Tuesday, 16 October 2007

You used to be alright/What happened?



Keeping it brief and abstract: In Rainbows = a great album, rather than a collection of good songs.

A few more thoughts:

'15 Step' is jaunty enough to make Thom dance his twitchy dance (see above), but I still feel as though the song's taunting me right now. Something to do with the whole 'You used to be alright' refrain, most likely.

My other big favourite of the moment is 'All I Need', which sounds like the hollow, dubbed-out shell of a ballad. Thom's voice haunts the piece, suggesting what it once was, or maybe even what it might have been (and I'm talking purely about the sonics of this song, rather than the lyrics). The climax is particularly great, especially the way the whole piece surges but yet somehow the crashing drums ends up being the most expressive part of the final rush (see also the percussion throughout 'Reckoner' for further evidence of Phil Selway's genius). It gives the song a suitably emotional finally without making it seem to obvious, which is a trick that Radiohead pull over and over again on In Rainbows.

And... damn if the recurring theme of this post doesn't seem to be be squandered potential. Reflective of my mood as this might be, it shouldn't put you off listening to the Radiohead album (which is, as I've said, great).

If these feelings persist then I guess I'm going to have to break out the Fugazi again: 'You can't be who you were/So you better start living the life you've been talking about'. Sounds fair to me.

Except... actually, I don't think there'll be any need to go there. There's quiet catharsis in these Radiohead songs, and right now I think that might be just what I need. Time to shake it off and do a strange wee jig.

Grr. Argh.

New job = where the hell has all my blogging time gone!

Updates are going to be patchy for the next week or so, sorry. After that I'll hopefully be able to get back up to pace.

And yes -- I'll get back to the comics soon. Grant Morrison. Jack Kirby. Eddie Campbell. The usual Vibrational Match favourites.

Friday, 12 October 2007

From Dark Matter to the Big Crunch

You know, there was a while back there where I thought I was sick of the Wu, but any time I dip into the Wu-Tang Manual I end up being convinced by the RZA's rhetoric all over again.

Forget some of the less-compelling solo albums, and think of that first rush of material the Wu released. I'm talking about the line of group albums and solo joints that goes something like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Tical, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version, Liquid Swords, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, Iron Man, a wave of sheer fucking greatness that crashes with the glorious mess of Wu-Tang Forever.

Listen to those albums (all of which were released between 1993 and 1997), and it's hard not to believe that the Wu-Tang Clan are everything they say they are. They're damaged street heroes, a super powered pantheon of trickster gods, kung-fu masters, ice-cold soul singers, austere formalists, angry young men, fiendish comedians and more. Of the seven albums I mentioned above, Tical is the only one I don't listen to much anymore (Forever is patchy, but it's got some of their best group cuts so I still play that one all the time).

And... yeah, sure, the group haven't kept that level of consistency up over the years, but I can't think of any other band I love who had such a strong opening run of albums.

Reading The Wu-Tang Manual, I almost find myself believing that this run of great records never ended. The RZA juggles the various pieces of the Wu mythos with such confidence that you forget you ever saw them touch the ground.

But forget all this backward looking nonsense -- the 21st century Wu still ain't nothing to fuck with. The W is as bleak and fragmented as Iron Flag is boldly unified, and Ghostface looks pretty unstoppable these days, artistically if not commercially. Hell, even Masta Killa has released a couple of solid albums in the past three or four years.

8 Diagrams then: I'm in. Who knows how good it'll be, but pessimism... that's not for me. Not where the remaining Wu-Tang Clan members are involved, and expecially not when they're making songs like 'The Heart Gently Weeps'.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The RZA on Composing With Voices, From The Wu-Tang Manual (Commonplacebook)

'I always thought of the different voices in the Wu-Tang Clan as being instruments. They were they instruments I used to compose. Instead of me having a trumpet player or a bass player, I had Ghostface or U-God. On a song like "7Th Chamber," everybody rapping back to back, it's high pitch to middle pitch to bass pitch. Ghost, you could call the soprano, then you take it down to Raekwon and Deck with the tenor, then down to the bass of U-God or ODB. Or it's like Ghostface is the strings: He gets more mellow, more emotional on you, but at the same time strings can attack.'


Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Sex/Violence/Other

Reading one of Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder comics is like wandering through a strange new city without a reliable guide.
Unlike Ursula K Le Guin, another master of anthropological science fiction, McNeil doesn’t build up her world systematically; instead, you discover information about the cultures in Finder almost incidentally, by watching the characters interact and keeping your eye on some of the key sights. No wonder Kelly Sue DeConnick compared the book to a shotgun blast!
Still, I'll stick with my 'strange city' analogy, if only because of the comic's pace. Freshly released in a hardcover volume, Finder: Sin Eater is a brilliant, wandering introduction to a truly great comic book. It's a twisted mess of a story, with family ties, military ties and cultural boundaries revealing themselves at a leisurely pace, all the better to fully appreciate the damaged contexts the cast of characters live in. McNeil's art becomes more and less abstract as the story dictates, sometimes becoming almost manga-like in its simple expressionism, at other points snapping into realistic focus to give us a better look at the thoroughly singular world she's created.

What saves Finder from the most obvious pitfall of world-building fantasy is exactly this fascination with the demands character and story. While their methods may differ, both Le Guin and McNeil understand that the essential otherness that is at the heart of their imaginings is also the raw material of drama. Le Guin's great novels (The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness) draw grand personal conflicts out of the clashes between cultures or societies; McNeil's stories are driven by more grounded concerns, but her depictions of family interactions in Sin Eater have the same elliptical vitality as her most bizarre imaginings.

Indeed, there are passages in Sin Eater that show me just how lazy a reader most comics expect me to be. While McNeil is capable of broad cartooning, she's also happy to let subtle body language and bare bones dialogue suggest the bigger picture. So, for example, a character will tell another character that they can ask 'one question' without much in the way of an obvious build-up, and you're expected to infer the connection. It's a simple enough scene to parse, but most comics tend to signpost such conversational twists in a really clumsy way, so it's refreshing to be jolted out of your complacency, to have to deal with the strangeness of simple conversation.

And if you think that this is evidence of a lack of imaginative follow-through, there are also copious notes at the back of the book that show just how much thought McNeil has put into every detail of her work. Of course, you could argue that there are times where more of this should have made it onto the page, but in the end I would argue that Finder's strength lies in the way it takes many different times of oddness for granted. Like I said above, otherness is the stuff of pure drama, but it's also essential to the conflicts and pleasures of our day-to-day lives. Without any knowledge of who we aren't, we'd have a hard time contextualising who we are, you know? And if this play of difference can lead to love, or humour, or surprise then it can also lead to violence, bigotry and misunderstanding. It's this fact that smart writers of anthropological fiction explore, and it's this sense of exploration that makes a book like Finder: Sin Eater worthwhile... that makes it more than just fictive cartography.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Back to the Future


The above image is the first page of The New Testament, a six-page comic strip that was published in 2004 as part of the second Commercial Suicide anthology.
I wrote the script, Tim Twelves provided the purdy pictures, and Kieron Gillen and Alex de Campi handled the editorial side of things. The general idea was to create a Chris Morris style comic that took the piss out the media attitudes to sex and violence, with a few random pot shots at Mel Gibson and Grant Morrison thrown in for good measure.
In the name of self-mythologising I should also mention that the strip was partly responsible for the anthology being banned from certain shops in London, a fact that gives me a naughty sense of pride to this day.
Why mention this now? Ach, I dunno... I'm just trying to find some fresh motivation, and sometimes it's good to acknowledge what you've already done when you're trying to work out what to do next. I've got what seems like a million projects on the go right now, most of which are almost done, and I think I need to remind myself that I can finish things, that not everything I write has to languish on my hard drive forever.
Plus, y'know -- 'CHRIST SMASH!' That line still make me laugh...

Friday, 5 October 2007

Stay Forever


Inspired by my recent visit to the Kylie exhibition, I've decided to repost what I wrote about 'I Just Can't Get You Out Of Me Head' (aka the second best Kylie song ever), back nearer the time it came out:
"A lot of people I know seem to think that I'm being ironic when I go on about how good this song is, but they are utterly, utterly mad, because it really is brilliant; a towering slice of immaculate disco, sexy as all hell and yet run through with a weird, obsessive sadness.
It's definitely one of my favourite pop songs from the last couple of years. Hell, it's probably one of my favourite pop songs of all time. There's something about the almost flawless, robotic sound of the whole thing -- it's really shiny and fun, sure, but it's also a little bit sad in a way. Maybe it's just me, I don't know, but I think it adds something to lyrics: it gives them a kind of hollowness, a lack of fulfillment that is oddly fitting...
There's a dark secret in me
Don't leave me locked in your heart
Set me free
Feel the need in me
Set me free
Stay forever and ever and ever and ever
Brrr -- is it just me, or is there a chill in here!"
Don't worry comics fans -- I'm working on a post about Finder at the moment, and I've got a couple of big posts about Eddie Campbell, Grant Morrison and superhero comics coming up soon.

Post Rock Heaven or Prog Rock Hell?



You decide!

You Need Your Disco/Your Disco Needs You


The Kylie Exhibition at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Gallery is compact, but effective, just like the good lady herself. Indeed, the tiny size of most of the outfits is jarring at first, like staring into the (far too saucy) wardrobe of an abnormally rich child.
Once you readjust to the perspectives in question, the whole affair becomes far more entertaining. There's something inherently funny about the setting -- to see some folk adopting their reverent, museum-visiting posture while the video for 'I Should Be So Lucky' blares in the background and the outfit Kylie wore in the 'Spinning Around' video rotates on a pedestal is to observe a clash of cultural expectations.
It's all very exciting, in its unashamedly garish way -- there are more versions of Kylie than there are of Batman, and she has enough spangly outfits to make Dita Von Teese blush, as evidenced by the packed room full of tour outfits, video costumes, photos and concept sketches at the Kelvingrove.
In her time Kylie's been eighties pop trash, a soap-opera star, a camp cop, a fairy princess, a showgirl, a cyborg, and much much more. The records have been up and down, but I'll maintain that for a period at the start of the current century Kylie was one of the best pop acts out there. Then again maybe it's simply the case that albums like Fever and Body Language finally saw Kylie transform into the kind of pop star I'd like to listen to. Kylie's less histrionic about her constant reinvention than Madonna is, but she's no less persistent for it.
Hmmm... perhaps the idea that this is an overgrown child's wardrobe is of some value after all. Looking at the variety of costumed personas on display in this exhibit, you can see a child's ideal of ultimate freedom -- the ability to keep changing who you are, to keep playing dress up, to lose yourself in disco heaven. Okay, maybe that last part is more of a teenage dream, but still, it can begin to look exhausting, this life lived in constant flux. You see, the tricky thing is that in order to keep living like pop royalty, you have to be everything to everyone all the time. This kind of freedom is probably exhilarating, but it comes at the price of having to keep on changing, forever afraid that one day no one will care.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Bookends


Battles -- 'Routes: In'
Sometimes it's fun to end up in a new situation. Having to relearn the rules can force you to flex yourself a little, even if you're really just repeating the same routines in a slightly different from. And so you find yourself gearing up for a new job, and you find yourself surprised by how much mervous, twitchy energy you've got.
'Routes: In' has something of this energy to it -- it takes rock music (the 'same-old, same-old' in this scenario), and imbues it with fresh, jittery purpose. As such, it's the perfect introduction to a debut album that constantly looks at music from a different angle -- be it on the technoid glam rock stomp of 'Atlas' or the alien R&B of 'Layendecker', Mirrored excels at twisted reflection rather than full-on reinvention.

Battles -- 'Routes: Out'
But it can get you down, this never ending series of giddy distortions. Imagine playing a computer game where every level looks different but plays exactly the same. Maybe this is why Mirrored's album closer 'Routes: Out' starts off sounding so melancholy -- is there any point to all this noodling or is it just musical masturbation?
'Routes: Out' answers this question the only way it can, by taking the musical components of its predecessor and tilting the mirror a little so that they now seem both defiant and absurd. And isn't that all we can do, really? To keep on searching for an angle that'll work, that'll show us what we need to see?
It's a foolish way to live your life, so keep laughing, but don't ever stop searching. And try to have some fun while you're doing it; after all, however tangled Battles' music gets, there's always a way to move to it, always a way to connect.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Hidden Darts

Ok, so since brevity doesn't seem to be my strong point at the moment, I've challenged myself to write one sentence reviews of some of my favourite albums of 2007. Here goes!

Battles -- Mirrored
Musical science makes avant-rock fun/makes fun avant-rock.

Future of the Left -- Curses
What's the point of losing hate if it won't lose you?

Dizzee Rascal -- Maths and English
He's still here.

Marnie Stern -- In Advance of the Broken Arm
Like listening to an art school girl battle her 1000 inner Van Halens, and win (mostly).

MIA -- KALA
At least poverty tourist MCs acknowledge the world outside their own penthouse dreams.

Malcolm Middleton -- A Brighter Beat
Superhero songwriter reaches out, laughs off death, asks: when are you coming home?

Ghostface Killah -- More Fish
Forget Raekwon: with leftovers this tasty Ghost is the only hip-hop chef still worth a damn.

MF Doom -- Mm... Food (2007 Special Edition)
Uhm... forget what I just said: this guy's pretty good too!

PJ Harvey -- White Chalk
Instead of Tricky, Tom Waits and Black Francis think Wuthering Heights, Emily Dickinson and The Stone Book Quartet.

(All hyperlinks provided in the name of giving you more fun stuff to read/watch/listen to. Also: cheating is good fun sometimes, y'know?)