Monday, December 20, 2010

Picture This

Dunno about you but, I’m a bit of an information junkie… For instance, I devour sleeve notes; call me a train-spotter but I really do like to know the inner bits and bobs behind the recording of the record I’m listening to… and, I don’t believe I’m alone in that enjoyment.

Same goes for art galleries… as much as I like to go and gaze at painting X or Y by great-master A or B, the same goes for the captioning thereof. To me, its all part of the learning; the acquisition of knowledge if you like – the tale behind the painting adds immeasurably to the pleasure in looking at what the exhibit’s curator has hung on the wall.

The upper space in this particular gallery is all whitewashed walls and rectangular shapes. The floors are anonymous pine planks; Norwegian blonde – each footfall echo bounces back in an area otherwise bereft of meaningful life. It reeks of uninviting post-industrial chic.

And, this scrupulously scrubbed room into which I have wandered through a wide white opening is perhaps forty feet wide by maybe thirty deep and about fifteen or so in height.

And there, hanging artistically off-centre and suspended from the ceiling, occupying some (but not all) of the white space in this white box-lozenge that has no door, is a huge jumble of autumnal-hued… string.

The string – so I’m reliably informed by the caption that’s been stuck at eye-level on the white wall – entitled ‘Untitled Number One’.

The first line of this ‘caption’ reads as follows: You may imagine that this is unfinished.

Taking my cue from the caption – bible-black, 14 point, Times Roman on the scrubbed-white wall – I extend my imagination.

However, much like an engine running low on diesel, it only travels so far: it splutters to a halt at the point when I’ve decided the dangling mess of twine resembles nothing other than a poorly assembled squirrel’s dray that has recently been savaged by a hungry feline on its quest for hatchling breakfast.

Looking for clues, I re-examine the caption again, the one that solemnly informs me: You may imagine this is unfinished. Sorry pal, I don’t imagine anything of the kind actually… What I clearly see – and right before my eyes – is a heap of total bollox… full-throttle pretentious, art-installation, crap. The person who ‘assembled it’, the people who commissioned this thing… AND the person who wrote this ‘caption’ – all of ‘em should be ashamed of themselves.

But… why are you here Neil… especially when you know this sort of thing irritates the be-jaysus out of you?
Ahh… I’m here because… but, you know what, I really wish I hadn’t bothered. Where, why, what, how, when… then?

Just the other day actually – when it seemed like a beezer idea to avoid Christmas shopping by nipping in to have a squint around an Exhibition that advertised itself as displaying loads of Edward Hopper pictures.

And, since I’ve been a bit of a sucker for Hopper’s art since my mid-teens… off I toddled. The only problem was that the advertising exaggerated somewhat… there were only a very few of Hopper’s work on display and very few had any meaningful captioning either. Plus, since the gallery's coffee-emporium was closed and they'd indulged in daylight robbery to actually get in to said gallery, exploration of the other floors seemed in order. Hence the reasons for the irritating ball of string encounter.

Anyway, Hopper’s art and I first became acquainted by way of another artist – Edward Kasper who I imagine, (tho’ honestly don’t know for sure), probably drank deep from the well of Hopper’s realism-inspired-inspiration. Edward Kasper… who’s he?

He’s the bloke responsible for this - the wrap-around poster-like sleeve to the original inner for The Band’s Moondog Matinee.

Not, frankly, the greatest album they ever delivered but it’s contained within one of my favourite covers. And, it’s not too far a throw of the imagination to see Kasper’s sleeve-art with its own antecedence in Hopper’s own Nighthawk’s masterpiece of 1942.

Which, led me to thinking… album art is not what once it was… is it?

Growing up musically (before) and during time spent at the coal-face of Island Records, one of CB’s (Chris Blackwell – founder of) firm beliefs that was imbued within us was… and I’m quoting him here; “If you felt that the artwork was intriguing then there must be something going on inside; there’s some thought, there’s some creativity. Artwork was very important to Island’s life”.

And it was… oh but it really was. Yet, as we moved from the 12 square inches – a format that gave designers space within and on which to create – through cassettes and in to CDs, the size came to matter. Why? ‘cos the combination of the art and the information became almost a by-product of the whole. It was as if… look, you’ve got the music, what more do you want?

And now, the art that comes with our music has been reduced to the size of a postage-stamp since that is what iTunes downloads dictate.

Time was when new-release record X or Y would appear in one’s local Diskery; the hard-earned would be handed over and one’d hop back on the bus and then it was either back home or to a mate’s house full of eager anticipation not just for the needle to make its first drop onto pristine vinyl but… to examine – in detail – the sleeve in which said new release resided. Why?

Because these sleeves were not only (in general terms) works of art in their own right but one also elicited a heap of information: who played what and with whom… who produced this or that… which studios were used… who engineered this or that… who was this or that person thanked and what role did they play in the overall proceedings? One stored this information up in one’s head and applied it to other albums, thereby drawing up a form of knowledge database.

Download your ‘product’ off of iTunes and none of this is contained within your download… you get the music (of course) plus the pea-sized replica of the sleeve. And that’s it.

The other day, I finally – and I’ll be beating myself for being late to the ball here – for some time to come… but, anyway, I managed to cotton on to what is rapidly becoming my album of the year. Seasons Of My Soul by the chanteuse otherwise known as Rumer.

And yes, the album art – a nice black and white image of the young lady – nestles quite comfortably in my iTunes folder. And (or should that be but) as much as I really like the music, there is nothing much – other than that nice black and white image – to look at. No real ‘information’ to acquire.

Big pity really… that the digital generation are cheated of this pleasure. I understand its not for everyone… but, I tend to think its for more than maybe people realise.

Perhaps that’s why there is a very real rise in vinyl sale… not just because of the (well-known) warmth of the musical-listening experience but equally because the sleeve designers can create better than is possible with a palette the size of a stamp.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

You’re Not Going Out Dressed Like That

It really has been a long old journey.

Ambling on stage is a five-piece band: first up is the boy-girl-boy bass player who sports short-cropped hair in a style that kd lang would ultimately confiscate as her own.

The lanky, shaggy-haired, drummer steps up to his mark: he wears an un-ironed Hawaiian shirt that could well have begun life by being drenched in the rabid colour scheme much-admired by Axminster carpet designers in the Fifties. The shirt has clearly lived a life of its own and looks as if it was lifted from a Salvation Army thrift store; impatiently, he raps out paradiddles on his snare-drum, waiting for the twin-guitarists to tune up.

The rangy axe-meister stage right – the one wearing the pencil thin tie, stands motionless; staring darkly into the middle distance, clutching the neck of his guitar so firmly that the veins on his stick-thin arms stand out.

The other tremolo-bender is raw-boned and facially angular as if chipped from the same block that carved Ian Curtis; un-smiling, he stares down at the assembled as if sizing up the length of a dole queue on Giro-collection day.

The singer who fronts this beat-combo is last to take his place.

Be-spectacled, possessed of thinning hair, he is anything but angular and more resembles a genial bookmaker or someone from accounts that you only see at Christmas parties – being violently sick into a potted palm in the corner after three too many Babychams.

It would not be unreasonable to say he looks entirely out of place in this place – he is sporting a slightly grubby, known-better-days, tartan dinner jacket above highly polished brogues and a quizzical grin.

Dateline: May 17th, 1980. Outside the University of Newcastle, the moon waxed in a perfect crescent.

If any of the History students attending to the bottom of their pints of Lager-top were thinking about it, they could well have been contemplating the 459th anniversary of the 3rd Duke Of Buckingham losing his head via a well-sharpened blow on Tower Hill. If that seemed unlikely, one couldn’t help but wonder if they were transfixed to the side of the Students Union bar by discussion of that very day being the 180th anniversary of the Relief Of Mafeking.

Maybe, however, their minds were further afield – contemplating the fact that martial law had, that very day, been imposed by General Chun Doo-hwan in South Korea in order to quell the student demonstrations that had broken out on the far side of their world. Maybe not.

In any event, the atmosphere that night was as sterile as a vasectomy, the room as welcoming as an under warmed oven; the only sound being the shuffling of feet wrapped up in a puzzled collective gaze at this bunch of misfits taking the stage.


The lights go down and the group’s first tune chugs into motion as the singer begins to sing songs drawn deep from the well of pure pop; collectively, they've reached deep down into the urn of angst where the shimmering light of soul meets the touch-point of dance. Collective heads, as one, turn…

Looking back, it was hardly a shock that uber-critics of the day (such as the NME’s David Quantick, Paul Morley and Sounds’ Dave McCullough) lauded this band from high in their marbled-towers as they did. The real bolt from the blue was that the great British public almost unanimously refused to catch on. The group were unceremoniously booted out by their record label and, after a period of time in the outer limits, fizzled out like a beautiful shooting star dropping over the far horizon.

Fast-forward thirty years and a little bit.

In the postbox are two card-sleeved CDs which, to be totally honest, I’d entirely forgotten were being sent. Yes, I’d been told that they were being mailed but, in this digital day and age, one is more used to ‘I’ll send them in the post’ meaning having one’s email in-box clogged with file-attachments that nestle up to solicitations suggesting I’d benefit from penis-enlargement than actually getting hold of the actual, physical… real thing… itself.

So… here they were, these two CDs – staring up at me from inside their dirt-brown Jiffy bag – that represented this group’s first new recordings in… twenty-five years or so. I gazed at the two sleeves – perfect little works of art in themselves – suddenly realising that I’d become just a little nervous for the music they contained.

Yes, the seed of doubt had taken hold – would these match up?

It’s all very well to hope, to hark back to those original recordings that remain as fresh today as when first laid down. But… would this just be a case of the two key components of a band giving it one last forlorn shot when really, they shouldn’t have bothered with booking the studio time? Only one way to find out…

That first moment of jangling guitar should have told me… the first moment of that voice certainly did. It has matured – and is now a subtle mix of summer sunshine honeydew melon infused with rich molasses; perhaps (quite possibly) a smattering of Smokey Robinson by way of Darryl Hall in there too… embracing yet not overtaking the space within the chord progressions. Here it was: three chords and the truth – alchemy within a melody pool.

But, above all… it’s all about the songs; and there are tunes here that are absolute, stone-ground, classics.

Yes, I know very well that that is a ridiculously over-used adjective, especially when used in a descriptive manner, nestled up alongside songs. But… you’ll have to trust me here. Really... you will.

Still unsure? OK… for the hard of accepting, lets put it this way: IF Jarvis Cocker had penned either Lost or Nicole, then the world of critics (swiftly followed by the public) would be all over ‘em like a cheap suit, claiming they were two of the great – lost – British pop songs.

Let us celebrate then: the globe’s most unlikely pop stars are back and… within the all-pervasive X-Tractor climate, my iPod is thankful that Father Christmas has dropped down the chimney a little bit early. So… why don’t you make yours a happy digital-download-device… put aside the mince pies for just a few moments and do the right thing… OK?

Because… my Lords, Ladies, Gentlemen and other readers of this little Voltaire out on its windswept grassy knoll on the world-wide-Prairie … please charge your glasses and welcome back… The Distractions.