andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: May 2016

In Translation: Kula Shaker’s K 2.0 reviewed

This post accomplishes two things: bringing Lucio’s  review of the Kula Shaker album to the anglophone world, and forcing me to do some alternative Spanish homework. Lucio’s views are his own: I don’t necessarily agree with all of them, but they’re interesting. As usual with my translations, it’s pretty fast and loose to try and catch the sense of the thing, rather than be exact.

The return of the band that was never here

Blur, Oasis, Pulp and Suede (BOPS) were, and always will be, the standard bearers of Britpop, artistically and commercially speaking. During the latter two thirds of the Nineties, they showered us with musical jewels that retain their place in the collective memory, and popular culture. Radiohead has always moved in alternate dimensions. Beneath all these, a long list of bands that, for one reason or another, never achieved the popularity or success of BOPS. Supergrass and Kula Shaker shine out on this list.

Mixing traditional Indian music with the voice and guitar of Crispian Mills, Alonza Bevan’s bass, Paul Winterhart’s drums, and Jay Darlington’s psychedelic keyboards, gave Kula Shaker a unique sound: mysticism and hook-laden melodies endowing a specific charm to the formula George Harrison created, 30 years previously, but with a fresh spirit.

K, (1996) their spectacular, dud-free debut, was followed by Peasants, Pigs & Astronauts in 1999, produced by Bob Ezrin. The second album found a band at the peak of their creative powers. Under the protective cloak of Columbia Records, the album was filled with complex orchestrations and backing musicians: it was their most successful album, although it lacked the spontaneity of the first. Then, without anyone expecting it, disenchanted by low sales, the band announced their break up the same year.

In 2004, Mills and Bevan agreed to reform the group, although with Harry Broadbent instead of Darlington at the keyboards. Almost three years passed before the release of Strangefolk (2007), launched with great determination under their own label: the band leaned on this towards more subtle, darker tones; Pilgrims Progress (2010) was more folk-based. Then, sporadic performances with little support, until they announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012.  Thereafter, silence, until:

Recorded in Belgium and produced by Mills and Bevan last autumn, the group revealed more and more about the new album, little by little. Titled K 2.0, its opening track and first single, Infinite Sun, certainly left a good taste in the mouth. On Christmas morning we were told 12th February would be the launch date; they also announced a series of UK tour dates and, in line with the usual rules of publicity, released the video of the single.

It only remained for us to wait and cross our fingers: so, how is this brilliant K 2.0?

We already knew the opening track, with its appealing changes of rhythm: a very Kula Shaker theme. Holy Flame follows. It might sound plain on first hearing: but believe me, it’s one of the highlights of the album. Death of Democracy has this false riff that, it goes without saying, leads to Crispian Mills trying to be Ray Davies: that doesn’t turn out well. The wave of mysticism goes far better than the satirical/social themes. Then a strange thing happens: the song seems to extend for several minutes more: but, surprise! It’s the next track, with an almost identical rhythm.

33 Crows is a pretty, quasi-country melody, countryish, we would say, although little in common with the denizens of London. Oh Mary is typical Kula Shaker from recent years, slowish, with a change of beat half way through which then reverts to the original, but unfortunately with no hooks. High Noon sounds a lot like Strangefolk. The spaghetti-western style guitars don’t help.

Get Right Get Ready is funky and psychedelic, with a Deep Purplish intro, and – what the hell? At this stage you need to be thankful for being out of your comfort zone. There must be some reason that little of this K 2.0 on its first showing sounds like its launch. The album closes with Mountain Lifter, an intricate song with epic ambitions, including a mantra and everything: you know, the trademark brand!

To sum up, a good album that won’t gain extra fans (you’ve only to look at the number of Twitter followers), K2.0 is a sort of sonic compendium of their last two albums, before which there was this experienced band that, from the force of its riffs and energy amazed us with its debut, and left me open-mouthed by its successor.  Sadly, the band has carried on for ten years with this ‘legends’ routine, staying active or reuniting to bring out an album which gives them the excuse to tour, interpreting these classic songs which still give them relevance and prestige. However, in the case of this album, it’s at a much more modest level.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s praiseworthy: it’s well worth you giving this album some minutes of your time. It’s rare to find an album that covers its major themes at the start and finish. The problem is the middle does nothing outstanding to tie it all together.

Since the band announced this new reunion, I was excited by the prospect that, at long last, I might see them live, at least as part of some festival in the autumn. I must remain patient: the time runs quickly from now until September, and fingers crossed that they visit Mexico for the first time.

Finally, I’ve pleasure in saying there’s no need to explain why they called it K 2.0!

If you’re a Kula Shaker fan visiting the site for the first time, welcome! You might like my review of the boys’ brilliant gig in Glasgow a couple of months back. You might also like this tune – probably the closest I’ve got to KS territory…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Living behind the curve: can a 150 quid laptop be any good?

I’ve been neglecting the blog for a bit. There’s a couple of reasons for that, but I do have some more hefty posts coming up soon. In the meantime, I thought I would start what might be a continuing series on my recent acquisition of a cheap laptop, and whether it can be made to work despite my worst misgivings!

I suppose I should start with where I’m coming from as a consumer. Like many people my age (53 at the date of this post) I’m not a natural with the ever-evolving world of technology, but nor am I a complete technophobe. I’m basically interested in what tech can do for me (non-complex word-processing, music recording and editing, and communicating with the great wide world through t’internet, mainly) rather than in the tech itself. I have an ageing desktop at home which acts as my recording studio and principal home work station; I have a mobile phone which, theoretically, could be semi-smart, but I use solely for phoning, texting, and listening to music on.

In between those things, I’ve been looking for a device that’s (reasonably) portable, gives access to the internet, and is simple to use. It will fulfil two main functions: allowing me to spend less time in the upstairs study/recording studio and more with the rest of the family downstairs (while they stare at a tv screen, I can stare at a different screen and be some sort of presence in their lives, I reason) and for holiday use, to load photos on/connect to dubious hotel wi-fi and check on Facebook/Twitter/all that sort of stuff.

I appreciate this may sound like the Dark Ages to some of you. The truth is though, I rarely find the need to check my social media status on the move; it can wait till I get to my next cup of coffee, at least. And yes, I have heard of tablets, thanks – I tried one of those, an Asus, and it fell over within a year.

All of which is by way of explaining why my purchasing decisions generally show me resolutely behind the curve, tech-wise. I tend to think that they should have just about mastered laptops by now: I’m perfectly happy with a proper keyboard firmly attached to the screen. Also, having dabbled with Android, and free-to-download word-processing ware before, I’m not that fussed. I’d rather stick to the tried and tested Microsoft stuff, however expensive and less than perfect it might be.

So, having alienated all the techies in my readership already, what was I looking for, and where? Well, the where round these parts is easy: there are only two shops in twenty miles of my home that actually sell computers now, and they’re both in the same retail park: Currys, and PC World. Even more conveniently, they’re owned by the same people, but in one of those entertaining glitches in the all-encompassing world of global capitalism, they sell a slightly different set of laptops. So it’s worth trekking the few yards between the two, past Toys R Us, Next, and all the other exciting-yet-depressingly-ubiquitous brand names you get in every single retail park in the UK, just to see if the other one’s got something different. I’m sure that’s been carefully thought through by their owners.

And I was glad that I did, because if I hadn’t I might not have seen this little beauty:

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - Blue

Isn’t she lovely? OK, so she’s just an HP laptop (technically an HP 11-R050SA), but once I saw her, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. It wasn’t just that she was petite (11.6″) and cheap (£149.99), the way I like my laptops: she was – hot damn it, she was pretty in that colour! The sales assistant warned me she was slow. That was okay: I wasn’t going to do anything beyond basic wordprocessing, maybe the occasional powerpoint for work, and browsing the Web, on her. That seemed to be the main difference between her and the other, much more expensive types, sitting sulkily in rows around her.

Then began the Battle of the Add-Ons. Now, this is normally where I revert to national stereotype, and become incredibly mean about everything; whether it’s being Scottish, or just a bleeding heart liberal’s in-built mistrust of big business, I generally take the narrow-eyed stance that everything they try to sell you after the thing you came in for is to be treated with extreme suspicion. So I usually pass on the extended warranty, the anti-virus software (I’ve pretty much survived on the free version of AVG for years, without any major incident) and, occasionally, even the Microsoft Office (didn’t that used to come as standard? Oh, yes, sir, but now we like to give you the choice).

However, recognising I was pretty much buying the cheapest small laptop in the shop, I decided to change my strategy, although I still held out against the anti-virals, after a nasty experience with McAfee about three devices ago. So here’s how the purchase eventually rang up:

Pretty little laptop:                                                                                                                                   £149.99

Three years’ customer support agreement (paid up front – the other methods too confusing)     £69.00

Microsoft Office Home & Student (the ‘permanent’ one: why would you buy the yearly one?)     £99.99

TOTAL                                                                                                                                                        £319.98

So, just to sum up there, the laptop cost 20 quid less than the sum of the protection money to insure it doesn’t fall over in the first three years, and non-techy software to run on it for basic office functions.

Steal of the century or pig in a poke? Stand by for updates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songs in a Scottish Accent 1: Why I came to love Country

I had a strange epiphany on Thursday around 7 am, as I crested the rise before Falkland and saw the Howe of Fife laid out in all its glory, while Lucinda Williams growled in my ear about West Memphis: it was 5 years almost to the day since I began to appreciate country music for the first time.

Growing up in the Seventies, country seemed pretty much for old people, or at least the kind of people that would go along to country and western clubs, and/or learn to do line dancing. The stuff that came out of Nashville was slick, polished, schmaltzy, and seemingly devoid of any rebellious spirit. The only thing I knew about Willie Nelson was he featured in a pretty good joke (the punchline being: ‘well, I don’t know about the other two, but the one in the middle looks like Willie Nelson…’ if you haven’t heard it, don’t ask).

My musical tastes were pretty much guitar based rock, from Dylan and Springsteen through to punk and new wave. Anything with that whiny pedal steel noise just made me think of middle aged folks wearing checked shirts and Stetsons, trying to pretend they were from Louisiana rather than Lenzie.

Then, in 2011, I was lucky enough to get a chance to go to a conference in Nashville. We flew out the day after the last Scottish Parliamentary elections, and had a whale of a time. Seriously, all the good stories you’ve heard about Nashville was true. There was even a Gibson Guitars bus.

Actually, a lot of the stuff I heard in the bars on Lower Broadway was rock, or soul standards, but I heard enough of the real deal to begin to understand what country really was: one of the essential strands of DNA in Americana, that had gone on to influence all the music I had always liked. I read recently Springsteen saying that, before writing the songs that went into the River, he listened to Hank Williams, because he wanted to get that honesty of storytelling into the voice he used for the album. Three chords and the truth, indeed.

Back to that epiphany above Falkland, though. Although I’ve never been a massive fan of Scottish folk music, it did occur to me that it was strange, really, that all of my musical taste is really about American folk music instead – in other words, blues, country, gospel, and all those other DNA strands. Maybe it’s as simple as I consider myself more urban than rural, and Scottish folk seems to me much more rooted in its rural origins – and yes, I understand how Scottish folk has gone into the primordial soup from which Americana’s emerged, having danced a pas-de-basque (the Scottish country dance step all Scottish schoolchildren get taught, as part of an excruciatingly hormonal rite of passage in the school gym – again, if you’re not Scottish, don’t ask) to a bluegrass band when I was in Nashville.

Whatever. What I do know is that artists like Lucinda Williams and, more recently, Jason Isbell, have got me interested in country in a way I wasn’t before. One of the songs we’re doing at the gig on Saturday (Venus + Isaac: FB event here), ‘Death in Venice,’ is definitely country-influenced. I can even imagine a bit of subtle pedal steel on ‘Highway Tonight,’ one of the Venus Carmichael standards.

Of course this may just be that I am now middle aged. It is true that I am often seen wearing a check shirt; and my band leader for the second half of the gig, Mr Brutal, has been recently pictured wearing what could be described as a Stetson. But I’m not expecting any line dancing. Not to the whale song piece, at least.

And no matter how country I get, I’ll be trying my best to sing in a Scottish accent….

 

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