Odds and Sods

March 10, 2011

It’s been a quiet week on the blog. I’m still not over a cold which has transmogrified into an ear infection, and Fairer Votes campaigning is taking up more and more of my time. This weekend I plan a mammoth blog-writing session, but for now here’s a few things I’ve found interesting.

1. I’ve been reading The J-Curve by Ian Bremmer, which is brilliant. More on that at a later date. For now, I want to share with you a fact I found when reading it. 

In 2005 China launched its version of American Idol. It was called the “Mengniu Yoghurt Super Girl Contest”, apparently after the brand of yoghurt that sponsored the show.

What a fantastic name for a show! I don’t know about you, but I feel a much happier, more fulfilled person for knowing that fact.

2. David Cameron was asked on the One Show “how do you sleep at night”?

It’s brilliant telly. The gasp from Alex Jones, and the fact you can see her hands on head reflected behind Cameron, is great entertainment. Her expression clearly distracted Cameron from answering the question too. Marvellous.

3. An MP played air guitar in the Commons this week.

Apparently it’s all the Labour Party’s fault.

“I think this shows Labour’s lack of substance on defence these days, if their only line of attack is about the subconscious finger tapping of a backbench MP,” said Mr Evans.

It was just “subconscious finger tapping” apparently.

4. I’m slightly addicted to this song:

5. Also there is news on what disgraced former MP (gosh it feels good to write that) Phil Woolas is doing now. He’s written a chapter in “The Prime Ministers Who Never Were”, due out soon, about J.R. Clynes.

Secondly, there’s this from Monday:

[L]ast week, Mr Woolas was spotted outside a Westminster pub.

Eagle-eyed Richard Kemp, leader of the Liberal Democrat Group at the Local Government Association and Inside Housing columnist, said: ‘The last time I saw Phil, he was standing outside a bar with a fag hanging out of his mouth and a pint in his hand, and today I saw him with a fag hanging out of his mouth and a pint in his hand and I thought I’d find out what on earth he was up to’.

The answer? Apparently Mr Woolas is selling feed-in tariffs to councils and social landlords. However, no renewable energy firm has seen fit to list him on their website, and he wasn’t contactable to discuss his new job. Odd, that.

So now you know.

Musical Mondays (8) James Keelaghan

November 1, 2010

The second of my folk gigs that I’m writing about (and I’m seeing Ralph McTell tonight, so it’ll soon be a third) is that of the marvellous James Keelaghan, a Canadian singer-songwriter. I knew very little of his work before  the gig, but knew some through my family, as my parents and brother are all massive fans of his.

Keelaghan read history at university, and many of his songs refer to past events. One in particular is a favourite song of mine. “Hillcrest Mine” refers to Canada’s biggest mining disaster, in June 1914, which killed 189 people. As Keelaghan says in the video below, it’s not actually about the disaster itself. There are quite a few miners on my Dad’s side of the family, so this is a really emotive song for me:

It was two 45 minute sets that Keelaghan performed along with bassist David Woodhead, who’s album is also worth checking out, incidentally. Much of the material was from his last album, House of Cards. This is, on the whole, a solid album, but the title track is a stroke of genius. For its full glory, see the version on Keelaghan’s myspace page. Here’s a live version, in which you get to hear some more of Keelaghan’s typically dry, witter crowd patter:

James Keelaghan is, then, another folky you should check out if you like literate, story-telling songwriting.

Musical Mondays (7): Review of Phil Beer Live

October 11, 2010

I have talked before in Musical Mondays of Show of Hands, a truly marvellous folk duo (though really a trio now) from Devon. One half (third?) was playing a solo gig at the Rock in Maltby, which is a former Wesleyan Church that now plays host to a musical night every Friday.

It was great to see Phil on stage after spending some time in hospital earlier this year. He writes very few songs, and instead specialises in reinterpreting both English traditional folk songs and more modern American songs. These included Steve Earle’s The Devil’s Right Hand and this cracking version of Bruce Springsteen’s Youngstown:

Beer is a child of the 1960s and lots of the music he played in two fifty minute sets are from that era. I really liked his version of the Hollies’ Bus Stop, for instance, while this short Tom Lehrer ditty was a favourite of mine. This song reminded me that I really need to listen to more of Tom Lehrer’s stuff, since I share his warped sense of humour.

He is best known for his fiddle playing, and the following video shows why:

Phil Beer is a very genial performer and a very talented instrumentalist. One review I read of his said that he could make a decent sound of a cheese roll. I don’t doubt that. He is touring now with Show of Hands for the next couple of months, so if you haven’t seen them live before, make sure you do.

Musical Mondays (6) – 5 Political Songs

October 4, 2010

The theme for this week’s Musical Mondays was inspired by an article of Dorian Lynskey’s that appeared in The Guardian last week, entitled “Down with Bono-bashing”:

Armed with a robust ego and a strong faith, the singer can weather the blows. But any young band with political ideals might well compare his experience with that of a band like the Rolling Stones, who moved their business to the Netherlands but without inspiring a fraction of the ire, and take the path of least resistance. Bono’s activism is an ongoing experiment to see how far fame can be used to lobby for progressive causes, and to what degree a musician can act on principles rather than merely voice them. If he is discredited, then so is the whole endeavour.

As most of the commenters have pointed out (and let’s face it, an article defending Bono on CIF is a bit like tossing a cow into a pool full of piranhas) it’s not the fact that Bono is political that annoys most of his detractors. The problem with Bono is his hypocrisy. There’s nothing wrong with putting on concerts highlighting the plight of the world’s poorest and encouraging people to donate: in fact, it’s a very commendable thing to do. But when you then refuse to pay tax, or pay to send your hat by first-class plane, you come across as a monumental hypocrite.

Still, here are five political songs by people who aren’t monumental hypocrites (or at least aren’t anywhere as hypocritical as Bono). Also, they’re far better songs than Bono could ever hope to record:

1) Billy Bragg, Waiting for the Great Leap Forward

This is about Bragg’s life as a protest singer: being interviewed by fanzines, going to picket lines, getting on blacklists. There are, obviously, many more songs that I could have picked of his, but this is my favourite Billy Bragg song.

2) Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Oliver’s Army

I had to choose an Elvis song, and this is obviously the one to pick. It is perhaps the greatest song ever, and it’s certainly in my top ten anyway, with a wonderful bastardised-cousin-of-Dancing-Queen-piano-intro by Steve Nieve and some wonderful, biting lyrics. Because I have a twisted sense of humour, I find it very amusing that David Miliband chose this song as one of his Desert Island discs on Labour Uncut. Given that the song is about sending young, uneducated Britons to fight, kill and be killed in wars that they have no real idea why they are fighting there, I find Mili D’s choosing of this song bitterly ironic.

3) Robert Wyatt, Shipbuilding

I’ve cheated and chosen another Elvis Costello sung, but done by a different artist. I prefer Costello’s later “cover”, which has a wondrous solo by Chet Baker, but this original is also excellent. Like Oliver’s Army, it’s an “anti-war” song. There’s no way I can do justice to the lyrics, just listen:

4) Tom Waits, Road to Peace

The only time that Waits has gone political in his entire career, and it was worth waiting for. It begins with what seem like news reports, and ends with something that could be a Robert Fisk column, and is one of his best songs. Makes a pretty decent point, too.

5) Randy Newman, Short People

A song showing Newman’s twisted sense of humour to the extreme. Naturally, everyone thought he was being serious when he wrote that “We don’t want no Short People around here”. Sigh. He is making a serious point on how ludicrous discrimination is, in his usual idiosyncratic way.

Musical Mondays (5) – Review of Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby Live

September 27, 2010

On my holiday in London last week I had this conversation about twice a day, on average:

Them: What are you doing later this week?
Me: Well, I’m seeing Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby on Friday.
Them: Oh. (Pause) Never heard of them.

So I’ll assume for the purposes of this review that you know nothing about either artist. Wreckless Eric was one of the original signings of Stiff Records and is the dictionary definition of a cult artist. His most famous song is Whole Wide World, a great pop song that was used in the film Stranger than Fiction. Amy Rigby is my favourite female songwriter, having produced a string of cracking albums that you can find on Spotify (start with the compilation 18 Again). Now the pair are married, have made one album of originals and one of covers that has just been released, and live in France when they are not touring.

The bulk of their live show at the Lexington in London mainly consisted of songs from the two albums they made together. Songs like Here Comes My Ship, Another Drive-in Saturday, Bobblehead Doll and their cover of I Still Miss Someone made me listen to Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby again yesterday (check it out on Spotify). Having never really got into it, seeing the songs live made me want to listen to their album again, and I really enjoyed it. Their voices gel surprisingly well, considering they are very different: I love Amy Rigby’s voice, which is powerful but with a hint of frailty, whereas Wreckless Eric sounds like Billy Bragg has been gargling with broken glass. The drum loops take some getting used to, but they are used well. One problem in the live show was that Eric sings much louder than Amy Rigby, and sometimes overshadowed her when they sang together, but this is one minor gripe in an excellent show.

Both seemed happy to be in London rather than in Hyde, where they had been earlier in the week. Neither went into much detail, but this is what Amy wrote on her blog about it:

The promoter called and said the pub had been broken into the night before. He jokingly said maybe that would bring more people out, so they could get a look at the crime scene. We should have known right there it was going to be a tough night. From the barbed wire and old tires around the junkyard entrance next door, to the dogshit scattered across the astro-turfed pub “garden”, to the load-in up a wet metal fire escape because the police were busy dusting the inside stairs for fingerprints, to the leftover scraps of astroturf covering the surface of the stage, to the panicky soundman, to the greasy yet sticky surface of everything in the place – it was hard not to feel depressed. You know you’re in trouble when you look to the resident heckler for affirmation.

The upstairs room at the Lexington was packed, and – naturally –  I was the youngest in the room by about twenty years. The woman in front of me had obviously been dragged their by her husband, who kept shooting her nervous glances to see if she was enjoying it. I’m not sure she was: she only applauded three times, during three of Amy Rigby’s songs (interestingly enough). They were Are We Ever Going to Have Sex Again, Don’t Ever Change and the opening track to Amy’s last solo album, Like Rasputin. All are wonderful songs in very different ways, so perhaps we should just admire her taste. Here’s them both playing Don’t Ever Change:

I knew very little of Wreckless Eric’s solo stuff – he’s one of the few major artists on Stiff Records whose stuff I haven’t got. On the strength of the show, I bought his albums from Stiff. No doubt the others will be accumulated soon. Reconnez Cherie has been in my head since he played it on Friday. This is their version, and posted here is the original:

The pair seem happy, relaxed and obviously have a good chemistry on stage – thankfully, or you’d fear for their marriage. This was two of the best songwriters you’ve never heard of playing together in a relaxed, joyful atmosphere. What more could you ask for?

I’m back!

September 25, 2010

After a brilliant week in London, I’m now back and will be blogging again, thesis permitting.

I went around London supported my faithful companion “Wheels”, my wonderful carrying case. Reminds me of this song:

Musial Mondays (4) – 15 Albums

September 13, 2010

There is a meme going around at the moment called 15 Albums, in which people have to name, er, 15 Albums that have stuck with them. I got tagged in this note, and here’s my list, along with a song from said album.

1) King of America, by Elvis Costello

This album was the first present my dad gave my mum. It’s therefore one of the most important items of my existence. I genuinely believe that had my parents met a couple of years earlier, and my Dad had bought her Costello’s previous album, the pretty mediocre Goodbye Cruel World instead, I probably would never have been born.

2) The Very Best of Elvis Costello

Strictly speaking, this should be the songs on “Elvis Costello: The Man” which was a VHS (remember them?) that I watched almost every day from the age of eighteen months to three years. All the eighteen songs on it are scattered throughout the two discs. As an Elvis Costello freak, I’d obviously say you should buy all his albums. But this introduction is a good way of seeing which side of him you like the most. My first thought after watching this video two decades later was, “Bloody hell, they all look really drunk”.

3) Get Happy!! by Elvis Costello and the Attractions

The last mention of Elvis Costello, I promise. This kind of obsession is inevitable when you’ve been listening to him since, well, forever. And this album is his finest hour (well, 48 minutes) which means it’s the finest album in popular music history. Check out the dancing on this video:

4) Basher: The Best of Nick Lowe

I found this gem in a charity shop for £2.99. It’s easily the best bargain I’ve ever bought. So It Goes is a wonderful breath of fresh air into anyone’s life. I was hooked on Lowe from then on. Basher is out of print now: buy Quiet Please: The New Best of Nick Lowe for a more complete introduction to the Jesus of Cool.

5) Seconds of Pleasure, Rockpile

Discovering Nick Lowe at the end of first year led me to obsessively seek out and collect any music remotely connected with him. That’s how I discovered Paul Carrack, Graham Parker, and of course Dave Edmunds and Rockpile. A Musical Mondays post on Rockpile is inevitable, and I’ll spare you from a lecture now, but I’ll just say that this is a rollickingly good album. I remember walking around campus listening to “Heart” after first year exams had finished:

5) At My Age, Nick Lowe

This album came out in 2007, towards the end of second year at university. I’m not sure if Nick Lowe has got better as he’s got older, it’s just now he’s a different kind of awesome. At My Age is a collection of wonderfully crafted songs, and here’s one of my favourites:

6) Walk On, John Hiatt

Like At My Age, this album has helped me through some pretty tough times. I was going through a particularly rough patch a couple of years ago, and Walk On – and this song especially – kept me sane:

7) The Picture, Buchanan

Buchanan are a part-time band: it’s a group of school teachers and police officers who play music in their spare time. Officially they are thought to be a “Country music” band, but the mainstream country scene in Britain ostracises them because Buchanan write their own songs: most C and W fans here would rather listen to a bar band play Willie Nelson covers all night. They’ve released three albums, of which The Picture is the best, and here’s a song from it. Check out http://www.buchananband.com for more details.

8) Vauxhall and I, Morrissey

This album always seems to get overlooked in Morrissey’s solo career; not quite sure why, because there isn’t a single bad track on it.

9) Martin Simpson, Prodigal Son

Most of the albums on this list are here because they remind me of times with friends or family. Martin Simpson’s albums are no exception. We will listen to them as we play bridge or are in the car on family outings. He’s exceptional, especially live. True Stories is a great album too, but I had to choose Prodigal Son simply for this song. I defy you to listen to it and not cry.

10) Tom Waits – SwordFishTrombones

This is the first Tom Waits album I bought, and listening to it was like entering another world. It was very different to anything I’d heard before. The funny percussion sounds, and the voice, well, I’ve not read a better description of it than this one: “like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car”.

11) Sail Away, Randy Newman

Like Tom Waits, Randy Newman opened up a new world to me. These weren’t just songs about “Girls, Girls, Girls”, these were songs about slave owners, fathers, even a monologue from God. I also share his twisted, cynical sense of humour. This is one of my favourite songs from this album, that sadly has got more grimly ironic as the decades have gone by.

12) ‘Til The Wheels Fall Off, Amy Rigby

Another of my favourite songwriters. I get the impression that Amy Rigby does little more than set her diary down to music, but what a diary it is. This is probably the best break up song ever.

13) As you were, Show of Hands

What do you mean, you haven’t seen them live? Do it, now. Go to their website, find out when they’re playing near you, and book a ticket. Just watch this song first:

14) Home and Away, Clive Gregson and Christine Collister

Two people, one angelic voice, one guitar playing maestro, one brilliant acoustic album.

15) Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan

Like Vauxhall and I, this is an album Liam and I would often listen to whilst playing together on the Playstation, Nintendo, or whatever. It’s the only Dylan album I’ve really listened to properly. This song is my favourite from it:


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