Sunday, 27 March 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #4: The Kinks - "When I Turn Off The Living Room Light"

A relatively rare track from my former heroes The Kinks. Ray Davies had (has?) the knack for writing these totally charming, light-hearted, catchy tunes that sound both clumsy and exquisite. The track appeared on The Great Lost Kinks Album (1973) amidst some other would-have-been classics. Joy to sing along to, joy to play on your guitar, this song has always sounded timeless to me. 

And the lyrics? You got to hear them for yourself. I'd say they are lovely.

Friday, 25 March 2011

GREAT ALBUMS: Robert Forster - "I Had A New York Girlfriend" (1995)

Received wisdom has it that cover albums are to be approached with great caution and low expectations. And it did indeed take me some time to convince myself to get I Had A New York Girlfriend. But Forster being one of my favourite songwriters, this had to happen sooner or later.

I strongly believe that the dissolution of The Go-Betweens in 1990 was one of the most inevitable, reasonable and (I suspect) friendliest break-ups in rock music history. Two songwriters this good, this self-sufficient just had to start releasing solo records. At some point every admirer of The Go-Betweens is bound to ask himself the following question: who’s the better songwriter, McLennan or Forster? Forster or McLennan? Well, I would say Grant had more tunes in him (plus, the Jack Frost project) but when Robert’s songs hit me, they hit me harder. 

The latter notion definitely holds true for Robert Forster’s solo career in the 90s. But where Danger In The Past was brilliant from start to finish, meandering records like Calling From A Country Phone and Warm Nights were remarkably inconsistent. They did have their share of blinding classics (“Beyond Their Law”, “Warm Nights”), but whenever I hear those albums I get a feeling Robert had to grind them out. And that at the time when Grant was literally dripping with tunes and managed to come up with his effortless, fantastic double LP Horsebreaker Star.

So I Had A New York Girlfriend makes perfect sense. A cover album, it definitely signifies the fact that Robert wasn’t on a songwriting roll. It’s always tempting to regard cover albums as secondary and largely unimportant (and Forster himself later claimed that he shouldn’t have recorded it in the first place), so I was surprised when I Had A New York Girlfriend turned out to be such a revelation.

First of all, the song choice is immaculate. Robert didn’t select a single song he couldn’t make his own. In fact, certain songs here (some relatively little known) in parts recall Forster’s (for instance, I hear distinct echoes of “Karen” in this version of Keith Richards’ “Locked Away”). You can feel Robert did know his way around these songs. There’s the dramatic “Nature’s Way” with effective female backup vocals; there’s a great take on Dylan’s wistful, countrified “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”; there’s even the infectious pop of “Here Comes Tomorrow” that sounds every bit as jaunty and juicy as The Monkees’ version. My personal favourite would probably be the aforementioned “Locked Away” with its tasteful violin (by Warren Ellis!) and Robert’s cold yet heartbreaking vocal delivery he has always been so good at.

Interestingly, the album ends on a very pessimistic note. And as if Mickey Newbury’s classic piece of loneliness “Frisco Depot” weren’t enough, Robert finishes things off with the lovely, suicidal “3 AM”. Sounds like the journey’s complete.

So this turns out to be a classic Robert Forster experience. Fresh, inventive, and confident, the record was followed in 1996 by the hard job that was Warm Nights. And in 2000 the long-awaited reunion happened. Actually, one of the most inevitable, reasonable and, hell, greatest reunions I’m aware of. Too sad it had to end that way.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #3: The Auteurs - "Subculture"

I’d gladly give a Nobel Prize to anyone who could tell me complete lyrics to this song. From the parts I can discern, though (and, of course, this being Luke Haines), I can safely claim that the lyrics are characteristically spiteful, wicked, irresistible. 

“Subculture” appeared on The Auteurs’ classic debut record New Wave as a hidden track that followed the sad, melancholic “Home Again”. “Subculture” is a punkish, tuneful outburst that lasts a little more than two snotty minutes and gets the hell out. Truly there’s no resisting Haines’ sinister, strangely poetic vocal tone and lush, intense guitar playing. If this is your first time, I envy you. 

(Yes, there really is no limit to my admiration for this man.)

P.S. I'd like to thank David who kindly sent me this song's lyrics:

"I bought the album on vinyl and this song was on an extra 7" - I think I played it more than the LP. As for the lyrics, here's my take:

It's because you tried to be half a person
kept uneven parts in some rented house
and then tried to send them back
all to no fixed abode,
could not hail a taxi,
not for want of trying

and they can't find him
and they can't find him
and they can't find him
and they can't find him

Jesus, what a jerk,
how did I get into this?
Been cornered by some freak show
talking through the gloom of that tower
hide your christmas in some smoking shack
check it out, oracle horoscope for you

and they can't find him
and they can't find him
and they can't find him
and they can't find him

Need to see, subdivide, change your life,
I won't let it bring out the worst in me
and then I'll give it up, pack it up -
go on, you know you can do it,
five-year plan, go back to college

You can't find me
and they can't find me
and they can't find me
and they can't find me

I await the decision of the Nobel Committee."

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

GREAT BOOKS: Alan Bennett, "Untold Stories" (2005)

It’s impossible to write a review of Untold Stories without mentioning what made Alan Bennett write the book in the first place. Well, as it happens, Bennett wrote Untold Stories in what must have been his most dark, depressive period: after being diagnosed with cancer and given an unsettling less-than-50% chance of recovering from the disease. Inevitably fearing the worst, Bennett gathered up his strength, humour (remarkable given the circumstances) and his considerable wit to produce a book that was supposed to be his last. Fortunately, if somewhat ironically, Alan Bennett recovered. 

Alan Bennett seems to me the kind of writer who totally gives himself away in his books. So much so, in fact, that after seeing or even reading a couple of his plays (yes, even those that don’t contain a Bennett prototype) one might get a feeling he knows the man quite intimately. Yet Untold Stories is his memoirs, and one might wonder: is his secluded, detached life worth telling?.. Well, that would be an unquestionable, gleaming Yes. 

Alan Bennett is, in a way, a Philip Larkin sort. Private man, a recluse (“I should go out more – if only for the sake of diary”), Bennett leads a relatively uneventful life, definitely not the kind that could make it into an explosive autobiography. And explosive these stories are not; actually, one would hardly consider them even mildly revelatory. But the book is still a fascinating read, mainly because Bennett is a first-class storyteller who can amuse and entice you with the plainest of recollections. “Sensitive boys are never happy”, he mentions halfway through the book, itself a quote from one of his plays. You certainly can believe him, and you sympathize, but it is this sensitiveness of his that made these stories so gripping, so emotional, and so sharp. 

Untold Stories doesn’t read like the man’s ultimate autobiography. These are just some stories from his past that he felt like relating to the world. Narrated in his simple, self-sufficient style and in amused, amusing tone, the largest portions of the book are devoted to his quiet, troubled family, sexuality, film stars, college years. In part fresh recollections, in part excerpts from his diary, the book is rich in Bennett’s views on all kinds of issues, from acting to politics to education. His observations are consistently brilliant and slightly whimsical (British people intolerable in their victory; Blair stressing the word “honest” in his speech, etc.), and his humour is, as ever, clever and affecting. But considering that Bennett was battling cancer and viewed Untold Stories as a posthumous proposition, it’s astonishing this humour is there at all. But I guess Bennett being Bennett, well, it just couldn’t be otherwise. 

There are numerous examples in literature (as well as in music and other art) of an artist working on something that he believes, knows, anticipates, fears will be his last. There have been some quiet failures, some modest masterpieces, but most of the resulting works seem understandably over-serious and over-dramatic. Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories doesn’t seem like that at all. It is exactly the kind of insightful, well-honed memoirs he would have written under normal circumstances. It’s just that under normal circumstances there might have been no book at all… Life is cynical; cynical yet sweet. 

So thankfully these stories came to be unearthed. Reminiscing about his college and the way he got his scholarship, Bennett writes: “What had happened so unforgettably to me, couldn’t happen anymore”. Which should be reason enough for anyone to pay attention. There’s a great story, and the story is greatly told. One of the most beautiful, essential autobiographies in recent memory. But I’ve started reading too many of those – I’m nearing 30 or what?..


Wednesday, 9 March 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #2: Robyn Hitchcock - "Uncorrected Personality Traits" (live)

Besides being one of the greatest songs of all time, "Uncorrected Personality Traits" (first appeared on Robyn's classic solo album I Often Dream of Trains) is also one of those that never fail to bring a smile to my face. The lyrics are phenomenal, of course, but this being an a capella song, the performance is what counts. And this here live rendition is every bit as eccentric and irresistible as you would expect from a man like Robyn Hitchcock. This might sound like a dried-out cliche, but if you've never heard this one - you've never lived. 

Getting back to the lyrics, I feel I can't get away without mentioning one of YouTube's comments: "I paid a lot of money in college for the information that is in this less than 3 minute song!"

Monday, 7 March 2011

GREAT FILMS: Harold And Maude (1971)

Sergey Eisenstein’s words about juxtaposition being the key, most crucial element in a work of art have always stuck with me. And if that is indeed so, then Hal Ashby’s Harold And Maude truly is a classic to end all classics. Well, not quite, but it is definitely a revelation to see a film that balances romance and black humour in such a convincing, charming way. 

Harold And Maude is neither mainstream nor particularly left-field. It can’t be the latter because the film is really quite romantic (though not in a nasty, mawkish way); as for the former, it is also out of the question due to those numerous suicide scenes as well as the presumable (though obviously not shown on screen) love-making between a boy and an old woman. So if you compress everything that’s been said about Harold And Maude into one brief statement you’ll get something akin to ‘historically and culturally significant cult classic’, whatever a thing like that may mean.

The plot is peculiar, and the word is not too strong. The main character is a boy named Harold (played by Bud Cort) who is obsessed with death to such an extent that his main preoccupations in life are faking his own suicides and attending funerals of people he doesn’t even know. And it is at one of these funerals that he first meets Maude (played by Ruth Gordon), an old woman of almost eighty, whose reasons for visiting graveyards and church services are quite different from Harold’s. The unlikely relationship that then ensues might seem rather too fruity and downright improbable were it not for the playful, comic element that never leaves the film. The episodes involving Harold’s bizarre dates, his detached, refined, immaculate mother, and his histrionic military uncle will not make you laugh so much as chuckle – incredulously, hysterically. That the emotions you feel during the breathtaking, bittersweet ending of Harold And Maude are very real and powerful is nothing short of magnificent.

While the whole thing is very well-acted (the performances being comic but never overbearingly so), due kudos should also go to Colin Higgins’ screenplay. Yes, the symbolism and the numerous social issues we get here are rather obvious, but I would still argue that the fresh, inventive way with which the writer views the trite, well-beaten topic is truly remarkable. For Harold And Maude walks upon a very dangerous ground – what with its life-affirming message and Cat Stevens’ twee, idealistic songs. But you believe it all, and, however cynical, you can’t deny yourself the pleasure of singing along to “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”.  

Because Harold And Maude means it all. Because wit could still be applicable to optimism. Well, okay, at least in the 70’s.

Friday, 4 March 2011

SONG OF THE WEEK #1: PJ Harvey - "The Glorious Land"

This one's PJ Harvey with "The Glorious Land", a song off her latest record, Let England Shake. I'm not the world's biggest admirer of the lady, but Let England Shake is an instant classic - the kind of thing I say rarely, very rarely these days. It sends shivers down my spine to even think about those tunes, and "The Glorious Land" is a perfect example of what I mean. The buildup is intense and dramatic, the backup vocals are clever, the melody is unforgettable, the lyrics political yet effective, the folk-ish arrangements elaborate yet not overbearing, Polly's singing fragile and heartbreaking. Still, what hits me particularly hard here are those bizarre, coming-out-of-nowhere horns that make this song a truly magical experience. They alone makes it the year's best song - and I don't care that we've only just survived a grey, snotty February. Be sure to check out the whole album, out now.