Category Archives: Existentialism

On bicycles

I can still remember the first time I cycled from Dawlish to Exeter. I was 22, and, like most feats of vague idiocy at that age, it was inspired by a girl. I’d met her a week or two earlier, and she worked in a record shop in Exeter. The bike was a red mountain bike that I’d bought for £150 as a student so I could get from campus to campus more easily. The ride to Exeter, 13 miles each way, seemed enormous and insurmountable and insane. I’d never done it before and didn’t know where to go; I just had a vague inkling that you could get all the way up a trail alongside the river Exe. I didn’t even know Exeter well enough back then to know how to get from the river to the city centre. The things we do for girls we’ve just met, eh?

I think the ride took me about two hours each way, which makes me laugh these days; I’ve hammered down the main road to Dawlish in about 45 minutes. But back then, on that sunny Saturday, it felt like the most amazing adventure, venturing into uncharted territory both literally and emotionally. Crazily, although it was the start of a relationship – thirteen years later we’re married, own a home together and are expecting our first child – it wasn’t the start of a hobby; the bike went in the garage not long after and rusted away for years. It wasn’t until we lived in Exeter and got married, nine years hence, that I got a new bike and was slowly, surely, bitten by the bug.

On Sunday afternoon we were driving to Dawlish and passed, down Barrack Road, a gang (for want of a better word) of boys – teenagers, perhaps 15 or 16 – out on their bikes together. Four on road bikes of various kinds – an old steel racer, a tourer, a modern compact alloy frame, etc – and one on a mountain bike. No helmets, no lycra, no cleats; just jeans and trainers and t-shirts and a backpack each, heading out on the first day of summer for an adventure, weaving across each others’ paths, laughing, talking, pedalling like mad for a split second and then freewheeling downhill. They looked like they were having fun, and I was far more jealous of them than of any Sunday morning peloton I’ve seen hammering the tarmac to Tiverton or down the Teign Valley.

It’s that sense of freedom, and adventure, and excitement, that I really love about cycling; it’s why I feel far more inspired by John Prolly’s Instagram feed than by the Tour de France. It’s why, no matter how much I love my racing bike, I love my steel cross bike more, even after only two and a bit weeks. It just feels like a different kind of riding; partly because ramping off a kerb or swerving across a grass verge or heading across a gravel trail isn’t an issue at all, but more because… it just makes me want to explore, to turn down roads I’d otherwise ride past, and the knowledge that I can makes me approach riding differently.

So this summer my priority isn’t hitting personal bests, or increasing mileage month-on-month; it’s recapturing that feeling I got when I rode to Exeter to see Emma all those years ago, about getting a hint of that euphoria those boys were heading for last Sunday as they freewheeled down the road towards wherever it was they ended up. About enjoyment.

Since 2006


A lot of stuff has happened over the last eight years. On a personal level, we bought a flat, lived in it for five years, sold it, and bought a house (which we’ve lived in for more than a year). We got married. My brother and his fiancé had a baby. Four of my best friends and their wives had babies. More colleagues than I can count have had babies. Another friend got married twice and divorced twice. I took up cycling, bought three different bicycles, and pedalled more than 7,500 miles. I got three new jobs, and start a fourth new job in April.

Les personally, some significant cultural figures died: Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussain, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Saville, Nelson Mandela, and Margaret Thatcher, amongst others. And the News of the World. And Oasis. And Woolworth’s. And smoking in public buildings.

Globally, culturally, technologically, and politically the world has changed beyond measure: we’ve endured a global recession inspired by dodgy banking and insane housing markets; the Arab Spring; the rise of social networking, mobile internet, smartphones, high-speed broadband, and on-demand TV – in 2006 YouTube and Facebook were tiny start-ups and Twitter didn’t exist – have changed the way we communicate with each other and consume media in absolutely unimaginable ways; 3D films made a comeback; Man City won the premier league; Arsenal didn’t; we didn’t elect a coalition government but got one anyway; America elected a black president who prefers assassinating people to starting wars…

I could go on.

The point is that things are different. I’m not the same; neither is the world. Nothing is. Existence is a process, not a static state.

A year in the saddle

This time last year I’d ridden a total of 15 miles, which was a New Year’s Day figure-of-8 through Rockbeare and Broadclyst that took about an hour. I rode again on January 5th; a regular 15-mile loop down to Lympstone, over Woodbury Common, and back into Exeter down the Sidmouth road.

And then I stopped.

I rode once in February – a variation on the Woodbury Common loop on the 16th – and then I didn’t ride again until April 20th.

In truth, I hadn’t really ridden since late October 2012. That month I rode three times, totaling 64 miles. The September I’d ridden three times, totaling 110 miles. August was five rides and 140 miles. I’d ridden 250 miles in July, 165 in June, 220 in May, 151 in April, 180 in March, 100 in February, 240 in January. What happened?

Weather happened; it rained in 2012 like I’ve never known it rain before; twice we took a week’s holiday to ‘staycation’ – looking for houses, tending our allotment and bike riding was all that was on our itinerary – and each time it rained all day, every day. Our vegetables died, the allotment flooded. There are only so many sodden bike rides one can stomach.

I’d ridden more than 3,000 miles in 2011, having got a bike for the first time since I was a student the year before. A simple, solid commuter, that I took to hammering down cyclepaths with in the evenings, which gave way to a cyclocross bike a year later, which I put skinny tyres on, made as aggressive as I could, would take over Dartmoor whenever I had the chance, rode 100 miles on in a day with Peter one (the only) hot July day, just to see if we could.

But in November 2012 we moved house – to a house, a proper, sensible house, from our awesome, cool flat in the desirable part of town – and the bike went in the shed and didn’t come out again. The move was expensive and protracted and stressful, and I couldn’t face cycling for a while; things needed decorating (most of them still do), and a year of rain with barely any summer had taken its toll. Once you fall out of a habit, it’s hard to get back into it.

I rode 80 miles last April, 70 in May, and 23 in June, despite the weather being better. Cycling didn’t seem like something I did anymore.

But then something changed. On a prosaic level, I took my bike to get a service, and it had a new bottom bracket and headset fitted, and became a pleasure to ride again. I cycled 300 miles in July, 300 in August, bought a new bike (a proper road bike) on September the 1st and rode 300 miles that month, too. The light faded and I managed 240 in October, 180 in November.

In the last 28 days I’ve ridden 344 miles. 225 or so of those have been since Christmas Eve. I’ve already done as many for this January as I did in January, February, and March or last year added together. I intend to keep it up.

What else changed? I bought myself some cycling indulgences to encourage me – a new helmet, new shoes, a new jersey, prescription sunglasses, a softshell – and though none of these on their own were amazing revelations (bar perhaps the sunglasses; how have I managed 20+ years without?), added together (with the bottom bracket and headset too) and considering the glorious summer we enjoyed, the aggregation of marginal gains made a massive difference to how it felt to ride.

It reminds me a bit of how I felt about music through 2008 and into the start of 2009; I was tired, alienated, bored, but a new pair of speakers in spring 2009 reinvigorated all the music I already owned and also made me want to get out and hear new music, too. A new bike, new shoes, new jersey, etcetera have made me want to ride all the old routes I used to ride, and also made me want to turn down different, newer roads, too. And I’ve got a nice network of people to ride with now, much like I have a couple of record clubs to keep my listening fresh, too.

I’ve nothing profound to conclude here, no insight to offer or epithet to close with. I want to ride 3,000 miles again this year, ride some more new roads, take the bike to different parts of the country, and just keep riding, and enjoying it. A year ago I’d have hated the 28 damp miles I did this morning (and being bitten by a dog while doing them!) but today I loved them. It’s the bit before you start riding that’s awkward, and those first two miles. Once I’m pedaling and beyond the city, I’m free. And once the days are longer…

On criticism

On Tuesday 15 October 2013, on the main ‘new releases’ index page for music on the website Metacritic (a service which aggregates reviews and gives an average score) out of approximately 200 albums listed only 14 scored 60% or less on average. Metacritic assigns colours to scores on a simple traffic light system; 61 or more gets green, which stands for ‘generally favourable’ between 61 and 80, and ‘universal acclaim’ for anything above that; 60 to 41 gets amber, which stands for ‘mixed or average reviews’; 40 or below gets red, which means ‘generally unfavourable’. No album listed on that first page receives an average score in the red. See what I mean by having a look for yourself here.

Now have a look at the same page for movies. Of 26 ‘wide releases now in theatres’, 10 are green, 10 are amber and 6 are red. That’s quite a difference in the general critical landscape from one popular cultural medium to another. Why?

One quick answer might be that films, generally, are worse than music, or that it’s easier to make a bad film than it is a bad record; logistically films need a much larger crew and budget and a longer gestation period, and so there are simply more things that can go wrong over a longer period of time, and result in a poor end product. Good films, great films, stand proud above the rest of the landscape even more. Perhaps that’s the case and all there is too it. But I’m not so sure I believe it. I think there are plenty of average and, yes, even bad records.

I’ve been perplexed and irritated by this dichotomy between film criticism and music criticism for the best part of two decades; as a teenager I was irritated no end by the propensity, when publications marked albums out of five, for the vast majority of releases to receive 3/5. To me this score always read like a shrugged ‘meh’ of indifference, a ‘quite good if you like that type of thing’ avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about, or, worse, for being a snob.

Of course music and films are not analogous, and you can’t directly compare the two with any worth anymore than you can compare a pizza to a curry; there are good and bad examples of each, but if you fancy a pizza a curry isn’t going to scratch that culinary itch and vice versa. (Of course there’s fusion cuisine the way there’s multimedia art, but let’s not go there right now.) Thus it makes sense that the criticism-topography (for want of a better phrase to describe the undulations, or not, of the landscape resulting from the marks doled out by our cultural gatekeepers in newspapers and magazines and online) of each would be different. I’m sure the criticism-topography of video games is equally different again, but as I have almost exactly zero interest in video games I’m going to leave that area well alone for fear of looking like an idiot. I studied film and critical theory at university, and I wrote, and still do write, music criticism. I also love both forms. Those are my credentials. (The failure of popular music theory and criticism to be accepted as an academic discipline like film theory and criticism has long been a bugbear, too, and I see it as part of the overall problem I’m addressing here.)

That sea of green in the criticism-topography for music strikes me as strong evidence that music critics aren’t the gatekeepers they might like to think they are; you can’t be a gatekeeper if you never call out bad art, surely. But why do music critics seldom call out bad art? I’ve read what seemed to me to be hatchet jobs of reviews, semi-excoriating their subjects, which then awarded 3/5 or 6/10 once you got to the bottom, never going for critical equivalent of the jugular. I’ve mentally urged critics on to ‘finish him!’ when reading reviews of records (see? My video games references are 20 years out of date), hoping to see a 3/10 or a 1/5 (or, for the decimally inclined pedants out there, a 2.7/10.0; please read that clause in the scathing tone of voice with which it was intended), wincing to myself when another ‘generally favourable’ score gets given instead, obviating any point that may have been imparted through the subtleties, or not, of the actual words above the rating.

There might be two reasons for this failure to savage bad art by music critics (well, there might be a million reasons, but two seem logical to me); either critics don’t know what bad art is for whatever reason (lack of technical knowledge; lack of confidence; lack of critical faculties; lack of contextual knowledge), or else they’re afraid to say when they see it, for whatever reason. The industries of music and of journalism are both faltering; the later in particular is in dreadful health, and people are desperate to survive. If that means damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds, in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side, then so be it, perhaps. Except that the dwindling readership is still dwindling, in terms of willingness to pay for criticism (and almost every other type of content), so this tactic, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t working. I wonder if the readership is dwindling precisely because of the criticism-topography; if you’ve been repeatedly mis-sold products by weak and apathetic or inept criticism, then you stop trusting it. If Vauxhall sell you a duff car you find another manufacturer. If Melody Maker sell you a suite of duff records, you find another conduit that you feel you can trust, which may not be another magazine at all, but a website, or a streaming service, or whatever comes next. Undervaluing the criticism, letting anyone do it, leads to a lack of criticism, leads to a further undervaluing of the criticism. A vicious circle.

There’s a lot of talk this week about the value of the critic. Some of it is very good. Here’s Simon Price writing at The Quietus about The Independent dropping its own arts coverage in favour of a Metacritic-like aggregation of other people’s opinions. Here’s Neil Kulkarni being interviewed about boring reviews, lazy criticism, and keeping the hell out of London. Both pieces are well worth reading, and seem, to me, to be pointing in vaguely the same direction.

Price finishes his piece by saying that “a world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves”, which I agree with whole-heartedly. But I fear that we’ve been leaving music broadly uncriticised for far too long already. That sea of green is testament to our lack of critical spine, or to the fact that a babble of semi-conflicting voices seldom manage to form a coherent consensus. There’s too much of it, and not enough of it is any good. One of my main motivations as a critic was to encourage musicians to make better art, so there would be more stuff that I wanted to listen to myself; a selfish impulse, granted. I was guilty of hatchet jobs and of over-praise too. But I wrote, always, from the point of view of a fan; most of the records I’ve ever written about I’ve paid money for, one way or another, which I felt gave me a worthwhile and different perspective to some (not, at all, that people who get sent records for free can’t have valid opinions; but they’ll always have a different perspective).

What’s criticism for? I’ve never cared about it as an art form, like some do; but is it just to help us determine wheat from chaff? Is it to help us understand what wheat and chaff are, in order to encourage the wheat and discourage the chaff? Is it to help us realise what wheat and chaff are for? I don’t know, and the problem, I suspect, is that neither does anyone else. Least of all the people who might be reading and writing the stuff.

Why the vinyl revival can sod off as far as I’m concerned

Straight off the bat, for the record, I love Danny Baker as a radio broadcaster; his Saturday morning show on Radio 5 live beautifully demonstrates his story-telling skills, his appreciation of the mythology of the mundanity of everyday life, his understanding of how the format of radio works, and his extensive charm and humanity. It’s funny, and fun, and moving, and I love it.

But last night I watched the first part of his Great Album Showdown on BBC4 and it pretty much infuriated me from start to finish.

I could blame Jeremy Clarkson, one of the anointed foursome discussing what makes a great ‘rock’ LP, but by this point his persona as a caricature of a grumpy old man stuck in the 70s is beyond the worth of criticising. He is who he is, and if you take him seriously, in either direction, you’re an idiot too. I could blame Kate Mossman, for her bizarre assertion that glam and punk were opposites, which is a strange bit of garbled received wisdom that was rightly shot down by the other three (received wisdom being the enemy of criticism and thought in general). I could blame Baker himself, for his unwittingly throwaway sexist remark about not expecting “a woman” to like a particular record (presumably let alone a young, pretty one). Stephen Street, a self-confessed pop fan rather than a rock fan, and the final member of the four, looked uncomfortable, squirmed in his seat when Clarkson anointed Supertramp as the greatest thing ever, and seemed annoyed with the rockism ambushing him from all sides. He was the only one I could really identify with.

So instead, I’ll blame vinyl.

But of course, I’m not really blaming vinyl as a material, or even as an inferior vehicle for the delivery of recorded music (CD has a wider dynamic range when used properly, etcetera); I’m blaming it as a signifier, as a loaded totem of rockist bullshit.

Every time someone eulogies vinyl, they seem to necessarily slag CDs at the same time, and in the process of doing that they’re voiding the cultural experiences and values of a large swathe of music fans.

Because there are lots of people around my age for whom CD was the format through which they experienced music; certainly in our house there are a couple of thousand CDs and barely a hundred pieces of vinyl. Even my brothers, 9 and 11 years older than me, who’ve both been in bands and worked in record shops and so on, have shelves stuffed with CDs rather than crates full of vinyl. We don’t love music any less than the likes of Clarkson and Baker and Mossman, but you wouldn’t think so from last night’s program, or the seemingly endless vinyl-fetishists waxing lyrical about their favoured delivery method online or in print for what seems like the last decade.

Physically, to me, vinyl is an awkward, ungainly thing, difficult to hold in 12” form, easily scratched and made dirty, literally degrading every time you play it (by scraping a needle over a delicate material!), easily warped if not stored with great care. I dislike having to break a mood to change sides, the awkwardness of trying to access a specific song.

In terms of the sound, the warmth that so many people describe vinyl as enjoying just sounds like surface noise to me most of the time, a veil through which detail often has to struggle to emerge. I know a well-maintained vinyl collection and record player can sound superlative, but I prefer the sound of a good CD player; and it’s easier to look after, too. (I use a Rega Apollo for preference; noted for its warmth and detail, if you’re concerned about that type of thing.)

Vinyl’s also expensive and hard to find these days compared to CDs, and in my music-buying history, the last 20 years, has always been thus. Aside from the choice 12” decorations displayed in Urban Outfitters, I literally can’t buy any new vinyl in the city where I live. There is a secondhand shop, catering to old music obsessives and ignoring those after the thrill of the new and the now, but the secondhand market for original pressings and other collectors’ items baffles and disgusts me; scarcity and exclusivity are the two favourite assets of free-market economics and capitalist frenzy. If it’s rare; it’s worth more. Last night Danny Baker mentioned that one LP he had was worth well over £1,000. If you place more onus on the fiscal worth of your music’s format than the emotional and aesthetic worth of your music’s affect, then we’re talking at cross purposes from the very start. I used to deliberately buy debut vinyl singles by indie bands in the 90s and sell them on, circa debut album success and higher profile, for big profits, because it enabled me to buy, and enjoy, more music. The most I’ve ever paid for an album is £36, for the 4CD box set of Zaireeka.

In terms of the wider mythology and affection which surrounds vinyl, the stories people tell about it beyond, y’know, actually listening to it, well; all the things people enthuse about having done with LPs – read the lyrics while listening, studied the artwork, pored over the production credits, even skinned up a joint or chopped out a line on them – people have also done with CDs. These experiences are every bit as valid and meaningful and powerful as their wax analogues, and dismissing them – whether deliberately or as a side-effect of the display of your own preferences – is unpleasant and unnecessary.

Because the discourse which so often surrounds vinyl can often and easily be alienating and elitist and gatekeeperish. Vinyl fans will dismiss CDs as soulless, but the 12” LP evolved directly as a capitalist tool of record companies to increase profits by coercing music fans into paying money for songs they may not necessarily want.

Chris Molanphy gave a presentation at the 2011 EMP conference about the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart and how it, well, charted the (US) music industry’s tempestuous relationship with the single and the tactics it’s used to make us buy albums (and the way it’s marginalized black and female performers by ghettoizing the genres they often work in as ‘singles’ genres, thus keeping big album profits by and large for white men). I wasn’t at the conference but yesterday Chris kindly sent me a PDF of his slides and notes; it’s fascinating reading. I’ve asked him to put it online permanently for posterity, and if he does, I’ll link it.

My conclusion from Chris’ work is that much of rock mythology is a lie, concocted, like most lies since the industrial revolution (and probably since the dawn of human history), in order to make people part with something in order to benefit the liar. The music industry wants us to worship the LP rather than the single in order to draw more money out of us, and the esteem within which vinyl is held is a part of this mythology. The side effect of this, of course, is a whole heap of wonderful albums that we love, but the application of even the slightest bit of Marxist cultural theory should make us question the ontology of the music that we love; the means of production influences the means of consumption, and vice versa. It’s partly this questioning that makes me favour the CD as my musical carrier of choice. The CD just fits best, for me, right now. And has done for 20 years.

(I got my first CD player 20 years ago this May, for the record; for my 14th birthday.)

The CD has its issues as well, of course – it’s encouraged hideous mastering practices, and made incalculable profits for a greedy industry in the 90s, the fallout of which is being felt now. (Interestingly CD sales, and thus profits, start falling at about the time CD mastering starts going off-the-scale into idiocy, which is also when downloading begins to get a foothold; there’s a PhD’s worth of research and pontification here.)

I asked people on twitter, unrelatedly, just before the program started last night, to tell me one thing that made them love a particular song; I got a dozen and more responses, and none of them mentioned the format it was on. Lyrics, melodies, sounds, specific bits of arrangements, emotions; all mentioned. But no one mentioned vinyl, or CD, or MP3, or Ogg Vorbis or wax cylinder or 8-track or cassingle or anything else. It was the music they were bothered about, not the delivery system.

So I think what irritated me most about last night’s show, and the vinyl revival in general, is the idea and myth of rock music, this hoary, old, patriarchal dog that refuses to die. Vinyl, in its totemic form, is a symbol of that. The people programming the media now – the executives and controllers and senior presenters – are in their 50s and 60s; vinyl is their format, rock is their era, and they wont let us forget about it. But their experiences are not everyone else’s. They’re certainly not mine. If rock was ever about change and energy and youth and the future, it needs to get over its past.

So, essentially, I’m irritated by the vinyl revival, if we’re calling it that, because I often feel like my experience as a music fan is being written off as invalid because it wasn’t mediated with vinyl. I resent being made to feel as if I don’t like music as much as someone else because I was born at a time when the ‘wrong’ format was in vogue. The format itself is fine, and beautiful, and can sound wonderful, and if you prefer it as your carrier for music, all power to your elbow. But don’t diminish my experiences to do so.

Postscript
Purely by chance, Sony have announced that they’ll cease production of their final minidisc player in March, news of which lead me to this old ILM thread from 2003 pitching minidisc against MP3 (minidisc seems to come out best!), wherein Jonesey drops some science about why CDs actually are better than vinyl on a technical level, busting myths about sampling-rates and so on.

12 albums not from 2012

Sometimes, in fact often, the most important records for me in any given year aren’t the salivated-over new releases, but the “why didn’t I hear this before?” discoveries, the things you’d ignored or dismissed or not got round to or simply not heard of previously. The back catalogue albums.

These might be re-releases or remasterings (although I’m pointedly not including My Bloody Valentine’s remasters here, as I knew all the music very well beforehand, and this list is about stuff I discovered for the first time), or explorations of the oeuvre of an artist whose brand new album you’ve fallen for, or they might be inspirations referenced in interviews by current beau musicians. Often, over the last couple of years, they’ve been records introduced to me by my fellow Devon Record Club members at our fortnightly meetings.

Every year I feel like I promise myself (and my wife) that I’ll buy less back catalogue albums over the coming 52 weeks. This year I promised I’d only buy one a month at the absolute most; with a fortnight and more of the year to go, I’ve bought 36. I don’t know how. I still fancy a trip to Rise Records in Bristol or The Drift in Totness before the month is out. Currently, these are my favourites.

Dungen – Ta Det Lungt
Various algorithms have been recommending Ta Det Lungt to me for years, but for some reason this year my desire to listen to it finally reached critical mass – I’m not sure why. Finally buying and enjoying this unashamedly retro psyche rock / jazz cornucopia is probably what’s stopped me from investigating Goat – I feel like I’ve got my fill of northern European psychedelia for the year.

Field Music – Tones of Town / Measure
Cheating, I know to put two records, but so it goes. Inspired by falling for Plumb so hard, I quickly went back and picked up the Field Music records I’d missed first time around, and found them both beautifully agreeable. A very special band.

The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
Tom played this at Devon Record Club, and I fell for the Velvet-Underground-with-a-smile aesthetic straight away. A name and reputation I’d known for years, but never pursued.

Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends
I bought the latest remaster of Bridge Over Troubled Water to play at DRC myself, and, falling in love with it all over again, I also picked up Bookends for a pittance. As well as the fact that it has songs like “America” and “Mrs Robinson” on it, it also has the astonishingly modernistic and confusing “Save The Life Of My Child”. A very different record to Bridge…, but still awesome.

Roxy Music – Avalon
An obvious pick-up (for about £3) given my Kaputt love from last year.

Destroyer – Streethawk: A Seduction
As was this; Em spent a fortnight in America for work in February this year, and I asked if, while she was in NYC, she’d see if she could pick up this early acclaimed peak of Bejar’s from Bleeker Street records; she duly obliged (it’s seemingly impossible to find over here). Far more rewarding than a squashed dime.

Beastie Boys – The Mix-Up
A sentimental purchase in the days after Adam Yauch’s untimely, sad death. I’ve always enjoyed Beastie instrumentals, and this recent-ish collection shows off just how integral his musicianship was to the band; every piece here lives by its bassline, pretty much. We lost one of the best this year.

The Antlers – Hospice
Another DRC-inspired purchase, after Rob played Burst Apart at our ‘albums of 2011’ session. Falling heavily for their latest, I ordered this highly-acclaimed concept album too. It’s a very different record to Burst Apart, and I think I prefer where the band are going now, but this is a heck of a piece of work nonetheless, deeply emotional and affecting.

Hauschka – Salon Des Amateurs
A little cheeky, as a CD of Salon Des Amateurs literally arrived only this morning. We saw Hauschka last weekend at ATP and his set of prepared piano and drums was one of the most beautiful, intriguing, and enjoyable of the whole festival, especially when he went full-on jazz-house for the penultimate number. I ordered this from our chalet the next day, direct from the record label’s website. The album itself sees Hauschka layer his prepared piano (via computer-based recordings) (and with occasional touches of drums, brass, strings, harmonica and mandolin) into house/techno-ish arrangements. The prepared piano (preparing it by tying wire and laying other objects on the strings and hammers inside it) allows him access to a huge array of textures and sounds, man of which you’d assume were digital in origin. There’s a complexity and sophistication and organicness which marks out what Hauschka’s creating here from ‘real’ (as it were) dance music, but nevertheless it’s definitely of a kin. It’s also an absolute joy and pleasure to listen to – tuneful, fascinating, rhythmically addictive and compelling. Off one listen, I know I’ll be turning to this record for years to come.

CAN – Anthology
Although I’ve had various copies of the first five or so CAN albums since I was a teenager, I’ve never picked-up the legendary Anthology until now, meaning I’ve missed whole swathes of fascinating stuff post-Damo Suzuki, and that I’ve never heard the (arguably superior) edits of mammoth tracks like “Mother Sky” and “Halleluwah”. I was probably put off by the fact that they look like aging college professors still desperate to be cool on the cover. With CDs packed into boxes at the end of July, I picked this up recklessly in HMV in August when I had a desperate urge to listen to CAN and this was all that was available. Although I’m gutted it misses crazy b-side “Turtles Have Short Lets” (seemingly unavailable on CD), I’m still very glad I finally succumbed.

Lindstrom & Prins Tomas – II
This was like a cosmic-disco sticking plaster for the weird semi-aberration that was Six Cups of Rebel. It more than made up for that misstep.

The National – Boxer
Like I wrote the other day on returning from ATP, I simply don’t understand how I didn’t fall for this five years ago, except to say that bloody-mindedness has its uses and its failings, too.

National Motorways

All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by The National

I’ve often wondered whether one day we’ll get to the point where we don’t need roadworks anymore – all the nation’s motorways beautifully surfaced, all the bridges and overpasses structurally sound, every bend and junction and lane everywhere finally finished – and we’ll no longer require maintenance crews, lane closures, flashing orange traffic cones, average speed checks or temporary central reservation barriers.

Of course, this is a crazy pondering: the very act of driving on roads causes them stress and strain and wear and tear – they’ll never be finished. They’re not a thing that can be finished. Few things are; almost everything is a process; moving, changing, not static. That goes for people as much as tarmac.

We went to All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by The National, over the weekend. I saw (at least some of) 19 different acts perform live over the three days. On Monday we drove back home from Camber Sands in the morning, dozed for an hour, and then drove to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf play the penultimate date of his acoustic tour at St George’s hall. Then last night I had a work Christmas do. I can’t remember the last time I did five nights out on the trot. I feel like I’m coming down with a cold now.

I’m not a massive fan of The National – we bought tickets almost as soon as they were announced primarily because we’d enjoyed last year’s ATP so much, and we love Wild Beasts, Antlers, and Owen Pallett, who were announced early on. Em likes them much more than I do; she’s listened to High Violet a lot and loves it, but I think my ambivalence towards them probably prevented her getting really into them. I feel guilty about this; just because I don’t like something all that much doesn’t mean anybody else shouldn’t, especially my wife. My opinions are loud and not always right.

I bought Alligator when it came out in 2005, and quite liked it. I was sent a promo of Boxer a couple of years later, and thought it was alright too. But they never clicked with me, for whatever reason – in 2007 I was busy with Caribou and Patrick Wolf and Battles and Spoon and so on, and didn’t have room, aesthetically or emotionally, perhaps to invest in someone else. Looking back now, I’m baffled that I didn’t go ga-ga for Fake Empire’s strange build and horns. At the time I wrote something on ILM about how The National were “a no-concept band” with “decent lyrics, decent tunes, decent arrangements”; I think I was struggling to find a USP as a way-in to a straight-up ‘rock’ band. Sometimes I struggle with straight-up ‘rock’ music. I think their occasional fondness for Adam-Clayton-esque basslines probably causes me hesitancy too. I tend not to trust people who use overtly Adam-Clayton-aping basslines. In 2007 I was on my anti-dynamic-range-compression campaign, too, and Boxer could have been more lightly touched, I suppose. I probably dismissed many otherwise perfectly fine records out of principal back then – I probably still do. I had (still have) a point to prove.

But I’ve come away from ATP a massive convert to The National. Partly thanks to their brass section; partly thanks to a beautiful, acoustic sing-along version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” as a set-and-festival-closer; partly due to a beautiful, drifting song they played live with Nico Muhly (which may have been brand-new); partly thanks to their evidently massive heart and enthusiasm; but largely due to the nature of the weekend itself.

I’m not talking about the fact that I loved the weekend so now I love the headliners (not quite; though that’s almost certainly part of it): I mean the way the weekend worked, the enthusiasm and care that the band obviously put into curating. The National seemed to have produced or played with almost everyone else on the bill; and those they hadn’t worked with directly were revealed as inspirations. There was a member of The National, usually a Dessner twin, at just about every set by every act.

Seeing these carefully chosen acts, be they influences or musical familial links, exploded the context of The National’s music for me; seeing Michael Rother play the music of Neu! and Harmonia made Bryan Devendorf’s hectic, repetitive drumming make perfect sense; seeing the flamenco guitar and cello of Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus caused me to hear ripples through Bryce Dessner’s guitar; seeing Hauschka’s minimalist prepared piano (with delirious, highlight-of-the-weekend diversions into full-on jazz-house electronic territory) snapped Mat Berninger’s melodies and song structures into focus. Every act we saw seemed to lead the way towards The National’s climactic, rapturous set, and the band evolved in my mind from an interesting and commendable halfway house between Tindersticks and early Interpol into something incredibly worthwhile and characterful in their own right. That USP that I was looking for five years ago? It’s that they’re really good. Really, really good. That’s enough.

They’re also consummate curators, judging both by this festival and the Dark Was The Night compilation (masterminded by the Dessners) a few years ago. Collaborators, too; as well as the huge list of people they’ve produced records by recently, there’s also a huge swathe of people they’ve worked with – Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent and Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Parry and Owen Pallett and the Kronos Quartet and David Byrne and Sharon Van Etten and on and on and on.

This type of constant, flexible collaboration and hunger to make music in many directions at once, with many people, for solo albums and side projects and one-offs, is almost alien to someone who came of musical age during Britpop, when it was a spirit of competition and antagonism that drove success; “Oasis v Blur” not “Oasis with Blur”. There’s definitely, over the last decade or so, something going on with American and Canadian “alternative” music. Em always used to say that she liked hip-hop culture because of the way artists guested on and produced each others’ records, the sense of community that there was (although, obviously, that sense of community has had its problems, and major problems at that, with antagonism); that seems to be very much the case with this school of musicians. Whether it’s in part encouraged, or just documented, by the likes of Pitchfork and other web music communication tools, I don’t know. But it’s certainly fascinating, and rewarding, if a little difficult to keep up with the sprawling, interconnected spider-diagram which links The National to Sufjan Stevens to St. Vincent to Grizzly Bear to Owen Pallett to Caribou to Four Tet to Radiohead (so there is UK representation and participation, although it’s telling that Wild Beasts were the only British act on the bill, as far as I could tell) to whoever and etcetera and so on and so forth.

Anyway, this is everyone I saw over the weekend (Em saw them all too, except Michael Rother and Deerhoof)…

Friday
Hayden
Hauschka
Bear in Heaven
(5 minutes of) Tim Hecker

Saturday
So Percussion
Kronos Quartet
Lower Dens
Michael Rother
Sharon Van Etten
Antlers
Wild Beasts

Sunday
Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus
My Brightest Diamond
The Philistines Jr
(5 minutes of) Perfume Genius
Owen Pallett
(30 seconds of) Deerhoof
Local Natives
The National

Monday (not at ATP, obviously)
Abi Wade
Patrick Wolf

Other than The National, and the tangible spirit that ran through the whole weekend itself, highlights included Wild Beasts playing all of Smother in order, and then a big chunk of Two Dancers to boot: Owen Pallett charming, beguiling, and mystifying the audience with his generous nature and wonderful, creative music (I’ve seen a lot of ways to play violin and cello lately, many of them baffling): Antlers, threatening to spiral down the Jeff-Buckley-fronts-very-early-Verve rabbit hole of beatific psychedelic meandering despite technical difficulties: Michael Rother bringing to life some of my favourite music ever: Hauschka producing the closest thing to dance music of the weekend (the lack of electronic influence would be about my only complaint: that, and no bowling alley): standing next to a little guy with a moustache at seemingly every set, only for him to appear onstage as the singer of Local Natives (who I knew pretty much nothing about but now own an album by) on Sunday night: the Buddha Bowl van serving delicious vegan “scraps” outside the pub: meeting people I’ve previously only spoken to online and discovering them to be real live human beings, which is always nice: So Percussion’s syncopating finale: Gaspar and Pedro’s genial, gentle introduction to Sunday: Sharon Van Etten being as good as people said. There were others too, but these will be the things I remember.

So what have motorways got to do with all of this? Like wondering if the motorways will ever be finished, I sometimes used to think I was looking for some kind of perfect band who fitted some platonic ideal, who would make a perfect album, and I’d never need to listen to anything else again. This is, of course, a ridiculous idea, like assuming that humankind is evolving and improving towards some end-point nirvana. Seven years ago, when I first encountered them, I think I wanted The National to be that band, realised quickly that they weren’t, and dismissed them. Unfairly. They don’t need to be that band. No one does. It’s a crazy idea.