Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Anna Calvi: Artist and album review

 Water Rats, London - July 2009

I first saw Anna Calvi supporting Carina Round (whom I also first experienced as a support act, opening for Gutter Twins) in July 2009 at the Water Rats. She was jaw-droppingly good, cue close to two years waiting impatiently for her self-titled debut album to be released on Domino Records...

The record remains one of, if not the strongest release of 2011 and has what seems a rare sense of identity and confidence seldom seen from a debut these days. It's been described as a dark record and while one could easily nod in agreement to that statement, it perhaps conjures the wrong impression, yes it's dark on occasion but I find it a beautiful and uplifting effort. Anna knows when to leave space for the songs to breathe and other moments to let the music soar to a natural crescendo. It's the ease with which Anna is comfortable in such a wide dynamic range and volume that demands attention from the listener, and it's certainly an album that rewards any attention you can afford. When it's all too easy for music to become a bit more disposable in this digital age, it's seemingly hard to make time to just sit down and listen to something, but I assure you, dear readers, this deserves your time.

Having first experienced Anna in a live setting, you can't help but be struck at how incredible her guitar playing skills are, this virtuousity appears in a more subtle form on the record overall, so I would certainly urge you to catch her live if at all possible. Though this is not to say these studio versions are in any way watered down, there's just something about the intensity and passion with which she performs live and her range of skills from classical to flamenco, rock and blues become overtly evident.

Oxford - May 2011 

Anna is complimented by drummer/backing vocalist Daniel Maiden-Wood, who dominates his modest setup and knows just the right moments to add a bit of flare or drive a song forward. Mally Harpaz completes the lineup, mostly playing the harmonium (that's an instrument you don't see all that often) but also contributes with other instruments and additional percussion.

Calvi's vocals are reminiscent of some of my favourite singers such Jeff Buckley and PJ Harvey (unfortunately it seems to be quite hard to be a good female singer without being compared to the great Polly Jean at some point...) among others.

The album kicks off with a low-key guitar instrumental, Rider to the Sea, which hints towards an Ennio Morricone Spaghetti Western standoff. Desire is the second single release from the record, Calvi uses phrases like "the devil" as personal metaphors and this song features Brian Eno, who is a huge fan. Desire has a real drive to it while it's also hard not to be entranced with the perfect production on the record, you get some sense of euphoria as she belts out the chorus while the song builds to a triumphant finale.

My personal favourite song on the album is Suzanne And I, I love the pounding drums and the perfect guitar sound, it's a real victory and as you hear the album unfold you feel as though the band have really agonised over every single second of every song, they must all take their art very seriously but do so in a way that doesn't come across as pretentious. Listening to interviews where Anna is so mild and softly-spoken you wonder how she must flip some kind of mental switch to project such a powerful and commanding vocal when singing.

Oxford - May 2011  

The Devil certainly evokes the Jeff Buckley reference I made earlier and it's these quiet, reflective songs that really draw you in, immersed in the space between each note, aching for the next snare hit like listening to the best slowcore can offer. The mood perks up again with the album's debut single, Blackout, which features some rare bass guitar but at this point that only emphasises how little the presence of a bottom-end has been missed (and this coming from someone who plays bass).

I think this performance of Love Won't Be Leaving (from the TV show Live From Abbey Road, the song starts at 1:21) showcases Anna's all-round qualities, the dynamic range I spoke of, great voice and the blistering guitar solo is something to behold. Please give it your time, I do wish the extended mid-section was on the record. The only word I can use is blistering!

I wanted to get this blog piece done in time to predict that Anna would get nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize - I couldn't really care less about it, but people do usually get some extra exposure from it, which will hopefully be the case here. There's something old and new that Anna is doing and I imagine I will continue to be entranced by her and hope she has a long career, let's hope she isn't put under too much pressure and allowed to flourish on her own terms.

Oxford - May 2011  

All photos taken by me apart from the album cover.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Misconceptions of Atheism

(Image by Terry Border)

The term atheist strikes many different emotional chords which usually depend on a person’s own feelings towards the existence of deities (all across the scale from the major religions to simple deism and even agnostics). I want to convey what it actually means to be an atheist, and the unfortunate misconceptions that people tend to have towards the subject of atheism.

So, let’s start off with what atheism is. There is only one thing that makes someone an atheist, and that is the lack of belief in the existence of deities. Aside from this relatively simple criteria, atheists are free to think and do as they wish (though atheism is no free pass to anarchy!). This is a very liberating position in which to be.

It’s true that as a consequence of not believing in the existence of god (or gods, but from this point on I will specify god as a singular entity as not to continually repeat myself) there are likely and logical conclusions that the majority of atheists will share. Agreeing or disagreeing with other atheists does not make one a bigger/better or lesser atheist, however. You can’t sort-of believe in a god, anything greater than 0 (the number of gods one believes in) is not atheism. People also confuse atheism with secularism (separation of church and state) or humanism, which is a non-religious belief system. Atheism needn’t be confused with either as many religious people are secularists, seeing the benefit of a church/state separation and atheists needn’t adhere to any particular belief system.

“But why aren’t you agnostic?” - One of the more common attacks on atheists is that we’re sure that there is no god, how arrogant! We’re all atheists with regards to Zeus, Poseidon, Neptune or any of the numerable gods that are no longer considered in our current discourse. The only difference between atheists and monotheists is that we have gone one god further. Theists (and I would urge, agnostics) only need to understand why they themselves do not believe in any number of other gods to realise why we don’t believe in theirs. Which position holds greater arrogance - the one that doesn’t believe the universe was created by a deity with only our benefit in mind, or the one that does? We also don’t make or have materials to make claims about physics, chemistry or biology that not even the greatest scientists currently know.

And yet, people who criticise religion are often claimed to be little more than disrespectful bullies. This is usually a last resort from a theist or religious apologist. Similar low-blows include claiming that atheism is just another religion or that there are fundamental atheists, it’s funny to consider that such desperation is little more than saying you’re just as bad as we are! However, atheism is not a religion (how could it be? Consider whether not collecting stamps is a hobby, for example) nor a belief system or a way to live ones life, and if there are atheist fundamentalists this is a case for fundamentalism being wrong, not atheism. When criticising religion I believe it is important to recognise a couple of things: Criticise the idea, not the individual – ignorance is not a crime and neither is stupidity, we are all ignorant and stupid with regards to many subjects and every single person is capable of being the victim of delusion. We can only hope that people are honest enough to look at evidence and come to a realistic conclusion when better reasons appear to believe something (in other words; ignorance is redeemable, but choosing to remain ignorant is indefensible). Secondly, one has to realise that when criticising religion, all people are doing is delivering rational critique, ridicule and satire in the same manner that everybody else does when it comes to every other topic available to us, and hope that people have the requisite mental capacity to deal with that as they would in those other topics (this to me, is nothing but a mark of respect). People who scream about intolerance and lack of respect must recognise hypocrisy whenever they use these tools elsewhere. 

 (Images from the Hubble Telescope)
I’ve heard that atheists see no wonder or mystery in the world by reducing everything to a material/mechanical level – Science may tell us how things work or what things are, but this does not take away any beauty in reality. Stars and galaxies are no less awe inspiring just because the god of Abraham didn’t click his fingers and make them. The flora and fauna on this planet are no less miraculous having ultimately evolved from a common single-cell organism billions of years ago. There is beauty and awe for all to see in every direction, past and present. Flying horses and burning bushes cannot hold a candle to the images we are treated to of space (see images above). Atheists can be spiritual, have spiritual experiences and appreciate the numinous - these words need not be linked with the supernatural.

Consider the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc - often cited as criticisms towards atheistic or secular societies. The problem with these monstrous dictators of the 20th century were not that they were the opposite of religion, they were too much like a religion! Any form of totalitarianism is a very, very bad thing indeed (as well as dogmatism/fundamentalism, these are the greatest crimes of which the human mind is capable). It’s also worth noting that wherever there is fascism in history, the catholic church doesn’t tend to be very far behind. It has been said elsewhere, but no society has ever suffered for being too reasonable.

Thankfully the notion that atheists have no sense of morality has long been quashed but it does crop up from time to time. There is no genuine moral action that a person of faith could undertake (because of their faith) that a non-believer could not. However, there are numerous immoral actions that religious people have undertaken because of their doctrine. Do people who make these claims on morality think that they themselves would be raping and pillaging were they to stop believing? This line of reckoning strikes me as having little confidence in their own moral compass. The golden rule, and versions of it, has been in many cultures throughout history much earlier than many appear to give it credit. We have great evolutionary reasons for our innate sense of right and wrong.

My own path to atheism? I suppose I can’t remember a time where I did truly believe in a deity, I don’t remember a eureka moment where I suddenly decided that religion couldn’t possibly be true, or that any of the numerous gods were simply man-made. I remember at primary school, dreading that we had to waste our time in communal prayer at assembly every day (basically forcing all the children in the school into a single room to utter the lords prayer among other bible stories), perhaps this early attempt by society to unjustifiably force worship down our throats was the beginning of my critical thinking (in which case I should be grateful?), but how many were lost to this seduction? Skipping ahead a few years into my first few days of secondary school, our first lesson in Religious Education (compulsory in schools, which I don’t disagree with, but it should be taught purely in a historical and cultural context. The King James Bible in particular is a fine work of literature with which one must be familiar to appreciate the English language at all) and our homework was to draw god. I failed to complete this task as the teacher said it was due for not the next lesson but the lesson after, yet called for the work in the next lesson and was angry when I said I hadn’t done it (not my fault!). Since the rest of the class had already completed the work, my god page remained blank, with hindsight this seems the best possible answer in any case. I don’t even remember ever hearing the word atheist until I heard Captain Sensible mention The God Delusion with praise at a Damned Gig back in 2006 (I got the book as a present the next year), perhaps we shouldn’t even have a word for atheism, we don’t feel compelled to describe ourselves as non-racist, for example. I’m happy to call myself an atheist given the current zeitgeist, but who knows if culture will change in the future. For the most part, I would argue today that it’s generally considered that most people have a religious belief unless otherwise specified, therefore it feels necessary to have such a label for those that don’t believe. Personally, I can hope for a time in the future where the roles could be reversed - through means of rational inquiry and critical thinking.

There is nothing wrong with having the humility to admit ignorance to things we don’t know, indeed it is a necessary position in all topics until compelling evidence arises (this is the reason why most atheists have come to their conclusion about god - a lack of evidence) and to accept change when yet better evidence becomes available. Let’s be realistic about our ignorance and not give in to the temptation to give credence to fanciful ideas and mere wish thinking, even if a religion may help someone behave kindly, there are surely better reasons, and reasons where one doesn’t have to cherry pick and ignore numerous acts of cruelty. One should be able to take influence from their religion (if they have one) the same way that one can take influence from anywhere. Claiming that holy books are the word of god is an unjustifiable and immoral position, and is one of intellectual dishonesty we can ill afford. Who knows, one particular religion may be right, but let’s not fool ourselves in the face of the evidence we currently have and the great lengths our species has gone to achieve it.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Desert Island Discs

Hello and welcome to Some Other Sucker's Parade! I hope this blog will be of interest and I plan on keeping an account of my interests in music, science, ethics and whatever subjects takes my fancy.

My first blog entry will be that of a long-standing tradition. I confess ignorance to the actual broadcasts, having never listened to any, yet the format is so ingrained in our culture that it should need no introduction. For the uninitiated, the point of this self-indulgent exercise is to choose 8 songs that have been of influence to you (one is tempted to pick the 8 current favourites at the time of writing, but it’s more interesting to have some other reasons), one book and a luxury item (for yet more information, see the official website). Of course, many of us may spend too much time considering the importance of food, shelter and creative ways to pick a luxury item (such as an industrial city…) upon finding oneself stranded on a desert island, but pragmatism plays no part in this game and we shall leave such rational thoughts at the door.

For a brief biographical introduction, I was born in 1982 in Oxford to young parents even for the time (doubly-so considering I am the middle offspring of three). I wasn’t musical at all in my youth and there may be many reasons for this, though I tend to think it most rational to conclude that the popular music of the time was simply rather inferior. This is a bold statement of course and many great artists from the 80s reveal themselves with little investigation, however, my own memories of the music of my youth remain ghastly entries from the likes of Journey, Foreigner, etc and if you quizzed my 7-year old self in 1989 I can say in all certainty I could not name another person associated with music other than Michael Jackson. It is no wonder I was so late to the party…

It wasn’t for the want of trying (I presume) or even exposure to music itself, music seemed to be on very frequently, either on the radio or my parent’s choice of record, it’s just that nothing clicked. I envy the stories most people can tell of early musical gifts, rifling through parents/siblings musical collections (with or without permission), poring over record sleeves and anticipating the crackle of needle-on-vinyl, these experiences are simply not present in my early years. In any case, it’s hard to look back on these missed opportunities of youth with too much regret for I have since made up for it, and perhaps I would not have the love I do for music had I followed a different path.

1 – REM – Man on the Moon:

My first entry will be the first song of any kind I can remember actively enjoying and for this I have to fast-forward to the ripe old age of 10, though it would still be a few years before music would become terribly important to me. The song is Man on the Moon by REM, I cannot explicitly remember the first time I heard it but I do so vividly remember being in primary school one day and having it in my head, the first song I can remember ever being trapped in there and the realisation that it was a pleasurable experience was a striking one. To this day I dearly love REM and it is hard to be objectionable about their output, the only album I wouldn’t rank highly is the rather turgid Around the Sun, though no doubt when I listen to it I probably still enjoy it.

The song may not change the world, it may not even be one of REM’s best but every time I hear it I can’t help but be filled with giddy excitement. The marriage of acoustic and electric guitars, all the background harmonies and I just love amazingly simple chorus (and the drum introduction to the chorus, there must be a word in drumming where the drummer hits a drum (in this case, the snare) with both sticks at the same time?), has there been a set of cymbals produced with such clarity as this song? I don’t know. Moral to the story to this point – music is good!

2 – Del Amitri – Be My Downfall:

My second entry will be from Del Amitri, I was starting to like music a little more after hearing Man on the Moon and some other assorted songs (for my sins I include Two Princes by the Spin Doctors in that assortment, we all have our guilty pleasures) but when I heard Del Amitri at aged 14 I suddenly loved music. The missing link in my musical evolution up to that point, there are few who share my deep passion for this band and it was a point of ridicule at secondary school. Del Amitri are not cool, never have been and never will be and that’s perhaps one of the reasons I relate to their songs, though it is not the root cause. I could wax lyrical about the reasons I came to love their music (perhaps more worthy of a separate blog entry), from Justin Currie’s masterful wordplay, as if he was writing for me (though having never had a relationship at that stage of my life, I could only relate to what I thought relationships and loneliness would feel like!), to Iain Harvie's guitar parts, to any number of reasons, but something in my mind clicked the day I listened to a cassette tape of Change Everything. I’d actually listened to side B first and was instantly converted with songs such as The Ones That You Love Lead You Nowhere, Always the Last to Know, etc, etc, but upon flipping to side A I was greeted with Be My Downfall and I remember noticing the lyrics to a song for the first time and what a profound effect they could have on the listener. Suddenly, a lyric like the bus is pulling out and I guess I’d better go, before I make a grave mistake and let my feeling show had a visual, emotional and melodic resonance to which I had not previously experienced.
I can not overstate the importance Del Amitri had on my appreciation of music for which I will always be grateful, or perhaps given the thousands of pounds I have since spent on music I should not be grateful! If I were picking a desert island album then I suspect 1995’s Twisted will forever be my number 1, but Be My Downfall was certainly the catalyst from which all my love of music has spawned. Moral to the story to this point – music can be life changing (also add - lyrics can radically enhance the experience)

3 – Rush – 2112:

So, where to go from there? All personal experience from music would appear less important from that moment, but this needn’t be the case. When you are so obsessed with one particular band so much it is hard to think you’ll ever listen to anything else! But my attention was soon to be divided by Rush, what’s odd about my love for Rush is that I hated them for years, but a slow war of attrition was won by this Canadian trio. What’s more interesting is that it was the same song that caused so much discomfort to my ears that was the one I came to obsess over, and that is 2112. I think the biggest problem I always had with the band was Geddy Lee’s banshee wail, and perhaps it’s the reason that 2112: Overture was the point that swung the balance, I was hypnotised by it… DA-DA, DA-DA-DARRRRR… DA! DADADA! It was a combination of musical virtuosity and energy that perhaps I was not ready for. After this point, the rest of 2112 became the next phase to appreciate. Clearly, I was not ready for Geddy Lee’s shrieking vocal, but it was not long before mere intolerance became tolerance, which later turned into great appreciation. The other striking revelation was the ability of Geddy’s bass playing, there probably is no greater contrast of bass players than Justin Currie’s incredibly basic style and Geddy’s fret board acrobatics. Moral to the story up to this point – don’t dismiss anything, opinions can change.

4 - Tim Buckley – Song to the Siren (live on the Monkees TV show)

I am a huge fan of Tim’s son, Jeff (for me, his death is the greatest loss to music, given what he didn’t have time to do) and so it was a natural progression for me to explore his father’s work. I dipped my toe into Tim’s music with the excellent 2-CD anthology, Morning Glory, and having been wowed by both discs I was overcome with emotion on the final song of the second disc. Song to the Siren has been covered by many artists over the years and Buckley’s own studio version is very good, but it’s this acoustic performance on the Monkees TV show that resonates far greater than anything else. When I first heard this it affected me greatly in many ways, the beautiful music and Buckley’s enchanting vocal, but as a recently turned 21-year old, relationships with the opposite sex had always eluded me (I can’t say I blamed them!), though I was besotted with a girl on the other side of the Atlantic ocean with whom I had recently began conversing, the distance and difficulty of which seemed to be exactly like the song. I flung the song on the end of a compilation CD I made as a kind of admission, for I was far too shy to show my feelings. Thankfully for me (possibly not so much for her), this girl eventually became my wife and I think we’d both agree that this is our song. Moral to the story – music can connect people and sometimes convey emotions better than individuals.

5 – TV On the Radio – The Wrong Way:

I’ve never taken much influence from reviews and/or magazine articles. Most of my discoveries have been from recommendations of either friends or bands/artists that I admired. There are exceptions, however, and I remember being utterly captivated by an article in a magazine I bought called Plan B, I purchased the magazine because Stephin Merritt (of The Magnetic Fields) was on the front cover but there was an article which described a new band in such an interesting way that I had to check them out. The band was TV On the Radio and their debut album, Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes was somehow a favourite before even hearing the music. Thankfully I was not to be disappointed! The band’s website advertised a streaming of the album and it kicked off with a bang, The Wrong Way opens with horns and the most sludgy and dirtiest bass sound I had ever heard, there was a confident swagger to the whole thing and a myriad of sounds that were blowing my mind. TV on the Radio remain the greatest band of this millennium and it will be a dramatic day when/if they are knocked off that perch.

6 - Arvo Part – Spiegel Im Spiegel:

I remember a few years ago jotting down a list of artists that Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) had listed as favourites on his MySpace page (remember those?) and browsing other MySpace pages to see what they sounded like. After sifting through a variety of what you could call the good, the bad and the ugly, I was utterly mesmerized by Spiegel Im Spiegel by Arvo Part, there are many recordings of this piece but by far the best are the ones on the Alina record and it is without hesitation these days when I say that this is my favourite piece of music. It is a devastatingly beautiful and relatively simple piece of music and it would be guilty of all clich├ęd praise such as tugging at the heart strings, but if anything it causes a gentle caress of the tear ducts, I don’t think I’ve failed to lacrimate upon hearing it. Part created the tintinnabular style of composition, of which this is a wonderful example. Moral of the story – always have a tissue nearby.

7 – Unida – Black Woman:

If I’m stuck on a desert island I imagine that sometimes I am just going to be fed up and in need of an injection of energy and there’s no better man for the job than John Garcia. Garcia is best known as the front man of the sadly departed band Kyuss (I’m not sure if the newly reformed Kyuss Lives is quite the real deal, but no doubt a lot of fun), while Josh Homme has achieved much critical acclaim since the demise of Kyuss, Garcia has quietly been releasing material of far greater worth. Unida represent Garcia at his peak and Black Woman is a face-ripping 5-minute onslaught of the senses. If I’m on a desert island, I should have some desert rock! This song appears on my favourite stoner/desert rock album of all time, Coping with the Urban Coyote. Moral to the story - never forget your inner rock!

8 – The Flirtations – Nothing but a Heartache:

My final entry will be my current favourite song of all time which I heard on a cold evening in October (2010), having acquired the rhino boxset One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found, a 120-track 4-CD essential collection (buy it!). After hearing Nothing But a Heartache by The Flirtations for the first time… words seem inappropriate... perhaps I was under a delusion, thankfully I had the benefit of simply repeating the experiment again, was it really that good? The answer was an emphatic yes, it was that good, in fact, it was better! My love of soul music has taken off in the last year and this song has been the driving force of my obsession. The group never bettered this song but there’s a compilation called Sounds Like the Flirtations that is well worth a purchase. Moral to the story – never stop searching for new musical experiences. I made reference to being late to the party earlier on, now I feel like Mr Creosote, sometimes I feel like I’m about to burst and yet there’s so much more music I still have to experience! 

What book would I choose? When I said I would be leaving rational thoughts at the door I was perhaps not entirely truthful. My selection of book could be considered a fairly queer entry for those that know me, for it is a book I haven't read. I can’t recall if I’ve ever read a book more than once, there are too many other books I would like to experience. So the thought of being stranded on a desert island with something I’ve already read and enjoyed is a much different proposition than listening to songs I will continue to love again and again. I have a practical agenda for this choice and that is, if I am to be stranded, alone on a desert island for perhaps the rest of my life, I think it’s rational to explore meditation. Even as a staunch atheist I think one has to accept that there just may be something worth exploring when it comes to the art of mental training and introspection. One needn’t put a religious spin on such a practice. Sam Harris (I would very much recommend his book The Moral Landscape and search YouTube for various debates and speeches) has many interesting things to say about meditation (reassuringly so, given his rational mind), culminated in one of his blogs and so I would pick one of the books he recommends: Mindfulness in Plain English, by Bhante Gunaratana, The Experience of Insight, by Joseph Goldstein or Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Whilst I currently do not have the inclination or time to pursue such practices I can see a great benefit to using ones time, and one has rather a lot of it in this scenario, to exploring the plasticity of the human mind (without giving credence to religious wishful thinking).

And what of a luxury item? If I could get away with such a request (and also assuming that the island I am stranded on has the necessary natural ingredients…) then I think a good luxury item would be some kind of wine-making kit, if my attempts at meditation failed to bear fruit, at least I’d be able to get drunk, bottoms up!