept with a stranger for the first time since you’ve gone / Regretfully lying naked, I reflect on what I’ve done”. It even contains what I hope is a gag; the line where, having described his lover’s naked body entwined with his, he croons, “I’m a fox” – before completing the line “...trapped in the headlights”. If it isn’t a gag, it’s still funny.

And then, just past the half way mark, the song changes emphasis and a still, clear, piano line emerges, accompanied by muted acoustic strumming and some gentle vocal harmonies. “You know in a year”, Charlie starts to sing, “it’s gonna be better”. The riff starts to circle. “You know in a year, I’m gonna be happy”. As it shifts pace, it slides magically from tortured to reflective to uplifting; it’s Charlie reassuring himself, calming himself down, the sound of the early signs of healing. As the next song reflects, “blue skies are coming / but I know that it’s hard”.

If The First Days of Spring is written off as self-indulgent and pretentious – or just plain depressing – it’ll be a real shame. There’s a hugely satisfying single-mindedness of purpose about it; a clear-headed, direct portrayal of misery (and the emergence from misery into a more hopeful state of mind) that, yes, employs a host of well-worn, too-familiar phrases. But I think they are true.

Monday, October 26, 2009

out of proportion

Wonderful first episode of the new series of The Thick Of It this weekend; just watched it on iPlayer - super stuff. Still not sure what the best line was, though. Omnishambles, perhaps. Actually no, I think it's the following exchange:

Nicola Murray: "You set this up didn't you?"
Malcolm Tucker: "What?"
Nicola Murray: "To put me in my place, or get back at me for ignoring your advice, or some other weird perceived slight that doesn't in any way merit this massive fucking out of proportion Israeli-style response?"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

i am no navigator

Totally lost in Budapest; or Buda to be more precise. Went for a stormy, windswept walk there the other day and totally lost my way - ended up scrambling down from Várhegy into Víziváros and, despite thinking I knew at all times where the Danube was flowing (to my right, to my right) I ended up losing my bearings completely - creating along the way a far longer, more tiring walk than I had intended. But a pleasant one regardless. Here's a photo taken somewhere along the way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

fish tank, by andrea arnold; review

It's a trite but accurate observation that good art is not just about how it makes you feel while you're experiencing it, but also about how it stays with you. In the spirit of that, I keep returning to Fish Tank, the second film by Andrea Arnold, which I saw a month or so ago, and admiring the depth of its feeling, the power of the central characters' performances, and the striking visuals of the cinematography. This makes me think I should have written about it here earlier – as much as anything so I could compare my thoughts then with my thoughts now, which feel like they have blossomed and deepened, but may merely be overpowering my memory as the details of the film recede. This is definitely a film I'll return to when it comes out on DVD.

I remember the visuals more than anything; the way that Arnold has captured a landscape which, although it's familiar to me from encountering it myself, feels alien and extraordinary in a cinematic context, consisting as it does of a sequence of extraordinary, vivid sunsets over the Essex countryside, intercut with scenes of industrial blight – pylons towering overhead and motorways ploughing through the fields. The film is set on the edge of London and at the start of the Essex countryside, so a strange urban/rural duality is presented. Mia, the central character, a bolshy and bright 15 year old, lives a bleak life in a tower block (although this itself in Arnold's film is refreshingly free of cliché – there are no guns in this movie), and understandably dreams of escape. She is a dancer, although perhaps not one, like Billy Elliot, with a life-changing talent. As the title indicates, Mia is caged, looking for an escape. The fact that she can walk out of the city into the green fields, however, offers no respite until Michael Fassbender arrives in her life. He is Connor, her mother's new boyfriend, and a surrogate father figure.

Mia – played with extraordinary believability by the newcomer Katie Jarvis – is in every frame, prowling through the landscape, her movements repetitive, purposeless and frustrated. Each day she sneaks out, argues with peers, circles the estate, and passes a patch of wasteland where travellers keep a horse tied up. Her movements echo that of a caged animal, listlessly circling, sniffing at the possibility of escape. Her outrage at the horse's imprisonment is palpable – her own yearning for freedom just as obvious.

Her home life is thankless; her young mother is largely unconcerned with the duty of raising her two daughters, and Connor – who displays a sudden, unexpected interest in her life – offers something to which Mia is quite unused; encouragement, positive reinforcement, love. Mia has been excluded from school, and her mother echoes their analysis of her, that she is a nuisance, trouble, out of control. And there is another problem brewing; for all that Connor tries to nurture the girls, it is quickly apparent that Mia's role as troubled daughter is complicated by her emergence as a sexual rival for a mother who, apart from when Fassbander is around, is stuck in the memory of her own teenage years.

Connor is as complex and fascinating a character as the young lead. Notably a bit better educated, a bit more gainfully employed, a bit more comfortable in his own skin than the men Mia's mother normally sees, he nevertheless has his own troubles, and his complex relationship with Mia is just one of them. Their connection is apparent very early on. In one scene, Mia pretends to be asleep so that she can enjoy the feeling of his carrying her back to her room, and in another extraordinary set-piece, Connor takes the family out to the country, where he leads Mia into a fast flowing stream, leans over, and simply lifts a fish smoothly out of the water with his bare hands. It is an incredibly sensual scene, where electricity fizzes silently between the two characters, while Mia's mother and sister look on, oblivious.

Mia can hardly be blamed for her feelings for Connor; living a life so shorn of encouragement and love, she is completely unprepared for her reaction when such things are offered. Connor represents freedom, adulthood, and escape. Her already profound spirit of rebellion is spurred, as is a heart-warming, uncynical appreciation of the more poetic side of life. There are some absolutely thrilling scenes when she dances.

For all that Mia blossoms with Connor's encouragement, he is not the strong, centred man that he appears, and things swiftly get out of hand. Yet Arnold handles the development of the story beautifully, drawing wonderful things out of her young lead, and keeping such a tight hold of the reins that the final third of the film, again shot beautifully on the shores of the Thames Estuary, is completely surprising.

Fish Tank has been the best film I've seen this year, even better than Moon, which I praised very highly on this blog just a month or two ago. It's a magnificent study of youthful disaffection, love and anger, beautifully controlled, shot in bewitching colours. And as I indicated, I've thought about it almost every day since I saw it –so I don't think I could possibly recommend another film so heartily.

amazing parliament buildings

If the grandeur and status of the Houses of Parliament has anything at all to do with encouraging our elected politicians in the UK to feel it was legitimate to fiddle their expenses, surely the problem is, if anything, worse in Hungary?

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

currently listening

Not sure what has prompted it, but been listening to lots of lush 60s garage and psychedelia since I've been in Budapest. Here's a Budapest playlist, via Youtube.

1. The Apple - Bufallo Billycan

2. The Zombies - Care of Cell 44

3. The Idle Race - The Imposters of Life's Magazine

4. The Kinks - Some Mother's Son

szimpka kert, budapest

Rather than soak an experience in and then think about it, analyse it, write about it later, I'm going to have a go at transcribing my thoughts about the latest chapter in my Budapest adventure as I experience it, so consequently I'm crouched over my iPhone while I should be drinking in my surroundings. On the other hand, I am sitting in the pitch black.

A couple of people have mentioned Budapest's ruin pubs to me since I arrived, but it took my friend Laura recommending Szimpla Kert to me to get me in the door of one of them. The ruin pubs are essentially ad-hoc bars created in the space of one of the city's many ruined buildings. In Szimpla's case, it is housed inside a crumbling mansion, a haphazard sequence of rooms, some without proper ceilings, and a huge courtyard in the centre of District VII, the pock-marked, culturally rich part of the city that proved to be first a haven and then a prison for the Jews of Hungary during the thirties and forties.

Everything inside the pub is delapidated and decaying, but the extent to which the space, and the objects within it, have been repurposed is absolutely staggering. Each room has it's own character and is as cosy as the last, even if some are filled with broken chairs, upturned bathtubs and old televisions. The space I'm sat in the at the moment contains 13 of the latter, suspended from the ceiling, each showing a gradually evolving psychedelic image. Apart from the TV's, there is no lighting. So until one's eyes adjust, one is basically sitting in the dark. The room opposite, by way of contrast, is just a few seats and a wall, upon which films are projected. To my left, dimly visible through the archway, a room with ivy snaking across the mesh roof.I've really never been anywhere quite like this before - it is the comfiest, richest, most dramatic and at the same time most basic pub I've ever frequented.

It's absolutely wonderful, in short.

Monday, October 12, 2009

all men are liars

Thanks so much to Simon from Sweeping The Nation for reminding me how good 'All Men Are Liars' by Nick Lowe is; I just love that wonderful, Andy Partridge-esque descending line in the chorus.

And the lyrics elsewhere, of course:

"Well do you remember Rick Astley?
He had a big fat hit, it was ghastly.
He said i'm never gonna give-a you up or let you down.
Well, i'm here to tell you that dick's a clown."

much in demand, apparently

After lunch, yesterday - which included a couple of pints of Dreher (not just the best Hungarian lager, but the lager which invented lager) - I returned to my hotel room, and, suddenly heavy, conked out on the bed.

Actually, I'll start this story 18 hours earlier. On Saturday night, just minutes after I had checked into my hotel, I decided to go and do a bit of exploring - deciding that since it was Saturday night, I'd head down to the bustling tourist district of Budapest. I made the mistake, in doing so, of carrying my Rough Guide to Budapest in my hand, marking me out immediately as a tourist.

I got about three streets down into town, when I was interuppted by a voice. I stopped.

"Excuse me, do you speak English?".

I looked up, and found two, youngish, and quite pretty blonde girls confidently approaching.

"Um, yes", I said.

"Do you know where ____ is?", one asked, saying a name which I couldn't recognise.

"No", I admitted, "I've no idea, sorry".

"But it's an Irish pub!", the other exclaimed, "and you're English, right?".

I agreed that I was, but explained that I'd just arrived and would find it hard enough to navigate my way back to my hotel unguided, let alone dispense directions to others. While one girl studied my streetmap, the other chatted amiably with me, asking what I did for a living, what I was doing in Budapest, and for how long I'd be staying. The girls, apparently, were from a rural part of Hungary and were in the capital for the first time.

I'm pleased to say that, by the time the first girl was finished with the map, I'd concluded that I was witnessing - and taking part in - a carefully scripted scam. When the second girl asked me if I'd take the two of them for a drink, I was able to smile warmly and assure them that, sorry, I didn't have the least intention of doing so. The girls nodded, not bothered, and moved on.

It doesn't take much creative googling to confirm that, however great my charms, I wasn't the first nor the last guy that would be approached by those girls this week.

Walking on into town I allowed myself to smile, first at the fact that, being in a position of strength, I had actually enjoyed talking to the girls (it can be lonely arriving in a new city) and second in the knowledge that, had I been my friend Dan, I'd probably be held hostage in a Budapest basement by now.

So, yesterday, a couple of hours into my nap, I was woken by a knock at the door. Room service? Half asleep, I sat up. The knock came again, insistent, even though I'd left the 'don't disturb' sign on the handle. I got up and shuffled over to the doorway. Outside was a woman, perhaps in her late thirties, who greeted me as if she knew me, but spoke impenetrable Hungarian.

"I'm sorry", I stammered, confused. "Can I help".

She managed to find enough English to insist "I come in", and begin to push on the door.

I held firm, still half asleep, unsure what she wanted.

"I'm sorry", I repeated. "Which room do you want".

"This one", she replied, and again pushed as if to come in.

I was still thinking she was hotel staff, and was on the point of giving in, when I decided to ask one more time.

"What exactly do you want", I demanded.

She leant closer and, pouting, made a loud, passionless, kissing noise. Twice.


I figured it out. Surprised at my reaction, I reached out - she was by now half way into the room - and gave her shoulder a firm, steady, gentle shove.

"Problem?", she said, surprised.

I guided her backwards, nodded my head definitively - at last in possession of the facts - and concluded what I think was my first ever encounter with a prostitute by closing the door firmly in her face.

shapes in budapest

Saturday, October 10, 2009

early signs

Just arrived in Budapest and, so far, I'm not sure what to think of it. My plane landed this evening, meaning I've had that strange, slightly disorientating feeling of arriving in the city at night, where everything is obscured from view, or else at best lit artificially. The early signs were almost completely useless; watching the lights of the city from the window as the plane swooped down towards the airport - my first reference point, the first thing I could see clearly in the black was a shopping mall on the outskirts of the city. I strained my eyesight and caught sight of a logo - it read 'TESCO'. I long to visit somewhere where the imprint of British and American commerce is not so all-pervading.

In the taxi from the airport, unable to read the road signs or adverts, and listening to the cabbie's radio, I mused that in many ways Budapest is as far out of my comfort zone as I've been. I'm well travelled through the well-signposted cities of Western Europe. London, Paris, Amsterdam, Lisbon. I've extended my reach to a smattering of coastal cities in North America. But this is my first city with a history of Soviet occupation, my first city with a dialect that completely baffles me. It is also, I realise, the first time in my life I have ever been in a landlocked country. Culturally, linguistically, gastronomically, architecturally; my frame of reference is distant and uncertain.

Then, checked in to my hotel, I tried to get my bearings - walking down to Belváros, the city's downtown, its hub. I know it's the tourist district, so I don't expect too much. And so I enjoy my stroll and work up an appetite. But I feel like I'm in any European city, and the expected wave of strangeness never arrives. Instead, I muse, I'm experiencing a city typical - rather than atypical - of Western Europe: Benetton, Burger King, Subway and Tesco. So I decide that I'm probably just in the wrong frame of mind and return to my hotel. Tomorrow morning I will locate the heart of Budapest - and I'm still optimistic I'll be blown away.

Monday, October 05, 2009

awesome invention

Thanks to Sam, who flagged this up on Facebook; what a brilliant idea - this wheel for a child's bicycle eliminates the need for stabilisers and encourages good cycling habits. Press play and see for yourself. Great example of technology being used in a thoughtful way.

Friday, October 02, 2009


design for life

Anyone else falling rapidly in love with French designer and all-round-genius Philippe Starck, courtesy of the BBC's 'Design for Life' programme? I am - it's great value TV (essentially The Apprentice for designers) and I think Starck is the most charming man in the world. He is a force of nature; imitating a klaxon when he enters a room, milking his heavy French accent for all it is worth, and coming up with adorably eccentric soubriquets left right and centre (describing evolution, he declares that "to start weez, we wazz bacteria! Zen feesh. After, we become frog! It ees not exactly ze real story. But eet's close!").

Best of all is the way he fires people. No agressive finger jabbing, no scorn. Instead he merely saunters over, shrugs apologetically, and gently delivers two warm, deadly kisses, one to each cheek. Mwa Mwa. You're fired.

You can catch up on iPlayer.

arial or helvetica

I'm sure I'd never have been able to tell the difference between these sorts of thing a few years ago, but you do learn a few interesting things during a career in publishing. As everyone should know, the font 'Arial' is basically just a shit version of 'Helvetica' - the differences are small but important.

If you think you can tell them apart, try this quiz. I got 8/10, which isn't bad.

Arial or Helvetica?