Not much blogging of late because I’m in the middle of several books on several levels of the house; and also, with the last three nights spent on PopMatters columnation, my mind is pretty much spent and incapable of delivering attention to anything wordier than Family Guy. Well, there was the Uncut interview with Robert Plant, which I understand cause a minor controversy for Benny and Björn from Abba; and there’s the debacle of Continuing Top 100 Album lists (courtesy of Channel 4, whose popular list got more pedestrian as it went along ) and of course there’s Lisa Burke on Sky News’ Weather channel, but that’s about as much media as I can tolerate for a while. Attention is the most precious resource in this world, and I’m starting to get fussy how my petrodollars are being spent in that department. I did write a (regular, to FDaze's style) blog entry for the blokes at 1115.org (blogger kudos!) but either I didn’t get the house style right or they’ve no time to check my slight and superficial analysis of the upcoming British elections. Either way I forgot to mention that Blair’s Gut and Manboobs have increased in relative volume and girth, and that he should be advised to wear a jacket or blazer at all times.
Don’t blame me, I voted for Sir Kodos
The lesser of two evils perhaps? With campaigning well underway for the May 5th general election, it won’t be long before British politics will mirror the American style of bipartisan homogeneity and indifferent platforms.
My fellow Americans. As a young boy, I dreamed of being a baseball, but tonight I say, we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom. — Kodos
British voters have the choice of re-electing a lying (on Iraq) and disingenuous Tony Blair for a third term of Labour, or the Conservative Michael Howard whose creepy smile and leery eyes seems to suggest more than his jingoistic policy of immigration control and swing-voter-baiting. So far, this is an election of sound bytes and manifesto slogans write large on billboards for the parochially stupid (‘Are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ say the fear-tapping Conservatives to Labour’s ‘Forward, Not Back’ – as you can see, clear election-winners there). There’s very little unique or intelligent debate or dialogue going on – only the endless launch of manifestoes like fleets of paper promises. The slanging match hasn’t resorted to Swift Boat tactics yet, but there’s enough image- and issue-management and Left/Right turnpiking to keep Kodos twirling for ever. It’s an indifferent two party system! We will talk about pensions and policing immigration but we won’t talk about the war (and its causes) or greater EU involvement or cleaning up the National Health Service. If current polls are anything to go by, there’ll be a likely victory for Labour, and hence voter interest is low and resigned. To be honest, there is a third choice in the form of the Liberal Democrats whose promise of a genuinely intelligent if befuddled alternative seems marred by a penchant for greater policing, even if they do have alt.kudos in the form of an open letter from Brian Eno.
The real winners on the media front have been the cartoonists of The Guardian. Steve Bell’s brilliant parodicpiss-takes and Martin Rowson’s sly pen have kept the duplicity of political guff and well-mannered hot English air suitably sane and true.
Firstly, I love the format of the band: horns (incl. French, flute and piccolo trumpet) and strings and piano and electric bass (alas, a Steinberger, I was expecting a Rickenbacker like on A Zed and Two Noughts). A good contour of instruments. Everyone was miked and supported through the PA, except for the piano, which was acoustic throughout. Now, the acoustics of the concert hall weren’t too bad, but maybe it was a deliberate choice to force the piano down in the mix, making it more a percussive rhythm presence. Nonetheless on the several solo pieces, Nyman’s subtlety and gentleness at the keys came through.
The sets consisted mostly of soundtrack materials (whence the pure solo stuff?): Draughtman’s Contract, Wonderland, The Piano, Prospero’s Books, Drowning by Numbers etc. The first set was rather repetitive in terms of tempo and range: I got the strongest impression that many in the audience were struggling with a strange kind of boredom. They still clapped like mad, though, and Nyman does the maestro’s bow very well in his tails. But considering how acute Nyman’s work is as film counterpoint and accompaniment, without the film and its full context, this music sounded a little bit adrift on its own signature jags and bumps. The second set was much more varied and alive. I had a nicely subversive little brainstorm about what it means to be a musician in the MN band: do hardcore classicists write them off because of the easy, straight-ahead scores and the absence of virtuoso solos? Does MN ever think, Eh, I’m the composer, I’m gonna throw in a g-minor and reverse the score, for the hell of it, occasionally? Because it seemed none of the scores varied much, if at all, from what we’ve received and come to know on soundtrack CDs.
With so little emphasis on personality and interpretation (what other would loosely call 'minimalism'), I guess the onus on the musicians is to make the ensemble work together and work well, to mind the whole sound from the intonation of every note. Which then begs the question, does an audience already slightly stunned tune into these subtleties of interplay and precision? I guess not, since they’re already battening down the mental hatches trying not to applaud at having recognised the first strain or two of The Piano. Or digging the head-shaking cello player.
I found myself in possession of minor difficulties engaging with the material and performance: which is odd because I normally love listening to soundtracks. Maybe if MN played the Man With A Movie Camera routine I might’ve been more attuned. Or ready to jump to ovation like everyone else. The ovationary Lady In The Red Hat made up for it a little ("I recognise that one!") but too late. It was enjoyable and all, but…
My life and interests seem most harmonious when balanced around the twin poles of music and writing. Recently I’ve only been following the musical side in a referential-hound manner by pursuing and absorbing the trails of as many different genre styles and artists as technologically accessible. This hasn’t been easy under a self-imposed non-acquisition policy which doesn’t lapse until August; meaning I’ve been dependent on internet radio, the gifts and loans of friends and live and DVD performances (by which means you can still cover an astounding musical turf). But this all changed with some recent dabbling in home recording and my purchase of new bass power. And I’m talking a seismic shift in bass power. First I got the Ashdown Electric Blue 180w combo which is seriously loud and ‘present’ to use an audio term. The only problem with this amp is that it disturbs the neighbours and causes near-immediate ear/headache in my nearest and dearest. I’ve never had so much wattage before and it’s a little addictive I’ve already cast wilful glances at the 300w model which has the real input level meter as opposed to my LED one. Which begs the question what’s the point of bringing it home and not being able to crank it. But I do love the subtle sub-harmonics control and the bright and auto-EQ effect. It’s a seriously full sound and quite warm, which I didn’t expect from the people that used to make Trace Elliot amps. New power also needs new tools. I’ve been plucking away at a Harley Benton freebie which was given me; it functions adequately and the sound isn’t all that bad from a suspiciously light and hollow-sounding body; I’ve also had a feeling that the battery inside is a sham and the electronics passive, not active. When plugged into a Zoom unit it sounds pretty fair for a beginner’s bass, with a vaguely rock-ish sound contour. Which has been my problem for the 12 odd years I’ve been playing bass wasting my time with cheap and tinny basses and always dreaming, ogling the real machines and envying their sound. Ditto for amps. But considering my dream bass clocks in at between €1200 and €2000, well, I’ve never had that much money to splash around. But the good people at Warwick have done what almost every major guitar manufacturer does and farmed out some of their manufacture to cheaper countries. Fenders come in all ethnological shades (and relative qualities) from Mexico to Indonesia. Warwick has outsourced their budget Rockbass range to China, where, as the sticker wants so badly to reinforce, they are still hand-made. Since the old Fortress model is no longer made, it’s a good thing the Rockbass came along and whetted my fetish. The only problem was finding one in Dublin. Four music stores gave me the shamefully red herring runaround by saying Warwicks were no longer distributed into Ireland. Not so. An email to the ‘Wick factory in Germany put me in contact with the UK distributor who gave me the number of a small store on the Bachelor’s Walk (on Liffe) who, a phone call later, confirmed they were the sole stockist for Ireland. I was beginning to think that Dublin music store attendants were a reasonable and generous bunch as far as letting you play Stairway-till-it-bleeds goes, but they were deliberately snubbing Instrument, said store. No bother. I took early leave of an afternoon and bussed it over. The store is tiny and the attendants middle-aged and indifferent as in they always seem to be staring away, and by virtue of either too much gigging or the badly cramped acoustics of the store or said strain of indifference and humming along to a Dylan disc, were actually quite hard of hearing. I blame not the accent. Anyhoo, I went straight for the Fortress and asked to plug into an Ashdown. I got one of those attitudinal stares and the mockingly incredulous words ‘Ashdown? That’s Trace Elliot, man!’ before plugging me into a huge Ampeg (which brand I never did like, somehow; but anything in excess of 300w sounds good). The sound was right from the get-go. The bass felt good. The tonal range was great. Rich and warm and plenty of bottom warmth. Perfectly balanced at every height and position, and the weight was reassuringly solid (with no hollow knocks anywhere on the body). The rough standard issue strings had already left some marks on the second and third frets, no doubt the in-store present of some hard-slapping metalhead just in from buying something shit from Slipknot. The Corvette Rockbass model, by contrast, sounded light and wispy in comparison a slapper’s toy. Instrument stocks mainly Warwick and ESP guitars hence the Hetfield/Hammett wannabe crowd dropping in all the time (‘Snotters’ my metal pal Bart calls them). I haggled about €60 off the price because I could get it cheaper on order from Germany, but they threw in a cheap gig-bag and average-quality lead. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion someone’s been fiddling with the electronics because the pick-up volume pot order is reversed, but no matter. It’s the closest to owning a genuine Warwick and hence the Genuine Sound of Wood, so I was happy enough. Also, considering I’ve never actually handled one properly, I wasn’t sure what to expect. There was a second-hand Streamer on the wall but it was conveniently priced out of range. Methinks I like the precision/jazz pick-up arrangement better anyway; it’s what I’ve always had. The Rockbass is surprisingly easy to play. The temper of the strings and hence playability alters with heavy gauge flatwounds, which I hurried on as soon as possible (took me damn near two and a half hours to restring and adjust the intonation, and later, crank up the truss rod to compensate for the higher tension). But the again I’ve never had flatwounds before, so that’s another novelty to get used to. Nowhere near as bright they are, but as y’all know, I’m into the funk and groove and soul of bass presence and don’t give a hoot for slap-and-pop bass styles, so it’s all good. Jazz people and Carol Kaye use flatwounds, need I say. It’s still easy to play, and plugged into my Ashdown it definitely rattles windows and walls. Even at the mid-pot levels, the sound is good (crank up the active EMCs and feel the bottom). The higher notes sound fuller and more middle-y with the flatwounds too, which sound even better with the sub-harmonic effect. The range of tone is good and the neck quite fast, so I’m extremely happy to at last own a ‘real’ bass. Even with the fingers only it still delivers a bright, pick-like sound (easily damped for pure funk). It looks dead sexy and it’s a yellow golden curry colour. My first act of homage was to figger out the bass part to Diamonds and Pearls (by P and Sonny T two more Warwick heroes). Next I went back to the oldies: The Meters and Sly Stone and Adam’s Roots of Hip Hop CD (most of which tracks I already knew). A little bit of Stewart Zender’s stuff, and of course my man Robbie Shakespeare (on the Marcus Garvey disc by Burning Spear). My second step to self improvement was buying a metronome it’s my best teacher yet. There’ll be several more weeks slash months of woodshedding before I’m gonna start writing some stuff for a new and simple musical format I’m hoping to work out. I won’t reveal too much because it’s a pretty fragile concept, but the inspirational refrain I’ve got running round my head is: The rhythm must play call and response with the melody. Wait and see for that one. I’m so chuffed to finally own some good equipment, to get some decent sounds, to get back into the making of music as opposed to its passive/reactive consumption.
Well, it came and went. I hardly drank. But I did manage to channel the ghost of James Joyce for the PopMatters piece. His ghost tuned in from a pub in Skerries and looked on the parade at hand.
Streamers and bunting. Shaven children with tricolour faces. Ample perambulators stopstarting: mothers' talk and conference: names remembered and passed along. Remember me to him. A net of souls each pushing hungry babes in sunlight: same boat and ocean we inhabit. Orange white and bolder green, thinlegged urchins tearing through a crowd. Not so long from swaddling clothes, six of them conspire for a trinket: all eyes on the prize: all heeding mother's cries at Angelus. And yet what is to come is not so long before... Circle of life.
Are you more convinced of the aesthetic value of the spectacle?
Who this leaning lad with limp and quoting mockery? I've ten rounds on order to be dragged away for a pun and piffle. Some misquoted afterlife in Errorland.
(I must admit that quoting Joyce in his own manner seemed the best way of getting myself across. Though if you've ever been quoted direct to your face, you'd know it's very uncomfortable. Especially if you're a stickler for detail and know they've got it slightly wrong. Nonetheless his voice-within-a-ghost-within-a-statue temporarily imbued with sentient power forgave my slight lapses of precise memory and traces of un-Irish accent.)
What discrete succession of images do you meanwhile perceive? Do you still drink?
A mass, a swirl of massing people half happy and halfdrunken as they move to see then move against the tide. A pub claims them for its frothy depths and brine. A smoky bellows guards the door where money sinks in pints. Throw. It. Up. Drinkoffering. Live on beery smells they do. What's in a beer: a name like porter. Twopence a pint. Good for sick children's bones and old cod's pins. My breakfast of rashers and Guinness's. A genetic fact of diet entwined in ages. There's money to export the stuff: expert medicine to the world shipped in vats and clunking metal hulls. Whiskey beer and wine given their parade, is all I see: a crowd parade in parallel proven scientifically by intoxication. A fanfare for this shamrock isle of dreadful thirst. Not the drink that claims these souls, but souls by legal means and tender claim their drink. To each their accord: new money buys more beer.
It starts in almost exactly the same way as the Chili Pepper’s Funky Monks video the band rent a recording space, they drive in to work every day, they indulge their outdoor hobbies. The discuss the album with the producer, themselves and the media. They overdub and discuss some more; but here there’s a big fuzzy mental space oozing brotherly tension and distaste the space of therapy and its associated jargon of pain and emotional recognition. And here, the film becomes more and more like Let It Be. I mean, how could they not see that coming? This is almost formula! It’s like Eugene Landy sitting in on the Beatles recording sessions instead of Yoko. And worse still, the viewer slowly comes to realise the new material and the new album is shit: somewhere below average harder rock, something not unlike Echobrain. This being the first attempt at group song writing, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that these are just so many band-comp lyrics hurriedly bashed together 'cause they rhyme or express someone’s feelings at that time. Essentially, this is a film about burnt & frayed egoscapes rather than music and creativity. It feels like an incredibly drawn-out hangover. Metal never sounded so tired as these guys fishing for riffs and ideas. They can rock and party hardy, sure, but can they function in an effective team-dynamic? Can they contribute and listen? No, and the problem of course is the therapist. You must never trust a therapist in yellow knitwear, no matter how much he gets per month, especially one with such burred couch-platitudes and perennial presence. The film was constantly on the verge of a saccharine group hug. Thank god he kept his trap shut about the lyrics (the content of the lyrics isn’t important here, he’d say) but to have James Hetfield singing about cap T Temptation? Really? I mean they’ll be taking a post-Farrakhan P.E. turn and singing about shaking booties before the manager can say radio-friendly broadcast. This is the new, softer Metallica; monsters of mood and sharing. James is a heel, and quite oblivious to the fact. Lars is the normal one, even when he scores around 20 million just by selling some artworks (all in a hard rock day). Lars chooses his words carefully. Lars Pére (the wizard who looks like he just spent 20 years in the wild) pops in to call some musical shots. Kirk makes himself the model considerate one; Kirk concerned about serving the song and yet I hear there’s no solos on the album! That must be a tough break. At times I had to laugh hard at all the slightly left-field insincerities and the serious little disappointments of their days… the glazed looks on Kirk and Lars as they witness the mild waste of Echobrain… the new bass player getting a million advance (did I hear that right?)… the Megadeth guitarist coming out with his rejection issues… the fact that everything is Pro-Tooled… and the fact that they collectively own something like 5-600 guitars! Rock on. Like my pal Jason used to say: Give someone else a go. I guess the fun of the film, the drive and gist is the expectation and waiting for the end, the inevitable termination (by day 715 of the project I was getting concerned for my own life). And yet, ultimately, the arguments didn’t make for any better musical tension or resolution the problem partly being that Metallica have done about as much as they can for Metal the genre is moving on and sooner or later the boys will be stuck playing to their purist fans and splitting up over new (softer?) directions. Maybe that evil word Progressive will crop up in future media spots. Music for head banging doesn’t need to worry about future trends and ceremonial inaugurations and radio giveaways. It just bangs heads. Maybe these guys need to drink more tea or something. Or get a new producer.
A film in reverse episodes. A hint of Nordic (divorce) drama. A growingly unlikable man (reminiscent of an Erland Josephson performance); a man who has serious problems making love to and loving women. A strange space of filmic passivity. A rather bleak Greek opening and a growing-bleaker ending. An interesting ensemble of contrasts. A focus on Tedeschi as Marion when the real narrative problem is Gilles the John. A lack of emotional slash relational centre, possibly due to the otherwise fine episodic structure limiting a causal continuity. A still unpredictable film that is, sufficiently engaging. A leap ahead of 8 Femmes, at least, yet only a mild departure from the Rampling films. And also, in my case, a badly projected film: I had to rush out during the forceful opening episode to alert the management of UGC Dublin that the projecting scale was wrong and constrained by the narrow ratio used for ads; they said they’d alert the projectionist but nothing came of it which I’m not going to let them get away with again, the slackers.
When recording Zep II, the young Jimmy Page was experimenting with different recording methods; one technique he used on Whole Lotta Love was to mike the guitar amp from a distance rather than up close as is the norm. You’ve got to turn the amp up louder to get the same levels, but he also noticed you get a fatter, fuller sound. In like manner, though this will be somewhat discounted by the technical gaps in my memory, I wonder if criticism and reviews come out different if they’re written a week or more after the original viewing/experience. Certainly, the peaks and valleys of impressions should be more defined; whatever’s worth truly remembering should still be there and the rest just dribbled away. Which of course is detrimental to those inclined to loving fine detail. But something I’m starting to think more and more is that the detail is integral to mood and not always consciously absorbed/observed; and that mood is essential to how we remember the bigger bits and streams of culture. Which of course begs the question of a bad initial mood dampening the effect of a work which might (in other circumstances) transcend petty predispositions; or which demands that reviewers in all walks of write be even, balanced and emotionally calm and consistent people, which is an insulting waste of speculation when your competition’s an autocue hound like Richard Wilkins. Ultimately, the purpose and value of art is to engage. And in the best works, to generate an experience that stays with you. An historical trace of artistic stayers would be pretty similar to the accepted canon of greatness and talent. Just as there’s a lot to be said about critical passion and the heat of thought’s immediacy in getting a review down, there’s also significant value in considering works from a distance, both temporal and spatial and or contextual. So then. I mean to talk about Agnès Jaoui’s film. I saw it almost two weeks ago. Jaoui is a rare specimen of French female actor-directors: she isn’t as intense as Isabel Huppert but is more attractive, acting-wise. Hers is a clear talent immediately readable whilst retaining a distinct femininity; youthful, subtle in its cares, natural in its movements. It’s not a talent measured by intensity but thoughtful grace and naturalism in the moment. I’m writing it up, of course; and there’s something to be said for directors acting in their films, especially those that know and identify deeply with the character, especially as the focus around which others base their performance. (Jaoui has an amazing vocal talent; her role is customised to suit). But it’s a mature form of charming which I found wholly agreeable. At times bristling with crisp wit and well-edited comedy, the film is a great character vehicle. Not all the leads excel, but the arrogant father figure (Jean-Pierre Bacri) was played to a razor’s edge precision (husband and wife team alert: a reprisal of his role in Le Goût des Autres, also by and with Jaoui). The father whose reputation and fame cause others to dance with nimble adulation and sycophantry. The daughter desperate for the smallest scrap of recognition in the face of a rejection of the profoundest regularity. The house in the country where it all unfurls; relationships unwinding and reintegrating into other intrigues; the nagging undercurrents of failure and ambition’s insecurity (backdropped by sheer parental and unspoken jealousy). Emotionally even and balanced by pace, you almost completely lose the sense of a mediated, constructed experience. I want that more and more: to lose the sense of experiencing cinema, to immerse myself. And as always with French films, it’s mostly about writers my theory being that the only place one really sees writers represented is on screen (them paper bios and interviews just don’t cut it in terms of representative art and power). Every second or third French film of late has involved or resolved a particular question of writers, or, more generally, auteurs. Which is why it’s high time to make a nicely bland doco-film about the real slog and visual ennui of the writing process. The little making-of doco on the DVD was also illuminating, one of the better ones yet. To see shots made and developed under the most natural, gentle and contributive atmosphere had me thinking of Eastwood. None of that poncy French faux-intellectual storm und drang, no mealy theoretic or abstrusions; just plain, simple drama. The work of precision built into every scene. The painting of grass to match the season. The in-car shot whose punctuation is crucial. The nearness of love and resentment. The small and intrusive rudenesses of the world (mobiles, taxi drivers). The shifts of mood and music (from Schubert to TuPac). The director as guide, conduit and fine-tuner. Proof that subtlety behind the screen (backed by natural talent) equates with subtlety and grace on screen.