February 2011

Kim feels not the cold. Suit: Armani, hair, glasses and wind: model

It seems that in Libya, Yemen and even in Greece you can baton charge all the arts students you wish, close down newspapers and arrest and disappear dissidents to your heart’s content, but when you try to curtail the Internet and stop people tweeting you incur wrath from the entire first world. The trick seems to be how to keep Internet access from your Great Unwashed in the first place. There’s an old vaudeville song from WW1 made famous by Eddie Cantor and favoured by my father, titled How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm? and its sentiment is too true to deny. Once people have had freedom you can’t take it back. (I can’t find it by Cantor online, but here’s Judy Garland singing it from the 1942 movie For Me and My Girl). This should break up the text a little:

Anyway, all this chat about social networking being the conduit to freedom in North Africa and the Middle East has got me thinking about places where there is little or no Internet access. I’m fond of a challenge and was thus sent in the direction of North Korea, Powerful and Prosperous Nation and land of few disobediences. Kim Jong-Il likes to keep a lid on things, but (we understand) likes a bit of a surf himself. Although details are scratchy, northkoreatech.net reported on Feb. 22 that “Internet access is available in the DPRK, but is believed to be severely restricted to all but the most-trusted members of the government and related organs”. Interesting, then, that the report from the 22nd was all about how DPRK’s official news agency KCNA (which has its own archive online but unavailable to the Korean people) has been running stories praising China for its filtration of Internet access. Fair and balanced, indeed.

They’re not alone: apparently South Korea also runs limits on Internet access and has a firewall which blocks access to a bunch of North Korean sites (the govt. runs a number for propoganda reasons) and also (less successfully, one would imagine) attempts to block access to online porn. It’s a common restriction outside the US and, given recent developments in America and the UK, one can only surmise that unfettered access will eventually be curtailed in freedom-loving lands, too. S.K. have also begun, quite helpfully I think, to drop leaflets telling their friends to the North all about exciting events in Libya and Yemen. Sort of like dropping marshmallows over the garden fence for your neighbour’s diabetic children.What’s great about North Korea, however (and I use the word ‘great’ liberally, you understand) is the fact that they’ve never had the Internet (the real one–see below). They’re the equivalent in tech terms of a walled-in field far off the beaten track, two days after a heavy fall of snow—you can walk all over it and leave the first set of footprints. Given my link to farming matters earlier, I’ll congratulate myself on th nice metaphor before moving on. Let’s face it: nobody else has read this far.

Imagine sitting in an Internet café—no, not an internet café, the Internet café—in Pyongyang and becoming the Great and Powerful Oz.

Shin Sang Ok: Don

Here’s how it works. First gain favour with the ruling elite. Here’s a tip—tell Kim you like his movies. Apparently he has a huge collection and tales of his interest in film leaked out when South Korean director Shin Sang Ok and his wife, whom he had abducted eight years earlier to help in the production of propaganda films, escaped in 1986[1]. Try not to mention Shin because Kim (I assume) may not be flattered by your discussion, so maybe move on to how cool his armies look on parade, or his hair, or ask him whether his no.2 son has been working out. There’s a bit of initiative needed here, but fortune favours the brave.

Covert surveillance, N. Korea style

Now I’ll admit this first step may well be a challenge, but as a member of Kim’s inner circle you’ll get all the DNS addresses you need to surf merrily, with a contention ratio unrivalled in any non-dictatorship in Asia. The people have access to Kwangmyong (the country’s internal Internet provider, but that’s mostly pictures of Kim and Lolcats, so you can corner the market with anything that can has democracy). You can then advertise your services to the rest of Korea as the Great and Powerful _____ (insert your name here; keep it simple as most of these folks don’t read too good[2]) and pledge to answer all of their barroom bets and arguments in a matter of two minutes. You look up the answer (I dunno, perhaps you’ll know some right out of the blocks; fair play if you do) and call them back with the name of the bloke who played Mannix, the 1962 F.A. Cup winning goalscorer or the largest number of watermelons headbutted in one minute[3]. You can be a god, a man, a ghost, a guru. They’ll whisper your name through the disappearing land and they won’t even know you’ve been just quoting Nick Cave. You’ll become the central repository of intelligence, all because of the sophistication lag. And the beauty is the régime won’t mind because only Kim and the insiders know you’ve been doing on a national level what technologically advanced punters did at pub quizzes before everyone caught on. Here’s the man headbutting the watermelons and I’ll completely understand if you watch it and then do something else. I would.

Kristen, played by Mary Crosby (Bing

Danny Blanchflower of Spurs and N. Ireland, pictured in 1961.

Think this won’t work (the Internet idea, not the headbutting, which of course is no big deal now that Mr. Allwood is Australian Minister for Culture)? Notwithstanding the fact it probably won’t[4], here’s an example closer to home. When in 1980 the US soap opera Dallas ended its second season with the shooting of J.R. Ewing a betting marked developed. Reports unconfirmed by bookies at the time but widely featured in newspapers told of punters who won large sums on the cliffhanger’s resolution, having contacted friends in the U.S. who had seen the season opener a week before its UK/Irish airing. Some remote betting shops in Ireland weren’t aware and paid out, all because of a lag in their knowledge of the TV schedules. This won’t ever happen again, of course (except that it did when Maynooth students took their local Paddy Power betting shop “to the cleaners[5]” when they correctly identified Mr. Burns’ assailant in the Simpsons’ parody of Dallas in 1993. A matter of minutes before this correct identification they had correctly identified a US website which told them what had happened when the show aired the previous night. And not to mention January 2007, when according to the Daily Mail bookies took a bath when they failed to realize that their book on who killed Coronation Street‘s Charlie Stubbs was hoist on the petard of the writers’ decision to reveal the killer’s identity ahead of time). Success and fortune clearly aren’t given away so use your initiative. The gap in technological sophistication is what P.T. Barnum meant when he said there was a sucker born every minute although, as with this type of thing, he probably didn’t actually say it at all. That’s what it would have meant if he had, though, trust me. Oh, and in case you’re reading this on your way to North Korea, the assassin was Kristen, Maggie shot Mr. Burns and of course it was the evil Tracy Barlow who did for Mr. Stubbs.

Talking of suckers, here’s a song which was shameless in its piggybacking on the Who Shot J.R. phenomenon. It’s by T.R. Dallas and is too appaling for words but thankfully only slightly disturbing in the larger context of Youtube:

What the U.S. State Dept. makes of your subsequent attempts to get into their land is a discussion for another day, but rest assured that it may well be irrelevant. If Kim likes your style he may never let you out.

Author’s note: One got a barrage of abuse recently when one used a capital letter to denote the Internet. One doesn’t care.

[1] Report courtesy of www.globalsecurity.org which also reminds us that stories of Kim’s decadent lifestyle are “…possibly circulated by South Korean intelligence”. I’m not sure what to do now, so I’m going to go back to the body text. I suggest you do the same.

[2] I wouldn’t use Oz: Lloyd Weber is notoriously litigious and spent a fortune on the rights for his new musical; I’d imagine he’d chase you all the way to Pyongyang and back.

[3]Mike Connors; Danny Blanchflower’s 81st minute penalty to beat Burnley 3-1 in the so-called Chessboard final; 40, by Queensland’s John Allwood at the Chinchilla Watermelon Festival, February 2007. Well done to all.

[4] Two reasons: one is that foreigners can access Internet in a couple of hotels but not extensively and certainly not for profit; the second is that commercial internet is available to agreeable parties, routed through Germany. The principle of conning rural types remains there, though, so good luck in your endeavours.

[5] Paddy Power’s history site has the details and doesn’t mind because they made it all back on the Grand National.


One can reckon on one’s intelligence as long as one also reckons on the probability of occasionally sitting for a whole evening on a Malteser.

I quite like it, but then I would. I like Radiohead a great deal, you see. No point rushing a review when you know it will change as you get to like it more (the album, not the review). Added value: I think the King of Limbs is an octopus. He likes the undersea stuff (Thom Yorke, not the octopus, although octupii like the undersea stuff, too, I suppose, but not as a metaphor).

Here’s the real review. I’m not sorry about the delay.

Alfred Hitchcock used to write and even shoot scenes that he knew wouldn’t make it past the Hays Production Code to the final cut of the film. He’d allow them to be taken out and while the censors were patting themselves on the back Hitch would have seen some other material which would otherwise have been cut survive, safe as it was in relation to the scandalous material which had been cut. So Radiohead, who throw in the occasional bloodyminded track (The Gloaming, Push/Pull Revolving Doors, Videotape) in comparison to which their more mainstream stuff, itself pushing boundaries of digital manipulation and dissonance, sounded very palatable indeed. What’s more, they’ve developed the mainstream so that some of their more experimental songs, such as The National Anthem or Everything in Its Right Place, are correctly seen as some of their best work.

This new album is typical of the band, in that you’re reminded of the texture of other Radiohead songs though you can’t really put your finger on exactly which ones. After the latest listen I was reminded of Packt Like Sardines… the first track from Amnesiac, but on other occasions it has slotted in comfortably beside In Rainbows or even Kid A. The problem with releasing it on the rush is that it becomes like Harry Potter books—a bunch of eleven year olds have competitions to see who can finish it (or in this case review it) first. So the benefit of multiple listens in different environments (I know few reviewers worth a damn who go on fewer than three listens) is sacrificed at the altar of getting copy out online. The bloody Guardian liveblogged its first listen, for Christ’s sake. So here’s a brief overview and then a track-by-track. Just remember, though, when you read this: there was a time 15 Step sounded weird and you couldn’t make head nor tail of the jumbled mess that was Everything in Its Right Place. All good things….

It’s a blend of the tuneful, imaginative and slightly proggy Radiohead we know with a much less conventional approach favoured by the electronica genre. While Radiohead made demands before with In Rainbows, this takes roughly the same territories and pushes them further out. Highlights include the groove of Lotus Flower and the relative quietus of the final three songs, but there are moments throughout that reward careful listening with rhythms and dissonant percussion working against what initially seems to be a fairly basic and repetitive structure. Lyrically it’s quite obscure (I’ve only had since lunch on Friday) but there seems to be a concentration, as on several of his songs since he became a dad, on myths and undersea worlds (Pyramid Song would be the closest relation here).

You're stuck with digital until the end of March.

Bloom, the first track, is murky with a bass line that reminds me of These Days by Joy Division. Thom Yorke sounds, well, underwater and there’s little melody to discern over layers of bubbling beats and sequenced noises. At times there’s an orchestral surge (I’m hearing more of that sort of thing as I listen repeatedly, surely thanks to Colin Greenwood’s part-time job). Morning Mr. Magpie is much more immediate, a tense little guitar line overlaid by another tense guitar line with an insistent bass. Lots of accusatory second person vocals (“you got some nerve…”) with a nice suburban “good morning Mr. Magpie how are you today/now you’ve stolen all the magic to my melody”. Catchy, but with lots of space and consequently wound nice and tight. A wag might have asked “what melody?” but not me. Too easy.

Little By Little sounds very Hail to the Thief era, with a Spanish guitar plucking around in the distance. “Little by little by hook or by crook/I’m such a tease and you are such a fuck”. I like the way the acoustic guitar fights a losing battle with the pace of the percussion as the vocal tries to escape both. Feral is the one everyone will hate. It comes out of the blocks with a martial drumbeat, electronically augmented and accompanied by a heavily-processed vocal. Then (as usual) a stray bass line, as if leaked from another song altogether, undermines the rhythm as we’ve come to understand it. Things pick up in pace, though, after a minute or so, when the bass line comes back and stays. By the end it’s electronic too. And, a little bit more than ever, so am I.

Lotus Flower is much more conventional. Man, but there are lots of drums and rhythmic effects on this album. There’s a little keyboard line very redolent of In Limbo from Kid A before a melodic vocal (very melodic by this album’s standards, anyway) takes the lead. Once the vocal starts the thing takes quite a conventional shape and is the most recognisable Radiohead so far. It’s excellent. It even has a bridge….

Codex, the sixth track, is by far the sparsest on here. A funereal piano (think Holocaust by This Mortal Coil) with the blips way in the back. The steady beat behind reminds me of I’m Not In Love for some reason. Thom comes in half way through the bar with “slide your hand/Jump off the end into a clear lake”. I think there might be play on “sleight of hand/slide off hands”. Very stately, with some horns augmenting the arrangement, until the thing takes a dip about 3.35 into a really lovely coda, cold and warm at the same time. Very well controlled—it could be Peter Gabriel if he wasn’t so busy making a balls of Street Spirit over in Bath. It’s the one everyone is going to say is the Great Radiohead Song on this album, for good or bad. Some radio noise and we’re into…

Give Up The Ghost, a simple plucked guitar and a refrain looped behind singing “don’t help me” (I think). A little Nick Drake influence here, just like on In Rainbows’ Faust Arp. I think this song will grow in performance into something quite epic. Three or four more listens and this will be as good as anything on In Rainbows. Except Nude. And 15 Step. And Weird Fishes.

And Videotape.

Thom Yorke by Jason Seiler.

Finally on the awfully-titled Separator, a ticky little drumbeat and we’re all Atoms for Peace from Yorke’s The Eraser solo album. There are fishes out of water and echoing vocals, falling away before the second melody improves the coherence of the song. There’s a little guitar arpeggio along with it now, but it’s very difficult to decipher what he’s singing about. “Wake me up and break me out” seems to be the thrust of it, but don’t quote me. Once again it will make more sense after another few listens, but even now there are some Radiohead songs I only sometimes get—Airbag and The Tourist being two of them. Whatever it is or isn’t it’s a clear, optimistic ending unlike Videotape, which is neither.

The King Of Limbs has all the hallmarks of Radiohead, only more so. They’re a band that has taken a conscious decision to remain individual, to lead, and that’s going to require the audience to come with them, at least part of the way. Reviews like this miss the point of releasing by stealth—the onus is on the listener to get a sense of the music and then to navigate a little further each time. There are parts that many might skip long before the songs give up the goods and that’s a shame, but with the volume of traffic Radiohead can expect over the coming weeks and months (the hard copy is released at the end of March) there’ll be many people who guarantee them a healthy future. Meanwhile, everyone who makes music will be listening closely, and several of these songs will be amazing in performance. All I’m missing is the sultry Thom of Nude, and he was always a three date kind of bloke, anyway.

I think David Fincher’s The Social Network is a fine film which I will certainly see again and, in the meantime, root for in the upcoming Oscars. It seems that I’ve invested quite a lot of TV time in Aaron Sorkin (although I didn’t get too far into Sports Night) over the last few years and if there’s a screenplay better than his work on The Social Network I’d like to hear about it. It’s not the best movie of the year, I hope; the last third pales after the success of the first hour or so and I’ve yet to see many others, so I’d hate to think there’s nothing better.
The other triumph of this movie, though, is in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘ soundtrack. It’s rare to see a film which is actually helped tell its story by the score these days and, although Bernard Herrmann would beg to differ, it always was rare to hear music so intrinsic to the power of the narrative. Fincher’s film dies, that simple, if the first twenty minutes don’t succeed in getting through the ascension of Zuckerberg and, as anyone who got far enough into Google to find this post will know, internet success happens quickly. The montages bridge between algorithm and stardom just as someone has to make code look like little boxes with cursors for people like me. Fincher and Sorkin needed efficient, smooth music which blends the mechanics of computers with the human frailty of the quasi-autistic Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and the superficial world he has since conquered. Such a blend has always been Reznor’s stock-in-trade, but the histrionics of much of his lyrical content would have removed an ambiguity the music itself always held. It’s only surprising someone didn’t get him to do this sort of thing before, given his success at compiling the music for Oliver Stone‘s Natural Born Killers in 1994. (Other uses of NIN fall into two broad categories: thumping, like the big old loud remix of Gave Up in a nightclub in the little-seen Young Americans (Danny Cannon, 1993, edgy, dangerous, forgettable) and scary, like the opening credits of Se7en, a film dripping with moral torpor. A film directed by David Fincher).
The Social Network is perfect for Reznor–clicking tracks overlaid with Sant-Saens piano, lots of nice establishing tracking shots, montages developing geeks into millionaires. Sure its a gig, but its also singularly appropriate. It is the Best Soundtrack this year.

Dillon and Rourke in Rumble Fish

Three hundred and ninety words in to this short post, though, and I’m getting to the point. The Social Network score reminds me of another wonderful score, one which seems quite difficult to acquire at this point in time. When Francis Ford Coppola wanted to break from Apocalypse Now! (another damn fine score, BTW) he made Rumble Fish, a teen film in an exceedingly stylised visual eh, style. The movie focuses on Rusty James, played by Matt Dillon, who is attempting to live up to the reputation of his absent brother The Motorcycle Boy, played in his heyday by Mickey Rourke. As the protagonist tries not to screw up completely time ticks on and the sweaty, claustrophobic atmosphere of the stunning, studio-manufactured noirscape presages the inevitability of this all ending badly as surely as the comment “we are the Gods now” in Clash of the Titans or “drunken hicks of the jury” in The Simpsons leaves the universe with no alternative. The film is a little too posed, very pretentious and not great, if worth a look.

Copeland in 1983, with message to Sting on his drumheads.

Stewart Copeland‘s score was recorded in downtime from banging his head against Sting’s ego in the studio for Synchronicity. Copeland told the Hollywood Reporter “I went from recording the last Police album, which was hell, to the complete artistic freedom and the warm embrace of Uncle Francis. Out of the frying pan and into heaven”. The music is taught, wound up. The hi-hat, Copeland’s weapon of choice, ticks in sixteenths, sometimes in 64ths, to angle the left-hand chords of a big, dominant piano, while all the other instruments serve to warm slightly the ticking timebomb of the insistent drums. You know when in King of Pain the rhythm doubles down behind the piano on the second theme on the verse? A mere bagatelle (not to mention proof positive of the much more collaborative nature of this great Police album than the Sting love-in of history sometimes claims) compared to the rhythmic tension on Rumble Fish. This tension, I would argue, is the biggest lesson learned by Reznor on The Social Network, an album I’m convinced is directly influenced by Copeland’s score. The visual metaphor of time in Coppola’s movie is perfectly expressed in the music, just as Reznor’s language allows the audience to understand that what Zuckerberg is coding and codifying is human frailty and doubt. It’s another perfect marriage.
Not that Copeland’s work is completely angular and distant. The opening track features vocals by Stan Ridgeway, then signed to Copeland’s brother’s IRS label with his band Wall Of Voodoo. You may remember him from little more than the Mexican Radio track that crops up on compilations now and again alongside Timbuk 3. On Rumble Fish Ridgeway sings Don’t Box Me In, itself a thesis statement for the ever-tightening situation of the movie. “Over there, at the end of the bar/This fish keeps swimming in a jar/I feel the tug of a line/Which end will I be on this time?” If you know the movie, and the movie is considerably easier to track down than the soundtrack, you’ll know that the fish in question are the only colours in the otherwise monochromatic palate, the precious Rosebud Rusty James needs to protect. Ridgeway’s vocal, deadpan and slightly drawling, is the only directly expressed sentiment in the otherwise atmospheric soundtrack, lending the track a catchy swing complimented by a mouth organ. It’s stunning. See for yourself:

Copeland’s work got nominated for a Golden Globe but the movie was rather anonymous, saving its notice of the talents of Rourke and Dillon. The score is better than the film, which makes it all the more incomprehensible that it’s not more widely available. Reznor and Ross’s work is less successful divorced from the visuals, but the film is stronger and I certainly hope that Trent can get his acolade and move on in his EGOT lust to his Tony-award winning work on the sequel to Bono’s Spiderman, or something.

“In the theatrical works we love and admire the most, the ending of the drama generally takes place offstage”.

When Seefeel dropped the dreamy vocals and signed to Warp for their second album fifteen years ago it seemed they were finally able to lose the shoegazing connection and be seen on their own terms, but what actually happened was that they lost the most attractive aspect of their sound. Now that they’re back with their first material in ages (teased by the Faults ep late last year) it seems they sit a little more comfortably with their past. And they’re all the better for it.

I first came across the band via their work with Aphex Twin on the Pure, Impure EP on TooPure back in 1993. That bubbly noise undercutting Mark Clifford and Sarah Peacock’s abstracted vocals worked well with the trippy, loopy production work and fit in nicely in the post-MBV murk. Quique, their first full album, was an expansive, looping piece of electronica, with titles like Filter Dub and Signals sitting alongside the more poppy Plainsong. Warp found them and the early indicators were less listener-friendly: the Fracture/Tied EP an early indicator of a pared-down, much glitchier sound. There are aspects on their intriguing new set of such blippy things (the cutup-sounding drums and metronomic percussion of Dead Guitars and Faults), but this time it’s blended much more successfully with the processed vocals with which they were first associated.

Faults EP (2010)

The opening track, Dead Guitars, bodes well. There’s a Doppler-effected vocal laid over a (literally) staggering drum track, courtesy of former Boredom E-Da, while the bass, played these days by Shigeru Ishihara, tries its utmost to warm the sound without turning the whole thing dubby. The effect is laid back but the electronic noise keeps the tension throughout, allowing a twelve-bar motif to almost emerge. It turns out to be the highpoint of the album. At times the vocals (Peacock with a shedload of effects) sound remarkably like some of the better moments on cLOUDDEAD’s second record, notably on Faults; here there’s more momentum and the bass is a more reliable focus for the other sounds than on the earlier tracks.

Quique (1993); redux edition from last year.

There are still examples of the glitch/IDM stuff; predictably enough on a track titled Gzaug and a couple of tracks that are mere interludes, but a more traditional Seefeel features as the album goes on: Rip-Run opens like (however unpalatable this might be to the band) Genesis’ Mama, stretching out into a languid five minutes before ebbing slowly away. Making, the next track, is the closest the bass gets to dub: nice, but there’s little new here. Much more interesting, though, is Airless, with another cut up, assembled feel, as if they’ve taken a Seefeel track and played its constituent elements at random. The drummer seems to fall over at the end of the track, giving way to the abstract throb of Aug30 and the expansive, lop-sided fade-out of the nine-minute closing track, Sway.

Overall there’s a little too much of the ambient electronica here to avoid the feeling that Seefeel are stretching their ideas out a little thinly, but there are clear signs of the quality promised all those years ago with the TooPure material, and plenty enough detail for repeated listening.

My version of "Exterminate All The Brutes", January 2011.

Next Page »