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September 29, 2007

Roy Harper

How have I missed Roy Harper? I know I'm not that knowledgeable about the folk music scene, but I perusal of wikipedia quickly tells me that he is a lot more than that.

The reason I ask, is that I was at the Joanna Newsom concert at the Albert Hall last night, and he was one of the support acts. He played the complete 1971 studio album "Stormcock", simply accompanied by one other guitarist. It was a bit hard to take it all in, having not heard any of it before, but the four very long songs did have time to grow on me, and I still find myself humming "Me and My Woman" today.

More web magic (well, the Wikipedia entry links and a bit of YouTube) inform me that Roy is a mate of Jimmy Page and Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin, He's had his songs covered by Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel, and he even sang lead vocal on "Have a Cigar" on the Pink Floyd album "Wish You Were Here" because Roger Waters had a bit of a sore throat and he happened to be in the studio next door.

I'm definitely going to have to chase up a copy of this "Stormcock " album. Joanna Newsom described listening to it live last night as the most important event in her life so far that she will tell her grandchildren about, and rates it as her favourite album ever, and that's good enough for me.

Posted by se71 at 12:39 PM | Comments (0)

Set In stone - Robert Goddard

Set In Stone - Robert Goddard

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. This is a really poor effort from Goddard. I'm used to fairly obscure and intricate plots. I'm even used to the dogged hero who takes up a cause for no real reason and nearly gets himself killed travelling the length and breadth of the country searching for people to interrogate for information to solve some mystery or other. I can put up with that, but I can't handle a spooky house that has ghosts, and makes people do weird uncharacteristic things, including suicide and murder. Stick to thrillers Mr Goddard, with a plot that actually makes sense when you get to the end, and leave the spooky stuff to James Herbert. I hate to leave this review with nothing positive, so I will say that I've enjoyed several of Goddards other books, especially "Into the Light", so I hope this one is just an aberration, and will try again. One more chance is all I'll give him though.

Please give this one a miss, and save yourself a few hours of your life to do something more productive, like, well, pretty much anything.

Posted by se71 at 11:51 AM | Comments (0)

Joanna Newsom - Royal Albert Hall, 28th September 2007

Joanna Newsom RAH.jpg

(c) Georg Schroll

I was never quite sure how I'd cope with an evening of Joanna Newsom live on stage. I love the CDs of course, and have listened to them endlessly all this year. But I've been disappointed in the past by live performances from artists, and some of the YouTube videos of Joanna's other live appearances do not show her talents as well as they might.

However, as soon as the first note on the harp of "Sawdust and Diamonds" sounded, and her voice rang out amazingly clearly, I was lost completely for the next two hours. She has a quirky voice, which can take the uninitiated a little time to get used to. However some of the rougher edges seem to have vanished now, perhaps as a result of playing live and growing into the songs. If she continues in this way her music I think will become more commercial, but I hope she doesn't lose the unique style. The result however is that she now sounds far more professional, but still pleasingly individual.

Interspersing tracks from all her CD releases, with a rendition of a traditional Scottish song in the middle, the whole evening passed very quickly. Mostly she was onstage with her "Ys Street Band", three musicians on percussion, violin and what looked like a mandolin to me. The arrangements, though necessarily different to the CD, were very effective. Some songs allowed Joanna to show off complelety alone, and her virtuousity on the harp, easier to appreciate with no distraction, was amazing.

She finished off with a brand new song and then I was a bit disappointed that my favourite hadn't been played. What sort of act would play in an encore a 17 minute epic single track. The very popular "This side of the Blue" had also been missed, and it was used in a UK television advert, so I thought that was the obvious choice. I was totally amazed then when at 10:45pm, the official end time for the concert, Joanna and her three piece band returned and gave us what I felt was the complete perfect ending to the day - "Only Skin". This song has everything, and for the last year, ever since I first heard it, I've counted it as my favourite song ever, by anyone. It's loud and soft, always emotional, fast and slow, intricate and complex, and simple and pure. It stands up to multiple listens, back to back, day after day, and I'm always a little disappointed when it finishes. I got everything I wanted from it tonight. In the segments of the song where only simple harp and voice played quietly, five thousand people held their breath so that they could catch every nuance, and it felt really special to be there.

Of course, everything that Joanna did this evening made the audience feel that they were in a special place. She had as her support act Roy Harper, who played the entirety of his 1971 album "Stormcock". Both artists enthused about each others' talents in their introductions, Newsom going so far as to say this evening was one of the high points of her life. She also smiled and laughed a lot, and made a big issue of getting someone to go backstage and get her cameraphone. She asked for the houselights to turned up, and took a few pictures of the audience. The Albert Hall is a fantastic venue, and looking up at everyone from that stage, especially considering the history of the place, must be quite a feeling. Even when she stumbled on a line in the encore, she just laughed and continued instantly. No one minded. It was that kind of evening.

Posted by se71 at 10:54 AM | Comments (0)

September 27, 2007

A Song of Stone - Iain Banks

A Song of Stone - Iain Banks

The action takes place in a fictional country and time, where lawlessness has taken over in a war that seems to have no purpose.
A Lord (Abel) and his lady (Morgan) have decided to leave their castle before it is captured by bandits, and set off on the road as refugees. The same day however they are captured by a female leiutenant (Loot) and her ragtag company of soldiers. They are forced back to the castle, and this is where Abel plays a dangerous game, sometimes helping the soldiers, sometimes attempting sabotage, with death a real possibility at any time.

This is a novel of war and lust, and really very unpleasant on both counts. It starts depressingly, and only gets worse as it goes on. The aristocratic narrator plays with language for it's own sake. Some of the paragraphs are little more than old fashioned flowery wallpaper; you can see how someone might have once found it interesting, but it's now become too fussy and overwrought to be palatable. So you find yourself skimming from boring descriptive passages, slap bang into decapitation, incest and rape.

I suppose as a condemnation of war and the baseness of human nature, this works. There is no glorification of conflict, no compassion overcoming evil. However without some positivity, the relentless pessimism just drags you down as a reader and depresses you. Abel is a very original character, part Marquis De Sade, Machiavellian in nature, and completely amoral. Even though you feel you ought to be on his side against the soldiers, he's so unpleasant you can't, and so watching the plot unfold is more of an intellectual exercise than it should be. Who wins or loses isn't really important, and perhaps this is what Banks wants us to understand.

So though I think it could be a valuable book, the x-rated sex and the thoroughly nasty violence are so uncomfortable, and some of the prose so overblown and pretentious, that I'd never recommend it to anyone.

Posted by se71 at 01:52 PM | Comments (2)

Unnatural Causes - P.D. James

Unnatural Causes - P.D. James

Published in 1967, and hampered by some strangely inappropriate political incorrectness, this novel has dated really badly. Agatha Christies 1960's novels were also out of kilter with the times. Dining at one's club, employing servants and having a country retreat may be things that people still did (and still do), but they weren't treated as normal, in the way they would have been before the war. Society moved on, and English crime fiction took a while to catch up.

Casually mentioning that someone is a cripple, and actively disliking them for this same reason, isn't something a writer would contemplate allowing their hero to do nowadays, yet Inspector Dalgliesh does just that here. He come across as a moody unpleasant person in fact, which I wasn't prepared for. I've never encountered him before, I seem to have somehow missed all the TV series and novels. I'm not sure I want to again.

If these were my only complaints, we'd probably still be OK, but the plot itself is contrived and stupid as well. Dalgliesh is on holiday by the coast when a local writer is found dead in a boat with his hands cut off. This remote part of England is populated by a small community of fairly tedious people who dislike each other, but seem nevertheless to spend a lot of time in each others company. Though it's not his case, Dalgliesh gets involved anyway, antagonising the implausably named Inspector Reckless who gets the case.

The action heads up to London briefly, where we meet a reserved butler and a streetwise prostitute. Along with the egotistical writer and the underappreciated secretary, James has really made no effort here to give any of the novel's characters and individuality. Cardboard cutouts going through the motions.

And when we finally get to the end of the chase, the murderer has very kindly provided a taped confession of why and how they actually did it (yes, that really happens a lot in real life doesn't it?), but by then, you don't really care that much anyway.

This is a terrible book, one I started, gave up for a couple of months, and then finally finished just because I don't like leaving books half read; and because it's very short. I wish I'd never started it though.

Posted by se71 at 01:03 PM | Comments (0)

September 19, 2007

Time - Stephen Baxter

Time - Stephen Baxter

Reid Malenfant is a terrible name for a hero, it's just jarring to parse everytime you come across it. And yet, this is the man we're going to follow through the multiverse (or manifold, as that seems to be the new name for it), watching universes being born and dieing with a gung-ho devil-may-care attitude, and maybe an underlying sensitivity, after all, book characters cannot be black or white any more, we need shades of gray.

The plot here is very complicated, and I'm not sure at all what I can reveal here without it being classed as a spoiler. If you are worried at all, stop reading now. Even if you do read on though, don't expect to understand much, I didn't.

Set in the near future, the Carter hypothesis is predicting the end of civilisation on Earth within 200 years. Malenfant is a rich businessman with a yearning for space. He encourages everyone to reach for the asteroids as a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system and eventually galaxy. At the same time as this, 'blue' children are appearing all over the world, who are a super geniuses, and the general population are afraid of them. Also, squid are being augmented to enable them to communicate with humans.

There is a lot more happening, including a discovery of a strange monolith that seems to be of extra-terrestrial origin, and messages from the future. Everything comes to a head very quickly, and there are more scientific ideas than bacteria on a kitchen chopping board.

The title is a bit of a giveaway that some kind of time travel will happen. If you are going to do that, you have to expect your readers to either take it with a pinch of salt as an interesting plot device, or to take you apart with shouts of "Ha! What about causality?". And so that's my main complaint really, he takes everything very seriously, but doesn't explain it (because that's just about impossible anyway) in any way that makes enough sense. My other complaint is how Reid seems to be able to monitor things happening in distant universes, or across our solar system, instantly. Nevermind that the links are supposed to be only one way, or that we have a small law concerning the speed of light, it's all explained away glibly to keep the story going. And lets also not bother to explain how one squid can turn into a colony of super intelligent cephalopods with capabilities to build spacecraft in a few years. and these 'blue' children, where did their intellignece come from?

Malenfant describes himself as a Space Cadet, and the book tries hard to be a combination of Flash Gordon exploration, and future social commentary, and deep cosmological thinking. Though it's a cracking good read, the cracks get larger and larger in the plot, and eventually you fall through, and the ending is really absurd.

'Space' is a kind of sequel to this, and I'm sorry to admit it, but I think I will have to read on, and see if this mess resolves itself. I sometime I think i'm just not smart enough to understand these kinds of books; this one and Greg Egan's 'Schild's Ladder' have had me a bit stumped recently. But then I remember that I'm actually not unintelligent, I've studied some of this stuff quite a bit, and I still think the authors are taking liberties that they shouldn't do if they want to produce readable fiction.

Posted by se71 at 04:07 PM | Comments (0)

American Doll Possee - Tori Amos

American Doll Possee - Tori Amos

I've bought every Tori Amos CD since her debut Little Earthquakes, and DVDs and quite a few CD singles when I've been able to get them. I have occasionally been a bit disappointed in the beginning, and have then warmed to them, and then loved them ("To Venus and Back" may be a possible exception, I'm still working on that one).

I was expecting the same here, but my initial disappointment on the first two listen was worse than usual; I actually disliked the songs that I wasn't indifferent to. I persevered, I am not without endurance. I liked it even less, and forced myself to keep going. I finally couldn't take it any more, and gave up. I may never play it again.

Please to be ignoring the idiots on Amazon who give this 5 stars. Tori is a genius, listen to any other album and you will find gems of sheer perfection, but do not under any circumstances let this one near your ears, ever.


The above is the review as I'd actually like to leave it, but it seems unfair not to actually mention any of the songs, and why they are bad. The premise for this album is that there are five different personalities singing songs in their own style. Unless you are going to study the lyrics and photos, and really work at understanding these differences, it's all a bit pointless as they all sound, unsurprisingly, like Tori. So lets just forget that and move on.

The opener "Yo George" isn't completely awful, and it's short and nicely sung, but Tori's anti-war effort is just an excuse for a bad pun. "Big Wheel" is also OK, though there is an annoying drum counting middle segment that spoils it. "Bouncing off Clouds" would be an OK filler track on a good album. From here on though, the next 20 tracks get worse. "Teenage Hustling" just goes on and on with seemingly little variation in the note being sung and an annoying rough guitar sound. "You Can Bring Your Dog" also has this guitar. "Fat Slut", at 41 seconds is more of an interlude, but one I could have done without. Despair sets in until "Father's Son" which I'd forgotten, and is quite nice. The next few songs are totally forgettable, a complete waste of listening time. It's not that they are bad, but when each finishes, you get a "so, what was that all about?" feeling. Imagine a comedian telling a shaggy dog story for four minutes, then walking off without delivering the punchline; the time spent wasn't completely unenjoyable, but you feel cheated at the end. Would you let him to it to you again, and again? There are the odd flashes of sounds that are familiar, licks and hooks stolen from other albums, but hacked to remove the originality, and hence the quality. And on it goes, gradually dragging you down, till you can't take any more. My media player says I've listened to this album six times, I know it's a few more more than that, but even so, and having just worked through them all again, I think I've forgotten the songs already.

Posted by se71 at 03:21 PM | Comments (0)

September 18, 2007

Schild's Ladder - Greg Egan

Schild's Ladder - Greg Egan

This science fiction novel is definitely the most complex I've ever attempted. Some might say it's one of the 'hardest' SF novels ever, and I'm tempted to think that this was one of Egan's aims when he wrote it. This occasionally works for me here; I like mind expanding hypotheses about quantum physics and cosmology, but near the end this book stretches the bounds of believability way past breaking point and lost me completely.

There is a lot of good stuff here which I enjoyed. People live forever, and if they by accident suffer a 'local' death, the most recent backup of their mind is used to create a new body, or even just an acorporeal personality. Distances are travelled at light speed across the galaxy, as you just transmit yourself as electromagnetic waves; whole planets can be evacuated in this way with no loss of life. Personalities can be duplicated (though the ethics and consequences of this aren't explored), they can be shrunk to the femtoparticle level, they can have their time perception altered so that a microsecond becomes months or years of subjective time. All good stuff.

But there is a huge amount of fairly tedious theoretical maths, which is treated as real. This is quite right of course within the frame of a novel, but Egan goes even further, expanding the ideas to a level which starts to seem absurd, rather than enlightening. A new type of vacuum is described, and as it gets more and more bizarre, you realise that the story can go anywhere Egan likes, the internal consistency required of SF is gone as he just makes up another amazing phenomenon to take his characters whereever he wants.

So it's good, but it's also bad, I hesitate to use the phrase 'too clever by half', but a bit less cleverness might have made a better story. I'm not going to go into the plot in detail at all, either you like the sound of it by now, or you don't.

But I still think everyone should buy it, in the brand spanking feel good edition - the tactile cover is brilliant. You can see it here, but go to a shop and look at the others in the series too, and touch them.

Posted by se71 at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)

September 13, 2007

Listening to Music (stub)

(stub for a much longer article)

At the risk of looking like a boring old fart, I'm going to stick my neck out and say that popular music just isn't as good as it used to be. Lets take bands as the main example. The Q Awards nominations are out, and in the running are The Killers, The Kaiser Chiefs and Muse.

Muse have actually done a few good, and one or two excellent, songs. I like them, but even I have to say I usually can't get through a whole album without getting distracted. Has anyone listened to the whole Kaiser Chiefs album - or the Killers. I haven't heard one song by either band that makes my skin tingle, or even one that makes me want to hit the repeat button. Hard-Fi did a great debut album so I'm harming my argument a bit here I know, but their follow up seems to be getting less than enthuastic reviews. And don't get me started on the annoying ramblings of the overrated Arctic Monkeys.

A lot of this stuff is almost certainly great to listen to live. But the chant along choruses have as much artist merit as you'd get on the football terraces. What I'm after is music to make me sit up and listen, music that is unputdownable, music that hits me in the heart, or the head, or both. All we're really getting is a bit of uninspired guitar thrashing and shouting.

"Ruby Ruby Ruby, whatcha doin doin doin to me." Depressing that someone thinks that's the best song of the year.

Posted by se71 at 10:15 AM | Comments (0)


I'm still watching the TV series Heroes, all about a group of people with super-human powers coming together to save the world. It has it's moments, but last night I found myself drifting off a bit.

Problem 1 : Use your powers

We really need more action, or more interesting back stories. There is a flying man, but he stayed firmly on terra firma. There is a man who paints pictures of the future, but he didn't even touch a brush. There is a man who can read people's minds, and one who can time travel - one didn't appear at all last night, and the other only got a line at the very end. I could go on - but all we got was a couple of body regenerations, and a couple of weird dreams. The bad man I guess got to kill someone weirdly, but it just wasn't enough.

Problem 2 : Learn to Act

There is a father and son on the run from the police and the boy's mother. We had to listen to some really awful dialog from these two having heart-to-hearts about their situation. It sounded like they were reading it from cuecards. Also, our main hero, Peter, is just not convincing enough - and please, would someone tell him to get his hair cut to stop him continually brushing it out of his eyes. How can he fight evil if he can't even see it. Mr Horn Rimmed Glasses has a pixie-like assistant, she also can't act.

Problem 3 : Special Effects

The special effects really are not very good. Mr Flying Man landed in the desert, and we saw him skidding across the sand, but it looked a bit like Master Chief in the computer game Halo when he jumps off tall places - very false with poor physics. When the cheerleader regenerates from some appalling injury, the gradual fades from bloody face to clean face just look a bit odd - and where does the blood go anyway.

Conclusion: Rushed

It's all starting to look as if they are trying to fit 10 episodes of material into 24, and rushing out the scripts without enough care and attention, and keeping the first take, when a few more tries at a scene are required. I also watched the 'making of' show - these people come across as very arrogantly proud of their work, work which really doesn't deserve it. It's as if they think that by keeping saying how brilliant they all are we will believe it, in some kind of global hypnotism - hmm, the show's success so far maybe means it's working.

I will keep watching though, it's not as if it's actually a bad show, it is enjoyablewhat, and what else is there on TV? ,

PS - and why are all these Americans still using payphones, it's 2007 guys, got mobile.

Posted by se71 at 09:36 AM | Comments (0)

September 12, 2007

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

The Road - Cormac McCarthy

I've read "All the Pretty Horses" and quite liked it - not enough to yet have a go at the rest of the Border trilogy, but I thought it was an interesting and well written story.

I've also read and watched a lot of science fiction, and contemplated post apocalyptic civilisation more than most both in fiction and in my own thoughts.

Marrying together science fiction and 'proper' literature' doesn't really happen that much. Either a book is SF, and thus crappy genre fiction, or it's a deep meaningful mainstream story about real people and their feelings. Contemplating real people in fantastic situations doesn't seem to be something the general public can cope with without compartmentalising it into non-worthy SF. Most authors stick in one or the other area, Ian Banks is a notable exception, and recently PD James had a big success with the futuristic "Children of Men", though she is also a genre author really who usually does crime books.

But does this one work. Short answer is probably No.

A man and his son are walking along a road in a world of the future, where everything, including animals and plants, is dead. Only a few people survive, living off the scraps of food left in tins and packets, scavanged from houses and shops. They wear masks to protect them from the permanent dust; the sky is gray, and at night it gets so dark you cannot see anything and have to stop walking completely. Where are they going? And more inportantly, what will they do if they get there?

A lot of people have written stories about this kind of scenario. It's endlessly fascinating to predict what people might do - band together for protection - revert to primitive feudal times - fight wars until no one was left. I'm particularly reminded of some of P.K. Dick's short stories, or David Brin's "The Postman". Then there are films like Mad Max, or even The Planet of the Apes sequence. But this is not strong on science, and not that strong on ideas either. It needs more of a purpose. It needs some attempt at describing why the earth is as it is, and how long it's likely to stay that way. I was particularly disappointed at the lacklustre ending with it's semi-religious overtones, which didn't make me think I'd spent my reading time profitably.

So I wouldn't say it is good science fiction. Is it good fiction? Well yes, once it gets going, it's quite interesting, and quite exciting at times too. The slow progress is handled with a light touch and never really becomes dirgelike. I never found myself bored, though some of the conversations between father and son were a bit enigmatic for no good reason. McCarthy throws in a few odd words he's found in a thesaurous sometimes, but not too many.

This book has actually won prestigious awards, including The Pulitzer and The Quill. I really don't know why it's getting lauded so much. If Stephen King had written it, he'd have put it in one of his short story collections and people would have liked it, but it would never have won any prizes.

I'm pleased that 'normal' people may be exposed to fantasty fiction that they might otherwise not have seen. But I'm disappointed that they are not getting a proper plot, with a scientifically thought out scenario.

If you want excellent challenging prose, and a story set in a fascinating post civilisation world, then have a look at "Riddley Walker" by Russell Hoban.

Posted by se71 at 09:54 AM | Comments (0)



I think I've mentioned before my aversion to watching The Farrelly brothers films. The always look so tastless from the previews. I'm not always averse to a bit of tastelessness, but seldom seek it out.

Feeling sore and tired from a long day that started with me falling off my bike, I settled down alone to watch TV and this film came on. I've just been bowling coincidentally, so a bowling film didn't seem like a bad idea.

This is a story of a promising young bowler Roy Munson (Harrelson), who naively gets betrayed by a more experienced professional Ernie McCracken (Murray) and loses his bowling hand in a revenge attack by some bowlers they hustled. Sounds amusing yet? Years later he is a seedy drunken salesman and comes across an Amish man Ishmael (Randy Quaid) who is a great bowler. He decides to teach this man to win, and they set off to Reno for a £1 million competition. On the road trip they hook up with gangster's moll Claudia (Vanessa Angel).

There is quite a bit of grossout humour, but it's all fairly censor friendly and only merits the movie getting a 12 rating. It really is very funny, like the running gag where Roy holds out his false hand to show people the prize bowling ring which he wears, and they misinterpret and say "It's a rubber hand". Hmm, honestly, it's funnier in the film. The Amish people are stereotypical cutouts - and of course they build a barn which is a movie certainty. Bill Muray is fantastic as the folically challenged Ernie - his bizarre comb-over hairstyle should get it's own billing in the credits.

The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The humour is good natured, the story surprisingly touching in many ways, and I was really quite surprised to like it quite so much.

Posted by se71 at 09:15 AM | Comments (0)