Dean Friedman, Hastings, 9 May 2017

I was alerted to Dean Friedman’s appearance by the White Rock Theatre only five days before, but it was a no-brainer. Of all of my teenage/early 20s influences (ELO, Devo, Blondie, Kate Bush, The Smiths), Dean Friedman is the one that provided the yearning for adulthood. The notion of love between the sheets tormented me. And that woman, Lydia, accommodating that toothbrush, dissolved away my frontal lobe. Then there was that room where a cuckoo clock tells you that you are reflected in all of the things you own. I had a cuckoo clock (but no rocking chair).

I had seen him once before at the Hull Truck Theatre, at least 35 years ago. I am generally reluctant to revisit the past. I made an important exception here. And took the opportunity to introduce my beloved to this world.

The stage hosted a grand piano, a Yamaha keyboard and a guitar. And him. Each song has its own story – and not always the obvious one. The Shopping Bag Ladies were part of Friedman’s daily commute to New York. Company, was influenced by Paul McCartney’s Blackbird (to find out how, you have to go to the show or attend one of his song-writing workshops). He did not say too much about the S&M song, but it was great to hear it. Ariel captures that youthful exuberance of discovery, being “high” and the softness of the mouth. Only Dean Friedman wrote lyrics like that, at least in my world at that time.

There is a new album available today. It is called 12 Tunes and we were introduced to a number of the songs from it. Whilst youth is long gone, the use of song to capture life’s ongoing magic and frustrations is still in Friedman’s gift. “We must have done something right” he sings in reference to his child rearing. On being too busy he asks “how does everyone do it?”. The loss of an old friend – his guitar – “This guitar can’t hold a tune no more”. Clever, witty, metaphorical, reflective.

And so to the dark side. Early in the set there was a song about a former girlfriend that he was happy to see go. It was not complementary in tone or language. It reminded me of John Cooper Clarke’s brilliant Twat. I was not expecting that. Then he lulled us into a false sense of security about neighbourly relations. To paraphrase, if we cannot get on with our neighbours, how are we supposed to get on with people from other countries? Before unleashing a wonderfully vicious song about bad neighbours and escalating tensions. Revenge, even.

Talking of which, I remember Tim Minchin discussing one of his revenge songs written about a journalist who gave him a particularly bad review, the effect of which can be significant. Power without responsibility. Friedman regaled the audience about a phone call that he got from a friend in the UK telling  him there was a song on an album by a bizarrely-named band, Half Man, Half Biscuit, entitled The Bastard Son of Dean Friedman. The essence of this song is that the narrator has to deal with learning of his origins and coping with the ridicule and shame. That same album contained a song with a lyric “why is Rod Hull alive – and getting paid as well?” Older British Readers will know what that means. Friedman, suffice to say, was in good company.

It was not absolutely clear in the first instance whether Friedman was flattered or hurt by the Bastard Son. But his song riposte had light touches and humour. Or at least the way I heard it. I think that was the point of Nigel Blackwell’s/Half Man’s original song?

I end my review with a reflection on a song that captures what Dean Friedman does best. Gone, understandably, is Ariel’s manic, rapid heart beating sprint and replaced by a matured reflection on the really important things. Prompted by the question from a stranger at a party – something which Friedman seems to eschew – “what do you do”? The answer, “I’m Dean Friedman” should be enough. But he put the answer into a mischievous song. Brilliantly. His job is to make his beloved happy (secure, loved, warm, dry,  etc.). It’s a bit contrived, we all know that. And it should be true.

Talking of being contrived, here is a picture (right) of me with Dean Friedman.

The tour continues culminating in appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

The Economist and the UK General Election – what a squirm

Two years ago I critiqued the Economist’s advocacy of the Conservative Party to form the next UK Government under David Cameron. The magazine, in my opinion, disingenuously dismissed Ed Miliband’s programme in favour of the “stability” offered by more economic-liberal austerity by the Conservatives. The magazine overlooked the commitment to an in-out referendum on Europe despite its avowed support for the European Union, at least in the context of a single market and customs union.

Fast-forward 2 years and here we are with another General Election having been called – we are told by Theresa May – to protect the will of the people translated as her vision of Brexit from those who would oppose it (saboteurs according to the Daily Mail), like parliamentary oppositions are supposed to do under the Country’s usefully unwritten constitution. May, not being a democrat, or not one that I recognise, duly called her General Election after having been on a walking holiday. Though I am minded that she first had a word with the architect of the Conservatives’ last election victory, the benighted Lynton Crosby.

I was waiting to see what stance The Economist would take this time. Let me have a look. First of all, the leader of the opposition is called “ineffectual”. However, that is not the real story. May looks to achieve a landslide victory and increase her majority from the current 17 to something approaching 100. “For the 48% of voters who, like this newspaper, opposed Brexit, this may look ominous” says the Economist, un-reassuringly. However, we have mis-read this. Indeed, argues the newspaper, “[i]nfact, it offers an opportunity for those who believe in a more open, Liberal Britain”. Really? We need to know more.

If I read it correct, if May gets her increased majority, she will fear the Commons less when it comes to the final deal. The House of Commons fought hard to have a say on the final deal and would, if the “deal” was not as good as what the country has at the moment with EU membership, tell her to go back and try harder. One assumes she is particularly fearful of her “hard Brexit” backbenchers. If she has a bigger majority, goes the argument, she can accommodate their wrath as well as that coming from the depleted opposition benches. This means, continues the argument, that she is more likely to be able to make compromises with the EU with this safety net. And that means a softer Brexit. Brilliant!

Dear Economist, that is nonsense. May wants to close the borders. Only a hard version of Brexit will enable that. Plus Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, has himself described it as a “power grab”. Moreover, she also does not want to be bound by the current manifesto of her party written by her predecessor. So, her Finance Minister, Philip Hammond, who suffered ignominy when his budget tax increase was rejected, can now make this a manifesto commitment. Also, May herself is obsessed with selective education and already has in train a return to grammar schools at the expense of children from less privileged backgrounds. The Economist thinks that Theresa May with a majority can fix the housing shortage and make good the “funding crisis in social care”. Bearing in mind that her party is the cause of these two problems and policies so far pursued seek to make it worse, not better (for example, right-to-buy housing association dwellings).

We should not be surprised by this spin and support for the Conservative Party; but we are where we are because of the Conservative Party (austerity policies and THAT referendum). The solutions and future must lie elsewhere.

Brenda says…

Brenda is just an ordinary woman in Bristol. She was questioned on the street by a BBC journalist and she said that she was fed up with politics – there is too much of it about at the moment – and she just wanted to live her life in peace. That is a bit of a paraphrase, but only a bit.

Let me be clear, I do not want an election. What is the point in a fixed-term parliament if an insecure Prime Minister decides that she needs a personal mandate for her mendacity and push for majoritarianism and the limited state? However, if we are going to have one – precipitated to some extent by the EU’s interregnum over exit terms – then so be it. But this is no ordinary election. I’m 53 and I believe this is the most important election in my lifetime. We can let the Conservative Party for the foreseable future dominate the executive and legislature (not to say judiciary if recent experience is anything to go by) or we can stand up for something bigger.

This is not a party-political election in the normal sense. Notwithstanding Brexit, this is an election to stand up for public services, the NHS, education, housing, social care, the environment, liberty and decency. All of these things the Conservative Party seem to be willing to denude or abolish in pursuit of power. Not the public good.

This will be an ugly island if May achieves her aim. All opposition parties have to work together on this one. This is not about Labour, LibDems, SNP, Green. This is about a future. Brenda needs to engage, vote and learn.

End.

 

Grandaddy – finally

I am a little bit too late sometimes to the party. Somewhere I heard that Grandaddy had sort-of reformed and were doing some shows. Into the ether I went, discovered that they were playing in Brighton, UK, and tried to buy tickets. Sold out. Next option, Brussels’ Ancienne Belgique, 5 April. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

And what did I know about Grandaddy? Well, eventually I made the link between Jason Lytle – whose solo album, The Department of Disappearance (right) I’d bought a few years’ earlier – and Grandaddy. Lytle has a distinctive voice, so it did not take much to make the connection once heard. And I’m a sucker for lumberjack shirts.

I’ve also got into the frame of mind that I missed too many good gigs when I was younger thinking that there would always be another chance. I’m not so sure now. Hence the nonsense of going to Brussels.

So, in preparation for the gig, I bought the new album, Last Place, which the Guardian newspaper described as “solid rather than spectacular”. Apparently, I should have bought the first two albums, these were the dizzy heights. At the gig, I suspect Lytle himself recognised this and played extensively from them. A greying, largely male, audience was appreciative of this. It was anything but a sales push on Last Place.

That said, there are a number of tracks which, I suspect, Lytle himself regards as up to the mark. Much of it is disconcerting. So, I don’t wanna live here any more has the preceding line, “I’ve just moved here”. Seemingly autobiographical – Lytle moved from Montana to Oregon (in the Trumpian world, both sound places to avoid) and perhaps regretted it. Many of us have had that feeling, at least between houses if not states. Keeping up the melancholy, This is the Part a journey to Oregon living maybe? “This is the part, Some call a broken heart; Put down the phone, There’s no one coming home.” Ah yes, this is 2000s world where there are still landline phones. The backdrop for the band on stage is a film depicting this world full of freight trains, trucks, cement factories and a lot of wilderness.

Let’s go upbeat? The Way We Won’t is that pop song. Trademark melody, synth and guitar. The accompanying video, however, has a twist. Lyrically, I’m baffled. Maybe it is culturally too far away from me? “Less than an hour past control tower, On a big box store roof; Cinnamon smell and holiday sales, Why would we ever move?” Oh, I don’t know. I could find a reason.

The gig, wonderful. Lytle’s voice is not the strongest and it needed a bit more amplification. He’s also not the most charismatic on stage and did not even introduce the band members apart from Shaun who’d stood in at last minute on guitar (photo top left, far left).

JPS does blue

I’m back in Germany for the first time in a month. I was not sure what I would find on the cigarette advertising front. Dominant at the moment seems to be JPS’s push into blue (a common colour used by e-cigarette manufacturers and mellow brands). The strapline says something like “enjoy without compromise”. Reading between the lines, does that mean it is not actually as good a proper killer cigarettes? This guy has a fantastic smokers’ cough! “Funky taste of dirt and hay”, he says. Twice. Whilst this review is priceless. I suspect he is not going to review cigarettes for a living any time soon. In fact, JPS have probably had a word with him already. Or at the very least given him a few packets of more potent “coffin sticks” to see  him off quicker.

I note that the current advertising approach where packets are the focus, the camera is angled to avoid the nasty graphic the manufacturers have to put on the front these days. This leaves the important branding visible. Still outrageous to see on street advertising.

 

The nonsense of anti-trade union legislation

My trade union, the UCU, is in dispute with my employer. My employer seems reluctant to discuss the issues at the heart of the dispute, so the Union organised a ballot if members managed by the Electoral Reform Society, the experts in balloting and the law. The result was a legally acceptable (relative to current law) percentage of members agreeing to take strike action. The Union then called a two-day strike only to find that under the new law, before labour can be withdrawn, two weeks’ notice has to be given to employers. The strike had to be postponed.

We are getting close to the Easter non-teaching period. To withdraw one’s labour in a non-teaching period is a bit of a waste of time (and money). But to leave it until the start of the new term renders the ballot void. So, here we have a piece of legislation that forces members to strike in order to keep the legal mandate to strike. So, at the end of the coming week, we are going to withdraw our labour – symbolically – for half a day in order to strike on another two days later in late April. Brilliant.

Two gigs in a week – the Handsome Family and Austra

Life is good with a colleague who extends an invite to gig featuring a band you’ve never heard of. On 3 March the Handsome Family (left) straddled the stage at Concorde 2 in Brighton to present their brand of – what I am reliably informed is called – goth country. That does not mean to say that they turned up dressed in black with white faces.

The Handsome Family are essentially a husband and wife team, Brett and Rennie Sparks who sing songs about things like frogs, holes in the ground and murder. Brett Sparks’ deep voice bosses the songs with Rennie Sparks offering harmony. The show is punctuated by choreographed bickering between the two, for example, whether today’s sandwich had the right filling.

Rennie Sparks provides the lyrics, bass and autoharp (banjo is also in her armoury, but was absent from this performance); husband Brett does the music, guitar and keyboards. Touring as a four piece, the drummer did sterling work; the fourth member was a multi-instrumentalist. Largely playing guitar, but this being country he flirted around with a steel guitar and bizarrely a keyboard instrument that seemed no bigger than a 1970s stylophone! The climax was an extraordinary duel between the two guitars, culminating in Brett Sparks requiring a major re-tune of his guitar before he could give an encore. Rennie Sparks narrated this activity expressing her own bemusement of her husband’s guitar abuse. Presumably it happens every night.

Anyone wanting to hear more try this link. The tour goes on.

Austra is the music vehicle for Toronto’s Katie Stelmanis. I became aware of Austra in the days when the Guardian newspaper had live sessions. Me and my beloved caught up with the band in its extended form in Munich in 2011; they did a short BBC Music stage performance at Latitude in 2013, we saw that. I got a sneak preview of the new album, Future Politics, when in November 2016 Stelmanis did a free gig/Q&A at Kamio in London. And then on 9 March Austra appeared as a foursome at Ampere in Munich. Stelmanis, I understand, had opera training for her voice. It is extraordinary – it hurts just thinking about how she uses it. But she is also politically engaged. It is like that she could sing fascists into submission, much like Slim Whitman saw off the Aliens in Mars Attacks!

This tour is about the third album, Future Politics (left). I still have not fully digested it lyrically, but Stelmanis is open about its allusions to humanity’s failure to place itself as a carbon life form on a finite planet (Gaia). This leads away from Utopia – her call to a plausible brighter future. Stelmanis is also hugely melancholic about relationships. Her second album, Olympia, was over-burdened with this melancholia; for example, an unfaithful partner on Forgive Me. Future Politics’ relationship dystopia comes out in I love you more than you love yourself. “There is nothing in your soul tonight, I only see darkness” sings Stelmanis. However, in contrast to the Olympia album, Stelmanis manages throughout this album, irrespective of the lyrics, to evoke the positive, even to the ability to dance to the song. And what is more it sounded so much better live. That is why I would recommend seeing Austra live and not rely on the recordings.

As  a foursome, they create a lot of sound. In Munich, Stelmanis’ voice did not have enough amplification, but Maya Postepski’s percussion was awesome (right), and the two male supports (Dorian Wolf on bass and moog, and Ryan Wonsiak), chalk and cheese as they were, ensured no one left melody-less.

This was as good a gig as I have been to. The tour continues:

MON 13 MARCH
Astra Kulturhaus, Berlin, Germany
WED 15 MARCH
BikoMilan, Italy
THU 16 MARCH
Les Docks Lausanne, Switzerland
FRI 17 MARCH
Dampfzentrale Bern, Switzerland
SAT 18 MARCH
Gloria Theater Cologne, Germany
SUN 19 MARCH
Uebel & Gefährlich Hamburg, Germany
TUE 21 MARCH
Patterns (formerly Audio)Brighton, UK
WED 22 MARCH
Village UndergroundLondon, UK
THU 23 MARCH
Summerhall Edinburgh, UK
FRI 24 MARCH
The Deaf Institute Manchester, UK
SAT 25 MARCH
Button Factory Dublin, Ireland
TUE 28 MARCH
Le Grand Mix Tourcoing, France
WED 29 MARCH
Les Trinitaires Metz, France
FRI 31 MARCH
Le Trianon Paris, France
SAT 1 APRIL
Le Metronum Toulouse, France
WED 5 APRIL
Museo de Arte Contemporáneo Gas Natural Fenosa (MAC) La Coruna, Spain
THU 6 APRIL
Teatro Barcelo Madrid, Spain
FRI 7 APRIL
La Rambleta Valencia, Spain
SAT 8 APRIL
Sala Apolo Barcelona, Spain
TUE 11 APRIL
Mascotte Zürich, Switzerland
WED 12 APRIL
L’Epicerie Moderne Feyzin, France
THU 13 APRIL
La Sirene La Rochelle, France
SAT 15 APRIL
Le 106 – Club Rouen, France
SUN 16 APRIL
AB Box Brussels, Belgium

JPS does brash

Back in Munich, I find cigarette advertising in rude health. JSP is back, relinquishing beautiful people and men with spanners, in favour of a brash 40 per packet, just to help the chronic disease on a little bit.  “Outside large, inside awesome” goes the modest strapline. I think it is time for a return to cigarette cases – decanting a few from the packet to avoid looking like a desperate smoker.

L&M Open for More campaign

L&M is bwp-1487537242553.jpgack on the streets with a new campaign and image. There are two posters at the moment, one red (left) and one blue (which I do not have the image for – I’m trying). I suppose it is just a play on words – the packet has more in it? The sharing options are more with L&M? And, naturally, open for more ways to die. Badly.

Enjoy the Moment – the best advice ever from a cigarette firm

wp-1487537190825.jpgThere has been a recent addition to the Pall Mall Enjoy the Moment campaign. Here we find two women, one with a cigarette, and a man giving the smoking woman a piggyback ride. The strapline “schon nach Hause” translates literally as “already at home”; naturally we enjoy the moment.