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Image from Apoplectic Press

Maybe it’s because of the coming of the Silly Season but I’m thinking a lot about stillness at the moment.  By stillness I don’t mean sitting cross-legged on the loungeroom floor humming ‘omm’.  I mean a stillness that knocks us for a six.  A couple of weeks ago I found myself driving away in total silence from a lunch with a famous writer at his country home as opposed to always – always – having music playing.  I breathed deeply through my nostrils and watched the landscape on the other side of the windscreen.  I felt sure that at some stage I’d press the PLAY button on the car’s CD player, but I didn’t, not for the entire hour and half it took me to drive home.

I’d found stillness, or it had found me.

More recently I was putting in some plants in the back yard when I realised that I’d sat down on the mulch and was listening to talkback radio coming from next door.  It was a terribly narrow-minded shock-jock’s program; he was ‘discussing’ how Barack Obama was in great political difficulty.  But there I was, as motionless as a concrete garden gnome.  I’d found stillness, or it had found me.

Yesterday, I realised that I’d stopped walking through the loungeroom to watch The Old Lady of the House dreaming peacefully on her bed, a clucking sound coming from her mouth, a look of total contentment on her face.

We’d found stillness, or stillness had found us.

Why does stillness matter so much?  Yes, it might be due to the stampeding onslaught of the Silly Season, except I’ve experienced 41 of these by now so surely I can cope.  Or it could be that I’m just at an age where it’s customary to say ‘Heavens above, the world’s getting so fast these days’.  Or it could be that time really is speeding up.

As we all have to inevitably conclude, when we’re kids a week is an eternity, as teenagers a summer holiday is of similar length.  Now, however, as a middle-aged man an eternity is just not long enough, so a drive in the country without music is an anchor, a sit-down in the garden a deep connection to the earth, a pause to watch the dog sleep a tight grip onto something beautiful.  As we all career headlong into the Greatest Stillness Ever.

(First published in Panorama, The Canberra Times, 18 December 2010.  Many thanks to those who commented on an earlier post, called ‘Where stillness is’ – the on-line discussion fed into the writing of the piece for the newspaper, which is rather lovely, wouldn’t you say.)

A pro-WikiLeaks campaign by Australian grass-roots political activist organisation, Get Up!

Australian novelist and blogger James Bradley over at City of Tongues has a thoughtful analysis and collection of links relating to this whole WikiLeaks caper.  James writes: ‘I’m not convinced total transparency is either practical or desirable. But by the same token confidentiality and control over the flow of information is one of the tools governments and other interests employ to control the public and manipulate public discourse and opinion’.

I agree with him. Democracies can only work effectively when the populace is armed with information and the truth – surely we learnt all about this in the 2010 Australian federal election, which was a dreadful state of affairs. However, there are times – perhaps very rarely but they do exist – when containing information is an altruistic action that a government can take.

So perhaps that’s the question: is this latest release of classified information by WikiLeaks an altruistic action? My conclusion based on the (albeit limited) reading I’ve done so far is yes. But can I really be sure?

I do have a great fear, however: that governments of all colours and stripes will in future be even more controlling of information, and even more spinny with their communication. So I agree with what others have said that this issue is essentially about the internet. The internet is the community’s tool, and collectively we’ll use it in countless ways to obtain and distribute the information we hunger for.

The best result from WikiLeaks’ activities in 2010 would be if there’s a genuine debate about how governments control information and how much information the community really wants to know. Perhaps at the end of the day we’re just more interested in the price of flat-screen tellies and the cricket score rather than whether or not we are being told porkies about the wars in which our country is involved?

So let’s have it.  Is Julian Assange a terrorist?  (He might be freaky-looking, but that doesn’t make him Osama Bin Laden Mark II.)  Is Wikileaks good for stable international politics and relationships?  How much do we really want to know about how we’re governed?  Perhaps we’re better off thinking/believing that we’re safe rather than actually knowing that we’re not?

Or is it all just a storm in a tea cup?

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs. For months now I’ve been meaning to write at length about this album but frankly I’ve just never known how to do it.  I love husband-and-wife team Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and their expanded brood.  Both their previous albums, Funeral and Neon Bible, are classics in my book in that they have something to say and know how to say it, plus there’s an element of timelessness about the music they make.  However, at first I wasn’t sure about The Suburbs. As others have noted, the band have turned down their histrionics to suit the subject matter of suburban alienation and emptiness, and perhaps this is a good thing as at times this Canadian lot do conjour up an almost evangelical zeal.  But a number of the songs here, particularly in the middle third, seem to end up nowhere – there’s a faint wiff of oh well, we almost got this right, but bugger it, we’ll chuck it on the record anyway.  The Suburbs is long and a cull would have made it closer to extraordinary.  Still, there’s no denying that it’s a very, very fine album, with a good chunk of it comprising intelligent, passionate song-writing – ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’, ‘We Used to Wait’ are just a handful of gems on offer here.  It also expands the band’s musical pallet, even getting a little electro/disco in parts – who’d have thought!

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening. There’s something about James Murphy and his mates that really spins my nipples.  Sure they want to be this decade’s Talking Heads, but it’s the cleverness in the production, the wittiness in the lyrics (despite being someone who loves writing and reading I’m rarely interested in song lyrics, but Murphy sure knows how to engage a listener through word-craft), and the sheer dancability of the beats that make this music impossible to ignore.  This is Happening may as well be titled ‘This Won’t Be Happening For Very Much Longer’ as it’s LCD Soundsystem’s last album and perhaps it’s fair to say that there’s an element of starting to go over old ground here.  However, once this CD find its way into my car it’s near impossible to get the bloody thing out of it again.  Infectious, hilarious, and totally bloody brilliant.

Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks. I started my love of Frightened Rabbit with this album and then worked my way back to The Midnight Organ Fight (which apparently is a euphomism for sex – I’ll have to try that out, the phrase I mean).  I know there are many who’ve been following Frightened Rabbit since the beginning who didn’t enjoy this second album as much, but apparently it’s the album the band always wanted to make, so who are we to argue?  It’s noisy, dirty, and at times a bit of a mess, but ultimately it’s a supremely passionate, almost uplifting affair, with every second tune building to a stratospheric conclusion.  Sure all the songs seem to argue that modern relationships are a bit rubbish, and that modern life in general is a bit rubbish (and I have no doubt that it is), but when it’s said with as much blood, sweat and tears as it is on this record, well, turn your back at your own peril.  Go searching for ‘Skip the Youth’ and if you’re not moved, go see your doctor.

Four Tet – There Is Love In You. I wrote about this album back in February, making it clear how much I loved it, and I still play the bloody thing regularly, mostly because it’s dance music with heart and soul (note: it’s categorically not chill-out music).  There Is Love In You deserves to be remembered as a classic of the genre; every track is just so sublimely intelligent – listen closely at what Hebden is doing and you can see why he’s considered a genius.  (I have a hunch that he might also be a bit of a nerd, but that’s no bad thing – nerds of the world unite!)  Put this record on at the end of a summer’s Saturday afternoon, pour yourself a drink, open your French doors and forget about the rubbish modern world that Frightened Rabbit is, well, frightened about, and just watch as your toes start tapping and your heart starts beating just that little bit more solidly.

Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles II. Like Four Tet’s album, Crystal Castles’ second spinner is all about intelligent dance music.  The shouty Sonic Youth-esque interludes are still there, but this time around there’s significantly more craft in the actual songs, and indeed they are songs, as much as dance tracks can actually be songs.  There’s been a heap of thought put into this music, and there’s a fair wallop of heart as well (I can sense a theme emerging in this end-of-the-year wrap-up: the head and heart of great music).  Check out ‘Vietnam’, ‘Suffocation’ and ‘Celestica’.  If you’re of a certain age, also go searching for a reissue of ‘Not In Love’, which contains a vocal by Robert Smith from The Cure – you’ll be gelling up your hair into gothy spikes within seconds.  Amongst all the thought and heart there’s an ugliness here, as if over the last couple of years this Canadian duo (there’s such good music coming from Canada at the moment) has been wandering the earth finding cities that, like most hospitals, aren’t really fit for human living.  Ultimately, however, amongst this ugliness there’s beauty to be had, it’s just that it’s a hard beauty, an honest beauty, and that’s got to be a good thing.  If Crystal Castles make a third album, and let’s pray that they do, and they keep going on this trajectory, then they may well create the dance album of the century.  It’s a big call, but based on what this duo have produced so far it’s not unjustified.

Phil Retrospector – IntroVersion. Like Four Tet’s record, I’ve written previously about Irish remix artist/sonic magician Phil Retrospector and his IntroVersion album – in fact I gushed about it embarrassingly.  But the thing is I still believe every word of it; I recently decided that discovering Retrospector’s IntroVersion and associated tunes, all of which are only available on his website, is the musical event of 2010.  Whilst most of the bands listed above conclude that modern life is just too empty to offer any real hope, there’s a great big wallop of enjoyment to be had here, which is more than ironic considering Mr Retrosepctor acknowledges that this is ‘glass half-empty music’.  The thing is, it’s music that connects, that affects, that moves.  This is what’s good about the modern world (okay, there’s something): having the technology to cherry-pick the best of what’s happened to music in the last fifty or so years, and, using as much skill and intelligence as possible, make something new, say something new, and give your listeners something to chew on into the bargain.  It’s DIY, it’s punk, it’s probably illegal.  It’s one mother of a nose thumbed at the music industry; it says we’re going to make great music no matter what you think.  Call Retrospective’s stuff maudlin, mawkish, melancholic, nostalgic, sentimental, I don’t give a damn – as long as this bloke’s making music as good as this I’m happy to keep having a crack at life.

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