Tom McRae Live

Hurray! My Tom McRae Live 2007 album arrived yesterday. Just listening to it now, and it sounds every bit as sharp and powerful as you’d expect.

Track list:
1. Walking2Hawaii, La Cigale, Paris
2. For The Restless, The Limelight, Belfast
3. A&B Song, La Cigale, Paris
4. Ghost Of A Shark, La Cigale, Paris
5. End of The World News (Dose Me Up), The Limelight, Belfast
6. Got A Suitcase, Got Regrets, Folken, Stavanger
7. One Mississippi, La Cigale, Paris
8. On And On, La Laiterie, Strasbourg
9. Deliver Me, Shepherds Bush Empire, London
10. Only Thing I Know, Debaser, Stockholm
11. Silent Boulevard, The Limelight, Belfast
12. Boy With The Bubblegun, The Limelight, Belfast

I could obviously suggest many other songs I’d like to hear, but this is a decent spread from his four albums with some material like ‘Ghost of a Shark’ that I’ve not personally heard very often (contrasting with songs like ‘Got a Suitcase…’ that I seem to hear all the time). The interpretations tend towards acoustic but if anything less quiet and sparse than you’d expect from the albums, with rich backing instruments from Olli Cunningham and Oli Kraus and a rounded sound. Tom is in strong voice and belts out some of the more up tempo material like ‘A&B Song’ and ‘End of the World News’ and there’s some electric guitar in there.

If you’ve seen him live you’ll know what to expect. This brings back memories for me, though I have to say we made a far livelier audience on ‘End of the World News’ than the shambolic lot on the album.

It has a fairly cheap cardboard sleeve, but since this is a direct release from Mr McRae unmediated by a record contract I assume it means more money gets to the artist. Go buy it! Other than that there’s nothing to quibble about. Very pleasing.

The magic lantern

We just watched part one of the BBC’s new Stephen Fry in America. It’s an amiable Michael Palin-esque travelogue in which quirky British person Stephen Fry drives a black London cab around every one of the US States. Now obviously Fry is a living man-god who can do no wrong, and his past forays into TV have been some of the best things produced in the last few years, whether delving into hs own mental health, his family history or the invention of the printing press. Which may partly explain my feelings of mild disappointment with this series. The pace of the tour is so rapid, with barely time for a vignette in each state, that it feels like edited highlights of a much better series. The early scenes are also crying out for more linking narration from Fry himself, coming across as a strangely disjointed series of moments with no common thread. Nonetheless he’s a very likeable tourist, uncompromisingly English and out of place, but also delighted, interested and non-judgemental. It improved and felt more organic towards the end of the episode, so I hope the later episodes continue to relax into their subject matter. Maybe the book will fill in some of the gaps and add some much needed commentary.

We’re not watching a lot else at the moment. The new US TV Season is in full swing, but is so far failing to impress. Bones is shaky at best, but then it was never what you’d call slick or plausible. The device of rotating grad students is at least mildly amusing. Heroes is proving considerably more engaging than Season 2, but is so irredeemably bonkers and that it’s difficult to imagine how it can ever recover any plausibility. House is as good as ever, but lacks that single brilliant concept that made Season 4 stand out. Stargate Atlantis is like turning up for a rock concert and getting the hotel band instead.

(I do highly rate The Middleman for those that haven’t caught up with it yet.)

Probably the thing that’s most grabbed me is The Restaurant, a strange semi-clone of The Apprentice with a big dollop of Masterchef, in which a series of hopelessly inept couples struggle to run a busy Restaurant and repeatedly fail to show any trace of ability to learn or take advice. Like The Apprentice, I can’t sit still for squirming in empathetic embarrassment or muttering in barely-suppressed outrage at their ineptness. Unlike The Apprentice, Raymond Blanc is clearly a Genuinely Nice Guy who offers insightful, constructive criticism, and always tries to soften the sting of his remarks. The man has the patience of a saint.

Lastly, I just saw these pics of Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Watson in Guy Ritchie’s new movie. I’m unconvinced. In concept I was intrigued by the casting, but Downey Jr looks strangely like Charlie Chaplin. I can see that they’re trying to go in an unorthodox direction with the material, and it’s not that Holmes can’t survive different takes — I think he’s the most played character in history, or close to it — but at some point the changes will become so great that you may as well call him something else and have done with it. We’ll see. A couple of pictures are hardly definitive, but they bode. They bode.

Earth: The Climate Wars

When I discussed Prof Richard Dawkins’s three-part series The Genius of Darwin I was puzzled as to why it merited the word “polemic” in my TV guide, noting that “creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling [TV geologist] Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.”

Inevitably, Dr Iain Stewart immediately launched a three-part series (apocalyptically titled Earth: The Climate Wars) that’s as likely to be labelled a polemic as anything Dawkins has produced. Global Warming is, after all, as likely as Evolution to be described in the media as “controversial”. Interestingly, the polemic word doesn’t seem to have been attached to this one. It’s an “investigation”.

To be clear, I don’t regard either series as a polemic. Both are written and presented by individuals who hold a clear view as to the truth of the matter, and both include passionate advocacy of the importance of the issues being debated, but crucially both discuss the relevant ‘controversy’ in some detail and arrive at their determination through dispassionate and thorough (as thorough as the format allows, anyway) examination of the evidence.

Earth: The Climate Wars tackles its subject in three parts: the first details the gradual development of climate theories in the 1960s and 70s, including the now disproven prediction of a “big freeze” and the gradual rise of global warming as a theory. The second deals with the controversy that arose around global warming in the 1990s, examining the changing and contradictory evidence and the opposing arguments before ultimately disproving the objections fairly categorically. The third programme examines attempts to model the Earth’s future climate, and to incorporate increasing evidence that climate change is, if anything, occurring faster than expected.

I found it fascinating. Iain Stewart is an engaging enough presenter and the programmes move at just about the right pace, focussing mainly on the science but to a lesser extent on the personalities and historical account of the discoveries. I knew a lot of the background, but there’s plenty here that I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in detail. In some respects it’s surprising how long ago the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first proposed, and how readily it was initially accepted. Fascinating, for example, to see Margaret Thatcher talking about the need for urgent action.

I was also aware of the notorious C4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle (a “polemic” if ever there was one) for which the channel was censured by Ofcom for misrepresenting the views of its contributers (although since it had caused no “harm” to its viewers Ofcom refused to rule on its scientific accuracy). Dr Stewart briefly touches on that programme and the shockingly inaccurate graphs used to make its case. I’ve read other rebuttals, e.g. badscience.com but it’s still nice to see a belated televised rebuttal. Indeed, this series of programmes, careful, thorough and engaging as they are, make a pleasingly level-headed counterpoint to the very propagandist and even ad hominem nature of the C4 programme. Dr Stewart also used extensive clips from a much earlier 1990 programme from C4 called The Greenhouse Conspiracy which makes you wonder what exactly C4 has against the theory of global warming.

The final programme includes some rather scary evidence of very sudden — in the everyday rather than geological meaning of the word — shifts in global climate in the past. These are sudden “tipping point” temperature shifts of several degrees centigrade occurring within a period of 2 to 5 years, calculated by examining both the thickness and chemical composition of Greenland ice cores1. Coupled with recent evidence about the unprecedented summer retreat of arctic sea ice during the summer, it does make you wonder — although thankfully 2008 didn’t break the record retreat in 20072.

In an age in which (as repeats of Horizon on BBC4 will attest) TV science has been lobotomised to a few health programmes and the occasional theory that Yellowstone park may explode and DOOM US ALL, it’s always welcome to have some real, solid science. Hot on the heels of Dawkins and the recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider it almost feels like a mini-Renaissance in science programming, even if in each case it was probably the underlying sense of “controversy” driving things forward. I strongly doubt if Earth: The Climate Consensus would have made it to air.

All three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The third was probably the weakest, but all are worth a look.

1 The process of dating ice cores back 50,000 years by simply ‘counting the rings’ that represent each winter and summer snowfall is surely as common sense a refutation of creationist dating of the Earth to 6,000 years old as you’re likely to find. That’s assuming geological dating using the precisely known decay rate of multiple radioactive isotopes is wrong — which, wearyingly, is exactly what creationists argue. In fact, that very creationist web page states: “Ultimately, the age of the earth cannot be proven”, a relativist bombshell which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to contest the science at all.

2 I sometimes find myself feeling an unworthy (and criminally stupid) desire to see the Earth meet a spectacular demise. Not just to prove the doubters wrong — although, y’know, that would be some slight consolation for me as the human race faced extinction — but because disasters are cool. That’s why Iain Stewart’s earlier series Earth: The Power of the Planet was interesting: because vast climactic and geological changes have a certain spectacular appeal. Catastrophes and disasters are strangely compelling, like that sensation climbers sometimes report of feeling an urge to hurl themselves into the void. I don’t for a second suggest that I actually want the Earth to be destroyed, but the childish part of me does seem to revel in the concept. People are strange creatures. Or maybe that’s just me.

Merlin

Against all expectations I quite enjoyed that.

It’s very far from the horrible teen travesty I was expecting, and nowhere near as glib and “modern” as the BBC’s Robin Hood. Indeed it’s about as literal and sincere a take on an Epic Fantasy novel (by way of Harry Potter) as you’re likely to see on TV. The cast is good, and Merlin himself is a nice mixture of wit and self-deprecation. The atmosphere is well-served by some effective digital matte paintings and a rich John Williams-esque orchestral score. Even the dragon is well done, albeit exactly the same as the last few talking dragons I’ve seen1. I particularly like the fairy tale quality of Gwen-from-Torchwood’s plot.

Probably the worst-judged aspect is the Jocks-and-Nerds relationship between Arthur and Merlin, but it’s a long way from grating.

Whether the world actually needs “Arthur and Merlin: Before They Were Famous” is another matter, but the pre-Arthurian premise is almost incidental to the fact that this is a surprisingly decent bit of Epic Fantasy2.


1 In films I mean. Rumours that I’ve been seeing talking dragons are scurrilous and should not be listened to.

2 i.e. Entirely hackneyed and predictable, but in a good way.

I say, dash it all it’s Bones in the UK

We just watched the two-parter season opener of Bones. Set in the UK. Oh yes, you know what that means.

Not any UK, of course, but that very specific one populated by red telephone boxes, London monuments, double-decker buses, Dukes, “Gentlemen”, Butlers and ‘Scotland Yard’ detectives. Janet successfully predicted that it would be all tied up with royalty before it even started.

Two of the young characters are named Cyril and Vera. Cyril’s favourite food is Eels. Every scene takes place in a stately home of some sort, except the ones with Michael Brandon as an American ex-pat which take place in a gleaming skyscraper. Every single actor, even the British ones, and regardless of their character’s background, have that particular “I shall do my utmost to accommodate you, detective” cut-glass accent that only exists in US dramas. Except the rough salt-of-the earth types who all sound like Dick Van Doike. Beer is served in pint glasses with handles, all the cars are boxy and twenty years old, and everyone is terribly concerned about class. At one point someone said “discombobulated” like it was an authentic bit of English slang. It was like watching Three Men and a Little Lady.

If you’re actually British it all adds up to a fantastic drinking game.

I shouldn’t mind really. For an alleged drama, Bones has a sit-com approach to characterisation. Even its forensics team talk in ridiculously formal, technical ways for no good reason. People suddenly become really dense or really perceptive as the plot or comedy punchline dictate. It’s a dumb, amiable show. Being set in the UK just makes it grate that little bit more than normal. 🙂

Bonekickers

Well that was completely, embarrassingly terrible from start to finish. And not even in a good way.

It has pilot-episode-by-numbers so deeply encoded into its DNA that it’s as if it was automatically generated by screenwriting software. On top of that it boasts an absolutely stupid premise, hilarious sub-CSI “sexy” archaeology, stultifying attempts at emotional depth and the least atmospheric riff on The Da Vinci Code meets The Last Crusade that it’s possible to imagine. The one-dimensional villain and his nil-dimensional henchmen are rivalled only by a cast of heroes written so thinly and played so unconvincingly that it’s nearly impossible to believe you’re not already watching the Dead Ringers spoof. I’m hard pressed to find a single redeeming feature. Shame on you Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah.

Ben Folds live

On Tuesday we went to see Ben Folds at the Carling Academy in Newcastle, which is pretty much identical to the Carling Academy in London if you moved it 300 miles nearer the North Pole.

The support act was a man called Corn Mo, playing solo without his band. This was one of the most complete WTF experiences I’ve had at a live gig. While I can see that in some hard-to-pin-down way his songs share a certain sense of deadpan irony with Ben Folds, he was just…bizarre. He spoke like the breathless Open University guy from The Fast Show, looked like Bill Bailey, sang like Freddie Mercury, and played an absurd set of observational songs accompanied by an accordion or an organ. To finish he sang along to a CD of one of his band’s tracks, which had a far more overtly rock/metal flavour and so ended up sounding like a Darkness song. The audience appeared to love him. We felt like Derren Brown had secretly set the entire thing up to mess with our minds.

Mercifully Ben Folds then rescued us. Songs played included (not in this order): Underground, Kate, Battle of Who Could Care Less, Narcolepsy, Army, Lullaby, Annie Waits, Zak and Sara, Gone, Rockin’ the Suburbs, All You Can Eat, You To Thank, Jesusland, Landed. He also played several others from the upcoming album due out in September, which some YouTube research reveals to be probably: Errant Dog, Free Coffee, Kylie from Connecticut, Hiroshima(?) and one with the line “If there’s a god out there he’s laughing at us and our football team”. The new ones sounded good, insofar as you can tell from one listen at a concert. Free Coffee was particularly good.

Oh, and there was a song about Newcastle, its “weird-ass” white footbridge, eating a dodgy meal and not being understood when ordering beer. I assume this was written specially for the evening but it was so slick it was pretty hard to tell!

We were standing a little way back on the raised floor behind the sound desk, where the view was great but the actual vocals seemed a little boomy at first. Since he kicked off with a song I didn’t know it took me a little while to get into the gig. Maybe I was still reeling from Corn Mo. However as things progressed and Ben’s piano playing became ever more virtuoso (his hands were just a blur at several points) I started having a really good time. He had an organ by his side which he would often play with his right hand while his left stayed on the piano. For other “effects” he dropped bits of metal and shakers onto the piano strings.

Ben wasn’t particularly talkative and what he did gabble into the mike wasn’t always that easy to catch, but the sheer energy of the songs came through well. He was supported by a drummer and base player in a “Ben Folds Five” arrangement making for some extremely faithful renditions of his early material. Their backing harmonies were fantastic, and they delivered “hand me my nose ring / show me the mosh pit” from Underground with aplomb.

The show ended with Not the Same, for which Ben got the audience to do the aaaaahAAAAAH bits in a three-part harmony, then started conducting the audience with his hands. Hugely good fun. The audience were singing along throughout the evening and generally very appreciative (although there was a distracting amount of loud chatter from the back of the room in some of the quieter songs).

Good fun.

Babylon 5

My review of the Babylon 5 straight-to-DVD movie is up today at Strange Horizons.

If you’re thinking “Dude, didn’t that DVD come out, like, aeons ago?” you’d be right. You’d also be a geek but we can’t help that. I wrote this last year as a reflection on both the new movie and the original series, and (my feelings on Babylon 5 being somewhat conflicted) it wound up being longer, more personal and more retrospective than normal. It’s been waiting in the wings until now, but I’m quite fond of it.

Now get the hell off my space station. And, y’know, go and read it.

Doctor Who – “Planet of the Ood”

I was far too busy last week to write anything about Doctor Who but I’m nothing if not a completist so here, out of sequence and entirely too late to be of any interest, are some brief thoughts. Assuming I can actually remember anything about the episode…

Spoilers for Doctor Who – Episode 3: Planet of the Ood

Tom McRae / Hotel Cafe

On Thursday we drove up to Edinburgh to see the Hotel Cafe tour headlined by Tom McRae. We went to the Hotel Cafe tour in Newcastle in 2006 and we saw him solo in Edinburgh last year so this fused the two experiences. The Hotel Cafe concept is a fantastic idea which manages to highlight artists you may (or may not) like while never staying still for long enough that you get bored with any one singer.

Cut for length

Doctor Who – “Partners in Crime”

Yes it’s snowing here too in big chaotic swirls of snowflakes. Sadly the flakes vanish into the tarmac as if continuing to fall unimpeded towards the centre of the globe. Even on the garden the snow is only able to cling on grimly for about half an hour before melting away into airy nothing. We’re still seeing the odd flurry, in between bouts of brilliant sunshine when the damp grass looks startlingly green.

Since I went out to, ahem, party hearty immediately after last night’s Doctor Who season premiere I haven’t really had a chance to comment very much, but it’s been thoroughly dissected here, here, here and here amongst other places.

Belated spoilers for Doctor Who – Episode 1: Partners in Crime

Musical ramblings

Having purchased an iPod recently I’m feeling a renewed interest in all things musical and have invested in a few albums of varying quality. Inevitably therefore comes the rambling post about a shedload of music.  I’ve put up a few tracks to download here and there. Tracks removed as they were killing my bandwidth allowance. 🙂

Josh Ritter – The Animal Years

Read More Books, 2007

In January my resolutions were, as ever, to Read More Books, Dammit! and to Go to the cinema more. Not big on introspection but very big on realism. Even so I haven’t managed as well as I intended, especially on the book front.

Brief reviews below. No real spoilers here, but cut for length

The books I read in 2007:

1. Magic for Beginners

By the power of Ebay

We have now become the last people in the western hemisphere to own a Wii. This is thanks to my wife’s considerable perseverance and the power of Ebay, which is a little like the power of Greyskull but less melodramatic. Haven’t played much so far but the sheer novelty of the Wii remote infuses even the most mundane game with a mixture of fun and frustration. At some point this will seem natural, but right now it’s like gaming with my feet. In a good way.

Interfering with our Wii-ing has been a flurry of cinemagoing this weekend.

Ratatouille

Doctor Who – Season 3

Following last year’s exciting Doctor Who Season Report Card, here comes the inevitable follow-up:

BEST
1. Blink (5/5)
2. Human Nature (Part 1) (5/5)
3. The Family of Blood (Part 2) (5/5)

4. Daleks in Manhattan (Part 1) (4/5)

5. The Lazarus Experiment (3/5)
6. Smith and Jones (3/5)
7. The Shakespeare Code (3/5)
8. Utopia (3/5)

9. Evolution of the Daleks (Part 2) (2/5)
10. The Sound of Drums (2/5)
11. Gridlock (2/5)

12. Last of the Time Lords (1/5)
13. 42 (1/5)
WORST

I maintain that this year was a lot more solid than Season 2. If I total up my scores I gave both seasons 39/65, but that doesn’t really reflect how I feel about them. Last year saw very few episodes that weren’t marred by a silly ending or some moment that felt embarrassingly juvenile. It was that awkward feeling of having to squint slightly to ignore the bad bits in otherwise enjoyable episodes. This year the episodes that were solid were consistently solid from beginning to end, and it’s surprising how much that lifts the ‘felt’ quality of the show. Martha’s occasional slips into unrequited love were also a lot less annoying than the cloying Doctor-Rose dynamic of season 2.

Then of course was the run of three superb episodes in a row from ‘Human Nature’ to ‘Blink’, which showcased everything that works about the series and without which I’d be feeling less charitable about the overall lack of excellence that surrounded them. I suspect that these three episodes are pivotal to my enjoyment of the season, but they’re not the whole story. I was already feeling more positive about the year before they aired.

As for the dregs, while there were a few episodes that required squinting of Olympic proportions, there were actually no more stinkers than last year, and even a nominally poor offering like ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ was sneakingly enjoyable and nostalgic; unlike, say, ‘Rise of the Cybermen’. Only ’42’ failed to engage me on almost any level, although even there Martha’s scenes in the life pod provided at least something of interest.

I’m still trying to decide whether ‘The Last of the Time Lords’ falls into the stupid-but-fun category, or was a full-on unwatchable stinker of the ‘New Earth’ variety. Martha did significantly help the episode, as did the epilogue, but as the season finale it ended the year on an unfortunately sour note.

Grouch

I think I’m becoming a blockbuster-movie grouch.

We saw Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End tonight. Maybe I was in the wrong mood but it left me slightly bored: a self-indulgent hodge-podge with no real structure. It’s hard to feel much engagement when you can’t follow who is double-crossing whom, and on what ship, and why. The last third of the film does pick up a little and there are a few charming moments–including a couple that haven’t already been done to death in the trailers–but they’re not enough to stop the film from feeling leaden. For what it’s worth there’s an extra scene after the end credits (assuming that you can outlast the cinema staff in a tense battle of wills).

I also finally got around to watching Superman Returns on DVD last night. The opening credits leave the impression that the film will be a fetishistic recreation of the original Richard Donner film, stunningly beautiful, and interminably long. The opening credits do not lie. The plot is very straightforward but takes over two and half hours to langorously unfold, leaving the characters to carry the film. Unfortunately the direction and performances take their lead from the arch and slightly sappy tone of Superman: the Movie, leaving everything feeling unreal and reminding me why I don’t particularly like the original Superman movies in the first place. (So why I bothered watching this one is anyone’s guess). I still don’t understand why I should care that Clark Kent is mooning over Lois Lane, and the very youthful Brandon Routh just isn’t the Man of Steel. The real treat is to see Superman’s powers rendered believably for the first time, particularly in the stunning plane rescue sequence. That nearly validated my decision to see the film. That, plus Kevin Spacey playing Gene Hackman playing Lex Luthor.

Come back older, come back changed

I’m really enjoying Tom McRae’s new album King of Cards. I’ve spent the best part of the last few days with fragments of its tunes slipping in and out of my head.

I’m also a bit disappointed with it: there are a few songs that, as yet, seem as anonymous as passing strangers on the street. I still couldn’t tell you much about them despite the fact that I’ve bumped into them for three days straight. ‘The Ballad of Amelia Earheart’ is one such, as is ‘Houdini And the Girl’. It’s not that they’re poppy, just… slight. There are also some songs that feel lyrically or structurally awkward, like ‘One Mississippi’, which is something I don’t normally associate with his writing.

Clearly his mission statement on this album was accessibility. Even more than All Maps Welcome this is by far his most eclectic mix of songs, with tracks that could sit comfortably on each of his past albums but also frothier tracks that, until now, I really wouldn’t have associated with him at all. The saving grace is that he does accessible quite well. Even the up-tempo happy ones have twists and quirks that sound like Tom McRae songs–just up-tempo, happy Tom McRae songs. ‘Bright Lights’, for example, is just the kind of thing I didn’t expect to like. It’s great. They’re not as satisfying as a lot of material on his earlier albums, but they’re enjoyable on their own terms. And if they feel a little bit thin at times then there’s always the more typical stuff like the sparse ‘Got A Suitcase, Got Regrets’ or the stumbling bitterness of ‘Keep Your Picture Clear’. ‘On And On’ is strangely addictive too.

It’s far from perfect, but there’s lots to enjoy. Apparently he’s already written his next album, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t be great, but I do hope for something a touch darker next time around.