You are currently browsing the monthly archive for November 2009.

The above installation is by English artist Slinkachu (as part of the Fame Festival, Grottaglio, Italy, 2009).  The playfulness, the mucking around with scale, the intimacy, and – yet again I come back to that word – the fragility.  Perhaps it’s also the sense of ‘short story’ that resonates for me.  And it’s intriguing to read how the artist leaves his installations in the public realm to see what happens to them – would it be too dark and grim (my usual way, I’m afraid) to want to see pictures of what would surely be the resultant destruction?  Either way, I reckon I could flick through the above images all day and still get a buzz out of them.  (Christ, I wish that’s all I did all day.)  For more information, visit the artist’s site by clicking on ‘Little People’ in the Under the Counter blogroll.

March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland by Beirut.  I’ve been following Beirut, which either is, or is very heavily driven by, the multi-talented, multi-located Zac Condon, since the first album, the completely wonderful Gulag Orkestar. This latest collection is essentially two EPs: in the first, Condon is backed by The Jimenez Band, a 19-piece brass outfit from Teotitlan del Valle, wherever the hell that is; the second contains a handful of electronic pieces under Condon’s pre-Beirut moniker of Realpeople.  If that all sounds like a bit of a mess, it is, but it’s a delirious mess – ‘My Night With the Prostitute from Marseille’ sounds like an early Depeche Mode b-side, while what’s on March of the Zapotec could easily have appeared on Gulag, which sounded like a bunch of Eastern European men getting really hammered on crap-house vodka, but managing to make great music while they were at it.  Charming, melancholic, flawed.  Perfect, in other words.

Primary Colours by The Horrors.  These guys have been on my radar for a while now, though they never really stayed there because they look like comedy Goths.  But this album is a pearler: My Bloody Valentine is a clear influence, but ‘Scarlet Fields’ and ‘Sea within a Sea’, which closes the album in the most majestic manner imaginable, are worth investigating.  Produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and on the latter it shows.

Over the Stones, Under the Stars by Ned Collette & Wirewalker.   I first heard of this guy – or should that be guys? – when Rage played the video to ‘Come Clean’: not only is the film-clip a ripper, the actual song is bloody brilliant, in fact I’d go so far as saying it’s one of my songs of the year (stay tuned for another best-of list, it seems).  Sure, in parts this collection sounds like a wondering drunk bemoaning the fact that life, at times, actually a fair bit of the time, can be very shit, but it’s all done with such a keen attention to detail that it’s pretty hard to ignore.  I hear in this more than a dash of Red House Painters, if that bunch of misery guts were fronted by a more tuneful Bob Dylan, and that’s a compliment.  Into the bargain, this album is a true grower: it might not get you first time around, but be patient and it’ll come back like a sad wet dog.  Perhaps.

The Bachelor by Patrick Wolf.  I’m a fan of Master Wolf: he’s as camp as all buggery (yeah yeah, I know), but he sure can write a tune, and he’s also interested in mucking around with sounds and forms, often shoving into one song as many things that squeak and moan as possible, probably thanks to Pro-Tools.  And there’s more than a bit of Celtic rock here, which may or may not be a mistake, not to mention quite a few choirs…possibly children’s choirs, which are never easy to make work. But if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s this guy, even though he might look like the bastard son of some Morrissey-Bowie coupling action (whoa, no one should have to imagine that).

Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective.  This is a pretty special album to me because, by design, it was the CD I had playing in the car when I was down at Bundanon in April/May this year – it made that long, windy trip to and from the rather downtrodden Nowra completely magical.  There’s such joy in this music; at times it’s hands-in-the-air ecstatic.  I’m sure I’ll still be listening to this in ten year time…when I’m fifty-one years old…Christ.

…do so at their own peril.”  (The High Priest of Aesthetics, Rev. Oscar Wilde)

From the Shashin Collective series ‘Look Up’, by Philippe Reichert.

He’s sitting in a hospital carpark waiting to visit a friend who’s given birth to her first child, a son.  The carpark has been hacked away from a large stretch of remnant bushland, so he sits in the mid-spring warmth, the window down, and begins to read The Catcher in the Rye.  He’s not read this novel before.  How a private-school boy from Sydney’s North Shore has made it into his forty-first year without reading this is anyone’s guess.

He always arrives early to an appointment because he hates a lack of punctuality, and hate is the right word.  On this morning he looks up every few minutes to check the dashboard clock, but his eyes get distracted by the bushland outside.  Scribbly gums and kangaroo grass: all those white vertical lines against the blue sky, and the spiky dark-green tufts covering the ground.  Despite the fact that Holden Caulfield has already grabbed his attention (and memories of his own school days are returning at a rate of knots, though he was a quiet watcher, not an antagonist), he can’t help being transfixed by what’s on the other side of the windscreen.

With the novel now in his lap he remembers the day before (the day his friend gave birth), climbing a local hill and finding a tucked away tract of bushland just like this, and how he’d thought at the time that the bush heals him.  Then, from almost thirty years ago, he remembers picnic trips into the Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, sitting lazily beside creeks with their cool little ponds; the family would see Spotted Pardalote flitting around creek-edge branches and they felt special because of it.

His mind shifts to the west and he recalls teenaged day-walks into the Blue Mountains, purposely going off-track to feel just a bit lost, climbing rock outcrops to get a better view (there was always a better view), not worrying about where they were or weren’t because miraculously he and his brothers never failed to find their way home.

But then a car, a stationwagon, pulls up next to him.  Out steps a man in a uniform and baseball cap, an identification lanyard around his neck.  The man begins to clean out his car; maybe he’s killing time, or shirking his duties.  And then the man tosses something into the bush: a soft-drink can.  And then he tosses away another soft-drink can.  And then he tosses away something else.

What is this scene, what is its meaning?  Ahead is this remnant bushland: amongst the trees and grass the hospital’s patients, some physically impaired, others with obvious mental illnesses, look for respite or peace.  But to his right is this man who’s mindlessly ridding his car of detritus as if at the garbage tip.

Though he’s still getting to know the main character in Salinger’s story, he, the watcher, wishes he could be more like Holden Caulfield: that boy wouldn’t have stood by as a man disrespects an oasis of nature as much as this, he would have found something to say, even if he was a self-declared liar, he would have done more than nothing. But he isn’t Holden Caulfield.  He’s just a man on his way to visit a friend who’s given birth to her first child, a son.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 14 November, 2009)

The XX by The XX.  This is one heck of an album: minimal without being bland, tuneful without being vacuously poppy, atmospheric without disappearing up its own bum.  ‘Basic Space’ is a cracker (that’s two bum references in one paragraph), as is ‘Crystalised’.  Robert Smith must be listening with considerable interest.  You can only hope this band has enough juice in it for more than one album (though things aren’t looking good: a guitarist has already done a runner).

Scars by Basement Jaxx.  This is just so full of ideas it’s hard not to get lost in the balls of it all, and even the weaker songs, the ballads, are a joy.  I loved ‘Raindrops’ the first time I heard it on the radio and a month or so later I still can’t get enough of it.  Sure Scars might sound like your music collection shoved into a blender, but who cares when it’s as good as this.

Riceboy Sleeps by Jonsi and Alex.  I must admit to being a complete and utter Sigur Ros obsessive (though that band’s latest album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, had some great moments as well as the most shlockingly Hollywood-soundtrack thing they’ve ever done), so when I saw this in my record-shop I snapped it up immediately.  And it’s a beauty: sure, it’s gentle and ambient but, according to the boys, no synths were used in its creation, and that approach brings an almost overwhelming warmth to the music.  That said, it’s not all sweetness and light: ‘Sleeping Giant’ could well end up appearing in a David Lynch film.

Blood Bank by Bon Iver.  For Emma, for Ever Ago is a modern-day classic in my book – it’s one of those albums that I love listening to on vinyl – and whilst nothing on this EP is as good as what’s on the main collection, there’s a lot to like here.  ‘Blood Bank’ is a slow-burner of a song and ‘Woods’, a multi-layered, heavily treated a capella piece, hits its mark bang on.

The Resistance by Muse.  Sure, Muse are getting more and more ridiculous (and, as everyone says, Queen-lite) as their career goes stratospheric, but this album, for me, is a guilty pleasure.  ‘Unnatural Selection’ is one of the best things they’ve done, much better than the often-lauded three-part ‘Exogenesis’, which closes the album.  Strap on the air guitar, slip into a pair of Freddie Mercury hot-pants and rock out with your…windows shut.

I don’t mean to brag but I can stop time.  Seriously, I can.  And I’m happy to share with you how I do it.  Extra carefully I select a bundle of CDs; extra carefully I select songs off these CDs.  Then I rip the songs onto my computer (since I forked out hard-earned cash for the CDs I reckon I can do whatever I like with the songs).  Then I get the order perfect, then I burn away.  Finally I lie down on the couch and close my eyes and listen and listen.

Yes, at my age – midlife milestone minus one year exactly – I make mix CDs.

I’ve always done it.  It’s one of the few constants in my life (Blundstone boots is the other).  I remember being twelve years old and buying my first tape-to-tape cassette deck.  At last I could put my most favouritest songs on one tape!  I worked on it for hours.  And I couldn’t wait to play it back.  But when I did, something was terribly wrong.  It seemed that just shoving good songs onto a tape didn’t work.  It was as if I’d tried making a three-course meal out of cup cakes.

Thankfully I’ve discovered that this game has rules.  Nick Hornby wrote about them in his novel High Fidelity.  He reckoned a mix tape had to ‘start with a corker, to hold the attention’, that you can’t have white music and black music together ‘unless the white music sounds like black music’, and that you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side.

He’s right.  But I have some rules of my own, and they’re specific to the CD format, because, let’s be clear, CDs are very different to tapes.  You have to start with three upbeat songs, and these must be followed with two slower songs.  Sad songs must be buried midway through the second half.  If you have 20 songs in total, song 10 must be mellow and short and to the point – don’t ask me why, it’s just the way it is.

If the collection is for the car then the majority of it has to be singable, because sitting next to me, most likely, will be He Who Loves To Sing.  A great mix CD should also have a theme; it can’t simply be a grab-bag of ‘good stuff’ (as I learnt all those years ago).  Recently I did one using only mid-90s singles.  Before that I did one using songs by unknown Australian bands; I called it Australia to get up Baz Luhrmann’s nose.

But what does it all mean?  Hornby says that putting together a mix tape is like writing a letter.  For me, it’s a journal entry.  This is who you’ve been: Morrissey-loving miserablist; grunge junky; four-to-the-floor techno-freak.  It’s also about confirming where you are now, and where you’re going.  Mix CDs are like maps: they tell you about terrain.

And I can’t live without them.  It’s highly likely that even as an eighty year old with no teeth and Swiss cheese for brains, I’ll still be making mix CDs (or in whatever new-fangled format they’ve developed by then).

Because I’ll still need to know who I am.

And I’ll still like stopping time.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, 13 October 2007)

The string gardens of Amsterdam

I can’t seem to get enough of this image.  There’s something about its fragility, but also its audacity, and if there are two things that really turn my crank, its fragility and audacity.

For more information, visit

(Thanks to MC.)

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The past