Friday, 16 December 2011

And the Award Goes To...

A popular question in interviews is “what is your greatest achievement?” If you are a parent then that it is all too easy to answer. Even if you are trying to get this job so you don’t have to spend as much time with the annoying little shits, replying with “my children” will always be one of those acceptable, politically correct, collect-£200-as-you-pass-go answers.

For the rest of us singletons, low-flyers, hobby-less people out there this achievement question is a tough one to deal with.

Thinking back over my life achievements, or lack thereof, it brought me back to a school memory that I had stashed away, alongside the embarrassments, foot in mouth moments and that time I heckled a Morris Dancer. The unlocked, dark memory was The Tale Of The Swimming Certificate. Are you ready? Then I'll begin.

Back in primary school we endured half a term of weekly swimming lessons at the local pool. The class was sectioned off into “sink like a stone”, “can manage the doggie paddle” and a select group of “the next Michael Phelps”. Guess which group I was in?

I started off in the main group of kids who could manage and just needed to learn a technique, but was quickly cast out to the group ran by someone’s mum who used to try and alleviate my fear of water by saying “look, I’ll have a lot of paperwork to fill out if you drown”. Fears and the longing looks to the uber-swimmers splashing around in the deep end aside, I splashed, kicked and floated on.  My main aim being to complete a width of the pool and receive that coveted swimming certificate.

At the end of term we all gathered in assembly, the buzz of the certificate presentations milling around the class. We sat cross-legged and watched the teacher in anticipation of hearing our names read out. 

The first certificate was for “confidence”. Basically the absolute bog-standard, pee-poor excuse for an award. Looking down the line of my friends I rolled my eyes and shot a pitiful look for the poor saddos who would be forced to accept this.  My patronising looks were soon cut short when my name was read out. WHAT?! I stood up and collected my rubbish ‘award’ half-dazed and half absolutely gutted. I was still in disbelief as I watched my friends pick up their ‘width’ and ‘length’ certificates. Bastards!

Ironically this award for gaining confidence totally knocked my confidence and whilst I still visited the pool frequently at weekends in my teens, I still to this day have no real technique other than ‘flail and don’t drown’.

The moral of the story? Don't write acceptance speeches unless you are a sure-fire winner.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Album Review: Mat Kearney - Young Love

Unusual name-spellings aside (Kearney apparently adopted the one 'T' version of his name after finding an error on his birth certificate which had him down as "Mathew"), Young Love is the fourth studio album from the American singer/songwriter.

The first thing that strikes you as you listen to this album is how much his voice sounds like Coldplay's Chris Martin. Scarily similar. I mean so alike in sound that mid-way through the album I was still checking that the album cover wasn't in fact Mr. Martin in a stripey top and flat cap. It wasn't. Proceed.

The comparison is a huge compliment. Kearney's voice is rich, textured and has a vast range - even managing to pull off some mild vanilla rap. No really. In Ships In The Night and Chasing The Light he delivers a folk-sounding rap which keeps pace with the hand clap beats and synthy drums which are so prevalent throughout the album.

Songs like Down and Young, Dumb and In Love showcase Kearney's story-teller lyrics and conversational style of delivery (when he's not faux-rapping of course) which is reminiscent of his hero Paul Simon.

Hey Mama and She Got The Honey are pretty little ditties which are the perfect soundtracks for summer days and cold beer consumption. In contrast to these cheery melodies are the more mellow acoustic guitar tracks like Learning To Love Again and the album closer, Rochester. The latter song telling the story of his father who is trying to "rip that boy from Rochester right out my chest".

As a whole the album is a bit too repetitive and samey. Perfect for lazy days and summer festivals but not one you'd have on repeat at home. Coldplay fans will heart him.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Album Review: PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

With her eight studio album, PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, not only marks her fourth Mercury Music Prize nomination, and second win, but also puts her alongside Radiohead as the most nominated artist in the history of the awards. No mean feat.

Released in February 2011, the album is the follow-up to 2007’s ethereal, piano-led album White Chalk. Using Iraq, Afghanistan and Gallipoli as reference points, Harvey reportedly spent years researching these different conflicts to construct the lyrical content of the album.

References to war and England’s destruction are integral to every song on this album. ‘Let England Shake’ opens with Polly’s echo-ey vocals declaring, rather depressingly, “England’s dancing days are done”. The rambling xylophone adds to the eerie, quiet tones and delivers a muffled punch to the chorus.

Harvey began the construction of the album using an autoharp and its lush string sound can be heard emanating throughout, particularly in ‘Let England Shake’ and ‘The Colour of the Earth’. The album also uses a lot of layered guitar sounds which add richness in contrast to the stark, often gruesome, lyrics. Not content with punctuating the gorgeous sound with war-torn lyrics, Harvey uses other means to prick the listener out of the dreamy sound. In ‘The Glorious Land’ a building intro is matched with bursts of the army’s ‘regimental march’ bugle call.

Her vocals teeter between soft and eerily girlish on some tracks, to a slight desperate, quiet hysteria in songs like ‘The Words that Maketh Murder’.  Compared to the rock-banshee, and rich deep tone she has used in previous albums (White Chalk excluded) it seems she has taken on a softer voice to let the words do the damage. In, ‘Hanging in the Wire’ her soft vocals trill “there are no birds singing on the white cliffs of Dover”. Vera Lynn for a new generation she is not.

Some obscure samples are put into the mix, with a distorted vocal from Said El Kurdi (yep, never heard of him either) in ‘England’ and an almost reggae-sounding chant of “let it burn, let it burn” in ‘Written on the Forehead’.

Let England Shake is altogether a more subdued, less-in-your-face affair than her previous creations, yet the tapestry of the lyrics are closer knit and woven into rich layers of sound, only to be singled out again against stark guitar or brass section solo’s. Rather than a punch in the nuts, these songs creep into the subconscious, luring you in, and then silently attacking with words, evoking gut-wrenching imagery, “seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat. Arms and legs were in the trees”. 

The endless layers in this album, and not to mention the timeless theme of war, are what will keep me coming back for more time and time again. 

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Dear Santa

Dear Santa,

Let me start by saying that this year has been shit. I'm not blaming you in anyway for the undelivered promise of 2011 so far, however, maybe if you showed your face around town more often instead of popping up for a couple of weeks per year it would have helped. A little gift whilst stood in the freezing cold waiting for the train last month would have gone down a treat. Just saying. Anyhoo, I digress...

Here is my wishlist for this year:

  • Make all the rain and wind and cold in England stop.
  • Make the summer actually happen in summer - not in October.
  • Remove all two-faced, annoying, stupid, stuck up, and generally horrendous people. I embody all the aforementioned traits but as this is my wish list I am exempt from the banishment.
  • Stop Adam Sandler and that guy from King of Queens making any more films together. Nobody needs to see that again.
  • Spread some rumours around about me. Need to improve the street cred.
  • Do you perchance have hairdressing qualifications? If so, if you could spare four hours every morning to sort my barnet out it would be much appreciated.
  • Cause some kind of 'accident' that effects half of the England football team (I like to refer to them simply as the Arseholes). Nothing serious, maybe just some kind of freak attack that puts them out of action for a few years until they learn a lesson. I dunno, you can come up with the specifics but maybe the elves could be involved?
So as you can see from my list I'm not asking for anything insane. It's not like I've asked for the boxset of Glee. That would be mad.

Peace and joy to you and the Mrs.

Love you lots.