Wednesday, December 19, 2007

CD Review No 8 - Arcade Fire

After reading a few reviews, fulsome in their praise, I took a gamble and bought 'Funeral' by Arcade Fire. Whilst I can certainly hear much that shows promise and flair, I can't quite make the music match up with the ecstatic ravings of fans and journalists. On first hearing I really was puzzled, there wasn't sufficient, audible at least, to warrant the grand claims, unless I was suffering from tinnitus or something. So far as I'm aware, excessive listening to Deep Purple at high volume in my youth, hasn't made me musically deaf. Yet something is missing from Arcade Fire, that essential x-factor which would delight your ears and uplift your heart, and make them a truly exciting band to stumble across. 'Funeral' is good, and a cut above many rock bands, who ,even on their third attempt, fail to lay the golden egg - the definitive rock album of their generation. Like most first albums it is riddled with a random scattering of bullet holes that its influences seep out of. Popping up to say 'hello, remember me ?' are moments of Talking Heads, ELO ,The Cure, a bit of U2 (seemingly obligatory these days) and an esoteric touch of Split Enz (which they probably weren't even aware of).

Apart from the usual trio of drums, guitar and bass, they assemble an impressive battery of instruments not traditionally associated with rock music, such as accordions, xylophones, recorders, plus heavy amounts of violins and horns. There must be enough to make up two five-a- side football teams when they play live. Managing this range of musical sounds, requires great orchestration and production expertise. Unfortunately, it is mainly the production which lets the band down, frequently muddying the dynamics. Musical motifs are often to be found buried deep within their mishandling of a Phil Spector like 'wall of sound.' The tempos build up and reach the grand strut of a crescendo repeatedly. There fondness for this device, often results in hysterically overstretched vocals struggling to be heard over the propulsive drama going on underneath. As the vocalist has not the vocal strength of character to pull this off, the impression created is not of a magnificent musical vista, but of something rather more strained and indistinct. Arcade Fire, can misfire and hit the bulls eye within the same song, almost in spite of themselves. They are reputedly better live, which I could well imagine to be true.

Perhaps I am getting a bit carried away with my own rhetoric and criticism here. I'm in danger of presenting an entirely dismissive review, simply by over emphasising their more obvious flaws. There are more than a few marvellous moments when they truly sparkle, such as on 'Neighbourhood 1 (Tunnels)' & 'Crown of Love' ,moments when, in spite of my initial misgivings, I really do like them. The excessive adulation really has done them a disservice. They are a significant band, whose individuality and eccentricities are certainly addictive. I find myself listening to them frequently, with tunes rattling around in the attic of my consciousness unexpectedly. So they can't be all bad, which, of course they aren't. It's just they have not, in my book achieved a coherent musical vision yet. Though a truly great band is buried in there somewhere. To unearth it you'd have to do some pretty serious pruning. First, you'd have to improve the production, get in some top notch guy, who knows how to heighten and bring out the self-evident dynamics of their arrangements. Second, I'm not entirely won over by the vocal quality and style of Win Butler, their lead vocalist. His thin, weary sounding voice is too often painfully reminiscent of Robert Smith, only with with a touch of laryngitis. Time after time the undoubted splendour of a song is tempered by having his forced screeching flying across it, like aircraft noise. In short, he's not a great singer, and maybe that significant something which will permanently impede their undoubted promise.

I would be interested to hear 'Neon Bible', their second album, just to monitor progress on how they refine and clarify their sound. It maybe that they never get there, and 'Funeral' will become something commonly found in popular music - an album of unfulfilled potential. Whether Arcade Fire will end up having the substance of greatness is definitely an open question, as yet.

DIARY 50 - Sleep little man cub

Since the car accident in August I've had a whole series of stiff necks and shoulders, often triggered by the slightest cold snap or the weather turning mildly damp. A few visits to the acupuncturist later the problem has begun to ease. I had another pricking this weekend, elbows and wrists in the main. I mentioned that I slept on the side of the bed facing the outside wall, and that the cold emanating off it did seem to have an effect on whether I woke up stiff and aching or not. He then suggested I change the side of the bed I sleep on. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut.

Funny how you fall into unconscious but habitual ways of doing things, like which side of the bed you sleep on. So David was willing to experiment, and so for one night we dared to swap sides- the consequence was both of us had a dreadful nights sleep. Now this was hardly a fair trial period, but there is only so much lack of sleep I can take these days. When I'm on my usual side of the bed, I find myself forever resting the duvet edge back from oblivion, trying to keep the small of my back from too much exposure. You know how cold can seep under the tiniest of gaps and before you know it your flesh has attained a deathly chill. However, sleeping on the opposite side of the bed, just means its my balls get the frosty treatment. Which ever side I'm on I can find myself perched on the precipice of the bed, not able to turn over easily, as the mass of my partner David's body inches nearer. However, this is just how it is, unless our flat suddenly becomes magically larger, a bigger bed is out of the question. So for the time being we have to make do with the economy size, and me getting a cold back from time to time.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


Life knows us not and we do not know life - we don't even know our own thoughts. Half the words we use have no meaning whatever and the other half each man understands each word after the fashion of his own folly and conceit.

Faith is a myth, and a belief shifts like mists on the shore; thoughts vanish; words, once pronounced, die and the memory of yesterday is as shadowy as the hope of tomorrow


CD Review No 7- David Sylvian

Japan's image and music was almost too uniformly well modulated and contrived. Their plundering of oriental musical motifs was like hearing them steal someone else's culture and parody it. It was often uncomfortable to listen to, you just wanted them to be honest and less self consciously deceitful. Sylvian's super smooth voice seemed another in a whole line of singers running off with the cut of Brian Ferry's suit. With the track 'Ghosts' he appeared suddenly to touch on something very immediate and distinctively personal. It was there only really big hit, and it was the moment I became briefly interested.

Twenty years on and Sylvian's voice has matured and thankfully lost much of its mannered warble. The quality of it is still like consuming large quantities of exotic chocolate truffle, rich and creamy warm in texture. In the past the musical settings have tried to match that full blooded silkiness and made them difficult offerings to digest all in one go without a sense of nausea rising. You scream out 'Enough! Enough! Any more and I'll be forced to vomit!!'

I've been catching up with his most recent output - two albums are minor gems - ' Blemish' a solo album, and 'Snow borne sorrow' with his new band Nine Horses. While they remain polished and sophisticated, the music is sparser, more angular and has unpredictable cross currents and fusions. 'Blemish' in particular shifts from long self-revelatory electronic backed tracks, such as the eponymous title track, to discomforting juxtapositions of free-improv guitar from maestro Derek Bailey, with Sylvian's well rounded tones.
It often sounds like something beautiful is being audibly crushed under a brutal foot. This is very human music interwoven with threads of lyrical pain. On 'The Only Daughter' the vocals quality is fractured as though impeded, ending up being stuttered across the ether. It's as if a deep emotional hurt is finally struggling to emerge and be heard. The final track 'Fire in the forest' begins with the words 'There is always sunshine, above the grey sky, I will try to find it, yes I will try' as if he once almost gave up hope, but has somehow recovered some optimism which he doesn't fully trust yet.

'Snow borne sorrow' is altogether a more positive musical, if not philosophical affair, with a knowing confident swagger, and a less striven for lyrical message. Perhaps the ghosts surrounding his failed marriage have been expelled. Or is it the presence of old collaborators Sakamoto and Jenson, that makes this album sound grounded and less cathartic. Perhaps the wounded heart has healed and cooled in the two years in-between 'Blemish' and 'Snow borne sorrow'. All things have passed and lost there ability to pierce him to the core. The frail trail of optimism present at the end of 'Blemish' has opened out into a confident re- assertion of faith, with greater depth and character to it. The first track 'Wonderful world' has a lighter, otimistic tone, with a spring in its step -

'It's a wonderful world, and you take and you give, and the sun fills the sky in the space where you live , its a day full of dreams , its a dream of a day, and the joy that it brings nearly sweeps her away, it's a wonderful world as the buildings fall down, and you quicken your step till your feet leave the ground, and your soaring above all the sorrow below, and your falling in love with those you don't know '

Saturday, December 01, 2007

DIARY 49 - The Ageing of my Anxiety

My Mother is quite an anxious being, I seem to have inherited being anxious either through genes, karma or simply learning it from her example. It feels like I learnt how to be anxious in the womb, it certainly has an existential feel to it. Over the years I've got better at handling and facing my anxious tendencies. I've tended in the past to pile on the agony and make matters worse, accelerating its intensity till it became quite debilitating , so making decisions, maintaining a sense of purpose and keeping perspective would be well nigh impossible. Through growing older and years of practise as a Buddhist, I've learnt how to deal with my anxiety better, mostly by cultivating a calmer way of being, keeping perspective on difficulties, not worrying about things weeks before they're due to happen, that sort of thing, trying to contain the scope of the anxiety and not let it run rampant over my experience. Anxiety can so easily turn into quite a paralysing, despoiling ruler otherwise.

Working in the crematorium produced a distinct type of anxiety, one obviously more related to my own mortality. It seemed deeper in tone and I felt it more profoundly as an acidic ache in the pit of my stomach. Since I started working in Windhorse Customer Services I've noticed a different type of anxiety. It's felt as a knotted band stretched across the front of my upper chest, sometimes it feels warm as if a hot water bottle was pressed against it. My current level of anxiety, after years of being quite small and manageable, seems to be fluctuating unpredictably and occasionally gets beyond what I can handle and contain. There are a number of facets that are feeding it- I'm still learning my new job, and I'm aware that there are still gaps in my understanding and awareness of what needs doing. Things could go seriously awry without my being aware of it - simply the job itself, each time you pick up the phone you don't know what your going to have to deal with, this can be stress inducing, throw in a mild phone phobia I sometimes experience, and I guess you get the feel of this one - the team consists of three likeable but quite distinct individuals, with very strong tendencies - at present we seem to be constantly understaffed through illness, and so we are not getting all our tasks done effectively– all of which can lead to concerns about my own effectiveness as a manager entering my mind, dwelling in my thoughts, and sitting on my chest.

Now, most of the time I can hold all of this and not let it get out of control, but I've realised that at present the glass is pretty near full most of the time. On three occasions in the last month I think I've started to overspill, my containment leaks and runneth over - leaving work feeling pissed off, irritable and angry - I've woken up in the middle of the night in panicky states, and as a consequence have had a poor nights sleep. On each occasion it was triggered by a team member downloading a whole load of their anxiety and frustration late in the day and I've just been overwhelmed. From my Mother onward, I've found it difficult not to be overly affected by the anxiety of the people around me, even though I know its not rational nor helpful. I am attempting to keep perspective on the difficulties within my team, with the work and with me. I know none of this is going to be resolved quickly or easily, I came into this job knowing I was inheriting a bit of a poisoned chalice; the previous manager having burnt out. I do have a better grasp now on how I envisage the team developing in the future. I also need to develop a personal strategy on how to manage my anxiety even better than before. Though I recognise that its an emotional volition or habit that I will still have difficulty in turning around. Despite my best efforts it can so easily steal in and break my glasses!

DREAM THREE - Entering & Breaking

I'm living in a terraced house. It seems to be quite high for a terrace, about four of five floors. Very similar to the community houses I've lived in in Cambridge, or like a New York tenement. I'm not sure whether I am living in the whole house or just a second floor flat, but I see myself in my dream only on the second floor. I appear to be going about my usual day to day business within the house. This is frequently interrupted by a series of people appearing at the second floor window. At first its just the ladder and the hands, then the faces, in spite of my closing the window to prevent entry, two people get in. I find them in one of the rooms. I enter the room with a heavy object that I'm about to throw at them. One of them has his foot placed over my glasses which are lying on a white rug, he's threatening to break them. At this point I panic crying, and say aloud, even though I'm asleep 'No! No!No! don't break my glasses! don't break my glasses!don't break my glasses! At this point David wakes me up.