Posts from 29th August 2004

Aug 04


The Brown WedgePost a comment • 201 views


Browsing idly in WH Smiths on Friday a couple of new books caught my eye. One was by Vivian Cook, called Accomodating Broccoli In The Cemetary. This unpleasantly unwieldy title turns out to be a book about spelling, subtitled “Why can’t anyone spell anymore?”.

The publishing world is fad-driven like everything else. But for some reason its fads annoy me more. Maybe my expectations of books are higher than my expectations of, say, the pop biz, where if a band hits big then of course a half-ton of identikit ones will surely follow: I take that as part of the landscape and it never bothers me. Maybe it’s the time the cycle takes – in films a surprise hit may take a few years for other people to copy, so it’s harder to become sick of things.

Vivian Cook’s book does not come with a blurb saying “If you loved Eats, Shoots And Leaves you’ll just adore this!”. It hardly needs to: plainly there is no way it would be in WH Smiths’ Top 10 without Lynne Truss’ pedants’ charter breaking this particular path. I also just know that it’s the start of a flood – just think how many Miscellany books are on the shelves now. In a business where the margins are presumably pretty stinking every successful title will generate a mass of imitators – further along the Smiths’ shelves was the latest in the flourishing women-like-kinky-sex!!! subgenre, this time about a teenage BSDM enthusiast. It at least put “Move over Catherine M!” on its cover.

My irritation over this kind of marketing is rather self-defeating: it can work in the readers’ favour. Longitude was a bit of fluff whose popularity was bizarre, but it did break open an entire new popular history genre. It allowed people whose good social history work would have been footnoted to death in unread journals to actually write a bit and tell a few stories: many of the post-Longitude cash-ins were considerably better than their genre-mother. Similarly Lynne Truss may allow a few linguists to earn an honest bob – the write-up of the Cook book suggests it casts its net intriguingly wide. But I won’t be reading it: my quixotic stand against copycat books is not going to be weakened by mere quality.

Michael Caine should not be a national treasure

Do You SeePost a comment • 542 views

Or maybe: Sir Michael Caine should be a national treasure.

I’m not sure which of these statements I agree with most.

What’s indisputable is that the quality of his acting should not be celebrated. His performances are, almost without exception, rubbish. Stilted, wooden, uncharismatic, devoid of character, aspiring to achieve even two dimensions, let alone three.

I say this because I’ve just finished watching the train crash which is The Swarm. Some might say it was unfair to judge the former Maurice Micklewhite’s entire career on his turn in just one film, particularly a stinker like this (“I never imagined it would be the bees. They’ve always been our friends.”).

But the fact is I really can’t see any significant difference between Dr Brad Crane and any other Caine character: not Jack Carter, not Frank Bryant, not Harry Palmer, not Lawrence Jamieson, and certainly not the fabled Charlie Croker.

I might give you Scrooge with the Muppets, and possibly his pageant coach in Miss Congeniality – but even that is only because I was distracted by Sandra Bullock.

Occasionally a good director might force something a little more animated out of him: I’ve heard good things about The Cider House Rules, for example.

A friend of mine claims that we should recognise Caine for his work rate: in a screen career lasting almost 50 years he’s clocked up 117 movies, and shows no sign of stopping any time soon.

The same could be said in defence of McDonald’s, yet I don’t believe anyone will ever think it’s actually good food.

But maybe my friend (who’s American) has a point. Maybe the more critical members of society should ignore the quality of his performances, and instead celebrate the fact that a man of such limited talent and range can rise to the very top of his profession.

Maybe that should be enough to qualify him as a national treasure. He might be rubbish, but he’s our rubbish, and of that we should we should be proud.

Or maybe not.

Bank Holiday Sounds

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 443 views

Bank Holiday Sounds: I am in a good mood this weekend, and it’s time to share it with you. Download this song (2.5MB) and see how you feel. This is not some kind of evil trick.

Sasha Frere-Jones guest-posts at Fluxblog

FT + New York London Paris MunichPost a comment • 1,976 views

Sasha Frere-Jones guest-posts at Fluxblog and raises some really interesting questions about repetition, formula, and ‘badness’ in music. The comments box, delightfully, lives up to them.

THE SQUARE TABLE 13 / The Libertines – “Can’t Stand Me Now?”

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THE SQUARE TABLE 13 / The Libertines – “Can’t Stand Me Now?”

Pop Factor: 510

“How can anyone still get it up for this?” asked Blissblog a bit ago. Good question. Listening to this I can’t help thinking of what Kate The Saint used to say on ILM, about band dynamics and all bands being love stories. We live in an unsubtle age, so the Libs take what was hidden in their forebears and make it that bit more explicit (look at that naff sleeve with the angelic androgynes and the smears of blood!). And in doing so they make it less mysterious and less interesting – for me, anyway. Meanwhile the seamy, intimate way they present themselves – guerrila gigs in flats and lobbies, their ever-more-shambolic sound – feels I’d guess pretty relevant for an audience used to camgirls and livejournals and goldfish bowl TV.

So that’s my ‘take’. Can I get it up for the Libertines, though? No, at least not now the soap’s overtaken the sound as their focus. There are pretty moments here – the guitar work at the start, the harmonica at the end – but the song they bolster is a weak and scrawny thing, and if you don’t care about the boys’ problems it’s tedious to boot. 4 (Tom)

hooray for songs where every part sounds like the brilliant bridge in a somewhat inferior tune. lately i’ve heard lots of distinctly inferior tunes with good bridges (hello, franz ferdinand). they tend to sound as instantly familiar, but lack the restless energy that makes me want to throw all of my clothes on the bed and put up new posters and run around in the center of the room like an adolescent. points deducted and then returned for: 1) the improbably swollen intro and 2) the unflattering but endearing “oh-oh-oh”s in the coda. no points returned for the harmonica solo, though. 8 (vahid fozi)

Shambolic =! Sham 69. And would you want to take them anywhere? No of course not. But hiding on the other side of your speakers, well its all rather sweet. There is room for rubbishness in pop when it is stapled to a hook, and whilst it takes ages to get going, that’s oklay because you know that the big pop lollop of a chorus is coming. Nothing else on the radio dares to sound like this (for good reason) and whilst the Libertines star may fade fast, that it burns at all is a miracle. 8 (Pete)

The Libertines are suddenly big! Weren’t they the kind of band who would just about scrape the Top 20 a few years ago?

It’s quite sparkly, switchy singing, tinny drums or maybe that’s windows media player. No, it’s really squeaky! It’s got that chuggy guitar thing, I like that. Nice little song!

Anyway, yeah the Libertines are okay! 7 (jel)

Funny how it goes in Rawk ‘n’ Po(o)p: sometimes fame notoriety precedes the music. So how do I judge the soundtrack of a soap-opera you know so well? Actually should I try and judge a band based only on their product, neglecting the brouhaha they produce with their brown shenanigans? No, hell no. Certainly not when Can’t Stand Me Now is only about that – the story of a band falling apart because of drugs/theft and so on and so on. It’s part of the… myssstique. So the song’s fantastic… if you know the story. It wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t know Pete Doherty was a smack addict. The hook kicks in way too late – so the punters that need instant gratification are already experiencing withdrawal effects – and the Morissey intonation is a little too much at times but does it RAWK or what? I love the production (and producer, Mick Jones), it oozes exuberance. It’s all about tough love, staccato, precious melodies and harmonicas. It’s time to bop along to the sounds of British Rock. 7, if you’re part of the incrowd. (Stevie Nixed)

At first I thought this was a bit too explictly hook-y and Power Popish (The Libertines’ attraction so far has been that their songs burst through the door, run around in circles in your room for a few minutes and then pass out, after all), but then they had to go and give us a Bob Dylan harmonica at the end and I just feel like hugging them. I love Record Collection Rock. 7 (Daniel Reifferscheid)

I might be tempting sensation, but “Can’t Stand Me Now” plays out like an ode to brotherly love that nears Husker Du-style homo-eroticism. Carl Barat & drug-addled Pete Doherty trade off lines to each other like “I know you lie / But I’m still in love with you” and “You can’t take me anywhere, I can take you anywhere” with such dewy-eyed sighs that it resembles a petty lover’s quarrel from two people who always end up succumbing to mutual admiration. They can’t stand each other, yet they wouldn’t have it any other way.. Musically, it sounds like a slightly morose Jam B-side with glossier production, but if this amusing spat between two boys smitten with each other is what the NME is hyping to death these days, I’m all for it. 7 (Michael F Gill)

I doubt that Pete Doherty and Carl Barat’s much-publicised rivalry is any worse than that of many other bands, but the Libertines have taken the shrewd move of turning theirs into their central selling point. It works, of course – it’s in the music press’s interest to keep them ‘relevant’ as long as they continue to return the favour with the biggest rock soap opera since Britpop. Hence “Can’t Stand Me Now” – a pleasant enough 1981 throwback, cobbled together between broadsheet interviews and no doubt elevated in standing by its self-mythologising chorus.

Still, something about the Libertines endears them to me despite my becoming bored stiff of reading about their internal squabbling many months ago. Maybe it’s the clipped, layered guitar build-up, or the use of the cowbell in the intro, or the way the opening riff seems to melt away at just the right time. Or maybe it’s the fact that they’re the only one of the latest crop of Rock Is Back! bands with a clue what do with a rhythm section. I’m deducting a point for the frankly rubbish harmonica solo, though. 6 (Matt D’Cruz)

If there’s a band around today more manipulative than The Libertines, I want to hear them. No-one else seems to tie music and mythos together quite so neatly, quite so tightly, no-one else seems to inspire such a painful and ardent fanbase love, such a serious devotion. I’m on the outside: I can’t help but be suspicious.

So. Pete’s out of the band, again, disappointing his fans by turning up everywhere but where he’s scheduled to, again, and the Libs are releasing a Pete&Carl song, not just written by but seemingly written about. You have to appreciate the timing.

“Can’t Stand Me Now” reads like a dramatisation of the already melodramatic saga of their doomed love-hate, the spitting intense knot of comradeship and disappointment that – we’re told, we assume – binds them together and drives them apart. Reading their press has always been like listening in on a friend of a friend’s relationship, the kind you know you’d never have because you don’t have it in you to live like that or love like that, the kind you start to suspect has been amped-up for the dramatic retelling.

They’re soap characters, living out this awful messy plotline of throwings-out and breakings-in, a boy fucking himself up and a boy torn betwen trying to pull him out and knowing that it may never work. But they’re real people. But they’re media constructs. But what’s happening is so horrible that it can only be discussed in platitudes, by Guardian journalists and saddened television pundits, and often.

“I can’t take you anywhere – I’d take you anywhere”, and you assume it’s Carl; “I can’t take me anywhere,” and it has to be Pete; “cornered, the boy kicked out at the world – the world kicked back a lot fucking harder” and it’s an editorial step back, their narrator looking out upon Pete and summarising his position, and it’s Pete re-romanticising Pete as a poor urchin unable to escape the thuggish world looming in upon him, locked away by his unfeeling mate who’d rather blame the drugs than look to what’s really happening. The two of them, fighting over a vocal line and a ragged scrap of guitar; sitting opposite one another three inches from recriminations, trying to work out who hurt who, and when, and with what.

The two of them, praying upon luck and pretence to keep it together.

It’s a good image.

Too good, perhaps, for the shabby fragment of song that comes with it, a shambling rackety backdrop leavened by some nice half-arsed harmonica. Underrehearsed, underproduced, unpolished, and rightly so — without the rough edges, it would be nothing. Bit like the band, really. 6 (Cis)

It’s like surfer music for the Brooklyn set, like Shiny Happy Ramones, like depressed people singing Up With People. You can’t really dance to it, but you CAN bounce to it and that’s the next best thing. Great drummer and what’s that harmonica doing tacked on at the end? I only wish this were my cuppa so I could rate it a bit higher but it’s hard to get too excited about anything so bipolar. 6 (Forksclovetofu)

As an American estranged from the press adultation heaped upon The Libertines, it’s difficult for me to participate in the rather extreme hatred heaped upon the group. Sometimes I do pretend to loathe them, but it’s largely affectation – the Libertines have always seemed indistinguishable from the other bands my Cure-discovering younger brother has grown to admire.

Even though I haven’t a taste for all of the motifs, the single isn’t entirely bad. The lyric isn’t terribly coherent, and the opening few seconds don’t impress, but the song manages to shake some of my negative preconceptions by its end. The hooks are dated but effective, and the harmonica adds some sorely-needed color to the arrangement. 5 (Atnevon)

If the Strokes were to ever record a “Ringo song”, this is what it would sound like. I’d love to go on about its’ shambolic, hooky goodness, but after 6 or so listens earlier in the afternoon, I honestly have no sonic memory of this thing. Except that it gave me a funny mental image of the Strokes performing on “Hee Haw”. So it’s not a total wash. 4 (Henry Scollard)

God, I hate British bands. They really just don’t know how to rock what-so-ever. The Libertines look like they should rock, hard, but they sound as limp-wristed as all the other pretenders. It doesn’t help that Pete Doherty is some sort of iconic loser figure now. I can’t stand you. Go away.

The whining chorus is so repetitive and dull and it isn’t really a chorus, more of a half-hearted chant. Vocally they could try to accentuate the highs and lows a little really because there’s probably some message in here somewhere, but I’m really not bothered in finding it. “The boy kicked out at the world, the world kicked back a lot fucking harder” is said with none of the conviction you would expect. It’s a punk song wrapped up in cotton wool. Nice harmonica bit, but they’ve hid it away at the end in shame.

Shame. 4 (MW_Jimmy)

I was quite surprised on actually listening to this that the chorus doesn’t appear until 1’33”. I have found myself singing this in my head where it’s just the chorus and it’s much better. Also minus 1 for the godawful harmonica “solo”. 4 (CarSmile Steve)

It seems a long time since I heard music sounding so hamfisted and poorly composed as the opening to this shambolic rocker. It rambles on for a bit, and I wait for it to cohere into something with drive and purpose, but it never does. I think there’s something like a decent tune (maybe just a chorus?) emerging after a few listens, underneath the ramshackle construction, and maybe a better production could have brought it out, but as it stands I don’t care for it at all. 3 (Martin Skidmore)

Well, it’s a nicely arranged tune with a good melodic swoop about it, and the guitars really let fly in the background (on the other hand, the vocals have the condescending wit of James or something, and it’s got the worst harmonica solo since the days when Bob Dylan couldn’t play).

But it’s all immaterial because this is a new wave karoke, wannabe Brit guitar beatnik poets, forever writing songs on the spur of the moment because if they sat down and thought about it they’ve got nothing else to say. As for the drama queen nature of the lyric- oo, these two flawed geniuses are struggling to stand each other- it’s perilously close to the self-regarding indulgences of Menswear.

It’s all rather reminiscent of the once wildly popular Levellers. Yeah, they can bolt a tune together, they’ve earnest, they strike a chord with lots of people, but it’s a hasty patchwork that comes apart at the seams if you listen to it enough. There’s not even the sweet smoothness of The Strokes, just the self-conscious jerky edginess of The Jam. They were shit and all. 3 PLUS JOKER (Derek Walmsley)

Another song from the best new band to sound like the last best new band that sounded like the best new band before that one. More than just musical recidivism, this is music to reoffend to. 3 (Alext)

So, yeah, there’s the title. And there’s the trick of making 3 minutes and 23 seconds seem like the sort of foreverever embodied by water torture or food poisoning. Oh, and how about some slap-dash Jack Daniels harmonica for those Mojo-reading corpsefucker folks seeking some musical rock-excess signifiers to go with the intraband squabbling, the drug abuse, and all the trumped-up tragedies that don’t mean a damn thing to oblivious folk (like myself) when the rough & tumble rock band in question is caught flailing like a flock of castrated Buzzcocks. 2 (David Raposa)

As an attempt at a revisionist account of my mother’s cooking

Pumpkin PublogPost a comment • 706 views

As an attempt at a revisionist account of my mother’s cooking (perhaps one day I will be able to discuss cooking without simultaneously discussing my mother, but this is not that day), today, with some friends, I decided to try to incorporate fresh veggies into bhajji pau. Traditionally, this is street vendor fare throughout India, a mash-up of cauliflower, peas, potatoes and carrots, spiced with whatever masala that bhaiyya or his friends have cooked up, scooped up with whitebread that’s buttered and given a turn over the skillet. Mom uses frozen peas/carrots and frozen cauliflower, mostly because a) she hates the taste of fresh peas, and b) it’s a pain to cut the cauliflower and shell the peas.

So, after hearing an program (it’s the Laura Shapiro bit) on the Leonard Lopate show about how the food industry used frozen foods as a way of keeping up market demand for mass-manufactured food after WWII, I decided to sub in fresh produce for instances in which I had mostly experienced them in frozen form, hoping to open up new avenues of goodness in what had been quite nice before.

Little, however, did I realize, that it would take more than just a line-substitution to realize actual, substantial difference in yumminess. It didn?t help that my friends and I were under a lunch-crunch, ‘coz we were slated to watch some old Wes Craven movies at the Brooklyn Academy of Music that evening. And as a further hindrance, the only thing that would stand a chance at really changing the taste on dish on it’s own, the green peas, weren’t in season (how am I supposed to know this?! In my world, all vegetables are always in season, I don’t know what planet I fell on today where they aren’t.) They were purchased frozen, at the super awesome Subzi Mandi in Jackson Heights, along with fresh versions of everything else.

The method whereby I realize the bhajji pau, in the style of my mother, goes about as follows:
Two things are to be started at approximately the same time; the pan and the pressure cooker. In the pan go oil, onions (chopped), garlic (shredded), peppers (minced, the hotter the better) turmeric, coriander and tomatoes (also chopped), whatever masala you’ve managed to procure (I get mine from some guy who works down the blocks from my grandparents, but MDH probably makes one) and salt, in that order, with a good interval between the adding of the turmeric and the tomatoes. Into pressure cooker go potatoes, cauliflower, carrots and green peas, all cut into kinda small pieces, with a little bit of water at the bottom. When the things in the pan are sufficiently cooked (indicated when the oil comes out, having taken on the color of the spices), turn it off, and use the time before the pressure cooker whistles to chop some fresh sweet/red onions, coriander, and to butter some bread. After the pressure cooker whistles, remove the pressure by means you feel appropriate and add the veggies to the onion/et al. Mush and cook with a little water, add salt or masala, or ground red pepper, whatever it needs. Serve with the bread (browned butter side down on the skillet), onions, coriander, and a bit of butter melted over the mashed veggies.

In retrospect, it makes complete sense why nothing was really different upon the inclusion of fresh cauliflower and carrots. Since they were pressure cooked to death along with everything else, you don’t get a chance to let them have much character on their own. In the future, along with the addition of good green peas, maybe the way to go is to steam the peas and carrots, while allowing the cauliflower and potatoes to become mush in the pressure cooker? I would add the former to the onions a good while after I’ve added the potatoes/cauliflower, and having decreased the total mushing, I might be able to up the heterogeneity. Just a thought.