Tuesday, May 22, 2012

bee gee are eye pee

I was never a particular fan of the Bee Gees, so all I'll say in the aftermath of Robin Gibb's death this week is that it was Robin who sang on most of the hits they had at what I consider to be the more interesting end of their career, the late 1960s, on songs like New York Mining Disaster 1941 and Massachusetts. That first clip segues into To Love Somebody, on which Barry sings - note that he's singing in a pretty normal voice here compared to what I once read described (aptly, I think) as the "monstrous braying falsetto" he sported once he'd taken over lead vocal duties for most of their mid- to late-1970s hits.

It seems that the association with disco eventually became a source of irritation to the Bee Gees, especially when the craze wore off and its demise took their hits and record sales down the toilet with it. In the interviews I saw and read with them over the years (of which the notorious Clive Anderson one was just the most extreme example) they always came across as charmless, humourless (about, among other things, being ripe for parody) and generally bitter about not being taken as seriously as the Lennons & McCartneys they aspired to being ranked with. All of which seems a bit churlish when set against the lavish lifestyle, yachts and top-quality orthodontics that their success afforded them.

Finally, two random observations connected to Diana Ross's 1985 hit single Chain Reaction, which the Bee Gees wrote for her. Firstly that they seemingly re-used the exact same backing track, bar at most the odd chord here and there, for their own 1991 hit Secret Love (try singing Chain Reaction over the top of it - easy, isn't it?); secondly, a close examination of the lyrics to Chain Reaction reveal it to be one of the most sexually explicit songs ever written (or ever to be number 1, anyway). Check this out:
You make me tremble when your hand moves lower
You taste a little then you swallow slower
Nature has a way of yielding treasure
Pleasure made for you, oh


You let me hold you for the first explosion
We get a picture of our love in motion
My arms will cover, my lips will smother you
With no more left to say 
Utter filth.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

a new slant on old sounds

So there I was bemoaning the handful of outsize CDs I own which necessitate a sub-optimal use of rack space, little realising that my next CD purchase would increase the size of the problem by a whopping 75%.

These are the long-awaited remastered versions of My Bloody Valentine's only two studio albums Isn't Anything and Loveless, as well as a double-CD collection of non-album tracks from various singles and EPs as well as a few unreleased rarities.

No great surprises with either of the regular albums beyond a bit of tidying up and sharpening of the sound, though the Loveless re-release does comprise 2 CDs, each remastered from a slightly different master tape, but to my untrained ear pretty much indistinguishable from each other. Still, handy to have a spare one if one gets lost or broken, I suppose.

The EPs and Rarities album is a bit lumpy, as these things often are, but includes a lot of good stuff, including the full 10-minute version of Glider, which, depending on your point of view, is either unlistenable headfucking noise or a glorious hypnotic wash of grinding interstellar spaceship rumble. I tend to the latter view, while my wife tends to the former, judging by the rather unfavourable review it got when I played it earlier. Bloody hell, what's that racket, that sort of thing.

Anyway, to recap: Loveless, one of the great albums of the '90s, or any other decade come to that, buy it. By all means buy the other two as well if you like; I did.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

ultrasonic the hedgehog

Here's today's mystery object. So, granny and eldest dog only - what's this?

Actually this one is fairly easy, but I include it just to add to the catalogue of stuff that our predecessors left lying around. It's plugged into the wall socket under the kitchen table, has various flashy lights on it and if you shot it from the right angle would probably bear a startling resemblance to the Millennium Falcon, though whether it could do the Kessel run in less than 20 parsecs I wouldn't like to say.

It also bears the model number LP22 on the back, which enables it to be Googled, and just as I suspected it turns out to be a sort of ultrasonic pest-scarer, which is allegedly good for deterring all sorts including mice, rats, cockroaches, ants and squirrels, while having (again, allegedly) no effect on cats, dogs or fish. I'm always slightly sceptical about these claims of extreme selectivity, just as I am when similar claims are made about things like weedkillers that won't affect your begonias, but it being in and constantly switched on (and having been since we moved in) presents me with a dilemma similar to that faced by anyone sceptical about the effectiveness of my tiger-repellent underpants. Yes, it sounds a bit implausible, but then again I've never been attacked by a tiger while wearing them.

So while I could try switching it off and removing it, there is the faint possibility that if I did so I would come downstairs the next morning to find the kitchen waist-deep in woodlice and squirrels, all really pissed off that I'd been giving them a constant blinding headache for the last two years. Perhaps I'll leave it where it is for the moment.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

the world is just a GREAT BIG ONION

For someone who regularly bemoans the state of "proper" science programming on radio and TV it should go without saying that I welcome the regular Radio 4 post-9am slot featuring Jim Al-Khalili's The Life Scientific. And indeed it does go without saying, but that doesn't mean that the content is therefore immune from criticism. And yesterday's programme demonstrates this principle quite nicely, as the guest whose life was being examined was James Lovelock - a proper scientist in his youth, to be sure (his invention of the electron capture device is well-documented, his supposed invention of the microwave oven less so), but principally famous since the 1970s for the Gaia hypothesis, a - being charitable - somewhat woolly piece of quasi-religious New Age flummery that he's been touting round the world for the last 40 years and getting all frustrated when the scientific community doesn't rally round to line up behind it.

The Gaia thing is another example of how pervasive magical and religious thinking is, and how it generally rots the brain. The notion of considering the Earth as if it were a single organism, and thus able to cope, as we are, with a spot of indigestion or a minor stab wound to the leg, is an interesting and potentially useful metaphor, but it is just that, a metaphor. Once you start touting it as your actual science then you need to be a lot more specific about what claims you are making, and answer awkward questions like:
  • so are you saying that the Earth has some sort of guiding intelligence that's intervening to keep things in order? If you are, what exactly are its properties? Where is the physical seat of this intelligence? How would we test for its existence or non-existence? How would you know if you were wrong?
  • if you're not saying that, then what you're really saying is whoah, dude, we breathe oxygen, right, and there's, like, just the right amount of oxygen in the air, yeah? Isn't that all just A Little Bit Too Convenient (significant look to camera, raised eyebrow), eh? That's really just a small-scale Earth-centric version of the anthropic principle, which, apart from being very silly, is also really just a restatement of the "guiding intelligence" option above with some of the details hidden to make it less obviously goddy.
  • if you're not even saying that, then you're really just saying that a lot of the earth's systems (biological, meteorological, seismological, systematic, hydromatic, ultramatic, etc.) have, via various interactive feedback mechanisms that we perhaps don't fully understand, fallen into a sort of equilibrium with each other. To which the answer is: well, yeah. And?
So basically you are saying either a) something clearly false, b) something clearly false or c) nothing.

One of the ways in which the Gaia thing closely resembles religion is the insistence on it all being real when talking to an uncritically accepting audience, but backtracking into "well, that bit's just a metaphor" when subjected to pointed questioning about any of it. That's exactly what, for instance, Christian types do when pinned down on any of the specifics in the Bible.

One of the other problems with this sort of hippyish Mother Earth thing is a kind of blithe assumption that It'll All Be All Right no matter what we do - plainly this has not been the case in the past (without any need for human intervention) so it's potentially a recipe for dangerous apathy and inaction in regard to things like man-made climate change. To his credit Lovelock is pretty solid about the reality of climate change, though his ideas on what to do about it are more controversial - he's a big proponent of nuclear power as the solution to the fossil fuel crisis and climate change. Now there's nothing especially cranky about that per se, though there's plenty of room for disagreement, but his blithe lack of concern about the dangers is a bit odd. Anyone who can handwave away the Fukushima disaster but insist that wind-farms are potentially lethal because if there was an earthquake the turbines might fall on someone and squash them needs to stop and have a bit of a think about what they're saying.

Oddly, one of Lovelock's big supporters during the 1970s was the late Lynn Margulis, another scientist who combined great work in some spheres with utter crackpottery in others. It's a very salutary lesson that no-one is immune from blind spots and irrationality, even those who do great things in other areas. Further examples include Isaac Newton's enthusiasm for alchemy and Linus Pauling's nuttery regarding vitamin megadoses.

So am I saying that Jim Al-Khalili and his team should have passed up the opportunity of featuring Lovelock, a man whose name is - for whatever reason - better-known than most of the people featured on the show? On the whole, no, I don't think I am saying that, and equally I understand the general desire not to editorialise and just to let the guests speak, particularly given the constraints of a 30-minute slot, but I think a slightly less uncritical tone could have been taken while still stopping short of cackling laughter and shouting WOOP WOOP NUTTER ALERT over what Lovelock was saying. I mean, that's what I would have been doing, but then again that's why I haven't got my own Radio 4 show. Yet.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

the last book I read

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk.

Victor Mancini has a few issues. One, he's a sex addict, and a regular attendee at a twelve-step programme to try to combat his addiction, though his commitment to the cause is occasionally compromised by anonymous quickies in the toilets with fellow attendees. Second, his mother is in hospital with a terminal illness and he has to find the money for her medical bills, which he does in a combination of ways - through the more orthodox means of getting a job at a historical re-enactment theme park, but also through the slightly less orthodox means of faking a series of choking accidents at various restaurants and having members of the public "rescue" him by giving him the Heimlich manoeuvre; these "heroes", having now invested some emotional capital in Victor's welfare, can then be persuaded to hand over money later.

We learn a bit about Victor's past - taken into care at a fairly early age, he was passed around a series of foster parents and subject to a series of increasingly eccentric "rescues" by his mother, after which they would travel around together while she attempted to impart vital (and increasingly barking) wisdom to Victor before the authorities caught up with them again. Now his mother is in a seemingly terminal decline, and the only hope seems to be being offered by the foxy Dr. Paige Marshall, who has some treatment ideas that seem, well, unconventional to say the least. For instance, one of them involves Victor impregnating her on the altar in the hospital chapel, aborting the foetus and then using the genetically suitable stem cells thus acquired to do some sort of brain graft. Well, it might work.

So anyway, Victor's best buddy and fellow theme park employee Denny gets himself fired and then embarks on the sisyphean task of collecting up random bits of rock from around the city and cementing them into some giant structure (to remarkably little protest from whoever owns the bit of land they're doing it on), Denny and Victor become minor TV celebrities, Paige Marshall turns out not to be who she says she is, Victor's mother dies, Victor is arrested (in connection with her death) and then released and all ends - sort of - happily.

So we've all seen Fight Club, right? Well, that was Palahniuk's first novel - Choke was his fourth, published in 2001. It's highly reminiscent of the work of some other American authors of similar vintage - Douglas Coupland, Rick Moody, Dave Eggers - though it's probably less subtle and more gleefully transgressive than any of them. I'd also have to say it's probably not as good as, for instance, Moody's Purple America or Coupland's Miss Wyoming, both of which explore broadly similar subject matter (celebrity, relentless prescription drug use, joyless desultory sex, tortured parental relationships, general ennui). A bit like Platform, though, the relentless energy is all very bracing, though it's a bit too much like being poked in the eye to be completely pleasurable.

Choke was made into a film in 2008 starring the excellent Sam Rockwell among others - here's the trailer.

Monday, May 07, 2012

randomly generated music list of the day

Today's random music list is generated from the aftermath of the assembly of my new wall-mounted CD racks.

First things first: these are Lerberg CD/DVD racks from IKEA, a snip at £5 a pop. Each rack holds about 80 CDs; we have quite a lot so there are ten arranged in two columns of five on our spare room wall. Now just as with books once you start owning more than a few CDs you need a system whereby you can find the one you want, so these are alphabetised, with the exception of all the random compilations which are just randomly bunged on the bottom shelf. Anyway, the list is generated from those CDs which turn out to be of non-standard height thanks to some limited-edition packaging and (slightly unsatisfactorily in terms of rack space usage) therefore have to be slotted in on a diagonal. They're ringed in yellow in the picture and they are (in alphabetical order, naturally):
  • Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes. A bit like Midlake's second album, this is a bit of a "grower" in comparison with its predecessor - there's nothing as joyously melodic as White Winter Hymnal or Tiger Mountain Peasant Song here. It's still great though.
  • Here Comes That Weird Chill by the Mark Lanegan Band. This is the mini-album released in advance of Bubblegum in 2004. If you are perverse enough only to want one of them then Bubblegum is the one to have (Methamphetamine Blues is the only song they have in common), but really you ought to have both.
  • I Might Be Wrong by Radiohead. This is the live album they released after the pair of "challenging" albums (Kid A and Amnesiac) with which they'd attempted to scare off anyone who'd wandered in after buying The Bends and OK Computer and was starting to get comfortable. Actually the slightly more rocky arrangements some of the songs require to come across in a live setting suits them quite well, and Radiohead are not a band much given to note-for-note retreads of the studio material anyway, so this is more interesting than most live albums, many of which can be a bit perfunctory. And it includes the previously unreleased gem True Love Waits.
  • Takk by Sigur Rós. Better known as "the one with Hoppípolla on it". Now there's an argument that most of Sigur Rós' albums sound pretty much the same, an argument that I wouldn't necessarily argue too much with. The corollary of that is that you can have pretty much any album you like; if you are looking for a recommendation though I'd say their untitled 2002 album (featuring 7 untitled songs, helpfully) is probably the best one.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

clutch ado about nothing

While trawling around the web looking for reactions to Levon Helm's death I came across a post on Jerry Coyne's excellent website Why Evolution Is True saying pretty much the usual stuff - i.e. The Band were great, he was great, shame he's dead, here's some clips - but also reproducing a section of the lengthy New York Times obituary I linked to. Here's the relevant bit:
In the Band, lead vocals changed from song to song and sometimes within songs, and harmonies were elaborately communal. But particularly when lyrics turned to myths and tall tales of the American South — like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag” — the lead went to Mr. Helm, with his Arkansas twang and a voice that could sound desperate, ornery and amused at the same time. 
The word "ornery" is a bit of a mystery to non-Americans, I think. Anyone who reads a lot will have seen it used and have a vague idea of what it means - awkward, intransigent, bad-tempered - but I suspect no-one outside of North America would ever use it in spoken or written English. It's probably possible to be more specific than that, in fact, as it seems to be to be a rural middle-America good-old-boy sort of word, i.e. not something you'd ever hear the east coast urban sophisticates using. I suspect most non-American English speakers who heard it used in conversation (particularly by someone with a strong American accent) would think that they'd just misheard the word "ordinary" and be slightly puzzled by the context. It turns out that you wouldn't be entirely wrong, as it happens, since "ornery" is a 19th-century contraction of "ordinary", although the meanings have diverged quite a bit since then.

Another strange thing that struck me while watching Sky Sports' PGA tour golf coverage, including of course the Masters, is the use of the word "clutch" to describe the holing of putts under pressure, as in these two articles describing recent tournament wins by Mark Wilson and Luke Donald. These two articles take the definition somewhat more loosely and use it to describe putts that are a) on the 18th green for tournament wins and b) fairly long. In my mind that's not what "clutch putt" really means - I see them as the sort of putts from 10-12 feet and in that you have to hole reliably on the back nine on Sundays to win golf tournaments, and that Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus used to knock in as regular as clockwork.

"Clutch" as an adjective is used (though less often) in sports other than golf, though, like "ornery", overwhelmingly by people in North America. Here's a few headlines relating to basketball, American football and motor racing. No-one seems to have much of an idea where the usage originates from.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

celebrity lookeylikey of the day

Current World Snooker Championship quarter-finalist, devoted family man and (I've just decided) Welshman Of The Day (you see what I did there) Ryan Day, and shape-shifting gelatinous alien blob and head of Deep Space Nine security Odo. It's the slightly blank expression and the weirdly sunken eyes, I think.