Sunday, 30 August 2009

Lily 'Ashes' Allen

Just when you think it's all over, there's cricket. Having wrenched The Ashes from the long term grasp of arch rivals, the Aussies, in that balmy summer of 2005 only to promptly lose them again by being completely whitewashed 5-0 down under in the winter tour of 2006/7, the England cricket team have confounded us all by reclaiming the diminutive urn this summer – and without Pieterson and Freddie Flintoff for much of the series. I am amazed.

But I am more amazed by cricket’s new patron – Lily Allen. Was it not her being interviewed by Jonathon ‘Aggers’ Agnew on Radio 5’s Test Match Special (TMS) during the lunch break on day 3 of the deciding Oval Test? And was it not her who had to ask what the ‘Extras’ are that are added to the innings total? Oh Gawd! There has been a lot of adverse comment about the choice of interviewee on that day as the usual suspects are either veteran international cricketers or well known celebs who actually know something about cricket (and have a book to plug). But no, Lily declared her undying love for the game even though she was a bit wobbly on the rules.

However, she did strike a cruel blow against the administrators by saying that the new Twenty20 short form of the game was rubbish and that she only follows proper grown-up Test Matches. Hurrah! In fact she had a few ideas of her own. My favourite being that the Test series should be extended to 7 or even 9 games, to be known as the ‘All Out War’ series. Great Stuff! She clearly has a better grip on the game than some of those in charge.

Given her lack of a comprehensive knowledge of the laws of the game, I would’ve loved to have asked her whether she adhered to the ‘six and out’ rule having heaved the ball into a neighbour’s garden when playing at home with the family (I bet Keith bowls a mean leg cutter). And did she have any penalties in place for breaking windows? I only ask because I never actually broke any glass with a cricket ball myself – but my Dad once put a thick outside edge through the kitchen window (failed to spot the away-swinger) much to the consternation of my mother who was washing her hair in the kitchen sink at the time.

The standard of banter is always first rate on TMS and Lily’s contribution was a lot of fun. Even the real broadcasters have their moments of sheer surrealism. Like this:
Phil Tufnell (ex-England spin bowler and lad-about-town): ‘How did you prepare to bat, Matthew?’
Matthew Hayden (ex-Aussie opening batsman of some repute): 'I’d have a routine… (goes on for about 5 minutes about eye exercises and mental attitude etc etc)'
Tufnell: 'So having a snooze was completely the wrong approach then?'

I’m not sure Lily was so out of place after all.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Classical Gas

In addition to her piano lessons, my daughter attends a music school on Saturday mornings to learn choir singing, composition and musical appreciation. It seemed like a good idea at the time and she seems to enjoy it so we pay up and hope it is enriching her life. As a bonus, she became eligible for tickets to a children’s performance by the BBC Concert Orchestra at Watford Town Hall. Tickets were limited to two per pupil so she and I attended the gig and what fun it turned out to be.

The BBC Orchestra has a fantastic repertoire ranging from true classical pieces to TV and film themes to programme incidental music and we were treated to a selection from every area of their expertise. We thrilled to the themes from Dr Who, Mission Impossible and Wallace & Gromit as well as incidental music from the BBC’s wildlife programmes and pieces by Strauss, Bizet and Britten. Like all live music there is nothing quite like listening to a full orchestra in flight – the dynamic range, the punch, the sheer volume!

I love the Mission Impossible theme but you really haven’t lived until you’ve heard it played by a massive orchestra, it is truly awe inspiring.

And on the subject of classical music, I watched the ‘Proms’ on TV last night for the first time in a very long time indeed and for one reason only; one of the pieces on the bill was Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’. The ‘Rite’ is my all-time favourite orchestral work and this was beautifully played by the Scottish Symphony Orchestra. I was first introduced to this piece when forced to study part of it for Music ‘O’ Level when I was 16 and it has lived with me ever since. I have several recordings of it on both vinyl and CD and listen to it quite regularly. It is no less than a masterpiece but if you have never heard it before, be warned – it is not easy listening. The premiere of the ballet for which it was composed ended in an audience riot in 1913, so revolutionary was its rhythmic invention and primal bi-tonality.

To me it could only have been composed by a Russian. It is underscored by Russian folk tunes and amongst the violence and complexity there are moments of heartbreaking melancholy. It is one of those works that seems to underline my conviction that melancholy is a much maligned and misinterpreted state. At its best, it wields tremendous emotional power and can give you those goose-bump moments of sheer beauty. The Rite has some of those moments. But then so does Abba and my favourite band, Lush. Melancholy should never be confused with depression. Depression offers no hope, melancholy offers moments of insular reflection when the wonders of the natural world invade your soul and music is one of them.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Aimee Mann

Do you know, I have beavered away at this blog for over two years and 150 posts now and I still haven’t got around to talking about one of my favourite singer-songwriters, Aimee Mann. How has this happened? But in a curious way, this state of affairs epitomises her career to date in that she tends to be a forgotten talent and now I’m just as guilty of ignoring her as most of the buying public.

I first came across Ms Mann when her debut album, ‘Whatever’ was released in 1993. At that point I had no idea about her previous incarnation, ‘Til Tuesday’ who squeezed out 3 albums, largely written by Mann, in the late 80s, but was hugely impressed by her solo song writing. It is not so much the melodies that I like, although they are pretty good, but her assured chord progressions that seem to wrap you up in a familiar yet unfamiliar way. I became fascinated by the way she constructs songs around these ‘safe harbour’ chord changes that in the hands of others would produce yet another dull song. It is a gift.

Perhaps this is her problem. Perhaps it is the fact that by being the ultimate craftsman, she only appeals to purists like me and to the majority she is just another artist. Joss Whedon, another self confessed music obsessive, often used the fictional nightclub ‘The Bronze’ in his vampire soap opera ‘Buffy..’ to showcase unsigned or underexposed artists. He clearly felt that she needed more exposure by booking her to appear in Episode 8 of Season 7 doing versions of ‘This is How it Goes’ and ‘Pavlov’s Bell’ whilst a vampire brawl develops. She is seen coming off stage muttering, ‘Man, I hate playing Vampire towns!’

Strangely, her breakthrough came not from her own solo albums but from music she wrote for the film ‘Magnolia’ starring Tom Cruise and Julianne Moore, the screenplay being worked around the lyrics from the eight songs she contributed. ‘Save Me’ was Grammy nominated as a result and she suddenly appeared on the national radar.

Since then she has balanced the release of her solo work with more film soundtracks and has clearly found a niche for herself. Whilst this is good news for her it does mean that she has still not found major success in the pop world which is a shame but then the list of genuinely good artists who fail to sell mega-amounts of what the music industry would call ‘product’ is depressingly long.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Mountain Queen

I get the feeling that everyone has at least one album in their collection that they would risk a burning building to recover, but about which few people would be acquainted. (‘You mean you narrowly avoided third degree burns for ‘what’ by who!?’). If this isn’t the case I’m sure there will follow a deluge of comments telling me I’m completely wrong. Nevertheless, I do have a few of these gems by relative unknowns, but the one that rises to the top of the list in the burning building stakes is a 1973 effort by Dutch progrockers, Alquin and it is entitled ‘The Mountain Queen’.

The Mountain Queen will always merit a place in my heart (music division) because a) it was a bugger to find in the first place – and that fact alone gives it a sort of rarity mystique and b) it contains some of the finest instrumental rock outside of Focus despite the band looking like a bunch of hippy rejects. As with most card-carrying prog albums it contains two lengthy pieces clocking in at around 13 minutes each surrounded by a smattering of shorter fillers. There are some vocal moments, sung in a hushed whispery Dutch-accented voice but generally it is the instrumental sections that really shine.

Being a 6 piece band, Alquin had variety of sound as a major asset. It means that the two long pieces, the title track and ‘The Dance’ are constructed of a number of sections of differing moods including not just the usual guitar based rock but softer parts making use of flute, saxophones and keyboards. As is usual for bands of that era, the playing is fabulous and the musical dynamic carefully built throughout the length of the piece. This is why I like it – it is the mixture of great musicianship and the constructional understanding which prevents it from being a boring extended jam.

I first saw them when they had a TV guest slot on that holy of holies of serious music programmes, ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ doing a cut down version of ‘The Dance’ and decided that I would take a chance on them (to coin a phrase). After an age of trekking around all the local record stores in the district I finally secured a copy. Thankfully, they didn’t disappoint and my slightly warped vinyl copy has been a constant companion until I finally managed to get hold of a CD copy (a twofer twinned with the previous album, ‘Marks’) only a year or so ago.

Would I still do the burning building bit now? Hmm...definitely.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Poker Face

I’m not usually one for sticking my neck out when it comes to predicting who will be a sustainable star of the future – and here you will be expecting the ‘but’ – but…I’ve been trying to get to grips with the hype that surrounds the artist that is Lady Gaga and can’t help feeling there is some substance beneath the image.

Despite not making my Top Three at Glasto this year, I did enjoy her live set and as a result vowed to find out a bit more about her. On the surface, she peddles the type of personality that I consider makes a great pop star; she’s highly individual, appears to have a modicum of talent and is completely bonkers. In many respects she reminds me of a young Madonna Ciccone circa 1984 in that she’s bold, brassy, sexually outrageous and wields a bunch of catchy tunes with ultimate ease. But as she exists in 2009 and not 1984 she has all the current understanding of modern R&B and avant-garde fashion to create cutting edge music/image packages in a style similar to Gwen Stefani. Because of her startling image and on-stage antics, she leans towards coming across as just another MeMeMe ambitious wannabe using the music industry as a means to climb the greasy pole to fame and considerable fortune. T’was ever thus.

But having watched a couple of her TV interviews my view has been moderated. She clearly has a frightening amount of self-confidence for someone of barely 23 years, some may say arrogance, yet she is considered, articulate, polite and has an endearing personality. More importantly, she is clearly a talented musician having played the piano since age 4 and has for several years worked the clubs whilst writing songs for the likes of the Pussycat Dolls. In other words, she has paid her dues in curiously old fashioned way rather than elbowed in on hype alone, the common method these days. It is going to be her innate musicality and genuine song writing ability that will sustain her when the public tires of the force fed media machine.

So whilst she appears to be a Madonna/Stefani clone, she has a background rooted more in musicianship rather than ambition alone and anyone who can write pure pop hooks like ‘Poker Face’, ‘Paparazzi’ and ‘Just Dance’ and can perform genuinely innovative acoustic versions of those songs deserves to succeed. Whether she can sustain her impact henceforth remains to be seen but I’m hopeful. In the meantime check out this stripped down version of 'Paparazzi' and see if you agree.