Archive for March, 2011

Hooray hooray

Yes, it’s the Young Knives’ new single, ‘Love My Name’. The first time I listened to it, I didn’t like it, and this feeling made me scared and worried. Second time, I thought it might have something about it. Third time, I got it. There’s no sign of the alleged Rn’B feel they claimed would feature on their imminent third album (but they are cheeky monkeys so could have been having everyone on), it’s more choppy guitars but with a few doses of electronic wibblings thrown in.

What is not to love?

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Farley Granger

I have just read that Farley Granger recently died at the age of 85.

I’ve only seen one of his films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), in which Granger (l) stars alongside John Dall (r), and the peerless James Stewart (centre). This is a gripping film, full of tension, intellectualism, and repressed homoeroticism between the three characters pictured here (fairly remarkable stuff for 1948). Granger puts in a wonderful performance of a timid, nerve-wracked man, struggling with his conscience having carried out something he can barely believe he was capable of.

Oddly, the main reason I watched this film in the first place was as a result of an episode of (some of) The League of Gentlemen’s Pyschoville which paid homage to the film, despite being a Hitchcock fan in any case. Odder still, I’ve been intending to write about The League of Gentlemen for a long time but haven’t done yet. On reflection, this isn’t odd, just procrastination.

Speaking of procrastination, watching Granger’s other most notable film appearance, in Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train, is one of many, many things on my ever growing (and rarely tackled) mental to-do list.

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Grabbed, devoured, and kicked in the showers

1985’s Meat Is Murder, The Smiths’ second studio album, was quite a departure from their eponymous debut, both lyrically and musically. The debut album was let down by poor production, resulting in recordings which sound wafer-thin in places, and meaning that the Hatful of Hollow compilation is in some ways a better representation of their earliest work.
 
By the time of the second album however, the greater force and direction of the music was done full justice in its engineering. The prominence of Andy Rourke (bass) and Mike Joyce (drums) are particularly noticeable, and set a thoroughly concrete foundation for Johnny Marr’s melodies. While his familiar ‘jingle-jangle’ is still the defining element, Marr embraces other elements, most notably funk, showing a leap forward in his writing.
 
Morrissey, meanwhile, leaves behind most of the callow, reticent, passive persona of the first album (the girl-shy boy of Pretty Girls Make Graves, the impotent despair of Miserable Lie), and reveals a strident sense of assertiveness and outrage.
 
The Headmaster Ritual opens the album by railing against violent authority figures, rejecting education and life, while I Want The One I Can’t Have sees Moz as the frustrated lover, imploring his unwitting target to call round when they have grown up a little – this song begs more questions of his own sexuality than it gives answers. What She Said is another song which can be comfortably interpreted in any number of ways, in which a bookish, resigned girl is brought to life by a scally from the Wirral.
 
We see a little of the frailer Morrissey is on That Joke Isn’t Funny Any More (reputed to be Marr’s personal Smiths highlight), and the beautiful Well I Wonder, where even in the throws of death, defiance persists: “Gasping, but somehow still alive / This is the fierce last stand of all I am”.
 
Both Rusholme Ruffians (tainted at least a little in the knowledge that it, um, ‘borrows heavily’ from one of Victoria Wood’s piano sing-alongs) and Nowhere Fast (with its early pop at the monarchy, and wonderful train-track rhythm) contemplate life mundanities, whether the casual aggression of a northern fairground or a stultifying life of marvelling at the most basic of domestic appliances.
 
The album closes with Barbarism Begins At Home and Meat Is Murder, Morrissey decrying cruelty to children and the eating of animals. Both tracks feature unusual aural effects, from the singer’s own yelps, to the cries of distressed cows interspersed with the sound of the abattoir knife. These last two bring the album to an appropriate end, being songs of protest and outrage.
 
If I can come over all pushy for a moment, ignore the acclaim for The Queen Is Dead being The Smiths’ best album: it isn’t, this is. Meat Is Murder is their tightest, most focused, most ‘joined-up’ album. It’s not perfect, but finding the last two tracks to be over-long isn’t too bad as far as criticisms go, and it manages to avoid nearly all whimsy (Victoria Wood pastiches notwithstanding). When writing these album pieces, I generally focus on a select number of key songs from the album; I had to write about all of these (excluding How Soon Is Now?, which was added to re-issues of the album and therefore doesn’t count. The album also sounds better without it).
 
This is simply an outstanding piece of work. You’ll have spotted I’ve linked to every single song mentioned above (including those not on the album) bar one, and here it is, perhaps my all-time number one (including a video featuring Moz in several lovely blouses):

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Tony time

Tony was nothing if not a people person:

..Yeah, we’ve met them, we interacted with them, and we zapped them..

..Getting all those users together, from their remote geographical locations, it’ll be hell on wheels..

..I keep having to dish out mini-bollockings..

..He hides behind his workload. I don’t mind people saying “Tony, I’m shit deep”, but don’t piss me about..

..I’m frightening you aren’t I? You’re not a process man, I am..

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A book at bedtime (5)

Le Ventre de Paris by Emile Zola (1873)

This is a novel in which Paris’ indoor market, Les Halles, becomes the ‘belly’ of the title, and the French capital itself is painted as an unforgiving city in which self-interest is paramount.

Our hero, Florent, arrives in town on the back of a horse and cart which is bringing a stall’s-worth of turnips to the market. After years’ imprisonment on an island off French Guyana, mistaken for a political dissident, he finds his step-brother, Quenu, now something of a master butcher, and sister-in-law, Lisa, of Zola’s notorious Macquart clan. They take him in under the cover of being a distant cousin. Although hugely intimidated by the coarse, brash women of Les Halles (not to mention his own anti-authoritarian instincts), Florent takes a job as an inspector in the market. In his spare time he begins to develop an ineffectual, amateurish socialist plot against the Second Empire – Lisa’s bourgeois self-interest takes hold, and she denounces him to the police, whereupon he is arrested and deported. Again.

This is generally considered to be one of Zola’s second division novels, but features several striking elements which raise it deservedly amongst the classic French works of its kind.

Firstly, as with Germinal’s mine (Le Voreux) and La Bête Humaine’s train (La Lison), Les Halles transcend their man-made limitations to become a living, breathing character in the novel. Emblematic of Paris’ imminent ruin, the belly of the capital is more important than its heart or its brain (of which there are no signs); all working-class life is seen to revolve around Les Halles: disputes are settled with fist-fights, clumsy teenage romances are consummated on makeshift beds of duck feathers, and life itself comes to an end courtesy of a lump of stone to the back of the head. 

Meanwhile, the novel contains Zola’s perhaps most famous single passage of prose, a description of entering a cheese shop and being overwhelmed by a multitude of pungent odours, also referred to as The Cheese Symphony (no, really).

And finally, we have the ever-present symbolism of a bitter struggle throughout the book. The most common English translation of the title is ‘The Fat and The Thin’, reflecting the ongoing battle between ‘les gras et les maigres’ – there is little or no subtlety about this from Zola: Florent (the exiled, starved, socialist) is painfully thin and barely eats, while Lisa and Quenu are portrayed as human mountains of flesh, compared favourably with the glistening charcuterie they sell. Quenu’s love for his brother is ultimately undermined by his wife’s petty aspirations - indeed, ‘le tout Paris’ has no time for the poor or the miserable: les maigres.

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Will I find myself in therapy?

I’ve alluded to the Young Knives’ contemplation of mortality here before. They do it particularly well on the back-to-back tracks Coastguard and Loughborough Suicide on their first album.
 
The first of these sees them chastising a coastguard for carelessness resulting in a young girl’s death (“..are you familiar? / High tides are not peculiar”), using the surprisingly haunting image of a domestic table to hammer the point home: this being home to first an unused yellow coat, then the coastguard’s sorry face, and finally an empty dining place. Far from being maudlin, this is a dark, driven track, with vocals alternating between near-screaming and clinical, matter-of-fact statements (one of which led to me to learn a new word, the adjective ‘benthic’).
 
Loughborough Suicide takes us from under the sea to up in the air, contemplating a leap from a tall tower. In Loughborough. Obviously. Resignation permeates the song, as well as a nice sense of procrastination (“Well it’s cold, cold, cold / And I think I’m going to die in here / Considering Loughborough suicide / Which I’m definitely going to do this year”). The tone is lighter than Coastguard, reflecting an uncertainty in the lyrics (year abroad, psychoanalysis, death from a great height… oh decisions, decisions).
 
Both videos are below, while here you can access a map of the Loughborough Carillon: I hear it offers marvellous spring-time views.

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Glanford Brigg Power Station

Near Brigg, North Lincolnshire

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West Burton Power Station

Near Retford, Nottinghamshire

Note how the eight cooling towers are staggered to minimise their visual impact on the landscape. Testament to 1960s planning.

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French twin set

A few days ago, it was the 20th anniversary of the death of Serge Gainsbourg (and if that isn’t an appropriately respectful sentence to remember the passing of a cultural legend, frankly, I don’t know what is. Seriously, I don’t know what is).

Bonnie and Clyde, an album with on/off collaborator Brigitte Bardot, which he describes as songs of love: “amour combat, amour passion, amour physique, amour fiction”, features a remarkable title track. Gainsbourg romanticises the lives of the two protagonists, painting a picture of two lovers defending each other and their own actions (“they claim we kill in cold blood… we simply need to silence those who scream”) in the face of a society which is to blame for ruining the young Clyde and turning him from “un gars honnête, loyale et droit” (‘an honest, loyal, straight-up kid’) into a callous killer. This is set against rich, hypnotic music, in keeping with the compelling, self-assured nature of the lyrics; a special mention has to go to the bizarre, distracting, but somehow integral, background whooping. Needless to say, the pair of them pull this off while looking impossibly stylish.

Gainsbourg knows full well what he’s up to, and tells us as much in his introduction to the song (itself based on a poem reported to have been written by Bonnie Parker). I especially like the knowing, accusatory nod of “ça vous a plu, hein?”, directed at the same society which (of course) both caused and condemned Barrow’s actions…

Vous avez lu l’histoire de Jesse James (You’ve read the story of Jesse James)
Comment il vécut, comment il est mort (How he lived, how he died)
Ça vous a plu, hein? (You liked it, didn’t you?)
Vous en demandez encore (You asked for more)
Et bien, ecoutez l’histoire (Well, listen to the story)
De Bonnie and Clyde (Of Bonnie and Clyde)

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Mister Eddy

It’s probably fair to say that French music has, understandably, never had much of an impact on the collective British consciousness (you’ll note I’m assuming such a thing exists), and I would guess that songs such as Joe Le Taxi and Je t’aime… Moi non plus are still the flag-bearers.

Pushed a bit further, the nation might have half-heard of some guy called Johnny Hallyday (but none of his songs), probably along with the tag ‘the French Elvis’ (indeed no less a source than Wikipedia mentions this in its very first paragraph on him). For what it’s worth, I’ve always thought of Hallyday as the French Cliff Richard (still alive, just, and a national treasure, of sorts), but for one small yet important difference in their lives – whereas Cliff found God, Johnny found women and drugs.

A French singer I particularly like, and hence am sharing him with you, dear reader(s?), is Eddy Mitchell. Born Claude Moine (sorry to surprise you about him having changed his name) in 1940s Paris, his first steps into music were with Les Chausettes Noires (The Black Socks), before setting off on a hugely successful solo career, which began with his first album in 1963 and continues to this day (he has promised that 2010′s Come Back won’t be his last yet).

As with most of his contemporaries, Eddy was and still is hugely influenced by American blues and rock and roll – Les Chausettes Noires had hits with covers of Be-Bop-A-Lula and Johnny B. Goode (‘Eddie sois bon’), while his 2006 album, Jambalaya, was a declaration of love and sympathy for New Orleans, then recently hit by hurricane Katrina. He is well-regarded among his American idols, with Little Richard and Dr. John contributing to Jambalaya (Monsieur Hallyday also makes an appearance, and is a close friend of Eddy’s). His long-time (essentially, since forever) collaborator is Pierre Papadiamandis – in a kind of reverse Elton John/Bernie Taupin arrangement, Eddy writes the lyrics and takes the glory, while Pierre composes the music.

On a personal level, I first heard Eddy thanks to the TV being on in the background one day while I was living in France. One of his contemporary hits was playing (it was either J’aime pas les gens heureux (I Don’t Like Happy People) or Ton homme de paille (Your Straw Man – watch out for the ubiquitous Johnny Hallyday at the start of that clip), but I’ll be utterly damned if I can remember which), and it instantly drew my attention for its combination of airplay-friendly music, distinctively smooth-yet-gravelly vocals, and lyrics which over time came to reveal a beautiful melancholy. Soon after I was on a car journey with a colleague, who had just bought the new Eddy Mitchell album (1999′s Les nouvelles aventures d’Eddy Mitchell) and played it in full two or three times on the journey. I was hooked, and the album, on which the listener is taken on an aural journey through Memphis, Hollywood and New Orleans, finishing in Paris, is still a favourite of mine.

Eddy retains a special place in the heart of the French public – who refer to him as Mr Eddy or, less obviously, Schmoll - for his distinctive crooning voice (as in the all-time classic, heart-breaking Couleur menthe a l’eau), and his frequent anti-authority views. This latter was perhaps best evidenced with his hit Pas de boogie woogie, critical of the Catholic church’s attitude to pre-marital sex. In 1970s France, this was a bold stance to take and led to no little criticism.

Eddy, for me, is the epitome of effortless, classic French cool. One day, I will finally get round to exploring his successful film career.

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