New Music – January 2015

There have been a fair few great things released this month. The list below contains the things I can’t stop listening to right now

Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
Ghost Culture – Ghost Culture
Liam Hayes – Slurrp
The Decemberists – What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World
BC Camplight – How to Die in the North
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Elephant Micah – Where in Our Woods

Albums of the year 2014

This year I’ve done things slightly differently in that I’ve not paid as much attention to how many times I’ve listened to something, but instead concentrated on how much I enjoyed it. Some records just can’t be listened to that often; they require complete attention and the kind of time commitment that I just don’t have most days, and I fear I may have left out a few such records in previous years.

I’ve gone for a top 20 this year, which are in no particular order, and also added my favourite live album (which is a live rendition of something that should have been in last year’s top 10 for the reasons mentioned above), and then added a load of other records I’ve enjoyed but can’t think of much to say about.

Everything here that is available on Spotify is in a playlist. Putting this playlist off shuffle may lead to some very odd juxtapositions though, and a lot of these records work best when listened to in the intended order.

James Vincent McMorrow – Post Tropical

I stumbled upon this in January, when I was looking for something new to listen to during my January commute to work. I had no expectations at all, and has not heard of the artist previously (although I’ve since checked out his debut album as well). James Vincent McMorrow has the sort of voice that would work very well with all sorts of different styles of music, and on first listen this reminded me a lot of How to Dress Well (not a bad thing), but what really sets this apart is the songs, which are sparse, achingly beautiful, and which flow together as a body of work. There is a sadness to this music, but also an uplifting feeling of hope and ambition, and I look forward to seeing what this artist comes up with next (which, if interviews are to be believed, will sound nothing like anything he’s done before).

I’m very surprised that this doesn’t feature in more end-of-year lists, which I suspect is down to the fact it was released right at the start of January. It’s certainly worth a listen, although if you’re anything like me then it will probably be a grower.

Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Sun Kil Moon is the current recording project of Mark Kozelek, formerly of Red House Painters. I’ve got a broad familiarity with all of Mark’s work, and two of his collaborative records were on my list last year. Red House Painters were probably my favourite band in my early 20s (which probably says a lot about my early 20s), and I find myself going back to their early records when I want to hear something that is both sad and hopeful. Benji is both of these things, but it’s also darkly humorous, and a step forward from anything else he’s released in the last 20 years.

The subject matter largely deals with death, and how it affects other people. A lot of the songs deal with true stories, and someone dies in (or before) almost every one of them. In the hands of many other singers this concept could easily degenerate into something that is very difficult to listen to. In this case it’s very much the opposite, and the combination of Mark’s vocals and guitars and the occasional bit of drumming from Steve Shelley gives the slightly morbid tales a lighter than expected backdrop that makes the whole thing a pleasure to listen to. And just when you think you’ve got a handle on this record, along comes the last song “Ben’s My Friend” which may be the best thing he’s committed to tape since the first two Red House Painters records.

This probably isn’t a record for everyone though. It’s emotionally raw, very sparse in places, and if you need more in your life than a voice and a guitar then it might leave you a little unfulfilled. But it might also give you new perspective on life, love, family, and getting to the age where the people you care about get old and die. I think it’s a record I needed this year, and is probably this year’s equivalent of Trouble Will Find Me – something I can listen to and wholeheartedly say “I can relate to that”.

Benji was released fairly early on in the year, but I’ve listened to it pretty constantly since then, and I suspect this will be one of those records I keep coming back to.

The Twilight Sad – No-One Wants To Be Here & No-One Wants To Leave

I can’t say too many good things about this band or this record. Every record they have made has been a flawless classic, and this one is no different. If anything, it sounds a little bit like the best bits of all their other records, as if they have taken the different sounds and textures they have used previously and then written new songs around them.

Personally, I always find that The Twilight Sad make more sense in the winter. They are the perfect sound track for walking to the train station on frosted mornings, and I have many fond memories of walking through the snow listening to one or other of their previous records. We have had no snow this year, but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this was released just as the weather started to get colder.

I’m not sure why they are not bigger. Maybe it’s the fact that James Graham sings in a strong Scottish accent, but then he speaks in a strong Scottish accent so why shouldn’t he sing in the same way? Maybe it’s that they use texture and feedback to enhance the melody of each song, and that to some people that’s just noise. Beautiful noise though, and there isn’t a word or a note of this record that I would change.

The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream

None of their records have really engaged me before, but I think that Lost in the Dream is probably one of two records (the other being Future Island’s Singles) that should have been huge this year. I have no idea how many copies it sold, but I think this is a great example of what melodic and thoughtful rock music should sound like. The only negative for me is that I don’t feel I can relate particularly to the songs; they are great songs, but they don’t speak to me enough about my life in the way that (for example) Trouble Will Find Me did last year.

I think a lot of people reading this will enjoy Lost in the Dream though, and I very much look forward to what The War on Drugs come up with next.

Future Islands – Singles

The other record that should have been huge this year (and which possibly was). This is more keyboard/synth lead, and when I first heard it I thought it was a singles compilation, because every song was so strong. In fact it’s a new record that happens to be called Singles, and it is easily the best thing this band have ever done. It’s melodic, but also loud and energetic. It makes me want to stand up, move around, and perhaps even dance.

I also note they are on 4AD records. I’ve just finished reading Martin Ashton’s Facing the Other Way, which is an account of the first 20 years or so of 4AD, and it strikes me that quite a few artists on this list are either currently or formerly associated with the label. In this digital age I rarely consider record labels now, although it was something I was very conscious of when I was younger. This is the sort of record I would buy based on the fact they were on 4AD and that I liked the cover. In this case I would not have been disappointed in the slightest, as it’s a great record that I suspect I will still be listening to this time next year.

School of Language – Old Fears

School of Language is the side project of David Brewis from Field Music. I’m familiar with Field Music’s work, but wouldn’t say they were one of my favourite bands. I stumbled on this record quite by accident because I liked the look of the cover, and was surprised to find something so intimate, personal, and sounding very much like a solo record from someone trying to escape the confines of a band. It’s largely keyboard led, and has strong pop sensibilities without being in any way commercial or trite. It also contains some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard this year.

Initially I wondered how records like this got made, and I don’t see Field Music as being big earners, and it sounds like it was recorded in a decent quality studio. From reading an interview with Paul Smith of Maximo Park last week I learned that Field Music actually have their own studio, which makes a lot of sense, and also goes some way to explaining how the next record in my list came about.

Paul Smith & Peter Brewis – Frozen by Sight

Talking of Paul Smith, I suppose it’s worth writing about why the latest Maximo Park record isn’t in my top 20 when everything they have ever made has made the relevant yearly lists. It’s not that Too Much Information is a bad record, it’s just that it doesn’t add anything new, and I think this is a much more interesting and enjoyable listen.

The conception and making of this record has been well documented at http://thequietus.com/articles/16924-paul-smith-peter-brewis-interview. Paul Smith is the lead singer of Maximo Park, who I would imagine are well known to most people. Peter Brewis is from Field Music, and is the brother of David Brewis (see above). Together they have made a record that sounds a little bit like Field Music, and nothing at all like Maximo Park (unless you count Paul’s vocals, which are unmistakable). Frozen By Sight is certainly greater than the sum of its parts, and occupies a similar territory as Old Fears, although the addition of some of Paul Smith’s most interesting lyrics gives it additional definition and distinction. Each song is named after a place, and from a personal perspective it acted as a nice soundtrack to Donald Harrington’s Let Us Build A City, which I was reading at the same time, and which has chapters named after (and about) lost cities in the USA.

Frozen by Sight was released fairly late in the year, but it was one of the first records I wrote down when I was compiling this list. I’d certainly urge people to give it a few listens, because it really does start to pay dividends if you give it a bit of time.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict

One of the few records I actually bought on CD this year, which was more for the gatefold vinyl-type sleeve than for the music, although the music was very good too. I’ve followed Owen Pallett’s career from afar for a few years without really engaging too much with any of his music. This record really hit the spot for me though, and is lyrically clever, musically proficient, and a step up from anything else he’s ever done.

Mirel Wagner – When the Cellar Children See The Light of Day

An artist I’d not heard of this time last year, and a record that I found myself listening to repeatedly early in the morning, when louder or more complex music just didn’t work. The songs are purely vocal/guitar, and they don’t tread any new musical ground, whilst at the same time being a highly proficient example of the musical style they do represent. Mirel Wagner’s voice is pitch perfect, and this record could have been made in any year since the 50s, but there is something about it that sounds crisp, clear, and very much belonging to the modern age. It’s also got one of the best album titles of the year, which is initially what drew me to it.

FKA Twigs – LP1

Another artist I’d not heard of this time last year, and one that I initially stumbled on through seeing the record cover and thinking it looked interesting. I don’t normally listen to much R’n’B/dance style music, but this record takes the best bits of the genre, and reminds me a bit of Massive Attack in places (which is always a good thing). I also like how she uses some very unusual sounds and textures, and yet manages to sculpt them into something that compliments the vocals and lyrics perfectly.

The New Pornographers – Brill Bruisers

My love of this group is well known, and to me they are the only band currently operating who deserve the tag “supergroup”. Brill Bruisers is very much a record of the summer, and is full of melodic energy, great pop songs, and some of the best lyrics that the various members of the band have ever written. I particularly like Dan Bejar’s contributions, and am hopeful that this time next year I’m writing about a new Destroyer record.

I recommend The New Pornographers to people a lot, because to my ears they make what I regard as pop music. I suspect that they might be a little weird for some tastes though, and that my definition of pop music is a few decades out of date.

Aphex Twin – Syro

Was anyone expecting this? I certainly wasn’t. I thought that Richard James has stopped making music years ago, so I was somewhat surprised when I saw that there was a new Aphex Twin record available. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, but if you like electronic/synth music then it’s well worth a listen, and as with everything he’s done I think it’s the very best the genre has to offer.

Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) – Soused

Something else that I really didn’t expect. Scott Walker usually takes years to make records, but he is getting quite prolific recently, with this collaboration with Sunn 0))) being his 4th release in a decade (unheard of since the 60s). This collaboration is probably the most accessible record Scott has made in that decade (and is certainly the most accessible record Sunn 0))) have ever made). There are songs and tunes, as well as a whole lot of spine tingling vocals, obtuse lyrics, and interesting background atmospherics.

This record will not be for everyone, but it certainly makes me look at Sunn 0))) in a new light, and will hopefully gain Scott Walker a few new fans as well.

Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes

I’ve been a fan of Thom’s work (both in Radiohead and as a solo artist) since 1994, and this record nicely summarises where he’s at today. It’s electronic/synth based, but also surprisingly tuneful, and I like the way the tracks flow into one to give a definite feeling of this being a collection of songs that belong together. I also like the way it was released, as a bit torrent download, and with minimal publicity. I suspect that if I didn’t follow Thom on Twitter then I might not have found out about this record, which would have been great shame.

It’s not available on Spotify, but can be purchased from http://tomorrowsmodernboxes.com/

Mogwai – Rave Tapes

I’ve written elsewhere about how I’ve started doing certain types of work whilst listening to music, after being a staunch fan of working in silence as much as possible for many years. I still find working to lyrical music quite hard, and as a result I’ve tried hard to find music that allows me to block out the noise of the outside world whilst at the same time allowing me to concentrate on what I’m doing.

As part of this shift, I’ve listened a lot to a Spotify playlist I created called Post Rock Classics. The title is somewhat ironic, but it largely consists of music with no words, interspaced with a few things that are largely instrumental but have occasional vocals that don’t detract from the overall mood of the music. Mogwai very much epitomise this sound to me, and are probably one of the bands I’ve listened to most in 2014 as a result.

Raves Tapes does not sound like a rave tape. It sounds a bit like their last record (Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will), but also has slightly more electronic elements. It is also probably the most consistent record they have made for a good while. If you like Mogwai then you’ll like Rave Tapes, and if you’ve not heard them before then it’s not a bad place to start. What more can I say?

Manic Street Preachers – Futurology

I wrote about Rewind the Film last year, and this record was recorded around the same time. Whilst the last record was largely acoustic, this taps into their more experimental edge, and contains some of the best music they have released since The Holy Bible (which is 20 years old this year – how did that happen?). The predominant sound reminds me a bit of Berlin-era Bowie, but it is also very much a Manic Street Preachers record, and in the year that my favourite record of theirs turns 20, it is a reminder that they still have something worth saying (and that by extension people of my age in the UK still have something worth saying).

This is another record I ended up buying physically because of the packaging, and the copy I have comes in the format of a hardback book with two CDs (one of the album, one of demos and bonus tracks). In the same way that vinyl is becoming collectable again, I think that there is still a place for lavishly packaged CDs in the digital age. I’m just glad that I don’t have to buy everything I listen to physically because I think I would run out of both space and money very quickly.

Zion 80 – Adramelech : Book of Angels v.22

This is the 22nd volume of interpretations of songs from John Zorn’s Book of Angels. The basic idea behind the project was to compose short pieces of music that could be interpreted by other artists in a variety of styles, although there is a strong jazz/classical/experimental leaning as you would expect with Zorn. I’ve collected these records for a few years (along with some of Zorn’s other work), and I find them a pleasant counterpoint to the more conventional music I listen to regularly.

Zion 80 are a new name to me, and they don’t include any of the usual John Zorn collaborators. They play modern experimental jazz with a guitar edge, and do a decent job of infusing these tunes with energy and enthusiasm. As with a lot of artists who have participated in this series, I imagine I will go and check out their other work at some point, and at time of writing this is probably my favourite in the series that doesn’t involve artists I’m already familiar with (Secret Chiefs 3 and Marc Ribot spring to mind).

It’s been a good year for John Zorn records in general. As well as three strong releases in the Book of Angels series, there have also been the usual array of other records, including the truly beautiful Testament of Solomon and the last installation of the “Moonchild Trio” series, featuring Mike Patton (of Faith No More/Mr. Bungle/Fantomas/Tomahawk etc.) on vocals.

Led Bib – The People in Your Neighbourhood

And talking of jazz, something else I’ve listened to a lot this year. I’ve been a fan of this band since Sensible Shoes was nominated for the Mercury prize, and this record really didn’t disappoint. It’s probably what I would play to someone if they asked me to snapshot modern jazz music in 2014, and there isn’t a bad track on it.

Gazelle Twin – Unflesh

I stumbled on this quite late in the year, and thought it sounded like it was worth a listen. I don’t really know how to describe it other than to say it’s electronic music with female vocals, and that it is beautiful and disturbing in equal parts. I’ve found myself playing this a lot over the last month or so, and I think it’s the best example of a style of music I’ve found myself drawn to more and more this year.

These New Puritans – Expanded

I don’t normally include live records on my end of year list, but I think this one is worthy of it for two reasons. Firstly, that I really should have included Field of Reeds on my end of year top 10 in 2013, and secondly because I’ve played this to death since I got it and think it’s probably the best thing they have done.

Expanded was recorded at London’s Barbican Centre, with a full orchestra. The setting and accompaniment really fill out the already rather excellent music, and the fact that they play everything from Field of Reeds in order makes it a fitting companion to the studio album.

I think there might be a DVD version out there somewhere, which I would be very interested in seeing at some point. I am also wondering what they might do next, seeing as every studio record they have released has been in a totally different style to the one before it. They may very well be the 21st century equivalent of Talk Talk, which is an honour I do not bestow lightly.

Before I write about my last record, I just wanted to list a few other things that I’ve enjoyed a lot this year but that I don’t particularly have anything else to say about:

Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
Perfume Genius – Too Bright
The New Mendicants – Into the Lime
Marissa Nadler – July
St. Vincent – St. Vincent
Timber Timbre – Hot Dreams
EMA – The Future’s Void
Gazpacho – Demon
Swans – To be Kind
How to Dress Well – “What is this Heart?”
Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business
Martha – Courting Strong
Adult Jazz – Gist is
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead – IX
Leonard Cohen – Popular Problems
Dean Blunt – Black Metal
East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for no Witness
Ought – Today More Than Any Other Day
alt-J (∆) – This is All Yours
Metronomy – Love Letters (which I managed to miss out by forgetting it was released this year)

Which brings me on to my final choice…

Pixies – Indie Cindy

For Christmas last year I received a copy of the new Throwing Muses record. It came with a book of lyrics and other writings, and would certainly have made my list last year if I’d heard it before December 25th. I was in no way expecting such a good record, and I’d not given them too much thought since the last 80s, when they were one of two American bands recently signed to 4AD records and touring the UK on the same bill. Pixies were the other band on that bill.

Anyone who has known me for a while will know how much I like the early Pixies albums. Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are two of my favourite records ever, and I still have fond memories of doodling the lyrics to Monkey Gone to Heaven on my A Level Biology exam paper when I’d run out of questions I could answer. I’ve followed Charles Thompson’s career since (as Black Francis and Frank Black), but had not expected him to record anything else that came close to those early records.

I’m still not sure he ever will, but I think that Indie Cindy is the closest he’s come for a good while. Musically it is not dissimilar to the last two Pixies records, but the sound quality is great, and the loud/quiet dynamics work so much better. Each song is strong, and it sounds like everyone concerned really enjoyed making the record. I certainly enjoyed listening to it, and I can’t believe that in 2014 I’m talking about Pixies, Throwing Muses, Swans, Morrissey, Apex Twin, Scott Walker and some band fronted by Mark Kozelek being at the forefront of making interesting and engaging music. It almost makes me feel young again.

First thoughts on new Macs, iPads and iPhones

I’ve been meaning to jot down a few notes about the latest product range from Apple for a while now, but work and travel got in the way. I now find myself with a largely free weekend, and I’ve also had time to visit the local Apple store and see a few of them first hand.

I’ll start with the new Mac Mini. Largely because I’ve been a Mac Mini user since they came out, and I’m probably due a new one. I was initially excited by what I’d heard about the 2014 Mac Minis, but based on the current range I might have to forgo buying one for the time being. My usual computer buying habits are fairly well established, in that I’ll buy the bottom of the range model, and then max it out with 3rd party hardware (memory, hard drives) to get the configuration I want. This time the base model is very underpowered, and because the memory is now not user-upgradable, I would have to spend quite a lot to even get something on a par with what I have now. Sure, I could spend £1000 and get a very nice machine that would meet all my needs, but for the same price I could get a significantly more powerful laptop, which would have the added benefit of being portable. I also wish Apple had not scrapped the server edition of the Mac Mini, because computers with two hard drives can be useful sometimes.

Next up is the new 27” iMac with retina display. It looks gorgeous, and it’s not as expensive as I’d feared. I still can’t justify one, but I think they have made all the right decisions with this machine, and I like the fact that it is possible to add 3rd party memory to get a really powerful configuration without breaking the bank. I’d like to think I’ll own an iMac again one day, and if I did then this is the sort of thing I’d go for. I’d also love to see a computer lab kitted out with these.

Both of the above come with Yosemite of course, which I’ve been running for a few months now. It’s a solid upgrade which hasn’t caused me any issues, and which looks a lot more visually impressive to my eyes.

I’ll now move on to the new iOS devices. This is probably the first year I’d consider myself a power user of iOS, and for a lot of this year I’ve left my laptop at home on short trips and done everything on my iPad and iPhone. I’m due a new phone soon anyway, and am also vaguely looking at iPads with more storage than 16gb, so I was particularly interested to see what Apple could come up with.

I very much like the look of the iPad Air 2. It looks like it could handle everything I throw at my devices, and there seem to have been hardware improvements around the area of recording video and audio, which I have found myself doing a lot of over the last year. I’m less impressed with the new Mini, and would have liked to see a smaller version of the Air, rather than something which looks like last year’s model with Touch ID tacked on.

I’m also quite torn regarding the new iPhones. I like the new features, but both models look a lot bigger than my 4S (and in the case of the largest one, not much smaller than my iPad mini). I have quite small hands, and as a result I’ve always tended to go for smaller phones, and I strongly suspect I’ll see if I can get a 5S next and then see what the upgrade options look like in a couple of years. I’m in no way an early adopter with phones, so I’m not too worried that I don’t particularly like these models as I’m sure there will be plenty of different options in two years time.

I’m liking iOS8, and especially the fact that I can manage text messages through my laptop. I have two factor authentication set up for a lot of different services, and it’s useful to get those messages on the screen of the device I’m actually sitting at. Apart from that it’s a solid but unspectacular update.

So yes, all in all not too bad, and I would not turn down any of these if I was offered them for free or on an existing contract. But I don’t think I’ll be buying any of them just yet.

10 influential albums

There is a meme going round about influential albums. I could probably list well over 100 albums that have influenced me a great deal, and I don’t really have any meaningful way to choose between them other than to just go with what feels right at the time.

But then I figured that maybe there is a way, and so I approached it from two different directions. The first is to take a list of albums that I’ve bought multiple times, be that replacing worn vinyl or cassettes with CDs or MP3s, or where I’ve bought multiple special editions or remasters. My thinking is that these records must mean a lot to me because I can’t bear to not to own the latest and greatest version of them. I’ve cheated a little in that I’ve bundled together records by the same artist that were made fairly close together, but it’s a list of 10 that makes sense. Of course, by using this criteria I’m going for things that were made a long time ago – I’ve owned most of these on either vinyl or cassette, and as I’ve not bought music in either format for over 20 years then there is a very strong 1980s bias to this list.

  1. Pink Floyd – Animals
  2. David Bowie – Low
  3. New Order – Power, Corruption and Lies/Low Life/Brotherhood/Substance
  4. Sonic Youth – Evol/Sister/Daydream Nation
  5. The Smiths – Strangeways Here We Come
  6. David Sylvian – Secrets of the Beehive
  7. Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
  8. The House of Love – The House of Love
  9. The Fall – The Frenz Experiment/I am Kurious Oranj
  10. Manic Street Preachers – The Holy Bible

The second take was to just list my all time favourite records – the ones that at some point in my life were the thing I would reach to first when I wanted to listen to something familiar and flawlessly brilliant. This also seems very biased towards the period of time where I was discovering music, but there are also a few more recent choices there.

  1. Television – Marquee Moon
  2. Pixies – Surfer Rosa/Doolittle
  3. Cardiacs – A Little Man and a House and the Whole World Window
  4. The Cure – Faith/Pornography/Disintegration
  5. Joy Division – Unknown Pleasures/Closer
  6. Mr Bungle – Disco Volante/Faith No More – Angel Dust
  7. Jim O’Rourke – Bad Timing
  8. Radiohead – Kid A/Amnesiac
  9. Destroyer – Kaputt
  10. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

I could write about why I’ve chosen each one of these, but I fear it would be rather long.

10 things beginning with S

There is a meme going round where people are asked to name 10 things beginning with a certain letter that mean something to them. I was given the letter S, and will attempt to come up with 10 things that are not people I know ( I could probably add another 10 if I include people, and I’m always wary of missing people out).

1. Spotify – It’s revolutionised the way I listen to music, and also the way I discover music to a certain extent. Before Spotify I always had to own things I like, and now I find I am perfectly content with streaming music. I also like the fact that I can save songs to my phone/iPad for offline listening. Not that I’m ever offline for long, but the functionality is very useful for those times when I am.

2. Sennheiser – Both sets of headphones I use at the moment were made by Sennheiser, and I suppose I have a certain amount of brand loyalty. I particularly like times when I’m able to wear my huge over-ear headphones, but am increasingly finding that they are too bulky for anything but listening to music in the house.

3. Substance – Two great compilation albums from the 80s – one by New Order and one by Joy Division. Between them they contain some of the best music I’ve ever heard, and tell the story of one of the most interesting (and tragic) musical transitions.

4. Sunrise – I like the sun. I like it being light and being sunny. The sun energises me, and the rising of the sun (which I see all too often) is something that I really like to watch and occasionally photograph. Sunrise is also the name of the calendar app I use on my Mac and iPad to keep my life organised, as well as being the name of a New Order song I really like.

5. Slackware – Not the first Linux distro I installed myself (that honour goes to Debian), but the one that lead to me learning a lot about how computers work when I was cramming IT knowledge into my brain about 10 years ago.

6. Sonic Youth – A band that have been with me since I was at school. They were probably my introduction to American guitar music, but also to the avant-garde. I could probably also say the same about Swans, who I discovered around the same time.

7. Summer – My favourite season, and the season I was born in.

8. Sideways – I’m astrologically Cancerian, which I supposed to mean I’m good at moving forwards whilst appearing to move sideways. I can relate to that, and  very much see it as a viable way to move through life.

9. Study – I like to study new things, and have really never stopped learning new things since I left University. I also have a physical study now – it’s the smallest front bedroom in our house, and it allows me to have somewhere to read, write, listen to music, and otherwise interact with things in an environment that I can totally control.

10. Sleep – I’m one of those strange people who doesn’t really enjoy sleep. It’s not that I sleep badly, or have particularly horrible dreams, I would just rather be awake, upright, and doing something.

My recent reading habits

Over the last couple of months I’ve been reading The Nearly Complete Works of Donald Harington, which is a three volume collection that I downloaded from Amazon for 99p per volume (while they were on offer – they are slightly more now, but still very reasonably priced). I’d not read any of Harington’s novels before, but I had heard good things about them, and so thought I’d wade in at the deep end.

I’m still only on volume 2, but apart from three other short books I’ve read nothing else for the last couple of months. I’ve enjoyed every page a great deal, and was actually expecting stand alone novels, rather than series of books that formed a definite chronology. Everything I’ve read so far has been set in or near a place called Stay More, and I would strongly recommend reading these books in the order they were written, and persevering with all of them, even those that seems unconnected or difficult at first.

The books I’ve read so far are:

Lightning Bug
Some Other Place. The Right Place.
The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks
The Cockroaches of Stay More
The Choiring of the Trees
Ekaterina
Butterfly Weed
When Angels Rest
Thirteen Albatrosses (or, Falling off the Mountain)

 

 

First thoughts on my new keyboard

I am testing out my new Logitech K760 keyboard. So far it types really well, and although it makes slightly more noise, I think I will be able to get used to that. What is great about it is that it is solar powered, and it can be paired with up to three devices, which pretty much deals with the issues I’ve had with my existing keyboard. I didn’t want to go back to a wired keyboard, but I seem to be having to recharge my batteries every week or so, and I’m fed up of having to keep switching to my really awful backup keyboard. I would also like to be able to use my keyboard with my iPad on occasion, and this one allows me to do just that. It’s also set out exact like an Apple wireless keyboard, so I don’t have to relearn any muscle memory – I can just start typing and everything just works.

So far so good, but I suppose I’ll not know for sure until I’ve typed something substantial with it. And also when I’ve used it during the winter, when there is less sun.

Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance and other such things

24rd August – From Rome with Love – Another Woody Allen film, and another one that I enjoyed without being totally bowled over by it. There is quite a lot going on, and the multiple narratives can get confusing at times, but it was well acted and directed, and I am certainly glad I watched it. One thing that struck me is that Woody Allen is looking really old (probably because he is), and I was also quite surprised by how much of this film was in Italian, as I wasn’t actually expecting that despite the title.

2nd September – Ab-normal Beauty – I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s visually stunning, with a spellbinding soundtrack, and was obviously made with a lot of love. It’s an 18 rating (and deserves to be), but if you’re not put off by that (or by the fact it’s subtitled) then it is well worth a watch.

2nd September – Bad Timing – Jim O’Rourke’s Bad Timing is one of my all time favourite records, and was inspired by this film (or at least named after it). O’Rourke also named his next two albums after Nicolas Roeg films (Eureka and Insignificance), and I thought it might be interesting to watch all three films back to back (or as it turned out over a three day period) as I’ve recently listened to the albums they inspired. Bad Timing stars Art Garfunkel, and is what I would probably describe as a psychological thriller. It’s fairly non-linear, but does have a strong narrative once you assemble the component parts, and if you can get past some of the dubious 80s fashion sense then it is certainly very watchable. I think this is a film I want to watch more than once, and I have a feeling that repeated viewings may divulge more meaning.

3rd September – Eureka – As with Bad Timing, I know the music inspired by Eureka far better than the film itself. Eureka was actually the first Jim O’Rourke CD I bought (in 1999, when it came out). From Eureka I worked backwards to Bad Timing, and then further back to his more experimental work that probably influenced me more than anything else I currently listen to. Although I was impressed by Bad Timing (the film), I had no such expectations for Eureka, due to the very mainstream casting choices and the fact it was based on a true story that didn’t particularly engage me. The first ten minutes changed my mind, and I really think whoever wrote the blurb and designed the DVD cover for this one should have tapped into the darkness that is definitely present rather than try and sell it as yet another 80s blockbuster. I also think it could have done with some serious editing, as the pacing in the middle is far too slow for my tastes, but then I’ve always said 90 minutes is my perfect film length, and this adds around 35 minutes to that. All in all, it’s a watchable film, but one that I don’t particularly want to watch again any point soon.

4th September – Blood and Chocolate – This film is named after my favourite Elvis Costello record, and is also about werewolves. As such, it was almost certainly going to be disappointing on some level. Blood and Chocolate isn’t a bad film as such, it’s just a film that is not quite sure what it wants to be (specifically it does not know if it wants to be horror or romantic comedy). It’s visually impressive, but once you scratch beneath the surface then there isn’t a great deal of substance until the final half an hour, and I wish that the care and attention that was obviously taken on the locations and sets permeated the rest of the film. I suppose the closest point of reference I have is Hemlock Grove, which I much prefer, and which does a very good job of making the supernatural element subtle and understated. Blood and Chocolate is neither of these things, and as such is far less satisfying.

5th September – Glass : A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts – This is a documentary about Philip Glass. I’m not massively familiar with his music, and as such had no real expectations regarding this film. It’s actually a really interesting snapshot into a creative mind, and it makes me want to check out more of his music now. I also have no idea why I added this to my watch list, but I’m glad that I did, because I really enjoyed it.

5th September – Insignificance – Marilyn Monroe, Joseph McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein walk into a room. By that of course I mean The Actress, The Senator, The Ballplayer, and The Professor walk into a room. And hilarity ensues. Insignificance is the third Nicolas Roeg film to influence a Jim O’Rourke album title. It’s a comedy drama, with characters who look and behave a lot like famous people from 1954. As a premise, it’s fairly original, and it does work on some levels. I suspect I would have got more out of this if I’d known more about the famous people’s lives, but it is still entertaining enough for a lazy Friday night. Talking of which, I should get round to posting this before I leave for London in the morning.

Ten influential books

There is a meme going around where people are listing the 10 books that influenced them the most. I’ve been thinking about this for about a week, and I think I’ve narrowed it down to a list I can live with (at least for today). These are in chronological order of me discovering them.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table – I don’t really have a version of this in mind, largely because these stories were told to me orally as a child, and no one book contains all the stories as I remember them. I know that these were certainly the first stories I remember hearing, and also the first books I can remember reading, and that the archetypes and themes remain with me to this day. In particular I was enthralled by the stories concerning the Grail, and whilst I didn’t have the understanding of the symbolism and metaphysics at the age of 4, I think it is those stories in particular that have stayed with me to this day.

C.S. Lewis – The Chronicles of Narnia – My favourite books as a child in primary school, and also the books I came back to at University when we had to write a paper on religious allegory. I think they work on both levels, and that they should still be essential reading for children everywhere.

Frank Herbert – Dune (and in fact the whole Dune series) – I read Dune as a child, following my obsession with David Lynch’s very fine film adaptation (which remains one of my favourite films). I love all the books, and even have a soft spot for the TV series and the sequel/prequel books written after Frank Herbert’s death. No sci-fi I have read since has ever come close.

Thomas Hardy – Jude the Obscure – I had trouble deciding between this and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but I think Jude the Obscure has to win due to the fact that it influenced me more. I studied it for A level English Literature, and has such had to dissect every word over and over again. The style of writing wasn’t really to my taste, but I empathised so strongly with the eponymous character, and think I’ve probably absorbed a fair bit of how he saw fate and destiny into my own life over the years. I think it’s probably the first book I read where I could just instinctively see where the author was coming from, and I’m proud of the fact I wrote a large number of critical essays on this book that were highly regarded at the time.

T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land and other poems – Another A level text. Before I started studying Eliot I had read very little poetry through choice, and this was so different to anything we had been made to read at school. I loved the way he wove so many different thematic threads together, and thought that The Waste Land in particular was possibly the best thing I had read at that point. I still have a copy of this on the bookshelves in my study, and dip into it on occasion when I want something that is both familiar and challenging. I also hope that listing a book of poems is not cheating, although I think I’m going to cheat even more thoroughly before I’ve finished writing this.

Aldous Huxley – The Human Situation – Talking about cheating, this is another book that might not count, in that it’s not a novel and is instead a collection of essays. I’m including it because it is probably the biggest influence on my University years, and was quoted from more times than I can remember in essays about sustainability, human geography and ecosystems. It certainly wasn’t a set text, but it deals very nicely with our dysfunctional relationship with the planet, and as such made essential reading during my Environmental Science degree.

Don DeLilo – Great Jones Street – I’m torn between this and Iain Bank’s Espedair Street which I read at the same time (during my years at University) and which covers similar themes. Great Jones Street is the story of a famous rock star who goes into seclusion to deconstruct the mythology of fame, and it very much appealed to my (at that time undefined) introverted self. I’ve long struggled with the dichotomy of wanting to stand up in front of large groups of people and talk, and yet being terrified of social interaction and feeling very much like fraud whenever I open my mouth, and this book nicely explores those themes and a few other themes as well. From the day I read this until the day Kurt Cobain died I wanted to be a rock star. I don’t have those urges now, but I think this book nicely epitomises that time in my life.

Paul Auster – Leviathan – This follows on quite nicely from Great Jones Street, and is another story of a creative person who loses their creativity for a while, and is one of those rare books where I can strongly empathise with more than one central character (and in this case both of the two main characters). I love the way Paul Auster writes, and I’d also strongly recommend New York Stories from the same era.

Douglas Coupland – Generation X – I feel like this was written for me and for my generation, which of course it was. It was the first book that suggested it was OK to underachieve for a while on occasion, and I read it at a time when I really needed to learn that lesson. It was also my introduction to a writer I still like to this day, and nothing made me happier than discovering that a pixilated dolphin statue I discovered whilst wandering around Vancouver was actually a Douglas Coupland sculpture.

Donna Tartt – Secret History – The newest book on the list, and one that I first read in 2001. As well as being a very well written and utterly compelling debut novel, it also reminds me of the time when I had just arrived in Birmingham, and was building my life pretty much from scratch in the same way that the main character in the book was. The fact that some of the other characters reminded me a lot of the friends I was making at the time probably didn’t hurt.

Of course, I’ve read a lot of other books in the last 13 years, and some of those have probably influenced me a fair bit too. But I think the list above are the ones that contributed the most to me being the person I am today.

Automate everything

I’m a big fan of automating anything that can be automated, and I don’t like having to think about or do the same thing multiple times if there is a way round it. There are two main ways I achieve this:

1. Using forward planning and/or recorded muscle memory to ensure that I don’t have to think too much about things I do every day (my morning routine, walking to work, typing my PIN number, choosing what to wear or what to cook for dinner).

2. Using technology to automate commonly encountered tasks (adding my signature to an email, typing my phone number, taking notes at a meeting etc.).

The first one is fairly straightforward, and involves what I generally refer to as autopilot. After doing something for a certain number of times I find I can do it without thinking too much about it, and that takes all the mental processing out of the equation. Similarly, if I plan things like clothes and food once a week, I don’t have to spend any time worrying about what to eat or what to wear.

A lot of my technology automation involves If This Then That (https://ifttt.com) and Evernote, and I thought it was worth detailing how a few of these work.

If I add a photograph to Instagram, then it is also posted to Twitter and Flickr. This came about because I didn’t like the way Twitter makes you click on a link to see an Instagram picture – this process makes it look like a native Twitter picture instead.

I have a Google calendar that details all of my work appointments. 15 minutes before each appointment starts a note is created in Evernote with a template suitable for note taking, and also any agenda items or pre-meeting reading. This relies on keeping my calendar up to date and as detailed as possible, but I do that anyway. It’s very reassuring to know that I can open my iPad and find everything I need for a meeting right there on my screen.

If I write a blog post, then a tweet is sent announcing the fact. I want people to read what I write, so it makes sense to let people know that there is new content on my blog.

I have my computer and iPad set up with keyboard shortcuts that will insert my name, email signature, phone number etc. into what I’m writing. Similarly I have dozens of templates set up in the ITSM software we use at work to insert all sorts of text that I have to send out regularly.

Any email attachment I receive is automatically added to a folder in Dropbox, arranged by who sent the email. Most of these emails are only interesting because of what is in the attachment, and I’d rather have that information stored outside the context of the email thread.

Any document added to a certain folder in Dropbox is converted into an ebook and emailed to the Kindle app on my iPad. I prefer to read longer documents and papers on my iPad, and it means I can use the offline part of my commute to catch up with reading.

At a certain time each evening the whole contents of my computer’s hard drive is copied to an external drive that I keep plugged in to it (using Carbon Copy Cloner). I also use Time Machine, but I find that having a secondary backup source that isn’t reliant on a network connection is very useful. Also, CCC makes bootable backups, which can be invaluable in time-sensitive situations.

Every time I get a new follower on Twitter, details about that person are added to an Evernote document. I often used to miss new followers just using the Twitter app, and I find this way of doing it puts it a lot more in my face.

Every time I favourite a tweet, the full text of that tweet is copied to an Evernote document. I use this to make a note of interesting things people have said, but also links to articles or music that I want to check out.

Those are just a few examples of automation that I use quite often. I dread to think how much time I used to spend achieving the same results manually, and I would like to think I’ve freed up more time for pursuits that require me to be fully checked in to what I’m doing.