Thursday 31 December 2015

Songs of 2015

This last year, which I'm contractually obliged to refer to as "not 2014", has been an absolutely cracking one for new music. Although the UK charts have mostly been clogged up with middle-of-the-road, granny-friendly performers like Sam Smith and Adele, or identikit-sounding pop princesses like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, if you dug a little deeper into 2015 there was a lot of good stuff out there. And most of it came from Australia...
My favourite solo performer of the year, Courtney Barnett produced an instant classic album in Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit. Hard to choose favourites but I'll go with  -
Pedestrian At Best ( see-sawing riffs and tumbling, incandescent wordplay )
Elevator Operator ( power pop... but in a good way )
Depreston ( suburban melancholy, beautiful Antipodean diction )
 Staying with Australians ( albeit ones from some acid-fried, parallel universe Oz ), Nick Allbrook's mighty Pond proved to be an awesome live band with their outasight, psychedelic psounds  -
Sitting Up On Our Crane
Elvis' Flaming Star
Pond's fellow astral plane traveller Kevin Parker aka Tame Impala was very busy this year  -  working with Mark Ronson and releasing his third album, Currents. Largely ditching the psychedelia of previous years, Parker hit the big time with this collection of synthpop and funk-inspired tunes  -
'Cause I'm A Man
The Less I Know The Better
Let It Happen
 Back in this rain-lashed corner of the world, my fave band of the year Everything Everything pulled an absolute work of genius out of the bag with the album Get To Heaven, a record that edged them towards the mainstream but still managed to be a claustrophobic howl at all the evils of the world... with some great tunes. I saw them live for the second time at the good ol' Gloucester Guildhall but didn't review the gig here for some unknown reason. They were on sparkling form and frontman Jonathan said they were having the best year of their careers  -  the album had just reached number one in the charts and they were all set to play Glastonbury a few days later. Key songs:
No Reptiles ( epic! )
Distant Past
 And, speaking of Glasto, one of the musical events of 2015 was Florence + The Machine's amazing Pyramid Stage headline set. A last minute promotion to headliner after Foo Fighters' Dave Grohl famously broke his leg and couldn't appear, this was an epic, sky-scraping performance, with Florence at the absolute peak of her powers. ( Somewhat ironic as she was also recovering from a leg injury. ) This set must have been a thing of wonder to witness live, especially after so many nay-sayers had dissed Flo before she'd even stepped on stage for not being a "typical" Glasto headliner. Well, bollocks to that! A fireball of energy, pirouetting around the stage, Florence sang her impressive lungs out and spread some suitably hippy-fied love around Worthy Farm, proving her step up to the big leagues was well deserved. Her fantastic new album, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful, had slightly dialled back the pomp of her first two records, upped the personal, and delivered such instant classics as:
Ship To Wreck
What Kind Of Man
The title track itself
Mother ( I wrote here about how this song reminds me of Hawkwind )

By complete contrast, for those in need of some harsher sounds, the extremely gobby and noisy two-piece from Kent known as Slaves released their first album, Are You Satisified? Thirteen short, sharp sonic shocks  -  thirteen aural assaults taking in urban anger, relationships and, er, traffic. Best songs:
The Hunter ( "You keep it / We don't want it!" )
Cheer Up London
Feed The Mantaray
Also rocking my world this year:
You're A Germ by Wolf Alice ( video of the year and a great, grungey sound )
No One's Bothered by Sleaford Mods ( Oi! meets the Fall meets grime? )
Marks To Prove It by the Maccabees ( excellent comeback single )
Love Me Like You Do by Ellie Goulding ( yep, she's still got it! )
I haven't listened to a lot of radio hits / mainstream pop this year. No real reason really... but not a lot of it has grabbed me in 2015. However, one song was inescapable this year, in the same way as Daft Punk's Get Lucky or Pharrell's Happy in previous years. As much as I'm not usually a fan of Bruno Mars, his collaboration with Mark Ronson was a slick, irresistible slice of Prince-funk... so I'm awarding
Earworm Of The Year to Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars :-)

So... come on, 2016  -  let's see what you've got...

Friday 25 December 2015

Happy Christmas from The Glass Walking-Stick

Season's Greetings to all you lovely people out there in the Blogoverse. Here's hoping you have a wonderful and peaceful Christmas.Cheers!

- cerebus660 ( Simon )

Thursday 24 December 2015

Christmas Fantasy 2015 at Clearwell Caves

Yesterday, Sarah and I went for our now-annual trip to Clearwell Caves in the Forest Of Dean. Every Christmas this ancient iron mine is transformed into a Winter Wonderland, complete with Father Christmas dishing out toys for the kiddies and a children's story to follow as you walk around the caves.This year's tale is Evie's Aeroplane, about a young girl who falls asleep and dreams that she flies off for magical adventures in her toy aeroplane. Here are some photos of the absolutely charming models that illustrate Evie's story:

After the story is over and Evie's found her way back to Earth by sliding down a moonbeam, there's still time to browse the underground craft market or have some festive food in the underground cafe...
A visit to Clearwell Caves is highly recommended at any time of year, but it becomes something truly magical at Christmas. We often brought the kids here when they were young and they always enjoyed it, even when standing in some fairly horrendous queues to see Father Christmas. Nowadays, it's just us two big kids :-)
It certainly gets you in the Christmas spirit...

Thursday 17 December 2015

Sunday 6 December 2015

Recent gigs: Courtney Barnett / Buzzcocks

Last weekend saw a couple of great gigs  -  one from an up-and-coming Antipodean and one from some legendary Mancunians. On the Friday I headed up to the Black Country with my good friend Tom to see Courtney Barnett rock Wolverhampton's Wulfrun Hall. Due to dodgy weather and motorway pile-ups we arrived at the venue too late to see support band Big Scary but luckily didn't miss any of the headliner's set.
Courtney is gaining a reputation as an incisive songwriter with her sardonic slacker anthems which will surely soon propell her into the big leagues. She has the ability to imbue the most mundane subjects ( gardening, moving house, swimming ) with an intensely personal, coolly ironic viewpoint. The set started almost hesitantly with the laid back Avant Gardener ( "I'm not that good at breathing in" ) but appropriately changed gear with the relationship-as-roadkill boppiness of Dead Fox and then the pulverising blues of Small Poppies ( "I used to hate myself but now I think I'm alright." ) It was in this latter song that Courtney first unleashed her full arsenal of guitar firepower  -  thrashing at her instrument with just her fingers ( no guitar pick in evidence ) like her life depended on it. She seemed to have an effects pedal marked "Extreme Sonic Death!" or something like that because the volume rocketed every time she pressed it. The quiet / loud dynamics of her heavier songs often remind me of Pixies or the Breeders ( yep, there's definitely a Kim Deal influence here ) although I'd described her to Tom as a "cute, female Australian Lou Reed" which might be nearer to the truth. ( I flicked through the latest issue of Q Magazine recently which pretty much described her the same way. But without the word "cute", them being professionals and all. )
Courtney didn't have a lot to say to the crowd at first, but it was obvious from the grins she was flashing at the other two members of the "Courtney Barnett Three" that she was having a blast. After a lovely version of  the melancholic Depreston ( my fave of her songs ) caused some mass audience singalongs, she became more talkative. Someone yelled out "I love you, Courtney!"  -  to which the bemused singer replied "I love you too, stranger". Depreston itself is a perfect example of her songwriting skill: a deceptively trivial tale of a young couple house-hunting in a grim suburb which slowly, through the deadpan listing of estate agent waffle, describes a relationship that's stale and based on convenience. Well, that's my take on it anyway...
The main set ended of course with a storming version of razor sharp minor hit Pedestrian At Best and then the CB3 encored with a rockin' cover of an old Saints song ( apparently ), Know Your Product  -  with added back up from support band Big Scary  -  and a triumphant History Eraser ( "In my brain I rearrange the letters on the page to spell your name " ) to send us home convinced we'd just seen a major star of the future.
So, that was the Friday night  -  Saturday was a closer to home gig as I went over to the Stroud Subscription Rooms to see my mate Glenn's band Borrowed Time supporting the mighty Buzzcocks. I hadn't seen the 'cocks ( as nobody calls them ) in over twenty years so I was definitely looking forward to it. The gig was sold out and I didn't have a ticket but having friends on the inside helped  -  I sneaked in through the stage door and got in for free. Bargain!
Those Borrowed Time boys were on fine form, playing probably the best set I've seen from them. Although they started as a quite generic, shouty Punk band, they've grown hugely in a couple of years  - more tunes, more harmonies, more confidence  -  until they've now become a credible support band for acts such as Stiff Little Fingers and Sham 69 and now the Buzzcocks. BT played a strong, punchy set and songs like Nervous Reaction and Under The Radar went down a treat with the crowd.
The Buzzcocks came on stage and proceeded to rip through their set in an almost Ramones-like display of urgency, starting with classic first single Boredom and barely letting up from then on. Not bad for men who aren't exactly spring chickens. Guitarist Steve Diggle doesn't seem to change too much but lead singer Pete Shelley, who was once yer archetypal skinny Punk pin-up, is now bearded and portly and looks like he'd be better off playing Dubliners covers in some dodgy pub  -  luckily he's still got that distinctive, sneering vocal style and attacks every song as if he's still twenty-something...
And what songs! The Buzzcocks were always Punk's premier pop crossover band with a treasure trove of short, sharp, eloquent songs about life, love and relationships. And they all got an airing at this gig  -  What Do I Get, Noise Annoys, I Don't Mind, Fast Cars, Promises, Love You More  -  so many classics! Highlights were a lightning-fast Autonomy and Diggle taking the spotlight and rocking out to Harmony In My Head. In fact, Diggle rocked out throughout the set  -  watching the more reserved Shelley rolling his eyes good-humouredly at Diggle's rock star shape-throwing was hilarious.
They encored with Harmony..., the inevitable, irrepressible Ever Fallen In Love ( With Someone You Shouldn't've ) and a shout-along Orgasm Addict... and the crowd went wild. A great gig  -  and bloody loud! I was down the front with my good friend and former Death Planet Commandos guitarist, the mighty Mark B, and we were directly in line with Shelley's guitar amp which meant our ears took a serious pounding. Yep, my ear drums were buzz(cock)ing for about three days afterwards...
The only down side to this gig was that the Buzzcocks were very stand-offish backstage and wouldn't mix with Borrowed Time ( which is hardly Punk Rock is it! ) and a lot of Glenn's friends were turned away from the venue after being promised extra tickets following the sell-out. On a more positive note, Glenn's girlfriend Beki was organising a collection to aid refugees in Calais and they raised quite a lot of money for that worthy cause.
And here's a free plug for Borrowed Time:

Friday 27 November 2015

FF Fridays: Black ( Panther ) Friday

The dreaded Black Friday is here again, the day when many of us offer up a silent prayer of thanks  to our deity of choice that we don't work in retail. With the first cinematic appearance of T'Challa, Prince of Wakanda ( the Black Panther to you ) being teased in the recently dropped Captain America: Civil War trailer it got me thinking of the MCU's regal African prince. ( Yeah, I know... my brain works that way. ) Above is the original, unused cover by King Kirby ( of Brooklyn ) for the Panther's debut in FF #52...
and below is my copy of that issue as published, with an absolutely gorgeous Kirby / Sinnott cover...
And here's Chadwick Boseman as T'Challa from the upcoming Marvel slugfest. Can't wait to see this one!
And, seriously... consumers  -  just be careful out there...

Saturday 21 November 2015

Fabian Perez November 2015 UK Tour

This morning Sarah and I made our now-traditional annual trip to Whitewall Galleries in Cheltenham to see the great Fabian Perez's latest collection. The South American superstar artist had stopped off in the Shire whilst on the latest leg of his 2015 tour and we couldn't pass up the chance to see the man and his work again.
Fabian's latest pieces display all the sensuous passion and vitality that we've come to expect from such a talented figurative artist. Unfortunately, my phone pictures can't really capture the paintings' true colours  -  you really need to see them in the flesh, or should I say canvas?
No purchases or photo ops with the artist this time but it was great just to be there, mingle with the "beautiful people" ( some not so beautiful ), have some free drinks and see Fabian's fantastic work. Maybe next time?

Doctor Who: Series 9 Catch Up

I've got so far behind with my Doctor Who reviews ( and blogging in general ) this year that it's a bit pointless trying to write in any detail so long after the fact. This is no reflection on the quality of the show or my thoughts on it  -  I just haven't had the time or energy to devote to it that I normally do. Anyway, for anyone who's interested, I thought I'd fire out a few brief thoughts on recent episodes... in my standard "catching up in reverse" fashion:
Sleep No More
The "found footage" episode with no music, no opening titles and a creepy Blair-Witch-in-space vibe. Although the nature of the Sandmen takes some serious willing suspension of disbelief they are a nightmarishly relentless enemy, with their blindness and gaping-wound "mouths". This Mark Gatiss-scripted episode is more in the horror pastiche vein of The Unquiet Dead than his weak Robin Hood story from last year. Some nice touches like the spaceship crew being Indo-Japanese and a snivelling, twitchy performance from Reece Shearsmith lift this out of the tired found footage rut. But.... surely the Doctor fails in this episode? There is talk of a sequel so we may yet see the consequences of his failure to shut down the Morpheus machines.
The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion
Classic Who monsters return in a classic Who story. An ambitious, globe-trotting urban thriller, this two-parter almost feels like Spooks with added blobby aliens. The Zygons have been living in secret on Earth since the 50th anniversary special but now various factions are vying for power and attempting to start a war with the humans. The shape-changing nature of the aliens means the story has lots of paranoid fun with "who can you trust?" moments, especially when the cliffhanger reveals that Clara has been replaced by the fantastically-nicknamed "Zygella". Themes of identity, immigration and radicalisation all make this almost uncomfortably topical ( especially in light of the recent, awful terror attacks in Paris ) and harken back to the poltical comment of the early Pertwee years. Jenna Coleman and Ingrid Oliver ( as fan-favourite Osgood ) have some wonderful moments as variously human or Zygon incarnations of their characters, but the stand-out scene is an absolutely scorching performance by Peter Capaldi as he desperately tries to talk UNIT and the Zygons out of blowing up the world. Capaldi chews up and spits out Peter Harness' excellent dialogue at a ferocious rate, giving us possibly his Doctor's defining moment.
The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived
This two-parter features the much-heralded arrival of Maisie Williams and, while it doesn't live up to the hype, is an interesting mixture of "historical romp" and something deeper. In the first episode the Doctor, without the assistance of his Tardis or Sonic, comes to the aid of a village-full of Vikings when they are attacked by alien soldiers The Mire. With all their warriors dead, the Doc must train the remaining villagers, Magnificent Seven-style, to fight for their lives. This is all very light and humorous until the Doctor's actions cause the death of Williams' character Ashildr and he is forced to use the Mire's medical technology to bring her back. Of course, there's a price for cheating death. We then get into the ethical ramifications of eternal life as the Doctor encounters Ashildr again in the second episode, hundreds of years later, where she has become a highwayman. Er... highwaywoman. Or something.. There is a very weak plot involving an intergalactic amulet and an underused leonine alien, but the story really revolves around Ashildr's long, sad life and the Doctor's responsibility for all her heartaches. The unusually dialogue-heavy scenes between Capaldi and Williams redeem the slender material although the "eternal life is a drag" conceit gets a bit wearing after a while. Which is appropriate I suppose. I've only watched these episodes as they were broadcast and need to see them again, I think...
Under The Lake / Before The Flood
Being Human creator Toby Whithouse returns to Doctor Who and brings ghosts with him.Which is nice. These two episodes have a lot going on: a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey plot; some very creepy "spectres"; a well-realised underwater base; a briefly-sketched but satisfyingly diverse cast and a beautifully-designed monster in the Fisher King. It's always interesting to see the tension between science and the supernatural in Doctor Who and this story blurs the boundaries between the two as the Doctor is made to believe that ghosts could be real. And stalking an underwater base. And carrying axes. This is a very gloomy, doom-laden story ( in a good way! ) but it also has room for Whithouse's trademark humour  -  I love the scene where Clara gives the Doctor cue cards to help him talk to humans without causing offence or upsetting them. It doesn't work of course!
Although it doesn't all quite hang together, this is a mostly fine story with some great performances
( especially from deaf actress Sophie Stone who communicates so much without dialogue ) and a cracking cliffhanger that presumably sent a fair few kiddies scuttling off to bed fearing the worst for their hero. You can't beat a good scare! I'm sure the Doctor agrees with me...

Soundtrack: Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division

Sunday 8 November 2015

Remembrance Sunday 2015

There is nothing more I can add to those four simple, poignant words...

Robyn Hitchcock at The Fleece, Bristol

Although Robyn Hitchcock is one of my favourite songwriters I've only seen him play live twice in nearly thirty years  -  once with his band The Egyptians and once with the Soft Boys. So, when he popped up at Bristol's fantastic Fleece last week I had to hit the flagstone floor of that grimy venue. This was a stripped down, mostly acoustic, set with Robyn accompanied on a handful of songs by former Egyptian Morris Windsor on percussion and some hipster called Charlie on keyboards.
After wandering into the venue almost unobserved, Robyn took to the stage to unexpectedly start with a blues song before kicking off the night properly with an atmospheric version of Egyptians classic My Wife And My Dead Wife ( "Am I the only one who sees her?" ), much to the delight of the relatively meagre audience. As ever, a Robyn Hitchcock gig is a mixture of absurdism, romance and poetry, a glimpse into his idiosyncratic world view with all the creatures and characters that lurk there. He can veer from a nostalgic I Often Dream Of Trains to a beautiful Chinese Bones ( the song of the night for me ) to the insane Victorian Squid  -  introduced by the comment "A lot of people are afraid of sex which is fair enough..."
 Although mostly just letting the music do the talking during the solo acoustic numbers, Robyn became more talkative when his "special guests" joined him on stage and he had somebody to bounce off. ( The punters that night were very much of the standing-around-and-clapping-politely persuasion which didn't help. ) Before playing a cover of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes oddity Tiny Mongomery  he remarked that Dylan was playing in Cardiff that night and was "at the comprehensible end of his cycle" at the moment, so you could hear the words when he sang... although he probably wouldn't play Tiny Montgomery. There was also much discussion of the frightening news of Phil Collins' return to music. When told that Collins was back, Robyn asked "how back?" and was told "back enough". All concerned decided that should be the title of the ex-Genesis singer's new album: "Phil Collins  -  Back Enough".
I had hoped for more Egyptians material but unfortunately the only song he played from Element Of Light ( my fave ) was its weakest, Winchester. Robyn mostly concentrated on more recent material, which was fine although I would have loved to hear him play Airscape or If You Were A Priest. Maybe next time?
I'm not always a huge fan of acoustic gigs but Robyn's amazing guitar playing, impeccable phrasing and alternately weird / moving lyrics make for a very enjoyable night out. After a crowd-pleasing Queen Of Eyes and a moody take on The Lizard ( "You vomit in a shed / The lizard got there first, he's dead" ) he was gone, presumably back to his own surreal, subaquatic universe. Next time he visits this planet ( or Bristol ) I'll have to try and catch him again. It's been a long 21 years since the last time...


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