andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Category Archives: reviews

Still Behind That Curve: The £150 Laptop

HP Stream 11-r050sa 11.6" Laptop - BlueHP Laptop: CRUCIAL UPDATES MISSING

Me: I’m busy with this cat meme on Twitter at the moment, okay?

HP Laptop: No, I’m not letting you do anything else until you click on this message about CRUCIAL UPDATES

Me (sighing): Yeah, ’cause it’s not like you’ve not told me I can’t get these updates, like, 5 million times?

HP Laptop: Maybe the updates would include software to deal with sarcasm and exaggeration?

Me (clicking on the thing): You seem to be dealing with these okay at the moment.

HP Laptop: YOU CAN’T GET THESE UPDATES! IT’S AN EMERGENCY! THIS WHOLE THING COULD LITERALLY BLOW AT ANY MINUTE!!!

Me (closing dialogue box): Now who’s exaggerating? Now f***k off.

Laptop (in a hurt tone): Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

My occasional series about the cheapest laptop in the shop. Not an advert for HP as such, but an advert for sometimes, just sometimes, how buying the cheapest thing isn’t a false economy. Until it breaks and it is, of course.

It looks like it’s nearly three years since I posted about the acquisition of this little beauty: isn’t she lovely? And, guess what, she’s still trucking! I suppose it shouldn’t be amazing that a piece of technology should still be working after two years and nine months, but it feels that way…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This blog is not sponsored by HP. Or anyone else, for that matter. But everyone has their price … in my case, guitars

 

 

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Random Review Roulette 2018: Stuff I’ve Read, Seen Or Heard This Year

Image may contain: 3 people, people smiling, people sitting, drink, table, plant, flower, tree, outdoor and indoorThe other day Daughter and Heiress – blessings be upon her, may her journalistic skills ever increase by hundredfolds, and keep me in my retirement in the style to which I hope to remain accustomed – showed me just how behind the curve this blog was. Home for some of the holidays, she had performed some form of spell from the technology grimoire on the television set and got Youtube on it (only kidding, even I know how to do that).

Daughter and Heiress, in Leon

What she was watching was something called a vlog, or video blog, specifically one called the Michalaks. In it, an annoyingly perky couple and their annoyingly endearing kid(s) (I’m hazy about how many: it might have just been one that moved around a lot) strolled about Dubai, staying in an agreeable hotel, and generally being, well, annoyingly perky. It was like watching somebody’s holiday video, except, here’s the thing: a holiday video by someone who decided to take a top-level Hollywood director and film crew with them. I mean, the production values are just amazing!

Well, you won’t be seeing anything as fancy-dan from this soldier any time soon. Maybe when I retire (a phrase I find myself saying increasingly these days) I’ll give it a go, and you can watch me  vlogging away to my heart’s content in various Spanish-speaking locations. Wine will be involved.

Not fucking Dubai, though – aforesaid Michalak family drifted about without a hair out of place, whereas my memories of our two-night sojourn there was sweating like a hog in 40 degree, 90% humidity, whilst stressing about the then much younger D & H’s chances of succumbing to heatstroke in the few remaining tourist areas the locals hadn’t air-conditioned to the max. It was like stepping between an oven and a fridge several times a day, all the time observing the yawning gulf in living/working conditions between us tourists, the rich residents, and the mainly immigrant workers, whose day essentially consisted of all oven and no fridge.

Anyhoo, I hear you say, enough chuntering on about vlogging and all that other stuff you don’t do: you said something in the title about reviews?

Quite right, sir or madam, as the case may be. So, this is basically your year’s worth of reviews, since I’ve not really done that much of that so far this year. Let’s start with films, since I think we’ve only seen two of them in a cinema this year. The first of these was Hereditary, which I’ve already reviewed, and liked, with reservations about the eventual boogeyman. The other one we saw, back last month, Widowswas Widows, which is still around in multiplexes in our neck of the woods. I should say right off the bat that the majority of critics – and audiences – loved it. However, much as it was good to see a heist thriller with four strong female leads, for me it was trying to be several things at once: the heist thriller thing, a feminist fable (fair enough) but also some sort of deep-lying commentary about the links between organised crime, political corruption, and, er, er, all that sort of stuff.

That can be the only reason for a subplot involving a Kennedy-style political dynasty, with a criminally (pun intended) underused Robert Duvall as the paterfamilias, and a confused-looking Colin Farrell as a politican called Jack (just in case you didn’t get the Kennedy reference). He wasn’t the only one confused: I couldn’t work out whether Jack did want the gig, or just wanted to get away from it all with his gangster buddies. But that was nothing compared to the confusion I felt about the ending, which felt rushed, and, somehow, cobbled together. Which of the four aforesaid female leads got their share of the money? Answers on an email please!

Dark Art (The Angels' Share series Book 2)In terms of books, I’ve read two follow up novels by two authors I know personally: Mac Logan and Altany Craik. Mac’s was Dark Art (I think now also called Dice), which picks up on the adventures of Sam Duncan, his sister Eilidh and an elite band of ex-special forces types as they battle the titular dark arts of a high-level Government cabal of corrupt politicains, businessmen, and other reprehensible fellows. A ripping good read, excellent for an escape into an intense world of Mac’s devising (or is it based on truth? He told me he’d tell me but he’d have to kill me.)

 

 

The Eye of the Crow: A Father Steel Novel (Father Andrew Steel)Altany’s hero, Father Steel, is much less square of jawline: a Catholic priest with a roving remit from the Archbishop to battle the dark forces, not of Government, but the Ancient Enemy himself. Grumpy, rather over fond of the episcopal claret, and not immune to the other temptations of the flesh, Steel is an amusing narrator as he faces down Beelzebub and his chums with not much more than a fine line in sarcasm. The first of the series featured a devil-worshipping sex cult in my home town of Glenrothes, and whilst this one, inevitably, doesn’t quite reach the same heights of identification, it’s another ripping good read.

 

 

https://i2.wp.com/assets.signature-reads.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/jo-nesbo-thirst.jpgI’d been saving up Jo Nesbo’s The Thirst for some months because, as a big fan of your man’s work, I wanted to give it my full attention. However, I have to say I was somewhat disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong: all the ingredients are there: a serial killer is on the loose in Oslo, and crack detective Harry Hole is pulled out of semi-retirement as a police college lecturer, dragging all his baggage behind him. Will he get to the killer before the next kill? Is it personal? You bet your ass it is. Is his family in danger? Of course. Are there knowing musical references to Uncut and new(ish) bands like Cage the Elephant? Check.

And… therein lies the problem, really. This is the 11th novel in the series, and things are starting to creak at the edges. Harry’s in his late fifties, now, but despite a history of alcoholism and a dicky knee he still seems to be up for a bit of rough and tumble. Women – all women – seem to find him irresistible. The bad guys – by which I mean the regulars like Police Chief Bellman – are still present and incorrect, give or take an eye or two. And – spoiler alert – whilst this serial killer with a grudge is eventually brought down due to Harry’s brilliant detecting, another one is lined up towards the end of the book, production-line style, for the next novel. Hell of a place, Oslo.

Speaking of music, and Uncut, I’ve been trying to extend my musical knowledge this year via reading reviews in said magazine, and then checking them out on Youtube. This method has served me quite well, although I’ve found sometimes it’s better to take the time to listen to all the tracks, rather than just the ones the reviewer’s picked out, as they’re not always truly representative.

H.C. McEntire - LIONHEARTIn this way I ‘discovered’ H. C. McEntire, whose album, Lionheart, is a fine bit of alt.country. I would probably have listened to it more if I had had it on CD and been driving about a lot, as that tends to be how I hear my music these days. Unfortunately for my music listening, but fortunately for the environment, these opportunities are limited. However, as it’s on my (semi-smart) phone, I tend to listen to it whilst cooking, and my recipes aren’t so complex as to need an album’s worth of prep.

But based on limited ‘spins,’ this is a fine, sardonic piece of singer-songwriting.

 

Margo Price’s All-American Made suffers a bit from the same technological/time-poor for listening problem. The other thing against it for getting a listen in the car, even if I had the CD, is it’s a bit too trad country sounding for Mrs F’s taste, although the lyrics of such tracks as ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ are anything but.

Again, I mean to show this album a bit more love – and listening time – in the coming months. But definitely worth a listen if you like your music country and your lyrics literate.

 

John Prine - The Tree of Forgiveness (CD) - OH BOY RECORDSWhich leads us to the boys. I finally dropped the necessary spondulicks to buy Jason Isbell’s last studio album, The Nashville Sound, recently. Whilst I agree with my band leader, Mr Brutal’s, assessment that it’s not Isbell’s best, I still found some fine moments on it, including ‘Cumberland Gap.’ But my pick of all these here south of the Mason-Dixon line characters is John Prine, whose latest album, Tree of Forgiveness, has been pushing itself to the top of the cooking and washing up listening queue for some months now. Great, insightful songwriting, delivered with a load of life experience and dark humour. Love it, and hope to see him on tour next year.

 

Well, that’s all for now, y’all. Tune in early next week for a Christmas story!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Free (Blind) Willie (McTell) ! Or, an introduction to Dylanology

So, you’re a fan of the wee man from Minnesota, and  you’re thinking of getting the December issue of Uncut for the free CD of Dylan tracks from his bootleg series. Is it worth it?

Well, for starters, you’d better get your skates on, because Uncut’s peculiar publication schedule means, although we’re only half way through November, the issue featuring the Bobster is already being replaced on the newsagent shelves by the January 2019 one! Of course, my colleague, friend and joint investor in Uncut manicpopthrills (we buy issues turn about and pass them on – canny Scottish tip for you all!) would grumble that another issue with Dylan on the front will be along in a minute, but let’s ignore him for now and focus on the December CD.

Actually, whether it’s worth it or not is really down to how much of a Dylan completist you are. If, like me, you’re something of a lapsed believer, there are some things of interest here: a reminder that, however dreary some of his deity-bothering material was in the 80s, he at least had the sense to hire the best of touring bands (a rocking version of Slow Train); nice too, to hear again the way he ramped up gentle folkie ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ on the Rolling Thunder tour; and an outtake from one of my favourite albums, Oh Mercy, ‘Born in Time,’ which is kind of in the category of ‘good but I can see why he left it off.’

I really wonder though about all these old guys bringing out multiple outtakes, retakes, forgotten reggae versions and so on. Dylan’s a serial offender here: I noted with amazement that his Bootleg series, a rolling record of ‘official,’ cleaned up releases to counter the tsunami of bootleg versions that he’s been subject to over the decades has reached number 14. This included Volume 12, The Cutting Edge, which, in its limited-edition 18-disc Collector’s Edition incarnation, contains ‘…every note recorded during the 1965–1966 sessions, every alternate take and alternate lyric.’ Take a week off work to listen.

Dylan isn’t alone, of course. The Beatles (or at least those with the relevant rights) and the Stones have been raiding their archives for years. Others like Pink Floyd aren’t far behind. It’s a lucrative venture, and you can see what’s in it for the record companies.

But, really, do you need 16 different takes of ‘Like A Rolling Stone,’ when you’ve got the one Dylan and Bob Johnson plumped for? Some artists, of course, are no longer with us, and there’s much to be plundered from Prince’s Vault that would be worth a listen, given how prolific the other little guy from Minnesota was. And then again…

Then again there’s the story of that nearly-lost Dylan classic, ‘Blind Willie McTell…’

1983, and Dylan’s emerging from his aformentioned born-again phase, engaging Jamaican rhythm section Sly and Robbie, ex-Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and one Mark Knopfler, resting between Dire Straits albums, as producer of what will become Infidels. It’s an okay album, certainly better than the dirge-like gospel that went before, not to mention the dross that follows it up until Lanois drags Dylan off to New Orleans and makes Oh Mercy with him. However, what’s on Infidels isn’t nearly as interesting as what’s not on it.

At some point during the recording sessions, Dylan sits down at the piano, with Knopfler picking up an acoustic guitar. Perhaps with those two humungous talents together alone in the room it’s not surprising that magic happens, but boy, does it happen in bucketloads. His Bobness is later to claim that it was a demo version so the rest of the band could learn it, but Dylan only knows why that didn’t happen. There’s another take out there in the ether with Taylor on slide, but it’s the Dylan/Knopfler version that starts to circulate in bootleg form amongst the faithful.

This seems to put Dylan in such a huff that he refuses to release it, or indeed even play it live, for years, and is quoted as saying in a Rolling Stone interview: “I started playing it live because I heard the Band doing it. Most likely it was a demo, probably showing the musicians how it should go. It was never developed fully, I never got around to completing it. There wouldn’t have been any other reason for leaving it off the record. It’s like taking a painting by Monet or Picasso – goin’ to his house and lookin’ at a half-finished painting and grabbing it and selling it to people who are ‘Picasso fans.'”

So, an unfinished masterpiece, then, Bob? Certainly a lot of people see ‘Blind Willie McTell’ as one of the little fella’s best. In a style that’s now called Americana, the vivid imagery  of chain gangs, slavery ships, and bootlegged (ironically enough) whiskey paints a lyrical picture of a lost South that Dylan builds, verse by verse, his trademark croak betraying a rising passion as the song progresses. His own idiosyncratic piano and Knopfler’s subtle guitar accompaniment somehow work as the perfect sonic backdrop to the words.

A note here for Dylanologists – there’s been a debate amongst aficionados ever since the song emerged as to why the Bobster chose Blind Willie McTell for the refrain of ‘Ain’t nobody can sing the blues like Blind Willie McTell…’ when the real life McTell was actually quite a cheery sort of song and dance man who played ragtime as much as blues. Blind Willie Johnson, on the other hand, really, really could sing the blues. The answer, I think, is no more complicated than, as any songwriter knows, there’s a lot more words rhyme with ‘McTell’ than ‘Johnson.’

Why is this song so good? You might not agree, of course, but one reason I think this version’s so revered amongst fans is because it’s not overproduced, or overthought. I was talking to my friend and fellow songwriter Martin McGroarty about this the other night: when a song is newly forged, fresh from the furnace, those first few performances when you’ve just written it hold something special that you never get back. There’s a freshness to it, an emotion in the voice, that can come across no matter how primitive the recording method.

By a coincidence, I was out seeing a Dylan tribute band on Friday night. Yeah, I know: I don’t make a habit of it. ‘Bob’ himself seemed a bit off his game: maybe it was him starting the first song of the show with the wrong harmonica that threw him, the way it can. Could have done without all the chat from the bass player, who seemed to feel it necessary to share with us at one point that he wasn’t much of a Dylan fan himself. The guitarist was great, though: and if ‘Bob’ got the lyrics of ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ a bit, well, tangled up, he clearly was an aficionado, and his song choices, including ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ were totally sound. Shame my home town, by the size of the audience, isn’t stuffed with fellow Dylan fans.

On the other hand, maybe that’s no bad thing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts down here. Nowt to do with me matey

Falling Between 4 Stools: Auntie NHS and her Ultra-Super New Poo Test

Swedish Glace Dairy Free Heavenly Chocolate

If you don’t appreciate your humour on the scatological side, this isn’t the post for you. If you’ve never been sure what ‘scatological’ means, safer to look it up first…

As some of you will know, I turned 56 recently. I know! Well, I’ve had an easy life, that’s the secret of those boyish good looks. The National Health Service, incidentally, turned 70 this year, which means it’s 14 years older than me, and, of course, that I’ve lived with its benefits all of my life.

14 years. That makes the NHS like a  youngish auntie to me  (I don’t know why I’ve assigned her a female gender, really, apart from the obvious one of all that caring and nurturing being, well, something more commonly associated with the distaff side).

Fortunately, even though I’ve rarely paid my auntie much attention, having visited her as little as possible over the years, she still remembers me, and is there for me when I need her. More, since I turned 50, she’s been sending me some quirky but useful presents on my birthday. Only once every two years, mind, but nevertheless, thoughtful of her. Well, she’s getting on a bit.

Anyone in the Scotland of a certain age will know what I’m talking about: the bowel cancer screening kit you get sent on your 50th birthday, and then every two years until you’re 74 (after that, you need to have enough mental furniture to contact them and ask for another one).

And here’s the good news: auntie’s biennial present just got a whole lot less difficult to use.

The kit used to be a more elaborate affair: you had to collect samples on four different visits  to the loo for a Number 2, apply them, by means of little cardboard sticks, to little windows in the kit (itself a piece of cardboard, a bit like a cut-down advent calendar). In other words, it was kind of like paint by numbers. Except you only had one kind of paint, and it was pretty lumpy.

Let’s be honest here. Doing this test pretty much breaks some of the most fundamental social conditioning we’ve all got, at least in the so-called developed world. From the earliest session of potty training, we’ve all been taught that what comes out of our back botty is the dirtiest thing in the world, which we should never ever touch, except via the medium of toilet paper, and which should be flushed down the china receptacle in our bathrooms (the toilet, obviously, not the other china receptacles) as quickly as possible.

With this test, though, you not only didn’t flush it straight away: you retained it long enough for you to get up close and personal enough to create a little advent calendar out of your poo. On four separate visits to the china shrine. You could, in theory, line the toilet bowl with paper to catch the, er, raw material for this, but frankly I never trusted the paper to keep it clear of the water, which, the leaflet advised, would contaminate the sample. So my method was – and remains – catching it in an ice cream box. A used one, obviously, which I’d eaten the ice cream out of first. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever done. Pooing in a box, I mean. The ice cream eating’s pretty much hard wired in.

One reason the test was previously difficult was that thing of the four samples. That meant you had to keep the kit for at least a few days; I kept the advent calendar out in the garage while it was a work in progress. I certainly wasn’t going to re-use the ice cream box, so you needed a supply of them, bagging up each one and disposing of them every time.

However. This year’s present from Auntie was much less of an ordeal. A gizmo shaped like a USB stick opens up to reveal a little plastic dipstick, which, well, you’ve guessed it, you use to dip. Then it’s a simple task to replace it in the rest of the USB stick, screw it up again, and shove it in the reassuringly easy-seal envelope provided. Crucially, you have only to do this once.

Why am I writing a blog about poo? Because, dear reader, there’s a very serious intent to Auntie’s little pressie. The leaflet this year tells you that, if caught and treated in time, bowel cancer has a 90% survival rate. The leaflet doesn’t hit you with the sucker punch that I also read recently: that if it’s not caught in time, that rate drops to 5%.

No brainer, huh? Well, you’d think. But at least one colleague of mine has said she doesn’t take the test because it’s just ‘too disgusting to do.’ So, if you’re over 50 in the UK and feel the same way, here’s a wake up call. Your poo is your friend. The test can detect, in time for treatment, if you have the beginnings of bowel cancer. And it just got a whole lot easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, there may be some adverts. Almost definitely not related to the post.

 

Show Us The Boogeyman: A Review of Hereditary

To our local multiplex, then, for Hereditary, a first feature by writer-director Ari Aster which has, to say the least, been attracting polarised views, from ‘scariest thing since the Exorcist’ (various newspapers, in a nutshell) to ‘worst film I have since in a very long time. Not even worth 1 star’ (anonymous Odeon review). Having seen it, although I enjoyed it greatly, I can see both sides now (which is quite appropriate, as the eponymous Joni Mitchell track is the outro music for the movie).

We join the Graham family just as they’re burying Granny, Ellen, a ‘secretive woman with secretive rituals.’ Dad, Steve, is trying to mansplain his way out of the whole thing; meantime late teenage son, Peter, is diverting his grief by way of the occasional bowl of hash in school break times, and trying to get off with the girl in the row in front of him. As you, frankly, would at that age.

It’s the distaff side that’s are more of a cause for concern: there’s clearly something not right about Charlie, the early teens daughter, who, when she’s not drawing disturbing portraits in her notebook or fashioning what appear to be voodoo dolls out of assorted bric-a-brac, is making strange clucking noises.

And then there’s the central viewpoint character, Annie, Ellen’s daughter. Let me say right at the outset that Toni Collette deserves an Oscar for her portrayal: the camera lingers on her, much of the time right up in her face, and it’s a masterclass in conveying, micro-expression by micro-expression, the shifting levels of guilt, anger, despair, and plain bewilderment that the death of a dominating parent has brought.

She won’t get an Oscar, though, because this is a horror movie, and they don’t get Oscars. No award likely either, then, for the set designer who created the rambling wooden house the increasingly-dysfunctional family play out their claustrophobic psychodramatics in; nor, indeed, for the sound guy, whose capturing of every creak and groan the house makes (almost an extra character in itself), not to mention the supernatural effects that insinuate themselves around the auditorium, helps to ramp up the tension by the spadeful. Not to give too much of the plot away at this stage, but when you hear that clucking noise seeming to come from behind your ear, you’d better hope you shaved the hairs on the back of your neck pretty damn close before you joined the popcorn queue.

Really, there is so much that’s good about the movie. You’re absolutely rooting for Annie, even as she snaps at her husband’s well-intentioned interventions, and allows herself to be drawn into some home-made juju that you just know is going to make a bad situation ten times worse. There’s a truly, truly, memorable scene where, by way of the second plot complication, a horrific accident happens, and its aftermath is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and left taut as a bowstring, ready to fire the blazing arrow that skewers the rest of the story’s dark heart.

For a long time, the subtle visual and auditory jolts build the atmosphere towards what promises to be a white-knuckle climax. And then…

Okay, so SPOILER ALERT, don’t read any further if you don’t want to have the plot explained here. As with so many horror, supernatural, or such like movies, eventually the story has to nail its colours to some sort of belief system, and show us the bogeyman behind all this ratcheting tension. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Zombie? Vampire? Ancient undead demon who says Zool when you open the fridge door? William Rees-Mogg?

And that’s the first disappointment. The weird little words like ‘Satany’ scrawled on the wallpaper earlier on were a clue. (As an aside, what’s up with that? Satany? Does Beelzebub get out of bed of a morning and say to Mrs B, ‘Ooh, I don’t know about you, darling, but I feel a bit Satany this morning. Let’s go and char-grill some Jesuits for breakfast’?)

Because yes, it’s your garden-variety secret devil-worshipping cult, prostrating their middle-aged wobbly bits to a tin can idol that looks like a cross between Worzel Gummidge and one of the Flower Pot Men, gone a bit evil. As another aside, always with the naked? I mean, don’t devil-worshipping cults evolve, and like, get to wear some sort of leisurewear at their occult ceremonials? Honestly, it’s not a good look unless you happen to be young and hot. Which, let’s be honest, most of your average devil-worshipping cult members aren’t. Image result for britt ekland wicker man

(Britt Ekland in Wickerman apart, obviously: after that scene where she rubs herself along the wallpaper outside Edward Woodward’s room, I’ll never look at anaglypta the same way.)

 

 

 

Gratuitous opportunity for image of Britt Ekland

The second disappointment is more understandable, and indeed forgiveable. I’m guessing Ari Aster doesn’t quite have the directorial financial pulling power of a Spielberg or a Scorsese, whether or not they still have Harvey Weinstein on speed dial (what, too soon?) so the special scary effects in the denouement are slightly south of impressive.

I mean, when the central character you’re rooting for is hanging from a beam in the attic, trying with some success to take her own head off with a hacksaw, and you’re laughing, something has gone wrong somewhere, either with you or the film. And whilst I might normally think it’s the first of these, I certainly wasn’t the only one in the cinema laughing.

Despite these two criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed Hereditary. The first three quarters gave genuine chills: and if it ended with chuckles, well, that can be good too. Cracking script, great performances, shame about the special effects. Is it ‘pants-wettingly scary,’ as The Verge claimed after its Sundance premiere? For me, only if you have a pre-existing bladder control problem. But then, one man’s Exorcist is another man’s Friday 13th Part II, as I discovered years ago when I went to see both with my best pal Nicky and we each found the opposite one scary.

For me, it was the Exorcist, by the way. Hereditary isn’t that, but in case I’ve misjudged you, pack an extra pair of pants. Or as they say in America, pants.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Sunshine Amongst the Snow Squalls: Edinburgh, April 1st

‘APRIL is the cruellest month,’ TS Eliot said, ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…’ this being his epic poem, The Waste Land, he chunters on for a fair amount longer, but we get the gist and, frankly, that’s about as much as anyone remembers (I’d forgotten the bit about the dull roots and all that, to be honest).

Anyway, I’d like to say I was meditating on modern classic poetry yesterday as we wandered round the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday, but I’d be stretching it: the day before we’d shuddered in and out of charity shops in Morningside, as sleet tried very hard to turn itself into snow: today, the snow is making a proper go of it in our corner of the Scottish Lowlands. What is this crazy weather?

Yesterday, by comparison, it was just dry and cold, wind whipping across the sandstone faces of the nearby tenements as we exited the agreeable coffee shop quarter of Stockbridge (like Morningside, a village within the city that, as economic downturns come and go, still maintains the fur coat part of Edinburgh’s ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ image).

To the Botanics, then, with its outstanding internal and external views.

 

One of the real pleasures of the Gardens at this time of year is the rhododendron collection beginning to brust into flower. The severe winter seemed to have taken its toll on some of the plants, with evidence of frost damage. Nevertheless, there was the start of some sort of colour to be had:

It used to be, of course, that you could go into the tropical and other glasshouses for a heat: but now they charge for that, so we stayed out! Fortunately, the little alpine glasshouses are free.

This alpine collection, sheltered from the recent storms, was really the highlight of the whole Gardens yesterday, and Edinburgh’s Botanics-visiting classes buzzed round them like puffa-jacketed bees.

We totally need to go back later in the Spring. The rhoddies will be really quite spectacular in a month or so. Still not sure what they’re doing to the great long herbaceous borders at the moment: they seem to be a work in progress; but the massive series of rockeries that climb towards the southern boundary are always worth a wander round. Oh, and the trees. Lots of trees of every description.

For now, though, the alpines were the ones putting on a show.

 

(Later, our excellent local, John Leslie on the South Side, provided a warming atmosphere. TS Eliot may have been right about April, but they serve Deuchar’s right through the month!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and the bit about Leslie’s is as close as you’ll get to an endorsement from me! Other people’s endorsements below here.

In Another Life – the Effortless Album

Some of the greatest, most effortless-sounding albums were a weary long trauchle (to use a Scots word) to make. To take one example, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours took over a year, and yet sounds to this day as if the whole thing happened spontaneously over a sunny LA weekend. Apparently they took three days just to agree over the tuning of a piano; only Christine McVie’s classic song ‘Songbird’ was done and dusted in the course of a night, and that took a truckload of champagne to get it over the line, so the story goes.

Of course, the French Prosecco was kind of the least The Mac were doing in the course of the Rumours sessions; and then there was the small matter of them all breaking up with each other at the same time. In comparison, and with all due respect to their rock n’ rollness, I can’t really imagine Norman Lamont and the Heaven Sent using much more than a strong brew of Tetley’s during the making of In Another Life.

According to the man himself, the original intention was simple – create an album using a small multi-track recorder in a living room, with the whole band playing live, and minimal overdubs. That, however, was in late 2015, and over two and a half years later, at least three different recording spaces, a producer, a cover designer, and a pro master wizard later, the album is finally, officially out. And yet it sounds effortless!

Norman has described the overall style as ‘pop,’ and I guess, in some ways, it may serve as the gateway drug to some of his darker material, such as ‘Fingerpuppet,’ or ‘The Last Man to Touch You,’ on the album before this, All The Time in Heaven. Nevertheless, bright and breezy folk-rock like In Another Life’s opener, ‘End of Tears,’ is hard to make sound as effortless as this. Similarly, the way Norman leans into ‘Well, I’m the type of guy…’ on the next track, ‘Green Lights All The Way,’ sounds as easy as the narrator’s lucky life, but, as I can personally testify, it takes talent – and time – to sound that easy.

Throughout, Norman’s intention to get things as good they can be shines through. ‘The Ballad of Bob Dylan’ is probably the song Norman’s known best for: but here it gets a radical treatment that keeps the core shaggy dog story front and centre whilst mixing up pace and instrumentation all around it. A modern classic!

Whilst the overall sound is what I’d describe as folk rock, or maybe acoustic rock, there are a couple of departures: the jaunty spirit of ‘In Another Life,’ is such an earworm that I can forgive him for reggae, one of my least favourite genres; and ‘Damn Grey’ and ‘Goodbye Song’ both exhibit jazz influences.

The other highlight, unsurprisingly to long-term Norman-watchers, is his facility with words. The music may sound easier than it is, but the lyrics are at all times smartly turned out, and on occasion have a hidden bite. ‘You Made Me Do It,’ with its refrain of ‘You made me this way,’ leaves the listener in no doubt who the narrator holds responsible. In another context, ‘Damn Grey’ deals with the weighty topic of depressive illness.

Favourites? Surprisingly perhaps for a fellow devotee of the Cohen/Cave dark axis, I’m really drawn to the upbeat stuff! Those sly vocals in ‘Green Lights All the Way,’ with its earworm of a tune, for example. ‘End of Tears,’ is another stand out.

Incidentally, if you go through Norman’s website to sign up for this, you get an incredibly generous package of stories behind the songs, videos, and bonus tracks. Strongly recommended, it emphasises the care, love, and sheer blood sweat and tears went into the making of the album.

It’s just that it sounds so effortless.

P.S. You can also get a deal on the launch gig, which is next Thursday, 22nd March, at the Voodoo Rooms.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adverts be below here. Not Norman.

A Tale of Two Guitars

So, when I was reviewing the two amplifiers I use recently, I mentioned I was planning to review my two main guitars, to compare and contrast, and I’m a man, at least in this regard, of my word.

I suppose before I start I should confess these are not my only guitars. The others that I own (I had a gorgeous Danelectro 12 string on loan from Mr Brutal for a while, but he’s borrowed it back at the moment) are: a Kiso-Suzuki copy of the Gibson J200, which I think I may have mentioned before, with a bridge so cracked it would cost more to repair than it’s worth; a Freshman Acoustic 12-string which these days is tuned to Open D and used exclusively for slide guitar; and a blues box guitar, picked up in a Black Friday sale at the Works bookshop, of all places, a couple of years ago.

Which leaves me with my two main guitars: A Lâg Tramontane T100 ACE; and an Epiphone EJ200CE.

Prices first of all, just to see we’re comparing like with like. I bought the Lâg a few years ago, but it currently retails at around £350 – £360 (although I found it quite tricky to track down in this country now; a lot of the sites were American). The Epiphone is currently on Gear4music.com at £360, so, in other words, they’re pretty much both firmly in the mid-price range for acoustic guitars, not being the cheapest by any means, but certainly not up there in the stratospheric levels you can shell for a bit of wood and six strings.

Looks? Well, here they are together.  Both, to my mind, beautiful in their own way: the Lâg, at least so far as I know, not trying to copy any other maker’s guitar, and with that distinctive headstock and the wee Knights Templar stylee cross at the soundhole.

The Epiphone, of course, very definitely is trying to copy another guitar, namely the Gibson J200, a fabled model that’s been used by Elvis, Dylan, Lennon, Harrison, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, etc, etc. Like the Lâg, it’s available in a range of finishes, and I was very tempted by the sunburst version before plumping for the all black model: a mean looking machine, indeed. (Gibson have 20 more facts about the original J200 if your curiosity isn’t sated).

As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how, or why, guitar makers put up with others making copies of their models: in any other context, you’d think the original makers would be suing the copyists’ asses just as quickly as they could make it to the patent office. However, every other guitar you see is a copy, often of famous models by either Fender or Gibson (Stratocaster, Telecaster, Les Paul, Hummingbird, etc etc). Time was, back in the 70s and 80s, when most of the copies were made in Japan (for example my Kiso-Suzuki); then, Korea became the cheapest place; these days it’s more likely to be China.

In the case of the Epiphone, it was originally a company in its own right. Originating in Turkey with a Greek owner, in 1903 owners and company relocated to the US where, by the 50s, it was a main rival to Gibson for archtop guitars, at which point it was taken over by Gibson’s parent company. However, far from being bought up to be closed down, the two companies were run separately. Epiphone guitars continued to have their own name and reputation – the Beatles used them, before inevitably, trading up to the bigger cachet of the Gibson name.

And there’s the thing for me. Every guitar band you see on the telly these days are either toting Gibsons or Fenders and, contrary chap that I am, that just makes me all the more determined to play something different. Plus, of course, the Gibson equivalent of my guitar costs £5,000. Yes, that’s £5,000. Could it sound nearly 14 times better than my Epiphone? No, I really don’t think so either.

Because the Epiphone is a beauty in every sense. As you can see from the photo, it’s a big beast of a thing (the J, dear reader, stands for Jumbo) so it wouldn’t be for everyone (interestingly, Emmylou has her own smaller equivalent made by Gibson, the L200. Do hope the L doesn’t stand for ‘lady’). Played acoustically, it’s surprisingly quiet, with an even, pleasant, but unremarkable tone. Indeed, in the shop it nearly lost out to the Epiphone Hummingbird. And then I plugged it in.

Where the EJC200 really wins out is in the quality of its electronics. With an under-saddle and under-bridge pick up, and nanoflex technology (no, I don’t really know what it means either) it sounds just fantastic when amplified. The Lâg, in contrast, sounds great played acoustically, but its electronics are, well, a bit french. So much so, that when I’m recording with it these days, I mike it up rather than using pickups. That’s not so easy live, and the best I can get from it is using the Vox amp, as described in the review of the amps.

Bottom line? I’m really pleased to have both of these. For finger picking and the generally quieter stuff I do with Tribute to Venus Carmichael, the Lâg is a superb instrument. For playing in the house, again it’s a pleasure. Its tone is gorgeous.

Which is not to say the Epiphone doesn’t get played in the house too. Although the Lâg isn’t hard to play, the bigger guitar is particularly easy: someone said it plays like an electric, and it actually is as easy as that to knock out chords on. Plug it in, though, even with a loud electric band, and it comes into its own.

Here’s a wee instrumental I’ve put up on Freesound, the excellent sound sample site. It’s basically a song that didn’t make the cut for my next album lyrics-wse, but I’ve put a bit of both the Epiphone in strum mode, and the Lâg in finger-pick mode. I’ve not done anything clever effects-wise in the production process, deliberately: just a bit of light reverb to take some of the dryness out. On other tracks, though, I’ve used the Epiphone much more extensively because, with its dual inputs and better electronics, it produces a very handy, malleable signal for tweaking.

If I had to have only one of these guitars, I’d have the Epiphone. But I don’t, and for my purposes at least, they’re a near-perfect complement to each other.

Finally, should you wish to hear more from these guitars, a Youtube review of each:

The Epiphone review’s long, but I love Topdazzle’s no nonsense approach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ignore the adverts below here. Actually, I have a plan for adverts on this page…

A Tale of Two Amplifiers

Ok, let’s talk amplification, people. I’m talking about the means by which guitars – and in my case, almost exclusively acoustic ones – are made louder than they naturally are.

Three reasons why I decided to do this. First, Vox have just brought out a new range of acoustic amps and, being Scottish, I thought it was a good time for you to look again at the previous lot as they’re likely to be on sale in a guitar shop near you soon. Secondly, since the original post I did about my first acoustic amp, the Vox AGA 30, I have splashed some cash on the Marshall AS50D and I thought, after a good year or so of use, it was time to compare and contrast the two.

The third reason is pretty shameless, really. Week in, week out, month in, month out, year in, year out, that Vox amp review gets hits. It just keeps on trucking as the most visited post I’ve ever done. Honestly. I might have written the most brilliant literary works of fiction, the most penetrating gig reviews, the most acerbic Dorothy Parkeresque jeu d’esprits, and none of them would have done as well as that amp review, according to the WordPress stats.

Any of you who’ve read the original review of the Vox will know it was pretty positive. So why buy a second amp? To explain, I have to tell you a little about my musical life, so any of you that know this already, you can scan on. I play with two bands: my own acoustic duo, Tribute to Venus Carmichael, and my mate Mark Allan’s country punk outfit, Isaac Brutal. As far as Venus was concerned, my motivation was to make us self-sufficient for small pub back rooms, having the additional option of more inputs should there be a bit of backing vocal needed, or even just another place to jack in another guitar.

And as for Isaac Brutal, well. The current line up consists of  drums, bass, two electric guitars, singer and me. Frankly, the little Vox wasn’t quite up to being heard above the racket. So I had me a little tour of Amazon’s warehouse deals section, and found myself a good bargain of a Marshall AS50D in a very natty racing green.

Image result for Marshall AS50D

And on the first – and arguably least important – point of comparison, looks, the Marshall wins hands down. Just look at it! It’s like a vintage Aston Martin that’s been compressed into a rectangular box. Utterly gorgeous. And, while it shouldn’t matter, when you’re setting up for a gig and people see that legendary Marshall signature across the grill, it does look – well, a bit like you know what you’re doing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vox? They’ve tried their best with a tan leather effect for the box, a vaguely tweedy cover for the speaker, and vintage-stylee ivory-coloured knobs, but it pales in comparison, frankly.

So, half a point maybe for the Marshall. On the other hand, I would give a full point to the Vox for relative weights – it’s light as a feather, whilst the Marshall, er, isn’t. Frankly it’s a big clunky bugger to lug around.

Yes, yes, you say. That’s all very well, but how do they operate in gig conditions, and how do they sound?

The first thing I’m going to say may sound unimportant, but if you frequent the kind of murky venues I do, and/or have less than perfect vision like mine, it’s kind of worth half a point to the Vox. Its knobs are on top, and a bit easier to twiddle as you go along as a consequence. Even if you have the Marshall on a chair, you’re going to have to squat down and peer at the controls in a way that’s frankly not terribly rock and roll.

On the other hand, as I found at an outdoor festival a couple of years ago, the fact the Marshall’s electrical inputs are tucked away under an overhang on the front elevation can be an advantage if it starts to rain. At that time, I only had the Vox, and it was buzzing in a way that didn’t give me a lot of confidence as to my future well being. I mean, literally dying on stage may be rock and roll, but I’m hoping to keep it to the metaphorical kind for a few years yet.

Controls-wise, they’re initially similar: both have two inputs, each with bass and treble controls, anti-feedback, and chorus and reverb options. The Marshall has a separate, more sophisticated two-knob chorus effect, whilst the Vox has a single knob that gives you reverb, chorus, or reverb and chorus. Since it’s mainly reverb I’m looking for, the difference doesn’t put me up or down, really. The Marshall also has greater sophistication regarding loop options and a DI socket, but, again, I’ve not investigated any of these options yet – either I’m using the amp as the sound source, or I’m DI’ing direct into the PA with the sound guy mixing for me. The Vox has a line out facility which was used to great effect at one early gig (see previous review). Both have a footswitch socket – which, interestingly, the new acoustic guitar Vox, the VX50AG, doesn’t seem to have, according to a recent review in Acoustic.

Sound-wise, there are differences. My main acoustic guitars are, firstly, a Lag ACE100 that I’d recently got at the time of the first review. Outstanding sound acoustically: unfortunately, the pickups are a bit rubbish. I need to get one of those LR Baggs ones some time for it! And secondly, my latest baby, which you can see me wielding in the picture above: an Epiphone EJ200CE, an absolute beast of a thing based on the original Gibson Jumbo model. I may do a comparison review between the two guitars at some stage, as they’re similar in price point, but perform a very different purpose for me: the Epiphone is actually quite quiet to play acoustically, but amped up, it sounds plenty sweet – and loud. (If you want a decent review of the latter in the meantime by a gigging musician, check out this one).

Here’s the thing. Up until Wednesday night’s gig, I would’ve said, (and indeed was saying in an earlier draft of this) if  I’m playing a small, intimate gig, as I almost always am (the stadium tour will have to wait another year or two, or maybe another lifetime) the Vox is the thing I want to plug into – especially the input which doubles as a vocal channel. It gives the Lag a lovely, honeyed sound, and the Epiphone, too – although she’s never quite going to match her older sister for tone. If the Lag were a Rioja, she’d be a Gran Reserva for all those gorgeous woody notes.

Image may contain: 3 people, people on stage and people playing musical instrumentsFull throttle Brutality. Pic: Kenny Mackay

 

On the other hand, I’d said, if I’m gigging with the Brutal boys (and girl) and I need to be heard higher up  in the mix (on those rare occasions where I’m playing the riff, for example) then the Marshall’s the thing I lug into the venue. Much more resistant to feedback, its 50 watts can be used to good effect for the Epiphone or – and here’s why I said almost always acoustic at the top of the review – the Danelectro 12 string that I have on semi-permanent loan from Mr Brutal himself. That Marshall crunch is there when you need it, but equally, its tone for the quieter acoustic stuff is there too.

So what changed the other night? Bear in mind a lot depends on the acoustics of the venue, the mikes you’re using for the vocals, etcetera. But last night, for whatever reason, Kelly’s vocals were sounding a bit muffled on the Vox, so I switched them over to the Marshall. I’ve never heard her sound better. And, while the Vox did its usual good job with the Lag (and my occasional backing vocals) the Epiphone, out of the other Marshall input, was sounding fantastic.

So there you are. It’s horses for courses, frankly. If you’re in a folk-rock band, or indeed country punk, the Marshall is a thoroughly good amp, with a sweet sound and plenty of oomph when you need it. I’m not going to be retiring my little Vox any time soon, neither.

Tomorrow night’s a Brutal gig. The Vox is tucked up at home, safe and sound. The Marshall, though. The Marshall’s ready to get down and dirty in Henry’s Cellar Bar. And I know it’s got my back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WordPress may have put adverts below here. And they don’t need any amplification.

 

Andy’s Seasonal Sluggers 2017

Confession time first. I’d love to tell you this blog is the result of tireless research: slurping and spitting through hundreds of hopefuls, until finally, finally, boiling everything down to four recommendations. But I’d be lying: we have a marvellous little woman to do all that bit for us.

Step forward Jane MacQuitty, wine writer for the Times. We found some years ago that, aside from a few faults (overuse of the adjective ‘burly’ to describe any red wine of heft; suspiciously keen on ‘new wave’ Spanish, especially riojas, which we’ve found means the wine’s not kissed the oak for nearly long enough) she is a damned good spotter of a decent wine at a decent price.

So, let’s raise a glass to Jane, and long may her liver hold out. In terms of which glass to raise:

Let’s start with a white: Wm Morrison Special Selection Godello, £8 or currently £6 each if you buy 2, has a label that looks like this –

– but if you’re a traditionalist when it comes to wine labels, don’t let that put you off! From north west Spain, it’s a bit like an Aussie sauvignon blanc, with lots of tropical fruit oomph. And Obama was snapped drinking Godello last year, so drink it if only to remember a time when we had an American Pres worth looking up to.

Reds are more our thing though. Aldi has the best of them: first up is 2016 Exquisite Collection Pinot Noir, Wairarapa – everything you’d want in a NZ Pinot Noir, to my way of thinking, at least at that kind of price. Astringent raspberry and all that. Great with lamb chops, and I’d imagine it would slip down well with roast chicken, or even turkey!

Exquisite New Zealand Pinot Noir

Great stuff. The winner for sheer heft though is 2016 Cairanne, Domaine de la Belle Estelle, Rhone – Aldi 7.99  – another MacQuitty find. This not a wine to take lightly: it’s 14.5%, a big beast of a thing that shoulders its way down your throat. But oh, it’s quality! Any of the extended Wright family reading this: this is what you’ll be downing at the forthcoming Diamond Wedding beano in a couple of weekends’ time. The Godello’s the white.

Cairanne

Last but not necessarily least 2015 Animus Douro, Vicente Faria Aldi £4.99  – cheap, and very cheerful. We’ve struggled to find good Portugese reds in the past – they’ve always promised much, but failed to deliver – but this is really good glugging stuff. Best thing for a fiver I know of in any of the supermarkets at the moment. Give it a go.

Animus Douro DOC

…and that’s it, really. The daily musical advent calendar thing is kind of taking up my blogging time at the moment, so I hope this gives you the essentials. Drink up!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WordPress adverts underneath. Bet they’re not for wine. Unless the bots are super clever. Which they probably are, come to think of it.