As good as a nice cup of tea, and a sit down.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Joanna Newsom - Have One On Me

(Pssst: if this makes you fall asleep in the middle, the abridged version for Shut can be found here.)

2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender introduced the world to an awkward if determined songwriter. Joanna Newsom dressed like a sorcerer’s apprentice, used words that hadn’t been in common parlance in 200 years – but you certainly couldn’t forget her, or the fairytale narratives she delivered in her high, childlike voice.
Her struggles on The Milk-Eyed Mender to conquer her complex timings, vocals and melodies were audible. Yet her overarching visions were so unique, that in hindsight, her debut foretold the stellar turn she took on Ys.
Orchestral arrangements from Van Dyke Parks made her meandering tales soar with movement, and 2006’s bold concept album reaped the praise it deserved. Her improved vocal style and her dexterity on the harp now formidable, it seemed Newsom was less awkward, more capable of self-expression.
But for the listeners who come on board with the release Have One On Me, a record which completely belies her elbow grease, it will seem like she has sprung up the finished article. On the surface at least, Have One On Me is a record of startling serenity and composure. Now in possession of a beautifully mature vocal range worthy of the Kate Bush comparisons, Newsom’s occasional squeaks are a distant memory.
Like Ys, Have One on Me maybe considered a ‘bold’ record, but here the boldness lies its vastness. 18 tracks, over two hours of music to plough through. It’s to be digested slowly, and considered as carefully as it is delivered by our narrator.
The most striking thing about this record is its laissez-faire attitude. Both lyrically and musically, Newsom’s rigid uprightness has fallen away. The influence of many different musical styles can be found within Have One on Me, and the touches of blues, bluegrass and country here and there remind you of the presence of producer/arranger/tour mate Ryan Francesconi.
Her lyrics, of course, have always taken centre stage. Though she loosens her knotty, archaic prose, it is Newsom’s strong sense of narrative still pervades. Beginning with the long and winding ‘Easy,’ we are presented with the image of a contented couple; ‘my man and me.’ When the final curtain comes, 2 hours later, it’s succeeded by the imagery in the bluesy, bittersweet ‘Does Not Suffice,’ where Newsom packs up her ‘pretty dresses and high heels’ and contemplates her exit.
It’s a simple enough concept and one explored since time immemorial. But the surprising thing is that there’s very little to be decoded in Newsom’s language. Some of the lyrics from songs such as ‘Jack Rabbits,’ and ‘Autumn’ are simple to the point of exposure, without the safe obscurity of fairytale characters. You have to admire her frankness. Bob Dylan famously refuted ‘Blood on the Tracks’ as relevant to his divorce, and when looking back on the pain and anger that spills from the record, you can see why. This album could have been bitter catharsis, but it’s not. Her voice her music, her lyrics are warm and generous - even the title wishes you well.
Many will still decry her inaccessibility and to their credit, it is a record which demands your time and concentration. Assimilating to the down tempo, lengthy form is challenging at first; it’s hard to get a foothold anywhere. But once you find your way ‘in’, you will find a record as rich in reward as any ever you have ever treasured, or are likely to again.
There was a great deal of expectation weighted upon Have One on Me, and we know Joanna Newsom is an artist who thrives on reinvention. Knowing that no one can predict the direction of her next about-face is thrilling enough, but seeing her exceptional talent expand further, with seemingly no end to it in sight, is best of all.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland, Revisited.

With the anticipation amongst his fan base at fever pitch, it finally arrived earlier this month. Teaser stills of Johnny Depp’s (surprised?) Hatter and Helena Bonham-Carter’s (even more surprised?) Red Queen surfaced months ago, and their appearance seemed to confirm that Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland - in 3D, no less - might warrant some fuss.

Of course, visually it does. Burton has unquestionably earned some of his adulation over the years: his imaginative, distinctive visual style is now instantly recognisable in modern cinema. In 2010, he commands an audience eager to go and see anything he puts his name to. So, with a CGI budget that most directors would kill for, his vision of Wonderland is overblown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (except maybe his). Swathes of colours, textures, wonderfully distorted characters – vast landscapes which would be more befitting of Lord of the Rings. Like it or not, Alice’s polite English eccentricism is all but lost, swamped in Burton’s new vision.

The story too has had the same treatment. It begins as a post script (a clumsy '13 Years Later'), complete with an almost grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska). A brave move? Perhaps. But despite this there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the first 20 minutes, reinforced by the rather violent rabbit hole sequence, that something good is about to happen. And so it is with regret that, very soon after this point, I begin to take umbrage with Alice in Wonderland, revisited.

Of course, like Burton’s adaptation Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you can guess at the logic behind choosing to rewrite. Given the familiarity of both novels, Burton wanted to offer the audience something more of his own, taking back an element of predictability. But then, there are two already authored sequels to both of his screen adaptations: Alice Through The Looking Glass and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Though in the past some of Through the Looking Glass has been amalgamated with Adventures in Wonderland, it remains largely overlooked.
But it would seem that Burton has doggedly pursued his own creation, and like Frankenstein birthing his creature, it is the undoing of him.

Perhaps my expectations for this were too high, but speaking as a Burton fan, I cannot find much to love in the ham-fisted plot. Loosely extending Carroll’s genius/nonsense poem The Jabberwocky, rather than approaching his literary canon cautiously, Alice 3D happily shreds tales many have cherished since they could read.

It’s not the inventiveness of the new Alice that catches off-guard, but rather the sloppiness. The plot holds a vaguely ‘Girl Power’ identity crisis: Alice is dismayed by the confinements of her life in the real world, and flees an unwanted marriage proposal she is told she must accept. In Wonderland, she achieves autonomy by following the orders of a bossy Caterpillar and completing the prophecy of an ancient manuscript (AKA the go-to device for any screenwriter’s gaping plot holes). The choice is hers? Not really, of course, there is no choice. It is written that she must slay the Jabberwock to become ‘who she really is,’ and of course she does "triumph over adversity"– this is a Disney film after all. Even anyone missing the whopping great contradiction there should still pick up on casual borrowings from the Wizard of Oz, including the final scene in Wonderland that screams “copyright infringement!” As the Good Witch (sorry, White Queen) banishes the Bad Witch (Red Queen) and tells Alice that she can go home, she kisses the Scarecrow (sorry, Johnny Depp) goodbye and returns to the real world, wiser for her endeavours.

If you go see Alice in 3D at the cinema, I should recommend that you leave your brain at the door and simply let the waves of dazzling visual effects wash your cerebral cortex. But I can’t in good faith do that: it’s a children’s book that has been valued for over a century for its intelligence and wit, and it’s essentially been hollowed out as a vehicle for some clever CGI cash cow. The 1951 Disney version might not have the out-and-out showiness of this one, but it still stands up after nearly 60 years. This version, I'd rather forget.

Friday, 12 March 2010


The Hickey Underworld – The Hickey Underworld (Naive)

This release came out in early October, and since doing so it’s crept, inch by inch, into my favour. It's a bit cheesy and reeks of Nirvana et al, but then I love Nirvana! So I can forgive a little pastiche. Besides,'Of Asteroids and Men...Plus Added Wizardry' is an absolute belter of a track, have a look at my full review for Contact here.

Oh No Ono - Eggs (Leaf)

As I've elaborated here, curious is most definitely the term for this! Quirky Scandanavian pop has been abdundant of late, but with Eggs, Oh No Ono have definitely made something all of their own. Listening to it can be a bit brain-melting at times, but it's also a sunny, psychedelic gem. So give it a couple of spins and this album will have you anticipating the arrival of summer, even in frosty weather like this.

Husky Rescue - Ship of Light (Catskills)

Speaking of frosty, here's my review of the beautiful Ship of Light: a glacial pop album from yet another Scandanavian band, Finland's Husky Rescue. I can only conclude that there must be something in the water over that way?

Well... it wouldn't be a blog entry without a reminder of what I've got coming up. I am hoping to see everyone at British Wildlife Festival, 26-28th March @ The Brudenell Social Club/Royal Park Cellars/Nation of Shopcreepers. Check out for further deets/tickets. The line-up is Grade A BAD ASS, so come!
On top of this, there's my review of Joanna Newsom's mammoth new album in the next issue of Shut Magazine, so keep 'em peeled. Natalie x

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

BBC, Grrrr

Below is what I sent to the BBC regarding the foreclosure of BBC 6 Music. If you feel strongly about it as I do please email or find and write a letter to your MP.

Dear BBC,

I am writing to urge that you overturn your decision to close BBC 6 Music. I find it bizarre, that an internationally respected news corporation priding itself on balance, variety and diversity would choose to dispose of one of the few national outlets for independent music.
I am afraid that is a decision that confirms my suspicions: the BBC have become a faceless conglomerate, more interested in sustaining itself than the needs and wants of its listeners. As a regular listener of BBC 6 Music, I was glad to have be able to choose between what I wanted to listen to. When I got up in the morning, I didn't have to stomach the asinine, often callous 'humour' of celebrity fat man Chris Moyles . Nor did I have to be force-fed the record label playlists filled with the vacuous RnB No. 1s of next month. Instead I could listen to a DJ who played the songs they wanted to, a simple enough freedom.

That was then. But now this decision signals to me, a person with strong and lifelong interest in independent music, that my opinions -and the opinions of many of my peers- do not matter to you. It saddens me to think that because schemes such as Raw Talent, BBC Blast and BBC Introducing have provided pivotal support for young musicians starting their careers, and also for budding music journalists such as myself.
The response from the BBC has been quick to marginalize the listeners of 6 Music. I do not feel in the minority because I want quality control and an alternative choice. I believe that there are many people who feel the same, and you have just alienated them. Well done. I could go on, but I think I'll leave it there. Please re-think your decision and reinstate the station. If you're really looking to shave a few quid off of the budget I may I suggest a few tips:
1.Don't spend 200 grand a year on champagne (I saw that report... naughty)
2. Get rid of George Lamb - he's still an annoying tw*t.



Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Scott Crosby is a graphic designer/all-round Charismatic Englishman who hails from Leeds. At my behest he commissioned me a Butlins Campaign Poster:

This was based on photo album I discovered on the internet of a Classy Wakefield Lady's holiday to Butlins (or, as she called it 'Butlinz'). Here's the link to the album in question, but heed this warning: you may feel like washing out your eyes afterwards. YIKES!

Anyway, it got me thinking about my own experience with the place. I never had any childhood holidays there, but I had the pleasure of visiting the Minehead site for ATP back in December. Minehead is a 8 hour coach journey away from Leeds, in case you weren't aware, but with a festival line-up including My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth, a couple of friends and I thought it was too good to pass up.

As we travelled through the beautiful Devon countryside - okay, I admit it, I got my hopes up. Minehead is perched on the coast next to Exmoor National Park and the hills are dotted with pony trekking centres and thatched cottages - it's the definition of idyll. Then we got there.

I wasn't kidding myself that it would be something dazzling, but I thought like aging seaside towns such as Scarborough, Blackpool and Bournemouth there would be redemption in it somewhere - a soul of some sorts. But even someone as nostalgia prone as myself couldn't get misty eyed about the rows of leaky, asbestos-riddled cabins. The years have not been kind to these tiny chalets, and the now-redundant cheer of names like 'Porpoise Avenue' and 'Dolphin Way' only made the place further resemble the set of 'Psycho.'

Adding to this creeping malaise is the abandoned feel of the off-season. Drizzle on an empty playground, a vicious looking seagull eyeing up your chips.
Anyone who watched Scooby Doo will attest the creepiness of closed fairground rides. And somehow, their attempts to modernise it seem to make it more grotesque, like a decrepid old woman with the breasts of a 25 year old. You can pimp it up as much as you like, but there's not much soul in corrugated iron.

I forgot that the people who holidayed here most were the Post War generation. People who had been rationed to the point of boiling potato peel, in huge economic crisis, they were glad simply to be alive after D-Day. Even a shit heap would look alright next to Auschwitz.

So following up the ornate baroque of the Victorians, and the dazzling modernism of the 20s, the WW2ers legacy of cardboard sheds never really stood a chance. Shame.