The clock's running down on another Gregorian calendar year. Mine was O.K., how about yourself? The news seemed to be dominated by the usual coverage of various wars, natural disasters and of course, climate change. Some important stories were overlooked, because apparently people need to know if Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan will be wearing underwear or if Paris Hilton will be let out of jail within three days of her next arrest. Here's a list of some of those stories (I tried to find a list that wasn't very America-centric--and that one appeared to be adequate). In the interest of fairness, or maybe just a laugh (I haven't decided) here's a list of stories that American conservatives deem important and overlooked. Read 'em and chuckle...or weep. On to other matters...
I admit to not being the heppest cat on the block. I don't consult NME or Pitchfork or even Last-fm to find out what the uber-cool kids are listening to these days. I didn't buy that many new albums this year--I mostly strayed around checking out the backwaters of progressive music--most of the artists being gleaned from Bradley Smith's BillBoard Guide To Progressive Music, first published in 1998. There seem to be some glaring flaws in the book, but still, it's inspired me to check out music that I would've overlooked otherwise--even if "progressive" as a genre may or may not exist (it does for me--but that's wholly subjective). Books on prog music and even prog-rock seem pretty thin on the ground these days, so I'll take what I can get. Here's a few sounds that I enjoyed in C.E. 2007 (in no particular order):
- Richard Hawley - Lady's Bridge: In Hawley's soundscape it seems to be perpetually 1961. Psychedelia hasn't happened, punk hasn't happened, no prog-rock, new-wave, no-wave, heavy metal, hair-metal or electronica. The feckin' Beatles haven't even happened yet. He lives by the code of Buddy Holly and even wears a pair of horn-rimmed Holly-esque specs, in case you really miss the point. His Sheffield-tinged rockabilly is just fine by me, though. The guitars have just the right amount of reverb and his baritone voice compliments it all. This time around, he does sneak in a tiny bit of drone-rock with the gorgeous The Sea Calls, a more beautiful tune I've not heard this year--excepting the "Lady's Bridge" closer, The Sun Refused To Shine.
- Throbbing Gristle - Part Two: The Endless Not: 25 years after they first split and formed many side projects (Coil, Chris & Cosey, Psychic TV, etc.)--the original T.G. reformed for a few gigs. Their legend and influence possibly eclipsed their actual recorded output, but that didn't stop them from reconvening in a studio (or three) and coaxing some more uneasy tunes out of their synths and guitars. The result, while not exactly on the experimental bleedin' edge--what their 70s records pointed toward, shows that these 50-somethings are still far more out-there than most of their contemporaries (hello Buzzcocks, Sex Pistols and various re-formed prog and metal bands). Rabbit Snare even ventures into jazz territory, albeit with a sly, winking context. One of the actual worthwhile reunions this year.
- Arcade Fire - The Neon Bible: It was always going to be tough following up Funeral. They dodged the follow-up expectations somewhat by releasing an EP between the two full-lengths. I think they've fared rather well with "Neon Bible". It does seem a bit more bombastic in places--but there's no denying solid tunes like (Antichrist Television Blues), Keep The Car Running and the subdued title track. It'll be interesting to hear what they do next, now that they've cleared the sophomore slump.
- Porcupine Tree - Fear Of A Blank Planet: Steven Wilson & Co. returned this year with their follow-up to the somewhat lacklustre 2005 album, Deadwing. The results this time around are a lot more satisfying. Sort-of a cross between Rush's (Alex Lifeson has a guest spot on one of the tracks) Tom Sawyer and an Opeth record--the lyrics take on the topic of media over-saturation of today's yoof. Wilson doesn't judge, but only presents the situation as he sees it, though it must be said, his view seems a bit bleak. "Fear Of.." also contains some of the most bludgeoning riffs the Tree have played to this date. I saw them live on the latest tour and the amps were cranked up to 11. A thought-provoking, well-crafted album. An EP of "Fear Of.." left-overs called Nil Recurring was released last month.
- Super Furry Animals - Hey Venus!: Wales' finest were also back this year and also following up a 2005 release. While P. Tree improved their game, S.F.A. seemed to be running in place with "Hey Venus!". It's more of their trademark quirk-pop that they've perfected on their last two or three records. While they will always manage to create 3-4 minute wonders, this one, as a whole, just didn't have the jaw-dropping effect that Rings Around The World did when I first heard that. For the slight disappointment, though, "Hey Venus!" still seems to be better than 95% of the crap clogging up the charts, both indie and mainstream.
- The Genesis SACD/DVD series: Atlantic, or Sony--or whomever owns the rights to Genesis's back catalogue, finally got round to re-releases in a really good format, with an extra DVD of audio and video treats. I've got the Wind & Wuthering and A Trick Of The Tail editions (I couldn't see spending the money on Duke or Abacab) and they sound pretty frickin' amazing, even on the shit stereo I've got at the moment. Inexplicably, the reissues have covered the years 1976-1982 so far, instead of starting with Trespass or Nursery Cryme from 1970/'71. The next set, 1971-1974, is due out soon. I keep checking Amazon, but nothing has appeared so far--ah well, something to look forward to.
- The Steve Hillage re-masters: I think Virgin reissued Hillage's catalogue on disc back in the mid-90s on it's budget Caroline imprint. They sounded O.K., but the new set sound much better--plus, I'm a sucker for 'restored artwork' and bonus tracks. I particularly recommend Fish Rising, L and Rainbow Dome Musick.
- Pink Floyd - The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn (40th Anniversary edition): EMI has paid a fitting tribute to the late Syd Barrett by releasing a 3-disc version of his near-singular psychedelic triumph. Sure, the other Floyds play a crucial role--but this is Syd's baby all the way. The first disc is the long-deleted mono mix, the second is another stereo remaster (which does seem to sound better than the 1994 re-issue) and the third disc contains all of the 1967 singles, plus a couple of Interstellar Overdrive out-takes. The discs are housed in an oblong case that appears as a cloth book and there's a colour reproduction of one of Syd's art-school project books in an interior pocket. Storm Thorgerson (one of the founders of the Hipgnosis album cover-art collective) returns once again to design the package and thankfully, they've kept Vic Singh's iconic photo on the front. I know there's a lot of quibbles (even by myself) about what they could have included on the bonus disc--but overall, I think this version of "Piper" is the tops!
Musical Monstrosities--A few things I wasn't so impressed with this past year:
Irrelevant band reunions: I don't know about you, but I wasn't exactly breathlessly waiting for The Police to get back together, or for David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen to bury their years-sharpened hatchets. Genesis also trod the boards once again. I was actually a bit excited about that one--'till I found out that neither Steve Hackett nor Peter Gabriel would be involved. Then it just seemed like more Phil Collins money-grubbing (but while it's easy to target ol' Phil--Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford went along with the idea, so they could be money-grubbing just as much). I definitely wasn't going to pay to sit in an audience full of Patrick Batemans (not the serial-killing bit, just their love of 80s/90s Genesis), listening to Invisible Touch or I Can't Dance. I saw them in 1992, only because I was hoping (really really hoping) to at least hear The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway or maybe Robbery Assault & Battery. Instead, the covered their progressive period in a 20-minute medley..I bet they didn't even bother this time around. Foxtrot? What's that?
The worst one of the year, though, it seems to me--was The New Cars. That's right, The New Cars....WTF??! With Todd Rundgren in the line-up...an even bigger WTF????? Seriously, was there someone out there (besides a cousin of mine, whom I bet was dead excited about this and the 80s Genesis reunion) who was clamouring for a Cars reunion? Was there someone saying to themselves, "If only I could hear Drive or You Might Think in a live setting again..I could die happy."? Also, how bad is Rundgren's cred these days, if he's involved in this? Ric Ocasek seems to have had the sense to avoid it like the plague--good on him.
The Rise Of Amy Winehouse: I remember when her first album came out a couple of years ago--she didn't make much of a splash. Her backing band played sub-par jazz and her vocals seemed really marble-mouthed. She goes away, has a Motown make-over and suddenly, she's everyone's fave "new" singer. I know, re-inventing yourself to meet with mainstream success isn't necessarily a news-flash--Madonna's been doing it for 25 years now. Yeah, O.K., Rehab is a catchy tune and that Zutons cover does sound a bit better than the original. Only, her time in the limelight now seems to be taken up by various tabloid fodder like spousal punch-ups, drugs troubles and emotional turmoil. I'd be a lot more empathetic if it were someone of the calibre of Billie Holiday, but Winehouse seems to think her own diva status has been cemented already. Erm...not quite, Amy. I certainly wouldn't want to see her die young, but that doesn't mean I want to hear about her problems every fucking day, either. Ah well, at least it meant that Pete Doherty and Lily Allen were out of the headlines a lot--so thanks for that, Amy.
The continued presence of 'music'-based contest shows: It was pretty bad with X-Factor and Pop Idol and American Idol clogging up TV time that could've been better spent showing documentaries of actual notable musicians, but then those programming geniuses decided to have contests for roles in crappy Andrew Lloyd Webber-produced musicals. They had one to find the Maria role in his ghastly revival of The Sound Of Music and another for Joseph And His Technicolour Chuck Wagon...or whatever. The worst bit was showing close-ups of Webber's dessicated mug every week and then jump-cutting to Graham Norton's clown act...and those were just the adverts. Urgh!
I didn't see any films in the cinema this past year, apart from Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (see my mini-review in the previous post). There didn't seem to be that much that warranted heading into Oxford and blowing £10 on. I was vaguely interested in Frank Miller's 300, but I never got round to seeing it. I like the look of the film, the bleached-out colours and darkened skies--but did the Battle Of Thermopylae need a CGI update? Maybe not--and Miller's somewhat questionable attitudes about the Middle East given in an NPR interview discouraged me a bit. I may add it to the rental list sometime. I also heard good things about Knocked Up, but again, didn't catch it in the cinema--another one for the rental list. The critics seemed to jizzing themselves over Atonement--but I couldn't be bothered. The Illusionist is already on the rental list, so I'll be seeing that in the near future and I'd like to check out the film about notorious hoaxster Clifford Irving, neatly titled The Hoax--it's rumoured to be one of the best things Richard Gere has done in years, though that's not saying too much, I suppose, considering some of the dreck he's made lately. I rented Pan's Labyrinth and quite enjoyed it and I also finally watched F For Fake, Orson Welles' last great film. You can see my review in the archives of the Only Maybe blog. What didn't I like? Lame sequels, brain-dead comedy, cheesy romance flicks...about 98% of the films released this year by the major studios, I think.
I read quite a bit this past Gregorian calendar year and there's a few things I really enjoyed. I was thoroughly surprised by David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which was nominated for a Booker Prize a few years ago. I was expecting some watered-down tosh that would appeal to most of the John and Jane Q Publics out there. It turned out to be an intriguing book with a kind of accordian-type storyline. I won't go into detail in case you are planning on reading it, but I found it very entertaining. I also read Mitchell's follow-up to "Cloud Atlas", Black Swan Green, which, while not as clever, still held my attention while making me remember back to when I was on the cusp of 13. The story is set in Britain, but the themes of being on the outer edge of the 'cool kids' group, the mysteries of girls and falling into lockstep with the family political leanings seem to be universal. I also read a few Philip K Dick books--Confessions Of A Crap Artist, Martian Time-Slip and Dr. Bloodmoney. "Martian.." and "Dr. Bloodmoney" are from PKD's mid-60s period--he's got his own voice, but he still seems to be defining it. The elements are there...the elasticity of "reality", the multi-character intertwinings..but they don't gell as well as in say, Ubik or A Scanner Darkly. "Confessions..." is a bit of a rarity in PKD's bibliography--a sort-of 'realist' novel. It takes place in the very early 60s in California. The story involves a man who suffers from a kind of autism and his self-involved sister, who is married to an overly pragmatic businessman. The plot pivots through a number of episodes which strain the various relationships, some very tragic. I really enjoyed "Confessions...", mainly because I was expecting it be "be" one thing and it turned out almost completely contrary to my notions. I finally read James Joyce's A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man and a book of Mark Twain short stories that I've been meaning to get to for a long time. Mike Oldfield's autobiography, Changeling, was not exactly a light-hearted read (due to Oldfield's rememberances of fighting with anxiety for most of his life)--but it does give a glimpse into his very private world. Unfortunately, if you're looking for a lot of details on his recording techniques--you'll come off a bit disappointed, as he really only talks about recording the original Tubular Bells with any verve. Donovan's biography, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man, is also a decent read, if you can forgive "The Don" his little conceits (according to him, he invented 'Celtic-rock', 'world music', 'New Age', was responsible for bringing Led Zeppelin together and a host of other huge events in music). It's a nice portrait of someone caught up in the near-epicentre of the craziness of 'the 60s', though, and for that seems worthy. There's a bunch of other titles--but that would take a post in itself. Maybe next year, I'll devote a whole one just to books.
THINGS I ENJOYED IN 2007 C.E.
The third series of The Mighty Boosh, the 1969 Fairport Convention line-up reunion at Cropredy, our holiday in Shropshire, joining the Maybe Logic Academy and 'meeting' all the groovy folk there, the Angel Tech course at the MLA (and reading the 'Angel Tech' book), Facebook, all the cool music I d/l'ed from Soulseek, those two weeks of nice weather in the summer, the birthday meal at the Pink Giraffe, the e-mails and cards from my fam and friends.
THINGS I DIDN'T ENJOY IN 2007
My recurring anxiety spells, the nightly coverage of the Iraq/Afghanistan debacle, the TSOG on the rampage once again, the summer rains, lame 'celebrity news stories', people still using the phrases "You go, girl!" and "Pimp my (insert personal possession here)", Singing Bear being very very poorly for most of the year.
R.I.P.--SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE...
...and any others I may have forgot. Well, that's your lot - all the best for 2008 - see you soon!