Saturday, January 30, 2010

Today on twitter

  • 13:26 In Saudi. Went for a wander this afternoon and wasn't murdered once. #

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Lost is coming

Don't worry, no spoilers, and definitely worth a view for non-Lost people.

Eye eye

I like my macro lens.
Evil eye
Black hole

Sand, sand everywhere

The snow has gone, the salt has melted away, but the sand remains.

The streets of Aberdeen make it look like a freak winter sandstorm blew through town.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Celebrity Lullabies

Many people take against Ricky Gervais; whilst I am a fan, I can totally see why. Maybe this will placate the doubters a bit? Probably not, but here is Gervais with Elmo on Sesame Street doing "celebrity lullabies". Nice.

Contra


I guess that everyone latches on to the pop of their formative years: kids of the 60s grew up with the Beatles, in the 80s with utter rubbish, and I was a teenager in the Britpop years. I started to really like music around the time of Common People by Pulp, so the bands that I loved were their contemporaries: Blur, Super Furry Animals, Radiohead, Manic Street Preachers, Supergrass, Kula Shaker. Thank goodness that, even then, it was clear to me that Oasis was a musical dead-end...

Over the years, my tastes evolved and I realised that dance music wasn't as bad as I thought, moved on to hip hop, and of late have started to fill in some of the gaps and genres from the 60s to the present day. In this period, my love for late-90s indie faded away, with the Manics, Kula Shaker, Pulp, and Supergrass all disappearing from my radar. "Indie" had almost become a pejorative word by the mid 00s, with groups like the Kaiser Chiefs and Kasabian not doing much for the reputation of Britpop. The only bands of that era that I stuck with were Blur, Super Furry Animals, and Radiohead. Whilst they have very different styles and sounds, they share a common philosophy: don't stand still, try something new, change your sound, forget about targeting sales: if it is good they will come. And I kept coming.

But those 3 artists were pretty much as far as it went for me with "indie" music for years. Sure, there would be the odd album or song that came along that I liked (Arctic Monkeys and Elbow to name a couple), but Indie was not where it was at.

Over the last couple of years, though, there seems to have been a bit of a renaissance in creative indie, but this time on the other side of the Atlantic. Animal Collective, Panda Bear, Vampire Weekend, Alvin Band, and Fleet Foxes have all produced tremendous music recently, along with a bunch of other artists of intermittent brilliance (such as Passion Pit). Sure, my mind became less closed to all types of music during that period, but this wave of American bands revived my interest in the much-maligned indie genre.

At the start of last year, I fell in love with Animal Collective's Merryweather Post Pavilion; during the rest of the year I became more ambivalent about much of it. At the same time as 2009's indie masterpiece was falling out of favour, I was wondering why I had not paid more attention to 2008's by Vampire weekend. Sure, Vampire Weekend is a little pretentious, and if you scratch below the surface it is a little thin, but what a surface it is. Just over half an hour of pure fun is sprinkled with simple, hook-filled earworms. Once you have heard this album a few times you will constantly have tunes from it popping up in your head. It is difficult to name favourites, but Oxford Comma, M79, and Walcott are all songs that I come back to time and time again.

So, eventually, to what I was intending on talking about today: the second album by Vampire Weekend, Contra. Should they stick with the formula of the first or disappear up the arse of their own reputation and completely change style? Neither, actually. They have stuck with the short, snappy format (this one is positively epic at approaching 40 minutes) and the catchy hooks, but have grown into themselves a little and improved much of their sound. The production is excellent this time around, being both more subtle and more immediate in places; Ezra Koenig has taken his vocals up a notch (including some excellent falsetto); and they are prepared to be influenced by a wider range of genres. Yes, the modern take on Paul Simon's brand of world music is still here, but so is reggae, ska, electronic, and even dancehall. There is more variation on this album: California English features autotune vocals and is in complete contrast with pretty ballads like Taxi Cab and I Think Ur a Contra (surely one of the best final tracks of any album). Other songs include reggae breakdowns and samples from Radiohead and MIA. Taxi Cab is one of the better songs on the album and a great illustration of the more grown-up sound: lovely vocals and a wonderful piece of production (the strings are perfect) with a simple rhythm.

I had been holding off deciding my opinion until listening to it a few times, which was not too difficult considering the whole thing is half the length of some Orb songs. Is it better than the first album? That's a tough call, as Vampire Weekend was sneaking towards being one of my favourite albums ever. Contra does, however, clearly have more substance, has a pop sensibility (not a bad thing in my mind), and is more considered than Vampire Weekend. All I know is that it is Contra tunes that I am waking up with in my head at the moment.

You can listen to the whole album on the band's website.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Avatar


On Tuesday I finally got around to seeing Avatar, which has now taken 1.6 BILLION Dollars and should overtake Titanic in a couple of weeks to become the most successful film of all time. It will do this as a film with little tangible plot, wafer-thin characters, poor dialogue, and not an awful lot actually happening.

All these facts are, however, incidental. The film will keep on taking money for a while yet as it is simply phenomenal to look at. I loved the film, purely for aesthetic reasons: this is a complete flip on my usual feelings on blockbusters where I hate the films that are all style and no substance. Transformers, I'm looking at you: Avatar could have easily fallen into the same trap, but didn't.

The film is basically a stream of astonishing visuals delivered with great style and even greater 3D. Avatar is the first of the new breed of 3D films that truly work: it's difficult to describe unless you have seen it, but the 3D actually draws you into the film so that you feel like you are in the scene. This is not people pointing towards the camera and drops of water flying out of the screen; the technology has allowed Cameron to create tremendous depth of field so that you feel like you are brushing through layers of overgrowth, you are in the cockpit of a battleship, you are looking over a huge drop into a real canyon. The technology was backed up by a hugely imaginative design for the ecosystem of humanoids, animals, and plants on Pandora, and there is a stunning amount of detail in every frame. If you didn't know that it was CGI you could swear that the aliens are humans in blue makeup, which is a testament to how far James Cameron has advanced things with this film. Any plot would have almost taken away from the visual feast, as I spent the majority of the film gawping at the screen with no regard for what was actually happening; we can wait until the sequel for story.

So, yes, the film has drawbacks (and I haven't even touched upon the creakingly-unsubtle anti-war and pro-environment themes), but they don't matter. This film is art. I was speechless when I left the cinema and could not get to sleep for ages that night: Avatar gave me the same buzz that I would get from a quadruple espresso.

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Sunday, January 17, 2010

The new ZOMBO.COM?

007


Last Christmas I was given the beautiful Quantum of Solace hardback edition, which was the first James Bond that I had actually read. Being British, I have of course seen nearly all the films, which are mostly a blast except for the disastrously-misjudged later Brosnan films.

Having enjoyed the short stories contained within the QoS compilation (actually the anthology books For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy and The Living Daylights in a single volume) I decided to set myself the aim of reading all the Fleming Bond novels during 2009. Over Christmas I finished The Man with the Golden Gun, completing the task.

So what did I think? In a word, excellentandfun. I suppose the films have a reputation for being enjoyable, whilst being formulaic and focused on the gadgets and girls. Today, a lot of the films seem very much a product of their times (for example, Moonraker) and have not aged very well. In contrast, the books seem almost timeless (save for the language used, which I will talk about later) and, for the most part, are focused on tightly-plotted stories and building suspense. The gadgets are sidelined and gimmicks are few and far between; one thing the books and films have in common is the love for the ladies, but you can hardly blame Fleming for that...

Being a child of the 80s I always had a great affection for the Roger Moore era of Bond films: these were wisecracking, leery, gadget-filled romps to space, underwater, and exotic locations. Having read Fleming's version of Bond, I can now see that these films almost completely missed the point; Connery and Craig seem much closer to how things should have been. Another surprise in reading the books was how much good stuff was discarded when making the films: as I mentioned, the quest to be "current" led to the dropping of excellent stories for frequently cringe-inducing gimmicks. Going back to Moonraker there is no relation to the book other than the name of the Villan: what was a really nice spy procedural (with an explosive burst of action at the end) became a campy romp including Jaws (plus romantic interest) and a laser fight in space. Star Wars had just come out, and they were clearly keen to tap into the science fiction market; this is symptomatic of the mistreatment of the books in the service of the "new". This is why the Craig-era films have started out so promisingly. Casino Royale maintained the core (and most of the plot) of the novel with the changes only being those necessary to put it in a modern setting. Quantum of Solace, whilst an original story, again focused on a simple and tight plot and had three-dimensional characters.

That is not to say that the books are masterpieces, and are consistently great, which they are not. Fleming clearly lost interest when writing the last 2 or 3 and dropped into formula. Was he influenced by the films that came out during his lifetime? The first 10 or so novels are hugely enjoyable though, and certainly not a homogenous unit. They are (as expected) for the most part spy thrillers but what sets them apart is Fleming's taut plotting, attention to detail, and overall tension and drive. These were Cold War books, and reflect upon this with the running thread of villanry coming from behind the Iron Curtain in the guise of organisations like the KGB and SMERSH. Whilst the films obsess over the gadgets, Fleming mostly ignores them and instead has a fetish for the details that Bond finds important. What he did was early "branding": specifying brands and types of weapons, clothes, food, cigarettes, drink etc. adds to Bond's character by showing you what kind of a man he is. We know what particular marmalade, jam, and honey he likes, and where he buys them from. In the short story 007 in New York, we even get a recipe for "Scrambled Eggs James Bond". I loved all the little details that Fleming sprinkled throughout the books, which show Bond up as a stubborn, occasionally snobbish, and certainly complex man much more successfully than a car that shoots missiles from its headlights does.

Fleming was certainly not afraid to mix things up. The Spy Who Loved Me turns things on their head by being from the viewpoint of the Bond girl, and is told in first person. Bond does not even show up until after halfway through, which was a genius move to build up expectation and tension. Moonraker spends a bunch of time building up the villan (Drax) through a detailed description of a bridge game designed to expose him as a cheat. Quantum of Solace is a character piece in which Bond is simply the audience to an anecdote, and The Hildebrand Rarity describes a murderous fishing trip with the identity of the killer never resolved.

One criticism which the books (genrally unfairly) receive relates to the language and attitudes contained within. Misogynist, racist, homophobic, and xenophobic are all used to describe Bond. The problem that I have with these arguments is that we are looking back to the 60s through current-day glasses: Fleming was using the language of the time which did include the use of "Negro" and "Negress"; at that point a strong female character was a rare thing; and it was in the Cold War: the general view in the West was that the Reds were evil. Bond reacts against some instances of sexism, racism and homophobia in the books, which is not to say that he was perfect: his dismissive and exploitative attitude towards women helps make him the complex character that he is. The attitudes of the time lead to some unintentional (or were they?) laughs, with The Man with the Golden Gun suggesting that homosexuals can't whistle and dares the reader to try. I don't think Fleming has any great love for Asians, though, and is particularly down on Koreans in Goldfinger.

So, finally, which were my favourites? Overall I enjoyed Live and Let Die the most, with great settings, a genuinely unsettling Voodoo plot (not the watered-down version of the film) and nasty plot twists including Felix getting limbs eaten off him by sharks. Other standouts included Casino Royale, Moonraker, and Goldfinger. The strand running through these is that they bore little (save for Casino Royale) resemblance to the films of those names. I really enjoyed the project, found the books to virtually all be gripping reads, and loved the world that Ian Fleming created. They also made a lot of plane and airport time go by a lot quicker.

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2009 in fail

Back to the grind

So a quiet week on the blog front due to a semi-packed week on the life front. This was the first full working week of the year (always a hard one) and boy was it busy. We had to let a few staff go, so it's all hands to the pump at the moment. At home there was a regal visit from Niall to Aberdeen this week, and in a reverse of history I was looking after my dad. He works every second week down here, flying offshore, and is temporarily homeless in Aberdeen as the lease on the flat they were renting is done. This mean he will use my hospitality 3 or 4 times, which I think is fair payback for 18 years of his and my mum's...

Anyway, the weather is a bit brighter here, with the snow finally gone. It really was incredible here, with not only more snow than I have ever seen in the city, but for a longer period than ever, staying for the best part of 3 weeks. Up north at Christmas there was ecen more, and it got to more than 2 feet of snow by the end. You can get an idea of how much there was by the fact that when it finally slid off the roof of my parent's house it ripped all the gutters off. Oops.

So, back to work tomorrow and to sorting out my first trip of the year. Looks like a couple of weeks to include Saudi, Abu Dhabi, and Iran. I'm really looking forward to Iran, which has had a great write-up from everybody I know who has been. I'll have to make sure to stay away from any demonstrations...

Monday, January 04, 2010

Blue Monday

Playing around with my camera last night.
Peek-a-blue

2009 in music

2009 was another good year musically, with albums from Animal Collective, Alvin Band, Dicsovery, Dizzee Rascal, Fever Ray, The Field, Jay-Z, Muse, Royksopp, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all standing out. I also discovered or rediscovered Diplo, Elbow, Minotaur Shock, OMD, Stevie Wonder, and Vampire Weekend.

All being said it was a pretty productive year musically that confirmed to me that my tastes could be described as "Pitchfork-esque". Without further ado, here is a playlist of my songs of the year; they are in no particular order, other than they flow reasonably well if played in order or burned to a CD.


Royksopp: Royksopp Forever
Actually, this one is in order. Royksopp Forever could not be anyting apart from track one. When I first heard it I described it as "audacious", which I stand by; this is an instant all-time classic.


Alvin Band: Temple Pressure
This was an excellent discovery: Alvin Band has made an album composed entirely from noises made with his mouth which channels the Beach Boys and Panda Bear. Lovely stuff.


Discovery: Orange Shirt
This is a side project from the member of Vampire Weekend who produces them and basically does everything you hear which is not drum, guitar, or voice. Whilst in a completely different genre (white-boy R&B) it has the same sense of fun and really shimmers.


Passion Pit: Sleepyhead
Apparently I am the last person in the world of "cool" music who had not heard this and fallen for it. Oh well, better late than never.


Thom Yorke: All For The Best
Jesus, this is good. Really good. Thom can do covers as well as write the good stuff.


Sleigh Bells: Crown On The Ground
Very much a Pitchfork discovery: fuzzy rock guitars and girl band vocals shouldn't work, but really do.


Noisettes: Never Forget You
When I first heard this song it was as if I had known it my entire life, which is a pretty good thing in my mind.


Dizzee Rascal: Bad Behaviour
Dizze went mega-mainstream this year, which meant a veer away from grime and into collaboration with Superstar producers. This track, however, manages to combine Tiesto, a killer bassline, and the ethos of his earlier albums.


Heartsrevolution: Ultraviolence
The version featuring Spank Rock is not on popular video sharing site YouTube, but if you have Spotify you can click here to listen to it. This is the song minus rapping, which is nowhere near as good:


Yeah Yeah Yeahs: Zero
Another song that just sounded "right" the first time that I heard it.


Spank Rock: Put That Pussy On Me (Diplo Tonite Remix)
Diplo is a remix genius, and this one combines one of my favourites (Spank Rock) with that groovy music from the Lynx Advert.


Muse: United States Of Eurasia
Yes, Muse are ridiculous in their pomposity, but at least they know it. I was going to choose one of the more straight-up rock songs off the album, but screw it, here is the over-the-top rock opera that ends with a couple of minutes of Chopin played by the multi-talented frontman. It's OK to laugh at the bit with the Queen-style vocals: I am pretty sure they meant us to.


Animal Collective: My Girls
Wow. Just wow. I see how people can dismiss AC as pretentious; indeed this is the first album of theirs that I have really liked. But My Girls? Wow.


ArjanM: Blackhole
A random internet music/video project, but what a grand combination of sound and vision. Just watch.


Moderat: Rusty Nails
Lovely electronic music. This is all.


Jack Conte: Flavors
Radiohead-esque, which is often a bad thing. Not for this song, though.


Minotaur Shock: Beekeeper
My favourite discovery of this year was the Minotaur Shock album Amateur Dramatics. I suppose that it is technically in the "folktronica" genre but totally pisses all over rivals such as Four Tet. It really struck a cord with me: electronica with plenty of live instrumentation and loads of heart. After a few listens I had a feeling that it was a great album; now I am sure that it is. It is difficult to pick a single track to play as the album flows so well, but here is a lovely song that builds and builds which should give an idea of what the album is all about.


The Field: Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime
Pretty, downtempo electronic music with a killer sample. Bliss.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Train versus tornado

Wow. A perfect mixture of suspense and destruction. Real life is better than you, Michael Bay.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

2009 in film

So, as usual I caught a bunch of films at the cinema this year. Most were at the "old" cinema at the beach; latterly we made the move to the shiny new one in Union Square (amazing sound and vision; not sure about the seats; incredibly inefficient food queuing system; good parking and right in the centre of town). I saw a few less films this year than last, which is probably due to it being more difficult to get Stan motivated than it was to get the departed Gaucis or Stan. The Gaucis are not dead of course: they have just moved to England. Which, to all intents and purposes, makes them dead anyway. I also caught a couple of films (Potter and Up) at the IMAX in London (the UK's biggest screen) which is a tremendous place to watch a BIG film. I wish that I had seen Batman there last year.

Two films stood out like a sore thumb this year: Slumdog Millionaire and Star Trek. The buzz was great for SM, but I was not expecting something quite so magnificent: dazzling, dark, exciting, funny, sad, and (eventually) uplifting. It was painted as a feel-good film, which is pretty far from the truth: as Mark Kermode said "there is a lot of slumdog before you get to the millionaire"; this was the only mainstream feel-good film that I have seen where children are blinded with molten metal by a psychopathic child catcher... The film looked amazing, sounded amazing (thanks to a tremendous mixture of original score and well-chosen pop music), and completely deserved to sweep the Oscars this year. I love Danny Boyle and virtually all of his films (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, and Sunshine stand out, though) but think this may have been his finest to date.

It was a few months before another film that I actually loved came along, in the shape of Star Trek. JJ Abrams is another great talent, and succeeded in creating a geeky film that had true mass appeal, in the same way that The Dark Knight did the year before. Star Trek had tremendous pace, action, and special effects; combined with lots of humour and an excellent (in fact, spot-on) cast, they hit this one right out of the park.

Neither of them were There Will Be Blood, though; I think I might be saying that for a few years yet. Anyway, the other films that I can remember seeing were:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: this was mega-hyped prior to Oscar season, but was a tremendous let-down. Booooooring, and suffered severely by being left completely in the shade by the supernova brightness of Slumdog.
Frost/Nixon: tremendous little film, and I don't mean that in a bad way. Essentially 2 actors chewing up the screen, and was never going to be a mega-hit blockbuster, but I really liked it.
Gran Torino: my favourite Clint Eastwood film in decades. Nicely-judged racial comedy and a fun performance from the man himself. "Get off my lawn!"
Coraline: Another one of those 3D films that didn't need 3D. OK, in a generic Tim Burton gothic stop-motion film way.
Watchmen: A stinker. Practically everything about it was poorly-judged.
State of Play: Nice political thriller; the UK television original was better.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine: OK, we can stop making X-Men films now. They have been no good since X-Men 2.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen: I don't want to talk about this, as its soulless vapidity gets me angry. I will not be seeing any further Transformers films.
Public Enemies: Michael Mann can sure direct a film. Shimmering would be the right word; a nice story that at some times was raised up a notch by Mann, Depp, and Batman.
Pandorum: In with a shout of being the worst film of the year. I honestly cen't remember much about it other than it being a hugely formulaic and boring sci-fi-horror that was way too dark (in lighting, not tone).
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs: Biggest surprise of the year. An absolute riot: bright, funny, bizarre, bizarre (I have to emphasise that one), and actually OK in 3D. This is maybe the film that I lauged at most this year.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince: Really excellent. This series has moved away from childrens fantasy (nothing wrong with that, of course) into smartly made and beautifully filmed action/horror films. The tone and style, along with the acting, are a cut above what they could have (and easily got away with) churned out.
District 9: One of those rare films that are one-offs. Lovely idea, lovely concept, lovely execution. Not an all-time classic but (like Cloverfield) this was a tremendous genre film.
Inglorious Basterds: I wasn't too fussed the first time that I saw it, but after the second time I got it. This is right up there with Tarantino's finest and is probably his most violent film. Just treat it as an adult fairy tale, laugh at the right places (Brad Pitt brings the house down with "bongiorno"), and revel in one of the better bad guys in recent film.
Up: Lovely. The closest that a Pixar film has come to breaking into my holy trinity of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and The Incredibles. Toy Story 3 is out in the summer...
The Informant!: a comedy film with no laughs. Having said that, I enjoyed it but boy was it disposable fluff.
2012: It would not be an exaggeration to say that this was not quite Citizen Kane, and the science was (unbelievably) probably more dubious than The Core. Having said that, it was not unenjoyable, and after a shaky first hour or so turned into a watchable blockbuster.
The Box: a nice try. This was a 60-minute story strung out into 2 hours. The style was there, the tone almost there, but it was still a near-miss.

So, look at that: 2 posts in 2 days. I wonder how long I can keep this up for?

Friday, January 01, 2010

There appears to have been a problem

With Blogger: all the erudite, entertaining, and verbose posts that I have written over the past few months appear to have vanished into the ether.

Oh well. Best have another go at it...

A happy new year etc. and here's to a good ZOIO for one and all. I have a cold and am feeling miserable and sorry for myself today, but don't let that spoil your day*

A final fact: since the passing of 2009, there will now be only 9 more years with 2 zeroes in a row in the next 990.


*actually, I would prefer if it did.