Monthly Archives: February 2013

Just a cat


Bob is ill. Has been ill, now, for three and a half weeks. We’re not sure what’s wrong with him, but it seems likely that it’s viral cat flu. How he got this, we don’t know; he doesn’t go out and he’s immunised, and has a booster every year. He’s full of snot, and consequently hasn’t eaten of this own accord since the end of last month, apart from once, at the vets. Other than that we’ve been syringe-feeding him.

We’ve had blood tests and know it’s not bacterial or fungal. His nose has been flushed with water so we’re 99% certain it’s not a foreign object. He’s been tested for FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus) and he’s not a carrier. His heart is fine, his lungs are fine; apart from his snotty sinuses, he is in good health. He’s five and a half years old and a big, strong cat.

But he’s lost over half a kilo in weight. He’s lethargic and depressed. He spent two days at the vets, in the first week of his illness, on a drip, because he got dehydrated. We’ve kept him as hydrated as possible ever since, feeding him special paste food, high in calories and nutrition, that we mix with water and syringe into his mouth. At one point, early on, he accepted this, and sat on my lap while I did it. Then he got fed up of it, and started fighting me, so we’d have to do it with him wrapped in a towel, swaddled up like a baby. He isn’t a baby; he’s just a cat. As people keep reminding us.

We’ve spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pounds on tests and antibiotics and stays at the vets and anti-inflammatory drugs and Olbas Oil and cotton wool balls and this weird feline Lucozade that tastes of chicken stock and sachets of smelly tuna food to try and tempt him to eat. Cosmo, who has no symptoms at all, and seems, as always, invulnerable, has eaten and eaten and eaten, as Bob begs for food, and then, every time, sniffs it, smells nothing because his nose is blocked, and then turns away. If cats can’t smell, they don’t eat. Their world is experienced so much through smell.

We’ve tried everything the vet can suggest, and he’s not getting any better. We simply can’t afford, financially, to try anything more, other than supportive care – liquid food, steaming Olbas Oil at him, keeping him warm, showing him we love him, willing him to get better. He’s just a cat.

Except he isn’t. He’s our first cat, and as such he’s a huge emotional investment, a totem of our relationship, our lives as lived together. We got him within weeks of moving in together almost five and a half years ago; just less than four months ago we moved him from our flat into our new house. We chose him, named him, loved him from the start, washed the shit out of his fur when he was a clumsy kitten, wooed him when he was grumpy, made a fuss of him when he was affectionate. He’s a ragdoll, so he’s affectionate in ways that people who don’t know the breed won’t understand. Their temperament is more like dogs’ than cats’; they follow you around, wonder what you’re doing, talk to you constantly, demand that all doors are opened to them, sit on your lap when you’re on the toilet, sleep on your pillow, rush to the front door when you get home from work, sulk for an hour when you’ve been away overnight and then slather you with affection when you’re back on the sofa with them and a glass of wine, where you belong. Bob in particular is a cat full of personality; grumpy and demanding, but so utterly full of love for us and full of faith and trust in us.

When people find out how much money we’ve spent on trying to find out what’s wrong with Bob, and trying to make him better, over the last few weeks, I can tell that they think we’re mental. We could have had him put down and bought two or even three new cats of the same breed for what it’s cost us. But none of those cats would be Bob. We just have to make him better. He has to get better. Even if he’s just a cat.

Post-script: Thankfully, brilliantly, and with perfect timing, Bob started getting better literally within hours of me posting this: when we went to bed that Saturday night he was sick on the kitchen floor, and kept us up half the night hacking and urging and mewling. I was just about ready to put him in a sack and head for the river at 3am, because it seemed like the humane thing to do.

But by 7:30am he was completely without snot, and asking for food again; so we gave him some, and he ate it. And he hasn’t stopped since. 11 days later he’s put weight back on, and is his usual, grumpy, demanding, peculiar and affectionate self once more.

All the test results are back from the labs, and the vet thinks it was a bacterial infection which his body just took a long time to recover from; this means it shouldn’t ever come back.

We’re all delighted, as you might imagine. Especially Cosmo.

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Primal Scream – XTRMNTR (2000)

xtrmntrIf there’s a point where the 90s end and the 00s begin, it’s probably XTRMNTR. For me, at least: I’m very aware of how futile it is to read big-picture significance into records. Nonetheless, this felt like a seismic turning point when it came out, and even though I seldom revisit it now, the ripples of its impact are clearly carved into my consciousness. I remember a friend and I both buying it on the day it came out, one of us on vinyl, the other on CD, and sitting and playing it, soaking it in, feeling that it was important. That it was a work of art.

In some ways, XTRMNTR is an angry, inverted version of Screamadelica: it starts with a funky tune catchy enough to be a single; the centerpiece is a remix of a song from the previous record that completely recontextualises it and acts as an aesthetic lead for the rest of this record; one track appears twice in different form on either side of the vinyl; and all the acidhouse hippy drippy LSD & MDMA love that rippled through Screamadelica has been spun out and replaced with thick doses of paranoia, political instability, and rage. It’s as if the fallout from the party turned toxic and infected us.

All thorugh this record, Primal Scream hit peaks of their career. The hellishly compressed scree of guitar that comes courtesy of Kevin Shields during “Accelerator” is the most outrageously rock’n’roll thing they’ve done, and “Keep Your Dreams” is the most beautiful and serene. “Shoot Speed/Kill Light” the most perfect, streaming motorik hit I’ve ever experienced. “Blood Money” actually does manage to capture the spirit of Miles Davis circa 71. The “MBV Arkestra” is… indescribable. I even like the track where Bobby Gillespie asthmatically raps a string of swear words like a playground showoff. The only thing wrong with this record is the decreasingly effervescent dribble that has been Primal Scream’s albums ever since.

As ever, the people involved in this record who aren’t members of Primal Scream seem to be more important to its sonic signature than those who are. The Chemical Brothers. Kevin Shields. Bernard Sumner. Keith Tenniswood. David Holmes. Tim Goldsworthy. Brendan Lynch. Adrian Sherwood. Jagz Kooner. You could easily feel that XTRMNTR had invented all the discopunk, indie-electro, and Joy Division revivalism that permeated the 00s, and you could argue that Primal Scream (and friends) did it better. The DFA practically met on of this album. I wont even mention the state of the world since its release.

Such was the power of this album that I pretty much ignored Kid A later in 2000, because this had already done everything that record was meant to do, only angrier, dancier, louder, more fun. My favourite track on Kid A sounded like an out-take from this record. In my narrative of the 00s, this is the record that most shaped what followed, and which is deserving of praise. But Primal Scream are a joke of a band, their schtick long since descended into pastiche and so far gone as to be beyond criticism. I’ve simply refused to engage with their recent records, because what’s the point? But this, and Screamadelica, and Vanishing Point, almost justify their position, almost make me believe the hype. What an album. What a weird, stupid, laughable band.

Panda Bear – Person Pitch (2007)

Person+Pitch+PBImagine if you will, just for a moment, a strawman music fan who likes “real” music, played on “real” instruments by “real” people. I come across this kind of person less and less these days, but I used to encounter them all the time. My counter to their insistence on “real” music was always that it sounded boring, and that I preferred the idea of “unreal” music, which surely must be more exciting.

Panda Bear makes “unreal” music, both with Animal Collective and on his own. Music that doesn’t sound real, music that floats, that can’t be touched, that doesn’t seem to stem from anything physical. It’s a remarkable trick; one that has actually, despite my pining for “unreal” music, given me plenty of problems, and not a few headaches, over the years.

Six years on, I still don’t really understand Person Pitch. Nonetheless, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like this strange, amniotic earworm of a record, even if I have to use it as a bastardised kind of ambient music rather than as bona fide pop, despite its sugar-sweet melodies, delicious harmonies, and abundance of hooks.

Someone I played Person Pitch to once described it as “Gregorian chant Beach Boys”, and it is, as heard underwater, from a fairground, in a memory. Sonically it’s bizarre, indistinct and shimmering, so drenched in echo and reverb as to almost dissolve before your ears, and built on a web of strange samples and loops that could be musique concrète or could be something else entirely.

Person Pitch’s best moments – the second half of “Take Pills”, the first half of “Bros” – attain a state of euphoric tedium which is unlike pretty much anything else I’ve ever heard. The whole thing drifts like your mind in that weird state of semi-consciousness between sleeping and waking up in the morning, when time stretches and sways. Panda Bear overlays vocals in repeated mantras of delicious, 60s West Coast lineage melodies. There are songs underneath the shimmering, patterns and choruses and verses, but they’re merely vehicles for the strange, uncanny emotions they inspire. Which, more often than not, are a kind of unearned nostalgia, a false memory syndrome for the heart.

There’s a long list of musicians and bands in the crazily collaged sleeve, running from Isolee to The Clienetele to Vashti Bunyan to Queen to Aphex Twin to Scott Walker to Nina Simone to Portishead to Horace Andy and covering a lot of ground in between and beyond. Person Pitch is almost like one man’s attempt to assimilate all his influences, and then splurge them all, at once, into a strange tapestry. Of course, like any unified theory of everything, it has its issues, and it exists halfway between genius and messy tedium; the final third of “Bros” and the first movement of “Good Girl / Carrots” feel like endurance tests if I’m not in the mood, and leave you wondering why, when Panda Bear can write melodies and harmonies as sweet as he evidently can, why he doesn’t always bother.

Noah Lennox and I are similar ages, and we’re both married. I don’t have kids but I imagine our wants are similar; two walls and adobe slabs, for our girls. Very real things, in which to keep safe our emotional lives. But sometimes emotions are best expressed through unreality. Sometimes the buzzing, reverberating unreality of it all gives me a headache; but mostly nowadays it makes me smile.

Working For A Nuclear Free City – Working For A Nuclear Free City (2006)

wfanfcThere’s always a worry between initially hearing a great band and the release of their first record / major label debut / difficult second album / comeback special that somewhere along the line they’ll fuck it up. Fortunately with Working For A Nuclear Free City the first thing I heard was their terrific eponymous debut; an almost flawless lucid-dream trip through a thousand fantastical influences, it portrayed the city as narrative (mostly) without recourse to words, a kind of potted history of Manchester that spread to take in Canadian laptop shoegaze, intellectual art music, krautrock, Rugby drone pop, dirty funk, dub, a snippet of social commentary, and a whole big heap of cloudy psychedelia. Had I heard it in 2006, when it came out, it would probably have been my favourite album of that year; as it is, I got hold of it the following year, and it became part of the amazing tapestry of music that made up 2007.

I know almost nothing about Working For A Nuclear Free City as a band except where they’re from and what they released across 2006 and 2007; this eponymous debut album, 14 tracks over 42 minutes, an EP called Rocket which is every bit as good, and a double-disc compilation combining the two and an armful of other tracks, which was aimed at the American market. After that, I don’t know. I stopped caring. The debut album and it’s accompanying EP were more than enough. My love affair was brief, but I’m glad it happened.

Listening back now, the debut (and Rocket too, for that matter) is a pleasingly amateurish affair, completely in thrall to its influences but so in love with music and so full of ideas that its derivation doesn’t really seem to matter. It starts with a 90-second waft of faux-vinyl crackle and shoegazing smoke, before the tricksy rhythm and thrumming, stomach-deep bass of “Troubled Son” kick in, like some kind of foggy disco revivalism as imagined in a Wythenshawe bedroom through a cloud of dope smoke. “Dead Fingers Talking” rolls out of the dissipating smoke on an enormous bassline and a haze of laser noises, mumbled voices talking about cosmic dust and watching TV.

In the late 90s there was, briefly, a clutch of bands like Regular Fries and Lo Fidelity Allstars and Campag Velocet, who seemed to be composed of music journalists and drug dealers. Working For A Nuclear Free City, at a glance, could appear to be a 00s incarnation of the same thing, driven by an instinct to share one’s record collection by sticking the best bits together, almost at random, in a new record. Primal Scream are, of course, their spiritual forebears.

Nonetheless, they made something here that struck a chord with me. The beatific hum and thump of “Stone Cold,” saying more with a chord-change and an acoustic chime than many supposedly sensitive singers ever manage. The none-more-Spiritualized drone+explosion of “Over,” still needing to be heard to be believed. The beatific pastures and harmonics of “Quiet Place”. The shoegazey textures and explosions of “So”. The joyous laptronica of “Forever”. The songs are short, barely even songs half the time, and more like signifiers or reminders of other music, and they run into each other in an enthusiastic blur.

As eclectic and derivative as Working For A Nuclear Free City is, it’s also of a piece, the DIY production, smokey mixing and headroom-friendly mastering giving it a pleasingly dreamy, hallucinogenic sound that binds everything together. Gauche and clumsy, but marvellous fun all the same.

The Necks – Drive By (2004)

drive-byI used to run the film and music department of a university library, which was semi-sealed off from the rest of the library, meaning we could play music. Most of the time we took advantage of the extensive American music collection the department held – several thousand LPs of mainly jazz and blues, but with a few outliers (Nevermind, a Ministry album, 3ft High And Rising) – but occasionally we’d bring our own records in, especially outside of term time.

Of all the records we played in the department, the one that inspired the most people to ask what it was we were playing was this. Almost without fail, we’d put it on and someone passing through the department to borrow a film or check a journal would stop, cock their head to listen, and say “wow, who’s this?” or “this is really cool” or “what type of music is this?”

Who it is, is The Necks, an Australian trio, who make a living as session musicians across the globe and meet up once a year back in Australia to make a new record, sort of. What it is, is minimal, almost to the point of being ambient, experimental jazz. That’s reductive, but there’s not a lot more you can say without starting to throw around loose adjectives like “hypnotic” and “groovy” and “repetitive”. You could compare what they do to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way or CAN’s Future Days, stretched to infinity…

I’d never heard of The Necks before Drive By, when a review in The Guardian caught my attention. I ordered it online the same day, was dumbstruck within seconds of it starting, and transfixed for its entire 60-minute duration. 60 minutes that is comprised of just one hypnotic, groovy, repetitive track, built on a shuffling drumbeat and alluringly sinister bassline, and decorated with swirling organs, samples of crepuscular insects and far-off children’s playgrounds, and stabs of piano, which puncture the gloom like rays of sunshine. It is the very definition of Eno’s Oblique Strategy that “repetition is a form of change”, as the rhythmic base and textural superstructure of the music constantly makes almost imperceptible shifts.

Indeed, The Necks perfectly fit Eno’s description of ambient music as being like a painting; it can be in the room with you and you can ignore it, face away from it, but it still shapes the colour and mood of the room around you; or else you can stand before it and become completely absorbed. Much of their work, and especially Drive By, is intensely physical, groove-based, rhythmic music.

As with many artists, my first exposure to The Necks remains my favourite. I own another six albums by them (one a double CD); almost all are comprised of a single, unbroken, 60-minute track, all slightly different, all very similar, and all very, very good indeed. But Drive By is the one I go back to most often; and I go back to it a lot. If I could scrobble my CD players, I’m pretty confident that I’d have played this record more than any other single album in the last nine years.

Intriguingly, as a recording artist, The Necks couldn’t really have existed in the pre-CD age; their most recent album comprises two 22-minute tracks, and is their first ever vinyl release. Their music almost defies the post-physical age too – you wont find them on Spotify or YouTube, although you can download them via iTunes. Live, they improvise a new set every night, exploring the acoustics of whatever room they’re in, bouncing sound off the walls and ideas off each other, disparate explorations coalescing into something profoundly powerful. I find their music almost endlessly fascinating and compelling.

Acoustic Ladyland – Skinny Grin (2006)

skinnygrinI fell for Acoustic Ladyland when Held On The Tips Of Fingers, their sort-of sister group Polar Bear’s second album, was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2005. Acoustic Ladyland’s own second album, Last Chance Saloon, came out around the same time and the two seemed to me like a perfect pair; one sophisticated, the other raucous, but both broad-minded and identifiable as the work of (almost) the same people. I hoped they’d always release albums in tandem.

Acoustic Ladyland managed to get a third album out way before Polar Bear though. Released just before Christmas in 2006, I reviewed Skinny Grin at the time, and made bold claims for its genius and potential as a marketable crossover from the vibrant London jazz scene that’s produced seemingly scores of tokenistic-jazz-choice Mercury nominations – as well as Polar Bear, Melt Yourself Down, Basquiat Strings, Portico Quartet, Sons Of Kemet, and avant-rock choices The Invisible were all connected to the same musical network. I was convinced Skinny Grin would garner universal acclaim and massive success.

Sadly, although it definitely got the acclaim (at least amongst the narrow demographic who paid attention), its bizarre choice of release date saw it fall into the cracks between Sufjan Stevens Yuletide boxsets and Celine Dion ‘best ofs’, and nobody outside the crowd of usual suspects seemed to become enthused by it; it was too late to make any 2006 end-of-year lists, and by the time the 2007 ones rolled around, it had been forgotten in favour of Battles, who did a similar thing but seemingly from a different direction.

Skinny Grin is frenetic, groovy, teetering-on-the-edge-of-chaos stuff. It starts with a delicately deployed piano before a melange of furious, compressed noise erupts and destroys everything around it. If you think that’s out there, wait until you hear “Salt Water (Scott Walker Mix)”, in which the legendary singer adds what sounds like a muzzle of angry electronic bees to the jerking, multi-directional instrumentation. Guest vocalists (and bandleader Pete Wareham, trading saxophone for microphone) add a punky, poppy dimension to some tracks, but it’s the (predominantly) instrumental tracks that hit the hardest, packing a progressive punch that transgresses genre boundaries like little else.

The way album closer “Hitting Home” emotes through its beatifically wistful groove shows that they’re not just hyperactive crazies, though. Likewise Wareham’s sax line five minutes into “The Room”; just as the chaos of the vocal section is broken away into placid waters for the final time, an astoundingly beautiful melodic run emerges. Tracks like “Cuts And Lies” are outrageously kinetic, dirty funk, though, and the reconciliation of all these different sides of the band is thrilling.

For a brief moment, Skinny Grin transformed Acoustic Ladyland from an exciting curio and made them seem essential; at least to me. They moulded Coltrane, Hendrix, Morphine, Napalm Death, and a million other sounds into something genuinely new, genuinely exciting, and genuinely, bafflingly wonderful. It’s a little intense and effervescent to throw on too often, but six years later, when I do, it’s still pretty much guaranteed to blow the back of my head off.

Boards of Canada – The Campfire Headphase (2005)

campfireWith hindsight, it looks as though all the pre-release myth-busting that Boards of Canada embarked upon with this album was their way of subtly telling us they were splitting up. It’s now nearly eight years since The Campfire Headphase, and no follow-up has emerged. Even in Boards of Canada’s strange, slow-moving, sepia world, that’s a long time.

By avoiding face-to-face interviews, revealing scant biographical information, and making music characterised by enormous semiotic holes which beg the listener to construct their own interpretations, Boards Of Canada allowed an entire world of myths to build up around them. All of a sudden they confess to being brothers (who didn’t want to be compared to Orbital), denied being members of any occult group despite the oblique references scattered across their music, and explicitly detailed the previously mysterious processes they use to compose and record their music, and how they artificially age it in post-production.

The Campfire Headphase’s sleeve is none-more-Boards-Of-Canada; turquoise-tinted mildewed Polaroids of dozens of unidentifiable people who may no longer exist scattered across the digipak. Track titles like “Chromakey Dreamcoat” an “’84 Pontiac Dream,” almost seemed parodic. But ravenous fans were still riven apart by this album, in particular the decision to introduce (heavily treated) guitars into the sound palette, which made them cry blasphemy like Dylan fans when he went electric.

From a distance this interpolation of guitars could make The Campfire Headphase sound like My Bloody Valentine, but it’s a lazy comparison. The fact that there are fewer unsettling vocal sample interjections, no playground laughter, no oblique quotes about paganism or distant, childhood declarations of love is arguably more important a development; The Campfire Headphase is simply less unsettling than previous offerings. It’s still instantly recognisable as Boards of Canada, but it turns previously oblique approaches in more concise and (whisper it) uplifting directions. They’re still isolationist and peculiarly nostalgic, but now they have tunes.

Four minutes into “Peacock Tail” a tiny, tremulous melody emerges and is as good, as evocative, as heart-tuggingly uncanny as the nearly intangible movement in “Kid For Today” (from the In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country EP), perhaps as anything they’ve produced before at all. There are bizarre, upwards-spiralling melodic fills during “Ataronchronon,” an infinite fadeout decay for album closer “Farewell Fire,” and the huge (by their standards), almost jubilant tunefulness of “Satellite Anthem Icarus.”

And then there is “Dayvan Cowboy”, an ambient wash of distant, corroded, almost unheard hum for two minutes before open, reverberating guitar chords fall into place and strings lift this typically Boards Of Canada sound and make it soar like they never have done before. A rattle of drums three minutes in is like nothing else in their discography for impact and emotion. It’s their most tangible, solid moment of music since “Roygbiv”.

I was never an enormous Boards of Canada fan, never concerned with unpacking all the signifiers sprinkled through their records; I use their records as ambient music for the most part (which is in no way a pejorative). But there’s something else here, some deeper connection which dismantles that utility. Something else has been lost, arguably, but it’s a welcome development, I think. Even if Boards of Canada themselves dissolved under its weight.