September 26, 2017

Birthday Albums #3 – Bonxie

Stornoway – Bonxie

How did it get on my wishlist?

I first heard of Stornoway when they played on Jools Holland in 2009. Quite why I was watching that specific episode, I’m not sure – it might have been because Foo Fighters were also on it, which offers a nice and completely unplanned link back to the previous review in this series! Stornoway were absolutely stunning, and they had a very rare united quality about them – not just a bunch of musicians on a stage, but a single organism. We then found out that they were playing a gig locally in February 2010, so Karen and I went to that. An interesting thing happened at that gig – towards the end of the show, there was some sort of technical problem that resulted in the power being cut. The band proceeded to play the next song unamplified. The audience watched in silence, of course, and the intimacy in that room was electrifying. The ever-cynical Karen theorised that the power cut had been a stunt, orchestrated by the band to deliberately create that tender moment. And maybe it was, but fuck, it worked. Anyway, for some reason we then forgot about Stornoway for a while. Until recently, when Gammidgy (who has always been a fan of theirs) brought this album to my attention, and also bore the sad news that they split up earlier this year. I realised that this here was a remarkable band who I had somehow, despite being offered all the opportunities, allowed to slip through my fingers. So it’s time to catch up.

What’s it like?

Stornoway are a very difficult band to categorise. They’re a bit indie, a bit folk, a bit pop, a bit rock. A lot of reviewers find them to be twee, a little bit in the vein of Belle and Sebastian. I can see why they get that impression – Brian Briggs sings with pure, high, almost choirboy-esque voice, and writes lyrics of sometimes endearing naivety about, or inspired by, nature. It’s certainly not sex and drugs and rock’n’roll, and the prejudiced reviewer might dismiss it as immature. But it’s touching, and clever, and thought-provoking, and in many ways this album is reminiscent of early work by The Divine Comedy – I can easily imagine Neil Hannon’s voice singing a lot of these songs.

This is the bit where I get distracted and start writing about something that has nothing to do with the album

In recent months, both my home ISP (A&A) and my mobile network (GiffGaff) have increased my monthly bandwidth allowance. For which I am grateful, but having adopted a frugal approach to ensure I stayed within the previous allowance, I suspect that I’ll rarely end up actually making use of the extra that’s now available to me.

Have they done any interesting covers?

Yes.

Best song?

You know what, I’m bailing on this question. Which is very unlike me, but honestly there is so much well-written eclectia on this album, I could just go round and round in circles.

What’ll be next?

Attack of the Mutant 50ft Kebab by Space

Pete
September 19, 2017

Birthday Albums #2 – Sonic Highways

Foo Fighters – Sonic Highways

How did it get on my wishlist?

This is almost the wrong question to be asking. Given that I own all of the Foo Fighters’ studio albums, the question should be “why did it take me 3 years to get round to owning this album?” to which the answer, I suppose, is “lukewarm reviews”. I got the impression that this was one that I could afford to miss. But then, as my birthday rolls around, I get a little nudge from Karen to remind me to make sure there’s plenty of stuff on my Amazon wishlist, because apparently I’m very difficult to buy presents for, so hey presto.

What’s it like?

The thing about Foo Fighters is that they’re undeniably popular, but I think it’s also fair to say that they’re not exactly the most musically adventurous rock band in the world. When you hear a new Foos song, you never have a moment of doubt where you wonder if your ears deceive you. And while lots of their songs are great, a lot are also Foos-by-numbers.

I had high hopes for this album, because I knew that each song was recorded in a different city across the USA and the album was intended as a homage to the musical heritage of each of those cities, so I was expecting a lot of diversity (you know, a country-ish song from Nashville, grunge from Seattle, and so on). But sadly it’s just got a lot of the Foos-by-numbers on it, and after a few listens, I was a bit underwhelmed. But to end the review there would be doing it a disservice.

Maybe it’s not just an album? Maybe it’s something else. Like a bimonthly curated box of snacks?

Back in 2013 Dave Grohl made a documentary called Sound City about the Sound City Studios in Los Angeles. As part of that documentary, he gathered a whole heap of musicians together to make an album of 11 songs, with one day spent on each song. And it was pretty good, and Dave enjoyed showcasing the historical context around the music, and wanted to do more of that sort of thing, so the idea for the Sonic Highways album-cum-television-programme was born. The next Foos album would be recorded in eight different cities, with one week on each song, along with a companion documentary series that talks about the musical history of each city.

After listening to the album a few times I felt compelled to discover what value the documentary added, if any. So I’ve started watching it, and at the time of writing this review I have seen four of the eight total episodes.

It all becomes a bit clearer now. The band would actually roll up to each studio with the song in a mostly-written state. With the exception of some last-minute changes to arrangements, the only influence that the specific city would actually have on its respective song was the lyrics, which would be heavily inspired by the interviews in the documentary, and often a guest musician appearance (which was generally fairly subtle in its impact). The documentary itself is actually damn interesting, excellent at immersing you into each city’s culture, but the songs end up feeling like a bit of a rushed afterthought. There is a small amount of footage of the band during each episode, and I could be wrong but I get the impression that some of Dave’s bandmates aren’t as enthusiastic about this project as he is.

One thing that is made explicitly clear in the documentary is that doing eight songs from different genres was always something that they strictly wanted to avoid, so that explains why we didn’t get the genre fruit salad that so many people were anticipating. Dave didn’t want to end up with a clusterfuck album (my words, not his) that jumped around all over the place – he wanted to make sure it remained, at its core, a Foo Fighters album. Which is commendable, but I think they played it a little bit too safe. My opinion (and maybe the rest of the band felt the same way) is that the process of making the documentary, far from unlocking fantastic new opportunities for the music, through its demands actually forced them to compromise.

Interestingly though, the experience of watching the documentary does improve the experience of listening to the album. Knowing the background behind the lyrics gives them a lot more weight, and the songs themselves feel more familiar, in the good way. So I’m glad that I did decide to watch it, as it has improved my sentiments towards the songs considerably.

Best song?

In my opinion, Subterranean stands out, but if I’m brutally honest it’s (like everything else on this album) still just an amalgamation of half a dozen previous Foos songs.

What’s next?

Bonxie by Stornoway

Pete
September 14, 2017

Poledance

This is the pole
That centres our dance
On a white-knuckle ride,
A meeting by chance.
We stand, disconnected, always looking down,
Swaying together under the ground.
Closer than lovers, breath in my face;
A zipless encounter that we’ll soon erase.

Absorbed in our phones
We glide to our homes
Past oystercard zones
And adverts for loans –
Our fingers meet, chance-like
Our gazes slip, trance-like
The lightning connection
The foreign inflection;
No dangerous smile,
No risk of rejection.

Holding ourselves in complete isolation,
Blanking blank faces at every station.
The pole stands between us, keeping us straight
Where hundreds before us held on;
It’s hardly the moment to ask for a date:
Mind the gap, it’s time to move on.

Karen
September 13, 2017

Manchester

[Written 23.5.17]

I woke you from your hot nest of sleep;
I had hardly taken in the headline.
One kiss, and I slip back to my bed
To hear grave tones of shellshock and shrapnel
Refusal to despair.
The low thud again.
Children gone.
Makes me not want to let you out of my sight
Nor to forget your sleepy heat on my lips.

Karen
September 11, 2017

Yes, The Perfect Alarm Clock

Follows on from here

I didn’t think that I’d be writing this so soon.

On Saturday morning, I put the disappointing new alarm clock in the post to send it back to the vendor. Looks like they’re not going to pay for return postage, so I’m down £3.90. But I’m not salty, because things are about to turn out just fine (edit: look at that, they have refunded me after all!)

Saturday night was date night – my dad was down for the weekend, and Karen and I wanted to check out a new-ish restaurant that has been receiving glowing reviews. I’d mentioned that maybe the key to finding the right alarm clock was to go somewhere where I could actually check them out “in the plastic”, so to speak, so Karen suggested that we go out a little early and drop into John Lewis before it closed.

The range on display was very promising, and so we set to work assessing the options for suitability. I initially took a somewhat scattergun approach, and then decided on a different tack, which was: start with the one that looks sexiest, and see if it has all the features I need.

Unfortunately it can be difficult to find out exactly what features each model has. The little price tag next to each demonstration model supposedly lists 4 or 5 features, but it tends to say something useless like:

  • Clock
  • Also radio
  • Black
  • Includes plug

Sometimes the box has a handy feature list on the outside, but in this case the design was clearly from the minimalist Apple school – ie “here’s a picture of the product, and we’re done.”

Before I know it, cheeky Karen has cheekily cracked open a box and is cheekily perusing the instruction manual.

“But my goodness, you’re a cheeky one,” I gasped.

I then spent a few minutes reading the manual, each turned page causing my smile to widen. I had a play with the demonstration model, using the age-old technique of setting an alarm for one minute in the future. “Yes, it’s definitely loud enough,” shouted Karen from four feet away from me.

A shop assistant sidled over and sat down casually nearby. I suddenly became very conscious of how I must appear, with a box cracked open, leafing through the manual like I was at a library.

“Can I help you sir?”

At this point, the poor guy was subjected to my entire life story to date. I basically recited my previous blog post on the subject. At the end of it, I realised that I’d taken up enough of his time, and the shop was going to be closing soon, so perhaps I should just get on with it and pay for this bloody thing.

So, you’re all itching to find out – what features does this little doozy have, and why is it so bloody perfect? Let’s start with the things that the last one got wrong.

  • A very nice display. The viewing angle is sufficient for it to be viewable from anywhere in the room, including when I’m lying down, and it offers a lot of control over brightness. I’ve set it to “MED” when in standby, which is bright enough to be legible at day or night without also feeling like it illuminates the room, and “HIGH” when the radio is turned on. It doesn’t have automatic brightness, but I’ve realised that that wasn’t actually necessary.
  • A proper crescendo alarm. Starts off quiet, and gets louder. You also have very fine grained control over how loud it goes.

Next, some other good things about it:

  • It’s not radio controlled, but it’s actually better than that – because it’s also a DAB radio, the time is set automatically within a few seconds, whereas a radio controlled clock can take up to 10 minutes to get a signal and set itself up.
  • It has 3 separate alarms, each of which can be configured totally independently, with the following options:
    • Weekday / weekend / every day / one specific date
    • Buzzer / radio (and you can even choose different radio stations for each alarm)
    • Volume
  • The alarm won’t keep going for ever until your neighbour lets herself in, tracks down the source of the commotion, and unplugs it.
  • It has a USB port on the back. Now, don’t get too excited, because it’s purely for the purposes of charging your phone. It can’t do anything clever like access files on the internal storage. Still, being able to trickle-charge your phone overnight without requiring anything other than just a USB lead is handy. And:
  • It does have a 3.5mm aux input.
  • It has a sleep timer. “But most clock radios have sleep timers” I hear you say. Ah, but this one’s clever. Instead of suddenly turning off at the end of the prescribed period, it fades out. Now you’re jealous, aren’t you?

All in all, I’m overjoyed with this device. It’s got absolutely everything I’m looking for.

And so this period of turmoil comes to an end, at least where clock radios are concerned.

Pete
  • Comments: 2
  • Why thank you - Pete
  • I take particular delight in your use of bullet points in this post. - Karen
September 8, 2017

The Perfect Alarm Clock

When I get an idea in my head, I can sometimes become unhealthily obsessed.

My latest quest is for the perfect alarm clock. Let me take you back in time briefly.

I’ve owned two alarm clocks that I can recall. Throughout my teenage and university years, I had a white Morphy Richards radio alarm clock with an integrated light. The light was very nifty, good for saving space on the bedside table. If the light looks a bit like a phone handset, then you should know that that’s no coincidence, because they also produced a near-identical model with a phone instead of a light.

When I moved out on my own, one of the first things I treated myself to was something with an integrated CD player so that I could wake up to music of my choice. It’s the device that I use to this day, though I don’t tend to use it for its CD-playing abilities, nor as a radio. This is because Karen insists on a needlessly complicated and error-prone morning routine whereby her radio comes on at 7am, my alarm goes SQUAWK SQUAWK at 7:30am, and then we actually get out of bed at 7:48am when radio 4 tries to foist Thought For The Day upon us. So I don’t need something that can play sweet music, just something that can make a noise.

However, while it’s good, it could be better. I’ve decided that it’s time to find the perfect alarm clock, and here are the features I’m looking for:

  • An alarm that starts off quiet, and gradually gets louder. Something we discovered about my alarm clock, when we went on holiday and I forgot to deactivate my alarm, is that it doesn’t turn off. Ever. My neighbour, who has a copy of our front door key, had to let herself in and turn it off, which was a bit embarrassing. So, yeah, if the alarm could also have the facility to “give up” after five minutes, that would be great.
  • Radio-controlled. Having to manually adjust the clocks twice a year is just so 20th century. We’re living in the future, we should be past that.
  • Automatic brightness. An LED display that’s bright enough to be seen by day is unnecessarily bright in the dead of night.

I recently tried ordering a new alarm clock off of Amazon (hey, remember that debacle with the car stereo?) but am having to send it back, as it has the following flaws:

  • The display is nonsense. Rather than an LED display, it’s LCD, which would be fine, but the viewing angle on it means that you can only really see it clearly when you’re standing over it. When lying down in bed, with the display on the same level as your head, the digits are so faded as to be nearly invisible. Another thing about LCD is that it’s not illuminated automatically, so a built-in backlight is necessary for when you want to know what the time is in the dark. Which would also be fine, but the one installed on this is searingly bright.
  • The alarm, supposedly a crescendo alarm, starts off quiet, as a crescendo alarm should. However, instead of then getting louder, it just beeps faster and more insistently, while maintaining the same quiet volume. I’m not convinced that this will actually be effective in waking me up.

So the search continues. Sadly, it looks like Morphy Richards don’t make alarm clock radios any more, which is a shame as my experience with them so far has been pretty good.

Tell me about your alarm clock and why I should get one.

Pete
  • Comments: 3
  • Ah, I'm very much a "phone off overnight" kinda guy, but yeah I'm well aware of the fact t... - Pete
  • I use my iPhone, and a 'morning' lamp that gradually brightens. The iPhone 'Bedtime' app ... - Gordon
  • Well as you know, my John Lewis alarm clock is excellent, and I enjoy waking to the news o... - Karen
September 2, 2017

Birthday Albums #1 – Pickin’ Up The Pieces

It’s not uncommon for me to get a few CDs for my birthday, but this year I seem to have had a particularly good haul. With such a healthy stack to get through, I figured why not make a blog project out of it, and review them all?

Fitz And The Tantrums – Pickin’ Up The Pieces

How did it get on my wishlist?

I can’t remember at all, but upon listening to it, the song Don’t Gotta Work It Out seemed particularly familiar, so I guess I must have heard that song – maybe on a TV programme, or a Spotify playlist – and added it to my wishlist on that basis.

What’s it like?

It’s very heavily soul/motown influenced, so much so that upon first listen, you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s much, much more than seven years old. Lots of organ and horns, and little (if any) guitar, and all produced to sound as authentic as possible. The lyrical content is appropriate to the genre, in that it is fairly run-of-the-mill stuff about love etc. While the majority of the album has this retro feel that I’ve described, the last two songs are a little different – Winds Of Change evokes more the blissed-out indie pop of The Morning Benders1 or Beach House, and Tighter is a passionate ballad of the purest heritage. It’s all very listenable though, there’s nothing in there that I’m ever tempted to skip.

Best song?

After all that, I still think I have to say that Don’t Gotta Work It Out, the song that (I believe) originally led me to this album, is the winner. The melody is just sublime. That said, maybe I’m mistaken, and the reason why it seemed so familiar is that the greatest songs always do. You know how it is, you can hear a song for the first time, but it’s just so perfectly formed that you feel like it’s always been with you.

What’ll be next?

Sonic Highways by Foo Fighters

  1. who I’ve just discovered renamed themselves to POP ETC in 2012 because they discovered how “bender” is often interpreted on this side of the Atlantic []
Pete
August 29, 2017

Fallen Star

A fallen star
Has landed on his bedroom floor
Sickly, luminous green,
Dead in the daylight.
I pick it up
With some scraps of scribbled paper,
A broken rubber band, and
Some tat from a party bag.
Above, there is a hole in a constellation
Which nobody will notice
Until the lights go out.
Nor will anyone notice
The clear floor
The straightened bed
The books replaced on the shelf.
No more than he thinks I will notice
The jumble behind his cupboard doors
And other hidden treasures
Beneath his stars.

Karen