Sunday, March 28, 2010


Today, I was going to try to battle through the remnants of this attention-span-blasting cold to get to the end of Anne Brontë’s enchanting Agnes Grey, and then say something sensible about it here. But although one of those things might happen, the other is looking pretty doubtful, so instead, here is the poster for the next of Brogues’ Foolin’ Around series of concerts (they’re back! back!!! etc.). Never less than really really good, and occasionally so incredible you wonder what anyone needs religion for anyway, if you are anywhere in the northern hemisphere and not deaf, you would be daft to miss it. Even if you are deaf, there is a jolly nice poster to enjoy.

Line-up: The Lodger, Water Wolves
Vital stats: 20/4, 7:30, £5, 12, 0141 553 2400, Mono, Glasgow

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Oh My Soul

It’s funny what you can tell about a song by learning to play it. The opening song on Big Star’s Radio City, for instance, ‘Oh My Soul’, can be played almost entirely with one finger on the left hand: you just slide it up and down the fretboard, and that’s the song. It’s a boast, almost, or a joke, maybe about the fact that the record is on Stax – showing that Big Star can be soulful when they want, and look, one finger, easy peasy. And then on to the bright pop tunes. I got caught up in them in the wave of Big Star revivalism that attended Teenage Fanclub’s ascendency in 1991: it seemed then as though every TFC review (in Melody Maker at least) was also a Big Star review. Which was unfair – Teenage Fanclub were influenced by a whole tradition, not just a single band – but it led readers to Radio City and then Third / Sister Lovers, when it got re-released the following year, probably as a result of the Teenage Fanclub press. I loved the brightness of Radio City just as much as the darkness of Third, and after twenty odd years I still can’t find fault with either. Very sad to see Alex go.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Four Tet, Pantha du Prince & Rocketnumbernine, Bongo Club, Edinburgh, 13th March

Last spring, Andy suggested going to an all day Fence gig, a refreshing, thoroughly enjoyable day I probably wouldn’t have thought to go to myself. This year the same thing has happened again with a gig which he admitted could have been so much noodling, but which in the event was tightly plotted and exhilarating. Wait a bit and go here for his own thoughts. To me, Rocketnumbernine brought to mind Silver Apples for their drums + one-bloke-on-synths configuration, and Can’s ‘Vitamin C’ for the drum-heavy assault. Switching between an acoustic and an electronic kit, the drummer ploughed into his intricate but always rockin’ rhythms, closely followed by the synth and bass lines played / triggered by the band’s other member, who stared intently at a touch screen throughout whilst playing the mini keyboard on the lower rung of his rig. ‘They must be American’, I thought. ‘Brits don’t work this hard at their music’. But no, they are from London, and just look at how sweet their album cover is. Their set never paused for applause, building magnificently from interesting to involving to fuck yeah, and I made a mental note to try to miss fewer support bands.

Next came Pantha du Prince, accompanied by a few jarring signals: a hoody, which must have been insupportably hot under the stage lights, and black tape covering the Apple logo on his laptop. Not that there is anything wrong with obscuring logos, eschewing the corporate, etc., but it sent out a ‘too cool for my own equipment’ kinda vibe, at least to begin with. But then the set started, and he began to move in this strange, stilted way; made me think of Gary Numan and Andy of... well, we’ll see if he puts that in his review, but it was someone even more stilted than Gary Numan. Thoughts of cool vanished with the dancing, the black tape became a good thing, and the music tinkered, then rumbled, then soared. The hoody vanished at some point, to cheers (what is this, Top of the Pops?). Again the rhythm was paramount, along with the basslines suckered on to its floor. I’m scrabbling around for other things to say about how great this set was, but it has blown away on the wind, and perhaps that it how it should be.

Four Tet were another one-man-and-his-laptop job, which I did know, but the pictures on their site of the luminous hats had had me hoping for some kind of spectacle. But it was just Kieran Hebden in a t-shirt with a table full of computers (two laptops, actually) and assorted mixers / controllers. Which he handled with an easy and intense grace, floating above his toys like a hawk above a valley, spinning out snippets into wrong-footing reversals and elongated batterings. There was nothing from Rounds, the only album of his I know at all well, but every so often something recognisable bobbed up and the crowd whooped. As to what Hebden was actually doing up there... this is the problem with laptop performance, isn’t it? With Rocketnumbernine, you could see, roughly, which action was causing which noise, but the other two acts didn’t allow that. I suppose a back projected screen of Ableton or whatever would be a bit rubbish, but I remember that kind of thing working for Björk when she used a Reactable. Still, you could see Hebden’s glee at dropping in at last the beat you didn’t know you’d been been holding your breath for, full and low-end, the snare just barely different from the bass drum sound.

Arriving back late, we walked past a club by the bus station. Thump thump thump thump, it went, through the wall. A pause, and the same blaring synth plus faux-delirious vocal break for the same number of bars as always before the thumps began again. ‘That’s what dance music really sounds like,’ I said. When it doesn’t, it can be so great.


Update: Andy’s review is up, and ten times better than the above.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Tricot Treat

Lately, S. has been teaching me to knit. It isn’t a long-cherished ambition or anything, but I’m going to be an uncle soon, and an edict has been issued: four-inch squares of knitting from everyone, no excuses. To be stitched together into a blanket. The picture isn’t the finished square, just a practice one, and it’s been surprisingly enjoyable to do. Miles better to listen to music to than surfing the web, which is what usually happens around here. If you got good at it, I imagine it might even be as good for listening to music to as a long train journey.

Anyway, I’m just churning out some place-holder text to try to approximate the look of a post on Anne Bacheley’s much missed old blog, which often had knitting on it, in amongst the music, books and comics. And all of a sudden – it’s back! In English, too. Fabulous news.

Bookmark this:

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Charlotte Brontë – ‘Shirley’

There are several unusual things about Shirley, compared with Charlotte Brontë’s other books. Where usually there is a solitary protagonist, making her or his way in the world, here there are four: the brothers Robert and Louis Moore, textile mill owner and tutor respectively; Caroline Helstone and Shirley Keeldar, vicar’s niece and heiress. Materially speaking, Shirley is the only one with no financial concerns, though Caroline is well enough provided for while her uncle is alive. Perhaps because there is no principal character, first person narration is not used, except for a few late chapters told through Louis’ diary entries. For the rest, the single viewpoint, so important in her other novels, and used even when not strictly necessary in Tales of Angria, is foregone, and she gives us an in-the-round narrative, with an unusually broad context stretching from community to society and the world beyond. In addition to the usual cast of upper class educated class (governesses, vicars), are mill workers – though they remain mostly an abstraction. Patricia Ingham’s book reproves this treatment as paternalistic, with justification. There is no governess at all, though there is a male tutor, and Caroline does contemplate the profession briefly. If there were a governess in the novel, there might be no room for this bald statement from Miss Hardman, in Mrs Pryor’s remembrance:
WE need the imprudencies, extravagances, mistakes and crimes of a certain number of fathers to sow the seed from which WE reap the harvest of governesses. The daughters of tradespeople, however well educated, must necessarily be underbred, and as such unfit to be inmates of OUR dwellings, or guardians of OUR children’s minds and persons. (p. 377)
Though usually put more subtly than this, it is a theme which runs through Charlotte’s novels. As is unrequited love, here best – though not only – personified in Caroline (her existence becoming a ‘useless, blank, slow-trailing thing’ (p. 390)), and… I was going to say illness, but it is the story of the Brontës, rather than their own stories, which is dominated by illness. There is Jane Eyre’s Helen Burns, of course, echoed here in Jessie Yorke.

Echoed? There is no comparison. Because although Shirley is a very flawed book, all over the place in terms of social attitudes, over-full with its plethora of protagonists rehearsing too many variations on the themes of love and near-death, with a plot which was plainly altered as it went along, with characters which change with the wind, with a handful of interjections from its author reminiscing inappropriately about real life incidents... it is a mess, but it is brilliant. If Jane Eyre, as George Eliot and I contend, is hamstrung by its artificial language, and the absence of character in favour of dialectic, Shirley breaks free of its author and takes in several characters beside her own. Charlotte doesn’t quite know yet how to distribute them, but no matter. Shirley is Emily Brontë. Mrs Gaskell says so, and it rings true. Who else could this be about:
In her white evening dress; with her long hair flowing full and wavy; with her noiseless step, her pale cheek, her eye full of night and lightning, she looked, I thought, spirit-like, – a thing made of an element, – the child of a breeze and a flame, – the daughter of ray and rain-drop, – a thing never to be overtaken, arrested, fixed. (p. 630)
Caroline is an amalgam of Anne Brontë and Ellen Nussey, according to J. M. S. Tompkins’ excellent essay ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’*, and this too seems plausible. She seems at first to be another Charlotte stand-in, but she is too placid, too neat, too readily drawn to the relatively conventional Robert Moore, for whom she pines and nearly dies. The pining is drawn from Charlotte’s own experience; Tompkins observes, ‘When Caroline and Shirley are with their lovers, we cease to think of Anne or Emily’. Charlotte wouldn’t love someone so straightforward, and one can’t help but think of her rather than Emily when Shirley declares, ‘I will accept no hand which cannot hold me in check’ (p. 551). The Pensionnat Heger looms over Shirley in its unguarded moments, for who could this be but Mme Heger / Mme Beck?
I remember once seeing a pair of blue eyes, that were usually thought sleepy, secretly on the alert, and I knew by their expression – an expression which chilled my blood, it was in that quarter so wondrously unexpected – that for years they had been accustomed to silent soul-reading. (p. 273)
It returns later on, too, during the schoolroom romance between Louis and Shirley – which is Not Dodgy because it is several years since he was her tutor; she is Just Helping Out with the lessons he still gives to her younger cousin Henry. Louis is M. Heger, just as surely as M. Paul in Villette is M. Heger, though he is not nearly as well realised. It may seem reductive to read Shirley in this way, but really it seems the only way to make sense of it. Even the setting of the story in 1811-12 can be seen as a tribute to the Duke of Wellington, Charlotte’s hero, battling Napoleon on the continent, which has knock-on effects for British / American trade and causes the economic unrest which twice leads to violence in Shirley. But try as it might, it is not a political novel. Instead it is a brave tribute to two sisters recently dead, it is Charlotte writing the Brontë myth before even Mrs Gaskell has had a chance, it is tender and dumb and blatant and outspoken, it abuses the author’s God-like privilege to construct a happier future for a family already gone (that is why the omniscient narrator), it is heartbreaking.


* ‘Caroline Helstone’s Eyes’ rebuffs the suggestion that Caroline was originally intended to die, and argues that it is more likely she was intended to end up a spinster.

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