Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Impossible is Possible



Having thoroughly regretted not buying at least a day ticket for the Smashing Pumpkins', my all time favourite group's, triumphant return to England for this year's Reading and Leeds Festival, I thought I'd post a brilliant performance of one of the band's most successful and well-remembered songs, Tonight Tonight. If you look around YouTube there's a few vids of the Pumpkins playing songs at Reading, too, including the recent Tarantula and Siamese Dream classic Today, but this particular performance is taken from the band's 1998 tour, and demonstrates their mass appeal (they inadvertently turned up late for this particular gig in Chile, and yet the crowd are still hugely receptive and chant the lyrics all the way through), as well as their versatility, as the song is differently arranged and without cello and violin augmentation, yet still works brilliantly. This song is definitely still one of my favourites of the Pumpkins, and never fails to move me in ways that other songs, and bands, just can't. Whether you like the guy or not, Billy Corgan's songwriting genius is simply undeniable.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Muse - Knights of Cydonia



Muse are a band that are the source of much argument in contemporary rock music. Are they a futuristic group in the post-Radiohead era, forging music of explosive, effect-layered grandeur driven by the undoubtedly talented Matt Bellamy, or are they a farcical outfit, a backward-looking musical ensemble who are not so much a progression from the stadium rock of Queen, U2, and, more recently, contemporaries Queens of the Stone Age, as a band firmly routed in the heavy riffage of the late 70s and 80s? I couldn't give a flying fuck. The arguments over the how-serious-should-you-take-me tone and monolithic flamboyance of Muse's music are pointless, or more to the point, they miss the point. Muse create music of almost limitless appeal. There is something in each of their albums, particularly the latest and most brilliant of these, Blackholes and Revelations, to please everyone. Well, almost everyone. Their music, quite simply, is to be enjoyed for what it is. The video embedded above, then, is taken from part of their set for E4's Abbey Road live recordings, and shows them at the peak of their powers, performing the apocalyptically epic Knights of Cydonia. Seven minutes of pomp, layered effects, tremolo arms, fast picking, and monster riffage. Top stuff. Give it a listen.

It's Just a Song About Ping Pong



In keeping with musical themes, and as stoopid-kool takes over the alternative scene (hence CSS and New Young Pony Club), I'm betting this single, from Operator Please, will sweep the clubs off their feet and blow flourescent teenage minds for, like, a whole month. After all, it's terribly written, extremely bouncy, has a kind of slow bit in the middle, moves at the pace of the faster numbers in The Hives' catalogue on speed, and makes chuff all sense at all. It's just a song. It's just a song about ping pong.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Mercury Prize 2007

As August starts to draw to a dreary and rather wet close, summer (or what we had of a summer), is officially over. And with it, the shortlist for one of Britain's biggest prizes for British and Irish musical talents will be whittled down to a single winner: the winner of the Mercury Prize 2007.

Last year saw the Arctic Monkeys win with their record-setting super-fast-selling debut album, 'Whatever You Say I Am, That's What I'm Not'. And they've been shortlisted again this year, with their second, heavier and harder-hitting follow-up, 'Favourite Worst Nightmare'.

As ever, the Mercury Prize shortlist is also a mix of familiar names and relative unknowns. What I want to do then, as somebody who has no control whatsoever over the final outcome, is to plead with the judges, if by some fluke of the universe they end up reading this page, to choose Natasha Khan a.k.a the wonderful Bat for Lashes, as this year's winner.

Why? Well, the Mercury Prize is always a toughie, and there is always a degree of grumbling over the decision. Last year, the Arctic Monkeys won because, well, they were the band of 2006. But then wouldn't an act of equal talent, yet one that had been surrounded by less sensationalism and media coverage, have benefited more from the prize and the accompanying publicity? After all, by the time the Mercury was announced everybody had heard of the Arctic Monkeys, and by the sounds of the sales figures, everybody had bought their album, too. Why wasn't it given to Richard Hawley, for example, a singer-songwriter of huge potential and promise? But then again, my winner of choice would have been Muse, with their mind-blowing and devastatingly overblown fourth album, Blackholes and Revelations. And it isn't like Muse need more publicity or coverage: they've just played a gig at Wembley, and had to announce another due to the sheer demand for tickets.

Why should Bat for Lashes win, then, other than the fact that her debut album, Fur and Gold, is a brooding, sparkling, and ethereal dreamlike voyage into the unknown; a slice of glittering and gorgeous art-rock that bears comparison to Bjork, Kate Bush, and the brilliant Patrick Wolf (who for some reason, isn't up for the Mercury himself)? Well, I've assessed all the albums on the shortlist and I think that Natasha's is the most deserving. I'm biased, of course, like everyone: I don't much care for Amy Winehouse's supposed reinvention of soul, for example, or Jamie T's blend of the Streets and the Arctic Monkeys, namely, the Arctic Monkeys with less artistry and attention paid to both music and lyrics. I also happen to think that Dundee-based The View are a pile of crap: a band plucked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight, with no discernible talent between them. The best that can be said of them is that, for a bunch of youngsters, they possess a certain amount of extremely raw and unrealised potential.

But before I get carried away, there is plenty of talent on offer in the Mercury shortlist: Klaxons, for example, have set themselves the admirable task of combining indie-rock with dance and trance music, to produce a debut album, 'Myths of the Near Future', that demands to be jumped around to, as well as displaying influences as wide-ranging as Radiohead, Scissor Sisters, and Sonic Youth. The Young Knives are an impressive guitar collective, too, and Dizzee Rascal's 'Maths and English' holds a special place in my heart: in the unfortunately titled 'Pussyole', Rascal has converted me to my once bete noire, British hip hop. The man, to my mind, is to be applauded.

But it remains that Bat for Lashes is the strongest and most impressive contender on the list. It must be admitted that I dismissed Khan's work to begin with as a poor imitation of the Wolf's, but after listening to more than one single (how quick I am to judge and form opinions, it really is disgusting), I found her album to be a collection of wonderfully affecting and explorative songs that, unlike anything I've heard recently, you can truly become lost in and lifted by. Don't take my word for it, of course: listen to her work on MySpace, read the reviews collected on Metacritic, and even read my short review of her live performance at Latitude Festival this year (OK, that last one is taking my word for it, but you can't blame a boy for trying). Links below.

Bat for Lashes MySpace

Metacritic compilation of reviews of Bat for Lashes' 'Fur and Gold'

Review of Bat for Lashes' performance at Latitude Festival 2007

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Difference Between Song Lyrics and Poetry

A while ago there was a general discussion on Rob Mackenzie's Surroundings about song lyrics, and whether or not they constitute poetry. It's my belief, as I stated at the time, that song lyrics are not poetry, as they lack the singularity that the good poem possesses. That is, a good poem creates its own music, it stands alone and functions as verbal or written words on the page or the stage with no distinct and separate musical elements to make it up and lend the words their weight and poignancy. That said, and song lyrics can work quite well on their own from time to time: Bob Dylan being a prime exponent of what might be called poetic songs, for example. Below, then, I thought I'd post lyrics to one of the better tracks of Bloc Party's latest album, 'Uniform', from A Weekend in the City. I'm a big fan of this song, and think its message is pretty well executed, but when I came to read these lyrics on the page, they lacked something. Worse, they'd gained a kind of contrivedness in parts, and a sort of almost snivelling tone that isn't comparable to the way they're delivered on record: all driving guitars, e-bows, and epic, crashing solos that punctuate the lyrics with explosive fireworks. If you haven't heard the song, then, see what you make of them as they are: I'd be interested to know.


Uniform

There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall
All the young people looked the same
Wearing their masks of cool and indifference
Commerce dressed up as rebellion

'Cause we're so handsome and we're so bored
So entertain us, tell me a joke
Make it long, make it last
Make it cruel, just make me laugh
We can't be hurt, we can't be hurt

Drink to forget your blues on the weekend
Think about more things to buy
The TV taught me how to sulk and love nothing
And how to grow my hair long

'Cause we're so handsome and we're so bored
So entertain us, tell me a joke
Make it long, make it last
Make it cruel, just make me laugh
We can't be hurt, we can't be hurt
We can't be hurt

So why do you go picking fights that you'll lose?
(When you have entertainment. When you have things to pass the time)
So why do you go thinking thoughts that are above you?
(You can be happy, just play dumb. You can be happy, just play dumb)

Well I was brave (and unique), intelligent (a snowflake)
I could have been a hero
No-one can be trusted over the age of fourteen
Tattoo our arms (Converse shoes), cynical (we still do it)
We tell ourselves we're different
I've gotten so good at lying to myself

(Oh!)
All my pain and honour is used up
(Oh! Oh! Oh!)
All my guns are rusted

So when you gonna realise
Those are not your wrongs to right?
Have another line, have another drink
(Pop songs won't change the government, the government)

I am a martyr, I just need a motive
I am a martyr, I just need a cause
I'm a believer, I just need a moment
I'm a believer, I just need a cause

We're finding it hard to break the mould
We're finding it hard to be alone
We're finding it hard to have time by ourselves
We have nothing at all to say

Uniform

There was a sense of disappointment as we left the mall
All the young people looked the same


lyrics by Kele Okereke of Bloc Party

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Poem 8 - This morning I am ready if you are...

The eighth draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop, which has turned out to be an enjoyable and productive exercise (my thanks to Rob Mackenzie, then, and his self-imposed writing schedule I adopted):


...

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Poem 7 - Meanwhile surely there must be something to say...

The seventh draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop, taking a line from a W.S. Graham poem to inspire drama within your work (and push you out of your comfort zone):


...

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Poem 6 - I have my yellow boots on to walk...

The sixth draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop:


I have my yellow boots on to walk,
the sort I always wear for an operation

like this. Lucky charms, you might say.
But don’t talk. The next few hours

will need to be as delicate and precise
as disarming a bomb, and as skilfully

executed as a hole in one. If I pull
this off, see, it’s the highlife abroad,

some gorgeous villa on the Med
with its sun-kissed walls, and a swimming

pool next to which I recline, the shimmering
waters, cigars and cocktails to pass the time;

in short, a world free from misery and strife.
If I fuck this up, I’ll be banged up for life.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Poem 5 - Gently disintegrate me...

The fifth draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop, and quite unusually for me, a poem that overtly deals with issues of faith, proof, and belief:


Gently disintegrate me
into this world, Lord,
when I am gone,

disperse my soul
and spirit from the flesh
of my faithful form

to the far corners
of this earth – wind, sea,
sky, earth, make me

one with the very atoms
and quarks of this universe
that people waste entire lives on;

debating whether or not
you are the ultimate source of. For
when I am the very same

as the trees and clouds and rains I see
before me, Creator, that,
I think, will be proof enough.

Brand New Writing from Bright New Writers

Hurrah! Brittle Star issue 17 is out now, as it jumped through the letterbox this morning. And as is usual for this little yet varied magazine, it contains a variety of poetry, prose, essays and reviews from various writers, my highlights after a quick flick through being Michelle O'Sullivan's poem 'Interlude', Daniel Andersson's wry and affecting quatrain 'Forecast', and an unflinchingly personal piece by Phil Poole on his friendship with the poet Phil Malleson, who died earlier this year.

There's loads more in the mag, too, including a little something by myself, so why not buy a copy? You can subscribe on the website (only £6 for two issues, or £11 for four), and get a feel for the sort of work published with the sample poems available in the archive. Even better, there's a few older issues loaded up on the Poetry Magazines' site: http://www.poetrymagazines.org.uk. Happy reading.

William Blake: poet, visionary, printmaker, painter


As David Caddy's 'Letters from Poetic England' note, this coming Sunday (12th) marks 180 years since the once overlooked, now seminal and hugely significant, poet William Blake's death. This year is also significant as it marks 250 years, come November 28th, since the poet was born. To mark the occasion, I thought I'd post this critical essay which I wrote sometime ago, exploring the social concern evident in arguably Blake's most important work, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. May Blake's memory remain as one of poetry's richest and most groundbreakingly subversive talents.


Social Criticism and Concern in Blake’s
Songs of Innocence and of Experience

In 1940, George Orwell, the great author and socio-political commentator, remarked of Blake’s ‘London’ that ‘there is more understanding of the nature of capitalist society in [this] poem… than in three-quarters of Socialist literature.’ Such a statement is neither unwarranted nor, arguably, hyperbolic: after reading an illuminated copy of the Songs, the politically-minded and liberalist poet Samuel Coleridge described Blake as ‘a man of Genius’, William Wordsworth and Charles Lamb bestowing him with similar praise. The social significance of Blake’s work then, particularly Songs of Innocence and of Experience, is undeniable: the poems throughout the book explore the complex relationship between meaning and morality, the often blurred lines between the two contrary states of innocence and experience, as well as pervasive and widespread corruption: of church and of state, of the decline of sociability or ‘brotherhood’, and of the dulling of our sensory perceptions through the inevitable ‘fall’ from innocence. In this essay then, I intend to consider some of Blake’s most poignantly sociological poems, and conclude that whilst Blake’s main social concerns lie within the increasingly narrowing, claustrophobically subjective world that he presents (and witnessed as a lifelong Londoner), he nonetheless offers us a way out, through a revised sense of fraternity, sexuality, and objective awareness, which, he believes, will ultimately ‘cleanse the doors of perception [and make] everything appear to Man as it is, Infinite’.

[rest of essay removed: 08/02/2008]


Bibliography

Blake, William, Songs of Innocence and of Experience ed. Richard Willmott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)

Blake, William, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (UK: Dover Publications, 1994)

Ferber, Michael, ‘“London” and its Politics’, ELH, Volume 48, No.2 (Summer, 1981) pp.310-338

Orwell, George, ‘Charles Dickens’ (1940), The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968)

Wimsatt, William, Hateful Contraries (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1965)

Wu, Duncan, Romanticism: An Anthology, 3rd Edition (UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2006)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Poem 4 - Just for the sake of recovering...

The fourth draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop:


Just for the sake of recovering
I see no sense in bothering
with the writing or sending

of texts or an explanatory letter,
as things couldn’t be made any worse or better
by the words that locked these fetters.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Poem 3 - Whatever you've come here to get...

I'll be busy tomorrow, so here's the third draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop, which I've written in advance (this line was the one that first grabbed me):


...

Friday, August 03, 2007

Poem 2 - I leave this at your ear for when you wake...



I leave this at your ear for when you wake,
a seashell that sings a song as you thrash
about in your sleep – the same dream
I’ve had grasp me in our bed, when
the sun pours through the curtains
and you see them all: the world
of men-as-mass; the legions
of the undead, combing
the earth about their
usual business, whatever
it was, and you feeling like
that kid from The Sixth Sense,
and realising in the same way that
for months I’ve been dead, a ghost about
this world so wrapped up in myself I’ve lost
my head, and then birdsong, or an alarm clock
that rings as if from the heavens, and intercepts it.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Poem 1 - Imagine a forest...

The first draft poem for Matthew Sweeney's Guardian Unlimited workshop:


Imagine a forest
Small and modest
Where trees blow
And winds grow
And each rustle
Or hedgerow’s bustle
Is not deer so sleek
But a mythical beast.

A twig’s snap and break
Is the chimera’s wake,
The sudden birdcall above
A gremlin or lycanthrope,
Some echoed distant shriek
A wailing mandrake,
And the breeze through your hair
Shows a unicorn’s there.

What to do with this place
That you’ve stumbled across?
Two options: stay, or run off,
But beware that you’re already
So far in that your hopes of leaving
This miniature yet devilishly
Twisting maze of wood
are quickly wearing thin.

It’s growing dark. You’ve had enough?
Well be my guest to fish yourself out.
If you’re down on your luck
I suggest listening out
For the groan of a wood maiden
In an oak’s moan and flexing.
They’re at one with the forest,
You see, so be at one with their feelings.

Look. The moon’s wide eye is settling.
Its cold and wet and beautiful, but you’re
More worried about what’s out there,
I’m reckoning.
Well if you hear the grunt of beasts,
As if mixed with men grumbling or speaking,
And if you hear it while asleep, it’s centaurs. They creep
In this forest, so small and deep. There. Just waiting.

Matthew Sweeney's Poetry Workshop

I've decided to take on Rob Mackenzie's challenge of writing a dramatic poem a day for the next ten days that starts with a line from a W.S.Graham poem, from a list that Matthew Sweeney has chosen as his writing exercise for this month's Guardian Unlimited poetry workshop. The lines are as follows:

Imagine a forest

I leave this at your ear for when you wake

Whatever you've come here to get

Shut up, shut up. There's nobody here.

Meanwhile surely there must be something to say

I called today, Peter, and you were away.

This morning I am ready if you are

Gently disintegrate me

Just for the sake of recovering

I have my yellow boots on to walk


Above, then, is my first attempt, using the starting line 'Imagine a forest'. You can keep tabs on Rob's poems on his blog, Surroundings.