Are You With Me Now?

I shan’t bother with the apologies. Suffice to say, inactivity plagues this blog, like most others. My remedy: trying to post shorter, more frequent updates. And they’ll mainly be Spotify tracks & playlists (mine and from others), or music from elsewhere on the web.

First, a quick note about Spotify: many of my favorite artists aren’t on Spotify. Very little music from Drag City records, or many other independent labels, is ever published there. The reason is that artists make very little money out of ‘airplay’ on Spotify. I get that and I think it should be up to artists to choose how they want to distribute and publish their work. So I fully respect the rationale behind Neil Hagerty, for example, not having his music go up on Spotify.

That said, Spotify also represents a sort of adolescent dream made real. As a teenager, it was impossible to imagine having so much music available with the click of a mouse (or a touchscreen or whatever). It’s a great way of discovering music, particularly older tracks and compilations which just don’t make it to radio these days (with the exception of WFMU and a few other excellent stations). The Spotify Discover weekly playlist has been the source of quite a few new favorite tracks – some of which I knew, some I should have known, and some I’d never heard before. So, I’m happy to pay for a subscription to Spotify and also purchase music that I enjoy direct from the artist when possible, or from their record label.

For new music, Bandcamp and Soundcloud are excellent websites you know about already and then there are friends. We still share songs, after all.

Anyway, here’s a Spotify playlist of some songs I’ve been listening to a lot recently. Some new, many old. Some, like Spirit In The Sky buy Norman Greenbaum are true radio classics. Others, like Dion’s Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms) are completely new to me. Cate le Bon is a recent discovery, and I’m really looking forward to her gig in Barcelona this autumn.

Margo Guryan’s pop doesn’t seem to have that many followers these days, but in my opinion you can hear the bridge from her California Shake song, or a version of it at least, popping up in Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain (also her Sunday Morning contrasts nicely with the Velvet Underground’s track of the same name). She also wrote the lyrics for vocal versions of Ornette Coleman’s Lonely Woman and numerous other songs.

BRONCHO and Alvvays are just good bands I’ve been listening to a lot. Ex Hex’s Rips is one of my favorite albums of recent years: it’s just packed with great songs and even better guitars. They were excellent at Primavera Sound last year too.

Royal Trux – Untitled – 1992

Untitled (1992) is the first Royal Trux record to feature more-or-less traditional, structured songs. It’s the bridge between Royal Trux and Twin Infinitives (albums one and two, both brilliant records but arguably more demanding on the listener), and Cats and Dogs, their fourth LP.

On Untitled, Hagerty and Herrema permit themselves to show off some of their skills in terms of songwriting, production and guitar (I love the guitar parts in particular). But that nice, unpolished feel remains.

Untitled sees Royal Trux move on from “dissonant junkie nightmare”, albeit one step at a time.

Messing about in boats

We had a wonderful holiday in the Philippines over New Year, particularly the week we spent on Cuyo island. We stayed at the excellent Coco Verde Beach Resort and had the place to ourselves for 4 nights. We spent our time snorkeling and relaxing, enjoyed great food, cold beer and even wine with dinner. One day, we took a trip to Quiminatin island, a good two hours away by fishing boat. The snorkeling at Quiminatin was gorgeous – we saw dozens of species of fish, brightly colored living coral, huge clams, and lots more.

But the thing that really got me about the snorkeling trip was the boat ride. It was uncomfortable: sitting on a narrow plank for hours, particularly in wet swimming trunks, doesn’t make for a happy backside. But the thrill of the sea really got to me. Scudding along with a mild swell and your destination visible on the horizon: is there anything better? (Actually I’ve a sneaking suspicion that there’s more than a little salt water in my blood. Perhaps this was my inescapable destiny).

Carta Nàutica

I’d talked about trying to get a boating license for a while. I can’t even drive. so it didn’t seem like a top priority. But that boat ride to Quiminatin and back convinced me. I signed up with the Corsa Nàutica school in Barcelona last month and did an intensive course over a weekend. Friday a couple of weeks ago, I took the theory exam in a high school in Sarrià (you’ve never seen so many floppy-haired posh types in your life) and today, the Generalitat has confirmed that I passed. Damned good of them. That’s the only test necessary to become a Skipper of Recreational Vessels so I now have to turn up for some hours of practical experience and radio communications and I’m done.

Shiver me timbers, and avast!

(If you’re thinking about doing something similar, I had a pretty good experience with the Corsa Nàutica school, based at the Port Olímpic in Barcelona. Friendly staff, decent course materials and so on.)

Here’s some additional information about the PER qualification.

There are 5 standard qualifications in Spain for boats and yachts: PNB (Patrón de Navigación Básica), PER (Patrón de Embarcaciones de recreo) – the one I’m working towards, PY (Patrón de Yate), CY (Capitán de Yate) and PPER (Patrón Profesional de Embarcaciones de Recreo). I understand that the PPER is needed if you want to work as a professional skipper.

The PER exam includes questions about parts of the boat (this bit’s basically a vocab test), beacons and other signalling apparatus, safety, simple navigation, international legislation, and nautical charts. The nautical charts section involves being able to find your location based on compass bearings to two charted objects, tides, correcting for magnetic deviation, and that sort of thing. You’re allowed up to 13 errors in total, and only two of them can be on nautical charts.

The exam is the only part of the qualification which you can fail – the other components being 2 days’ practical and several hours’ radio experience, which need to be done with a registered school.

Here in Catalonia, the exam is in both Spanish and Catalan, something which can actually help at times, if you speak both (e.g. ‘el bichero’ in Spanish is called ‘la gafa’ in Catalan, which gives more of a clue as to what it’s used for). Doing the exam when neither of these languages is your mother tongue is tricky but then the vocab is new to most people. And if Clive James can teach himself French by reading Proust, you or I can get through a few dozen multiple-choice questions with a bit of study beforehand. I have a feeling that you could probably pass the exam without doing the course, but you’d need to be a better student than I.

Made in America/Members Only – The Sopranos

An excellent analysis here of the final scene in the final episode of The Sopranos. Don’t read unless you’ve seen it (or don’t care about spoiling the end of a great TV show).

In-depth analysis like this of the direction, camera angles and shots, really adds something to a second or third run-through of The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire and maybe a handful of other shows. When you’re not distracted by wanting to know what’s going to happen, you’ve got more time to enjoy how the director gets you there. And make no mistake: these TV series are of a far higher calibre in this respect – the attention to detail and the thoughtfulness of exposition – than the vast majority of movies.

I think it’s time to start on The Sopranos again.

North by Northwest – Hitchcock’s Magnum Opus

While I love his tense psychological thrillers like Vertigo, the humour and tension of Rear Window and the horror of Psycho, there’s a special place in my heart for the heady mix of action, thriller and comedy that is North by Northwest. A better writer than me could certainly write an entire book about this film. I’ll limit myself to a few observations as to what I consider to be its most important qualities.

Visually, North by Northwest is stunning. Its opening titles, overlaid (allegedly) in a diagonal pointing NNW over an aerial shot of Manhattan skyscrapers is the first feature use of ‘kinetic typography’. The titles were created by Saul Bass – the master of 50s and 60s movie titles. North by Northwest might well be his best work. Indeed, it’s pretty obvious that the aesthetic of the film, including Cary Grant’s suits (and Madison Avenue profession), the sets and furniture are the inspiration for arguably the best designed television series in history – Mad Men [of which we’re about to finish our second run through. It’s all about Don and Roger’s friendship, n’est-ce pas?].

Camera angles and shots

Even more important are the camera angles and techniques used in the film. These range from the striking straight-down camera perched high up on the United Nations building, which makes the building’s entrance look like a diorama, as Roger Thornhill flees – to the awe-inspiring crop duster scene, with its jaw dropping 61 camera angles and shots. This scene still impresses today – for a film from 1959, it feels remarkably realistic and seems to confirm the opinion that skilled cinematography, acting and direction can deliver better results than computer generated imagery in the hands of a dullard (cf: most adventure films released in the last 25 years or so).

The soundtrack is also noteworthy. Composed by Bernard Herrmann, it establishes drama instantly with a sinister expression consisting of only two notes: down-up, down-up – it was certainly good enough for John Williams to rip off for Jaws 16 years later. To my ear, the theme itself has something of Shostakovitch about it, but I’m no musicologist. Herrmann and Shostakovitch did collaborate much later, but that could just be coincidental.

Cary Grant is Cary Grant at his best in North by Northwest – suave, permatanned, confident and witty. He’s terrified at times but always manages to brush it off. Eva Marie Saint is a classic Hitchcock blonde – superficially beautiful with a modern, liberal outlook fitting the turn of the decade when the film was released. James Mason is perfect as a genteel baddie – backed up by more physically threatening henchmen.

Crop Duster scene

I suppose that in the end, what makes North by Northwest so much fun is that it’s clearly unreal, yet realised for the audience in a way that we can really enjoy it. The film is a fantasy piece, heavy on fun and light on symbolism, which frees it from the need for a more realistic or explicable plot line. The film’s set pieces, particularly the crop duster scene, are iconic and clearly had a huge impact on future action thrillers. I know I get a hint of a thrill from any film which shows one of those near-abandoned prairie crossroads and I strain to hear the sound of an aircraft. Just in case.

North by Northwest is certainly one of my favourite movies, up there with The Big Lebowski (another absurd fantasy, incidentally, though obviously a screwball comedy rather than a thriller). You’ve seen it plenty of times. Watch it again. I know I will.


 

If you’ve read this far, I’m promising now to do a bit more on here, mainly about films, books, music and food. So, see you next year.

Are Radiohead the least dangerous band on the planet?

Far from pushing music forward, they have helped lead indie bands into a cul-de-sac of turgid conservatism, a hybrid of self-absorbed shoegaze and postrock with nothing to say and nowhere to go. That Primavera Sound picked them as headliners in 2016 should tell you everything you need to know about how the world of major label ‘indie rock’ has collapsed into self-regarding fatuousness. Of the 200-odd acts performing at the festival, only about 20 have anything interesting to say about the future of pop music.

Radiohead are basically the same as Coldplay but for people with slightly different haircuts. They’re U2 for people who think they have a conscience (but still pony-up nearly €200 to go to a music festival sponsored by H&M, Adidas, Ray-Bans and Firestone tires). Radiohead are Status Quo. And so are LCD Soundsystem.

Of pans and eggs, the cooking thereof

I’m not entirely certain that there are health risks associated with Teflon coated pans. It might well be that the amount of Teflon we eat over the years pales in comparison to the plastics that seep into our food when we microwave Tupperware containers, drink from water bottles or inhale in the street. So I’m making no crypto-scientific claims about our plan to rid our house of them. I mean, I’m not this guy.

What I will say is that I’m sick of changing pans every two years. Even apparently high quality non-stick pans don’t seem capable of surviving regular use (or my mother in law scrubbing them with wire scouring pads).

So a few months ago, I bought a couple of cast iron pans, and last week a couple of stainless steel ones. The cast iron pans are good for cooking meat: pork chops and steaks in particular always turn out perfect, while it was difficult to get the temperature high enough in a non-stick pan (which are predominantly made of aluminium, with a copper core designed to make them work on our induction hob). Cast iron needs to be ‘seasoned’ – effectively burning a thin layer of oil onto the metal at high temperature, though god knows if that’s any healthier than eating Teflon – in order to make it less sticky. Once seasoned, you wash it with hot water only (never any soap), dry thoroughly and then rub on a few drops of olive oil to help preventing rusting.

I haven’t used the stainless steel pans as much yet, but made a decent vegetarian couscous the other day and had no real problems. But this morning, I ventured into dangerous  territory: frying eggs. Or I thought it was dangerous territory anyway. It turns out that common sense – using a little more oil and not getting the pan too hot – prevailed. In fact, it was bloody easy. It makes me wonder why Teflon pans ever caught on in the first place. I can only imagine that Colette Grégoire was an abysmal cook. Stainless steel pans, incidentally, need no seasoning and don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise. I still apply a drop or two of olive oil after washing and drying, to protect the metal.

Identifying Netflix content tourists with science

I’d describe my level of understanding of this technology as marginally more than zero but surely this idea works on paper but could never work in the real world. Network latency is a highly unreliable metric when it comes to measuring physical distance. I suspect that the technological developments necessary to make this feasible will take longer to appear than a more sensible approach to global content distribution licensing. The current system mainly favors the studio lawyers who broker rights deals and I suspect its days are numbered.

Netflix itself, of course, couldn’t care less about content tourists. If it did, it would probably use address verification in its credit card payment interface: it’s very easy to activate and all credit cards include personalization data which include address, postcode and country. No, Netflix pays lip service to worrying about VPN/DNS services (the latter are, from experience, far superior) only to placate the lawyers whose cash cow’s days are numbered.

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Purity, by Jonathan Franzen

I shan’t write a review outlining the plotlines or anything like that. Rather, here are a few thoughts that came to me while reading and digesting Jonathan Franzen’s latest novel.

– This feels like it was written with television in mind. Maybe writing the doomed HBO adaptation of The Corrections put him off but I felt like Franzen’s multi-threaded style has evolved to feel like a really good TV show. Varied locations, time taken to develop a character who then disappears, only to resurface, and a combination of the highly visual and highly visceral. Franzen said that The Corrections had a ‘universe’ behind it with more characters and stories which he effectively edited out of the novel. I wonder if he didn’t consciously include more of these in Purity.

– The Corrections and Freedom felt like attempts to describe America and the world at specific historical moments. Purity feels no different in this respect. While it continues in Franzen’s now traditional way to analyse family life (most specifically a Larkinesque approach to what parents do to their kids), Purity also deals with the information revolution: the Internet. Franzen has been named a Luddite by many fierce defenders of the Internet for comments he has made over the years about things like how a serious writer would never write a novel on a computer connected to the Internet. These defenders get really upset by anyone criticising their revolution. In Purity, Franzen takes some time to explain his position and his argument that the ‘revolution’ of the internet – insofar as it applies to liberty – is as false as the ‘revolution’ of the German Democratic Republic, but just as totalitarian. His observation that Google, Facebook and Twitter are often hailed for defending ‘freedom’ principles while the NSA – which really is tasked with protecting the American system – is universally loathed, is provocative. And taking some time off from such things over New Year, it is difficult to point to any true value that social media brings to an individual’s life, outside of ego boosts.

– The idea of the Great American Novel is, in itself, a sort of Moby Dick (hurr hurr) for writers like Franzen. I don’t think he’s trying to deliver that with Purity, but I do appreciate that if he has come close, it’s with a Spanish culebron packed with German characters.

– Purity’s closing message fits with a popular analysis of inter-generational strife in the post-war half century west. Our parents’ generation have fucked everything up. And they had everything. Franzen adds to this a vital component of hope – he seems to trust the ‘millennials’ far more than many authors in his position do.

– I liked Pip as a lead character.

– I found Purity to be the funniest Franzen to date. Really laugh out loud funny at times.

– For some reason, I split my reading of the book between a visit to Berlin (which felt amazingly well-timed, seeing as I could now imagine the Frankfurter Allee and Friedrichshain while reading about them, and a trip to the Philippines (which is only mentioned once, and briefly, in the novel).

– In all, an enjoyable read.

Narcos: a TV show that could have been great. But wasn’t.

This story about Pablo Escobar, the government he tried to bring down and the cops who fought to bring him to justice should have been a lot more compelling.

Narcos is another OK TV series from Netflix. In fact, it’s probably the best OK TV series that Netflix has produced so far. But it could have been much more. Todd VanDerr Werff at Vox has a great review dealing mainly with the show’s over-emphasis on voice-over – I agree with pretty much everything he writes.

For me, the main problem with Narcos – a problem that affects many mediocre TV shows – including all of Netflix’s in-house content – is a lack of artistry. Watching Narcos, you never get the feeling that a genius is taking you on a journey. When an episode ends, you don’t feel the need to chat with the person next to you about what that installment meant, or what you thought the writers were trying to say. That’s something that happened with Mad Men (for all its faults) and certainly in Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire and a few other shows.

The sad thing is that Narcos could have done it. The show was extremely well made: nice photography, generally good casting, great locations, an emphasis on Spanish-language dialogue which I really appreciated. The first episode even began with a quote about magic realism and its roots in Colombia, which inspired some hope that we were going to get something different this time around. It could have been a great show. But every time it had a chance to take the viewer on a journey, to provoke or beguile, it opted instead for the safety of bland exposition.

Narcos is another OK TV show from Netflix. And all the more disappointing for it.