Monthly Archives: January 2012

Most hostile search page ever?

I’ve seen plenty of unhelpful search pages in my time, but I think this one takes the biscuit.  When I was searching for the Stella Studios in Crete, to find the photo that I included last time, I found it via a forum dedicated to the town of Plakias. I searched for “stella” only to be confronted with this:

So to do a search — not leave a comment or anything — I had to fill in a CAPTCHA and answer two trivia questions.

Wow.

 

Then and now: watercolour and photo

In the previous post, I mentioned that back in 1995 Fiona and I had been on holiday to Plakias, on the south coast of Crete, and that I painted this picture of the Pension Stella, where we stayed:

Writing that made me nostalgic, so I thought I’d see whether I could find photos on the web.  It took a while, because it turns out that its name has changed to Stella Studios, but I found it.  And on the Stella Studios web-site, I found this photo, taken from nearly the same place, and presumably the best part of seventeen years later:

Looks like that little tree/fern thing has grown pretty impressive!

My plan for 2012: do things that children do

20th January may seem a strange day to make a New Year’s resolution, but it’s not so much a resolution as a gradually growing realisation of what I want out of the year.  Now that I’ve figured it out, I thought I might as well share it here.

When kids are growing up, adults decide what they’re going to do.  And not only do we make better choices for kids than they would make for themselves, we make better choices for them than we do for ourselves.  Here’s what kids do:

  • Learn things (in school)
  • Play sports (also in school, if not elsewhere)
  • Sing and play instruments (e.g. school concerts)
  • Draw and paint
  • Write stories

(They also play video games and watch TV, but let’s ignore those for now because those are things that adults also do plenty of.)

All those things are fun.  Adults choose them for kids because they know that they’ll enjoy themselves, that they’ll develop their creativity, that they’ll be healthy.  Then having set our kids off on that trajectory, we slump in front of our computers for eight or twelve hours every day.

In 2012, I’m going to do those things, too.  Why should kids have all the fun?

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Oppose SOPA, PIPA and the RWA

Today is a big day for the Internet.  Nearly everyone reading this site will be aware of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), two appallingly ill-conceived pieces of legislation under consideration in the US but with profound ramifications for the whole world.  Written at the behest of big copyright holders by people with no understanding of how the Internet works either mechanically or culturally, they would be absolutely disastrous if passed.

In response to this, many high-profile web-sites are demonstrating the results such laws would have by going dark for the day.  They include Reddit and, most importantly, Wikipedia.  (Also, the entire Cheezburger network and many, many others.)  We can only hope that this distributed demonstration results not just in SOPA and PIPA being rejected, but in an emphatic smackdown that makes it impossible for similarly dumb legislation to get mind-space in the future.

But there is another threat also making its way through the US Congress — less publicised but also hugely important.

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How to get into space cheaply

As I sat with my colleagues at one of the outdoor bars at our hotel in Cancun last month, I had an idea for a method of getting into space cheaply.  Since this is a problem of enormous general interest and commercial importance, I was sure it must have been thought of before, but when I checked Wikipedia’s non-rocket spacelaunch page (highly recommended, by the way!), I didn’t see my idea listed.  So could it possibly be novel after all?

[By happy coincidence, it's only a few days ago that the world's first Sushi In Space video was released.  Why?  I couldn't tell you.  But that's where this image is taken from.]

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Top albums of 2011: the final results

Yesterday’s post completes my run-down of the ten non-compilation albums that I’ve listened to most in 2011.  Here they are again, in order, with links to the articles about each:

1. Spring Hill (2011), Chloe and Silas [18 listens]
2. Days of Open Hand (1990), Suzanne Vega [17 listens]
3. The Incident (2009), Porcupine Tree [16 listens]
4. So Beautiful or So What (2011), Paul Simon [13 listens]
5. Liege and Lief (1969), Fairport Convention [9 listens]
6. The End of History (2006), Fionn Regan [8 listens]
7. Help! (1965), The Beatles [7 listens]
8. Blue Divide (1994), Richard Shindell [7 listens]
9. CSN (1977), Crosby, Stills and Nash [7 listens]
10. Hejira (1976), Joni Mitchell [6 listens]

Looking at the list, I am immediately struck that eight of the ten are folk music of one sort or another, with the only exceptions being the prog rock of The Incident at #3 and the Beatles’ Help! at #7.  Of course it may be that this tells us only what a broad church “folk music” is, encompassing the jazz-folk of Joni Mitchell, the country-folk of Richard Shindell, and so on.

I also notice that a few of these albums are there largely on the strength that I have loved other work by the same artists — Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Crosby Stills and Nash’s eponymous debut, Richard Shindell’s Reunion Hill.  The albums that made it onto this year’s lists haven’t necessarily captured my heart the way those others have.  I am pleased that the overall winner, Spring Hill, is an album that I adore entirely on its own merits.

The big shift in my listening this year has come from the fact that I am looking not only for songs that I like to listen to, but also for songs that I will be able to perform myself at the Folk Club.  That explains the big swing towards folk — and in fact, it occurs to me now that even Help! has the folkish quality that most of its songs would work perfectly well as just guitar+vocal.  In fact I’d say that my musical 2011 has been more about playing and singing than about listening.

But in the early days of 2012 I find I am really missing the complexity of prog, and listening more to bands than soloists.  It’s music that I’ll never be able to play (even if I could find a band), but prog speaks to my soul in a way that folk can’t.  (Not a better way; just a different way.)

Top albums of 2011, #1: Spring Hill (2011), Chloe and Silas

[None of the Spring Hill songs are on YouTube or GrooveShark, so the image above links, in a new window, to a player that provides four of the eleven songs: Call Somebody, Tax Office Love Song, Worst House and Woman You Can Love.]

I wrote about Chloe and Silas after seeing them at the Forest Folk Club in August: “Their songs are insightful and distinctive, and their performances finely judged and very clear … They are a perfect combination — much more than the sum of their parts.”  Having listened to their album Spring Hill eighteen times in the last quarter of 2011, I can confirm everything I wrote then.

Consider, for example, the album opener Call Somebody.  In terms of its harmonic base, it’s one of the simplest songs on the album, with the guitar alternating between I and IV chords every couple of bars almost throughout.  But that very simplicity provides the perfect landscape to paint the singing onto: the song exists in a sonic world that is lonely, cool, isolated; and the vocal has a very different mood — warm, intimate, thoughtful. That’s especially so because Chloe’s and Silas’s voices weave so organically in and out of each other, a perfect depiction of the closeness that the song is about.  And so the music reflects the theme of the song: that in a cold, lonely world, warmth and companionship is there for the taking.  Call somebody.

So there you have it: Spring Hill, an album of crystal acoustic purity, of both careful meditations and joyful outbursts (as in One-Man Standing Ovation, one of the happiest songs I know).  A wonderful discovery, and my highlight of 2011.

[Buy the CD from amazon.com or CD from amazon.co.uk.  The CDs are ludicrously expensive for some reason, but you can also buy MP3s from amazon.com or MP3s from amazon.co.uk, and that makes more sense in this case.]

Next time: a summary and some reflections on my 2011 in music.

Top albums of 2011, #2: Days of Open Hand (1990), Suzanne Vega

Suzanne Vega is, rather unjustly, known almost exclusively from her second album, 1987’s Solitude Standing — and particularly for the two hits Luka and Tom’s Diner.  That was my first album of hers (and by the way, these two songs are some way from being the best it has to offfer).  It inspired me to dig a bit deeper, so I got her self-titled debut album, which is a delight: sparse, insightful and chilly.  And this year, her third album, Days of Open Hand.

It’s a noticably warmer sound than those first two albums: while instrumentation is still mostly crafted in a way that leaves a lot of space, it now seems to work much more with the vocal rather than being a canvas that the vocal is painted onto.  (I’m not saying that this is a better approach, only that it’s different: both work well.)  The songs feel as though the words, melody and backing were all evolved together, whereas on the first two albums the sense (whether actually true or not) is that songs were written with just a guitar, and then arrangements added later.

The song I’ve chosen, Fifty-Fifty Chance, is perhaps not very representative, and feels in some ways as though it would sit more comfortably on one of those first two albums.  But I’ve chosen it because I love how the tension of the string part — the only instrumentation — evokes the helplessness of sitting by a hospital bed, not knowing what the outcome might be.  The twist at the end of the song casts the whole in a new, and more heartbreaking, light.

[Buy from amazon.com or from amazon.co.uk, although for some reason it's insanely expensive in the UK.  Better pick up one of those cheap second-hand copies instead of a new one.]

Next time: my number one most-listened-to album of 2011!  What can it be?

Top albums of 2011, #3: The Incident (2009), Porcupine Tree

Anyone who remembers my 2010 album selection, and even more those privileged few who saw the unblogged 2009 selection, will recall that I tend to land up on a fairly even mix of folk music and prog rock.  This year has been the exception: folk has nearly swept the board, largely because of my new interest in playing it as well as listening to it.  That leaves us with only one prog album this year, but what an album it is: Porcupine Tree’s The Incident.  While it shares with all good prog the qualities of richness, technical proficiency and inventiveness, it adds another quality much rarer in this genre: approachability.  Call it likeability if you wish.  Because much as I love prog, I have to admit that it’s not always the most welcoming genre to people approaching it from the outside.  This album is an exception.  It draws you in.

I don’t know much about about Porcupine Tree — Amazon gave me the Time Flies MP3 as a freebie when I bought something else.  I loved that opening couplet, “I was born in sixty-seven / the year of Sergeant Pepper and Are You Experienced?” (it made me sad to have been born in the year merely of the white album and Axis: Bold As Love).  I liked the whole song enough to get the album, but so far that’s all I know of their material.  Above, I’ve embedded the YouTube video of the single edit of Time Flies, since it comes it at a fairly digestible 5:25.  But you really want to listen to the full-length version that’s on the album (embedded below), which takes rather longer to illustrate its point of the passage of time — it breathes and explores in a way that the short version can’t.

(Students of the classics will recognise several homages to Pink Floyd’s Animals album — specifically, the opening acoustic guitar pattern is a nod to the similar opening of Dogs, and the cascading descent of echoing electric guitars at 2:20 afterwards evokes a similar passage in Sheep.)

[Buy at amazon.com or at amazon.co.uk]

Next time: a lesser-known album from a “one-hit wonder”.

Top albums of 2011, #4: So Beautiful or So What (2011), Paul Simon

This is one of two albums to make this year’s top ten that were actually released in 2011.  That’s pretty unusual for me, I am usually at least a few years behind the curve.  More typically for me, it’s the 2011 album by someone who’s been releasing records for more than half a century.  (Back in April, I wrote about this album’s stupid staggered release schedule.)

Paul Simon is a genus, it’s a simple as that.  If I don’t mention him as much as newer discoveries like Dar Williams and Richard Shindell, it’s because I have been so intimately familiar with his catalogue for so long that I’ve run out of new things to say about him that I haven’t already said many times to my friends.  His music covers an astonishing stylistic range, from the simplest three-chord blues through the most sophisticated jazz ballads, via every kind of folk music, a Broadway musical, a film soundtrack and of course the South African and South American-influenced music that younger fans (by which I mean people in their forties) are likely most familiar with.

Every new Paul Simon album is an occasion for rejoicing, and it’s to his credit that at the age of seventy he is still cranking them out (albeit less frequently than he did back in the 60s and 70s).  2011’s offering, So Beautiful or So What, offers ten very different songs.  They constitute a sequence of meditations on life, love, religion and philosophy, leading to the stark choice presented by the title track: two different ways to respond to the universe.

From an album that covers as much musical ground as this, it’s not really possible to choose any one song as representative.  The one I’ve picked out, Rewrite, uses the conceit of a man revising his novel’s manuscript as a metaphor for all the changes he wishes he could make to all the bad choices of his earlier life.  Typically for Simon, this is done with a light touch, against an idiosyncratic musical backdrop that somehow contrives to simultaneously be both sparse and rhythmically dense.

[Buy at amazon.com or at amazon.co.uk.]

Next time: something completely different: the second of only two non-folk albums on this years top ten.