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December 19, 2009

Christmas Number One Thoughts

It’s been happening for a few years now. Some reality TV show winner puts out a single right before Christmas, and then a bunch of people on the internet try, and eventually fail, to get another song to the number one spot instead. Most notable was last year, where to protest a cover of
Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah taking the top spot, the internet hoards tried to get a different cover of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah to number one instead.

But let us not forget that strange week a few months back where Web 2.0 and social media finally seemed to be growing some teeth. In the course of just a few days, members of Twitter both exposed a huge cover-up by oil giant Trafigura and alerted the world to the fact that Jan Moir was an unpleasant person. After that, everything went a little quiet, but now the impotent fury of the middle classes is once again manifesting itself, but this time on Facebook, a site that remains far more popular than Twitter solely on the basis that you can’t use Twitter to archive photos of your friends looking like tits for all eternity. Well, that and Farmville.

So with X Factor ready to churn out some more garbage, a Facebook group was formed with the intention of getting Rage Against The Machine’s Killing In The Name to the top spot instead, primarily because it would be funny to have a song with the word ‘fuck’ in it as Christmas number one. Things snowball. And for the first time, it looks like this might actually work. I hope it does. But I just can’t bring myself to buy the track.

There’s a couple of things fishy about the whole enterprise – firstly, both the X-Factor track and Killing In The Name are on a Sony label, meaning the proceeds from both end up in the same corporate pockets. Secondly, Simon Cowell himself started talking about the campaign which gave it more media exposure than it could ever dream of, and the kick up the arse needed to give it a real shot at working. Of course, whatever you think of the man, he’s not a fool and he didn’t do this by accident. Instead he’s purposefully created what seems to be a genuine race for number one. It means people like me, that would otherwise have let the whole thing pass them by and ignored the charts this Christmas suddenly know more than we ever want to about X-Factor (someone called Joe is doing a cover of a Hannah Montana song) and it also pretty much guarantees, with the extra media attention, that even if Joe only makes it to number two, he’ll still have out-sold last years’ X-Factor winner by a fair chunk.

But essentially I just can’t bring myself to buy Killing In The Name as I don’t really like it much. It’s a song of its time with the lyrics and meaning co-opted in to being something else. It’s early 90s shouty teen anarchy and frankly we’ve moved on since then. It’s no longer particularly edgy to shout ‘fuck’ a lot. As a friend of mine opined, if people really wanted a subversive Christmas number one they should have started a campaign to get people buying Another Rock ‘n’ Roll Christmas With all that considered, I just don’t want to be buying a song I don’t like without really thinking about it simply because my friends think I should; that’s the logic that leads to X-Factor getting 19 million viewers.

I hope it does make it though. It would be a victory for music that at least has some passion and thought behind it, even if that thought is about twenty-years too old. Personally I’m backing another horse: there’s a far less popular campaign to get the wonderful Tim Minchin’s White Wine In The Sun in to the Top 20. It’s not going to make number one, but it’s a lovely, touching, amusing piano ballad about loving Christmas despite all the cheesiness and dodgy religious connotations. Buying it won’t piss-off Simon Cowell, but it’s a great song and y’know, is actually about Christmas. Which makes it good enough for my 79p.

October 29, 2009

Why Rock Band matters

I know a lot of people reading this blog don’t care about video games, but you might find this interesting

My copy of Beatles Rock Band arrived today, to go with the dirt-cheap 360 I got yesterday. Don’t care overly for The Beatles but it’s the only way to get the far superior Rock Band 2 drums in the UK at the moment. I loved Guitar Hero on the PS2. I remember loving it as a concept with Guitar Freaks on the PS1, where all you could play was bizarre j-pop on import. It’s a fun party game, and I’m not going to deny I’ll happily spend an hour of the evening playing it on my own to try get five stars on some song or other. But there’s more to it than that.
Beatles Rock Band
Guitar Hero and Rock Band have been huge success, especially with the ‘youth’ of today, and that’s something that really matters and is really worth thinking about. It’s generalising for sure, but young people today engage with music differently to even my generation. It started with Napster, it currently ends now with Spotify and Bittorrent: there’s so much music out there, legally or otherwise, that the music collections of young people today are ridiculously huge. I’ve spoken to people that download every top 40 album, most get listened to once, if that, but they have a massive archive just sitting there. People will listen to random playlists on Spotify instead of the radio. Taken together with the loss of Top Of The Pops and Later turning shit, this has an interesting effect. Young people, these days, are exposed to far more music than we ever were. In some ways, this is a great thing. But it’s also a great loss. Remember those ‘difficult’ albums? You bought them as you loved that one single but really didn’t get the rest of the songs on the CD? But dammit we paid £12.99 for it we’re going to listen to it at least nine more times. Sometimes it turned out that it was shit all along, but many times the songs were hiding their true beauty and brilliance behind an off-putting façade that you had to work past.

But would we have done all that if we didn’t pay for it and every other song ever released was available to us? And so many young people today exist in this world of ephemeral musical tourism, never listening to a song more than once, letting the music wash over and through them but never truly engaging with it. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to be honest.

But on the other hand, there is Rock Band.

Rock Band says “you’re not going to pass this song on Hard on the first go, you’ll need at least three. And if you’re even thinking of getting five stars on it be ready to spend at least half an hour playing it over and over again.”
And suddenly these people that wouldn’t normally listen to a song twice are listening to a single track on repeat for ages in an attempt to master playing the guitar solo on a plastic instrument. They’re listening to it. They’re engaging with it. And what’s more they’re even more engaged with it than we were. When you’re playing Rock Band, it’s just you and the music. You can’t play Rock Band and cook dinner, or play Rock Band and browse the web. On harder songs it’s difficult to play Rock Band and have a conversation. All those usual distractions when you put a CD on are gone, the game demands you engage with the music.

And of course, what you are doing in the game impacts upon the music itself. Unless you’re a musician, there’ll be certain things in songs you just don’t pick up on. You won’t realise how elegant a certain guitar solo is, or spot a lovely bit of symmetry between two riffs, or a strangely different drum beat. But the Rock Band player will. Because he has to learn how to play them, albeit in an abstracted way. He’s not only now paying attention to the song, but also to it’s structure, it’s form.

I really wish I was a massive Beatles fan because if I were, Beatles Rock Band might be the single greatest thing ever. I’d be happy for years if a James Rock Band was ever released.

Yes, Rock Band is a fun game, and a laugh with mates. But it’s also an entirely new way of experiencing music, and one that stands apart from MTV-isation of modern music, of it’s relegation into a background track for our lives, one that says “no, you will fucking pay attention to these songs because music fucking well matters”.

October 24, 2009

Mitch Benn & The Distractions, Mill Arts Centre, Banbury, 6 October

Whatever you think of him, it’s fair to say what Mitch Benn is doing at the moment is something entirely unique in the UK comedy scene. And the UK music scene for that matter. Technically, it’s a comedy gig. But there’s a band, and the between song banter isn’t much more than you get from a chatty front-man. The songs are funny, but most of them are musically accomplished enough that they’d be decent songs even without the jokes. And some of them aren’t even that funny: they’re amusing and will make you smile but they’re not the sort of comedy songs that are packed full of punchlines. Not most of them anyway.

The show is also almost entirely divorced from Mitch’s ‘day job’ club sets. African Baby and a certain rock-opera cross over, but even if you saw Mitch headlining the Glee Club the other week this tour show will be an entirely different experience.

It’s taken a long time to get to this point. Mitch has being touring with the band and putting out a new album nearly every year since 2004. The early shows with the Distractions were hit-and-miss: lots of the album stuff worked brilliantly but the shows were fleshed out with awkward re-workings of solo tracks (who remembers Crap Shag – Slight Return? Exactly.). Meanwhile banter was kept to a minimum as working with a band meant sticking to a setlist and keeping things smooth. But it was a bold experiment and five years on it’s matured amazingly.

With five studio albums under his belt, Benn no longer lacks for material in this pretty hefty show that weighs in at nearly two hours. He mixes up a lot of stuff from the new album with the highlights of the old ones to create a show that never loses it’s way and is paced brilliantly.

Now I’m going to talk about the set, so forgive me as I drop in to Mitch Benn – geek mode. Yes, I’m one of them that sits at the front and mouths the words at him. The show opens in an initially disappointing way: The Interactive Song, a bonus track from Too Late To Cancel. Except it soon turns out it’s been entirely re-worked with all the gags being changed, and you get to feel smug if you know who John Cage was. From there we get a bunch of stuff from the new album, a lot of which will be familiar to Now Show listeners. I do wonder exactly how beneficial it is to Benn’s career to do the Now Show. Plenty of people go along to the shows as they’ve heard him on Radio 4, but I know plenty of others who won’t as they think he’s not very good, based on what they’ve heard on Radio 4. And the truth is a lot of his Now Show stuff is either bad or mediocre – there’s a reason that of the 60 or so tracks he’ll write for that show each year, only four or five will make the album. But you try writing three topical comedy songs every week for a few months at a time.

Anyway, we get a whole bunch of new and kind of new stuff: Love Handles mocks the fake-ness of celebrity, Motorway Food is about exactly what it says, and Not Bitter is one of those songs with a laugh every line and is all the better for it. Disgustingly In Love is an interesting one for any dedicated fans. The lyrics are different but the song is the Busted parody Don’t Release Us In To The Wild from an old Now Show episode that actually featured Mitch with the band and not a backing tape. Might sound cheap, but it’s actually great as that song had a ridiculously catchy riff but would have made absolutely no sense outside of the very specific context of the news story involved. I’d love to see If We’re All Still Here from that same episode released in some form some day. And besides Scary Weirdos was a Now Show Christmas track. Or the other way around. And now back to stuff that normal people can understand.

The first half of the show also features two songs that deserve a special mention. “Now He’s Gone” features bass/keyboard/backing-vocalist Kirsty Newton on lead vocal. This is great for three reasons: a) she’s awesome (not to mention ‘fit’ as my friend ably pointed out, like I hadn’t noticed), b) it’s a great change of pace and c) you get to see Mitch dance around the stage while playing guitar. “West End Musical” also trades lead vocals between the two of them, ending in this intricate two-way thing that is just brilliant. The fact is, not wanting to denigrate the efforts of drummer Ivan who is fantastic, the whole thing is practically a two-man show. Kirsty’s backing vocals just add so much to the whole thing (she even does the ghost noise in Macbeth) and musically it’s probably fair to say she outshines Mitch. Lucky for him she’s not as good at writing funny songs (although her own, not funny, band Siskin are worth checking out). She’s been playing with Mitch for over five years now and it shows: there’s a level of comfort and familiarity there that makes the whole thing seem so much more natural than at those early shows, and they take the piss out of each other like only friends can. It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the show without her. And she’s better on piano than Rick Wakeman. And nicer to look at. Bad call on that video.

During the interval Mitch goes off to write a song about some topics suggested by the audience. When it works, this is brilliant. I’m spoiled, having last year saw him put together a brilliant Irish jig in relation to their government underwriting the banks during the economic crisis: “Give us your money lads”… this time, not so much. It rhymes and it just about works but isn’t exactly brilliant. Then again, the fact he can come up with anything at all in 20 minutes is impressive.

The second half sees a bit more old stuff, including tracks like Beatles parody Please Don’t Release This Song given a new sense of relevance with all the re-releases. There’s a new Elvis parody (though the old one was enough, really) and semi-serious song Where Next?. I actually like all of the non-funny tracks on the albums, there’s enough now for an EP. Hmm. The show is bought to a close with (My Name Is) Macbeth before a very short gap (“It’s been too long a day to milk it”) leading in to a quick encore of Peel tribute track, A Minutes Noise. It’s a fitting way to end an awesome night.

It’s interesting to note that the ‘hit single’ Everything Sounds Like Coldplay Now is absent entirely, as is I May Just Have To Murder James Blunt, which demonstrates Mitch’s justified confidence in the material he is playing. I’d personally have liked to heard last year’s Alternative Energy Song as it’s just musically so fun, but I think that demonstrates how far this whole thing has come: that I can come out thinking “it’s a shame he didn’t do that one”.

The tour is only just starting; you can see the dates here and I really do urge you to go. It’s an entirely unique night out, an experience you just won’t get anywhere else, and for that reason alone it’s worth giving a go. It also has enough variety that there’s something there for everyone. This year I went with a friend who’s never been to a live comedy show before. Last year I went with my Dad and younger brother, the latter of which hates my taste in music and comedy. They all loved it.
And lastly thumbs up to the Mill Arts Centre in Banbury, who didn’t do what a lot of venues do when faced with a show like this and do the sound like a rock gig so you can barely hear the words. When the words are half the point. Bless you Mill Arts Centre, for having a fucking clue.

July 18, 2009

Dublin Travelogue

Chocolate Cafe
A strange thing happens when you travel somewhere with a different currency (so for us in the UK, anywhere). You might know the exchange rate, but you can’t quite do the maths exactly in your head, so when you see something you want, your brain is able to convince you that it’s a bit cheaper than it is. It automatically rounds down, to make you feel better about it.

Thing is, the current exchange rate of Euros to Sterling is around 1:1. It’s closer to 1.1:1 but once you factor in commission it may as well be the same. That’s bad enough in itself: it means everything is about 30% more expensive than it is back here. But it also means the cost of everything is easy to work out: if it costs €4 then it will cost £4. There’s no fooling the brain: not only is everything more expensive, but you’re quite acutely aware of the fact.

Arriving into Dublin airport on Ryan Air from Birmingham, we head over to the town centre. It’s an oddity of Dublin, that despite an extensive tram system, coupled with good rail-links and specialised rail services like the DART, to get from or to the airport requires a bus.

James at Dublin Acadamy
We’re staying at the City Centre Apartments which are run by the Browns Hostel and located around the back of the Hostel itself. The apartment is wonderfully spacious, with a balcony (with a view of… other balconies), lounge/kitchen, large bedroom… the whole place is really nice and clean, and staying there Monday to Thursday we got a really good deal on it. Far, far better than a hotel if you don’t want (or can’t afford) luxuries like room service or on-site restaurants. It also meant we could prepare our own food which cut down on costs a lot, even if Tesco was still expensive-ish. Also, the fridge was broken, we had to put stuff in the freezer section to chill it, and we couldn’t freeze anything at all.

One oddity of Dublin was that it was nigh on impossible to find fruit cordial. That is, fruit juice that you dilute with water. I drink massive amounts of it, but it took searching about seven Tescos and Spars to find any, which was a little bizarre.

Our first few days were spent wondering Dublin town and finding interesting shops and things. Butler’s Chocolate Cafe seems to be the Ireland equivalent of Thorntons, but with nicer chocolate. Mmm. We were also ripped off at a bar, but then saw a comedy show for free there which was good, though I can’t remember his name.
We also had a look at the archaeology museum, which had wonderful classical mosaics on the floor, which the museum had seemingly gone to great lengths to cover up. That is, most of the visible floor was just blank filler, then every time there was a scene it was covered up almost entirely by a display case holding pots or such.
Guide at Dalkey Castle
Wednesday was the reason I justified the whole trip in the first place: a James gig. At a small venue called the Academy (thankfully nothing to do with the UK Academy venues), we turned up at 7 and had to wait two hours for the band to come on, with no support act. Considering you could have got a local acoustic act to play for about the price we paid for two tickets to the show that was pretty bad form. Still, the band were great, even if the soundman seemed to have turned the volume up to 11. We got a new song (Shine), an old song (Dream Thrum), Johnny Yen to open, nearly all the hits and Stutter to close. They were certainly good but it really felt like a re-tread of last years arena tour. The lack of new tracks was understandable: as a festival warm-up they’d be practising the hits. The real disappointment was that none of the old tracks had been re-worked, no new arrangements, etc. That might seem like a strange complaint but the reason us fans go back to gigs year after year is because the band generally change things up so much. Still, it was fun, but not the highlight of the trip.

The next day we hopped on the Dart down to Dalkey, a small coastal village with an old castle. The castle gave ‘living history’ tours, so we were guided around by characters from medieval history, including an archer, cook and barber-surgeon.

We were grouped with a whole part of French people, and think at times we were the only ones with any clue what was going on, but nevertheless it was a great experience and well worth the €6. We then wondered along the coast to Coliemore Harbour, where on sunnier days you can get a boat over to Dalkey Island. We were content to just admire it from a distance.
Dalkey Island
Friday we first visited Dublinia , an interactive Viking exhibition. It’s laid out somewhat strangely, with a basic introduction on the ground floor that doesn’t cover things in much detail, but gives a brief overview. Then on the second floor the same things are covered again (albeit with a greater focus on historical Dublin) but in more detail, with smaller text on the info boards and a lot more writing.

There’s also a fun Viking fair where you can play games and dress up or wear a big chain mail headpiece. Then on the next floor up there’s a seemingly entirely unrelated archaeology exhibition which wasn’t all that interesting.

From there we head over to Dublin Castle. Dublin Castle is an odd one, as there’s not much of a castle left standing, and the buildings built in its place are still used today as rooms of state. The guided tour starts with a trip around the interior rooms, opulent bed chambers, dining halls and such. That they are so big, beautiful and impressive is less amazing than the fact that they’re still being used today for state visits, meetings and so forth.
The tour then moves under the castle to look at an excavation of the old castle foundations, with the remains of an old river still running through them, which was fascinating. We also had a look at the tax office museum, one of the strangest museums I’ve ever been too, that featured an interactive video-game where you had to search a boat for contraband. Bizarre.

From here we headed to Swords, as we were booked into a Travelodge closer to the airport for the last night. Swords is another strange place. We wondered into there at about 8pm at night to look for cheap fast food, and it was pretty quiet along what appeared to be the main high street, but we noticed a shopping centre that was still open. It looked new, with most of the units unoccupied, until we rounded a corner and it opened out into a huge shopping centre, with all sorts of shops, about three supermarkets, a cinema, and what could well have been the entire residence of the village, as the place was still open at 9pm, and pretty busy.
Dublin Castle
We didn’t stay out long, the net effect of four days walking around and standing up only a week after spending five days walking around and standing up in a field in Somerset being that our legs and feet were complaining quite loudly. The Travelodge at Swords was fine, and a nice enough place to spend the last night before heading over the airport on Saturday and flying back to Birmingham. We narrowly avoided having a long walk from the airport to the train station, as the monorail connecting the two had just been re-opened after the rather nasty weather of earlier in the day.

A great trip, marred somewhat by the huge expense of everything, meaning some more interesting looking things were out of our price range, but given we got 5 nights accommodation and flights for about £120 each it was pretty good value.

photos by Hannah Ross

December 09, 2008

Christmas and Stuff


I am still here, this is not a dead blog, I’ve just been busy. And lazy. I have a bunch of stuff to post though so hopefully there will be some fun stuff this week. I’ll be like an advent calender of blogging. That is, you’ll get all excited only to be utterly disappointed at how rubbish the chocolate (blog entries) taste (read). I won’t be posting every day. That’d be mental.


A few points of order:

First, some people have asked for my Christmas mix CD from last year so I have re-posted it here.

I’d like to do another, different one this year, but I’m mostly out of songs so am taking suggestions for tracks for this year. Basically, I’m after cover versions of classics, original Christmas songs and anything in between. Preferably link me up an MP3 or a Myspace with it on.

Second: Christmas gift ideas!

Stuck what to buy people? I know the feeling. Well first, check out and buy some comedy DVDs if your intended recipient has a sense of humour. You can also get Richard Herring’s new book on there, which is a great gift for anyone that ever liked Lee and Herring, or has shouted “Moon on a Stick!” at you.

I’m going to do some reviews of the DVD over Christmas hopefully, as… well there aren’t really many on the internet. And they’re really good and only ten quid. They come in cardboard wallets, so if you want to make them more Christmas-presenty, get an empty DVD case and print off the larger artwork from the website.
Brief recommendations for different kinds of people:
Stewart Lee, 90s Comedian: Atheists.
Richard Herring, 12 Tasks of Hercules Terrace: Fans of either ancient myths or Dave Gorman.
Richard Herring, Someone Likes Yoghurt: Fans of taking things too far.
Simon Munnery, Hello: For the arty types that like truly odd avant-garde comedy and delicious word-play.
Lucy Porter, The Good Life: For people that want something lighter and charming. With a bit of filth for good measure.
Wil Hodgson, Skinheads, Readers’ Wives and My Little Ponies: fans of monotone and contradictions.
Tony Law: Fans o… oh look a badger! And The Mighty Boosh.
Robin Ince: People that read lots.

And I haven’t seen the other Richard Herring Shows.

Of course, your gift recipient may not have a sense of humour, or find stand-up comedy too base and filthy for them. Perhaps they appreciate the finer things in life, and have higher standards for their art.

In that case, I suggest getting them a lovely photo print from Hannah Nadia Photography. Get a photo of something they’d like, get a frame, and you’re away. I like the lighthouse in the Landmarks section, it’s very Round the Twist / Prisoner.

Righty-hoo, I’ll hopefully be back tomorrow with some stuff about my new favourite waste of government money, OFQUAL!

September 25, 2008

Ben Folds: Way To Normal

5 out of 5 stars

Ben Folds’ last album, Song For Silverman was, on reflection, a little staid. It’s not a bad album by any stretch, but it’s basically 11 plodding piano ballads.

There’s a couple of slightly rockier bits but it never really takes off. Any of the songs are good individually, some are phenomenal, but the album as a whole drags a fair bit. It was reflective of a Folds that had settled down with a wife and family and was writing serious songs about serious issues for serious people. Of course, were you to see Folds live during this period you’d have seen a rockier, upbeat crazy bloke doing his regular weird stuff that wasn’t reflected in Songs For Silverman at all. While not a bad album it seemed to be ‘targeted’ at a ‘demographic’ rather than truly representing the artist.

On to Way To Normal. Folds has got divorced and remarried and put out something far more upbeat and fun than Silverman. While he’s stated in interviews that this record isn’t about his divorce in particular, it’s certainly a break-up record.

Hiroshima (B-B-B-Benny Hit His Head)
This is the quintessential Folds funny song. It’s basically a verbatim discussion of him falling off the stage and getting concussion. Piano, bass, drums, silly lyrics, crowd noises… it’s a bit of simple fun but has a brilliantly catchy central refrain.

Dr Yang
In the days of Ben Folds Five, Robert Sledge was all about the fuzzy bass. Perhaps it’s for that reason that Folds has mostly avoided that particular motif in his solo career, but it’s back and bassist Jared Reynolds seems to be having as much fun with it as Sledge ever did. Many have used that link to suggest this is a very Ben Folds Five track stylistically, but I don’t think it is. It’s actually done in a style that we’ve never really heard Folds use before. Check out the bit about 55 seconds in where Folds pretty much switches to an entirely different vocal style and suddenly there’s a whole new set of possibilities for future songs.

The Frown Song
This one returns to one of Folds’ favoured themes of social and class differences. It’s a brilliant lyric and plays about synths and harmonies and all sorts.

You Don’t Know Me
A duet with Regina Specktor which is the second track on the album that sounds like nothing else Folds has ever released. The melody is actually carried by the strings here while the piano is relegated to an accompaniment, and the lyrics are all done in a very dis-jointed style that Ben probably picked up from Shatner.
It’s also the first of those songs about failing relationships and break-ups.

The mid-album 6 minute epic. A slow, heart-breaking ballad, it’d be at home on Songs For Silverman but has so much more impact here where it’s one of only two. The whole thing builds slowly, with the strings slowly becoming more prominent until they just soar through at the end and conspire with lyrics to break your heart into pieces.

Errant Dog
A bit of fun about a dog that ran off. Or it’s about a man that consistently cheats on a woman that can’t bear to leave him. It’s short and silly regardless so doesn’t really matter.

Free Coffee
The third of the truly unique tracks on the album. Folds stuck a bunch of metal tins inside his piano and ran it through a distortion pedal and ended up with something that bears a strange resemblance to a C64 synth. Again, it’s about social division: famous people that can afford it anyway get free stuff but poor people that need it don’t. The lyrics have been criticised for being a bit ‘simple’ and just describing every day life: “Called in sick one day, stepped out my front door, squinted up at the sky…”.
But that’s the point. Folds and other famous people are just normal people like us that do normal things like sending text messages and eating ice cream. But he gets treated differently because of fame.
It’s not actually one of my favourites from the album, it seems to be missing something but it’s certainly interesting.

Bitch Went Nuts
Another break-up track dealing with the after-effects of a separation and the way friends end up taking sides. One of my favourites.

Leading on nicely from the previous track, this deals with someone who took sides and wrote a song about it. The album’s lyrical tour-de-force “There’s something wrong with being copied on a memo / In the form of a bad country demo” and plenty of others I won’t spoil. Musically it’s vintage Folds, much like previous track.

Again, one of those perfect Folds piano-pop songs, that reflects on getting away from your life and doing something else entirely. And just in case you were wondering where it was this is the track with the fast piano solo in it…

Kylie From Connecticut
A ballad about a break-up that becomes inevitable. Somewhat resembles Carrying Cathy musically, not my favourite track to be frank as it drags on a bit too long and its a shame the album didn’t have a stronger closer, but it’s a decent track.

What truly stands out about the album (besides the reflections on break-ups and the fuzzy bass) are how many new, original and interesting songs and ideas there are in this. This is the first album Folds recorded with his band in the studio, and it seems that the inevitable mixing in of their musical interests and stylistic quirks has given us the most interesting and original Folds album since Reinhold Messner.

Downsides: well Folds has developed a strange tendency to go “unh” and “uh” at various points on the record and it just feels a bit weird. He’s been doing it live for a while but he’s really over-doing the grunting on this one. Still it can worked into a fun drinking game.

Apart from that this is a truly brilliant album and hints at so many possible new musical directions that Mr Folds could take now I can’t can’t wait to see what he does next.

Way To Normal is released in stores on Monday 29th September

July 13, 2008

Ben Folds: Sheffield 8th July

Sheffield is a weird place. I’ve been to most of the UK’s cities, but this was my first trip particular one, I wasn’t even sure where it was. As soon as you leave the train station you’re confronted by these big fountains and massive soaring metallic structures that form the metro line. It’s like you accidentally caught a train into the future. At least until you move a bit further out and realise the whole thing meshes with 1940s brickwork that means it all somewhat resembles a world taken over by by a technically superior alien race.

I followed the directions to the hotel that I’d jotted down and ended up at a big roundabout. I could see the Travelodge I was staying at, just down from the second exit as it should be. One small problem: no footpath on that road. See, Sheffield has possibly the most comprehensive public transport system I’ve ever seen. Along with the massive, domineering tram system comes a frighteningly huge “public transport hub” which also serves as a base for the crazy number of buses I encountered picking my way through the town centre to try and reach the hotel from another direction. Problem is that doing this they’ve made it impossible to walk anywhere, which somewhat defeats the point I feel.

Anyway, eventually the correct route to the hotel is located (through some rather dodgy looking subways which I’ll affectionately now refer to as ‘Brown Sector’), then onto the pub and eventually the venue, meeting up with Euan, Andy and the delightful and charming Anna Waits (she gets both the adjectives, as she’s probably the only one of the three that will read this).

So to the gig, and for once the support act wasn’t Eef Barzelay but was Corn Mo who opened with a fairly shit dirge on the accordion that seemed to go on for about five minutes while most of the audience talked over it. Not good. But then he busts into this brilliant upbeat number that’s about two minutes long and by the time he’s done, everyone has shut up. It’s awesome. He does that looping thing that solo musicians love so much these days, but with an accordion which is certainly a first. The between song banter is just, well, weird. Mid-set he switches to an electric piano for a few songs (which is funny in itself, given there’s a Grand on the stage) and does an utterly straight accordion cover of We Are The Champions. It sort of falls apart at the end when he performs to a backing track but I’m won over by then. Unfortunately looking at his Myspace most of the songs are ruined by being properly produced with drums and stuff. Which just robs them of all their charm. Lollipop is still quite fun though.

So onto Ben’s show. We jokingly laugh at the fact that he opens with Errant Dog, just like every show he’s played for the past 4 months. It’s a track off the new album and I think it’s awesome. I’m really looking forward to the new album, as to be honest I never really got on with Songs For Silverman. We’re now expecting him to play Gone next, like every other show for the past 4 months, but he looks up at Sam and tells him to stop and they end up playing You To Thank instead, and becomes apparently that the show’s going to be a lot more fluid than your regular Folds show.

Free Coffee is next, which is one of the tracks off the new album I don’t quite get on with, it’s a great idea to use a distortion pedal and tins to make his piano sound like a C64 synthesiser, but the song isn’t great. Then he moves onto Annie Waits which I’ve always really liked, such a sad song but there’s something upbeat about it. Also, turns out people in Sheffield can clap in time, unlike those from the South. Followed up by Landed (which really did make it’s mark as a ‘single’ over here it seems) and my favourite of the new ones, Hiroshima. So far, so typical Ben Folds gig.

But then it gets weird. Some people are drunkenly heckling him to play the jingles he wrote for a Tokyo radio station (“Don’t touch that dial, it’s got Jam on it!”). And Ben obliges, along with telling the story behind them. It’s amazing he can remember them (it takes a few minutes) and it just shows how really seriously Folds doesn’t take himself, and why his shows are so much more fun for it.
Next, Battle of Who Could Care Less. Hell yes. Not sure I’ve ever heard this done live before, certainly not with a band. It’s brilliant, by this time the crowd are really into it. This is something special. And personally it’s a song I really relate to.
Time for a quick Rock This Bitch improv and a story about Ben having his shoe stolen in Sheffield. Apparently he tells it every time he plays here, so obviously it’s new to me. Rock This Bitch is pretty much something he has to do every show now, just to shut people up which sort of sucks, but planning it in advance and having a decent tune and just shouting Rock This Bitch at the end of it seems to help.
Zak and Sara gets everyone dancing (or at least, gets me looking like a spastic having a fit) and storms us into a slower part of the set with Still Fighting It and Jesusland. Then: Underground. Again, first time seeing it done with a band and it almost feels like I’m seeing the Ben Folds Five I never got to see. And all I can see in my head are those crazy dudes dancing to it on the Sessions at West 54th DVD. For a little while, I am a crazy dude. Then another nice surprise: Such Great Heights. Bitches Ain’t Shit has been the token cover version in a Ben Folds set for so long now this sort of got side-lined as it’s not as funny. It’s an awesome tune though and I really love it.

Time for the solo section of the set, as Ben makes a sort of piano playing gesture with his fingers at Sam and Jared to let them know to leave for a bit. I guess that’s the best action he could do really. A shooing motion seems somewhat rude and nothing else would really fit.
The solo section is bookended rather predictably by Fred Jones Part II (with the audience having the backing vocals down pat) and Gracie (still bores me) but in between we get Emaline and Tom and Mary. Yeah you read that right. Emaline was my favourite Folds song for a long time but I sort of burned out on it after a while, but it’s as fresh as ever now. And Tom and Mary. He hasn’t played Tom and Mary since when he was with the Five as far as I know. Apparently he did it the night before but screwed it up. So that’s all pretty cool.

Then the band come back (piano fingers in the air again) and he plays Kylie from Conneticut, another new track and the other one I don’t really get on with. Then he does do Bitches Ain’t Shit after all, it’s developed a fancy new fast ending though but it really is at the point where it needs retiring now. And no-one was even shouting for it. It’s still fun though. Then Bastard takes us into Rockin The Suburbs. He starts out playing it on the synth, then switches to piano. I’ve always preferred the piano based versions of this track to the record version, which is pretty much a joke-song. It seems to have a renewed sense of vigour, and actually sounds like what I imagine it would have sounded like had Ben written it with Robert and Darren. Kate keeps the pace up, it tends to make me think of my friend Kate for some reason. I mean, for one obvious reason, but then she doesn’t smoke pot and isn’t everything I’m not so… yeah. This is why I don’t do music reviews professionally.

Some more improv about how the piano sucks (we hadn’t noticed) and an attempt at the Peanuts theme (which I didn’t recognise but fortunately Anna did so now it makes sense!). Then Army and they’re off. They milk the encore a bit then run back on before the crowd gives up for Philosophy. It goes into the Theme From Doctor Pyser in the middle as it has done live for many years ago, but then it doesn’t come back out, instead just stays there with that awesome Pyser ending which is frankly a much more auspicious way to end the set. Then they’re gone again. Only one song in the encore, but one can’t complain when they did about 25 of them and played two hours almost straight through.

Definitely the best I’ve ever seen him play, and just a genuinely great day, watching cool music and hanging out with awesome people. Roll on November…

July 06, 2008

Glastonbury Part 1 & last word on Jay Z

I’m not doing a big Glasto diary this year, partly because only about two people read all 9000 words of the last one (and one of them was with me for half of it) and partly as there are less weird and interesting anecdotes from this year (although I rescued a drunk lost girl and was shamelessly flirted with by one of the Greenpeace chuggers) so it’d be a bit dry. So I’m going to write a few pieces on different aspects of the festival.

First, my Glasto ‘to do’ list – the things I managed this year, and the things I still have to cross out:

Done in 2008:
Never eat from the same food stall twice: This doesn’t include drinks of course – couldn’t manage without a daily milkshake and Brothers Cider. Managed the food fairly easily this year, had some interesting things like Ostrich Steak and Buffalo Burger, some unwise things like curry nachos (lovely at the time, not so good the following morning…) and some very nice ice cream. I hugely suggest doing this, there’s so many food stalls at Glasto and they do really nice stuff, it pays to experiment. The only downside was it took me until the last night to find some vegetable Tempura which was everywhere last year. Deep fried vegetables. It’s like the slightly healthier Japanese kebab.

Buy a hat: I have a nice new hat

Still to do:
Watch the sunrise at the stone circle: Need someone else crazy enough to stay up. Although all reports say it was a bit muted up there this year.

Have a shower: I nearly did this year when I walked past on the Thursday afternoon (after a boiling hot day) and saw there was barely any queue, but realised I didn’t have my towel with me. And then every time I wondered past after then the queue was massive.

Find the stone dragon: Seriously. There’s a stone dragon somewhere.

Perform: One day I will tell jokes to people on stage at Glastonbury.

Get naked: Not really.

Now: Jay Z
I only caught 10 minutes of it myself, as I was curious as to how many people turned up. It wasn’t near as busy as it was for McCartney a few years back but there were plenty there (probably than for Leonard Cohen, you nutters).
Anyways, watch the first 30 seconds of this video interview with Michael Eavis (the rest is worth watching as Eavis is totally pissed).

“We didn’t have a traditional headliner… they were all out doing something else.”

That’s the most important thing you’ll hear. Because the reason people were upset with Jay Z headlining was because they assumed that he was chosen in favour of REM or Radiohead or Prince or Coldplay when the truth is, they couldn’t play anyway. There was never a big-name rock headliner in the running. Had we not had Jay Z we’d have got The Arcade Fire or Doves or Keane or some other such band.

Obviously some people would prefer them but they’re not really world-famous acts. The collective media response would likely have been a shrug rather than a furore and they’d probably have sold even fewer tickets. Instead Eavis took the risk of booking a mega-star outside the traditional Glasto-genre rather than a marginal act that does fit (oh and there’s been plenty of hip-hop on the Jazz World stage for years so that “doesn’t belong at Glasto” stuff is bollocks).

People reacted against the idea of Jay Z as they felt Jay Z was usurping a slot for someone they’d rather see. That he was stealing the budget that would otherwise be spent on a mega-famous rock act. He wasn’t. There was no alternative. So even though I wondered off after ten minutes to go watch Jim Bob at the Leftfield, anyone criticising Jay Z being there is just daft.

April 27, 2008

The Mighty Boosh Festival

So The Mighty Boosh are putting on an outdoor comedy festival

It’s an interesting choice, it’s going to feature music aswell, but there’s no other details on it other than it’s £50. No line-up yet or info on how it’s being structured etc, but the focus appears to be on the comedy over the music.

I say interesting because some people will tell you that stand-up gigs in the outdoors don’t work. I’d be one of those people. The bigger the room, the worse stand-up gets and when you take away the roof it mostly just falls apart. So I’m very intrigued in how they’ll pull this off. Were it me promoting this festival, I’d do the following:

Have a main, outdoor stage. The Boosh headline obviously. For the rest of the bill you need acts that can play to that sort of venue. Basically you’re looking for acts with a musical bent that have done big arenas or performed with bands. I’d book Mitch Benn and the Distraction, Rob Deering and his band, Bill Bailey, Tim Minchin (with band if possible). Maybe Boothby Graffoe with string players too. Then you fill out the bill with music acts that veer towards the quirky and occasionally comical. The likes of Ben Folds, The Divine Comedy, etc. The more witty of your musical acts.

Then at the same time you have a large tent in which you book regular stand-ups to do regular stand-up. Crucially you keep this running all through the day with no breaks as there’s no need for soundchecks and switching equipment and such, which should keep a constant stream of people checking it out between acts on the main stage.

So yeah, that’s what I’d do. It’ll be interesting how it works out, I’d go but I’m going to Guilfest that weekend. And it might just turn out to be a one-stage music festival with The Boosh headlining and all thier favourite bands on. And somehow I don’t think our tastes in music are compatable!

March 20, 2008

Happy Birthday War

5 years on. 4 years 10 months since ‘Mission Accomplished’. Our soldiers still dying. Iraqi civillians still dying. No good ‘end’ in sight beyond just packing up and running if the next President has the balls to do it. And all predicated on a provenly false premise. To quote every character on HBO’s The Wire: Shiiiiit.

Mitch Benn – Happy Birthday War, out as a single on iTunes sometime in the next few days.

Chris T-T – A Plague On Both You Houses from 9 Red Songs The new album, Capital set against the backdrop of the war in London was released on Monday.

James – Hey Ma, from the forthcoming album, Hey Ma

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