27 September 2006

Would You Like Some Brain Cells With That, Ma'am?

51 Beamtennherrschaft - Year 6006

Probably old internet news by now, but....I found this over at LDopa. It's an hilarious 911 call in which a disgruntled nincompoop attempts to get the police involved when the Burger King she's at won't serve her from the drive-thru window, as it is being cleaned--of course, she never thought to just park her (I'm imagining) gigantor SUV and walk into the restaurant. Some people really seem to have no clue sometimes.

Courtesy of YouTube, you can listen to the exchange here. It'll provide hours of entertainment.

(Thanks to LDopa and The Consumerist for the link to YouTube)

21 September 2006

Happy Autumn Equinox

21 Athene - 85 p.s.U.

It's that time of year again, summer has faded and the cooler air is due. The weather outside today doesn't seem very late-September, however--it actually feels like mid-August. I think the months chose a role-reversal this year. Good news for the sun-worshippers.

To help ring in the equinox, a couple of links:

The first being the annual recipients of the Stupid Awards--doled out to those people and quotes who furthered the cause of stupidity throughout this year. Surprisingly, The Smirking Chimp, George W. Butthead didn't win "Stupidest Man Of The Year" (though he has my vote). You can check the awards out here.

For those who are waiting for the flood of spiders to invade their home to "get out of the cold"--here's a page debunking several arachnid myths.


17 September 2006

Back From The "Jurassic Coast"

24 Elul - Year 5766

Pixie and I arrived back from holiday on Friday afternoon--and it's back to work tomorrow--but first, a quick holiday recap.

We traveled down the M5 most of the way into deepest, darkest Devon--ending up in Sidmouth, a lovely seaside town. The beach is a must for Pixie, so onto the pebbles we went. After a bit of "paddling" (that's wading to us Yanks) near the shore and exploring various rock pools (it was low tide when we arrived)--it was time to stock up on food for the week and get to the cottage.

The cottage was very cozy and actually bigger than our house. The village it's in, Tipton St. John (which does sound like a character in Spinal Tap, as Singing Bear pointed out), is one of those tiny English places that couldn't possibly be anywhere else. One or two pubs, one post office, a school and homes built into the sides of hills--I hate to use the word 'quaint', but if the postcard-view fits....

Lyme Regis and Charmouth are worth a visit, if you ever are in that area. They're both seaside communities with fossil-strewn beaches--some of the most concentrated collections of prehistoric bones and imprints in the world. Visitors are welcome to comb the beaches for interesting finds, though there are plenty of shops open if you don't score a dino bone or ammonite shell imprint and still want a souvenir. Pixie and I had beginner's luck with us and each found a stone with an ammonite print--although mine seems to be made of some sort of metal, which may not make it an authentic Triassic item. It does have that spiral shape, so I kept it anyway.

A trip to Exeter, the largest town in that area and home to Exeter University, was next. We visited the cathedral and looked around at some of the shops. I was keen to find a funky little indie record shop, it being a college town and all--but the only one we stopped in was very small and the prices seemed a bit steep to me. There was a Music Zone shop, which was having a sale--so I picked up a couple of Tangerine Dream re-issues and a Strawbs disc. Pixie's folks kindly let us poach their National Trust membership cards for the week and we decided to check out Killerton Manor House & Gardens in a place called Broadclyst. Killerton is one of those regal 18th century houses, all huge portraits on the walls and antique furniture in every room. The house is nice (with a special display of ladies' evening wear from the 1800's through the 1970s) and the gardens are well-manicured and extensive, but I was glad we didn't have to pay admission, as it didn't seem worth the price charged for entrance to me.

Our final full day was spent in Exmouth, yet another seaside town (I'm sensing a pattern here). We decided to go on one of those tourist-y sea cruises. This one was called the "Jurassic Coast Tour" and went from Exmouth, up the coast to Sidmouth, and back. I was a bit unsettled by the rocking of the craft, but I got used to it after a while. We passed by a Royal Marines shooting range and you could hear the pops and clacks of the guns. The captain joked over the tannoy that only four passengers had been shot since he had been piloting. I found the tour interesting, especially when we were given a closer look at "sea stacks", towers of rock that are free-standing, due to being eroded away from the mainland--also a peregrine falcon nest, created in a nook high in one of the cliff-faces. Having some time left in the day, we headed to a town called Beer, to explore the old quarry caves there. You aren't allowed to brave the caves alone--so we joined a tour group already in progress, with our hard-hats on. An older woman served as our tour guide and I had a chuckly moment when I thought of the League Of Gentlemen episode featuring a cave tour guide with a deadpan voice. The quarry itself seemed fascinating to me, with the methods of extracting the stone and the graffiti on the walls, placed there by workers over the years. The cold down there made the tour a bit uncomfortable--but soon it was done and we were back in the late afternoon sunshine. Pixie's trusty Kensington 100 Rover nearly didn't make it out of the town, with all of the steep hill roads about.

Our nights were spent at the Golden Lion pub, in Tipton. There's a crew of regulars, you know 'em from every small-town pub. One guy we called "Crossword Guy", due to his constant quizzing of staff and his friends about words to fit his puzzle. Another sounded a lot like Ian McKellen, so he was called "Gandalf". There were a few others, but we lumped them in as "The Crew", as they didn't stand out as much as the aforementioned two. We also enjoyed a nice meal there on Wednesday night--we started with garlic mushrooms and for mains, I had lemon sole (not de-boned, unfortunately) and Pixie had veggie enchiladas--I finished with a chocolate-orange tart and Pixie had some ice cream. We'd recommend the Golden Lion, if you happen to be there.

As with all holidays, this one ended much too soon.

10 September 2006

Off To Devon

19 Bhadra - Year 1928

Pixie and I are taking a five-day break--so we're off to Tipton St. John in Devon. Hope the weather of the past few days holds--we've been spoiled with sun. There have been forecasts of rain for Monday and Tuesday.

Anyhoo--see you's in five days or so. This blog is in the laps of the gods & goddesses and in the erudite hands & minds of Singing Bear and Aloicious (if he shows up--he's been AWOL as of late).

07 September 2006

Bob Dylan: Modern Times

How does a self-confessed Dylan fanatic go about providing an objective overview of His Bobness's new album? In all honesty, I'm not sure it's truly possible. When one has lived with a passion for Dylan and his music for 30 years, objectivity doesn't really come into it. Even Bob's detractors have to acknowledge the enormous impact he has had on the last 40 plus years of popular culture and he has once again established his 'legend' status following the success of the No Direction Home film and the first part of his autobiographical odyssey, Chronicles. On top of this, since 1997, the renaissance in Dylan's musical output has, to certain ears, proved to be his ultimate triumph. Who could have predicted, back in the dark days of the mid-80's when recording disasters were followed by cinematic calamity, that we could talk about Bob so positively today? So, what about Modern Times? I'm coming to that but, first, a brief 'history' lesson.

By the end of the 80's it seemed as though Dylan was lost and it would only be a matter of time before he became a 'has-been' with only his 60's legacy to truly maintain his legend. He has revealed how he no longer felt able to write. He felt he had lost touch with whatever creative impulse once propelled him through the artistic stratoshere. At his lowest point, following truly terrible albums like Knocked Out Loaded and Down In The Groove, Dylan linked up with The Grateful Dead in what seemed, at the time, a desparate attempt the revive memories of his glory years. On the surface, Dylan and The Dead seems like a totally incongruous pairing. Dylan was very much 'anti-hippy' in the late 60's; rejecting the 'counter-culture' for the 'conservative' lifestyle and artistic expression of life in the Catskills with The Band and his family. However, The Dead themselves had always been in touch with the roots of the music and Dylan had connected artistically with Jerry Garcia. It must be said that the resulting live album was a complete failure but the tours they did together encouraged Dylan to re-evaluate his songs and rediscover the source from which they sprang. Dylan ended the decade on a real high-note with the Oh, Mercy album and there was much optimism amongst his fans for a bright new future. Inevitably, things didn't quite work out as simply as that and Dylan began the 90's with the mediocrity that was Under The Red Sky. It was obvious that the muse had not yet made its full return to the soul of the poet. Seemingly in an artistic quagmire, Dylan turned again to the very source of his creation: the blues and folk songs of North America and Britain. In short succession he released the solo acoustic albums Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong. All the songs on both of these records are 'trad. arr.' but Dylan sounds completely inspired on tracks like 'Black Jack Davy' and Blind Willie McTell's 'Broke Down Engine'. After this return to his roots, there was another long gap before the release of Dylan's great return to form with Time Out Of Mind. In the meantime, he continued his 'Never Ending Tour', reworking his classic material and introducing a large number of folk and blues material to the shows. On Time Out Of Mind Dylan reforges American 'roots' music to make something all his own: an other-worldly brew of intimations of mortality and fire and brimstone. In 2001, he continued to look back with Love & Theft, adding belly-laughs and 1930's style shuffles for good measure. His popularity and crediblity took a definite up-swing.

Finally, we come to Modern Times. It has been five years since any substantial new material has emergrd from Bob's pen. Ironically, his profile has rarely been higher and he's STILL on the road. Superficially, Modern Times carries on where he left off with Love & Theft. We find rockabilly rambles and blues boogaloos; there are Hoagy Carmichael style tunes; there are songs with roots deep in the North American soil. The album opens with the literal rumble of 'Thunder On The Mountain', an up-beat, bluesy number that weirdly name-checks soul singer Alicia Keys. Bob has been looking for 'Aleesha Keeeys' even 'clear through Tennessee'. Either Dylan is just a dirty old man or Alicia Keys symbolises something Bob is trying to find in the spirit of America. I wouldn't bet against the former! The song is peppered with oblique references to the state we are in and the fact that the end times could be with us soon. Even though Bob rarely bangs the Bible in any obvious way these days, his mind is never far from themes of judgement and salvation or even damnation (in 'Rollin' and Tumblin' he warns some undefined group of people how they are going to 'burn'). If the meaning of 'Thunder On The Mountain' is somewhat obscure, Dylan manages to squeeze some brilliant lines into the song. At one point the genius manages to rhyme 'sons of bitches' with 'orphanages'. Yes, he still has poetic daring in spades. The second track, 'Spirit On The Water' illustrates some of the more problematic aspects of the album. This where Dylan and his, more or less adequate, touring band get into their Hoagy Carmichael mode with a seemingly hopeless plea for requited love. The song and arrangement are fine enough but it just goes on for far too long! A little editing would have been more than welcome. Dylan also adds a very poor harmonica solo that perfectly illustrates why he'll never be considered a rival for Little Walter or Larry Adler!

The album then moves up a gear with 'Rollin' and Tumblin''. The song is credited to Dylan and he certainly suppiles a host of new lyrics but it's really the old Muddy Waters nugget dressed up in fancy clothes. 'Love & Theft', Bob? The song itself is great and perfomed with some gusto. It must be said that Dylan's singing is the best it's been for a long time. Of course, this is a voice you either love or hate but, for me, his vocal chords have reached a point of indefinable, wrecked beauty that perfectly matches the mood of the songs. On 'When The Deal Goes Down', the ache and loving tiredness in the lyric is expressed utterly by Dylan's delivery. A couple of the other songs are light-weight, but highly likable, R&B rides through the landscape of hardship, disaster (maybe Hurricane Katrina?) and desire but it's the remaining, mid to slow-paced numbers that form the artistic core of Modern Times. The album closes with the epic 'Ain't Talkin'', a tale of a spiritual search for redemption in a lost world. This is 'Old Testament' Dylan. His favourite prophets would seem to be Jeremiah and Isaiah. There's little comfort to be found in a world 'filled with speculation' and people who 'will jump on your misfortune when you're down'. It seems that Dylan finds strength and comfort in the fact that he has stuck to the eternal truths, beyond organised religion and corruption:

'I practice a faith that's long been abandoned,
Ain't no altars on this long and lonsome road'

(* 'Lonesome Road' was a song recorded in the 1920's by Gene Austin and ripped off by Bob on Love & Theft on the song 'Sugar Baby')

We are all going to hell in a hand cart and we can't say Bob hasn't warned us! For all its doom and gloom, 'Ain't Talkin'' is a triumph and one of the peak moments on the album.

The two other superb tracks are 'Nettie Moore' and 'Workingman's Blues #2'. The eponymous Nettie is a lost love who appears to dwell in the far distant past of American history. There is a Civil War period folk song with same title. Perhaps this is the Nettie Moore who Bob misses so much? Makes a change from Alicia Keys, I suppose! Again, the world has gone wrong and the narrator can only be redemed by Nettie's pure love. The song itself is an interesting mix of basic, pedestrian drumbeat through the verse, with a smart time signature change incorporated between the first and second line. Then the chorus opens up like a flower as Bob tells us how much he mises Nettie. Then, at the heart of the album (track number 6) lies a true modern day Dylan classic. 'Workingman's Blues #2' (the first song with this title was recorded by Merle Haggard) is a hymn to the dignity of the working class in the face of neo-conservative economic repression. Has Bob gone back to protest song? Well, not quite. Dylan stopped 'finger-pointing' a long time ago and his art is now far too subtle to fall for such devices. What he DOES do is illustrate the plight of ordinary people with verses that tell of competition from from foriegn markets that force wages down; steel rails that hum as a reminder of the days of the Great Depression and the poor riding the frieght trains and the ravages of a political system that cares little for the life of the avarage man. All this is relayed via a beautiful, simple melody that matches the proud stance of the down-trodden people. If this seems far fetched, listen for yourself.

So, in some ways Modern Times does carry on where Love & Theft left off but still has a sound and feel of its own. There is a greater sense of impending doom here, which takes us back to Time Out Of Mind but this is also matched by a greater generosity of spirit in the songs themselves. The album title itself, whilst proclaiming something about the 'here and now' also seems to suggest that some truths are universal for every age and it's time to discover these things for ourselves. To bring things down to a more prosaic level, it's a very good Dylan album. It's not perfect and Dylan relies heavily on past musical forms these days but Modern Times is a fine achievement.

British Sea Power - The Zodiac, Oxford - 6 September 2006

33 Lucy - 39 p.r.S.P.

B.S.P. are doing a small club tour to preview new material and give the punters a chance to catch them in a tiny venue. Pixie and I caught them at The Zodiac last night. It was our first time seeing them live, so we were both looking forward to the gig.

iLiKETRAiNS were the support act and they stepped on-stage in their matching cavalry jackets, looking like they had stepped off the set of a U.S. Civil War epic. They started with a nice shoegazer-ish guitar drone, but things quickly deteriorated when the singer took to the mic. His voice was akin to a somnambulent Ian Curtis, or maybe a weak imitation of Peter Murphy. The muddy mix and the stifling heat in the Zodiac's basement didn't help matters. Their tunes seemed like a ghastly cross between Cocteau Twins (without the melodies and Liz Fraser's vocals) and Mogwai (that same quiet/loud dynamic). Either way, they clashed with B.S.P.'s up-tempo style. Thankfully, they dragged their morose backsides off-stage after five or six songs. It's safe to say that iDON'TLiKE iLiKETRAiNS.

B.S.P. walked on following a snippet of classical music (Elgar or Vaughan Williams maybe?), the stage by this time decorated with their customary foliage--even bassist Hamilton got into the act with a garland of leaves round his head. They launched into a new instrumental, which I don't have the name of--as they didn't announce any titles, including the tunes off of the first two records. Another new one followed, with the B.S.P. trademarks: tight melodies, stop/start sections and soaring vocals. They then treated the crowd to a spirited Remember Me, from the Decline Of British Sea Power album. That's how it went for the remainder of the show--a couple of new ones, then an old one. The flow was nice, though, and all the material worked, even though some of the not-yet-recorded ones had just sketches of lyrics. The boys were clearly having fun up there and I was hoping they'd perform their adaptation of the John Betjeman poem that they jammed at the centenary celebration earlier this summer, but it didn't happen. Eventually they wound down the regular set with Carrion and Spirit Of St. Louis, both from the "Decline.." album. They used an old crank air raid siren at the end of "Spirit.." which lent an air of weird authenticity to the song. The encore was a frantic Apologies To Insect Life followed by a really long jam where the boys got up to some wacky hijinks like sitting on each others shoulders, both clutchng a mic and singing "Freight Train!", wrestling and crowd-surfing. At the end, guitarist Noble was teetering at the edge of the stage, guitar in hand, looking like he would fall forward into the front rows of punters. Then it was over and we headed for the cooler air of outside as some of the crowd rushed the T-shirt table.

I would recommend seeing B.S.P. on this tour, if you can. They put on a stadium-sized gig in a small space and the new material is worth hearing before it makes it onto a plastic-n-foil disc. You do have to put up with iLiKETRAiNS's dirges--or you can just show for the Sea Power's set and skip the support slot. Either way, catch this one before it's over.

Here's a possible setlist, cobbled from a late August show, found at the B.S.P. fansite, Salty Water.

Instrumental (new)
Open The Door (?)
Remember Me
Open The Atom (?)
Mary (?)
Fear Of Drowning
Instrumental (new)
How Will I Ever Find My Way Home?
Lights Out For Darker Skies (?)
Plover Pt. 2 (?)
A Trip Out (?)
The Spirit Of St. Louis
Apologies To Insect Life
Pelican/"Freight Train" (?)

01 September 2006

Film Fun: Harsh Times/Snakes On A Plane

I have seen two films this week: Snakes On A Plane starring Samuel L. Jackson and Harsh Times with Christian Bale. If I tell you that I didn't think I would see a worse film than Nacho Libre this year but then I saw Snakes On A Plane, you have well and truly been warned. Avoid this travesty at all costs. It has benefited greatly from much unwarrented internet hype but we should have known that something was wrong when there were NO PRESS PREVIEWS. The producers surely knew they had grade one turkey on their hands. Jackson is in gun-toting, shouty mode all the way through this ridiculous mess. He plays a federal agent who has to accompany a witness to a gangland killing from Hawaii to LA. The gangsters arrange for a crate of deadly snakes to be smuggled onto the plane and at a certain point these little blighters are let lose with tragic consequences. The true tragedy is that the lunatic plot is accompanied by truly awful performances from everyone involved. On top this you get some of the worst dialogue you may ever hear in a mainstream film. It doesn't know if its United 93 or Airplane! Please pass!

In total contrast to the above nightmare is Harsh Times, starring Christian Bale. Bale plays an ex-army guy, recently demobbed from a unit that served in some Afghanistan or Iraq type conflict. From the off, its clear that he's carrying some heavy-duty mental scars from his time in uniform, as he wakes in cold sweats from horrendous nightmares. Initially we find him in impoverished but idyllic surroundings in a Mexican village with the woman he wants to marry and take across the border to Southern California but he has a problem: no job. He goes back to the States to team up with an unemployed pal as they, supposedly, seek work together. Bale's character is deseperate to join the LAPD but is rejected on psychological grounds. This seems to be a cue for him to lapse into rampant hedonism and rage. He is, however, offered a chance to join Homeland Security, if he can pass the appropriate tests. Without wanting to give too much away (because you really must see this film) things don't really go to plan. Bale and his mate are clearly trapped by the economic no-man's land created by the Bush administration and their like so, whilst they are to some extent the agents of their own misfortune, they are also victims of a society that readily sends working class people to war and gives less than a shit about them when they get home. The performances are all top notch and the story heartbreaking. See it.