Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Places I Want To See That Might Be Wholly Imaginary

Pale marble ruins, afternoon shadows lengthening in the sunlight. The smell of ancient stone cloisters, sad-eyed statues, feathered wings taking flight outside. Black and white squares, walked on for a hundred years and more. Cracked, yellowing plaster and wavy glass: an old man behind the counter hawking Catholic dogma.

Shocking blue aquarium pools and green waxed leaves, cool rainforest and warm sand. Two gardenias for you, sings a dolorous trumpet playing late into the night. Coconut-white petals unfold, ice cubes clink in a sweating cocktail glass, an open-air bar somewhere in South America. A stray dog saunters past, tending to its own business. Insects call to their mates in the dark.

A clean glass bubble in the snowy barrens, centrally heated. Fur covers, rustic Scandinavian blankets, a snowdrift of pillows. The green-red-pink aurora shifting, playing in the otherworld above: a message from God if you're feeling religious, or just a cosmic disco. Turn the lights off, huddle in bed and watch the stars glitter in black space, as distant and familiar as the ice frosting the earth beyond.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Valentine's Day Playlist

It's that time of the year again, one that I don't actually celebrate. But I do like Valentine's Day. Outside of the overpriced dinners, slave-labour flowers and capitalist cashing-in (you can tell I'm a real romantic) it's a fun occasion without too much pressure, and it takes my mind off the Chinese New Year festivities.

This February I've been listening to some new(ish) music - fine, mostly old music. First up:

1. Pulp - Do You Remember The First Time

Pulp's superiority lies in its lyrics, which somehow manage to tell wonderfully evocative stories within three and a half minutes while being sly, sexy and even humorous at the same time.

Their charm of course emanates from Jarvis Cocker, who is a true original: a lanky, myopic bug of a man thrusting elegantly on stage, affecting surprise and hauteur behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His interview with Stephen Merchant is incredibly funny - he tells stories about falling off a balcony to impress a girl, and stopping a gig half-way to search for his missing specs; the joke always lands gently on him, somehow.

I was initially taken by this particular track off their His 'n' Hers album (1994) because of the candid follow-up line to the title in the chorus: "Do you remember the first time?/I can't remember a worse time" - so unexpected, but so true! The narrative, true to Cocker-form, is about sleeping with a woman who's already got a boyfriend, one that naturally seems very dull in comparison to Jarvis Cocker's languid seduction: "Now I don't care what you're doing/No I don't care if you screw him, just as long as you save a piece for me".

Towards the end, the frustrated desire swells into a crescendo of contempt and disbelief: "Well at least there's someone there that you can talk to/and you never have to face up to the night on your own/Jesus it must be great, to be straight". (This is a track just begging to be covered by a lesbian with a great big growly voice - sorry, Sophie Monk, but your BBC cover is decidedly a lightweight).

The music video may give you nausea, but I generally don't look at the screen and instead sing along at top volume, scaring the dog awake from his nap.

2. Kylie Minogue - All The Lovers 

I somehow made it through the last 15-20 years of pop music consumption without realising that Kylie Minogue is a really good performer, a tiny firecracker in glittery minis and leopard print heels. Like, good enough that I would seriously consider paying to watch her live.

This is All The Lovers from her 2010 album Aphrodite. It's a great dancey pop track, one that puts you in a good mood automatically. How can you not be, when Kylie is asking you so sweetly to dance, and give her a little bit more?

Another nice thing about Kylie live is that she often re-arranges her old hits, so there are probably at least ten different versions of All The Lovers floating around YouTube, not including remixes. I'm partial to her Motown version of The Loco-Motion (BBC2, Maida Vale gig). She does a purer pop-orchestra version of All The Lovers on her Abbey Road Sessions album, but it seems to lose a little of its edge. The original is good enough for me.

3. Disclosure - January

I was a bit depressed to learn that Disclosure were technically half-in their teens (!) when they produced their critically acclaimed Settle album in 2012. What was I doing when I was 17? (Answer: wearing ripped jeans, still listening to Green Day and Blink 182.) I cheered myself up by introducing my teenage students to Disclosure, pointing out that while some of them were still struggling with past and present tenses, the baby-faced Disclosure brothers were pumping out UK hit singles and being very, very cool.

I know everyone loves Sam Smith and therefore they also love Latch, the massive Disclosure hit featuring his rather sheep-like bleat (don't get me wrong, it's not unpleasant - well, in small doses) but I favour January from the same album, which has the added mystery of vocals by Jamie Woon, a one-time promising UK R&B/trip-hop artiste who flamed out in 2012 from an undisclosed (ha ha) injury and hasn't been heard from since, apart from this track.

I have no idea what the significance of 22nd January is (graduation night? first kiss? O-level results?) but it goes down so smoothly, like quicksilver for the ears, no cheese at all. It's unfair that some people are so sophisticated at such a young age, but I don't mind if it means they have more time ahead of them to keep crafting electronic beauties like this.

4. Roxy Music - Over You

Last and best of all, the inimitable Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music with Over You, from their Flesh and Blood album. Yes, the video I chose is not actually Bryan Ferry, the reason being Roxy Music is ancient enough that YouTube has only fuzzy TV recordings with shitty sound quality. So here's a British cover band, Roxyrama, with a Bryan Ferry soundalike who's almost perfect - a few too many floppy head tilts, but otherwise just as insouciant and debonair as the original.

There's a great Roxy Music performance floating around that has Bryan Ferry smoking a cigarette while singing Over You - the long instrumental break allows him to enjoy a slow drag on it. The year is 1980 and his voice hasn't broken down yet. I recognise that this is a sick personal preference (one that's been proven hazardous to health), but I adore the way he holds his cigarette oh-so-nonchalantly and raises it to his mouth while dancing - OK, humping the microphone stand. I can see how he ended up scoring with his son's ex-girlfriend.

The lyrics are ridiculously simple, as befits a song written in five minutes. But what else do you need to describe the no man's land of unrequited affection? "Oh baby/this is nowhere/wish I was somewhere/over you." It moves briskly on to a common-sense coda: "Some day/yes it might come babe/When I'll be babe/over you". Not poetry, but the last thing you need in a situation like that is deathless verse. You need a quick pop fix, an optimistic guitar solo and a jaunty wave goodbye. Save all that romance nonsense for the next single.