Monday, May 29, 2006

Holding pattern

Apologies for the paucity of postage around these 'ere parts of late, but unfortunately circumstances are such that there won't be a full resumption of activity here until the end of the week at the earliest.

I don't flatter myself that this revelation is likely to reduce anyone to tears - just to let those of you not signed up to Bloglines or whatever not to bother swinging by in the expectation of anything new until then.

On the cards when I return (with a vengeance?): a report on Friday evening's Dead Meadow gig at Clwb, reviews of Nadine Gordimer's 'Selected Stories' and (at long last) Thomas Pynchon's 'Mason & Dixon' plus the usual gibberings and dribblings.

Right, back to the coal face...

Thursday, May 25, 2006

W've lost that loving feeling

The latest installment of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music is up now - this week, W. Click to read pieces on The White Stripes, Scott Walker, the world wide web and German indie bands, and to find me eulogising about Codeine, early 90s purveyors of exquisitely slow rock.
Feel good hits of the 25th May

1. 'A Ballad For The Bleeding Hearts' - Howling Bells
2. 'Tom' - Codeine
3. 'Faded Lines' - Secret Machines
4. 'Gold Lion' - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
5. 'Mudwig Bahnhoff' - You & The Atom Bomb
6. 'No 1 Cheesecake' - Urusei Yatsura
7. 'We're No Here' - Mogwai
8. 'Pretty Persuasion' - REM
9. 'Plates' - Proton Proton
10. 'Blueberry Boat' - The Fiery Furnaces

Curse The Cooper Temple Clause! If it wasn't for them hand-picking Howling Bells as their support act, I would have seen the Aussies at the Barfly here on Sunday. As it is, I'll just have to make do with the album for the meantime (which is brilliant, by the way). The gig-going drought continues...

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Oh Lordi!

Congratulations to Lordi - "the Finnish GWAR", as one friend succinctly put it - on romping to victory in Saturday night's 'Eurovision Song Contest'. Congratulations too to Mike for backing the winner - you can read his take on the outcome here, where he points out that before 'Hard Rock Hallelujah' not only had Finland never won the contest, they'd never even had a song placed in the top five.

I didn't actually see events unfold as we were hosting an all-day barbecue party, but one of our guests, a Finn, had to leave early on because he was going to a Eurovision party at which they were due to play a drinking game that would involve having a drink every time a Finnish flag was spotted. Best of all, he was already wearing his Lordi T-shirt with pride and looked very nervous...

Of course, I may well have scoffed at the time, but let's just say it's unlikely that at any point later that evening he decided to pay homage to Alan Partridge by swigging red wine out of an aerialator...
Not so black and white

Is it racist for a white person to dislike hip-hop and rap? The Magnetic Fields' Stephin Merritt has recently been taken to task by a couple of American critics, Jessica Hopper and Sacha Frere-Jones, for his (forgive the pun) repellent views. Take a look at John Cook's article about the controversy on Slate (via Ian) and make up your own mind, but it all seems ridiculous to me - my aversion to the vast majority of mindless booty-and-cash-obsessed rap songs is a matter of taste (and aesthetics and politics...), just as is that of rap and pop fans to the sort of skinny white boy indie that I like.

Also worth a look on a musical tip, if you're in the West Midlands: The Great West Midlands Gig Venue Survey, as compiled by Russ L of Oh. Just as deserved as the Actress & Bishop coming out on top is the fact that the Academy venues scored terribly in the drinks and staff categories.
Back in the firing line

Oh dear. Despite the hard work being put in by the Council and police etc, Nottingham finds itself back in the headlines as "the most crime-ridden place in England and Wales".

Whenever I read or hear about Nottingham in these terms, I wince. I'm regularly back there, and I'll always retain a fondness for the city. Statistics aside, it didn't strike me as being any more "dangerous" than other places, even though I lived for six years in an area widely considered one of the dodgiest in the city.

Nottingham suffers - unjustly, I think - from a real perception problem, and this sort of thing isn't going to do it any favours.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Blogwatch

Congratulations...

A dream come true for Mike: being the official correspondent at the Eurovision Song Contest for American website Slate. Fingers crossed the laptop holds out...

Meanwhile...

Inspector Sands is struck by the selfishness of those who try to commit suicide by chucking themselves under a train: "Why anybody would want to throw themselves in front of a train which is slowing down to kill themselves is beyond me. But if anybody who was that desperate could see the look on our train driver's face tonight, surely they'd think again".

Elsewhere...

Del writes about what Englishness means to him - "To me it's fair play, cricket, football, a good drink, a slightly warped sense of humour, distrust of authority, a nice Sunday roast, punk rock and acid house, complaining about the weather, hot cross buns, a belief in personal privacy that tips into stand-offishness, a certain arrogance about foreign climes based on the fact that there's no place like home, but also a genuine affection for other peoples and a willingness to embrace new things, a wonderful language that we're lucky the rest of the world understands".

The Quiz Blogger digresses from his usual buggering-hard-question-setting schtik to reflect that if he hadn't had a childhood spent within stone-throwing distance of the sea, "I would have eaten a lot less Wimpy meals and believed that the north was a real place with normal people, rather than this near mythical, sun-less place populated by entrail-eating Dickensian grotesques with accents so incomprehensible and phrases so confusing that when I met one for real I would have to bring a translator and a Stanley knife. Just in case. But don't worry, I stopped thinking such things when I watched 'Geordie Racer' at school. Understanding through pigeons and educational drama you see".

Mish celebrates us menfolk as the "uncomplicated, yet driven, creatures" we are.

Alan is hypnotised by a pair of breasts while out and about with his ladyfriend (don't worry, though - she was too...).

And finally...

Swiss Toni has been reading Girl With A One-Track Mind if this post about all-over body tanning is anything to go by...
Is it just me...

... or, when you have an eye test / contact lens aftercare session, do you feel like you're being interrogated? "With that lens is it less blurred, more blurred or the same?" "Is the circle clearer or more blurred now?" "Are the letters on the middle line smaller and darker now?" Aaaarrrrgggghhhh.

The worst bit is the fear of contradicting myself - sometimes the differences are so small as to be almost negligible, and I'm convinced that I must give some fairly erratic data. The opticians are almost trying to catch you out, I'm convinced of it. Quite how they ultimately manage to decide upon a prescription for me is a mystery - and how that prescription is good enough to improve my vision significantly even more so.

Incidentally, ever wanted to look at the world in sepia tones, as it was in olden times? Just walk into an opticians and ask them to administer some of that yellow dye stuff into each eye...
V have vays of making you talk

The latest installment of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music is up online now. Contributions on The Velvet Underground could perhaps have been predicted - though Jean Claude Vannier, Vivian Stanshall and VW Camper Van couldn't...

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

"A big bowl of wrong"

First it was 'Chappelle's Show', and now it's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' - the latest US comedy import to grab my attention (thanks to Jez).

I'd heard of it - after all, it's been on E4 if not Channel 4 itself of late - but hadn't ever seen an episode. But over the course of the weekend all that changed, and I watched all but one episode of the first series on DVD.

And, yes, it's great stuff. Written by and starring 'Seinfeld' producer Larry David, who plays himself, it's cringeworthy comedy in the same vein as 'I'm Alan Partridge' and 'The Office' (the latter is the most obvious influence, I think, in terms of content, characterisation and camerawork). Naturally many of the laughs are in poor taste - but if you don't like the sound of comedy episodes centred on an obituary or an incest survivor's group then just avoid.

And it's educational too - I now know what a "cut-off time" is. Mine's about 11.30pm - what's yours?

The dilemma now, though, is whether or not to start watching the episodes which are currently being televised. Although they work as stand-alone comic programmes, there are also certain narrative threads that link them together - and so there might well be things I'd be missing out on by just jumping into a later series (I gather there have been four or five in total?). What to do...
18 till I die

Out now, in paper 'n' print as well as on that there internet: issue #18 of Skif's Vanity Project fanzine. And my what goodness it contains...

Interviews: Autons

Album reviews: Mogwai, White Rose Movement, Soledad Brothers, Cat Power, Dakar & Grinser, Hefner, My Latest Novel, Saint Jude's Infirmary, Pete Dale & The Beta Males, Millionaire, Six. By Seven, Kid Congo & The Pink Monkey Birds, Dawn Of The Replicants, Dilated Peoples, Charlie Parr, Jethro Tull

Single reviews: Be Your Own Pet, This Et Al, Autons, Lovemat

Live reviews: Manchester Vs Cancer, Ladytron, The Like, Shitdisco, White Rose Movement, Boy Kill Boy, Gogol Bordello

Fanzine reviews: Homelovin'

And much more besides - including a review of an album featuring twelve Swedish artists covering Haddaway's early 90s Eurodance favourite 'What Is Love?'... How can you resist? Visit the Vanity Project site for details of how to avail yourself of a copy.

(Incidentally, my review of The Invisible Clock Factory's double A-side single 'Penelope Rose' / 'The Quantum Particles Rock And Roll Song' is now up.)
Quote of the day

"That was the Red Hot Chili Peppers there with 'Dani California'. Sounds just like all their other songs, which is a bit of a disappointment. It's from their new 28 track album Stadium Arcadium, so there are another 27 songs just like it there. If you like that kind of thing. Which I hope you don't".

Richard Herring, standing in for Andrew Collins on his Sunday afternoon 6 Music show, fails to grasp the concept (essential to being a radio DJ) of being dishonestly enthusiastic about every single song he plays.
Feel good hits of the 16th May

1. 'Marvellous Transmissions Of Star Craft' - You & The Atom Bomb
2. 'I Hate Pretending' - Secret Machines
3. 'Wicked Game' - Giant Drag
4. 'The Mercy Seat' - Johnny Cash
5. 'The Distance' - Cake
6. 'Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt' - We Are Scientists
7. 'Ladyflash' - The Go! Team
8. 'Formed A Band' - Art Brut
9. '1980' - Estelle
10. 'Jenny Says' - Death Of Fashion

Several of these are the result of Richard Herring playing them - though of those I think only 'Ladyflash' was his personal choice.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Odd jobs

Watching the new BBC4 panel quiz 'Never Mind The Full Stops' last night (which, of course, I enjoyed, being a pedant), I was reminded of some of the things I'd love to hear myself described as.

One of the panellists was Ned Sherrin, who was introduced as (amongst other things) a "raconteur". A raconteur is, in essence, a storyteller or someone who tells anecdotes - but, of course, the word's French origins make it seem that bit more cultured. A raconteur's anecdotes might ultimately be lewd, but there would be a sprinkling of well-chosen bon mots to season it with sophistication.

Raconteurs like Peter Ustinov were once the stars of chat shows before they dumbed down and the guests became one long procession of slebs trying to sell something, whether it be CD, book, film or whatever. Now they seem to be a dying breed, one of the finest left being Stephen Fry, whose anecdotes are what make 'QI' one of the best things on TV.

Someone described as a raconteur is often also described as a "bon viveur" (or perhaps that's just Forbes McAllister on 'Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge' - oh, just bear with me...) This roughly translates as: "enjoys the finer things in life - food, drink, women [bon viveurs are almost invariably men]".

And then there's that most wonderful of titles, "man of letters", meaning not a prolific letter-writer but "someone devoted to literary or scholarly pursuits".

In truth, I could probably get away with describing myself as a bon viveur and man of letters, but it would be phenomenally pretentious. What you want ideally is for someone else to describe you as such, for it to be a label which routinely prefixes your name in newspapers much like "diva Mariah Carey" and "love rat John Prescott" - in other words, for these to be your professions.

Just imagine going in to see your careers advisor at school and saying: "I'd like to be a bon viveur". The response "Well, have you thought about accountancy or the civil service?" probably wouldn't cut it.
Recycling

An addendum to the post I wrote a couple of months back about the state of British sitcoms, and one in which I make a concession to Greg Dyke's pessimistic perspective.

I'd thought 'The Two Ronnies Sketchbook' was a one-off series, and perhaps it was originally intended as such, but now it seems it's just one in a larger series, the latest being 'Smith & Jones Sketchbook' which is on tonight. Both original programmes might have been sketch shows rather than sitcoms, and - don't get me wrong - they were often half-decent, but it's a sorry state of affairs when Friday night's on BBC1 are much like any night of the week on UK Play or UK Gold.

Perhaps, though, it's just a symptom of the fact that the middle ground doesn't exist anymore, and none of the many sitcoms and comedy shows the BBC have nurtured and nourished of late (particularly on BBC3) are capable of filling that sort of slot - which isn't a criticism of them. Times change, after all, and as I said before the British sitcom is still in rude good health, even if its target audience is much smaller than in the 1970s and 1980s.

On a very tangential comedy note, I just noticed while watching the BBC news this lunchtime that they've got a correspondent called Chris Morris. Watch out for reports on horse infestations on the London Underground.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

I've been expecting U

Up now on The Art Of Noise: the latest installment of the A-Z Of Music feature. We've got as far as U, so click to read pieces on (amongst other things) university radio, untitled songs and The Boo Radleys' 'Upon 9th And Fairchild'. And witness me resorting to writing about comically misheard lyrics.
Feel good hits of the 11th May

1. 'The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes' - The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band
2. '1000 Seconds' - Secret Machines
3. 'Behold, Coelacanth' - You & The Atom Bomb
4. 'Dudley' - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
5. 'What Have I Said Now?' - The Wedding Present
6. '15 Minutes' - The Strokes
7. 'Lock Picker' - Proton Proton
8. 'Friend Of The Night' - Mogwai
9. 'Hoodwink' - Anathallo
10. 'Take Me Out' - Franz Ferdinand
No laughing matter

Comic actor charged over net porn. Well, Chris Langham really is in 'The Thick Of It' now.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo: May 2006

(aka The Scrawny Little Brother Of The Parallax View Album Review Compendium)

The Strokes - First Impressions Of Earth

First impressions of The Strokes' third LP were good, and it just gets better with every listen (though it's a touch too long to be really effective).

Naturally it was the singles 'Juicebox' (Noo Yawk cool goes metal!) and 'Heart In A Cage' that initially grabbed the attention, and then the track on which they're most obviously pushing in a new direction, 'Ask Me Anything'. For a while, '15 Minutes' promises something different too, until it all speeds up unexpectedly and rather unnecessarily. On each spin a different track catches the ear - 'Fear Of Sleep' with its tremendous chorus, closer 'Red Light', 'Electricityscape' (on which Fab Moretti's drumming is as great as anywhere else on the album). It's as though in the three years since Room On Fire all the media attention and pressure has shifted elsewhere, allowing them to do what they come back reinvigorated.

Not that you'd draw that conclusion from Julian Casablancas's contribution to the album, mind. He spends the early part of the aforementioned '15 Minutes' doing a passable impersonation of Shane McGowan after his third pint of whiskey of the day and singing beyond-paranoid lines like: "They've got it in for me, I know".

Elsewhere it's much the same story: "The world is in your hand / Or it's at your throat". That's from 'Razorblade', which contains perhaps their most gorgeous chorus yet, over which Casablancas declares: "Oh no, my feelings are more important than yours / Oh, drop dead, I don't care, I won't worry". Later he changes his mind - "Sweetheart, your feelings are more important of course" - but the line's not so much dripping with sarcasm as sodden with it.

Not that Casablancas's world-weariness manifests itself only in the form of a loathing for others - there's a fascinatingly honest self-disgust in 'On The Other Side': "I hate them all / I hate them all / I hate myself for hating them / So drink some more / I'll love them all /I'll drink even more / I'll hate them even more than I did before".

So there you have it: not as good as Is This It, but certainly the first Strokes album on which the lyrics have grabbed me as much as the music - all of which makes a mockery of Casablancas's claim on 'Ask Me Anything', "I've got nothing to say".

(The words to 'Ize Of The World' are a bit cringeworthy, though, and the less said about the line "Don't be a coconut" the better...)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones

One of those surprises that, in hindsight, we should have seen coming.

Back in 2003 Yeah Yeah Yeahs were an art-rock band you could actually MOVE to, and their debut Fever To Tell was an absolute fucking blast of an album, lead single 'Date For The Night' only one of several songs which made you want to glug wine like it was going out of fashion and thrash around on a dancefloor with no concept of age or shame.

But even in the midst of it all there was 'Maps', the album's stand-out track - and not simply because it struck such a different chord. It was evidently 'Maps' rather than 'Pin' or 'Man' that provided the blueprint for Show Your Bones - it's more sensitive, restrained, ambitious, multi-textured and (yes) mature. All of which means it's less fun. The ceaseless partying obviously took its toll, and at first this sounds like the hangover - not the worst in the world, but a hangover nonetheless.

But that's unfair. The new tracks, though likely to induce you to start fires, are undoubtedly stronger songs than their predecessors, and much more emotionally involving - 'Dudley' is particularly special. What's more, once the initial surprise has worn off, it turns out that there are plenty of moments when Nick Zinner's guitar and Karen O's paint-peeling yelp come together to familiar and superb effect after all - 'Fancy', the jerky genius of 'Phenomena', the climax of 'Mysteries'. One of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' responses to suffering a hangover, it seems, is hair of the dog.

All the same it's revealing that 'Deja Vu', arguably the closest they come to the material on Fever To Tell, is tacked on as a bonus track, the album proper coming to a conclusion with the predominantly acoustic 'Turn Into'. They're evidently intent on moving on rather than standing still - which is laudable in itself, but has led to a sophomore record that, whichever way you look at it, is just less darned exciting.

The Magic Numbers - The Magic Numbers

(Look, I know this was a 2005 release, but I've just dug it out and decided to include it here as it slipped through the review net last year.)

Excitement is in even shorter supply here, and therein lies The Magic Numbers' greatest problem.

Instinctively you'd imagine that a band's faster more upbeat songs would fare best in the live environment, whereas with Romeo and co it's swooning slowies like 'Hymn To Her' and 'Wheels On Fire' that routinely hold the audience enraptured.

And yet on record, where those same slowies could potentially come into their own even more, they fall a bit flat. Their existence beyond the confines of a darkened tent and when not witnessed as part of a hushed but beaming mass seems somehow wrong. Listening to them is like having a magician show you how to perform a trick that had previously confounded and amazed you.

What don't disappoint, though, are the two transcendent singles 'Forever Lost' and 'Love Me Like You', a pair of power-pop rays of sunshine. It's just a shame that the album overall is light on such moments, instead burdened down by plodding and too-wet-for-their-own-good ballads.

Secret Machines - Ten Silver Drops

Now THIS is a hard one to call.

Loved by David Bowie and former touring partners of Interpol, Secret Machines draw upon both prog and Krautrock - intriguing, you might think, and you'd be right but it's certainly not all good.

'Daddy's In The Doldrums', weighing in at nearly nine minutes, has a bassline that might have come straight from the new Tool album, but even that indicates the extent to which the Texan threesome worship Pink Floyd. Fine to a point, but then I'm wary of anything that old prog-rockers are likely to hold up as heralding the return of "proper" music. You know, the sort of humourless bores who not only failed to see any merit in Scissor Sisters' cover of 'Comfortably Numb' but silently pronounced a fatwa on them too.

Ten Silver Drops is in many ways rather like the Ridley Scott film 'Kingdom Of Heaven', which I saw at the weekend - epic, but forcedly and studiously so, to the extent that more often than not it's ponderous and occasionally tedious with it (thankfully, though, Orlando fucking Bloom doesn't make an appearance). The worst culprit is 'I Want To Know', which comes across by and large as a mid 80s power ballad. It opens with the sound of thunder and rain a la 'November Rain', for fuck's sake - the mark of all that is blustery and pompous.

And yet the following track, album closer '1000 Seconds', gets it as right as 'I Want To Know' is wrong, doing a decent job of approximating The Flaming Lips as it builds to a heady climax. Plus a part of me is actually glad to find a much-hyped band that are so completely at odds with the prevailing trends - scuzzy Arctic Monkeys style indie, disco-punk, the "new emo", "grindie", whatever.

At least for the moment, I keep going back to Ten Silver Drops without quite understanding why, rather like I did with ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead's World's Apart. And I'm not really any nearer to knowing what I think of that, over a year on...

* * * * *

Other recent albums I've had difficulty prising off my stereo include Mogwai's Mr Beast, Cat Power's The Greatest and My Latest Novel's Wolves - click on the links for reviews. There have also been a couple of oldies in residence: The Wedding Present's Bizarro (is there a better and more furiously bashed-out song in their canon than 'Crushed'? I doubt it) and REM's Reckoning (ah, so THAT's what Idlewild have been styling themselves on, and quite successfully too).

On top of that there are albums from You & The Atom Bomb and Lovemat for which reviews will hopefully appear over there soon (ie when they're written...), as well as a double A-side single from The Invisible Clock Factory.

Amongst many other albums stacked up by the stereo that I've yet to give a proper hearing are The Flaming Lips' At War With The Mystics, The White Stripes' Get Behind Me Satan (yes, yes, I know - Jack White's already onto his side project...) and two old PJ Harvey LPs. With new records from Howling Bells and Giant Drag winging their way to me as I type and Sonic Youth and The Futureheads both about to bless us with new releases, it shouldn't be too long before another What's Hot On The SWSL Stereo feature - but then I'm sure that's what I said last time, back in August...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Words of the day

From my desktop diary, a couple more etymylogical insights of potential interest to any fellow 'Balderdash & Piffle' enthusiasts:

"ACRONYM: This word describes words made from the first letters of a phrase, but it is not an acronym itself. It was coined during World War II at Bell Laboratories, probably in response to the growing number of military-related terms entering the language. It comes from the Greek words 'akros', meaning 'tip', and 'onyma', meaning 'name', thus referring to something made from the 'tips' or initial letters of other words".

"SOLDIER: Soldiers are professional warriors, paid for their work, and the term 'soldier' derives from this pay. In ancient Rome, a gold coin used to pay 'soldiers' was called a 'solidus', so called because it was solid. This led to 'soldum', meaning 'one being paid with a solidus', and then 'soldarius', meaning 'a professional warrior' or 'a soldier'".

If you learn something new every day, then there's tomorrow covered.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Blogwatch

Welcome...

Anthony Is Right - music-centred blog written by one of the Stylus crew (via his fellow Stylus writer Ian)

Silence Is A Rhythm Too - a music blog which frequently features MP3s (the Royksopp cover of Queens Of The Stone Age's 'Go With The Flow' got me hooked, and like me Michael's been plugging The Invisible Clock Factory) (via Sweeping The Nation)

Throughsilver In Blog - a third music-focused blog written by a chap in Leeds (via RussL)

Congratulations...

Mike, who is now "FOOKIN MARRIED" and on honeymoon holiday in the Maldives. Nice one mate!

Meanwhile...

Alan marvels at the American attitude to food - "The adverts for the BK Triple Cheeseburger were bad enough, with their promises of 'patty on patty on patty technology', as if there were anything remotely scientific about sticking three beefburgers in a bun. It seems to be one of those things that they did just because they could. Was the world really crying out for a sandwich containing three beefburgers? It’s like the ever increasing number of blades in a razor. I think we’re up to four now, so it shouldn’t be long before some genius comes up with the idea for the five blade razor".

Also on his travels on the North American continent is Jonathan, who is confronted by the fact that not everyone in Montreal speaks English - "Last night when I got a taxi back from the airport I cheerfully tried to engage my cabbie in conversation, and was horrified to discover that not only was his English not good enough for him to understand me, but that his English, however poor, was spoken through an accent so disdainfully French that I could hardly understand it".

Elsewhere...

James ventures into the Scottish Highlands for the opportunity to see Will Oldham in a village hall - "'I See A Darkness' had an additional poignancy when we stepped outside, since that exactly what we saw. Back in the hall it was easy to neglect the fact but it was the middle of nowhere - probably many miles from the nearest street lighting. We drove home quiet but satisfied".

Jaymaster is less enthusiastic about another gig which took place in an unusual setting, the performance of the Pet Shop Boys' soundtrack to 'Battleship Potemkin' at the Swan Hunter shipyard in Wallsend.

Jason compiles a list of albums that bands have allegedly disowned - "Why do bands orphan albums, leaving them in little baskets at the door of irrelevance? Some blame record labels for cobbling together contract obligation releases. Some blame themselves. Other acts change styles and grow in talent so dramatically from one album to another that they render their past work incongruous. Some albums are so bad, so ill-conceived that abandoning them is the only understandable response".

Robin expresses his concerns about Tufty the Squirrel - "If I wanted to select an animal which could impart serious lessons about road safety then I would probably choose a mole who always used the underpass or a zebra who had his own crossing, which would be magic or something. I certainly wouldn't choose an animal that was a complete lunatic when it came to decisions about traffic and never, in my experience, ever looks either left or right before crossing and in fact seems to select the most exciting moment possible to take on oncoming traffic".

JonnyB is perturbed by the amount of female attention he attracts in walking around Norwich with Baby Servalan - "I explain my problem to the LTLP when we meet up again. She laughs at me and tells me that women don't really leer at men with babies and that it is all my imagination, but it is pretty well exactly the same reply that I give her about looking at women's breasts so I am not convinced".

Betty does that Seven Things You Didn't Know About Me meme that's been doing the rounds, and in far more entertaining fashion than anyone else - "3. My GP once looked closely and quizzically at me and asked 'Have you got that syndrome?' 'What's that?' I asked. 'Er, no, never mind', he replied. I've been paranoid about it ever since".

And finally...

Girl explains why she's attracted to men with green fingers (not literally) (NSFW).
Time for T

The latest installment of the Art Of Noise A-Z Of Music is up now. There you'll find contributions on Teenage Fanclub, TV theme tunes, They Might Be Giants, Franz Ferdinand's 'Take Me Out' and Tin Pan Alley amongst other things - plus my adjective-strewn appreciation of 'The Triumph Of Our Tired Eyes', the closing track on (deep breath) The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band's 2001's LP Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upwards.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Silent words don’t speak loudest

About time we had a book review, isn’t it? And it’s a long one…

A while back – well, a year and a half ago, to be precise – I read and reviewed Melvin Bragg’s ‘The Adventure Of English’, lauding it as an excellent chronicle of the English language’s evolution into the dominant world language. Though Bragg’s tone is never triumphalist, and he does not shy away from acknowledging that the global “adventure” of English was often inextricably associated with the exertion of colonial power, he does argue that it is English’s adaptability and flexibility, its ability to absorb and adopt words from other tongues, that has ensured its status and richness.

In many ways, then, Mark Abley’s book ‘Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages’ can be read as the flipside of Bragg’s story. For, in nearly every case Abley examines, languages are audibly dying or – worse still – becoming extinct altogether because of the inexorable march of English into every corner of the globe. “Modern English”, he says, “is the Wal-Mart of languages: convenient, huge, hard to avoid, superficially friendly, and devouring all rivals in its eagerness to expand”. It’s an analogy that someone he meets later qualifies: “‘At Wal-Mart you can still buy the stuff that smaller stores used to sell. Languages aren’t like that. Languages are unique. English doesn’t sell other merchandise – it eliminates the other merchandise”.

The disappearance of languages around the world is not, Abley acknowledges, a new problem: “languages have always been in flux; languages have always died … But the sheer pace of change is unprecedented”. And, it almost goes without saying, very worrying to someone who, like the linguist David Crystal, articulates passionately the inherent value of the existence of different languages, each with its own unique qualities and characteristics. Adopting another analogy, Abley argues that there should exist the same imperative to protect and sustain endangered languages and linguistic diversity as there is to protect and sustain endangered species and ecological diversity. He reads the Tower of Babel story from the Bible as a blessing rather than a curse.

Another central objective of Abley’s book is to debunk the notion that languages come under threat of extinction and die out because they are “primitive” (and, by extension, their speakers “savages”): “The grammar and syntax of Mati Ke and Murrinh-Patha are just as elaborate, just as complex and intellectually demanding, as the grammar and syntax of any well-known European tongue. Being widely spoken does not make a language any better, more intelligent, or more perceptive that a language that has never spread beyond its birthplace”.

Of course, this goes against the grain of history. It was not only Christianity which was believed to be necessary to make “barbarous” natives become “civilised”, but English too. Those who refuse to submit to a “majority language” have traditionally suffered physical and psychological abuse at the hands of the supposedly “civilised” and “civilising” authority. Hard to believe it wasn’t too long ago that here in my current home country “pupils caught speaking Welsh wore a strap around their necks with a heavy piece of wood attached: a badge of dishonour, the infamous ‘Welsh Not’”.

There is a sense of injustice and indignation that fires Abley’s book, and this is in part what ensures it never threatens to become a dry textbook. As he is quick to acknowledge, he is not a specialist linguist. But, he adds, “[linguists’] voices are unlikely to be heard on the subject unless they speak out in terms that are lucid, intelligible and free from jargon” – which is precisely what he does. (He does however later note a welcome development within the academic sphere: “Linguists have been learning to act as partisans, campaigning on behalf of the languages they once set out to study in a cool, neutral light”.)

Despite Abley’s admission that he isn't a specialist, one early chapter discusses Noam Chomsky’s theory of language, and the countervailing Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which – in very simple terms – language constructs the world (as well as reflecting it). If a language distinguishes between two shades of yellow, for instance, then that distinction exists for that speaker, when a non-speaker might just refer to both shades as yellow. The book is a (perhaps unsurprisingly) convincing endorsement of Sapir and Whorf’s theory.

Over the course of the book Abley immerses himself in a variety of threatened languages, including Yuchi, Manx, Provencal, Mohawk, Yiddish and some interrelated Aboriginal languages. It isn’t simply a pre-mortem, an attempt to preserve these languages in amber before they die out. After all, as he says, “languages are social creations, constantly being tested and renewed in the mouths of their speakers. They require use, not just study. You can no more restore a vanished language from a scholarly monograph and a software program than you can restore a population of cheetahs from a vial of frozen sperm and a National Geographic film”.

That’s why “this book is not just about threatened languages but about the people who speak them”. The languages Abley writes about are felt to be vital and real because his focus is as much on their speakers as on the languages themselves as abstract entities. In narrating the struggles to keep the flame of individual languages alive – the squabbles as well as the successes – the book has human interest at its heart.

Abley makes clear that not everyone is pulling in the same direction, not even those who ostensibly share the aim of saving a particular language. The fight to preserve the Mohawk language, for instance, is inextricably bound up with a resistance to cultural assimilation. It’s a political issue related to territory, one which has led to violence, bloodshed and imprisonment. And yet Mohawks are themselves split into factions, divided over issues of pronunciation and orthography.

It’s a similar if slightly more sinister story in the south of France, where disagreements between defenders of Provencal continue to impede the language’s rehabilitation. Again there are contentious political issues at stake, and Abley expresses his discomfort at the fact that the fervent desire to ensure Provencal’s survival often spills over into ugly xenophobia, immigrants being blamed for the dilution of “native” culture in classically racist rhetoric.

One of the book’s central messages is that these conservative defenders of the faith are misguided. Languages must be living to survive: “stasis is death … Any living tradition is also a tradition in flux”. But they have to adapt and evolve on their own terms, not as a result of external pressures. Abley notes that there is evidence that even major European languages – Russian, French, Polish, German – are “melting at the edges” because of the influence of English.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There are, Abley says, good reasons for not falling into “a despairing fatalism”: “On a global level the triumph of English may seem unstoppable, but on a local level you can find innumerable tales of a bullheaded refusal to submit”.

Here he’s referring to Manx, but he might as well be talking about Welsh – or Cymraeg, to give its proper name. In a chapter of particular interest to me given my recent move, Abley looks at Cymraeg as an example of a flourishing minority language, celebrating those schools that actively encourage the learning and speaking of the language (for English immigrants as well as for "natives") and the way S4C has directly countered the incursion of English via popular culture (incidentally, I learned that the channel was “won” by Plaid Cymru leader Gwynfor Evans who threatened to go on hunger strike to the point of death unless Maggie followed up her pre-election pledge to bring it into existence).

Even then, Abley acknowledges the intimidating difficulties of learning the language’s multiple grammatical mutations, and notes the ever-present threat of English, lurking at the border. Certainly, the picture the pressure groups Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg and Cymuned paint on their websites isn’t all rosy.

Overall, though, Abley’s tone is lyrical without ever becoming elegiac. ‘Spoken Here’ is a superb book, brilliantly written and researched, keenly observed and – best of all – passionate.

And if that’s not enough to sell it to you, there are also the fascinating and frequently hilarious trivia titbits ripe for pub conversations…

* One in every six languages comes from New Guinea.

* In Yiddish, gestures used to accompany an adverb can significantly qualify its meaning – there is a gesture to accompany the word “late”, for instance, that means “sort of late, but not too late”.

* As the German scientist and explorer Humboldt discovered, the last known speaker of the Atures language of South America was a parrot.

* Amongst the verbs of the Boro language of north-east India are: “zum”, “to wear or put on clothing for the upper part of the body”; “egthu”, “to create a pinching sensation in the armpit”; and “gobray”, “to fall into a well unknowingly”. Yes, I know what you’re thinking – “How did I ever do without a word for that?”

* For the Lokele people of the eastern Congo, intonation and pitch matters so much to meaning that the word for “fiancĂ©e” and the phrase for “I’m watching the riverbank” mean “rubbish dump” and “I’m boiling my mother-in-law” respectively if pronounced in a different way. There’s definite sitcom potential there, methinks…

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Feel good hits of the 2nd May

Yes, another one, less than a week after the last - I've been listening to a lot of music of late, OK?

1. 'Phenomena' - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
2. 'Mornings Eleven' - The Magic Numbers
3. 'Dirty Mind' - The Pipettes
4. 'The Quantum Particles Rock And Roll Song' - The Invisible Clock Factory
5. 'Drunk Kid Catholic' - Bright Eyes
6. 'Sometimes' - My Bloody Valentine
7. 'Plates' - Proton Proton
8. 'If Only The Moon Were Up' - Field Music
9. 'A Great Wind More Ash' - Anathallo
10. 'PS Scotland I Luv Ya' - Saint Jude's Infirmary

Thanks to Simon for pointing me in the direction of Proton Proton and Anathallo via his weekly Hey You Get Offa MySpace feature. His recommendations are always worth checking out.