Monthly Archives: January 2011

It’s Lovely To Be Here: The touring diaries of a Scottish gent by James Yorkston

With hindsight, the most endearing qualities of James Yorkston’s music have always hinted at a literary future. His songwriting is graceful, patient and precise. His best work is at once powerful and serene. He calls on a range of traditional influences, from folk music to literature, but rarely sounds anything but original. So whilst there are plenty of potentially great writers within the Domino stable, it’s no surprise that Yorkston’s debut is the first release on their Domino Press. From the outset, it’s clear that he has accepted the opportunity with both hands: It’s Lovely To Be Here, is a charming and witty account of life on the road.

Publishing a touring diary is a brave move. The arts pages are littered with harrowing tales of isolation and frustration. Touring is rarely painted in a flattering light: often either descending into debauchery or disconcerting monotony. Yorkston avoids old clichés by accepting touring for what it is. Instead of getting bogged down in boredom, he reflects on and subsequently relates the humdrum and minutiae of everyday life, much like a Kurt Wagner song. The book is laced with observational humour and a dry, sardonic wit. He can at times be abrasive and dour and his writing is often ‘matter-of-fact’, but it’s never whiney or melodramatic. He drinks heavily whilst on tour, but that isn’t the overriding theme. What we have, is one man’s search for routine and normality in the most transient existence known to man, which turns out to be more interesting than you might think.

The chapters aren’t chronological. Yorkston flits between time spent from 2004-2009 in Ireland, London, North America and Europe, but patterns emerge across locations and in the end, you get the impression that he is waging personal battles all over the world. The reader becomes engrossed in his quest for decent vegan food, his valium-fuelled struggle with aerophobia, his discomfort with being labeled a ‘folk musician’. There is nothing revelatory here; this isn’t designed to impact à la Kurt Cobain’s Journals, but it seems all the realer for that. Yorkston is a musician – a writer – we can relate to. Over the course of the extracts, we can sense small changes in character, depicted in the occasional stylistic shift in prose, or through anecdotal evidence (a fine example being his warming relationship with American touring partners).

The Fence Collective alumnus comes across as amiable and thoughtful. His musings on literature project an intelligent, well-read figure, whilst some of his deeds betray altruism in contrast to the dour Scottishness portrayed in others. From his careful consideration of cassettes and demos thrust into his hands after chance encounters with barmen, to him taking a photographer shopping for a gift after a particularly long and arduous graveyard shoot in Berlin; there’s a warmth to Yorkston that not even corrosive life in motion can erode.

For Yorkston’s fans, this book is essential reading. His accounts of various gigs across the world offer interesting insights to his own version of his performances; quite possibly at odds with your own. For the casual listener, even, this will make for an interesting, light read. James Yorkston should be commended for having the bravery to explore territory that in the wrong hands, would undoubtedly leave the read cold: a sterling effort.

Written for The Line of Best Fit

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This week, I’ve been mostly reading… {week two}

It’s been a busy week. I’m outraged again. Sorry.

The aftershocks of last week’s popular rebellion in Tunisia have been felt all across the Arab world, but particularly in Egypt. Protesters have taken to the street to try to force Hosni Mubarack from office. This year marks the 30th Anniversary of his coming to power and I’ve been getting updates on the situation all week from the Twitter account of Mona Eltahawy.

I linked to a lead article she wrote in The Guardian last week. This week’s first recommendation is less of a ‘read’, more of a ‘follow’. Eltahawy slept for 45 minutes in 48 hours as she relayed the news from the streets of Cairo and other major flashpoints. For me, this represents all that is good about social media and bitesize news. As well as helping rally troops on the ground, people like Eltahawy are raising awareness round the world. The passion and conviction in the work she has done this week has been truly admirable: a great ambassador for the people of Egypt.

13 Year Old Boy’s Murder Trial Could Violate International Law

And from the good, to the downright despicable. In a country that champions itself as the world’s leader in justice and liberty; the land of opportunity, how can America justify trying a 13-year-old boy as an adult? You cannot condone anybody who takes another life. Jordan Brown, an elementary student, shot his father’s pregnant girlfriend in the back of the head as she slept: an indisputably horrendous act. But to lock a child up forever, with no chance of parole?

It reminded me of a story I read last year, around the time of the media’s witch hunt for the details of convicted murderer Jon Venables’ second felony. There are different ways of dealing with such terrible cases. One is to throw away the key; the other, a more measured response, is to find out why. After two kids in Norway committed a similar (if not more horrific act) than Venables and Thompson, this article describes how the local community responded, and is well worth five minutes of your time.

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Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period

I’ve been surprised by the amount of typography fetishists I’ve encountered over the past few years. Anyone who spends a fair amount of time hunched over a keyboard will have preference as to how their copy is turned out. There is room for personal taste, in most cases. But some things are just plain wrong. This entertaining piece by Farood Manjoo develops on a pet hate of my own. Both in altruism and as commercial ventures, I’ve edited a lot of essays, dissertations and thesis’. I’ve always held firm that one space is always enough, no matter what the context. Thanks to Farood for hammering this point home emphatically.

The Battle Against Benefit Cuts and Poverty Pimps

Laurie Penny’s blog in the New Statesmen this week explored the dangers of an outsourcing culture. As the coalition government continues to look for ways to slash the welfare state, the vultures are circling in the shape of huge corporations primed to profit from such moves. She names Atos Origin, who have developed an ‘unreliable’ means of testing people to see if they’re fit to work. Of course, if it’s in your interests, you will find what you’re looking for. Even graver dangers have been outlined by Kathryn Bolkovac, who blew the whistle on the involvement of contracted peacekeepers in child trafficking in Bosnia.

Hatred and Bigotry in the Playground

In a week in which sexism has dominated the UK media, Johann Hari’s latest Indy column tackles the problem of homophobia in schools. Progression has been made on many levels, but not amongst kids. It should be a clear focus for the government. I was shocked to read that France has this week upheld a ban on gay marriage, too.

North Korean Music Updates

This week also marked the busiest day I’ve ever had on my blog. I wrote a piece on the music of South Korea, which obviously struck a chord with some (positive and negative). I will be reading with intrigue, then, the updates of Alex Hoban. He’ll be reporting on the music scene in Pyongyang, North Korea. Don’t ask me how… but it will no doubt be interesting.

Finally, a friend put me onto this interesting interactive program, If It Were My Home. It allows you to compare your own country with any other in terms of every aspect of life. The scary thing is, I have 58% more chance of being unemployed in the UK than I do in South Korea. Yikes.

Happy reading!

Falling On Deaf Ears: The Curious Case of Popular Music in Korea

A grievance for many foreigners living in Korea is the perceived lack of variety. The food, whilst excellent, is typically built around the same staple ingredients. Anyone arriving here expecting a local beer to rival those of Eastern neighbours Thailand, China, Japan and India will be bitterly disappointed. The choice is small; the taste of each is poor. It’s visible in the schools, where the kids are forced to wear regulation haircuts; in the streets, where young lovers parade dressed in couple sets’ matching outfits; and in the workplace, where signs of individuality are often greeted with suspicion.

Where I noticed this most, though, is in the music. Having conducted a little research before I came here, my expectations weren’t very high. I understood that mainstream Korean music was similar to Japanese: sickly sweet and nauseatingly choreographed. However, whereas Japan is famous for its niche markets, its fascination with bizarre elements of Western culture and its resultant spawning of independent scenes rivaling those of the West for fervour and devotion, a parallel seems lacking in much of Korea.

I underestimated the reach of the mainstream pop music scene in Korea. As a well-developed, industrialized country, a functioning democracy and the fastest internet connection in the world, the seeds of variety, the key ingredients of lifestyle choice and the means with which to pursue them are all present. In my own experiences, there just isn’t the appetite. No matter where you go in the city I live in, Gwangju, it’s wall to wall K-Pop. In the bars, clubs, restaurants and even on the street. There are megaphones affixed to the sides of buildings churning it out, relentlessly. It’s inescapable. It also seems to be embraced by people from every demographic: old and young, rich and poor. If you see an impromptu K-pop performance or dance routine on the street (as you often do), the audience will be a hodgepodge of middle-aged women and middle-school kids, all clapping along blissfully. If there is an underground scene, it’s so far subterranean, you may need to enlist ultrasonics to locate it.

Seoul, I’m certain, would offer a vast improvement in terms of diversity. It is a cosmopolitan mega-city, home to more than 20 million people. When touring acts do decide to make the journey to South Korea, they generally play a show in Seoul and sometimes Daegu and Busan. Friends in Seoul have spoken briefly of counter-culture, but it’s not an area I’m well-versed in. Gwangju, though, is hardly a rural backwater. With a population of 1.5million, it has almost the same amount of people as my home country, Northern Ireland. We may get the odd ex-pat band playing in a local foreign owned bar. There is the occasional indie gig, sponsored by the radio station. But amongst the Koreans I encounter regularly, there is little interest in an alternative to K-pop.

Girls Generation – Chocolate Love

So what music is popular in Korea?

K-pop is an intensely saccharine version of the music congesting the charts in the UK at the moment (from what I can tell). There are electronic, hip-hop and R&B elements or strands to it, but truth be told, each sub genre varies very little from the other. When I went home at Christmas, I briefly tuned into Radio One and was shocked to hear the amount if Auto Tune and vocador used to distort the singers voice. That has a presence in Korea, too.

The pop music here, though, strikes me as being very basic. Although a charge angled at lots of ‘fads’, it is bereft of depth, instantly forgettable and awfully annoying. It is childlike in its composition, often featuring insanely high-pitched vocals or faux-macho rap interludes. Some pieces remind me of an even less palatable Black Eyed Peas. Where we differ here, though, is that the format of the music reminds me of the boy/girl group boom in the West circa mid-1990s.

As anyone who has spent time in a Korean classroom will testify, boys and girls don’t mix very well. This may explain the saturation of single-sex pop acts dominating the airwaves. The most popular girl groups are probably The Wonder Girls (who became the first Korean ‘artist’ to break into the Billboard 100 in 2009) and Girls Generation: gaggles of insanely pretty, scantily clad pixies with barely a note in their collective heads. Of the boy groups, I could rhyme off any number of acts, but the ones I hear most often are B2ST (Beast, clever). Shinee, BIGBANG, 2AM, 21 and CN Blue. To their credit, CN Blue actually play instruments. They’re akin to McFly doused in Kool Aid and incarcerated in a music box. The boys are all handsome, clean-cut and fresh-faced with a prepubescent innocence that seeps out from their music videos.

B2St – Breathe

The Pop Idol format is kingpin in Korea, too. Many of the acts mentioned above came through the ranks of one of the local versions. No problem there… I recall just before Christmas my Facebook and Twitter feeds were inundated with X-Factor inspired comments. But there doesn’t seem to be any cynicism towards programs like these, or the superstars they spawn. Cynicism within a culture helps to engender an alternative, but people in Korea lap up the produce unquestioningly. When I have called this to various Korean people they have turned it back on me: “why would we?” Most people seem to be content with being spoonfed: it saves them the bother of developing a taste of their own.

Why doesn’t there seem to be any musical diversity in Korea?

The notion of adolescent peers frowning on individuality is not a new thing. It was present when I was growing up and I’m sure it will be when my grandchildren are. But in the wider spectrum (and certainly more-so in theory than in practice), the Western ideal is said to prize individualism. This is not the case in Korea. Groupthink is rife to an extraordinary level amongst people, particularly the young. Opinions are formed without questioning the reason: logic is often lost.

There is intemperate jingoism and fervent nationalism. Interview a cross section of people on any number of topics (current President Lee Myung Bak, mad cow disease, Japan, for example) and you will get 99% of the same vitriolic response. Ask them to back it up with reasoning, some will struggle. So whilst Korea is eager to embrace elements of modern culture, it could be argued that they don’t have the confidence to go the whole nine yards… independent thought isn’t a priority.

(I would like to point out here that I am in no way actively encouraging and hoping that Korea pursues “Western ideals”. I am a staunch critic of standardization and it sores me to see Starbucks’ popping up on corners here. I do not consider independent thought to be a Western virtue: more something that’s essential and present in a fully functional society.)

You can see it in the classroom, where students are encouraged to stifle their eccentricities. Hair, long considered the emblem of teenage rebellion, must be regulation length and colour. The learning-by-repetition models adopted in many classrooms are a few steps away from the “hundred and twenty times three times a week for thirty months” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There is such an emphasis on achievement here, creativity falls by the wayside and with it, the desire or ability to form musical taste. Children are not championed for their flair or uniqueness here, but for their productivity and aptitude to study.

The prizes are so great. Failure is not an option (explaining the ridiculously high suicide rate). Humiliation equals death. Face and honour are the most valuable things in Korean society and as such, the system of learning is geared to build an army of obedient, successful robots. The emphasis on education is stifling, so if a kid takes his eye off the ball for a split second, he’s left in the dirt. From middle school, students attend up to seven extra academies after they finish their formal education. After completing their homework, some finally get to bed in the wee hours of the morning, before rising at the crack of dawn to begin all over again. One of my students was operating at four hours sleep per night, six nights a week. He is fourteen. When he goes to high school, he tells me his school hours will be from 7am-11pm. Where is the opportunity for these kids to develop a taste in music? So whilst we spent our teenage years holed up in our bedrooms taking our first steps in a sonic journey that will last a lifetime, Korean kids have to make do with what’s rammed down their throats: without the onus or will to question it.

Another obsession of the Korean people is image. Plastic surgery is common; particularly double eyelid surgery amongst women, where they try to make their eyes look more Western. Without so much time to devote to actually listening to music or watching movies, it’s important to them that their stars are all beautiful. Ask anyone why he or she likes a particularly movie star or singer and they are probably more likely to say “pretty” or “handsome” than, “they sing well”. In this area, ability is secondary. People are slaves to image and it’s certain that this has an effect on what they are listening to.

The most popular hobby in Korea, gaming, is so socially obtrusive that I would argue it too is a factor in the suppression of the music scene. When they do have some free time, a huge percentage of young people (and not so young) spend it in the PC Room. Combined with the countless hours of study, a large amount of time in here is a huge hindrance to the social skills of kids. Many lack confidence, are inordinately shy or simply don’t like interacting with other people. Again, any inkling they may have had to involve themselves in an alternative scene is effectively corroded. It seeps into their ambition, their fashion and of course, their music. With competition like this, credible musicians stand little chance.

I hope none of what I’ve written is offensive to Koreans reading this. Whilst I have spoken generally, I have done based on what I see before me daily. I hope that readers will highlight any erroneous statements, and counter my views with their alternatives. The music here has been one of the only frustrations I’ve experienced and something I’ve thought about a lot. I would be very interested to hear what other people’s take on this issue is… please feel free to comment below.

This week, I’ve been mostly reading… {week one}

I spend a lot of time at my computer and whilst I’ll freely admit a lot of it is spent time-wasting; procrastinating, I get a lot of good out of it too. Via Twitter, Facebook, emails and random searches, I end up digesting a lot of worthwhile online literature. Whilst a resolution for 2011 was to read a lot more away from my screen, I figured I may as well put the rest of it to good use, too. Rather than continually posting links to articles and videos on Facebook, I’ve decided to try and make a weekly reading / watching list, based on what I’ve enjoyed in the seven days ensuing and what I would like to share with others.

Here’s what I’ve been digging, week ending January 21st (it gets a bit more fun the further down you read, promise):

Tunisia: The First Arab Revolution

It’s impossible to underestimate just how symbolic this week’s events in Tunisia have been. North Africa has suffered at the hands of dictatorial despots since independence and so the first revolution, as described by Mona Eltahawy in the Guardian, should be embraced.

As Christopher Hitchens comments in his weekly column for Slate, though, those within Tunisia should be wary of political Islam. The Ben Ali regime did many, many bad things but was tolerated (supported) by the West, partly because of his western-friendly economic policy and partly because of the fact that he kept political Islam out of government. The next few months are key to the country’s future as a ‘free nation’.

Naomi Klein: Addicted To Risk (Video)

I’m a huge fan of Canadian anti-globalization writer Naomi Klein. After reading the Shock Doctrine, her damning indictment of disaster capitalism, my entire worldview was altered. Few books have had that effect on me. In her speech at TEDWomen, she warns of the dangers we’re facing because of BP’s Faustian pursuit of oil reserves. This is a much watch, full of some real quotable soundbytes like, “we’re putting our foot on the accelerator, when we should be hitting the brake.”

As if that wasn’t enough, this piece by Mark Leftly and Chris Stevenson in The Indy about the recent deal struck between BP and Russian oil giant Rosneft outlines exactly what the deal means for those that count Antarctica as their natural habitat.

One of the pieces that made me think more than usual (that is, some) this week is Do We Have Ahmadinejad All Wrong in The Atlantic, portraying the Iranian President as a progressive but hampered leader, often stifled in the policies he wishes to implement by the Ayatollah and his parliament.

There seems to be no bottom to the can of worms opened all over the Vatican’s face in the past few years. After vehemently denying such charges for what seems like forever, this story of a letter from a senior Vatican figure pretty much confirms their complicity in the child abuse cover ups in Ireland. This is one of the more harrowing stories I’ve read in a while, with particular reference to Elvis impersonating priest Tony Walsh, who raped a child in the toilet, at the child’s grandfather’s funeral.  The devil truly is in the detail.

That was all a bit heavy duty. How about some nice numbers? Eric Harvey, Pitchfork staff writer and incessant blogger, has taken the time to compile the sales figures for all of the albums on both P4k’s top 50 albums of 2010 and Rolling Stone’s top 30. It makes for interesting reading. James Blake, #8 in Pitchfork’s for a series of 3 EP, recorded sales figures of only 511/4,091/na. The Fresh and Onlys at #29 with Play It Strange sold only 3,633. The rest have all got reasonably high figures, putting pay to the theory that Pitchfork only carries obscure releases. Or maybe it means that they take the obscure records and make them popular?

Pitchfork

Rolling Stone

I’ve never really been much of a Beatles fan, but The Voices of All Of Our Yesterdays, an essay on the Fab Four by Douglas Adams helps me understand just how I might have loved them had I been born in a different era. It’s an account, on McCartney’s 50th birthday in 1992, of his first encounters with them and how they went onto change his life. It’s written beautifully, in true Adams style. Knocks spots of my first record story, anyway (Ocean Colour Scene, since you asked).

And finally, how about some toilet humour? This one was doing the rounds on Twitter recently:

Jim Noir – Zooper Dooper

Over the course of five years and three albums, enigmatic Manchester singer Jim Noir has been diligently reconstructing his persona. Even before listening to a note of his output, Noir’s appropriation of Vic Reeves’ real name as his nom de plume paints him as a detached, otherworldly and cryptic being; an image his back catalogue does little to dispel. A sometimes brilliant kaleidoscopic cocktail of Magic Roundabout, twisted carousels and Sixties psychedelia, Noir’s music has often fostered the notion that he spends a fair bit of time orbiting his own head. Zooper Dooper is no different. Strewn across the six tracks is the very essence of what has made his output at times so enjoyable, laden with a slew of unfortunate reasons why he is unlikely to progress in sound or status anytime soon.

One of the most compelling affections of good music is its ability to transport the listener to another place. In that respect, the best moments of Zooper Dooper are cathartic. Noir’s compositions are formulaic and simple. The opening track ‘Kitty Cat’, which despite being instrumental recalls Badly Drawn Boy, sees him seize upon a riff, then spend three minutes drawing it out and looping it back and forth in hypnotic fashion. Similarly, when Noir uses a vocal, it’s looped and repeated amongst the reverb drenched whirs and bleeps for the track’s duration. The set highlight ‘Map’, pulls it off spectacularly but in other cases (‘She Flies Away With My Love), the lyric plays out ad naseum.

And there lies the problem with this EP. When Jim Noir first entered our psyche with the wonderful Tower Of Love, he was a hugely exciting prospect: brimful of ideas and with an unpredictability that left you hanging on every note. Too often here he seems trapped: caged in by the one idea and unsure of where to take it next. The title track is advertising fodder, sure, but as a centerpiece is lightweight and forgettable, desperate for an injection of freshness: a new perspective. If it’s forthcoming, then there’s every chance Noir’s next record could be a game-changer. Otherwise, though, we both may find ourselves singing the same tune, over and over again.

Originally published at The Line Of Best Fit

My contribution to TLOBF’s albums of 2010 (last National post, I promise)

1. The National High Violet


For a band accustomed to organic, incremental growth, 2010 will go down as The National’s Great Leap Forward. No longer are they your National; the band you’ve been telling your friends about since someone thrust a worn out copy of Alligator into your hands five years ago, pledging it would change your life (I’m speculating that most fans visited the earlier albums retrospectively). 2010 was the year The National out-Nationaled themselves and went global, becoming the most universally loved band on the planet in the process. The secret’s out: they’re Everybody’s National now.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the transformation took place, but the shoots of growth were sprinkled amongst the first blooming daffodils of spring. There was the early recorded performance of ‘Terrible Love’ on The Jimmy Fallon Show that went viral, leaving us wondering if the opening bars to High Violet were really to sound so gauzy. There was that sell out show at the Royal Albert Hall in May, rapturously received. And amidst all the eulogistic reviews that greeted the album’s release, there was the small matter of chart success: #5 on this side of the Atlantic, thank you very much.

But the difference between The National making such a transition and, say, REM doing the same in the late eighties / early nineties, is that with High Violet, they haven’t made a populist shift, sonically. The progression from the edginess of Alligator, to the majesty of Boxer was a natural evolution, borne out in the lyrical themes softened between the two records. High Violet is a hybrid record, of sorts. It is more ruffled than Boxer, yet retains the orchestral beauty and polish, marrying the two preexisting instances of The National into one magnificent whole.

Their methodology didn’t change one bit. The band are affirmed perfectionists and their ethos stood firm in the recording of High Violet. What did change, perhaps, is the scale of the sound on the album. This is a bigger record than any of its predecessors; not in the stadium-bothering ilk of U2 or Kings of Leon, but in terms of sheer gravitas. The songs, leaden with Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner’s welling strings, are enormous, brooding entities bolstered the menace in Matt Berninger’s vocals.

Finally, the penny dropped, with an almighty thud that forced everyone to sit up and take notice. The National are successful because they deserve to be. High Violet is the best album of 2010.

First published here.

British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall

Every discerning band or musician wants to make music that’s at the very least interesting. British Sea Power, though, have consistently strived to go a step further, hanging fascinating and niche concepts of ice shelves (Oh Larsen B) and long gone football teams (Canvey Island) on hooks made to measure.

On their first full length release since 2009’s Man of Araninstrumental, concept album, the Brighton outfit is still exploring off-kilter themes, but the musical invention that glued them together isn’t as cohesive as before: the electronic leanings hinted at on the recent Zeus EP are, disappointingly, explored all too sparingly.

Yan’s vocals are siphoned through a vocoder on standout track Mongk II, whilst the glitch-pop of Living Is So Easy is an impressive, successful departure. But too often (the shouty Who’s In Control and M.O.R. Observe The Skies) BSP are content to play it simple, resulting in the first real disappointment of their careers.

2/5

Written for The Skinny