Monday, December 14, 2009

Unnecessary Stuff

Do you ever worry that you might one day become fabulously rich, and then have no idea what to spend all your money on? If so, help is available. The Financial Times publishes a glossy supplement every month just in the time for the weekend with the no-holds barred title How To Spend It. Here are some of the highlights of last Friday’s issue.

A set of six Fortnum & Mason Royal Velvet crackers for £500 (“contain luxury accessories”). An Atelier winter coat, from £1,100 up to £2,880 for the rose-trimmed design (is it just me, or is that the most hideous fucking garment you’ve ever seen in your life?). A tube of anti-ageing cream called Pure Alchemy Cellular Radiance Serum for £19.99 (“really seems to work,” according to the FT, so if you meet one of their hacks who claims to be 40 but looks 18, that’ll be Lucia van der Post). A Jaeger-LeCoultre Hybris Mechanica à Grande Sonnerie, part of the Coffret 55 set (otherwise known to you and me as ‘a wristwatch’), starting from £1.6 million. Tsk, like it's too much trouble to ask a passer-by what time it is.

Also available, should you be feeling flush, is a Salvatore Ferragamo python bag for £2,009 (not just the python getting gouged there). An 18ct Jackie O gold cuff for £15,000 that looks like a gaudy kids’ fancy dress item. Or you can follow in the tyre-tracks of a bloke called Tarquin (even within the context of this magazine, you have to feel sorry for any poor bastard called Tarquin), who goes ice driving in Finland for £900, plus £433 per night in a luxury log cabin for six. Thirteen quid for a Romeo Short Churchill cigar seems like a relatively bargain way to watch your cash go up in smoke.

Best of all is a six-month course of counselling for male business executives who are going through a mid-life crisis. It costs between £6-12k from a company called Overton Smith, run by two sympathetic women who “have no formal therapeutic qualifications” (hey, who needs them?). The magazine interviews one of the company’s clients, a 54-year-old named “Dennis”, who went for help when he realised that he was unhappy being “surrounded by unnecessary stuff. I started questioning the purpose of my life. I realised materialism isn’t as important as relationships and quality of life.”

What, you mean the answer doesn’t lie in owning a pair of 8 grand cufflinks from Wartski? I’m going to have to use up my 10-week Alpine ski lodge timeshare slot all in one go to recover from that monstrous revelation. Note to self: don’t forget to take off your £1.6 million watch before you climb into the mountain-view hot tub.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Top 30 Albums, 2009

It’s already that time of year when music executives gather restlessly around a wireless, clutching semi-unplugged bottles of chilled Bollinger and waiting for the BBC World Service to announce this blog’s top 30 albums of the year. Setting the benchmark for middle-ageing indie-farts since 2004, my carefully researched list - a more or less arbitrary ranking of most of the albums that one individual just happens to have bought this year - is seen by music lovers across the globe as the industry standard pointer towards buying seasonal gifts for people they intensely dislike, usually the family’s aloof musical snob with an inflated sense of his own importance, especially where it concerns musical taste. You’re welcome.

30. The Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
There seem to be less albums like this around these days, filled with muscular, emotional, country-influenced music. As serious and as musically deep as you’d expect with Rick Rubin producing, the fundamentals here are fiddles, philosophy and a vocal finesse that underpin a solid, if sometimes overly safe set.
29. Monsters Of Folk – Monsters of Folk
Indie super group featuring M Ward, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis and Jim James, with each contributing a handful of songs, all too easily recognisable in Oberst’s case. It’s a broadly successful collaboration, though, which thankfully has as much relation to R&B (on the superb opener ‘Dear God’), rock, pop and country as it does to folk.
28. Dead Man’s Bones – Dead Man’s Bones
Why didn’t I think of this? Indie-mood, electro sounds composed by a pair of actors backed sparingly by a children’s choir. Could be a disaster, but it’s quite the opposite, despite the juvenile band name.
27. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Beware
Another year, and another immaculate slow-burner of a record from one of America’s most prolific, consistent songwriters. As ever, it’s not exactly packed with laughs and party tunes, just the usual low key musical musing on love, loss and death. So, something for everyone.

26. The Pastels/Tenniscoats – Two Sunsets
Fancy a nice cup of twee? Check out this Scottish/Japanese indie-pop collaboration. Glasgow fey may have had its day (give Stuart Murdoch’s tame God Help the Girl project a miss), but the two groups here work off each other to produce a neat little box of spangly gems, if you’ve got a quiet half hour to spare.
25. Alela Diane – To Be Still
I’m still a sucker for a Joni-influenced girl with an acoustic guitar if the voice, the songs and the string-picking can endure over the course of a whole disc (although this voice may not to be to everyone’s taste). Catch a thousand copyists in a coffee house near you, but none as good as this.
24. Califone – All My Friends Are Funeral Singers
If you’ve ever wondered what an album recorded in an old barn by possibly drunk musicians messing around with dusty equipment would sound like, then welcome to Califone. From the lo-fi doodlings there eventually emerges some half-realised, rough-cut jewels. Perhaps there’s more scheme to this than seems apparent from the end result, but I prefer to believe they just put it out the way they recorded it. Categorise under ‘experimental country/broken folk.’
23. Manchester Orchestra – Mean Everything To Nothing
I think it was on the letters page of Paste magazine that someone described Manchester Orchestra as “ridiculously derivative”, but that’s probably just because they’re from the grunge states. True, they still channel that 90s sound through big guitars and interludes of introspection that sometimes verge on the timeworn, but they have the songs, as well as an overt flair and bite to their delivery, that allows them to carry it off.
22. Eels – Hombre Lobo
Nothing much unexpected here from Mr E, but he’s one of the elite who can pull off delivering stylistically similar sets, thanks to the inherent strength of his compositions, fuelled by the throaty, soulful suffering of a lead voice that mixes the sour with the sardonic, while never forgetting the importance of delivering a tune.
21. Jah Wobble – Chinese Dub
Best Chinese folk-influenced dub album of the year. Oh heck, ever.
20. Royksopp – Junior
I love the simple things in life, like thoughtfully manufactured electronic pop. It’s easy to digest, and if taken in limited doses you never lose your taste for it, even if you would never throw yourself upon its practitioners and passionately proclaim them harbingers of the world’s most indispensable art. More likely you’d say, “Nice work, keep pressing those buttons.”
19. Maria Taylor – Lady Luck
We all love Maria in the Indie-Pop household, reliably recording a fine album every couple of years, and half-packing them in at the Rock and Roll Hotel, where we all get lost to ‘Song Beneath The Song’ at the end of a beer-travelled night.Lady Luck is another very decent collection, although slightly patchier than her first two superb efforts. 11:11 and Lynn Teeter Flower.
18. Metric – Fantasies
This band remind me of Blondie, in that they write nakedly commercial pop songs boasting enough punch and power to keep them bouncing around your sub-conscience, but in a rewarding rather than an irritating way. And yes, I still love Parallel Lines.
17. Sufjan Stevens – The BQE
Stevens recently told Paste that since this classically-oriented project, presented here with a mesmerising film fixed on and around the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he’s lost the ability to write ‘normal’ songs. So the 50-album project, with each record focused on an individual US state, is on hold for now, 48 states short of its target. In the meantime, lose yourself in this astonishing journey, where he uses alternately manic and reflective composition to transform an unwieldy, traffic-clogged concrete artery through New York into an absorbing mirror of the urban human condition. Brave, fascinating, disconcerting and musically moving, all in one culturally packed package.
16. Magnolia Electric Company – Josephine
MEC’s mournful latest is a stripped down song cycle that apparently laments the titular subject, but on the band’s admittance is more of a loose tribute to its late bassist, Evan Farrell. It avoids the descent into dirge that has occasionally blighted Jason Molina’s voluminous and mostly magnificent past register of grey cloud, country-blues. It’s hard to imagine Molina as a London resident now - every note of this record is steeped in the feel of a vast and lonely America.
15. Modest Mouse – No One’s First, And You’re Next
There’s no group in the world that sounds remotely like Modest Mouse. Their nonsensical name underlies a twisted creativity that can be initially off-putting, but which ultimately draws you into a musical universe where so much is going on that there’s barely enough space in every song for all the weird ideas and tortured riffs that are kicking around. Persevere, and the rewards are durable.
14. Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
It takes some kind of peculiar genius to finger-pluck a violin, whistle, and not just desist from spoiling but actually improve already excellent songs. Even though this is not Bird’s best album, that only speaks for the extraordinary quality of his back catalogue. Added award: best live act of 2009, on a dream ticket with Loney, Dear at the 9:30 Club.
13. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Stunning, smart, shockingly gifted, Neko Case gets better with every album. Bold as a banker grasping for a bonus, every song demands your attention and, in the end, your appreciation. Case’s New Pornographers band mate AC Newman put out a good enough album with Guilty, but he must have listened to this with some measure of envy and conceded, “She’s the best.”
12. Vieux Farka Toure – Fondo
Imagine a record by Vieux’s father, the late Ali Farka Toure, played on electric guitar, and you have an idea of the extra sonic dimension added to what Vieux has happily inherited – a gift for vocal palliatives, understated rhythm, controlled improvisation (if that’s not an oxymoron), and overwhelming beauty.
11. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love. Mindy Smith and Tift Merritt were just one-off flings, Brandi. This is your third album, and you’ve still got me.
10. Iron & Wine – Around The Well
It says something for the depth of Sam Beam’s exhaustive library that a double CD collection of b-sides, outtakes and cover versions can compete with the year’s best recordings. Maybe it’s because this mostly takes us back to the sparse format of his wonderful early records, with just a voice and an acoustic guitar. Two whole sides of bliss.
9. Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter
No longer Grandaddy in name, but very much a continuation of the older generation’s genre. If that group’s thick, creamy pop sound was your favourite indulgence, then a dollop of this will sweeten your ears too.
8. Au Revoir Simone - Still Night, Still Light
Pop angels sent to soothe you with synthesisers and sisterly singing along the lines of, “I’m moving on/I hope you’re coming with me…” Definitely.
7. Kings of Convenience – Declaration of Dependence
Maestros of melody produce a third irresistible album of wistful, guitar-led singalongs. Impossible not to love.
6. Marc Almond – Orpheus In Exile: The Songs of Vadim Kozin
Almond’s albums veer between seductive twilight dance electronica and collections of atavistic, cabaret-style, Brecht-Weillian numbers, but either way he’s a genius who deserves a ton of recognition for his lifetime achievements. This album is in the latter camp, featuring the folk songs of a little-known Russian folk singer of the early 20th century, and perfectly suited to Almond’s strong but sensitive vocals on top of perfectly realised arrangements that speckle the songs’ traditional timbre with minimalist technological touches.
5. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
A cogent piece on the excellent Quietus music site posited the theory that Wilco are, quite simply, boring. It was a well-constructed argument, and I could see where the writer was coming from, but unfortunately the theory is wrong. This album - Wilco’s seventh or eighth, probably - should by rights be boring. Just look at the disingenuously dull title. And most bands are churning it out long before this point. Except that it isn’t - it’s brief, and it’s brilliant, their most accessible, least indulgent ever slice of whatever we’re calling ‘Americana’ these days.
4. Loney, Dear – Dear John
The subtle crescendos of Loney, Dear take you on a most relaxing rollercoaster ride, with enough warmly crafted songs to make this one of the year’s most endlessly repeatable releases.
3. Baaba Maal – Television
“Africa is the future” declares a sleeve note slogan, and if it sounds this good, the future will be shaped by hope and harmony. The record stacks a fuller sound on top of Maal’s trademark intricate acoustic work, fusing traditional rhythms with plangent bass lines and vocals that straddle a range from didactic urgency to tender crooning.
2. Anna Ternheim – Leaving On A Mayday
The darkness and the rain drive this Swedish nightingale, whose Nordic litost is matched only by her peerless delivery and immaculate songwriting. An almost perfect record.
1. Malcolm Middleton – Waxing Gibbous
Melancholy, bitter and thoroughly Celtic may not seem a high enough recommendation until you throw in Middleton’s extreme gift of being able to shroud his misery - darkly awash with the smile-shy humour at which Scotland excels - in consistently addictive, even invigorating tunes. Life is grim, but you can turn it into something dark, funny and beautiful, even as the rain keeps coming down.
The next 20:
31. Aidan Moffat and the Best-Ofs – How To Get To Heaven From Scotland
32. Twinkle 3 – Let’s Make A Solar System
33. Wye Oak – The Knot
34. Elvis Costello – Secret, Profane and Sugarcane
35. The Handsome Family – Honey Moon
36. Heartless Bastards – The Mountain
37. Beirut – March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland
38. Dan Deacon – Bromst
39. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
40. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
41. M Ward – Hold Time
42. Hope Sandoval and the Warm Invention – Through The Devil Softly
43. AC Newman – Get Guilty
44. Osso & Sufjan Stevens – Run Rabbit Run
45. Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew
46. The Nightingales – Insult To Injury
47. Steve Earle – Townes
48. Atlas Sound – Logos
49. Air – Love 2
50. Regina Spektor – Far
Previous years:

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Do Little, Earn Lots

Last night I went to my first $50 concert. I went of my own free will, so I only have myself to blame. I knew in advance that the venue was the DAR Constitution Hall, a seats-only theatre that would be better suited to basketball games. I also knew that The Pixies would be playing their 1989 album ‘Doolittle,’ from start to finish in correct running order. And I could probably have guessed that as I looked down at the audience from my seat at the back, I’d see more barren pates bobbing around than at the Slaughter of the Slapheads, the brutal, climactic face-off in Roland Emmerich’s apocalyptic movie, The Battle of the Bald, where two clans of ageing, wild, shiny-headed warriors fight it out for the world’s last remaining hairpiece.

For years The Pixies were shy about reuniting, but the commercial pickings as they approached retirement age became irresistible. You can’t blame them for tapping the surplus income of the generation whose indie attitude has been turned into loose cash. Buy a ‘Doolittle’ hoodie for $60 (and hide your lack of hair). You can pay another 25 bucks upfront for a copy of the concert on double CD, to be picked up on your way out back to suburbia. There’s probably a deluxe version of ‘Doolittle’ available by now too, and a vinyl reissue, and a remastered boxed set with added b-sides. The b-sides, by the way, are what we kick off with, because the album’s not very long. Fans love b-sides. Well, real fans love b-sides. But that’s okay, because the hall is apparently full of real fans, all supplying a wave of adulation.

This is payback time, because I used to tape all the Pixies albums off my girlfriend back then, so this is the first time in my life I’ve ever paid them a cent. It’s their due, because I did get a lot out of ‘Surfer Rosa’ and ‘Doolittle’ especially. More than I got last night, where they rushed through side one of the album, scratching out brash, sub-standard versions of great songs. I wouldn’t have minded at all if they’d stretched out ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’ to 15 minutes, but there was no re-imagining of the work. Perhaps they know their audience wants it served up pretty much as it was in 1989. Only not as good.

Although the performance of side two, and the inevitable encores, were a huge improvement on side one, there was no escaping the fact that you were getting a package, and that the gig was a mere step above puppetry - I was so far from the stage, it could have been a tribute band for all I knew. I tried not to think about the spitting, righteous contempt I had for people of my parents’ generation who used to go and watch the Rolling Stones at huge outdoor concerts in the early 80s. And now post-punk is posting it in too. Noise and posturing turned into a steady career, and what’s wrong with that? At our age we all know the cost of health insurance. If 3,700 people are happy (and they are happy - a lot happier than me) to be packed in to a venue where you can only get Heineken in plastic cups that you can’t even take to your crummy, cramped seat, then who am I to go bellyaching on for five paragraphs?

Looked at from an artistic point of view, however, this trend of touring classic albums is gutless. It’s like getting the players from Italy and Brazil’s classic encounter at the 1982 World Cup to replay the game with the same skill and speed they did almost three decades ago. And asking me as a fan to feel the same excitement. ‘Doolittle’ was 1989, and always will be. Perhaps my generation will be listening to it in twenty years time and saying, “Ah, this reminds me of the 2009 reunion tour. Just after my second divorce and before the back operation.” By then I might have enough disposable income to bin my cassette for the fortieth anniversary reissue edition.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Faith And Filth In Fiction

The Lord keeps working in mysterious ways, meaning that despite my review of Shelley Shepard Gray’s Christian-inspirational novel ‘Hidden’ last year, Avon Inspire, an imprint of Harper Collins, continues to dubiously honour me with its publications. The latest two arrivals are by Lori Copeland, who in 1995 “sensed that God was calling her to use her gift of writing to honour Him”. This is how I came to own a promotional copy of ‘Twice Loved’, whose front cover posits the question: Will Willow sacrifice her future security for a chance at true love?

In ‘Hidden’, I did indeed find much that was hidden – namely, sex, dressed up as inspirational fiction. I opened a random page of ‘Twice Loved’ (page 119, for those of you who want to jump to the saucy bits) and discovered much the same. “I believe the Gray boys sing well enough, the judge said. But when the new organ arrives, the service will improve enormously.” I say! And further down the same page, a character called Silas announces, “Best beef I’ve had in months.” Uncle Wallace responds, “Wait until you taste the fudge cake.” You can feel the homo-sensuality oozing off the page as these nineteenth century ‘gentlemen’ discuss supposedly mundane matters.

Thinly veiled eroticism aside, let’s cut to the plot. The Civil War’s just finished, and Silas, the bloke who likes a portion of good beef, is beyond middle age, well off, and wooing Willow, the new 19-year-old school teacher at Thunder Ridge, Texas, who’s rolled into town after being advised of his availability, accidentally setting fire to the town saw mill on the day of her arrival. (It happens. And according to the narrative, the fire would “later be compared to the Second Coming” – how much later I’m not sure, given that according to a quick search on Google News, the Second Coming still hasn’t come).

So anyway, Willow thinks that hooking up with beefy Silas would be okay, because she’d have no money worries, and her mates Copper and Audrey, who’ve come along too, would be provided for. End of story, materially happy ever after. But wait, inspirational fiction fans, there’s another character who’s not middle-aged and wealthy, he’s young and dashing and called Tucker (yes, he really is). He owns the saw mill that the heroine reduced to ashes, and he makes Willow weep with his “impossibly good looks and headstrong manner”.

I won’t keep you in suspense any more than I kept myself in suspense (spoiler alert here for all you Lori Copeland addicts), so let’s once again make a beeline for the book’s final page. “Lunging, Tucker seized Willow by the waist and took her with him into the ditch.” You dirty Tucker! “For the first time in a long time, Thunder Ridge was wet.” And the final paragraph begins, “A grin split Willow’s features.” Silas, in case you’re worried about the old fella, cops off with Copper instead.

Having merely perused the text, it seems only fair to tackle some of the 12 questions that the author asks at the end of the book, as though conducting a Sunday school class for a particularly backward group of under-5s. “It seldom rains in Thunder Ridge – just thunder and lightning. Still, the townspeople won’t move away. They prefer to stay and trust in God to send rain. Have you ever been in a position where all you could do was pray and trust? Did God come through for you?”

I wonder what Ms Copeland’s answer is for those who prayed and trusted, but ended up drowning, or shot, or crashing, or uncured anyway. That they didn’t trust and pray hard enough? It’s nice in fiction when God comes through for the characters, but what’s the explanation when prayer doesn’t work in real life? That God likes some of us better than others? Is the entity that created our world and our universe and, I suppose, all the elliptical galaxies and spiral galaxies and irregular galaxies too, is he answering prayers based on some arbitrary code of judgment we have to guess at according to those he chooses to “come through” for? Blimey, it’s enough to make you keep your hands off the fudge cake just in case God disapproves and holds it against you when your plane’s going down and you’re praying and trusting that he’s going to step in and fix the engines.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Suburban Traditions No.8: Going To The Mall

If you wanted to put a positive spin on a trip to the mall, you could point out that it’s full of lovely young women flashing you friendly smiles. But don’t delude yourself that they’re up for the kind of water closet cubicle fun that the seasonally employed, nihilistic main character of ‘Bad Santa’ indulged in with middle-aged housewives during his lunch break. These are commercial smiles aimed at dislodging only hard cash from your trousers, and presumably it still works. For a tight-fisted misanthrope, though, the real fun part of going to the mall is to talk to a Young Flashing Smile for five minutes, buy nothing, and then watch the tortured way she will try but fail to bid you a friendly goodbye.

I was at the mall yesterday, and even though the Financial Times is claiming on today’s front page that the US economy is now in recovery, that news has yet to manifest itself in the nation’s sanitised kirks of commerce. Customers were scarce, but there was an abundance of sales people, and those on the open concourse with their market-style stands were the most desperate of all. Years of looking away from hard men’s stares in English pubs hasn’t quite trained me well enough to avoid the lurking eye of the commission-hungry, artificially fragrant, high-heeled harpie who insists on telling you that Mrs. Pop would love this revolutionary new nail varnish.

“Why is it revolutionary? Does it make you take to the hills with an armed militia and plot the overthrow of the military-industrial complex?”

“Hey, what’s the accent? Are you from Australia?” is usually the response to that kind of comment. Training taught them to keep the smile big, but the talk must always be nice and small. It’s around this point, as they guess that you might be mildly insane, that the veneer of civil discourse starts to betray its first cracks in the sales assistant’s voice. At the same time, your presumed madness might be their best chance of a sale today, so they’ll make one last effort by halving the price.
This happened yesterday when I walked into a posh chocolate shop. Following the statutory agreement that we were both doing fine, I didn’t make an immediate grab for the shop’s most expensive items, so the saleswoman told me that Halloween goodies were two for the price of one. I bought some stuff as a salve for my girls’ football team, because they’re all mewling that they have to play on Halloween. Then the saleswoman charged me full price. “Er, didn’t you just tell me they’re two for price of one?” I asked. “Ha ha, so I did,” she laughed, almost hysterically, like she’d been saying it was just a generous offer on the spur of the moment, but she didn’t really mean it. So could you pay the full price? Pleeeease?

It wasn’t so hectic in the bigger shops, where staff are possibly less concerned about the faceless parent company going bust. The reason I actually went to the mall was to buy a roasting dish on offer in one of the department stores. I couldn’t find the one I wanted, and the only person visible was a teenage sales assistant, who ignored me because she was too busy texting. One day it will occur to American retailers to train their staff to help people, but without all the oily pushiness and naked insincerity. That day will be when we’re all up in the hills having a hell of a nice day with our armed militias.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bigotry's Bad For Business

Extreme right US radio host Rush Limbaugh was last week pushed out of a prospective ownership group aiming to buy National Football League team the St. Louis Rams. Several black players, recalling Limbaugh’s hateful on-air race-related outbursts, said they’d never sign for a team that counted him as a part-owner. Other team owners, none of them exactly renowned for their social radicalism, balked at the idea. The league itself distanced itself from the bid, citing Limbaugh’s “controversial” remarks. And finally the bidding group’s lead investor, Dave Checketts, dropped Limbaugh, euphemistically calling him “a complication and a distraction.”

Limbaugh knew exactly where to lay the blame for all this. “This is about the ongoing effort by the left in this country,” he said, “wherever you find them, in the media, in the Democratic Party, or wherever, to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative. Therefore, this is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we’re going to have.”

I’d have nothing against a future where conservatism is destroyed. It will be a truly wonderful thing for the vast majority of the world. However, the idea that the Democratic Party or the media in their current forms could directly bring this about is as delusional as most of Limbaugh’s twisted caterwauling. The ironic thing for raving Rush is that conservatism is far more capable than either of the above two institutions at destroying itself. The NFL probably does not care about civil rights, as such. But it does care about protecting its image, and it really, really does care about losing money. The threat of a sponsors’ or a consumer boycott is easily enough to slap the league into a decent stance on facing down bigotry.

There was a similar case in the UK last week, when Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote that the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately in Mallorca should not have been classified as down to “natural” causes, as stated in the coroner’s verdict (he died of heart failure), because his death followed a night on the town with his husband, they may have been smoking cannabis, and they had invited a third man back home with them. The outraged reader reaction to this unfounded, bilious, and entirely unnecessary opinionating caused several companies to pull their advertising from the Mail’s website.

In years past, the Mail would have taken pride and delight in provoking and offending so many people. Nowadays, immediate commercial pressure can force them into thinking again when they run such naked bilge. So even if odious, poison-pushing wasters like Moir and Limbaugh don’t change their views, and bleat in their next six columns or broadcasts that they’ve been deprived of their freedom to stoke the fears and prejudices of little-minded morons, at least the world won’t have to bear the publicised contents of their sickened minds.

It’s not exactly change wrung through storming the corridors of power, as visualised by generations of fist-clenching idealists. Rather it’s a lesser radicalism achieved through the exploitation of capitalism’s sensitive side, born of the belated realisation among corporations that (big surprise here), black people, gay people and left-leaning people all have money too, and they can all choose where to spend it. But before business realised that bigotry’s bad, it took years of lobbying by those heinous forces of idealism – the ones Rush probably thinks are out to destroy him - to illustrate why unfounded hatred on the grounds of gender, race or sexuality is nowadays unacceptable to those of us in the quiet majority too old and comfortable to storm the barricades, but with a molecule of power in our pockets.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Don't Walk, Part 2

You’re not going to believe this, but popping out to lunch for a bagel in suburbia can be pretty dangerous after all. Why, just today I nearly got killed for it.

I was waiting for the pedestrian light at a seven-lane highway to cross to Einstein’s Bagels, one of only three eateries in our neighbourhood within easy walking distance. When the light turns, you have about ten seconds to scurry across the seven lanes. Today, because it’s a long weekend, traffic was already heavy and hectic as everyone was trying to beat the rush to the beach. At the pedestrian signal, I took a step out to cross when a car in one of the middle lanes sped through the red light. This actually saved my life, because I instinctively took a step back to the pavement. At that second a mini-van in the closest lane also accelerated through the red light, a good three seconds after it had changed, at around 50mph. If it hadn’t killed me instantly, I can say for sure that my football career would have been over for good. But I was only hit by the rush of air.

There was a woman in the passenger seat and I saw for a split second, from very close quarters, the expression of horror on her face, and her hand raised to her mouth. I’m sure the driver didn’t mean to try and kill me, but he deliberately jumped that light to save himself a 20-second wait. Well worth risking a human life for. I then crossed the road with Mrs. Pop, who was coming to lunch with me, and we joked about how she would probably just have kept on obliviously talking about Dominic Strauss-Kahn’s possible bid for the French presidency while I was half way to Bethany Beach plastered across the front of a suburban van’s front bumper. Not to mention the irony of a whining suburban blogger dying an inglorious death on the helm of the very vehicle symbolising all that he moans about.

Einstein’s was surreal. The staff were on a go-slow, and there were a dozen patrons, silent with hunger, staring dolefully at the counter waiting for their food. There were some young, bovine-looking women wearing mismatched 60s clothing they must have chosen while severely drugged. One of them dropped a full bottle of Nantucket Nectar on the floor just as I passed her to get some serviettes. I jumped nimbly to avoid the shattered glass and the flood of fruit juice. She looked down dumbly at the mess she’d created as the overstretched counter staff reached wearily for the mop and bucket.

A minor incident, but the first one in the remaining instalment of my life.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Don't Walk

Mrs. Indie-Pop was doing something you never ought to do in suburbia – she was walking. Not that it’s dangerous in our neighborhood, unless stepping in dog shit or being overcome by depression at the sight of four SUVs in a single driveway is your idea of dangerous. It’s just something that’s seen as strange. For years my neighbours would stop and insist on offering me a lift if they saw me out and about without the requisite metal chassis on wheels. “But I’m only 100 yards from home,” I’d say. “But I’m going that way anyway,” they’d say. “But I’m only 75 yards from home,” I’d say. And they would reply that it really was no trouble, and I would say, “Thanks, but I’m actually home now, would you like to come in for a cup of tea?”

Anyway, Mrs. Indie-Pop’s car was in for service, so she took the radical step of hoofing it home from the underground, about a mile and a half away, which is the distance the average US suburban dweller accumulates on foot across the course of his or her entire adult life. Around 300 yards from home, a car pulled up beside her. She saw a balding man in his 30s talking to her, but as she had her iPod earplugs in, she couldn’t hear what he was saying. He seemed to be in some distress. It turned out he was saying, “What are you doing?” Like the radio had just issued a tornado watch, a Code Orange terror alert and a Walking Will Eventually Kill You health warning all in one bulletin.

“I’m walking,” she replied, keeping her distance. Because what you read in the news is true. This country is packed with freakin’ weirdoes.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“Home,” she said.

“Do you want a ride?”

It’s hard to convey through written speech, but this was not a neighbourly offer inspired by the desire to perform a worthy deed. It was a clear come-on. As though she would fancy a roadside stalker with a receding hairline enough to just hop in the passenger seat for a night of fun. She declined and continued on her way, then burst through the front door claiming, “I’ve still got it!”

Later that evening we were watching the first series of
Mad Men, and I pointed out that now we were in episode ten, we really had got the message that advertising executives in the early 1960s were a bunch of boorish, chauvinist swine with absolutely no redeeming human qualities whatsoever. Mrs. Pop railed in the programme’s defence that this was a pointed reminder of what feminists had to start the struggle against. So that today women can enjoy the freedom of walking down the street without being hassled by, say, kerb-crawling scum who think that a woman alone anywhere in public must be in the need of male company.

Walk or don’t walk. In America they make the choice nice and easy.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Upholding England's Glory

Driving for long stretches around the East Midlands the past few days, I’ve noticed the principle characteristics of the English landscape remain reassuringly unchanged.

First, because England is top of its World Cup qualifying group, England jerseys are massively back in vogue, especially among fat blokes with short hair. The red away shirt, the ‘lucky’ one England was wearing when it won the World Cup in 1966, is the most popular, a good omen for when Lamps, John T and Stevie G inevitably go all the way to glory in South Africa next year.

With the spell of warm weather, though, Tubby England Fan is confronted with a dilemma. While sitting outside the pub drinking pints of lager and staring at passing drivers, does he take it off and free his lard-white, wobbly guts up for the rare chance to absorb some Vitamin D? Or will that open him up to accusations of not fully backing the lads, even though England’s next game is a couple of months away? Judging by the extremely hard looks I got, one thing is for sure - with or without the shirt, Tubby England Fan is always ready to defend his pub table, especially if you’re going past him at 35 miles per hour.

Second, a lot of the pubs are now boarded up, perhaps as many as one in every three. Worryingly, some English people are cutting back on their ale and are maybe doing yoga classes instead. Or perhaps they’re staying in to watch the DVD of the 1966 World Cup final. My picture above shows The Memory Lane in Heanor, Derbyshire. Like England, it has seen better days.

Third, it seems that any boy outside the grounds of his school, no matter what the time of day, is bound by law to be holding a polystyrene tray of chips, which he consumes vigorously and without regard to etiquette. Who says England is not planning for the future? In a few years time, he will have accumulated enough belly flab to sit outside the boozer on a hot day wearing a sweaty replica football shirt and defending his table.

Finally, all young mothers with prams and pushchairs are obliged to look like they are on the point of killing themselves. In America, young mothers walk down the street looking radiant, and smilingly invite you to stop and bestow compliments upon their shrivelled, bleating offspring. In England, they look as though they have forsaken the right to live, let alone party. They would rather be out defending their man’s pub table. Albeit with an expression of forlorn, haggard misery, English Mum has sacrificed her place at the lager taps to nurture the Johnny Bulldogs of tomorrow and ensure that England’s tri-partite heritage – alcoholism, football-based patriotism and hard stares – survives unscathed for at least another generation.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Butcher, The Vicar And The Big Red Box

This blog is taking a temporary break from suburban Maryland and returning to its rural Lincolnshire roots. We are staying in a village where you can walk to three pubs within five minutes, and buy sausage and bacon from the butcher’s at 7.30am on the stroll home from picking up a newspaper. My cell phone is (thankfully) getting no signal, so I’m enjoying the retro thrill of using an old red phone box that smells of olde Englande’s most ancient piss and fag ends. The church rings its weary bells, there are ducks on the village stream, the pallid children attend a picturesque antique school house, and I have no doubt that in the afternoons a number of polite and elderly ladies regularly enjoy a cup of tea and a slice of cake.

It’s not quite perfect, though. I have yet to hear the genteel click of leather on willow, and I have not spotted any old maids cycling home through the mist. The former is likely drowned out by the moronic drivers who speed through the village’s narrow streets, travelling far in excess of the 30 miles per hour limit, while the last of the latter were probably run over and maimed several years ago. PC Mark Lassmans doesn’t mention the speeding in his column in the village’s admirably open quarterly magazine, but he does threaten to ticket parents who are blocking in residents on All Saints Lane when they pick up their children from the village infant school. He condemns their parking habits as being “beyond belief”. And he reminds readers of the curfew.

Yes, due to a spate of vandalism, there is a curfew on youths hanging out at the village’s two playing fields. Come dark, reportedly, they have been favoured lurking spots for under-age drinkers to by-pass Britain’s alcohol laws. Intoxication then leads to a desire to remodel the village football team’s modest main stand. PC Lassmans and PC Smith found 13 boozing youths there on the cold night of February 7, but although they took down everybody’s details, no one admitted to having ripped five steps and several chairs out of the structure. Without witnesses, there was no prosecution, and the best our law enforcement officers could do was force the youths to pour their drinks into the snow (a shameful waste, I'm almost inspired to write to the magazine).

These young folk are perhaps lacking in spiritual guidance, so the Reverend Jenny Rowley comes to the rescue in her own column, illustrated with a picture of her reassuringly jolly smile. When faced with an impossible situation (such as the All Saints church and its “ever-present financial challenge”, hint hint), then all we need to do is find strength in Jesus “and trust in his power”. Then we will find that we are “walking on water”.

Although this morning all the villagers I saw were still using the bridge to cross the village stream, I’m sure that a little bit of belief in the power of Jesus will allow PC Lassmans to come up with enough evidence to prosecute the football stand vandals, or villagers to stand in the middle of the road to face the boy racers head on, and have those cars just bounce off harmlessly to one side, their axles broken and their drivers reformed. Meanwhile, more practical villagers sitting on the Parish Council are working on a skate park to occupy the cider-swilling youths; controls on the owners of pooping dogs (a major international concern to this blog); and initiatives to plant new trees, to keep the place tidy ahead of this year’s Best Kept Village Competition, and to relocate the speed signs so that brain-shy motorists have less of an excuse for acting like they have somewhere important to go.

No one wants an English village without at least one church and a smiling vicar, but it’s not just the parking outside the infant school that’s proving beyond belief. The phone box, the pub and the butcher seem to be much more useful to the residents. “The God of the impossible calls us all to love and to trust him,” the Reverend Rowley burbles. I imagine her lurking behind the football stand and draining the dregs of the discarded lager cans before she goes to home to write her column late on a Friday night. Jesus, give me Extra Strength! she hollers to the belfry, for I love an impossible God! Oh, and as any fool staggering home from the White Hart knows, that red telephone box doubles up as the village time machine too.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Phoney War

The first law of capitalism: you are the customer, therefore you are an idiot.

In this obviously fictional sketch, there is an Idiot Customer, several Clueless Employees, and a Faceless Corporation, let’s call it AT&T. The Idiot Customer has a broken Sony Ericsson mobile phone, his second in two weeks, and is back in the AT&T shop where he bought it. Twice he has plugged it into the re-charger overnight, only twice to discover next morning that the previously functional phone has completely died. The first time, AT&T sent him a brand new one, after a long interrogation about what happened to the old one, and much messing with the broken phone in the AT&T Shop with Clueless Employee 2. Now, on the phone again to the warranty office while pacing around the AT&T shop, the Idiot Customer listens as Clueless Employee 3 offers to send him another new phone. The Idiot Customer points out that it would perhaps be a good idea to send a new re-charger as well, because the re-charger seems to be responsible in some way for knackering the phones.

[The following conversations have been heavily edited in order to reduce a one-hour phone event to a manageable length.]

Clueless Employee 3 [reading off an English-language crib sheet somewhere in The World]: I am only authorised to send you a new phone, sir.

Idiot Customer: But if you only send me a new phone, there’s every chance that the old re-charger will break the new one, and then we’re back to where we started, only now with three broken phones.

Clueless Employee 3: I am only authorised to send you a new phone, sir. If you like we can send you the new phone, and then when you receive it, you can contact us to send you a new re-charger.

Idiot Customer [incredulous]: Why not just send me the re-charger together with the phone and save us both a lot of time, effort and money?

Clueless Employee 3: I am only authorised to send you a new phone, sir.

Idiot Customer: I am standing in an AT&T shop under a big slogan that says, AT&T: Solution Provider. I want you to provide me with a solution.

Clueless Employee 3: I would like to apologise on behalf of AT&T, sir, for all the inconvenience.

Idiot Customer: I don’t want your apologies. I want a phone that works.

Clueless Employee 3: I will see what I can do and get back to you, sir.

[Idiot Customer is put on hold.]

Idiot Customer [to Clueless Employee 2]: Jesus Christ on a flying fucking motorbike.

[Clueless Employee 1 has long since ducked out of the shop, Clueless Employee 2 is ignoring him and thinking, “I wish this bastard customer would stop ranting down the phone and leave.” He’s the same Clueless Employee who was peeved two weeks ago when Idiot Customer inconveniently came in just as he was settling down to watch Barcelona versus Manchester United live on his computer. Yes dude, I’d like to be watching that game too, but I’m not because the crappy phone you sold me doesn’t work any more.]

Clueless Employee 3: On behalf of AT&T I would like to apologise for putting you on hold for such a long time, sir. I have checked in my computer, sir, and I am only authorised to send you a new phone.

Idiot Customer [sighing, and hating himself for having to deliver this line]: Can you put me through to your manager, please?

[Many more minutes of holding, apologies and repeated explanations about the probably malfunctioning re-charger later.]

Slightly Less Clueless Employee 4: We can send you a full phone kit as a special one-off courtesy, sir, but it will invalidate your warranty agreement.

Idiot Customer: I don’t care, just send it, and don’t even think about charging me for postage, and it’s no special courtesy, by the way, I’m actually trying to save you money here by not having another one of your phones break because the re-charger you sold me is faulty.
[Another ten minutes combing through the fine print. Idiot Customer isn’t really listening as he verbally signs away his rights to any future replacements. He’s mourning the loss of the good mood he was nurturing on a fine summer’s morning just one hour ago. Of the old-fart school, he still hates mobile phones and their moronic, ubiquitous intrusiveness, and wishes he didn't have to go through all this just to get back a device he wants to live without.]

Clueless Employee 4: Thank you very much for calling AT&T today. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Idiot Customer: Yes, please. Could you set about destroying your sorry excuse for a company from within, preferably today, and with the ruthless efficiency of a ravenous rogue crocodile happening upon a nest of newborn seal pups? Please?

Though the Idiot Customer only thought of saying that afterwards. Idiot.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Mockingbirds Chase The Moon

Paper Wasp Recordings, the southern Maryland-based, lo-fi micro-label for exiled British indie-pop bands, today releases a new EP by acoustic soul anti-stars Medlock. It’s previewed in its entirety here. What good fortune that the internet exists, allowing us to claim an international audience without ever having to leave the house to tour the world’s major cities, or trek to the post office with jiffy bags full of wobbly cassettes.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Waste Of Space

It’s not hard to baffle your neighbours in suburbia. Last night the woman next door seemed perplexed that I was leaving the house after 8pm, just as she was coming home with her kids. In suburbia, people only leave the house to go to work, take the kids to school, go to their kids’ sports games, or head out for brunch on Mother’s Day. None of these activities happen after 8pm.

“I’m going to see Her Space Holiday at the Rock and Roll Hotel,” I explained. She didn’t understand what that meant, so I repeated it. This time she politely pretended to understand, but pointed out that this would mean I’d miss the final of American Idol. Still I endeavoured to wrench myself away from our leafy lane.

I’ve never caught it myself, but I’ve heard there’s a bus that transports sloping white middle-aged indie saddos in to town to see bands like Her Space Holiday. Once there we stand with a glass of safety beer, not talking to each other, and wondering inside for the fiftieth time if we’re getting too old for this kind of thing. Last night the bus must have broken down, or my contemporaries have ascended to unchartered plains of mid-life enlightenment. The Rock and Roll Hotel -- DC’s best, but least known, music venue -- was teeming with young people.

Wahay, I accidentally like a band that young people like! I wondered if this was the same Her Space Holiday that for years consisted of speccy nerd Marc Bianchi making wonderful lo-fi electro records with titles like ‘Home Is Where You Hang Yourself.’ In person, yes, but in spirit, no. Now HSH is a six-piece band with two drummers, two guitarists, a bassist and a sole synth. They play peppy, self-referential rock and roll, get drunk, and enjoy themselves. I’m glad for Bianchi that he no longer wants to hang himself. Unfortunately, his songs are only half as good as they used to be, but that’s the price of happiness in indie-world.

After 40 minutes I abandon my spot on a side wall and slip out of the club, away from all these young people getting drunk and dancing. This week my eldest daughter becomes a teenager. Next time I’ll send her down instead.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Eat Yourself Ficker

In the best election news since Obama’s win, the Republican Party candidate for the upcoming special election to the vacant seat on Montgomery County Council on May 19 is Robin Ficker (read all about him at Fickipedia). In the half-German speaking Indie-Pop household this is a special cause for celebration – Ficker in German means ‘fucker’. This translates into hours of family fun every time we pass an election sign that exhorts us to Vote Ficker. Ficker makes us snicker.

The temptation would be to turn up at some of his stump speeches and vigorously shout “Ficker! Ficker! Hey you, Republican Ficker!” With such enthusiasm as to arouse no suspicion. Ficker himself would appreciate the shouts – he used to have season tickets at Washington DC’s basketball team, the Bullets, right behind the opposition bench, and would spend the entire game heckling the away team. Bullets’ officials and some of the fans around him found this less than entertaining, and when the team moved to a new arena 12 years ago, changing its name to the Wizards at the same time, he found that the seating plan barred him from renewing his season tickets in his favoured hectoring spot. He’s refused to go ever since.

Ficker’s running on an anti-tax ticket, and is one of those libertarians who don’t seem to believe in any kind of tax at all, advocating that the Fairy Godmother, otherwise known as the free market, will somehow provide for all if only left to its own fair devices. Dumb Ficker. He’s also a lawyer, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but not a universally admired profession. Still, apart from being a rightwing nutjob psycho basketball fan lawyer, he’s at least got his name going for him.

Ficker’s daughter is a professional triathlete. She is physically very fit, and her name is Desirée. Which reminds me of the old joke:
“I say, I say, I say, my wife went out for dinner the other night with the triathlete daughter of the man running for the vacant seat on Montgomery County Council.”
“Desirée Ficker?”
Bien entendu, mein Freund…”

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mid-Life Massacre

Men of my age, sinking with a half-smile into a stupor of anonymity, tend to pronounce on the evils of the world from the safety of our four secure walls, more poorly informed informed than ever before. Told that we should “get out more”, we venture through the front door for some real life action, only to scuttle home shaking our heads, wishing we’d saved ourselves the price of a ticket to see The Brian Jonestown Massacre.

The Brian Jonestown Massacre aired its core idea in full last night at the 9.30 Club in Washington DC - a strummed intro, followed by four electric guitars all more or less poorly playing the same chord, the statutory drummer who sends it all up-tempo after 30 seconds, and a roof-shaking bass that in a live setting is adjusted to drown out almost everything, including a half-hearted vocal stranded somewhere between death and purgatory. If the bassist was a virtuoso, you could maybe understand why he’d been cranked up to cover the ham-fisted efforts of the rest of the band, but the instrument’s sound is pure thudding indie-plod.

I wondered if I was the only one who noticed, or if my ears were now so knackered that they only pick up low tones. I thought about yelling out in between songs, “Could you turn down the bass a little please, gentlemen?” But this is the first time I’ve ever seen The Brian Jonestown Massacre live, and I’m scared that everyone will turn round and stare at me, and someone will say, “Don’t you know that the Brian Jonestown massacre live sound is built around the bass? It’s been like that for 15 years.” Plus BJM lead man Anton Newcombe has a reputation for attacking members of the audience.

Twenty years ago, if I’d spent the entire afternoon drinking, I’d have thought they were genius. They swill bottles of spirits and smoke on stage and can barely handle their instruments, just the kind of anti-work ethic I always admired in a band.Proficiency was for people who took the whole idea of popular music way too seriously. On the other hand, everyone in The Brian Jonestown Massacre is deadly serious. Bands like this were not formed to smile, and are obliged to hold up indie’s unwritten manifesto that life is grim and unrelenting, like a two-note bass riff turned up to ten.

The only sign of amusement on show is the special needs 1930s farm worker with hamsters for sideburns who stands in the middle of the stage playing tambourine. This is Joel Gion, the bloke Newcombe famously beat up on stage in 1996 the night that music industry reps came to see the band. That Gion’s still in the band could mean that the fight was a set-up to alienate The Man and establish alt cred, or else there aren’t many jobs going for indie-pop tambourine shakers who look like they’d rather be mucking out your mules. Then I remember what I'm reading, Juan Eslava Galan’s excellent ‘The Mule’, and I head for home, lured by the idea of a book on the train over a bass in my brain.

Still, I like this band, and the way it shaped its one idea, sucking up several influences and creating one gratifyingly big, if easily identifiable, sound. At home, when everyone else is out, with the bass turned down, and with a far too sensible measure of whisky in a crystal glass.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Meeting The Suburban Playboy

Trying To Get Out More, Part 1. The first in an occasional series in which I leave the house, only to end up annoyed by a fellow human being.

The other morning I’d finished up in the gym, but a man perhaps ten years younger than me was blocking access to my locker because he was taking his stuff out of the closet above. No problem, I can wait. Except that he wasn’t really accessing his locker, he was just standing there checking his mobile device for new e-mails. Obviously an important bloke - he’d been in the gym an hour, and someone could have sent him a crucial communication in that time. Except you’re not that important that work doesn’t miss you when you skip out to the gym mid-morning, eh? Irritation factor: 5%.

I notice a tattoo near his ankle of the Playboy bunny. Blocking me from getting to my locker’s one thing, doing it while sporting a crass symbol of overt vanity quite another. If you’re such a playboy, why’s it not tattooed on your forehead, super-dick? Let’s show some conviction here. Or do women look at your face, snigger at your feckless expression, look down in embarrassment and then think, “Oh wait, he has a playboy bunny tattoo, he must be a stud-butt after all.” Irritation factor: a steep climb to 60%.

Once I finally get to my locker and pack up and leave, bunny boy follows me out to the car park. You know how it is - you’re trying to just get away from someone, for good, for ever, and they keep hanging in there, as though they’ve been specially commissioned to irritate the crap out of you for the whole day. Finally, he goes the wrong way round the car park’s one-way system in his SU fucking V and tries to cut me off at the exit. But I step on it and get in there first and leave him behind at the next light. Irritation factor: a climb to a cuss-gorging 90% before levelling and descending in the rear-view mirror to zero.

How can I judge this man without having heard him speak a single word? Perhaps he was checking his messages because a family member had been in a car accident and he was awaiting a health status update. Perhaps he had a Playboy symbol tattooed on his leg as the result of a cruel hazing ritual at college where he’d been tied down and branded, and now he was having it slowly removed through long and painful laser surgery. What if I’d run over a little toddler as I accelerated to stop him cutting me off at the car park exit, and he’d then testified that it was all his fault for acting like an arrogant, SUV-driving, Blackberry-checking, Playboy tattoo-toting twat?

Somewhere, maybe, there’s a blog entry at about a single man’s annoyance at the sneering, impatient, middle-aged, Passat-driving lowlife that cut him off aggressively at the gym’s car park exit. All bitter just because he lost the race, ha!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Chilli Times Ahead

Here’s a picture of our guard dog, who sits on the front lawn warning mutts not to squat and void upon our grass, a gift from my family after the trials described in Great Suburban Traditions No. 3 - Dog Crap. Today our passive pet was messed on by the heavens, but at least it’s not as toxic as the excrement from his living, breathing and copiously shitting counterparts who are allowed to drop their plop on our property by their sociopathic, death-courting owners.

Although he’s been pretty effective since we got him a year ago, a couple of months back someone did allow their dog to evacuate right next to ‘No!’, perhaps misinterpreting the sign as encouragement. More likely it was a cussed cur-walker refusing to be told where he could or could not let his or her hound pitch a dog-log in a free America. I have a sneaking admiration for this attitude, in the same way I quite enjoy it when I let young drivers into the traffic flow, and they respond by accelerating with a grin, then showing me the finger. In recognition, I’ve let the rebel turd ossify over the winter months, although that’s mainly because I can’t be arsed to clean it up, and it’s been frozen and thus odour-free for most of that time anyway.

Come drier weather, though, I’ll be less forgiving, and plan to buy an industrial-sized jar of cheap but potent chilli powder from the Costco megamarket to spread around ‘No!’ so that he can enjoy the sight of spiced snouts on yelping yapdogs being frantically pulled into retreat by their suddenly contrite handlers. I should reiterate that I genuinely love most dogs. It’s just a shame for them that they don’t get to choose their guardians, many of whom would themselves benefit from restraint by leash and a strong-willed, whip-swishing enforcer to help them get accustomed to basic social norms. I am told such businesses do already exist, though probably not in this section of the suburbs. Here discipline is still in the hands of personally convenient gods; bulbous, braying mums; and the Neighbourhood Watch Zentralkomitee. None of whom, unfortunately, seem to want to take responsibility for illegally crapping dogs.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Ballroom Burial

On Tuesday evenings I drive my daughter and three of her friends to choir practice. As they warm their voices up by talking fast or screaming simultaneously, four 12-year-old girls generate an unbelievable amount of noise, especially within the confines of a Passat. Once I’ve dropped them off, the drive home is a more relaxed, solitary affair, with no chorus of negative comment on my choice of music.

One of the traffic lights I stop at affords me a perfect view into the second floor headquarters of the Arthur Murray Dance Center in Bethesda. Between 7 and 8pm, it hosts what looks like a formal ballroom dancing class. Post-youth couples move gently around the room. This week they danced to Near Dark by Burial, at least from where I was sitting with my foot on the brake. The rhythm was slightly out of sync with the dancing, but that didn’t matter. For once in my day, I was not impatient for the light to turn green.

There are too many traffic lights, and way too few forms of entertainment to go with them.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The New Dark-Eyed Juncoes LP

The music industry, barely recovered from a night at the Grams, will be getting drunk again tonight to the sound of the Dark-Eyed Juncoes, one of the 'projects' on my anti-profit micro-label Paper Wasp Recordings. The group has just emerged from a self-imposed break (that is, they were too idle to go on a world tour) to release a new CD, 'Lost At Sea.' Listen to four of the songs here. If you want the whole album, just ask politely.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Hell's Smells

So yesterday was the first full day in Obama’s America, and already I found something to complain about. I expected the day to be perfect, but it wasn’t. It stank of fried chicken.

Like all suburban stay-at-homers, my day largely revolves around grasping for a spare moment to sit down with a book and fall asleep. I thought I’d found a 15-minute window at the Caribou Coffee Shop in between shopping and picking up the kids from school, with David Starkey’s ‘Six Wives’ the necessary vehicle to a brief slumber. I was just at drowsing point somewhere in the middle of the sentence, “Back in January 1526, with the major Household reforms known as the Eltham Ordinances, Wolsey had at last seemed to get full control of the Privy Chamber,” when in came a woman with a can of Coke and a plastic carton containing onion rings and deep fried chicken.

It’s the law of King Sodomy of the sod-happy Sodomites that she would choose to sit right next to me, and without even bothering to buy a coffee, open up her malodorous lunch virtually under my nose. The rank nutrition snapped the moment and the mood to doze. And like all Brits, programmed as we are to complain to anyone except the people who need to hear it (say, the coffee shop staff, or the woman herself), I got up and walked out, muttering foulest oaths that froze and shattered in the east coast winter air. Then I drove early to school, where I spent ten minutes in the car park sipping coffee and listening to Richard H Kirk while marvelling at people who have the shameless face to walk into a coffee shop and eat fried chicken.

I like the Caribou because it has free wi-fi and garrulous, friendly staff, but it seems to attract a weirdly anti-social and obstreperous clientele. A couple of weeks ago I settled down there to work one morning when a bloke behind me fell asleep and snored at a prodigious volume for full two hours, non stop from 8-10am. I bet even the fried chicken chick wouldn’t have raised him. Last week at my table an office worker conducted an hour-long informal performance review of a subordinate that was so vague and jargon-saturated that I couldn’t work out for the life of me what kind of company they could possibly be working for. But they were loud enough that I could understand every word, even if none of it made sense. And in the same seat last year a man speaking what I think was a Slavic language loudly enjoyed, via cell phone, live commentary from a friend several thousand miles away attending what must have been an important basketball game, judging by the frequent and borderline inasane yelps of jubilation he unleashed upon the rest of the innocent, cowering customers.

Well, it’s a small world with lots of people, and I can always stop at home if I’m bothered by people who like to keep a high profile. Alternatively, instead of shutting down Guantanamo Bay, the new president could convert it into a giant fast food outlet, and all the people who like fried chicken could go there and eat it all day. The stench would bring down the Cuban government, meaning an immediate and peaceful triumph for Obama’s foreign policy and, more importantly, I could publicly quaff caffeine-based drinks while reading pompous historians and taking an afternoon nap. It’s been two days now, and this administration has yet to get its priorities straight.