October Antidotes

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A quiet-ish October, settling into a new routine with daughter at school; the weather first autumnal with a late freakish twist for a Halloween that could have been in June.

A half term trip to the North Kent coast, notable for a walk along the beach at Seasalter, the consumption of – at various times – beer, coffee, fish’n’chips and doughnuts on the beach in Whitstable, and a visit to the Turner Contemporary in Margate for Jeremy Deller’s excellent English Magic.

Went to a PhotoForum event held at Calumet, featuring talks by Homer Sykes and Brian David Stevens, whose They That Are Left series is particularly worth looking at. It was great to hear photographers talking about the process of making their photos in a straightforward fashion, with a seeming deliberate de-emphasis on the technical side; it’s given me a nudge to think about taking more care in my photography – hopefully 2015 might afford more time to go out with a camera that isn’t my iPhone.

 

Thoughts on the Basement Tapes Complete before I’ve even listened to all the tracks

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47 years after they were recorded, the most complete set of Bob Dylan and The Band’s Basement Tapes to date have just been released, and I’m immersed in them. By the end of the year an estimated eleventy billion words will have been written on the subject, by people who’ve done a lot more research than me; here are my first impressions, anyway.

  1. They sound really good in stereo compared to the last official release, particularly with the extra clarity in the backing vocals (and it’s amazing to hear the Band harmonising so easily and songs that are being learnt – or written – on the spot).
  2. Dylan’s singing sounds incredibly confident (for a man who, so the legend goes, needed a break and wasn’t sure what he was doing any more).
  3. I’m not sure the fragments of tracks add too much; similarly the multiple takes. 139 tracks is a lot; as interesting as the first takes and throwaways are, I’m not sure how many times I’ll want to hear them.
  4. The pastiche songs are better than I expected, except for the ‘funny’ backing vocals. Does musical comedy every age well?
  5. There’s something magical about hearing the band feel their way into a song, as on The Auld Triangle where at the start it sounds like only Dylan knows what they’re playing, and by the end they’re playing it with style and confidence. That, along with the sound of a band playing all together in one room, is – I think – the magic of these recordings.

I’ll probably have completely changed my mind by track 139/139, though.

September Antidotes

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There’s a strong argument, I think, for September being the best month of the year: still warm without boiling on the train home from work; a hint of autumn-to-come in the air; a better quality of light; the best song with a month in its title; and people back from their holidays and actually doing stuff. The start of the month was dominated by the build up to my daughter starting school – a momentous milestone somewhat punctured by her getting chickenpox on her first day… Apart from the adjustment to a new routine, and the relative grindstone of work, I saw and heard a few things that gladdened the heart:

Gruff Rhys at the Queen Elizabeth Hall
Gruff Rhys doing his one man (and one stuffed doll) American Interior show (this Quietus piece explains the story of John Evans much better than I can), with the assistance of overhead projector, dub plates, harmonising effects, and an acoustic guitar. Deadpan hilarity, topped off with some incredibly sweet singing (the looped a capella harmonised refrain from Honey All Over at the end was particularly spine-tingling), and a reminder that he has a really strong body of work behind him now.

King Creosote at the Barbican
Kenny Anderson and band performing the live soundtrack to From Scotland With Love: impossible not to compare this with From The Sea To The Land Beyond (indeed, the programme notes were quite clear the that the director had been inspired by that film), and in many ways it fell short (too broad a subject for the film to build up a real narrative; arguably too Glasgow/West Coast-focused; not King Creosote’s strongest set of songs); it was, though, a lovely evening. The band played well, Anderson sang beautifully and reminded us that, though he may recycle his melodies from time to time (and he’s hardly alone there…), they are lovely tunes. And the venue was a bonus; I’d not been in the Milton Court theatre/concert hall before (and my heart sank a little when the Barbican staff directed us to go out of the Barbican building – would we get lost and miss the beginning of the show again?), but it’s a beautiful space: comfortable seats, and a smell of fresh wood (can it really be new enough that the wood still smells freshly-cut? Whatever, it was the nicest smelling concert venue I can remember). Best of all, it was all over before 9.30, giving ample time to get down to the excellent Gladstone in Borough to catch a psych-folk band (never worked out which one of the acts on the bill they were) and drink some Tribute.

Chris Killip at Tate Britain
I’m never sure that mid-morning is a great time to visit art galleries: on the plus side it’s usually nice and quiet, but I find it hard to avoid thinking about whatever else I have to do that day and end up rushing round too quickly. Still, a Friday off work gave an opportunity for a quick dash around the Late Turner exhibition – packed with people, and definitely worth a proper look before it closes – then the joy of being one of two people in the Chris Killip temporary exhibition. I’d seen – and enjoyed -a few of these prints before, but put together, they made an incredibly powerful collection. Thanks to Brian David Stevens for the recommendation.

J Mascis – Tied To A Star

I can’t see it being remembered in the Top 200-album-ever lists in years to come, but the new not-Dinosaur Jr album from J Mascis is a nice thing: wistful, tuneful, and a bit autumnal.

Played In London

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I have a photo of a particular architectural detail of Charlton Lido in this new book, published this week. It’s an incredibly comprehensive look at the history of sports venues across London, written by Simon Inglis and published by English Heritage. The entry for Charlton Lido also includes a reference to Greenwich council’s failed attempt to rebrand the lido as ‘Royal Greenwich Lido’ – a timely reminder of last summer’s fun as the outdoor swimming conditions start to turn autumnal.

More info – and online ordering – can be found on the Played In Britain website.

Fender Tel-Esquire

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Towards the end of last year I was overcome by the burning desire to build (well, assemble – be under no illusion that this project has anything to do with the art of the skilled luthier) a Fender Telecaster variant. I didn’t know if I’d have the skills, or if I’d just end up with an unsatisfactory guitar that cost a bit more than a decent ‘real’ one, but I knew I had to have a go.

I had a couple of false starts with cheap bodies bought from eBay (dense, heavy wood, too much drilling required), and ended up buying a genuine Fender Mexican body and neck, sold as spare parts (for, it must be said, not much less than than a whole, assembled and finished MIM Fender Tele). I was very pleased to find that the body was nice and light, and the neck’s frets were a decent ‘medium jumbo’ size. Once I’d found the right size bolts the body and neck went together very satisfactorily; a vintage-style bridge (with 3 brass saddles – enough intonation accuracy for rockabilly, in my book) fitted easily, as did a set of locking tuners. After that it was wiring: an Oil City bridge pickup and a wiring harness (with mod to make the selector switch position more middley and less bassey than the traditional arrangement) bought from eBay went together easier than I expected.

And then I knew from pretty much the first time I played it that I’d build my almost-perfect guitar – which wasn’t quite the plan I had in mind. It’s easy and rewarding to play, and it sounds excellent: ace rockabilly and country tones. I like the single pickup approach, and it’s surprising how much variation you can get out of it just applying the volume and tone control judiciously (though “it’s amazing what you can do with a single pickup guitar/be liberated from too much choice” is a bit of a guitar mag/forum cliché these days). I put a plain white pickguard on first, decided it was too plain overall and plumped for the off-white/aged, 3 ply version; I think it works much better.

Why was that not the plan? I’d thought I’d build something that I could tinker with – try different bridges and pickups, and so on; trouble is, it’s so good I daren’t mess with it for fear of ruining it. So, I suppose the only thing to be done is to build another one. This time maybe with a Bigsy B16 fitted…

Was it a cheap way to build a Tele/Esquire? No. Was it worth it? Yes, definitely. Great experience, very satisfying outcome, and I couldn’t buy a guitar just like this off the shelf.

I should do a proper demo, showing off the different pickup settings, etc, but in the meantime here’s a very short clip (recorded on an iPhone 5s):

Reading: Bleak House

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Prompted by Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, I’ve just finished Dickens’ Bleak House. I’d had a nagging voice in my head for a while, pointing out that I wasn’t really reading books any more – just Twitter, Facebook, email, RSS feed on constant rotation – and those I had read hadn’t been great: too many unsatisfactory musicians’ memoirs and self-deprecating travelogues by men warily approaching their middle age. Like Miller, I have a self-perception of being someone who reads books – as a child I read constantly – but a combination of work, commuting, family, commuting, playing the guitar, family, work – and all those digital distractions – meant it had been a while since I’d read a proper book. A while possibly measured in years (though, unlike Miller, I hadn’t – thank Christ – sunk as low as doing Sudoku).

So I read Under Milk Wood (it seemed a bit ridiculous to be more familiar with the – brilliant – dub version than the original text, and I kept seeing it referenced all over the place). That didn’t take long (though I feel it’d be worth reading it again soon); next I got stuck into Bleak House. A slow slog at first, and then – gradually – a feeling I’d not had for a while: looking forward to getting on the train to work to have a chance to do some reading; then a feeling of giddiness as I could see the end approaching, wanting to know what happens and how does it end? When I finished it last night I felt a great sense of satisfaction (maybe – ahem – even smugness) at having achieved something: now I’m the sort of person who reads Dickens, and maybe relief that my brain’s not actually too Twitter-addled to read a long, wordy book. More importantly I want to read some more Dickens, and soon. I feel more invigorated by the whole experience than in many ways I feel I ought to – after all, I’ve always known that reading was A Very Good Thing. I just got out of the habit for a while. Here’s to more reading.

 

Tour de France à Londres, 2014

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The Tour de France passed by my work yesterday – more or less, anyway. We nipped out of the office and down to Tower Hill, found a sunny spot, bought ice creams, and waited. The sunshine turned to rain and, eventually, the riders arrived. I had a small gap through which to point my Nikon – looking straight across the road, so not great for focus-locking. I got a couple that I was pleased with (most of the others made it look like the riders we’re going at about 5mph – too fast a shutter speed, not enough background blur to give a sense of speed or dynamism).

I’m told that at least one of these riders is Alberto Contador, and that apparently counts for something.

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