Thursday, June 28, 2007

Review of the Klaxons' Myths of the Near Future

Let’s be clear about this one: the hype surrounding the ‘nu rave’ scene in the past months has thrown up a host of bands that have less to do with E-fuelled fluorescent weirdos listening to the musical equivalent of a flea-bitten moggy being violently sick over your new carpet, and much more to do with a new breed of indie band, namely one which is in tune with the crackling variousness and potentiality of contemporary rock music.

Enter Klaxons. A three piece born out of Stratford-upon-Avon (you know, Shakespeare country) and Bournemouth, they’re smart, savvy, and worryingly fluorescent. But while many of their die-hard fans insist on brandishing glow-sticks at their gigs, and while the sirens and vocal loops scream out from their single, ‘Atlantis to Interzone’, their sound is one which reveals an impressive and stellar mesh of influences and ideas fighting for supremacy in the collective Klaxon mind. It’s like their trying to write weird and wonderful songs that stretch on into infinity armed only with the standard instruments of your average rock band: vocals, guitars, bass, and drums. Klaxons almost seem to be striving to do with contemporary music what the likes of Thomas Pynchon attempted to do with the modern novel: pick up the same tools as everyone else, craft something bizarre and initially unsettling, and transport the reader/listener and their expectations to somewhere at once bemusing and incredible. Perhaps an odd comparison, until you listen to first single ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ and realise that the Klaxon boys have done their homework.

Where the Klaxons shine, then, is in borrowing from rave’s and dance’s finer attributes: adding synths and loops to hone and refine their fizzling, Johnny Greenwood-esque guitars and rolling bass sounds to perfection. This is particularly evident on the aforementioned ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, but also on the cosmically Muse-like and eerily-moving opener ‘Two Receivers’, and their impressive and soaring cover of Grace’s mid-nineties rave hit, ‘It’s Not Over Yet’. But while the Klaxons show much promise and live up to much more than the hysteria of being flag-bearers to a genre nobody seems to know much about, they are nonetheless somewhat limited by the resources at their disposal, as matched with their fantastical and interstellar musical ambitions. It’s all there in the alluringly strange and ambitious harmonics of their lyrics: songs about setting sail, travelling from Atlantis, floating on ‘silver waves through the skies’, even in one of the album’s surprise highlights, ‘Isle of Her’, a song about rowing towards paradise, notably inspired by Greek mythology. The Klaxons want to soar: their diverse range of literary, mythological, cultural, and musical influences fighting for space in songs that vary from a couple of minutes in length to six minute stompers. But often they’re held back, either by their collective tremulous vocals not quite matching the demands that their songs make of them, or by too many sounds and ideas clunking about tunes that would benefit from being tidied and tightened. But then this is only their first album, and I’ve got high hopes for the Klaxons’ future efforts. After all, in the space of a year they’ve been plucked from relative obscurity and have churned out an album that’s on a different (and in my opinion, much more habitable and colourful) planet than that which the Arctic Monkey’s did as 2006’s surprise success. For while your listening to the Franz Ferdinand crackle and throb of ‘Totem on the Timeline’ one minute (with its decidedly weird line ‘At Club 18-30 I met Julius Caesar, Lady Diana and Mother Theresa’), suddenly Klaxons spring the surprise of follower ‘As Above, So Below’, a song that has more in common with Belle and Sebastian and the Scissor Sisters than anything else. And it’s this ability to blend diverse influences with artistic integrity and, crucially, a sense of fun, that ultimately makes Myths of the Near Future such an impressive debut. Not to mention one that bodes well for the band’s future.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Brittle Stars across Marseille

Recently got back from seeing a friend who’s currently living near Marseille, and sunburn aside, it was a lovely trip. Lovely because I got to spend lots of time in near thirty degree C weather while it apparently poured it down here in Sheffield, and because the trip became a celebratory one in that I received my provisional degree result the day before I left, which was a first. Lots of time spent relaxing on Marseille’s beaches, then, and wandering around Aix-en-Provence, sitting in the parks and drinking in the evenings.

Back in Blighty now, and the weather leaves a lot to be desired, but my day was brightened this morning when I opened my inbox to find that the editors of the excellent little magazine Brittle Star are accepting a poem of mine, ‘Mowing’, for Issue 17. It’s due out in Summer/Autumn, and I’m especially chuffed in that the magazine is wonderfully produced, and has featured many emerging poets whose work I enjoy. And in other news, the latest issue of the University of Sheffield’s e-journal, Route 57, is up online, and features a variety of literary and creative writing from School of English students, including a couple of poems of mine (only one up currently, the second should be online soon), and a short essay on Holocaust testimony, ‘Memory Drifts and Misremembrances: The Value of Holocaust Testimony’, which I wrote last year. Right, anyway, that’s quite enough of blowing my own trumpet, I’m off to continue reading Mick Imlah’s brilliant collection Birthmarks, which by the way I highly recommend, especially the opening poem, ‘Tusking’.

Monday, June 18, 2007

What Makes a Good Poem

In one way or another, explicitly and implicitly, something that’s cropped up across all the blogs (and comments on said blogs) that I regularly visit is the issue of what makes a good poem. This probably has something to do with all the blogs I read being written by writers. It also has a lot to do with the issue being highly contentious: an upshot of it being something that’s quite personal. However, that said, and most good poets and poetry readers do tend to generally agree on what makes a good poem, even if in recognising whether a poem’s any good or not, they often draw on differing reasons as to why it is.

So I thought I’d put my opinion on the line, and list five (technically six) things that go towards making a good poem. This list isn’t supposed to be definite, of course; at the best, I hope its representative. And at the very least, it’ll be interesting to see what you make of it. Comments are, as always, welcome.

1) Rhythm and scansion

I’ve grouped these two together as they lend a poem its momentum, and along with the diction of the piece, determine its tone and the way in which it approaches its subject matter. Good contemporary poetry (as with poetry of any era) has a line to tread: that between creating an almost musical rhythm that carries the poem along successfully and envelopes the reader, and adopting a combination of diction and poetic rhythm that is appropriate to the language we currently think and talk in, without coming across as too ‘newladspeak’. Of course, scansion is purely a page-based phenomenon, but where poems on the page are concerned, it is crucial to the flow and fruitful development of the poem. If the poem can pull this balancing act off, then, and it is appropriately matched to the subject matter in hand, it stands a good chance of tapping into poetry’s transformative power.

2) Transformation

Ok, so we’re not talking about cars and planes that change into robots to the sound of techno beats. The good poem has a transformative power. It takes something that we think we know, understand, and are comfortable with, and it turns it on its head: the good poem makes us ask questions thanks to its ability to offer the reader new perspectives and make the world a less certain, briefly scarier place to inhabit. This transformative power is honed to its full effect in the greatest poems: those that combine a dazzling new slant on something with poetic style, syntax and rhythm in such a way that we can never forget it.

3) Rhyme

Rhyme still has an important role to play in poetry today, one which I think is overlooked in many academic institutions that tend to focus too much on the message of the poem rather than the poetic techniques and craftsmanship employed within it. Rhyme’s primary purpose, as far as I can tell, is to allow words to merge and play off against one another; forging new meanings, ideas, and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Paul Muldoon is a good contemporary example of such poetic wordplay: using rhyme to echo words that may even be absent from the poem; opening up new avenues of semantic exploration (makes reading poetry sound like potholing...). But perhaps most straightforwardly, rhyme works well when effectively combined with the rhythm, diction, and scansion of the good poem: it gives the poem its inner musicality, it lends the poem a singularity of sound and sense that merge to the extent that one is indistinguishable from the other. In short, rhyme helps to complete the poem. Moreover, it is often best employed when akin to a conjuring trick or illusion: working its subtle magic in capturing the reader’s attention before eventually revealing its various tricks slowly but surely, in careful close readings.

4) Ambiguity

Language is inherently slippery. It constantly escapes itself. Words cannot be pinned down to any final or transcendent meaning, much as philosophers and thinkers may want this to be the case. But where philosophy finds problems in language’s failure to express something with absolute certainty, clarity, and no potential margin of communicative error, poetry exploits it. Poetry revels in language’s slipperiness. The good poem is a testament, then, to the simple fact that just as the universe is a constantly shifting and brilliantly unstable thing, so is our way of talking (and by extension, writing) about it. This is why the good poem merits many reads. It makes full use of language’s many, many dualities of meaning in order to make full use of the transformative power mentioned earlier. As William Empson famously states in his seminal critical work, Seven Types of Ambiguity: ‘Is all good poetry supposed to ambiguous? I think that it is.’

5) Memorability

This is a difficult one, because we remember poems for different reasons. Some poems, for example, people remember because they were forced to do so at school. And of course, there are poems like Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ that have appeared in numerous books, films, posters and so on, to the extent that they are drilled into our minds while potentially lacking any of the good poem’s true memorable force. (This is not an attack on Kipling, just a hypothetical suggestion). But I do think that the good poem has a certain memorability about it. This might only be a line or two, or a particular phrase that sticks, but good poems tend to make use of language in such a way that they stumble upon brilliant ways of putting or describing things. And once again, a poem’s memorability is borne out of the good poem’s marriage of sound and sense: capturing something in language so as to resonate with the reader in its ingenuity, and ultimately, its freshness.

E-Magnetic Poetry

The Poetry Library website has an e-magnet poetry kit which allows you to drag and drop words to make your own weird and wonderful poems. It's pretty good fun, and the link below hopefully leads to one of my creations:

Now to get on with something a little more productive...

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Why I Don't Like You, Calvin Harris

Calvin Harris, you are truly the worst thing I’ve had the misfortune to come across in a long while. It’s like somebody took Goldy Looking Chain and stripped them bare of all their humour and irony (and, for that matter, relative talent), and shoved them in some hideous blender with an unhealthy slab of tacky electro-pop in token nod to the yuppies and scenesters flocking like flies to the shit of New Rave. I’m sorry, as I’m normally a reasonable and fairly level-headed sort of person, but your bargain bin excuse for music is causing me to write absurdly long sentences. And feel queasy. Why do I detest you so, Calvin? There’s a plethora of reasons, but we’ll stick with the ones that are glaringly obvious.

First, there’s your image. Mirrorball sunglasses are not cool. Nor are day-glo colours, even if they seem appropriate in the context of the video for your first single (more on that later). Nor is appearing on T4’s coverage of the O2 Wireless Festival dressed like a pikey. Especially when you proceed to sing a song about ‘getting all the girls’, looking like you’re the sort of character who hangs outside of his local Kwik Save while trying to sell pills to teenagers.

Second, there are your song lyrics. I’ll take the liberty of printing some here from a lovingly composed transcript:

I like them Black girls, I like them White girls
I like them Asian girls, I like them mixed raced girls
I like them Spanish girls, I like them Italian girls
I like the French girls, and I like Scandinavian girls

I like them tall girls, I like them short girls
I like them brown hair girls, I like them blonde hair girls
I like them big girls, I like them skinny girls
I like them carrying a little bitty weight girls


I get all the girls, I get all the girls
I get all the girls, I get all the girls
I get all the girls, I get all the girls
I get all the girls, I get all the girls

[and so on]

Now I know what you’re going to say, Calvin. You’re going to say: ‘But those song lyrics from my totally amazing second single ‘Girls’ are out of context, Ben, if you listen to them with the music of the song they gain new meaning, power and depth’. Or maybe you wouldn’t say that, maybe you’d just click your fingers to summon a hoard of Calvin-hungry women who’ll inevitably maul you from all sides. Either way, you’re wrong. The only claim to half-decentness that your song ‘Girls’ has is that your voice has been electronically tampered with to the extent that 1) you can’t tell that, as your live acoustic session on T4 revealed, you’re completely tone deaf, and 2) that you can’t make out the truly awful lyrics, which as the above transcript reveals, read like they were written on the back of a pack of Benson and Hedges with a knackered biro. On a bus. In a hurry.

But then ‘Girls’ is nothing compared to your first single. ‘Acceptable in the 80s’. Let's get one thing straight, Calvin: this song will never be acceptable. Even music companies and movements in the 1980s itself, in all of their misguided wonder, would’ve recognised that. I see what you’ve done though. And to be fair, it’s quite clever. After all, the current demographic at which popular music is aimed were all born in the 80s, weren’t they? And as you say, you’ve ‘got love for them if they were born in the 80s’. What’s more, you’ve ‘got hugs for them if they were born in the 80s’. And let’s not forget Calvin, you magnanimous yet slightly creepy guy you, you’ll even ‘do things’ to people who ‘were born in the 80s’. No wonder we’re all rushing to the dance floors of our local indie clubs in the vain hope that you’ll deliver on some of this promised ‘Calvin lurve’.

What else? Well, the thing that annoys me more than your image and song lyrics, hell, even your sound bytes and interview quotes (‘They make very tedious music. What kind of person is going to make all this music and not make one single tune? What's the point?’ – a comment I assumed to be self-reflexive, then later realised you were talking about Bloc Party), is your album title. I Created Disco? Calvin, Calvin, Calvin. Sit down. You didn’t create disco. You haven’t even attempted to reinvent disco. I’ll tell you who invented disco. People with talent. Hues Corporation. The Bee Gees. Jackson 5. The Four Seasons. If you want to hear a band who’ve built on that tradition, listen to the Scissor Sisters. I don’t much like them myself, but I can at least tell they’ve got talent. And you? Well, you’ve got mirrorball sunglasses, haven't you Calvin. Cool.

Friday, June 15, 2007

New Poem

Here's a poem that I've literally just finished writing and making minor alterations to if you, the reader, fancy doing me the lovely favour of giving feedback and suggestions for potential changes. Many thanks in advance. (I do intend to make a 'real' post here sometime soon, I promise...)

...looks like it disappeared...

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Something (Almost) New

Here's a poem I wrote a while ago for your perusal/enjoyment/comments.

looks like it vanished...

Sunday, June 03, 2007


CAUTION: This video contains language that some people may find offensive.

I recall a mini-debate over swearing, its many uses, and most importantly, its place in our language (language itself being the shared property of all), taking place on Ros Barber's Shallowlands a while back. It's a hot potato that people have very differing opinions on, and so it was with much delight that I found this little gem from the Channel 4 series of celebrity-questioning snippets. In the clip, the various individuals (who comprise of comics, chefs, entertainers, actors, reporters; essentially, people from many walks of life) are asked what there favourite swear word is. The answers fall almost unanimously into two camps. The fact that you can probably already guess what they are says enough about swearing's place in our language and society: something that we shouldn't indulge in too often or overuse (for multiple reasons), but something that packs a punch in certain situations like no other word ever could. After all, the former ensures the latter.