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Here are 9 blogs that make you feel bigger and better and more alive than ever

Here are 9 blogs that make you feel bigger and better and more alive than ever

Under the Counter has been going since 2009 and now that it’s 2013 it’s probably time for a list of blogs that I check out regularly.  By regularly I mean once or twice a week, because I do try to balance online time with offline – as in real life – time, so I can keep on being a human for as long as possible.  It’s true that I’m not much of an internet traveler, and would much prefer to spend a morning working in the garden before a long afternoon on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee, probably some chocolate, perhaps with a late addition of wine if I just can’t put the book down.  However, there are places online where it’s possible to linger and come away with your brain expanded rather than diminished.  So, below is a list of blogs that I currently enjoy.  It’s neither definitive nor unchangeable – I thoroughly recommend all those sites listed in UTC’s blogroll to the left – but you may wish to go exploring in the following directions:

  • Whispering Gums – an indispensable well of reviews and commentary on Australian and international literature
  • Broadside – a New York-based blog written by professional freelance writer Caitlin Kelly; it’s invariably thought-provoking, particularly in terms of US current affairs but also on the trials and tribulations of being a practicing independent scribe
  • City of Tongues – a longstanding blog by highly regarded Sydney novelist and reviewer James Bradley, on offer here is a host of links (to James’ work and elsewhere) and glimpses into the writing process/life, plus music recommendations
  • Three other writer-blogs that I follow are by Irma Gold, Gabrielle Bryden, and Mark William Jackson
  • Headphone Commute – a very professional music blog dispensing reviews, interviews and general information about all things minimalism, electronica and contemporary classical (for want of a better term)
  • Bootlegsmade4walking – if you’re interested in mash-up/bootlegs then you can’t go past Phil Retrospector’s blog
  • And, just for a bit of good fun, albeit the ever-so-slightly maudlin kind, I visit I’ve Had Dreams Like That, which is simply a collection of odd, cheeky, hilarious vintage photographs (you’ll get a Warning Notification, but that’s only because every so often the images are extra cheeky indeed).

What currently are your favourite blogs?

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.

In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place.  Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community.  After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.

To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out.  I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!).  I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you.  You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention.  A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.

Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.

***

‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’  (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)

‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another.  You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story.  I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’  (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’

‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’  (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)

‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places.  If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter.  If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience.  Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain.  But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’  (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)

‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’  (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)

‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’  (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)

A Cataract Gorge postcard, 1906

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case and, let me be frank, a shitload of hope that I’ll write well here (and by ‘well’ I mean, as I’ve noted before, to write by hand).  While the jury’s out on the latter, the minimalist luggage situation has caused one very significant problem: no room for CDs.  In the past when I’ve gone away to write I’ve been able to go in my trusty Barina, meaning more than enough room for a swag of CDs.  But not this trip.

Of course, I have an mp3-player contraption loaded with some much-loved albums, recent gems by Four Tet, Frightened Rabbit and Volcano Choir, amongst others.  There is, however, a need to hear music through the air, music that fills more than the space between my ears.  For that purpose I made room for just one CD from the hundreds (possibly thousands – eek) I have collected over the years, so I chose very, very carefully indeed.  I chose what I know will be in the top three albums of 2010.

When I arrived at the Gorge, tired from a day of travelling (two flights, a stack of waiting and reading in between) but also excited about commencing another period of writing in an unfamiliar place, I discovered that the CD case was broken.  I feared the worst – the actual CD could be irreparably damaged.  I needed to play it to make sure it worked.  In the first hour I hunted around the cottage for a CD player, getting increasingly desperate.  Could I really be about to spend the next month – a whole month – without music in the air?

After turning the place upside down (though not really: I am at heart a gentle soul, and this cottage is 120 years old and, apparently, one of the most photographed in Tasmania, so it deserves respect) I realised that there was no magic music machine here.  Immediately, and just a little shamelessly, I emailed the Launceston City Council who manages the Cataract Gorge Artist-in-Residence Program.  No doubt sensing the distress in my words, they offered to bring around a CD player – but they couldn’t do it for a few days.  Could I cope until Thursday? they asked.  No, of course I couldn’t, but I wasn’t about to push my luck any further.  For the next 96 hours there was no sound in the cottage other than that of pen on paper, fingers on laptop keyboard, and, at the end of each day, the sweet relief of white wine being poured into a champagne glass.

Then the glorious moment arrived: two lovely representatives from the Launceston City Council came around and dropped off a brand-spanking new CD player.  ‘We were just waiting for someone to ask,’ they said generously as they lifted the handsome black beast from the box.  An hour later, after a cup of a tea and a chat (we spent most of it talking about blogging, would you believe), they left me to my own devices.  But the stereo stubbornly refused to play my CD – it claimed that there was ‘no CD’ even though I could see such a thing on the spindle.  I pressed every button I could find and swore like a rabid trooper, but still my CD couldn’t be brought to life.

Being at times the most tenacious person you’ve ever met (or not met, as the case may be), I realised that the CD player had a USB port and I had a legal download of the album on my laptop.  Hooray for technology after all!  I put the album onto a memory stick that had once been used as a marketing gimmick, put the stick into the CD player, and…the bastard thing still wouldn’t work.  It quit playing halfway through tracks, and quite steadfastly refused to broadcast whole sections of the album.  I cleared the memory stick and put the album on it a second time, but it was still no good – the same mega-frustrating problem.

In the morning I’d be travelling two and a half hours to the other end of Tasmania to spend a couple of days in Hobart.  I hatched a plan: while in the big smoke I’d buy a damn good memory stick and see if that would fix a matter that was now keeping me up at night.  After spending much of my time holed up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage (poor bloody whales) and giving a workshop on writing about place, I ducked into town to get the much-desired memory stick – despite the fact that I’m running out of money, I didn’t skimp on price – and this morning I jumped on the bus back to Launceston.  Would what I had safe and secure in my laptop bag fix this hurdle to my month-long residency?

It was an interesting bus trip to say the least.  Behind me was a man who, with earphones in his ears, insisted on laughing loudly to himself the whole time as if he was in his own private comedy show.  Even more worrying, in the seats in front of me were two heavily tattooed young men who spent the journey talking loudly and proudly about how they’d both just gotten out of jail.  One of the men ‘couldn’t read or nuffin’’.  The other man had gone to Hobart to see his ‘missus’ before she too was sent to jail, but rather than stay with her he’d spent the night on the streets; this same man wondered if his mate knew that sometimes you can shoot a wombat twelve times and it may not die.  The poor granny beside me did nothing but stare straight ahead, refusing to even blink for fear of being knifed.  I had flash-backs to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.  Needless to say I clutched onto my newly purchased memory stick very tight, as if it was made of Unobtainium.

But then, thankfully, gratefully, I arrived in Launceston and walked back up to the Gorge.  Would the Kings Bridge Gatekeeper’s Cottage be soon filled with the sounds of an album that I know will be in the top ten of the decade?

As soon as I stepped into the cottage, I downloaded the album onto the new memory stick and then plugged the stick into the stereo.  Oh dear Lord, there it was at last.  Music in the air, good music, great music.  But it’s not just any music.  What I played this morning – and am still playing this evening as I write this post – does everything I expect of great music: it is clever, it is beautiful, it is dark (to the point of grimness); it makes you want to cry one minute and then swing your hips the next, or even do a bit of air-guitar; it is new, thoughtful, sometimes funny, but above all it takes risks.

It’s a clash, a mash-up, a remix and a reimagining.

Interested in hearing This Mortal Coil versus Sigur Ros?  Philip Glass versus Elton John?  REM versus Sia?  Want a listening journey that encompasses David Lynch soundtracks, David Bowie, Johnny Cash, Coldplay, Nancy Sinatra, Nina Simone, Nirvana, Bon Iver, and Harry Dean Stanton, Charles Bukowski and Bob Dylan, just to name a few artists represented in this collection?   Do you have a penchant for melancholia and the more reflective side of eletronica?  If the answer is yes to these questions, you need Introversion by Irish DJ/producer/remixer/mash-up artist Phil Retrospector.  Amazingly it isn’t available commercially, but you can listen to it here.

Can I be so bold as to say that if the Coldplay versus The Beetles versus Joe Anderson mash-up called ‘Jude Will Fix It’ doesn’t make you smile or bring you to tears, or both at the same time, then you may want to check for a pulse – and I’m not even a crazy fan of these bands individually.  So I end this tale with a declaration and a request: if a wild Tasmanian storm comes Launceston’s way (the weather reports are saying that it’s quite possible this week) and I get flushed out of my little cliff-face cottage and washed into the Tamar River and never come up for air, then please have this song playing as you file out of the crematorium.

Last week I came to Tasmania with only a backpack and a laptop in a travel-case, but now I have music in the air.

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