Monday, 28 July 2008

Curved Air - Reborn

There are some bands that you just can’t leave alone. I have such an attachment to 1970s classical progrockers, Curved Air, mainly because they opened up a window to a new and exciting musical world back in 1971 but partly because of Sonja Kristina (see previous post).

I have followed this band through thick and thin, I have every album they have ever released including all ‘Live at the BBC’ type compilations, the reunion albums and a cassette copy of ‘Lovechild’, the sessions that followed ‘Air Cut’ but which were never formerly released. Many of them are not that good but when you’re dealing with this type of joined-at-the-hip type band nothing is ever that bad. And so this brings me to ‘Reborn’.

‘Reborn’ is the latest release from a partly re-formed Curved Air comprising original members Darryl Way (Violin & Keyboards), Sonja Kristina (vocals) and Florian Pilkington-Miksa (drums) with guitar and bass backup and is only available from their
official website. So, have I bought a copy? What do you think?

Despite the fact that it is little more than a set of reinterpretations of old material by a band dangerously close to middle-age, I have taken the plunge and so now have a total of five different versions of ‘Back Street Luv’ in my collection (two on this album alone). Where will it all end?

Actually, I have been pleasantly surprised by ‘Reborn’. One of my grouses about the original early 70s albums is that the recording quality is pretty poor but as these re-workings stay fairly close to the originals, they show how they should’ve sounded given today’s technology. Darryl Way’s violin playing is still wonderful and Florian’s inventive drums now sound like real drums rather than soggy cardboard boxes and saucepan lids. But it is Sonja’s older, deeper register vocals that have surprised me the most. Whilst not re-capturing the untamed energy of youth, she has left behind her mid 70s raucousness and carefully not attempted to over sing. This has produced a beautifully balanced performance that sounds in part eerily close to the originals but with the added emotional weight of er...maturity.

I still can’t get to grips with ‘Marie Antoinette’ which even now drags its feet but the new versions of some of their oldest material, ‘Screw’ and especially ‘Young Mother’ gave me the shivers. Mercifully Way’s party-piece, ‘Vivaldi’ has been pared down from its previous excess and given a sort of semi-dance treatment which makes it eminently more listenable. There are also a couple of brand new songs that sound remarkably like they could’ve been recorded in about 1972 and are almost worth the price of the CD alone.

Thankfully, for a Curved Air Aficionado like me and considering some of the substandard stuff I’ve bought over the years, this is one of their better releases and one that I have been playing constantly. Yes, recommended! Go buy it now!
(To read more about my book which describes the effect of Curved Air and others in my life - see 'Memoirs of a Music Obsessive'.)

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Keep on Drummin'

‘We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful’, warbled Morrissey back in 1991 but is it true? Well, yes and no. It all depends on what we define as success. I have a friend, Jerry, whom I have known for over thirty years now and he is a good case in point.

But first things first – it is his birthday today, so HAPPY BIRTHDAY J!

Now where was I? Oh yes, when it comes to carving out a career and putting bread on the table, he is one of those lucky people who knew exactly what they wanted to do, went and did it, is very happy doing it and as far as I can tell has made a success of it. I, on the other hand, have never known what I want to do and still don’t which means that I have drifted through my working life in complete indifference wishing that I could work out where I should be and what I should be doing. So in that respect I do experience a pang of regret when our friends become successful because it just highlights to me that I have failed to make a career out of a hobby like all successful people.

It is only now, that I am starting to get glimmers of what I should’ve done with my life but the bugger is; everything I hate doing earns big money and everything I love, doesn’t – like writing books, or this blog, or surfing YouTube, or well, anything really.

However, before ending this discussion, there is another aspect to consider and that is that for as long as I have known him, Jerry has yearned to be a drummer. He has been, like most of us who love music, a frustrated musician and no amount of guitar strumming was going to salve it. But I am pleased to relate that this has now changed and at the grand old age of forty-something not only has a drum kit been installed at home and lessons taken, he is now playing in a band. This is something else that I have never achieved but frankly, I don’t worry about that and I couldn’t be more pleased for him. The band’s name is Menin Shortz and yes, they wear shorts and play covers and entertain people, which I gather is the general idea. In this respect I have no problem with his ‘success’. If more people were able to follow their dream rather than ‘get a proper job, my son’, the world would be a happier place.

For more information on Menin Shortz, go to their website at Or visit Pete the guitarist’s MySpace page at
which includes some gloriously dodgy footage of them playing some well-known tunes. Rock on!

Friday, 18 July 2008

Glastonbury Festival 2008

I’m not sure what it was this time around, but for the first time in many years, I didn’t really connect to this year’s Glastonbury Festival. Perhaps it was the fact that it didn’t rain. Well, not much anyway. Perhaps it was the bill that didn’t have any really charismatic names on it or perhaps it was just me getting old and blasé?

So I find myself struggling to nominate my usual top three awards this year. None of the headliners caught my eye. Kings of Leon were reasonable but didn’t win me over. Jay-Z didn’t convert me to rap although his set had been carefully thought out to counter criticism that he didn’t belong at a ‘rock’ event and although The Verve weren’t that bad, they didn’t really cast off the tag of ‘has-beens’ that seemed to hang over them.

So what am I left with?

Well, third prize goes to the enigmatic Alison Goldfrapp even without the horse’s tail. This year we were treated to her ‘folk’ period music accompanied by papier-mâché beasts and a dress that looked like a shredded shower curtain. Well up to standard then.

Second prize goes to Welsh chanteuse, Duffy - and this has nothing to do with the red hotpants. Rather it goes to a performer who just stood on stage and sang beautifully. No dancers, no gimmicks, just an honest performance of some great tunes.

And finally my top award goes to the Ting Tings, who despite my
guarded review of their debut album earlier in this blog, produced a lively and thoroughly entertaining set that I really enjoyed watching and showed a degree of versatility that I thought might be beyond them given the fact that there’s only two of them. Comparisons with the White Stripes are usual, but the Ting Tings are entirely different in style and content. Playing on the John Peel stage, I did actually wonder whether Peely would’ve approved of their unashamedly throwaway pop but I loved them. Top Act!

As the years go by, it is great to see artists that once held a prominent place in my record collection play some of the lesser stages at distinctly non-prime times. Without fanfare or pressure to make a name for themselves, they have a relaxed outlook which conveyed a sense of calm to their audience. There were a few this year, Joan Baez, Candi Staton, Neil Diamond, Leonard Cohen and Jimmy Cliff amongst them but in particular was Joan Armatrading who played a beautifully poignant set and played some mean guitar to boot. Good on yer, Joan.

Finally – Amy Winehouse. Her live appearances are more akin to a car crash these days. To watch her slur through a load of OK songs left me both fascinated and disturbed in equal order. Can’t somebody help her, please?

Let’s hope next year perks the thing up a bit as it would be a crying shame if it were to slowly die the death of a thousand lacklustre acts.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

Journey's End for Dr Who

DOCTOR WHO!! Damn, I’ve been trying to put this off, but it’s no good. Every other blogger has been going on about it so I’ve got to get my two penn'eth in.

T'was on a damp November evening in 1963, as a wide-eyed child, I watched the first episode of a new TV programme – Dr Who – and I was hooked. A few timeouts during the Peter Davison years aside, I have watched virtually every episode since then.

I have generally rejoiced in its return but there is one thing that has niggled me about nu-Who and I can’t seem to shift it, and it is to do with pacing. Dr Who gives the impression, on occasion, of barrelling along almost out of control. No sooner has the exposition finished and we are lurching towards the finish. Some stories and the last Christmas show (the Kylie one) was a prime example, appear to career along at breakneck speed with edits every few seconds, endless corridor running and characters shouting at each other over an increasingly noisy soundtrack and it’s all a bit overwhelming and ultimately boring.

It is obvious that today’s Dr Who suffers from perceived attention span deficit in its audience and hence cannot always allow stories to continue over several weeks for fear of losing audience to the playstation. Nor can they slow the pace without losing watchers with their finger on the channel flip button. It seems that the makers are giving in to a form of desperation that says ‘keep your ratings high at all costs!’ And it is being spoiled by a surfeit of style over content. By contrast, I often find that episodes of Gerry Anderson’s brilliant new CGI version of ‘Captain Scarlet’ seem much longer even though they run for barely 25 minutes.

Nonetheless, I have followed the good Doctors adventures with much enjoyment for these past few years and the last few episodes have been as good as any, so now that the dust has settled, what did I think of ‘Journey’s End’, the finale to Russell T Davies’ tenure in charge of the Timelord’s exploits?

I thought it was OK. It was spectacularly epic and lovingly compiled from the show’s legacy and it was exactly as RTD intended – a classical tragedy. All the great sci-fi writers understand that in essence, those with superpowers or of an alien nature are tragic heroes/heroines because they are outsiders and no one will ever understand outsiders. Ever.

H G Wells dealt comprehensively with this concept way back in 1897 when he wrote ‘The Invisible Man’, probably the sci-fi tragedy to end all sci-fi tragedies. Even further back in 1818, Mary Shelley applied the same concept to her gothic horror, ‘Frankenstein’. More recently, Joss Whedon has followed suit with ‘Buffy’. If ever there was an epic TV programme with a tragic heroine at its centre it was ‘Buffy’. RTD has clearly taken very careful note of Whedon’s philosophy and that is to rack up the emotional weight by ‘giving the audience what they need, not what they want’. In the case of Dr Who, what we want is for Rose to be reunited with the (real) Doctor and for Donna to bestride the universe as a heroine and for the Doctor himself to find true companionship. But what we need is to feel the pain of a Timelord because we know in our heart of (two) hearts, these things are just not possible.

So given the above, RTD has succeeded. My gripe is that whilst I always felt an inner sadness tempered with a sense of hope at the end of each successive season of ‘Buffy’ (and never more so than at the end of season 2), somehow, I do not feel it now. I feel no hope for Torchwood assuming the addition of Mickey and Martha to their ranks nor do I feel any hope for Rose, or the Noble family. I feel despair, so something has not worked and I’m not quite sure what it is.

Let’s hope that Steven Moffat, easily my favourite Dr Who writer of recent times, will give us some answers when he takes over the franchise later this year.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Together Alone

It is often implied that the best career move an artist can make is to die. But if they are destined to live a full life, then the worst thing they can do in their lifetime is produce a mega-selling hit album – apart from the fame. Oh, and the money. It acts like a huge umbrella effectively shielding all other work and especially subsequent work, from the public gaze almost for as long as the artist is in circulation.

The Pink Floyd had this trouble with that brooding monolith, ‘Dark Side of the Moon’, the umbrella to end all umbrellas whose vast and impenetrable shadow stretched over many other of their albums. In particular, it seemed to affect the follow up ‘Wish You Were Here’ quite badly, at least initially as everyone held their breath whilst trying to divine whether it was ‘the next one in the nest’ as Joni Mitchell once put it. These days, critical appreciation has grown but when it first emerged in its foul smelling black plastic bag, we were not so sure. (Note to record companies – don’t issue albums in black shrink-wrap.)

Other famous examples of ‘albums in the shadow’ are Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’ (which followed ‘Rumours’) and even the Beatles White Album. Life is hard after success and then you die!

The reason I started to think about this was that I had cause to listen to Crowded House’s ‘Together Alone’, the follow up to ‘Woodface’. Of course, ‘Woodface’ was a monster hit for Neil Finn and Co and deservedly so. It had great songs and with elder brother Tim temporarily in the fold it benefited from the sort of vocal harmonies that only family members can produce (see also The Beach Boys, Everly Brothers, Bee Gees and so on).

But ‘Together Alone’ is still a great album in its own right. It has an organic almost ethnic feel to it that grows in stature with subsequent listenings. It is almost a piece of New Zealand in musical form that reaches out across international boundaries. It is also a much more consistent album than ‘Woodface’ which I feel begins to fade about two thirds of the way through as the songwriting begins to lose its way. In many ways ‘Together Alone’ is a much more self-sufficient album and it contains the swoon-inducing 'Nails in my Feet', one of Finn's best songs.

The tragedy is that it will never be quite seen in that light as a result of having to share a discography with ‘Woodface’. It’s a bit like having a younger cheekier brother, for whom everything always turns out right. How it must hate it!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Unsung Heroes

Ever noticed how there are composers and composers? On the one hand there are those that call themselves composers who may knock out the odd song or two every few years. These tend to be well known pop stars who sell vast numbers of copies of their one or two songs to earn worldwide celebrity.

Then there are composers like Christophe Beck. Who? Well, exactly. Christophe once had a day job which was to write the orchestral incidental music for episodes of the TV show, ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ for seasons 3 to 5. I have just ripped my copy of the Buffy musical episode CD, ‘Once More With Feeling’ to MP3 so that I can play it on my computer. To make up the playing length of the CD, Beck’s score to accompany the last three minutes of the Season 5 finale – ‘The Gift’ is included. Thus I have reacquainted myself with what in musical terms is possibly Buffy’s finest moment.

I have a problem with this piece of music. It makes me cry. Every time. The screen action that this piece covers (Spoilers Alert!) is Buffy’s fatal swan dive into a dimensional portal to save the world (again), her friends’ discovery of her broken body and the final shot of her gravestone in Sunnydale cemetery. Obviously, knowing this lends a certain frisson to the music but nevertheless, it is impossibly beautiful and massively emotionally charged. Yet it is just a piece of commissioned music for a 45 minute TV programme that would be broadcast and then forgotten. At the time of its broadcast, Christophe would’ve put it behind him and be thinking anxiously about his deadline for the next episode.

There is a similar piece of score included on the Radio Sunnydale CD (a compilation of bands showcased at the show’s fictional nightclub, ‘The Bronze’) by Robert Duncan which was used during the final conflict with the First Evil’s Ubervamps in the show’s last ever episode, ‘Chosen’. This too, is fabulous. Its stirring, slightly Celtic flavoured theme is perfect for the final showdown, from which not all would emerge unscathed.

This is real musicianship. This is being technically adept and creative to order yet still coming up with something fresh and new on a regular basis, against the clock. In Beck’s case a throwaway few minutes of score has shown itself to be a masterwork. Compare that with the song-every-few-years brigade and you begin to wonder who the real musician is and just who is the celebrity?