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Monthly Archives: March 2009

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

That question about the virtues of the retro has been in my mind again, whilst listening to Kitty, Daisy and Lewis, the debut album from the Durham siblings. The youngest of them is 16, and the eldest 20, but they are influenced by 50s swing and R&B (and helped out by their ma and pa), and their music less betrays its influences as it does faithfully reproduce them. They are callow, for sure – a cover of “I Got My Mojo Working” and the quoting of “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”‘s signature riff hardly speaks of a depth of allusion – and at times the record feels a little redundant.

Yet the trio have real beef, and “Going Up The Country”, “Buggin’ Blues” and “Polly Put The Kettle On” are all dancefloor shakers of the old school which are dextrous contributions to a tradition, rather than ham-fisted love letters to better players. It’s almost a shame that the kids spent ages collecting retro recording and production equipment – ribbon microphones, ancient mixers and masterers and RIAA curves – when making a record with this sort and level of  musicianship which also sounded like it was recorded now might have been a more interesting proposition. But it’s hard to like a record whilst also dissing its ethic.

Worth watching out for live, it might also be interesting to see some originals from the group – “Buggin’ Blues” is penned by 18-year old Lewis, but otherwise the 10 tunes on this album are old standards of one sort or another. It’s in that shying from originality that this album fails to be much more than a diverting – and very well executed – retread. Great fun and not a little refreshing, if they take their straightforwardly rootsy sound to a new place as for instance did Nickel Creek, Kitty, Daisy and Lewis may also still become something very special, to boot.

In the meantime, and for those of you who like your rockabilly rawer and more mature, I recommend Swampmeat. Yee-haw.

Together Through Life

Together Through Life

The good people at bobdylan.com are giving away the lead track from his forthcoming new album, Together Through Life, until ‘5am’ tomorrow – I assume that’s EST, but take the risk at your peril.

What to say about “Beyond Here Lies Nothin'”? The first thing to note is that, of the records of the late trilogy, it shares more in swampy spirit with Time Out of Mind than “Love and Theft” or Modern Times. Lyrically, it’s nothing to write home about, though again its emphasis on melancholy love harks back to Time Out Of Mind (whilst it might also be a sceptical reflectioof the hopeful tone of  “Beyond The Horizon” from Modern Times). Yet in one way it is noticeably different from the songs on that record, and that separation lies in the song’s most noticeably characteristic: its swing, its rock ‘n’ roll swagger. The Cajun squeezebox sweeps the song along nicely, but the tacits, cued by slammed snare, and peeling guitars lend the song a sultrier quality than the downbeat shuffles of I or even the straight-ahead Chicago blues with which Modern Times began, whilst that sliver of gospel ensures it also has a spiritual glint in its eye.

It’s hard not to avoid the suspicion that Dylan has been watching The Wire, though: the song’s tonal, structural and musical similarities to Way Down In The Hole are obvious. Modern Times was greeted withs some controversy on this score, and you’re left wondering what Together Through Life will bring in terms of songwriting. If what’s on offer in that regard in Beyond Here Lies Nothin’ is meagre by Dylan’s standards, then the sound – its shimmy and shimmer – still more than whets the appetite.

After 1988, 'Shakey' had more hair...

After 1988, 'Shakey' had more hair...

More twists in the case of the suspicious Shakespeares. You might remember that Katherine Duncan-Jones took apart the Cobbe portrait’s link to Shakespeare in part on the back of the fact that the Folger, or Jansenn, portrait’s likeness to Shakespeare had been added many years after the bard’s death, suggesting dishonest tampering. As reported in The Independent yesterday, however, there has now emerged research dating those alterations – largely to the subject’s head, making him appear balder and therefore more like the man depicted in the Droeshout portrait – to the Bard’s lifetime, meaning that their removal in 1988 conservation work (which was sceptical as to the Folger’s attachment to Shakespeare) may well have lost to the world a wealth of information about the playwright’s aging process.

Except that the quote from Rupert Featherstone, director of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge, which accompanies many of the press reports of this story (including the Telegraph’s and the Guardian’s) hardly seems to speak that strongly of the conclusions drawn from the technical analysis: “We can no longer peer down a microscope to look at the physical evidence of the overpaint,” he says, which might just as well mean we can’t tell that the oil paint hair plugs are earlier as that we can’t tell they’re later, right?

Indeed, the spin on this research seems to come largely from, erm, the owners and promoters of the Cobbe portrait. Stan Wells gives two separate reasons why two separate paintings might have been altered in similar ways (this is called stretching credulity), including the claim that the homoerotic sonnets were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton (this is called deliberately courting controversy). You may remember that Wells and Cobbe’s case for their portrait rests on tenuous connections, the best of which is its link to Shakespeare’s early patron, Southampton. It follows, of course, that any portrait of a bloke in a ruff which resembles another portrait of a bloke in a ruff which was once thought to maybe possibly be Shakespeare, is, when belonging to the Earl of Southampton, definitely an image of Shakespeare. Especially when you can’t prove that the baldness wasn’t added to the portrait earlier than you’re arguing in your nasty debunkings. (So nyeh nyeh nyeh.)

More debate needed, I think.

“In publishing these short sketches, based upon the numerous cases which my companion’s singular gifts have made me the listener to, and eventually the actor in some strange drama, it is only natural that I should dwell rather upon his successes than upon his failures.”

"He Picked Up The Little Child..."

"He Lifted The Little Child"

The Yellow Face may well have a lot to answer for: a comment from Watson is partly the source of Guy Ritchie’s conception of Sherlock Holmes as a bruiser par excellence. (“He was undoubtedly one of the finest boxers I have ever seen.”) But this reference aside, Holmes is in fact curiously passive in this story, which (controversially perhaps) Brad Keefauver places as the third proper adventure of the duo.

The bulk of the story is the narration by Grant Munro of a strange secret kept by his wife. Mrs Munro, who spent the years of her youth in America and who, before leavin istraughtdg for England, had a child with a husband who later died. After three years of happy marriage to Munro, however, she begins to visit the sinister denizens of the house next door – one of whom peers from the window with the hideous yellow face of the story’s title. She leaves the house at 3am, demands a hundred pounds of her husband, and generally acts in a suspiciously furtive fashion.

Of course, all this gets too much for Munro, who asks for Holmes’s help more in the way of a confidant than a detective: “I want your opinions as a judicious man – as a man of the world,” he says, and proceeds to impart a story with precious little of the hard data on which Holmes thrives. Consequently, Holmes’s theory is by story’s perfunctory end proved to be wholly spurious. “Watson,” he opines when the truth becomes clear, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper ‘Norbury’ in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”

The Norbury house does indeed hold a drama beyond Holmes’s ken; but, as in A Scandal In Bohemia, it is simply a case of Holmes not being given the full facts by his client – indeed, the full facts emerge as so obscure and unguessable that deductive reasoning is understandably useless in diving them. One might go so far to say as this is Conan Doyle writing by numbers: the American past, the unexplainable by terrifying vision, the secretive family member are all present. The only missing ingredient is the mystery, leaving Holmes’s presence decidedly perfunctory.

Ah, well.

Beware, by Bonnie Prince Billy

Beware, by Bonnie Prince Billy

I’ve had a conversation over at By Fuselage about the pros and perceived cons of Beware, the latest album from Will Oldham as Bonnie Prince Billy. ‘Prolific’ is a word attached to Oldham in almost anything written about him, and his corpus of work does indeed bloat with every passing year: there are twists and turns enough in his career that one might expect his fans to be ready to take anything. Still, as Rilo Kiley discovered, the one thing your fans might not accept is your trying to record something that sounds like money was spent on it.

The smoothness of the production here, and the neatness of the arrangements, has raised a few eyebrows, since previously Oldham has been known for eschewing the obvious traps of the alt.county field in which he unambiguously toils. Like Lambchop, Oldham’s americana estate has always had fewer fences than a Ryan Adams or a Gillian Welch, and this has sometimes obscured his obvious influences. Beware, on the other hand, often sounds like the album The Flying Burrito Brothers never made. If Oldham hasn’t quite rewritten Sin City for Generation Y, he has certainly been less evasive about liking it.

Yet imprisoned by these reference points Beware certainly is not: the sniffy reception the record has enjoyed in some quarters misses the point entirely that if your honky tonk song has a marimba solo in it, then it’s probably not mere pastiche. Indeed, ‘You Can’t Hurt Me Now’ begins with the lyric ‘I know everyone knows / The trouble I have seen’, as blunt an eschewal of the usual country motif of the uniquely pained trouabdor as you could ask for. Beware is a fascinating, sonically diverse record which hits its mark just right. For all Oldham’s talent, few of his previous albums have maintained both their tone and quality to such complete effect. That alone makes Beware worthy of more than the usual schmindie snobbery.

I’m currently reading, with some considerable pleasure, He Knew He Was Right. As two of his characters take the train to Turin, Trollope has this to say on the subject of railway cuisine:

“… the real disgrace of England is the railway sandwich, – that whited sepulchre, fair enough outside, but so meagre, poor, and spiritless within, such a thing of shreds and parings, such a dab of food, telling us that the poor bone whence it was scraped had been made utterly bare before it was sent into the kitchen for the soup pot.”

The novel was serialised from 1868 to 1869. 140 years, and still true truth. This, my friends, is the genius of the novelist.

Barack Obama made great play during his rally in Orange County yesterday of taking off his jacket – going so far as to ask the audience for permisson to do so, as if they might mind. He then took unscreened questions. When I heard about this, I was sure some other political figure, smart and savvy, had done the same thing to great success a few years ago. Who had clearly so inspired the big guy? Was it Blair? Cameron? It surely couldn’t have been Bush. I racked my brains.

Oh, yes. It was Josiah Bartlet.

On meeting the writer of The West Wing, Obama reportedly told Aaron Sorkin that he’d be stealing some of the scribe’s lines. He’s made good on the promise! Richard T Kelly, meanwhile, points his readers to the blog of former Blair consigliere, Alastair Campbell, who recently attended a screening of Armando Ianucci’s new satire, In The Loop. A version of his thoroughly cynical TV deconstruction of New Labour’s governing style, The Thick Of It, one is left wondering if this waspish film about the US and UK waging another shady war has missed the zeitgeist, in an era when the real President of the United States is quoting a tool of liberal wish fulfilment.

The film’s released on April 17th and has a very good buzz … so we’ll see.

Is this a Shakespeare I see before me?

Is this a Shakespeare I see before me?

Oh, Stanley Wells, you wag. With an uncharacteristic flourish, that eminent Shakespearean has declared that a previously unregarded painting in a private collection is the only painting of the Bard that was taken from life. In all things, Shakespeare is a will o’ the wisp, and his image is similarly akin to the proverbial scotch mist. Wells knows all this, and his adamancy in approving the Cobbe portrait, whilst unusual, only adds to the publicity and excitement: how few paintings there are, and how exciting we have a new one! Stefanie Peters, at her blog, stands for the breathlessly credulous:  “yes, this is what Shakespeare looked like.”

Of course, nothing in Shakespeare studies is so easy. Something doesn’t ring true about the Cobbe painting. Adam Roberts, over at the Valve, had a good stab at these feelings of uncertainty, but focusing on a nose and a gammy eye always leaves one open to being the victim of a trick of the light. (Luther Blissett, is that really you in the comments?) No, on reflection the real killer muist surely be the subject’s clothes. It is hard, for instance, to reconcile this courtly gent with the picture of the far humbler later Shakespeare so wonderfully built from scraps by Charles Nicholl in his wonderful book, The Lodger. Likewise, the clothing of the man in the Chandos portrait similarly fits with the idea of Shakespeare as a working poet from the provinces than all that lace and embroidery.

In March 20th’s TLS, Katherine Duncan-Jones picks up these threads (geddit?) and demolishes the case for the Cobbe portrait with an ease with ought to make us wonder whether Wells is just having an early April fools. She clear-sightedly fingers Sir Thomas Overbury as the real subject of the painting, comparing the Cobbe portrait convincingly with one of Overbury owned by the Bodleian Library. Overbury was infamously poisoned in the Tower of London after crossing Royal interests in a Jacobean scandal, the celebrity of which neatly links with the Cobbe’s Latin inscription (“Principum Amicitias!” – or “The Leagues of Princes!”), and helpfully accounts for the tight timeframe in which the cluster of paintings similar to the Cobbe and the Bodleian portrait were produced.

It’s worthwhile not having too fixed a picture of Shakespeare in one’s mind; but at the same time he would surely not have been depicted as the foolish, painted thing on show in the Cobbe picture. Not for want of trying, he was just never quite that sucessful at court.

“I am afraid, Watson, that I shall have to go,” said Holmes as we sat down together to our breakfast one morning.

"What the devil do you want here?"

"What the devil do you want here?"

Silver Blaze famously sees Holmes prove something with a negative. ‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time’ is the mystery’s pivot, that fact so trival as to be beneath the notice of anyone but Holmes, but from which flows the entire mystery. The dog guarding Colonel Ross’s Silver Blaze, the favourite for the Wessex Cup, fails to bark on the night the horse is kidnapped and its trainer murdered; Holmes, of course, deduces from this overlooked truth that the kidnapper must have been known to the dog.

Holmes’s entire solution is based upon such conjecture, and here more than in many stories his leaps of logic seems ones of faith rather than reason. “My final shot was, I confess, a very long one,” he admits about his examination of Ross’s flock of sheep, but in truth Holmes is here following his instincts more than the trail of evidence. Perhaps tellingly, when at one point our heroes are following tracks in the mud, it is Watson, not Holmes, who spots that they double back on themselves. Holmes is far more wrapped up in his theses.

The story is characterised by this kind of basic competence in those surrounding Holmes: Watson makes several observations of importance, and the policeman in charge of the investigation, Inspector Gregory, is picked out regularly for praise from Holmes. (“My dear Inspector, you surpass yourself!”) Only Colonel Ross is given the role of Holmes’s foil, and the owner of the horse is punished a little by Holmes for his dismissive temperament, kept in the dark until the very close of a mystery on which much of his money rests. Yet ultimately all three share a lack of imagination. Competenece is not quite enough to solve so curious a mystery. Something more unconventional, more inspirational, is required.

“I follow my own methods and tell as much or as little as I choose. That is the advantage of being unofficial.” The joy of following Holmes lies in how readily he applies his idiosyncrasies not just to detection but also to justice: every player in a mystery investigated by Holmes is liable to be judged, whether they have committed a crime or not. Holmes’s superiority complex leads him regularly to act as the arbiter of moral imperatives. In those stories, such as this, when he leaves the city for the country there are too hints of the class-based society in which he moves, and of which he is a part and product: there is always some distaste that he hails from the capital (“I must say I am rather disappointed in our London consultant,” Colonel Ross remarks, emphasising Holmes’s metropolitan origin); yet at the same time Holmes’s gentrified manners (“Surely I met you in Plymouth at a garden-party some little time ago, Mrs Straker?”), and his patronising approach to the lower echelons of society, (he refers to Ross’s largess as being “liberal” with the servants) place him very much in the mould of a country squire, rather than upstart bourgeois. There’s a depth of reference in all this which is not always present in a Conan Doyle caper.

Silver Blaze is, then, a particularly well formed and well characterised story with a welcome new kind of premise. If the dots of the mystery itself are a little far apart in the joining, we must, as we are often called upon to do, simply place faith in Sherlock Holmes. He does not guess, however it may appear to a lesser sleuth. The story, fittingly for one so well conceived, is perfectly armoured against their accusations, and Holmes is given the defense: “We imagined what might have happened, acted upon the supposition, and find ourselves justified. Let us proceed.” There is a little madness in his method, but that’s what makes it so compelling to watch.

Life Death Love and Freedom

Life Death Love and Freedom

I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp’s Life Death Love and Freedom, sent to me by a friend who clearly knows my taste in music very well. It’s a very fine CD, made so of course by Mellencamp’s undoubted gifts as a songwriter, but also by the sympathetic production of T-Bone Burnett. Burnett has made something of a career for himself as a producer of grainy acoustic Americana, following the runaway success of his soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou?, the Coen Brother’s Dustbowl Odyssey. Most recently, his production for the Robert Plant / Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand helped that release not a little towards its Grammies success.

Another friend recently likened the production style of a CD of my own songs, Walk The Floor, to Burnett’s. This is high praise indeed (and I won’t be so churlish as to modestly pooh-pooh it, though I could): Burnett is my kind of producer, with a love of traditional virtues allied to a keen eye for modern possibilities. No doubt this fidelity to the particular qualities of music, and awareness of the limitations and capacities of technology, led to GBurnett’s conception of the format in which Life Death Love and Freedom was released. ΧΟΔΕ (or Code) aims to do for recorded music what THX did for movie sound, reproducing the experience of listening to the studio masters. The ΧΟΔΕ disc can only be played in DVD players, and since my own player is currently attached to a 14″ TV with a  hopeless mono speaker, I haven’t been able to test it out. Has anyone else out there?

Left only with the CD, meanwhile, the songs’ strengths have of course still been more than obvious. The CD makes for a dark listen, but its bluesy forms and clear arrangements also make it an entertaining one. We probably have T-Bone to thank for that, too. Recommended.

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