Thursday 31 October 2013
Here's my recent interview with Cathal Coughlan, who's bringing his North Sea Scrolls show, with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller, to the National Concert Hall this Saturday evening, November 2nd.
What do you get when put Cathal Coughlan, of Microdisney, Fatima Mansions and solo fame, Luke Haines, formerly of Auteurs renown, and music journalist and travel writer Andrew Mueller together in one room? Why, three men in colonial hats and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum jungle suits, singing songs about an alternative history of Britain and Ireland. These gents are bringing their demented North Sea Scrolls show, which started life at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and was subsequently released as an album last year, to the National Concert Hall on November 2nd. Cathal Coughlan recently marked my cards as to what to expect, and we chewed over some other old stuff as well.
Just to fill the unsuspecting among you in, the North Sea Scrolls are ancient documents, long thought forever lost, which were presented to Coughlan and Haines by the actor Tony Allen, who found them in a bin outside Waitrose. They contain a proxy account of the recent past in these isles, demonstrating that pretty much everything you know and have ever learned about them is at best inaccurate, but more likely just downright wrong.
Who’d have thought, for example, that far from suffering 800 years of oppression under the English yoke, in reality the Irish invaded and conquered Britain in 1948, later dividing it into just two counties, Northshire and Southshire? Or that Oswald Mosley led two successive British governments in the 1960s, with Joe Meek as his Minister of Culture, while Enoch Powell was Poet Laureate? (Apropos, I’m surprised they didn’t shoehorn Eric Clapton’s once professed admiration for Powell, elucidated drunkenly from a Birmingham stage in 1974, in there somewhere) Or that the failed kidnapper of Princess Anne, Ian Ball, made a Robert Johnson-at-the-crossroads-like pact with the Devil – a gent who appears in a cloud of sulphurous cigar smoke, with a rattle of gold chains, wearing a shell suit – who ‘fixed it’ for the Broadmoor Psychiatric Prison resident to swap places with his guitar-wielding namesake in the ‘bewilderingly successful’ indie rock band, Gomez. (Considering this twist, it’s odd the boys didn’t conjure some similar case of mistaken identity between above-mention thespian Tony Allen, and the identically named great Afrobeat drummer.)
Another song, Coughlan's 'Mr Cynthia', puts the record straight on how Joe Meek put a radicalized John Lennon under house arrest in the mid-’60s, to curb the Mop Top’s influencing the country’s impressionable young folk toward dissent. In his absence from the public eye, Lennon’s then wife Cynthia immerged from the shadows into a proto-Thatcherite champion of ‘blank common sense.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim Corr figures along the way too, persuading the retired IRA to dig up much of South Armagh because he believes that Shergar, the Twin Towers and many other things are buried there.
The eagle-eyed among you will doubtless have spotted that, unlike how their illustrious predecessors the Dead Sea Scrolls act as an adjunct to official Christianity, the flaw with the North Sea Scrolls is that most of the events recounted therein would still be within living memory. Consequently, feeling that there is little point in quizzing Cathal as to the veracity of these claims, I inquire instead as to how he views the revelations of the scrolls in relation to the rest of his fine body of work. C’mon, isn’t it all just a humorous diversion, a Flann O’Brienesque jeu d’esprit?
“It’s not just a bit of fun,” Cathal responds. “I like to think it’s visionary, but not very serious. It’s also not always necessarily me speaking with my own voice. I’m so distant from Ireland now, that my view of Ireland can be inaccurate anyway. But in the past I might have come over as too po-faced sometimes, so it’s nice to do something more tongue-in-cheek.”
Which does cast into question if there’s any sense on the part of the writers, on the one hand, directing their considerable ire at soft targets like Gomez or Chris Evans (who gets burned at the stake), or in the audience, on the other hand, getting hot under the collar about a universe where Gomez and Chris Evans come off worse than Mosley and Powell. We all have our pet hates – don’t get me started on The Killers – but there again, would I bother writing a song slagging them off? Are the fairly innocuous actually more reprehensible than the outright awful? And what happens when the former are lampooned more than the latter?
Of course, Cathal is not entirely responsible for this state of affairs, as he and Luke Haines divide the songwriting credits, and vocals, between them. So, how did he meet Luke Haines? How did he work with him? Do they have an affinity?
“Well, Luke has most of the punch lines. I’m a kind of foil to him. He supplied most of the English stuff, and I took care of the Irish angle. The songs were written over a nine month period, and it was nice to meet up every so often and just hatch songs. I’d bring what I had, he’d bring what he had. I’ve known him for seven or eight years. I’m certainly a fan of Luke’s, you’d have to ask Luke if he’s a fan of mine.”
They are both lyricists – why do they need Andrew Mueller’s input?
“He provides the narration, and some historical context. He brings a certain kind of Australian irreverence. He’s also an editor of sorts.”
In his younger days across the water, Cathal was known for his antipathy towards the raggle taggle brigade back home. In the nascent days of Fatima Mansions in the early ’90s, he was heard to ask and answer from a London stage, “Am I the only person here with an Irish passport who doesn’t think Van Morrison is a god-like genius? Transatlantic fraud.” This was in the wake of the huge success of the Morrison/Chieftains collaboration, Irish Heartbeat. Might his Van ‘Grumpy’ Morrison comments be seen as kicking against perceived regression after the advances of the punk wars had dissipated? Or against perceived misrepresentation of Ireland on the international stage?
“I hated that album, I hated it more than normal because I even paid for it with my own money. But I have to say I think Astral Weeks is a great album, particularly when you think how young he was when he did it. Looking back now, I think people find all kinds of reasons for why they don’t like something - the politics, the ideology, whatever - but there’s usually a more fundamental reason: they just don’t like listening to it.
“It’s funny, when I started listening to English folk music, and discovered it was much more acerbic than Irish folk music, which is much more lush. But I’ve always loved Christy Moore, one of my favourite singers.”
Would he ever come back to Ireland, or is he firmly ensconced in London now?
“I’m over four or five times a year. But materially, there’s no way someone of my resources could just walk back into it now. I was skint then back them, I’m not that much better off now.”
But London’s expensive.
“But I have a support system here. I know where to go, where things are cheaper.”
Any regrets about how he handled his earlier career? Would it have helped if he’d been less confrontational?
“A lot of the problems to do with Microdisney stemmed from insecurity, anxiety. By the time we got to the final album it didn’t seem to matter what we did, because the audience was well and truly alienated anyway.”
And his solo career?
“What I learned from making Black River Falls was ‘don’t waste time on little things’. I brought in people to get help with the strings on that, and it dictated the rest of the album.”
Has he anything in the pipeline now?
“If I do something, it’s going to be very different from what I’ve been doing recently, or even in the middle term. It won’t have a strong rhythm section, and will feature more string arrangements.”
Will he be recording?
“I’ve come to think that making a record is of questionable use, either as a means to playing in public, or for documentation. It doesn’t get you more gigs, at least not if you’ve being doing it as long as me. But we’ll see.”
Back to more immediate concerns, North Sea Scrolls has been recorded, but has divided opinion, with reviews ranging from ‘deeply engrossing and rings resoundingly with cultural and historical truth’ to ‘a discombulating listen, but also a daft, enjoyable one’ to ‘an in-joke gone horribly wrong.’ With a public interview before the show itself, you can get to explore how seriously or otherwise we should take these phantasmagorical tales, and make up your own mind this Saturday.
Also available at State.ie, here: http://www.state.ie/features/north-sea-scrolls-cathal-coughlan-i-like-to-think-its-visionary-but-not-very-serious
Wednesday 30 October 2013
And so Lou's passing made me think of Muddy Waters.
'You Got To Take Sick And Die One Of These Days'
From The Complete Plantation Recordings, 1942.
It doesn't really get any better than this; it just improves.
'You Got To Take Sick And Die One Of These Days'
From The Complete Plantation Recordings, 1942.
It doesn't really get any better than this; it just improves.
Saturday 26 October 2013
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013
‘Classically trained’ is a phrase to strike fear into the heart of any popular music fan, and Agnes Obel’s set, in which she plays a grand piano and sings, accompanied by a cellist and violinist, does start off beset by the reverence and tension of a formal recital. Chamber music is not the same as chamber pop. Happily, as when she appeared at this same venue two years ago, the vibe loosens up as the show progresses, until the talented Danish songstress is flirting coyly with the audience by the end.
The setlist is nicely almost evenly divided between 2011’s debut Philharmonics and the recently released Aventine, six songs from the former and seven from the latter. To keep things fresh, some of the older pieces, for example ‘On Powdered Ground’, are presented in striking new arrangements.
A request to the audience for a woollen scarf, to act as a mute on the piano strings for the title track of ‘Aventine’, is the icebreaker, by which time we’re at the halfway point. ‘By The Riverside’ is dedicated to ‘The Dubliners’, and there are complimentary remarks about how she always wants to move here whenever she comes here, because the place is both a city and a village. She even ventures to complain about the lack of heckling, which was a feature of her past appearances here, as an appropriate prelude to ‘Words Are Dead’ – which, of course, opens the floodgates.
As she becomes more relaxed, it’s possible to see why she wouldn’t have been attracted to pursuing a career in even contemporary classical music. She’s a songwriter, after all. That cover of John Cale’s ‘I Keep A Close Watch’ on Philharmonics was a good indication of where she’s coming from, and going to – although I suspect it’ll be a cold day in hell before she’s chopping the heads off of chickens. Despite the increasing levity, the musical mood remains crepuscular, autumnal, haunting: winter is coming.
For encore, she abandons an attempted rendition of ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ after the first line, unable to control her laughter after tumbling to the onanistic implications of her introduction, “This is a song about having a good time by yourself”, in favour of her cover of Karen Dalton’s ‘Katie Cruel’ (actually a traditional Scottish song, which also served as her closer at that show two years ago) because, jokingly, “It’s about alcoholism”. What began with a certain distance and chill and vaguely stilted, winds up warm and intimate and mildly exuberant.
I know it ain’t rock’n’roll, but I like it.
Also available at: http://www.state.ie/live-reviews/agnes-obel-dublin-2
Thursday 24 October 2013
The Silver Gymnasium
Okkervil River’s new album, their seventh, is like several of their previous recordings, a concept album, in that it takes us back to a 1980s childhood and adolescence, specifically that of mainman Will Sheff, and is set in his hometown of Meriden, New Hampshire. This is the most personal songwriting Sheff has done to date, although it is still far from confessional. Instead, the narrator of most of these songs comes across as an uncomfortable observer, looking back to a more innocent yet also unsettling time, when mistakes were made, emotions were still raw, and life was being learned about. Some of his fellows, as explored in songs like ‘Lido Pier Suicide Car’ and ‘Walking With Frankie’, didn’t make it.
The ’80s are now almost universally derided as ‘the decade that taste forgot’, but it’s worth remembering it wasn’t all shoulder pads and mullets. This is, after all, the time when the likes of R.E.M., The Smiths and The Go Betweens flourished. But Sheff and his early adolescent chums wouldn’t have discovered those bands quite yet, still stuck as they were with a nascent MTV. There’s even an affectionate and evocative mention of ‘the greatest song that you taped off the radio/Play it again and again (it cuts off at the ending, though)’ in ‘Down Down The Deep River’, one of the more epic tracks here, replete with a synth keyboard solo redolent of Cheap Trick. Period references are present but not heavy-handed, for example the VCR and Atari of ELO-ish opener ‘It Was My Season’, the Walkman of ‘Where The Spirit Left Us’. There are shades of the suburban unease of movies like Donnie Darko, Dazed and Confused, even Blue Velvet. In fact, the nearest point of comparison, thematically if not musically, might be Arcade Fire’s 2010 album The Suburbs, or even their first (and still best), 2004’s Funeral. But Okkervil River are a much more aware, complex proposition than Montreal’s finest, since although Win Butler got it right first time out, his constant references to ‘the kids’ by the time he got to The Suburbs quickly grew tiresome. Sheff is too self-conscious a writer to ever appear so gauche.
Therein, in a way, lies the problem with The Silver Gymnasium. Okkervil River have always been a cerebral outfit, easy to admire but harder to love, as they say. Sheff is frequently praised for being ‘literate’, but too often he is just ‘wordy’, which is not quite the same thing. One gets the sense he likes you to know that he’s the smartest guy in the room. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not naively arguing that you can’t be clever and rock’n’roll at the same time. But imagine if Roky Erikson had been backed on his comeback True Love Cast Out All Evil by an outfit like White Denim or Wooden Shjips, rather than Sheff (whose heart is clearly in the right place) & Co., and maybe you’ll get what I’m driving at.
This uptightness, for want of a better word, isn’t helped here by the very clean production work of John Agnello, a man who helmed several projects by ’80s luminaries like Cyndi Lauper and John Mellencamp. Still, this is Okkervil River’s first major label album, for ATO, having jumped up from Jagjaguwar, so maybe they’re in search of a wider audience. The compromise, if such it is, could prove counterproductive, however.
The standout track is the penultimate, ‘All The Time Every Day’, where the passion of the vocal delivery of verse questions and chorus responses gets into stride with the emotions expressed. Otherwise, while The Silver Gymnasium has much to recommend it, it is far from the group’s best. Interested parties would be well advised to start elsewhere, with The Stage Names or The Stand Ins, or even better, Black Sheep Boy or I Am Very Far.
Also available at: http://www.state.ie/album-reviews/okkervil-river-the-silver-gymnasium
Sunday 20 October 2013
By Thomas Pynchon
(Jonathan Cape, £20.00 stg, H/B)
America’s laureate of the 1960s (and pretty much everything else before and since), Tom Pynchon’s new novel is set in New York, just after Silicon Alley’s (the East Coast’s grubby cousin of the West Coast’s Silicon Valley) dot-com boom went bust, and moves on to encompass the events of September 11, 2001. In Pynchon’s world, naturally, these historical phenomena are not unrelated.
Our heroine Maxine Tarnow, who bears comparison with The Crying Of Lot 49’s Oedipa Maas, is a working Mum running her own fraud investigation company, Tail ’Em And Nail ’Em (formerly Tail ’Em and Nail ’Em and Jail ’Em, but that was judged too presumptuous). Something of a Rachel Weisz lookalike, Jewish Maxine’s family consists of her opera-loving parents Ernie and Elaine, her two sons in elementary school Ziggy and Otis, her estranged sister Brooke and her ex-Mossad husband Avi, and last but not least her on-again-off-again, not-as-ex-as-he-might-be-ex-husband Horst, a stolid but solid Midwesterner. A ‘big alexithymic lug’ according to best friend Heidi, a career academic with tenure at City College’s Pop Culture Department, with whom Maxine has a Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda double act relationship (analogy mine): ‘At some point early in their relationship, which has been forever, Maxine understood that she was not the Princess here. Heidi wasn’t either, of course, but Heidi didn’t know that, in fact she thought she was the Princess and furthermore has come over the years to believe that Maxine is the Princess’s slightly less attractive wacky sidekick.’ But, hey, Rhoda got her own show, eventually.
As with every Pynchon novel, long or short, there is a compendious cast of characters. A few among the many here are: Gabriel Ice, CEO of hashslingrz, a computer security firm which may be funneling money to Saudi Arabia; his wife Tallis, who is also daughter to Maxine’s anarchist friend March Kelleher; ruthless neoliberal enforcer Nick Windlust, with whom Maxine has a guilty fling; Xiomara, Nick’s Guatemalan ex-‘child bride’ – the two women’s relationships with Windlust echo that of Frenesi Gates with Brock Vond in Vineland, the recurring Pynchon motif of hippie/liberal/lefty chicks secretly attracted to (not so) clean-cut fascistic guys; and let’s not forget Maxine’s Buddhist ‘emotherapist’, Shawn: ‘Beaming at her with that vacant, perhaps only Californian, the-Universe-is-a-joke-but-you-don’t-get-it smile which so often drives her to un-Buddhist daydreams seething with rage. Maxine doesn’t want to say “airhead” exactly, though she guesses if somebody put a tire gauge in his ear it might read a couple psi below spec.’ Which begs the question: why does she attend him? Then there’s Conkling Speedwell, a professional ‘nose’ obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave (4711, fyi), born with an enhanced, canine-level sense of smell – redolent of The Crying Of Lot 49’s Dr. Hilarius, who could make a face that rendered people insane. Oh, and Lester Traipse is the embezzling programmer who gets murdered.
Lots of these characters interact through chance Woody Allen-style Manhattan street-meets, and the book is, among many other things, an askance love letter to New York, where by all accounts Pynchon now resides (and, by extension, Long Island, Pynchon’s birth place). There’s a nostalgic ode to sleazy old Times Square, before it was Disneyfied by Mayor Gulliani, a philistine suburbanite. Amid the mayhem of documentary film makers, nefarious computer programmers and hackers, Russian oligarchs and mobsters, the pining for the heady days of the tech bubble – when you could be at a start-up party every night of the week, and several on Thursdays – there is the ongoing critique of ‘late capitalism as a pyramid racket on a global scale.’
While there is a palpable and amazing sense of just how much cyberspace has moved on in the short time since the turn of the century, when most of the online conveniences we take for granted today had not even been invented, one thing that hasn’t changed is that the now 76-year-old Pynchon’s attitude to sex remains resolutely casual and adolescent. There is, of course, a school of thought which argues that sex should be causal (if not always adolescent), but it can be difficult to credit that some of the female characters here, Maxine included, let themselves get into the situations in which they find themselves.
As ever, conspiracy is Pynchon’s major theme, and here we have a Deepweb, accessible only to code breakers, while the rest of us swim in the shallows of the surface web; and also the notion that certain right wing elements had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks: ‘Is this all yet another exercise in freaking out the common folk so we’ll keep bleating and begging for protection? How scared is Maxine supposed to feel?’ Yet it all feels more vague and amorphous this time around, which paradoxically only adds to the foreboding and dread, and is also more reflective of the times we live in. If you pitch conspiracy theories of history, at one end of the scale, versus blind chance at the other, in many ways conspiracy is more comforting. At least it means someone’s in charge, the hidden hand is just not whose we thought it was, or whose we’d like it to be. But what if no one is actually calling the shots, and it’s all just one big cosmic gamble and free-for-all? Scary.
So, we’re not getting another Mason & Dixon or Against The Day blockbuster here, and certainly not something as era-defining as Gravity’s Rainbow. A bit like Vineland, and even Inherent Vice, this is the kind of thing Pynchon can do in his sleep. But it’s still better than what most writers who are wide-awake can dream up. In its own (relatively modest) way, it sums up a historical period of great turbulence and uncertainty just as much as the now canonical works of this great American novelist once did.
This review will appear in due course in the Irish Sunday Independent, doubtless in a much truncated version.