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Tuesday, September 10th, 2019
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8:32 pm
By “Innovation” Only

Another Apple Event™, this time the annual iPhone/iPad one. And out comes Tim Cook, announcing that they're foregoing the traditional feel-good videos and plunging right in, as today's event will be “truly big”; followed by an hour and a half of mostly incremental improvements. Oh, and a pay-TV platform that looks like an Onionesque parody of the Netflix/HBO/Amazon high-concept event-serial genre.

The good news is that it won't have a huge impact on one's credit card, as there are no must-haves. Everything's slightly nicer, and the top-end iPhone takes better pictures than any other iPhone, though nothing's compelling. (Apple themselves quoted a report from last year saying that the A12 processor in the iPhone XS will be ahead of Android devices for two years, which means that my XS still has one year of non-obsolescence left.)

For what it's worth, three things I would have liked to have seen announced at an Apple device event:

  1. The ability to use the NFC transceiver in the Apple Watch (and iPhone) for arbitrary non-payment-card applications; allowing things like putting public transport cards, library cards, locker keys and such on one's watch. The convenience of being able to board buses or enter/exit Tube stations without getting my wallet out is one thing I miss about London (which achieves this by tapping into the payment-card network with its system). (IIRC, Apple have said that they keep the NFC chip under tight control because of security considerations. Perhaps an acceptable compromise would be for Apple to closely vet all applications with NFC entitlements, with their security engineers going through the NFC-adjacent code with a fine-toothed comb, as they do some other apps with elevated security permissions. This would be fine; after all, it's not like every developer and their dog would be putting this functionality into their apps.)
  2. An iPhone with the capabilities equivalent to the iPhone XS or similar (decent cameras, reasonable battery life, at least 256Gb storage maximum), but in an iPhone 5-sized form factor. Being able to use a phone one-handed without precariously crowd-surfing it on one's fingertips to reach the top of the screen would be nice. If they made it thicker to accommodate the battery and Flash storage, that would not be a problem either; besides, IMHO, the bevelled edge of the iPhone 4 and 5 did look more stylish than the generic roundedness of the iPhone 6 and subsequent models.
  3. In terms of pro photographic products: an iOS (or iPad OS) device with a decent-sized sensor (at least Micro ⁴⁄₃, if not full-frame), with a decent optical zoom lens that's f/1.8 or better, or, even better, an interchangeable lens mount; thus giving you the advantages of a full-sized sensor and lens (and the laws of physics say that, however good phone-sized sensors get, they'll always be handicapped by their size) with Apple's computational photography and the iOS photographic app ecosystem. Of course, it will probably be a cold day in Hell before Apple put something like this out; it may be more likely that several incumbent camera manufacturers like Canon and Nikon, mindful of phones biting into their market share, get together to launch a computational-photography application platform, complete with interchangeable APIs and app stores, allowing photographic app developers to get their apps running on real cameras. Or maybe not.
So, not the most exciting Apple Event, by all accounts; credit cards are staying firmly in wallets, as the last year's devices prove to be good enough, which will undoubtedly bring out the pundits decrying Apple having lost their way and stopped innovating; at best, they're coasting on inertia from the Jobs years, their lucrative App Store monopoly and iMessage blue-bubble lock-in, and at worst, it's time to dump your AAPL shares while they're still worth something. Which, as humdrum as today's spec-bump update was, is not entirely true. Apple are pushing out some dramatic innovations this year, though they're mostly at the technical level, and were discussed in this year's WWDC. (For one, the user interface framework used for developing iOS apps, which dates back to the iPhone 1.0 and stands on the 1980s Smalltalk-inspired foundations of NeXTSTEP, is being replaced by a set of new, declarative framework named SwiftUI and Combine, which takes extensively from the functional-reactive programming world; these framework will be unified across all Apple platforms, including macOS and WatchOS, allowing apps' codebases to not only be simpler but shared across platforms which would have been too different until now. This, however, is harder to convey in a device event than a 3-camera bump or a new colour option of “Midnight Green”.)

apple iphone 0

Saturday, May 18th, 2019
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2:17 pm
Every three years, like clockwork

In other news, today was the Australian federal election, and another Labor landslide that dissolved into thin air upon contact with reality, with a terminally unpopular conservative government romping home to a resounding victory. You can almost set your clock by them.

One can ask a lot of questions, and a lot of questions will be asked: were Labor too radical, alienating the Silent-Majority-Of-Suburban-Battlers who love their big cars and cheap coal-fired electricity and can't stand lefty ratbags from the inner city telling them how to live their life, or too timid, not giving Australian voters a Whitlam-scale vision of change to get behind? Was Labor leader Bill Shorten a terminal black hole of charisma? Did the traditionally left-leaning Fairfax papers' new ownership shift the balance? Did the conservatives cross the line by doing a preference deal with out-and-proud racists, or have they always been where they are? Was there ever a time when the quiet part was not said out loud? And so on.

One question that should be asked though is: why is it that, in Australian federal politics, the ALP is constantly poised for a barnstorming victory, except on the actual electoral night when it collapses like a sandcastle? At this stage, the pollsters, pundits, commentators and betting markets have successfully predicted the last four out of one ALP federal election victories. Is this just the ”shy-Tory” phenomenon, of everybody wanting to pose as a high-minded altruist whilst keeping their tax bill down and their negative gearing profits coming in? Is it something more culturally specific, perhaps the larrikin/wowser dynamic at the heart of the Australian psyche, an innate blokey conservatism coupled with a desire to watch their betters ritually sweat and squirm in the face of potential defeat? Are elections, and the Labor Party, little more than a sort of ritual psychodrama, a festival in which the King is put on trial by the court jester and everybody gets to let off a bit of steam before getting down to the next three years of no-nonsense conservative governance? (Repeat until climate change obliterates all life on Earth, unless of course climate change is Marxist propaganda.)

alp australia election politics 1

LJ.Rossia.org makes no claim to the content supplied through this journal account. Articles are retrieved via a public feed supplied by the site for this purpose.
2:17 pm
Every three years, like clockwork

In other news, today was the Australian federal election, and another Labor landslide that dissolved into thin air upon contact with reality, with a terminally unpopular conservative government romping home to a resounding victory. You can almost set your clock by them.

One can ask a lot of questions, and a lot of questions will be asked: were Labor too radical, alienating the Silent-Majority-Of-Suburban-Battlers who love their big cars and cheap coal-fired electricity and can't stand lefty ratbags from the inner city telling them how to live their life, or too timid, not giving Australian voters a Whitlam-scale vision of change to get behind? Was Labor leader Bill Shorten a terminal black hole of charisma? Did the traditionally left-leaning Fairfax papers' new ownership shift the balance? Did the conservatives cross the line by doing a preference deal with out-and-proud racists, or have they always been where they are? Was there ever a time when the quiet part was not said out loud? And so on.

One question that should be asked though is: why is it that, in Australian federal politics, the ALP is constantly poised for a barnstorming victory, except on the actual electoral night when it collapses like a sandcastle? At this stage, the pollsters, pundits, commentators and betting markets have successfully predicted the last four out of one ALP federal election victories. Is this just the ”shy-Tory” phenomenon, of everybody wanting to pose as a high-minded altruist whilst keeping their tax bill down and their negative gearing profits coming in? Is it something more culturally specific, perhaps the larrikin/wowser dynamic at the heart of the Australian psyche, an innate blokey conservatism coupled with a desire to watch their betters ritually sweat and squirm in the face of potential defeat? Are elections, and the Labor Party, little more than a sort of ritual psychodrama, a festival in which the King is put on trial by the court jester and everybody gets to let off a bit of steam before getting down to the next three years of no-nonsense conservative governance? (Repeat until climate change obliterates all life on Earth, unless of course climate change is Marxist propaganda.)

alp australia election politics 1

Thursday, May 16th, 2019
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10:58 pm
Eurovision 2019, a preview

In two days' time, things will once again come to a head. I am, of course, talking about the Eurovision final. Unfortunately, I will not be able to view it live due to prior commitments, so I took the liberty of watching what I could of the semifinals (I am living in a country where Eurovision is taken about as seriously as football is in Australia, and the broadcasts don't begin and end on the final night) and artist videos; here are my impressions.

The talk of this year's contest is, of course, Iceland's Hatari. They dress like BDSM gimps, all muscle, latex and spikes, and sound like something Wax Trax put out around 1990. Their name means The Haters and their song is about the triumph of hate over all (in Icelandic). They hail from Iceland, but they also hail from a parallel universe where MDMA was never discovered and psytrance never displaced hard EBM from the goth clubs. They also are provocateurs—they're essentially Laibach on goofballs—and went to Tel Aviv partly if not wholly to expound at every opportunity about what rotters their hosts are to the Palestinians; apparently the EBU have warned them numerous times and are at the end of their tether, so it remains to be seen who, if anyone, blinks. If they stay in, they could well end up taking the prize. See you at Harpa in 2020?

Another contender with a solid chance is Australia's Kate Miller-Heidke, whose act is equal parts Kate Bush, Frozen and the stunt sequences from Mad Max: Fury Road; she also has a really good voice, and may be the one to win it for Australia.

There were a number of other noteworthy entrants. Norway's starts as trancy club-pop, but then a bald guy appears and intones some words in a baritone, and we're in the realm of arctic shamanism, with sweeping auroras and lo-poly reindeer totems. Germany have some deceptively nice-sounding pop with somewhat dark lyrics. Sweden have a soulful ballad erupting into the standard chorus breakdown, with house piano and melismatic backing vocals; the singer also wrote the UK's song, and another Swede is representing Estonia. Denmark brought the hygge with a slightly twee number, sung partly in French. Czechia are represented by Lake Malawi, who are named after a Bon Iver song, though don't sound the least bit woodsy; their entry is jittery, funky electropop with Mondrian-coloured visuals and perhaps a touch of Parklife. Also funky is San Marino, with a slice of electro chanson, delivered by a Turkish artist based in Germany. Meanwhile, both Malta and Switzerland combined reggaeton beats with middle eastern riffs.

A number of notable contenders fell short of the grand final. Georgia brought the weird intensity usually associated with Romania; moonlit mountains, black-clad wraiths in the mist, columns of flame, and a singer with a manbun singing about, at a guess, blood vendettas or something; a song best appreciated with a shot of something that burns the throat. Romania, meanwhile, toned down their characteristic weirdness to 90s-Depeche-Mode levels. Croatia had a chap named Roko, in a white suit, surrounded by digitally projected hellfire and abseiling angels, which makes one wonder whether this is some kind of AI cult propaganda. If he ends up working with Grimes, all bets are off. Ireland's entry was stylishly retro, echoing midcentury American cool. Latvia entered Grand Salvo/Sodastream territory with their double bass, pastoral guitars and brushed drums. And Israel seemed to go for the Conchita Wurst factor with their torch song about transcendence and empowerment, delivered in an operatic voice.

Then there is the UK. What can one say? They're not utterly awful this time; they're not deliberately talking down to Johnny Foreigner and sending in a light entertainment troupe from a provincial Butlin's lest anyone accuse them of taking it seriously. Their entry is a slick, saccharine big-hearted ballad, delivered by an Everylad who looks like he was decanted from a vat at the Ed Sheeran manufacturing plant a few days ago. It grasps with thick fingers at the heartstrings and gives them an unsubtle tug. And, in doing so, it pulls out all stops: the soaring choruses, the backing choirs, the truck driver's gear change, over a heartwarming video telling a story about teenage travails somewhere up north, shot partly in slow motion. There is technical polish, but little finesse; one can tell that, with the audience on the other side of the Channel, Britain has all the rapport of Theresa May proposing a Brexit deal, and hence no better options than to throw a load of sentimental goop over and hope for the best..

I don't think the UK should win on merit, because there are many better songs in the final this year. Though I do think that if everyone in Europe gave Britain douze points, forcing them to host Eurovision in the first year of the Farage/Rees-Mogg administration, that would easily be the most epic troll in the history of the contest. On merit, however, my vote would be with Iceland, or failing that, Australia or Czechia.

eurovision 0

Monday, December 31st, 2018
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5:34 pm
Records of 2018

As 2018 comes to an end, here is once again my list of records of the past year:

  • Belle & SebastianHow To Solve Our Human Problems

    This year brought another Belle & Sebastian album with it, and Belle & Sebastian fans know what to expect. gently folky moments (Fickle Season), groovy mood pieces (the bipartite Everything Is Now), soul strings (Too Many Tears), not to mention titles like “A Plague On Other Boys” (which sounds not unlike one would expect a Belle & Sebastian song by that title to sound; file this one alongside Lord Anthony and The Cat With The Cream).

    The album opens with Sweet Dew Lee, in which Stevie wistfully reopens the wounds of an unrequited crush twenty years on, tormenting himself with what-could-have-beens and parallel-universe hypotheticals (hey, we've all been there), over a bed of bossa-esque guitar and analogue synth fuzz. The second track, We Were Beautiful, which is sonically probably the closest we'll get to Belle & Sebastian's foray into drum'n'bass, continues the theme of wistfully looking back on lost youth. Meanwhile, Best Friend is a classic B&S comedy of manners about flat-sharing, adulting and trying not to fall in love. (At times, the Belle and Sebastian universe sounds like a terrifying place, with romantic love being everywhere, seeping through the cracks like a gas, every glance crackling with oddly chaste sexual electricity.)

  • Carpenter BrutLEATHER TEETH (Bandcamp)

    Carpenter Brut are, in a sense, the anti-M83. Both bands hail from France, a culture that stands apart from the currents of Anglo-American pop culture, engaging with them on its own terms, and both bands trade in a French-made vision of fantasy-America. Though while M83's America takes its cues from John Hughes soundtracks, with its pastel-hued high-school romances and subcultural cliques, Carpenter Brut's America is a darker one, made from 1980s low-budget VHS horror films and Reagan-era paranoia about Satanic cults. A trio comprised of a keyboard player (with a stack of analogue synths), a heavy-metal guitarist and a drummer, their music falls at the more dystopian end of the “synthwave” genre (as the name suggests, synthesist and horror auteur John Carpenter was an influence, though far from the only one); the closest comparison I can think of is San Diego's Street Cleaner.

    Some tracks on LEATHER TEETH have lyrics, whose sometimes stilted phrasing adds to their over-the-top shlock (sample: “beware the beast inside your heart, when you're dancing in the dark, and the night's desire is burning with the Devil's fire”), while others serve to soundtrack movie scenes left to the listener's imagination (those who see them live get a visual aid in the form of video projections of imaginary movie fragments, presumably filmed at considerable effort by the band and their collaborators; expect unrealistic fake blood, rows of high-school lockers and shots of lurid newspaper headlines). Leather Teeth is their second album, and includes collaborators including Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg.

  • DubstarOne

    Dubstar were one of those bands of the 90s that were often lumped in with Saint Etienne; each juxtaposing the programmed beats and loops of hip-house and club pop with the an very English Dusty-Springfield-meets-Emma-Peel retro-cool, in each case delivered with vintage sang-froid by a Sarah. Unlike their southern opposite numbers, though, they disappeared around the turn of the millennium, with Sarah going on to the electroclash project Client and a number of industriogoth collaborations. Now, after almost two decades, they're back.

    Musically, One starts more or less where they left off, give or take a few decades of life experience. They're a duo now, without the chap who did the drum/sampler/sequencer programming, and so their music sounds less sequenced. The subject matter has kept up with the authors' age, and themes of divorces, legal injunctions (actual and as a metaphor) and drama at school gates come up in the characteristically wry lyrics about stereotypically knotty situations. Blackwood's (possibly unreliable) narrator will be familiar from the “Not So Manic Now” era: wry and a bit intense; just the song titles (“Why Don't You Kiss Me”, ”You Were Never In Love”, “Please Stop Leaving Me Alone”) bespeak the persona of a romantic actor who pursues her interests with the single-minded drive of the Terminator and, when things have gone south, writes a postmortem for the dalliance, replete with arch wordplay.

    In any case, the songs are all as catchy and compelling as the best of their first run. It's hard to pick highlights, but some might include “I Hold Your Heart” with it's Northern-soul stomp, “Waltz No. 9”, in triplet-time and second person, describes the listener's disintegrating life and foretells their imminent downfall, and the icily synthpoppy “Locked Inside”, or the bracing bucket of cold water that is “You Were Never In Love”. The album ends with “Mantra”, a 6½-minute track building to a climax of repeated wordless vocals, fuzzed guitar; I bet they could get a few extra minutes out of it live.

  • Haiku SalutThere Is No Elsewhere (Bandcamp)

    Haiku Salut make lovely, subtle soundscapes, and their third album is no exception. Haiku Salut's combination of electronic and live sounds feels even more seamless than before; glitchy beats, warm drones, synth arpeggios and tiny fragments of sound of unknown provenance fuse with chromatic percussion, melodicas, horns and the Haikus' signature French accordion. The harmonies and melodies feel ever more intricate and evocative. Highlights include the pulsating The More and Moreness, the splendidly titled I Am Who I Remind You Of, a 7-minute journey through a soundscape of glockenspiel, accordion and electronic beats, and the closing track, the lovely, subtle Shadows. File alongside Mogwai, Amiina or Tortoise.

  • Kero Kero BonitoTime 'n' Place (Bandcamp)

    The third album for the London J-pop trio is a somewhat skronkier affair; the songs are still melodious pop songs, redolent more of Harajuku than the Bromley bedroom they were recorded in, but the super-smooth PC Music-esque affectations are replaced by something somewhat less clean; chunky guitar riffage, vaporwavey digital synths and the odd YMCK-esque chiptune arpeggio and digital noise breakdown, slathered with reverb and distortion. Which echoes the record's anxious themes: songs about identity crises in the Instagram-influencer era, depression and worries about the precarious future. Highlights include the retro-styled baroque pop of Dear Future Self and the third-wall-breaking Only Acting.

  • Klaus Johann GrobeDu Bist So Symmetrisch (Bandcamp)

    Swiss electro-funk, you say? With lyrics in German, no less. Propelled by clunky bass guitar, warm'n'fuzzy monosynths, jazzy chords, funky riffs and drums (both live and programmed), Klaus Johann Grobe don't so much straddle the line between kitschy and funky as saunter playfully across it repeatedly. Like smooth midnight boogie-groove R&B stripped back to one-oscillator basics crossed with post-Can skronk and a touch of Kraftwerkian electropop, they present a sort of polyester modernism, conjuring up images of retrofuturistic mitteleuropäisch nightclubs at some point in the past half-century. Highlights include Zu Spät, which is the smoothest thing in at least one parallel universe, and the closing track, An Diesem Abend, a mighty grüv juggernaut which brings das Haus down.

  • Kosmischer LäuferVolume 4 (Bandcamp)

    The fourth chapter of Drew McFadyen's Ostalgisch krautrock project, coming years after the first three, as we all began to despair of the prospect of finding any more of Martin Zeichnete's tapes. Were this a real rerelease of actual long-lost East German Kosmische Musik, we'd be faced with the prospect of all the good stuff having been released, and the remainders being off-cuts, fragments and curios. It's not, though, and so each volume improves on the previous ones. the main part of Volume Four follows the preceding volumes in themes, providing Cluster/Harmonia/La Düsseldorf-style electronic instrumentals, ostensibly conceived for the DDR's Olympic athletes' training; here we have motorik beats and the odd Kraftwerk-esque synthesiser melody, at a methodical 150BPM. The second half, though, takes the form of a visualisation programme, ostensibly to bring focus to the athletes' minds; in place of the propulsive rhythm are ambient synthesiser drones and arpeggios, with a female voice reading out instructions. As ambient music, it works rather nicely; and perhaps future discoveries of Zeichnete's works will be those in this vein?

  • </li>
  • Let's Eat GrandmaI'm All Ears (Bandcamp)

    The teenage duo's second album is somewhat more polished affair, though with their own distinctive authorial voice. While previously they did everything themselves, here they bring onboard collaborators, most prominently The Horrors' Faris Badwan and PC Music artist SOPHIE, learn the tricks and terms of art of mass-market pop music and turn them to their own ends. The latter's influence can be heard in the poppier tracks, such as the single Hot Pink, with its J-pop-tinged girl-power R&B, only somewhat askew and with a Norfolk accent.

    While they have embraced the polish and artifice of pop production and added it to their formidable repertoire, they have not been subsumed by it, either thematically or stylistically. Their songs avoid the standard pop clichés—the love ballads, party anthems and melodramas of heartbreak and betrayal—and instead use the pop-song idiom to their own ends, with word-pictures of an inner life, with its passing thoughts and feelings. Stylistically, some songs, like It's Not Just Me and Falling Into Me, play with the elements of electropop to varying extents; others find a different way, like the bluesy 6/8-time Snakes & Ladders. Cool And Collected, a meditation on the anxiety of admiring (or perhaps fancying) someone, starts off with arid guitarwork reminiscent of Pygmalion-era Slowdive; and perhaps the highlight of the album for me is Ava, an understated piano ballad about a friend struggling with mental-health issues, which shows that Let's Eat Grandma are not beholden to their well-honed maximalism. The closer is the 11-minute Donnie Darko, the long, vaguely Underworldesque track familiar from their live shows, its techno pulse now underpinned with guitar riffing.

    Also, there's the best use of a purring cat on a record since Loney Dear's “The Year Of River Fontana”, so there is that.

  • MonteroPerformer (Bandcamp)

    The new record from musician and illustrator Bjenny Montero, and his first since moving to Athens (Greece, not Georgia) embraces the luscious maximalism and all-analogue artifice of 70s-vintage soft rock, wedding it to the vulnerability of his comics.

    The first track, Montero Airlines, starts with eight bars of minor-key piano chords; then the big drums kick in and Ben's vocals, with a cry for help; “it's not good for me to be all alone right now”. By the time we get to the verse, we learn that part of him needs a part of you and not just any boy is going to do. Another verse and chorus, and then the song switches into the ending, a jingle for the titular airline, wrought into an epic build-up of chorused vocals, drum breakdowns and multiple chiming guitars. The second song, Aloha, is even more envelopingly lush, all chiming guitars, vocal harmonies and an key change that feels like taking off into the sunset in a seaplane.

    The album continues in this vein, with flangers, Frippian talkbox, electric pianos, Mellotron strings, and beds of backing harmonies. Montero, it seems, is both a connoisseur of vintage pop and a perfectionist in the studio, build up lavish pocket symphonies out of everyday anxieties and melancholies. Caught Up In My Own World starts with Rhodes piano and flanged vocals, the choruses blooming in an explosion of chorused guitar and vocal aahs. Running Race builds up a lush soundscape around a kernel of self-doubt (“deep inside of me, no-one's home”), ornamenting it with classic psychedelic pop. Tokin' The Night Away is basically what it sounds like, a stoner anthem realised as if on a 1970s recording budget; “Destiny” brings a somewhat goofy rock-opera bombast, sounding like the musical number in which the mephistophelian villain tries to convince the hero to join him. The closing track, Pilot starts with a funky bassline and bongo-led groove, and cruises smoothly along before soaring to a climax that brings the house down on the album. It is also probably also the only song ever written referencing both the lights of LA and “Desperate and Dateless”. In any case, Performer is smooth sailing, and the biggest (by some definitions) Australian psychedelic pop record since Tame Impala. There's none more shmoopy!

  • Moon GangsEarth Loop (Bandcamp)

    The first album-length release from analogue ambient electronic project Moon Gangs elaborates on the direction of his two EPs, though in a deeper, darker direction. Made with a bench of analogue synthesisers and sequencers played live, the result is luminous, foreboding cinematic soundscapes somewhere between Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, replete with coruscating arpeggios, saturated sawtooth drones, skittering white noise and epic reverb tails. Highlights include Familiar Machines (which sounds like a more analogue Ben Frost) and the majestic Sea Circles, a 6½-minute megastructure of grandeur.

  • Them Are Us TooAmends and SRSQUnreality

    This year's twinned albums; the young Bay Area dreampop duo Them Are Us Too, tragically, were mentioned here in 2016, in the context of one of them, Cash Askew, having died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time, they had been working on new recordings; some time later, these were reworked with the involvement of surviving member Kennedy Ashlyn, Telefon Tel Aviv producer Joshua Eustis and Askew's girlfriend and stepfather; which eventually was worked into the Amends EP, and released this year. Ashlyn went on to a solo project, SRSQ, also releasing a record later this year.

    Both records have their roots in 1980s dreampop/sophistipop, with a sound somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and Julee Cruise, with perhaps fragments of other things (The Cure? Giorgio Moroder?) shining through. Amends feels the more whole, with Askew's dreamlike guitarwork floating over the synth pads and underpinning Ashlyn's Fraserequely aethereal vocals. It starts with the sublime Angelene, its icy synth arpeggios, filter-sweep pads, gated drum machine and judicious use of tape delay setting Ashlyn's soaring soprano in an ornate frame worthy of Laura Palmer. The velvet darkness starts to close in with Grey Water, which ventures deeper into Cocteaus territory. Floor, with its rapid-fire drum machine, jagged guitar lines and Ashlyn's vocals soaring like if Siouxsie had been an actual banshee, could have probably filled the floor of a goth club 30 years ago. The final, title track, with its reverbed drums, synth pads, Ashlyn's soaring soprano and Askew's sublimely jagged guitarwork, is a fitting ending, providing a pastel-hued sunset for Them Are Us Too's closing credits, and giving an illusion of closure.

    Closure, however, is not how the real world works, which is evident in Ashlyn's debut as SRSQ, an album haunted by loss (SRSQ's Bandcamp page describes the project as “griefwave”). The album feels like a journey: starting with FM bells, vast reverb and an almost Dead Can Dance-esque sense of the transcendent, before the familiar 808 snap and sawtooth arpeggios kick in, going through ethereal dreampop (Cherish, which sounds like a synth-driven Cocteaus, and the Badalamenti-esque Procession), descending into a valley of shadow, of plaintive vocal lines and electronic drones, before emerging with the soaring, luminous climax of Only One. Askew's guitars, of course, are absent; instead, there are rich layers of electronics (mostly lush, though in places raw and harsh) beneath Ashlyn's majestic soprano. There is, of course, a void and a sense of loss, but also, one feels, a sense of mystery and hints of the sacred encoded in the aural language of the record; beyond the FM bells, expansive 80s-style reverbs and overtone-rich analogue synth timbres reminiscent of pipe organs coalesce to evoke the sensation of a cathedral-like space, there are, echoes of the score for a certain TV show, perhaps our secular society's closest thing to sacred mystery. One gets the feeling that this is not so much stylised genre pop music, such as, say, “dreampop” or “synthwave”, as something more transcendent crafted from its elements.

  • Die Wilde JagdUhrwald Orange (Bandcamp)

    Die Wilde Jagd (The Wild Hunt) are a duo, originally from Düsseldorf, but now based in Berlin. Uhrwald Orange (“Clockwood Orange” in English) is their second album, and falls somewhere between electronic and post-rock. It is mostly instrumental, with half the tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes in length and none shorter than six, though a few with lyrics sounding not unlike a German Velvet Underground. The tracks tend to evolve and progress, like hypnotic meditations of layered rhythms and textures; slightly too languid to be labelled “motorik”, with pulsing synthesisers, sitars, spaghetti-western guitars and the odd field recording. Highlights include the 15-minute “Kreuzgang”, which starts off like a library-music take on Joy Division-style post-punk bleakness before setting the controls for an altogether more cosmic void.

With honourable mentions going to: Beach House, 7 (somewhat busier than their previous albums, though with the familiar dreamy haze; Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember was involved in the production), Blood Wine Or Honey, Fear & Celebration (psychedelic Afrobeat/Tropicalia-tinged party grooves from Hong Kong, of all places; sounds in places like NO ZU, only even more lit), Cale Sexton, Melondrama (808 and 303-intensive electronic grooves, with enough atmosphere to not get boring or require pills to enjoy; reminiscent of some of Aphex Twin's Polygon Window work in places, only dubbier), Camp Cope, How To Socialise & Make Friends (choppy/skronky yet melodious Melbourne indie rock fuelled by MeToo-era rage and knowing when to go rough-as-guts; reminiscent in places of Origami or Bidston Moss), Caroline No, Swimmers EP (understated rock'n'roll balladeering from Caroline Kennedy (of The Tulips and 90s alt-rockers Deadstar) and friends), Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade (the follow-up to 2016’s Void Beats is literally a more stripped-back affair, built up over rhythms from Holger Zapf’s homemade drum machines, overlaid with layers of analogue synths, guitars and noise generators), Clue To Kalo, There's No Radio/In The All-Night Bakery At Dawn (a joyously maximalistic electropop song, reminiscent of Caribou or Panda Bear), Empty Files, Shadows (a.k.a. NIN goes to the hipster disco), Phil France, Circle (warm analogue electronic instrumentals, too chilled to dance to, but with more happening beneath the surface; not too far from Jon Brooks' analogue pastorals), Frankie Teardrop Dead, All You Need Is Love And Fucking Peace (above-average contemporary psych-rock, with above-average self-awareness (for one, they're not named “Underground Jesus” or “Acid Death Cult” or something); titles include “Joy In Division” and “Lost Member Of A Fake Boyband“; expect fuzzed-out guitar and chorused vocals), Fufanu, The Dialogue Series (The Icelandic electropop band's latest effort, originally released as several EPs; has its ups and downs, but some nice tracks like Typical Critical), Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (the début record from Brisbane teenager Harriette Pilbeam is a short slice of catchy shoegaze-tinged pop that evokes the likes of The Sundays; one to watch), The KVB,Only Now Forever (Reverbed vocals in an understated croon, the cold snap of analogue drum machines and layers of guitars and pulsing synths baked into a warm fuzz; combining the cold feeling of post-punk with analogue fuzz, The KVB deal in a sort of kraut-goth-psych-pop, somewhere between Darklands-era Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division at their most detached and motorik, with perhaps a nod to Berlin-era Bowie), Melbourne Cans, Heat of the Night (more Melbourne indie-rock, with shimmering guitars and vintage affectations; i.e., Heart Turned Blue, a slab of rock'n'roll noir not directly inspired by Twin Peaks, and the Be My Baby-quoting Followed Home), Midday Static, Dreamcatcher (guitar and beat-driven ambience from one guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma; if you like Robin Guthrie and Ulrich Schnauss, you might like this), New War, Coin (broadly in a post-punk vein, yet somewhat more expansive in tone; angular yet dubby with biting basslines, urgently yelped vocals, and more than the average amount of synth atmospherics; reminiscent in places of Dogs In Space), Örvar Smárason, Light Is Liquid (The solo début from Örvar, of renowned Icelandic bands múm and FM Belfast; chilled, glitchy beats, icy pads, warm electronics, leftfield techno and vocals chopped up, vocoded and processed to within an inch of their life; highlights include Flesh and Dreams and the closer Cthulhu Regio), Red Red Eyes, Horology (Laura from Betty And The Werewolves' new band goes into post-Lynchian territory; echoes of Death And Vanilla or Sir), Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together (fuzzy, jangly, indiepop from Busan, South Korea, evocative of C86/Sarah indie in places; Old Town could be twinned with Anorak City), Soft Regime, “Hard Feelings” (An EP of bright, hyper-saturated electropop songs about holidays in Europe, aging socialites and the magic of dance music; ⅓ of Soft Regime is Tim Benton, of indie-electro heroes Baxendale, and Dickon Edwards (of Orlando, Fosca and a renowned online diary) guests on one song), The Spook School, Could It Be Different? (their third record and first on Slumberland; melodiously skronky tweecore with a theme of defiant resilience and the power to fill indiepop dance floors), Tangents, New Bodies (dubby/jazzy/skronky post-post-rock atmospherics with live instruments and electronics), Tigercats, Pig City (Tigercats go deeper into afrobeat territory, with a record of largely kalimba- and horn-section-driven grooves, reinventing Limehouse as a sort of futuristic Nairobi-on-Thames, informal spaces in the shadow of concrete structures, pulsing with a tight beat and as antifa as Gritty), Mr. Twin Sister, Salt (the latest from the Long Island group, combines chilled electronics and soulful vocals (with, at times, stylistic amounts of AutoTune), covering a stylistic gamut between drum'n'bass, jazzy R&B à la Sadé, cyborg neo-soul and dub; impeccably smooth), Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Dirt (The Toronto band’s third album manages to be both weightlessly ethereal and ultra-heavy, combining prog-rock intricacy with elements of metal and lovesliescrushing-esque shoegaze), You Drive, You Drive (impeccably cool synthwave pop, with luminous electronics and icily detached female vocals, from Nashville of all places).

As always, there were noteworthy things from previous years I only discovered this year. This year's ones were Cigarettes After Sex (whom I ignored the first time around, partly because their name made them sound like some kind of dumb hipster marketing gimmick, but was blown away by at Primavera; languid, atmospheric songs of contingent love, somewhere between The Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star and Slowdive) and Client Liaison (groovy 80s-style electropop, impeccably executed, with stage presence to match; also discovered at Primavera).

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Montero, Dubstar or Them Are Us Too; it's a tough choice this year.

In any case, there is a Spotify playlist here.

2018 cds lists music 0

Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
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10:49 am
Australia breaks encryption

To the surprise of exactly nobody, Australia’s Labor party agree to pass the mandatory encryption back-door bill, after the usual pantomime of token opposition.

The bill will allow the government to demand technical measures to allow access to encrypted content. The ALP stress that it will include safeguards, ensuring it is only used for matters of national security. It also has provisions preventing it from being used to mandate the introduction of “systematic weaknesses”, the definition of a “systematic weakness” being whatever the Attorney-General and Communications Minister agree it is or isn’t.

Labor’s spokespeople, resplendent in their progressive pragmatism, assure us that there’s no need to worry, that they have exacted strict safeguards as conditions of their support, requiring not one but two cabinet-level ministers to decide what isn’t a systematic weakness, and requiring that technical surveillance capabilities are mandated only for the most serious of cases (i.e., “OMG Paedoterrorists!”-level threats), with the non-terrorist/non-paedophile majority’s privacy assured as always. And perhaps the Australian political process, renowned worldwide as it is for its high calibre, has managed to, in secret committee, produce a perfectly square circle, a magical golden key that can only be wielded against evildoers and is impervious to abuse, misuse or negligence. (Or at least to the standards of the Australian law of “no worries, she’ll be right mate”; i.e., “I’m not a Muslim, a commo, femmo, pinko, greenie, bikie, trade unionist or any other kind of ratbag, or involved a cop’s ex-missus or anything, and neither are most people, therefore there are no possible problems worth thinking about”)

Of course, the much vaunted safeguards apply only to ordering companies to implement back doors; once the back door has been implemented, it’s there for any subsequent use: everybody’s WhatsApp messages, by law, have an escrowed key that ASIO’s computers can use to automatically decrypt and store them. If Australia’s metadata retention regime is anything to go by, the number of agencies with access to this will only grow. Within 12 months, copyright holders will use this to detect and prosecute someone sending an illegally downloaded TV show episode to a friend, or using a VPN to circumvent pirate site blocks; six months later, local councils will be trawling the plaintext of everyone’s iMessage conversations to find litterers and dog-poo violators. The government will, of course, have a much easier time of bringing the hammer down on troublesome journalists seeking to embarrass them, and anybody even considering talking to them. Meanwhile, somewhere in Queensland, a cop will have an easier time getting a hold of his estranged wife and the new man in her life. And a few years later, when mass surveillance of anything held on network-connected electronics is the new normal, some politician or public servant, impressed by the efficacy of China’s social-credit system or a PowerPoint presentation from Palantir, will suggest a system to aggregate everybody’s plaintext and analyse it to find as yet unidentified potential threats, by assigning everybody a “true-blue Aussie score” based on their chats, photos and file backups and making a list of those with suspiciously low ones. (Bonus card: the Russian mafiya quietly crack the ASIO key-escrow system and spend a few months feeding the plaintext of every Australian’s data into their databases, before embarking on a continent-scale automated extortion campaign.)

Meanwhile, the other four members of Five Eyes will be lining up to send their decryption requests through Canberra; sometimes, having a member of your club which is still, for all administrative purposes, a penal colony and military strongpoint of Empire, where there is by definition no right to privacy from Authority, can be useful.

australia authoritarianism labor surveillance 0

Tuesday, October 30th, 2018
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10:13 pm
On leaving London

I am writing this sitting in the empty shell of the loft flat in the liminal zone between Highbury and Stoke Newington that has been my home for the past 7½ years, ending today. In just under an hour, a taxi will come to take me to Heathrow, to my one-way flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. And so, one chapter will end, and another begin.

After 14⅙ years in London, five of them as a British citizen, I have decided to move on; this has been a decision some time in the making. Part of this is a desire to live somewhere else in Europe, not unlike the desire to live somewhere else that brought me to London, though hastened by uncertainty over how long that door shall remain open. Part, I say only half in jest, is a wish to escape the looming Brexit apocalypse. Though it’s mostly for a change: I have some friends in Stockholm, from previous visits, and an opportunity came up to move there.

[Error: Irreparable invalid markup ('<y [...] </p>') in entry. Owner must fix manually. Raw contents below.]

<div CLASS="blogitem"><A NAME="201810302213_on_leaving_londo"></A><P> <p>I am writing this sitting in the empty shell of the loft flat in the liminal zone between Highbury and Stoke Newington that has been my home for the past 7½ years, ending today. In just under an hour, a taxi will come to take me to Heathrow, to my one-way flight to Stockholm Arlanda Airport. And so, one chapter will end, and another begin. </p><p> After 14⅙ years in London, five of them as a British citizen, I have decided to move on; this has been a decision some time in the making. Part of this is a desire to live somewhere else in Europe, not unlike the desire to live somewhere else that brought me to London, though hastened by uncertainty over how long that door shall remain open. Part, I say only half in jest, is a wish to escape the looming Brexit apocalypse. Though it’s mostly for a change: I have some friends in Stockholm, from previous visits, and an opportunity came up to move there. <y having done much the same thing 14 years earlier, it is not unprecedented. </p><p> Most of my worldly possessions are now on a lorry, somewhere on the continent; it's due to arrive in Stockholm tomorrow. I have been living out of a standard-issue Australian backpacker bag in my 25 square metre flat, now curiously empty. </p><p> I remember moving into this flat in February 2011; needing to find a place after a share house in Bethnal Green fell apart, and finding this flat, which was only £50 per month dearer than my room in the house, only realising after moving in that the kebab-shop vent points right at the bedroom windows. The first day, the tiny room ceiling-high with boxes, taking a break from unpacking to have a drink at the Edinburgh Cellars (now just the Cellars), and walking in to hear <a href="http://www.last.fm/music/Visage" class="artist">Visage</a>'s “Fade To Grey”; a portentous sign. </p><p> I won’t miss the tiny size of the flat, or the place being too hot, too cold or both at once, or the random odours of burnt oil/grilling meat/I dare not think what sporadically coming from the kebab shop downstairs through the brickwork, the occasional eye-stinging clouds of air freshener rising through the chimney-like stairwell and welling under the low ceiling of my flat like a neon-pink mustard gas when someone in the shop decides to do something about the nidor, or not being able to open the windows on one side because of the shop vent outside and the viscerally gritty stench of decades of fermented grease in the very air outside; I can tell you that the windows in that room remained sealed shut. </p><p> I will, though, miss the very nice Galician tapas place next to the kebab shop, and sitting outside it on the little piazza in the summer with a book, a beer and a basket of bread. I'll miss the views from my living room window, over the Victorian rooftops of Canonbury, of parts of the London skyline, the skeletons of unfinished luxury apartment towers on the horizon, their red lights like something out of a Simon Stålenhag painting. I will also miss the two cafés within a short bike ride, Mouse & De Lotz and Tina We Salute You, and the people who work there, almost all of them artists or musicians of some sort. And I'll miss being within walking distance of gigs at the Shacklewell or the Dalston Victoria, two former West Indian old-men's pubs colonised by Dalston hipsters and putting on consistently good selections of gigs. </p><p> I’ve gotten to know this city, or at least broad slices of it. The myriad numbered bus routes that link it, the cyclists’ ley lines. Favourite pubs and restaurants; the scenes of memorable events: gigs of various sorts, social engagements, the starts of friendships and relationships. A decade and a half of memories, highs and lows that are an inseparable part of my history, inscribed on the canvas that is London; the ancient, many-faceted city that has belonged to countless millions of people throughout its history, amongst them now myself. And the psychogeography of London—the actual, ineffable London of experience, not the fabled, phantasmagorical London of stories and legends—has, in turn, inscribed itself upon my psyche. </p><p> I first arrived in London for a visit, in 2002; at the time, the idea of Britain was intertwined with the country’s impressive musical heritage (for me, mostly post-punk through to indiepop; the first record I ever bought was a New Order 7", and I passed through Cure and Smiths phases, having settled at the time on MP3s of Sarah Records 7"s victimlessly pirated through SoulSeek). I moved to London two years later (as now, an opportunity came up, then in the form of a relaxation of working-holiday visa rules). Gradually, through living there, I became disabused of most of my romantic, anglophilic notions, settling into it being an actual place and condition of being, and the real place named London slowly displaced the idea of London, molecule by molecule. </p><p> Still, there was, for a long time, a sense of unreality: I am not of London, I thought; I am, like many others here, from somewhere else, and would not be in London forever; in a sense, I was just passing through. I met Londoners (some local, some from elsewhere in the UK), who all had their roots, their social circles, their references and in-jokes; I hovered on the periphery of these charmed circles, making acquaintances, and, more gradually, friends; at first, most were also newcomers, uprooted from elsewhere, but gradually, more Britons joined the mix; in retrospect, I was gradually becoming one of them. </p><p> Melbourne, though, was still my hometown, and if asked where I was from, I would answer without hesitation. I kept my 3RRR subscription to this day (for a while, I had a script on the computer in my room grab the streams of programmes, save them to a hard drive, and then play them back, time-delayed, in the morning, in lieu of an alarm clock; at one point, though, the scripts stopped working, and I didn't fix them, though I still tune in from time to time). There was a heavy Melbourne presence in my music collection (though with a leaning to bands I had known before 2004; the more recent “dolewave” indie-rock subgenre passed me by). And it was a joy to meet those from the same milieu and compare notes about the world behind.* </p><p> For a while, London, this city impossibly rich with history and myth, was just my present circumstance, one whose surreality I gradually got used to and stopped noticing. Only now, having spent the past week or so saying goodbye to this city, walking the streets of Stoke Newington, acutely aware that soon it would be just another place somewhere else, did the reality sink of London as a former home I might miss, a place of which nostalgic memories might spontaneously bubble up. That as well as a displaced Melburnian, I would also be, to some degree, a displaced Londoner. </p><p> <small>* At this point, you may be wondering what sort of accent I speak with. While my accent was never broadly “Australian” in the manner of, say, Crocodile Dundee, and a mild Australian accent is not that different from a mild Estuary English accent, I am told that I do sound more British; on my last visit to Melbourne, an elderly family friend remarked that “you sound like a pom”. However, people in Britain sometimes notice a telltale hint of an Australian accent in my speech.</small> </P><p class="blogitemfoot"><span class="sources"></span><span class="permalink"> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/archive/2018/10/30#2213_on_leaving_londo" title="On leaving London">&para;</a> <span class="tags"><a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/tags/london">london</a> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/tags/personal">personal</a> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/tags/travel">travel</a></span> <a href="http://dev.null.org/blog/item/201810302213_on_leaving_londo" target="_blank" title="read/post comments about this post" class="comment" id="itemlink_201810302213_on_leaving_londo">1</a> </span> </p></div>
Friday, August 31st, 2018
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11:33 pm
No mateship for Manning

The Australian government has denied a visa to US whistleblower Chelsea Manning, who was due to speak at the Sydney Opera House, on grounds of character. Civil libertarian groups are, of course, lobbying strenuously for this decision to be reversed, though, inevitably, their pleas will fall on deaf ears. Indeed, there never was a prospect of Manning being allowed into Australia, and anybody who thinks that she might have been does not understand Australia.

Fundamentally, Australia is neither a US-style republic nor a European liberal democracy. Instead, it is the outgrowth of a set of penal colonies and military outposts of a maritime empire, founded on administrative doctrines of such. Its system is not a classically liberal social contract, nor a pretence towards a modern take on the Athenian agora, but books of rules drafted in an office off Pall Mall in London for the maintenance of discipline and smooth running of such a far-flung and potentially fractious enterprise. The colonies were eventually amalgamated into a federal nation, with responsibilities devolved, in due time, from London, and decorated with the trappings of 20th-century liberal democracy, but tradition is a hardy thing, and in many cases, the modern, liberal Australia only goes so deep. Australia, for example, has no equivalent of the US Bill of Rights or the EU Convention on Human Rights; the only formal right that Australians have is that of not having a specific denomination of Christianity imposed as an established state church.

Of course, Australia is not North Korea or even China; informally, there is a generous, if conditional, system, known as the law of Mateship. If you fall under the aegis of Mateship, while you have no formal, official rights enshrined in statutes, you can have faith that the all-powerful authorities will generaly let you be, unless you're seen as some kind of ratbag. How much of a ratbag you have to be to incur the unfriendly attention of the authorities depends on a lot of things, including your skin colour, sex, ethnicity, and whether you fall into any categories of potential troublemakers (which, these days, include Muslims, those easily mistaken for Muslims, brown people in general and transgressors against gender norms). Hence a straight white bloke can, in many cases, get away with all sorts of mischief up to and including advocating (though, of course, not actually carrying out) Communist revolution, whereas if you're, for example, a brown-skinned Muslim, merely having and expressing opinions crosses the line. (A straight white sheila, meanwhile, has most of the privileges of a straight white bloke, unless she complains about sexist banter or becomes Prime Minister or something.) The flipside of the doctrine of Mateship is a ritualised, performative anti-authoritarianism: Australia celebrates outlaw folk heroes from Ned Kelly to Chopper Read (though only if they embody a sort of rough-hewn, stoic masculinity), and, when the time came to replace God Save The Queen as national anthem, came close to choosing a ballad about a sheep thief.

The Law of Mateship is a sort of Australian parallel of Scandinavia's Law of Jante: informal, not actually codified anywhere, and yet of powerful importance, its spirit moving through the society's formal structures, animating its discretionary decisions. Essentially, Mateship is a border; it divides “People Like Us”, who are party to its social contract and entitled to its boons, and the rest of the world, and once you're inside the border, you're in. A recent example is the case of Boofhead, a filthy, rancidly smelly dog whose owner was denied the right to bring it with him into a RSL club; a judge ruled that the club had unlawfully discriminated, and awarded $16,000 in damages. It's tempting to wonder whether a dog by any other name would have been considered in equally good odour by the law, or whether Boofhead's stereotypically Aussie name swung it, but the judge's decision, though not phrased in these words, states clearly that Boofhead is a Mate, and entitled to the protection of the customary rules of Mateship. One of the implications of this is that he has vastly more rights than, say, the asylum seekers on Nauru, imprisoned in the darkness outside of Mateship's border. (Which suggests that perhaps one activist tactic to help these refugees may be to give them quintessentially Aussie nicknames, such as Davo, Shazza and Chook.)

In any case, Chelsea Manning falls outside the boundaries of Mateship sufficiently to be banned from the country under its strict security regime, for two reasons, one official and one unofficial. Officially, Manning is still a convicted criminal against her country, albeit one whose sentence was commuted by Presidential discretion. (She has announced an intention to appeal her conviction, though it has not, to date, been overturned.) Australia has a long-running conservative government, and one which has recently jettisoned an ineffectual centrist leader and lurched further rightward, giving it a simpatico with the Trump administration, not in spite of its sublime awfulness but because of it. Though while this counts as a factor in the decision, it is probably not the deciding factor; I'm not sure that, for example, a Gillard Labor government would have decided otherwise; or, indeed, that any government other than the Whitlam administration would have let Manning in. Informally, Manning being transgender probably does not help her case in a country where the old, rough-and-ready norms of Australian masculinity are digging in for a long siege and attaching themselves to the Murdochian right-wing culture war whose paroxysms often pass for civic discourse, thus being the Wrong Kind Of Ratbag to be privy to Australia's performative anti-authoritarianism.

australia chelsea manning culture mateship 1

Friday, August 10th, 2018
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12:37 am
Long to hang over us

It recently emerged that one of the obligations Australia's parliamentarians have is to provide their constitutents with portraits of the Queen, for free, on request. The portraits (which also include those of her consort, Prince Phillip, though not of any of the more fashionable young royals), along with flags and recordings of the National Anthem, are classified as “nationhood material”, vital for instilling a sense of national consciousness, and are thus included in the budget and obligations of the people's federal representatives for this very purpose. Which, one could imagine, may have made sense historically: in a far-flung outpost of the Empire, awash with rum and the threat of convict rebellion still in living memory, communal loyalty to the distant Crown would have needed all the reinforcement it could get, damn the expense. Either that or this was a piece of Howard/Abbott-era culture-war red meat, to stick it to the inner-city trendy-lefties who'd rather fritter money away on saving wildlife or helping the poor or something. But no: the rule in question dates back to 1990, the height of the Hawke/Keating era, possibly the least likely period in Australian history to produce such a rule.

The rule in question is unique to Australia, at least in the former British Empire. Constituents in the UK may request portraits of Her Royal Highness, but they have to pay for them. In Canada, meanwhile, the government makes the portraits available for download, allowing monarchistically-inclined Canadians to have them printed by the provider of their choice. Elsewhere in the Commonwealth, you're on your own.

The revelation of this peculiar rule, in an article in VICE, leading to a flurry of requests to MPs for the monarchic merch. Of course, not everybody is happy with this: some point out that the time and money the MPs and their staffers spend servicing these requests is taken away from more serious duties they would otherwise be performing. Other MPs have been putting a pamphlet from the Australian Republican Movement with each portrait sent.

This rule does raise many questions; among them:

  1. Is there a limit to the number of portraits of the Queen a constituent may request?
  2. Once they are sent, do they become the constituent's property, or do they remain property of the Crown, the Commonwealth of Australia, or some other agency?
  3. Does Australia have any laws restricting what one can do with portraits of the monarch that one owns? Would it be legal, for example, to paint a L.H.O.O.Q.-style moustache on one, or to use it in a mixed-media art piece, mutilating it in the process, or to use it as cavity insulation or a budgie cage liner, or to hang it insalubriously in the backyard dunny, rather than giving it a honoured spot above one's hearth?

(My best guess for the last one, given the chaotic strange attractor that is Australia's larrikin/authoritarian dynamic—in lieu of any kind of bill of rights there is essentially an unspoken gentleman's agreement, while national icons include Ned Kelly and Chopper Read, and a ballad about a livestock thief almost became the national anthem—would be “it's probably technically illegal, but you won't be prosecuted unless the authorities conclude that the average bloke would consider you to be a “ratbag”.”)

australia larrikinism law monarchy queen elizabeth ii 0

Sunday, July 8th, 2018
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12:37 pm
Brexit, Trump and one world cup

So yesterday, England beat Sweden in the world cup, securing their first place in a final in decades, and setting off riotous celebrations. Some football fans, filled with the euphoria of the moment, trashed an IKEA in London, terrorising staff and customers. Others just blocked off streets and jumped on trapped cars.

It’s tempting to see this match, and its aftermath, as the latest flare-up of the Second English Civil War, this time not between the Cavaliers and Roundheads but the Gammons and Snowflakes, and on a broader scale, a Right-vs.-Left grudge match of two fundamentally different world-views of our time. On one hand, England: the bad-boy buccaneers of Brexitland. On the other hand, Sweden, the very symbolic epitome of European liberalism as most unacceptable to the Gammon majority who see themselves as custodians of England’s values, not to mention their fellow travellers in red-state, red-cap America. England may hate the Germans the most, and have hated the French for the longest, but the Swedes are the most egregiously antithetical to the harsh, robust values of the contemporary middle-England whose voice is the Daily Mail. Everything that paper rails against—gender-neutral parenting, multiculturalism, human rights, high taxes spent on the unworthy—is supposedly rampant in Sweden, and if you listen to right-wing older relatives, you will learn that the country is a bankrupt wasteland (due to the inevitable consequences of socialism) and/or an ISIS rape camp.

Sweden is lagom, everything in moderation, with a residual Jante Law stigma against putting oneself above others giving rise to an innate egalitarian tendency. In English, however, it is said that equality is the opposite of quality. We revel in excess. We’re a meritocracy of luxury flats, kept empty as investment units, towering over streets full of hungry, undeserving tramps; a land of teachers and nurses share-housing well into their 40s, and buy-to-let landlords building their well-earned empires, unmolested by redistributive taxation. We’re a nation of hard-working taxpayers who’ve had a gutful of uppity minorities asking to be treated with unearned respect. We're Terry Gilliam jealous of the privileges of imaginary black lesbians, and Morrissey spouting off about Those People. In England, a hedge-fund manager is literally worth thousands of paramedics. And where Sweden believes in universal human rights, inalienable dignity every person is, by definition, entitled to, England, however, divides humans into two camps: “deserving” and “scum”, with the latter to be treated punitively lest they get ideas above their station.

All over the streets outside pubs, mobs of men with St. George flags celebrate jubilantly, blocking traffic and chicken-dancing on the roofs of trapped cars; it's a big boffo day out, like everyone's best mate's stag do. The police come some twenty minutes later and move them on, in their own good time; they’re good lads, just a little overexcited. Hours later, and packs of blokes walk the streets, bellowing out ugly chants about German bombers. We are England, they seem to chant: the English, the English-speaking world, riding the ascending surge of the age. Donald Trump, the commander-in-chief of the English-speaking peoples, is ultimately our leader. Boris Johnson is our shit Churchill for this shit age. Human rights, social justice, Political Correctness, Cultural Marxism, the Frogs and Krauts and all their vino-drinking, garlic-eating chums, all lie vanquished under our boots. And we’re just getting started.

The word on the street here is that the Cup is coming home: home being, of course, England. This is, of course, wishful thinking, but at this stage, it is more plausible than at any recent time. Meanwhile, outside of football, Britain struggles with the consequences of a decision to leave the EU, that has been doubled down upon repeatedly even as it began to look increasingly dubious: Parliament was whipped to irreversibly tear the brakes out of the moving car and throw them out the window. Now, as funding irregularities and connections with Russian government officials emerge, some are talking about the inevitability of a second referendum. If Britain does look like winning the World Cup, perhaps we can expect to see Westminster do a rapid volte-face, approving a second referendum and rushing it through to happen within 24 hours of the victory celebration, in the hope that a groundswell of triumphalism will translate to an increased Leave majority. And in his room deep underneath the Kremlin, the chaos-magus Aleksandr Dugin watches with a smile, knowing that everything is falling into place exactly to plan.

Brexit, Trump and one world cup, all under the watchful eyes of the Kremlin.

brexit culture england football football hooliganism nationalism rightwingers sweden 1

Saturday, May 26th, 2018
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3:55 pm
Banjaxing the Eighth

Yesterday, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum on repealing its near-total ban on abortion. The referendum had been many years in planning: other similar referenda had failed in the past, and most infamously, one in 1983 had enshrined, in the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, the rights of a fertilised embryo as being equal to its mother. There was, of course, a lot of discontentment with such an illiberal state of affairs, but the death in 2012 of Savita Halappanava, a 31-year-old woman who died in agony after being denied an abortion even when her pregnancy was no longer viable, was probably what gave this push its momentum. A referendum was announced, and the campaigns started in earnest. Ireland does not allow absentee voting (otherwise its huge diaspora might sway domestic affairs from abroad), so Irish citizens from as far as Australia and Argentina made their ways back to vote. Religious-Right groups in the US sent shiny-faced volunteers with 100-watt smiles to push the No vote. Google and Facebook clamped down on Cambridge Analytica-style targeted ads, with varying reports of effectiveness.

In the run-up to the vote, all the signs pointed to a victory for the Yes campaign, to end the abortion ban. Though, as the vote loomed, the polls tightened, with some suggesting a narrow victory for Yes, with a large number of undecided voters holding sway. There was talk of large numbers of “shy Nos”, people who believed the abortion of fertilised embryos to be murder but not wishing to state this out loud and be seen as reactionary barbarians. Some said that a surprise No triumph would be Ireland's equivalent of Brexit or Trump, a chance for a silent majority of conservative left-behinds to flip the table and savour the tears of the metropolitan-liberal-elites who, until then, had believed themselves to be presiding over inevitable progress. And, of course, the possibility of the vote being swayed by the reactionary international's dark arts: ghost funding making a mockery of electoral laws, psychographically targeted ads, supposedly autonomous campaigns coördinated with military precision. Would change come, or would it be deferred for another generation? And even if Yes scraped through a narrow victory, that would give conservative legislators the cover to nobble the resulting legislation to the point of ineffectuality.

It turned out one need not have worried: the Yes case has been carried by roughly a ⅔ majority. The first exit poll gave Yes 68% of the vote; the count, with 29 of 40 constituencies declared is within a narrow margin of this. No has conceded the referendum (though of course not the divinely-mandated principle behind their position), and it looks like the 8th amendment will be repealed and laws governing the provision of abortion services, along similar criteria to elsewhere in Europe, will be passed.

(Someone I know once jested, “I'm Irish. I can do anything—except have an abortion.” It looks like she will now have to retire that line.)

This is a major shift, or rather, a sign of a major shift that had been happening for some time now. Ireland having emphatically legalised same-sex marriage a few years ago was another sign of this. The Irish republic that arose after independence, when Catholic nationalists consolidated their power—a dour, authoritarian, priest-ridden backwater, a country that condemned its unmarried mothers to penal institutions, and in which the all-powerful church vetoed the formation of a British-style national health service because secular institutions alleviating the people's misery sounded like Communism—has not existed for some time, replaced by a modern, secular nation, and only now is the extent of the transformation becoming undeniably apparent. And if there were any shy voters, it was not the mythical Silent Majority of reactionary conservatives hankering for the certainties of the good old days, but those remembering all the suffering and misery imposed by laws that have stripped women of autonomy over their bodies, many only realising after the vote that they were in the majority, not just in the entirety of Ireland but even in their own, supposedly conservative, rural province. (And the disappearance of the expected strong rural No vote, counterbalancing liberal Dublin and Cork and pushing the result to a cliffhanger, is one of the stories of the day; while final results are not in yet, exit polls have No with a majority—and a slender one—in only one of the 40 constituencies.) One big take-away may be that the myth we have been conditioned to accept, of the silent majority of public opinion inevitably being viciously reactionary, is, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit.

The immediate consequences—Ireland's infamously restrictive abortion laws being brought into line with the liberal secular world—are fairly straightforward. What remains to be seen are the secondary effects. The most obvious one will be pressure on Northern Ireland's own draconian abortion laws. Northern Ireland, whilst a province of the UK, is run as a hard-line Protestant sectarian state, established out of fear of the hard-line Catholic sectarian state across the border. Now that that state visibly no longer exists, it will be harder to maintain it as a special case increasingly divergent from both the Republic and the rest of the UK. The evaporating power of Catholic sectarianism in the Republic may also make the formerly unthinkable—reunification—less so (especially when the alternative, reconciling Hard Brexit with the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be logically impossible). Whether the result carries beyond Ireland is another question: they're talking about legalising abortion in New South Wales now. And while a No victory would have emboldened anti-abortion activists in other countries, it's not clear whether Ireland having voted Yes will have much impact in, say, Poland or Hungary, where proudly illiberal Catholic hypernationalism is on the march.

Beyond reproductive rights, the result may be another milestone on a trading of places, culturally and economically, between Ireland and England. As Britain (though, in reality, largely England-minus-London), led by its xenophobic tabloids, voted to cut itself off from Europe, to expel foreigners and become less liberal, both individuals and businesses have been scoping out locations abroad. (You can't find office space for love or money in Frankfurt these days, and Berlin's gentrification has been accelerated by a flood of Brefugees with MacBooks.) Ireland has been cited by many as a more open alternative to the UK, though there has been a perception that it is both smaller and more parochial. The Irish electorate's recent decisions are likely to put paid to the second objection: the first may last a little longer, but if one remembers what low esteem, say, dining in Britain was held in a few decades ago, or the sleepy, bureaucracy-ridden nature of doing business there, it may not take long for Dublin to displace London altogether.

abortion catholic culture europe ireland politics 0

Sunday, May 13th, 2018
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1:09 am
Eurovision 2018

Well, that's Eurovision for another year. Israel ended up winning, with a studiedly kooky yet impeccably produced electro-pop number, involving dollops of Björkisms, kawaii and chicken impressions. Which was probably more interesting than the two runners-up: Cyprus with a track that was a certain variety of Eurovision by numbers, and Sweden with a handsome young man doing a mildly funky, highly polished though otherwise unexceptional number. (Sweden finished 2nd in the jury choice and 7th in the overall; a result good enough to preserve the reputation of its Eurovision-song industry and keep the hit factories of Stockholm busy on half of Eurasia's contenders for 2019.) Australia's entry, a competent club-pop ballad by Jessica Mauboy, finished in the middle of the bottom half of the final result, though made it into the top half of the jury results; for some reason, getting 1/10 of the votes from the public that they got from the jury. (Presumably there aren't enough Aussie backpackers around EBU countries these days, and the antipodean nation doesn't fit into any European voting blocs.) The UK entered what appeared to be an early, not entirely successful, experiment at cloning Annie Lennox. They did, well, typically, ending up third from last. (I was half hoping, very much against hope, that they'd win, the population of Europe deciding, with exquisite irony, to saddle Brexitland with having to host a celebration of pan-European unity. It seems that Europe has better things to worry about than the quasi-tourettic tantrums of some objectionable self-exiled strangers on an island in the Atlantic. Toodle-pip, Britain, and don't let the door hit you on the way out.)

The UK's entry was, once again, cited as a return to form, as Britain flexing its formidable pop muscles and fielding an entry so strong that they may just be in with a chance of (whisper it) winning. And while the entry, SuRie, was indeed qualitatively better than some of the cringeworthy contenders it fielded over the preceding decade or two (the middle-aged white gangsta rapper, the singing flight attendants, Jemini and so on), it looked half-baked next to Australia's entry, which predictably left the UK in the dust. Perhaps it's the contrast in attitudes: while generations of Australians have grown up having the annual Eurovision party (always a good excuse for a drink with mates), the UK still is hamstrung by the sniffy disdain it has for those silly foreigners on the other side of the channel, and a sense of reluctance to lower itself to their level; it was always there, though went septic around the time of Tony Blair's bromance with George W. Bush, and has never entirely receded.

(The UK's entry was made slightly more exciting when some bloke with writing on his T-shirt ran onto the stage and grabbed the microphone for a moment. It is not entirely clear what his issue was: was he het up about chemtrails or Cultural Marxism or something? Did he have strong opinions about something like the Irish abortion referendum? Or was he perhaps a fanatical Bitcoiner striking a blow against fiat currency, or possibly one of those “incels”? I guess we may never know the truth.)

Other entries of note: Finland named its song “Monsters”, which given that, unlike its 2006 entry, it was not a heavy-metal number performed in monster costumes but rather respectably ordinary Eurovision electropop, was writing a cheque it had little hope of cashing. Hungary did have a heavy-metal band, with pyrotechnics and all, who looked about 14. Denmark's entry was Viking-themed, though was more a minor-key AOR ballad than hard rock. Moldova's entry was a cheeky sex-farce mimed around a set of doors and windows; think Benny Hill with Balkan beats. The Czech Republic did a sort of new-jack funk-rap thing, only stylised as nerdy/quirky, and thus less bland than Sweden's entry; the phrase “Czechia self before you wrechia self” did come to mind. And Ukraine fulfilled the Eurovision Goth quota, with a disco Dracula waking from inside a grand piano, and playing as the flames rose around him.

So Eurovision will be in Israel next year; presumably in Tel Aviv. Which means, among other things, that it's quite likely that Dana International will be one of the hosts. Presumably Britain will still be competing, the BBC paying enough into the EBU to retain its guaranteed contender slot regardless of the quality of its entry.

eurovision 1

Thursday, March 22nd, 2018
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1:00 am
The system works as it was designed to

So, the Cambridge Analytica revelations: The broader outline (shadowy company, owned by right-wing billionaires and possibly connected to Russian intelligence interests, uses big data, psychological algorithms and targeted ads to fix elections, including the 2016 US Presidential one and the Brexit referendum) had started trickling out since late 2016. They would have remained an ominous undercurrent, known of by the vanquished liberal minority and embellished with layers of speculation, conspiracy theory and fatalistic gallows humour, were it not for a former operative spilling the beans, revealing further details. Details such as that that the data went beyond the usual broad-brush correlations between brand likes one thinks of when considering ad targeting and went into alarmingly intimate data aggregated from sources including Facebook private messages and credit profiles; and that, while the data was taken from Facebook by deception (under the claim that it was to be used for academic purposes; naming one’s company “Cambridge Analytica” can yield dividends, it seems), Facebook did not try particularly hard to enforce the terms of use ostensibly protecting its users (and, it seems, democracy and civil society themselves).

The elephant in the room, of course, is Facebook and its business model, which has been described, aptly, as “surveillance capitalism”. Facebook does not charge for its services, and funds itself through a modest amount of ads. What it does, however, is build up elaborate profiles of its users, sucking up their every online interaction it can to extend them. Where likes, posts, messages and location data don't suffice, it supplements with data from data brokers, gathered from credit ratings, things such as loyalty card programmes, and public-domain data. This yields a vast amount of data, which, when processed with sufficient computing power, can reveal a lot about users: in their less circumspect moments, Facebook's data scientists have revealed that they can tell a lot of things on an individual from their data trail, from political leanings to sexual orientation, to how likely their current relationship is to end; what other things they can determine about an individual given that data is an open question. What is not disputed, though, is that Facebook's very business model depends on using this data to target advertising, and their acuity in doing so to make revenue. In short, everything Cambridge Analytica allegedly did with their haul of illicitly obtained data, Facebook can do, continuously and at far greater scale.

This has not escaped notice, and the backlash has hit Facebook, not helped by Mark Zuckerberg's protracted silence on the matter. The hashtag #DeleteFacebook is trending on Twitter, urging users to nuke their Facebook accounts, and giving instructions on how to actually force Facebook to delete their data permanently, rather than just flagging it as temporarily inactive; the latest to add their name to the chorus is one of the founders of WhatsApp, a messaging system now owned by Facebook. Of course, that is easier said than done.

In some ways, it is easy: the instructions are easy to follow, and involve clicking through a few screens, entering the text in a CAPTCHA and watching one's digital life and/or surveillance dossier go up in virtual flames. What comes after is the hard part. Facebook have worked hard to own the social graph, and to make it difficult to take your friends with you when you leave. (The timeline you see on Facebook is, famously, not a chronological firehose of all your Facebook friends' posts, but a selection of a small proportion of those, chosen by the same all-knowing algorithms that know which ads to show you. It is said—though is, of course, difficult to verify—that those algorithms specifically score posts giving or requesting means of contact outside of Facebook down.) Or course, downloading a list of one's friends' names and email addresses/phone numbers is a nonstarter from the outset, ostensibly for reasons of privacy, so one's only bet is to individually contact the friends one wants to keep, one by one, to exchange details, resigning oneself to losing contact with the rest.

Other than owning the social graph, Facebook have managed to become the hub of socialisation in the 2010s by reducing friction. It is a lot easier to create a Facebook event for, say, a birthday party or an excursion to see a film, than to individually invite people to add the event to their calendars, and conversely socialising without Facebook has been consigned to the realm of Victorian-era calling cards. It is possible to socialise deliberately, with a few close friends one has in one's address book, but this does not scale. Social software such as Facebook has genuinely reduced friction and saved time, allowing people to keep in minimal touch with people they are peripherally connected to, and also reducing the time required to keep in touch with other, less peripheral, friends; the hectic pace of modern life has filled the time thus freed up. Thus, most people have no more time for phoning/texting/emailing non-core friends, who all are on Fscebook anyway, than they do for composing a multi-paragraph blog post which nobody will probably read. The sad reality of the 21st-century human condition is that Mark Zuckerberg owns the space between us, and leaving Facebook (and Instagram and WhatsApp) is, in many ways, to retreat from modern society; a radical, deliberate act, equal parts Ted Kaczynski and Into The Wild.

Perhaps this will change; perhaps Facebook will end up going the way of former unassailable titans such as MySpace, and be replaced by something else. If that something else is run by another venture-capital-funded surveillance-marketing organisation, the situation will not improve. (Facebook itself, at the start, seemed like a much cleaner and less spammy/scammy operation than MySpace.) There are glimmers of hope in the decentralised sphere, where developers are creating open, decentralised alternatives to corporate-owned monolithic silos. One example is Mastodon, a Twitter-like microblogging system. One thing those services don't currently have, though, outside of mass adoption, is granular privacy settings: it is not possible yet to make non-public posts to one, or to filter posts by group. Once this is implemented, in a way that works robustly across instances, and presumably uses cryptography, there might be a system ready to step into the gap when Facebook stumbles that is not inherently predatory on a structural level.

For now, however, those who are not willing to brave the wilderness are more or less stuck with Facebook; however, it is possible to reduce your profile, by reducing the amount of personal data one posts to it, and removing it from one's mobile devices (or, if not possible, revoking the app's permissions to access things like location information). I would add to this list: not logging into Facebook from one's main web browser, keeping a separate browser with separate cookies for using it, ideally running in a separate virtual machine.

cambridge analytica facebook postdemocracy privacy surveillance 0

Sunday, December 31st, 2017
LJ.Rossia.org makes no claim to the content supplied through this journal account. Articles are retrieved via a public feed supplied by the site for this purpose.
1:25 pm
Records of 2017

2017 is almost over, and so, here are my records of the year:

  • Alvvays - Antisocialites (BandCamp)

    The Canadian indiepop band's follow-up to their self-titled album turns up the polish, sounding in places a bit like a bolder, more expansive Camera Obscura. Weighing in at a slender 32 minutes, with 10 songs, Antisocialites brings catchy melodies and even catchier choruses, jangly guitars, driving riffs, the odd keyboard pad, and upbeat anthems seasoned with tasteful amounts of alienation and angst. Highlights include the jangle-tastic twee-pop-night floor-filler Plimsoll Punks, the gorgeously shimmering, almost My Favorite-esque melancholia of Dreams Tonite and the epic closing track, Forget About Life (hint: if someone gives you a mix tape ending with this, they almost certainly fancy you).

  • LCD Soundsystem - American Dream

    The surprise comeback from a band that came to both epitomise a certain strain of New York hipsterdom and dissect it, laying bare its contradictions; returning a mere handful of years after their definitely-final farewell gig in Madison Square Gardens. Was it the wisdom of David Bowie, with whom James Murphy worked briefly on ★, that made him change his mind? Was it all a cynical marketing gimmick, or perhaps even a meta-art project toying with the concept of “selling out”? In any case, it doesn't matter, as the record is as strong as anything LCD have done before.

    There are a number of standout tracks here: Call The Police is a driving 7-minute party groove with more than a passing resemblance to All Your Friends; How Do You Sleep?, a wrathful indictment of a former associate (widely believed to be ex-DFA partner Andrew Weatherall), builds up through five minutes of pounding drums and sparse synthesisers, before exploding into the usual LCD groove juggernaut. And then there's the title track, which broaches James Murphy's trademark subject, the plight of the aging scenester. This time, this takes the form of a midlife existential crisis, narrated in the second person, equal parts sympathy and mockery; the subject, one gets the impression, is an aging American Nathan Barley, in toxic, chronic denial about pretty much everything, not least of all being well over halfway into his metamorphosis into a bum from a Charles Bukowski novel. The track is just over six minutes long, and its synthesised rock'n'roll ballad stylings and crescendos give it a mock-heroic pathos that is just perfect. The album ends on a personal note with the 12-minute Black Screen, where Murphy lets his guard down and addresses his late hero, mentor and eventual friend David Bowie (“you fell between a friend and a father”). A welcome return.

  • Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now (BandCamp)

    The long-awaited follow-up to 2012's I Know What Love Isn't is an upbeat record. Jens has been getting more deeply into the production of his tracks, and is now at the culmination of his journey from indie-pop minimalism to a sort of cut-and-paste baroque, applying the playfulness that goes into his wordplay and storytelling to stacking up beats, loops and samples, and you can tell that he's having fun. As well as the big disco buildups he loves (What's That Perfume You Wear?, because the cure for a broken heart is to get down on the dance floor like nothing else matters, and the epic How We Met, The Long Version, equal parts funk and romantic whimsy), Wedding In Finistère ruminates on the passing of life milestones over a South African township-style groove, and the opening track sets up a theme, knowing one's life's calling, with an anecdote about a Mormon missionary and the death of Princess Diana recounted over some Wham!-doing-Motown grooves, built up and playfully stripped back as he breaks the fourth wall. Lekman, it seems, is as much a postmodernist as he is a romantic. Thematically, though, he has moved beyond his usual comfort zone of romantic love and its absence; two of the songs on this album confront that timely theme, the toxicity in masculinity, or in particular, the way its rules cut those subject to them off from meaningfully connecting with one another.

  • Loney Dear - Loney Dear

    Swedish melancholist Emil Svanängen made a name for himself as Loney Dear, a purveyor of romantic (in a Sorrows of Young Werther sense), and sometimes enigmatic, chamber-pop; intricate miniature sonic dioramas of longing and inner anguish. His new album, the first since 2011's Hall Music, sees him move further away from the woodsily acoustic sound of his earlier work and dive deeply into electronic sounds; which is not as great a change as one might imagine, as he has always had a thing for intricate arrangements with multiple parts coming together. It opens with a flight into darkness in the frantic, minor-key Pun, its unusual time signature, descending basslines and chorus of disparate elements sounding almost Radioheadesque. The third track, Hulls, is a ballad about fraught, complex relations, driven by fraught, complex minor-key harmonies; it begins with a muted one-handed synthesiser line and Emil's plaintive vocals, and, as is often the case, soars to a crescendo for that brief moment when the narrator's inner demons are in harmony with the celestial spheres. It is followed by Sum, which combines layers of pulsing electronics and shuffling beats with enveloping harmonies like the Pet Shop Boys at their most classicalesque. Isn't It You? is another high point, a simple but lovely miniature of pure, ill-omened longing, like the most hopeful point in a tragic opera. The album ends on an upbeat note with the splendidly titled There Are Several Alberts Here, which sounds probably not unlike what you'd get if someone commissioned Sigur Rós to write a love song.

  • Briana Marela - Call It Love (BandCamp)

    Marela's follow-up to her 2015 album All Around Us is a more expansive, ambitious and complex affair. Warmly intimate, melodic pop songs about the permutations of friendship, love and their absence, built up from layer upon layer of processed vocals, subtle beats, programmed basslines and the odd bit of live drums. Most of the work is done by Marela's voice, passing through various layers of effects, loops and digital artifice, carrying melodies and harmonies and the odd instrumental accents, complemented by the odd subbass synthesizer or crisp drum machine loop. Marela explores the liminal spaces between intimacy and artifice, and has made a particular space—layered, textured, at once warm and pulsatingly luminous, ethereal and immediate, technological and human. Highlights would include the opening track, Be In Love, which arrives in a waterfall of synth arpeggios and vocal harmonies and then erupts into a groove driven by live drums and synth bass, and the title track, a driving, major-key M83-esque electropop number spontaneously forming from the haze of granular sound particles. Recommended to anyone who wished that Holly Herndon wrote pop songs, wondered what The Softies would have been like as a 2010s electronic project or misses Sally Seltmann's New Buffalo recordings. (Not recommended, though, if you're allergic to reverb.)

  • Milk Teddy - Time Catches Up With Milk Teddy (BandCamp)

    Five years on from their debut, Zingers Melbourne's Milk Teddy have honed their craft further and delivered a shimmering mirage of slightly off-kilter perfect pop. The opening track, New York Rhapsody, kicks off with chiming guitar chords evocative of The Sea Urchins' Pristine Christine and chorused vocals recounting subjective snapshots of the narrator's travels; by the time this has faded into Rock'n'Roll Cretin, a short, melodious slice of vintage radio pop, which, two minutes later, fades out through a recording of an Australian-accented radio announcer talking, for some reason, about pasta, to a surf-guitar instrumental, you get the feeling that you've slipped into a parallel world of indiepop, a widescreen, technicolor dreamscape, melodious and with a hyperreal vividness, displaced in time by some unknown and possibly unquantifiable amount from the flattened languor of Melbourne's recent crop of “dolewave” indie. Other highlights include Gothic Skyline, with its FM keyboard accents and FM-radio polish, the pop romanticism of Iron Rose and the impeccably named closer, Too Young To Vote Too Old To Cry, with its echoes of The Beach Boys. Not sure if this is as good as guitar pop gets, but, in any case, it has to be pretty close.

  • Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me (BandCamp)

    A chronicle of mourning; recorded by Phil Elverum in the room in which his wife, Genevieve Castrée (a musician and songwriter in her own right, who recorded as Ô Paon), died of cancer, and recounting, plainly, the many sad milestones as someone close passes away, the moments shared falling further into the past. Neither affected nor embellished, nonetheless, this is the heaviest thing one is likely to hear; infinitely heavier than a thousand corpsepainted Norwegians cookie-monstering about sodomitic necromutilation and such. Forget all the posturing darklings, this is death, and loss, and abject human anguish at its most primal and inevitable. There is no comfort or closure here.

  • My Sad Captains - Sun Bridge (BandCamp)

    London's My Sad Captains have recorded three albums, finding a middle road between languid, sun-dappled Americana and gently propulsive krautrock. Their fourth sees them change tack slightly, opening with a synthesizer instrumental reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Not to worry: the guitars, unhurried vocals and gently motorik percussion come back in the next track. The rest of the album goes on from there; layered, languid, enveloping and mildly psychedelic in places, with the odd synth pad or bubbling arpeggio fitting organically into their sound. A welcome return, and a promising change of heading.

  • Ride - Weather Diaries (BandCamp)

    Thames Valley shoegaze bands' comeback albums seem to be like buses: you wait for ages for one, and then two show up at once. Compared to their peers in what became the shoegaze scene, Ride's sound was always relatively clean and free of the usual reverb/delay. Consequently, 20 years on, their sound stands somewhat apart from the genre, and a listener unaware of their pedigree would probably not classify them alongside the likes of Pinkshinyultrablast, perhaps filing them under the catch-all of “psych”. For their comeback album, they recruited by Erol Alkan, the studio alchemist best known for transmuting scraggly indie-rock into something functionally equivalent on the dance floor to house music. The result is a sound that's tough and sculpted, with a clarity and solidity to it; there is some reverb and delay, but it is kept under control. Guitars, with varying degrees of fuzz (though no washes of delay) dominate, though chorused vocals, analogue synths and even the odd clunky drum machine, emerge in places. This is an expansive album, with a good amount of depth.

  • Slowdive - Slowdive (BandCamp)

    When the newly reunited Slowdive announced, in 2014, their intention to record a new album, there were doubts. How would a new album stand up next to, say, Souvlaki or the early EPs? The risk of it being an inessential appendix to the real Slowdive records of the 1990s was a real one. Fortunately, this did not happen; in fact, it's safe to say that they've hit this one out of the park. The new album, confidently self-titled, (mostly) does not radically depart from the style of their first act, but builds on it and achieves the rare feat of surpassing it and establishing Slowdive's reputation anew. The opener, Slomo, picks up where Pygmalion would have left off had most of the band not left, drifting in like a mist from the sea on a wash of processed guitars and vocals. Almost seven minutes later, it eases into Star Roving, which with its choppy guitars and driving percussion sounds like something off the legendary early EPs only more refined. Star Roving was the first single, establishing that Slowdive were back and in classic form. The second single, Sugar For The Pill, opens with a ringing five-note motif; by the time it reaches the chorus, with its synth pads and Neil and Rachel's vocal harmonies, it's as if they've reinvented 1970s soft rock via shoegaze. But it's the tracks in between that stand out for me: Don't Know Why and Everyone Knows, with Rachel's voice soaring over the harmonious maelstrom of howling feedback and chiming guitars, which bring back the sense of the sublime that one encountered upon first hearing Alison or Avalyn. The last track, Falling Ashes, departs from the familiar Slowdive-as-we-know-them sound; opening with a solitary piano line, some understated guitars, with drummer Christian Savill's granular-synthesis experiments subtly filling the empty spaces; there is perhaps a bit of Mojave 3 in the stillness. A return that exceeded its high expectations, overshadows Slowdive's earlier albums; even more intriguingly, there are apparently more Slowdive songs which sounded too different for the comeback album, which makes one intrigued as to what they do next.

  • Moses Sumney - Aromanticism (BandCamp)

    A concept album about, as the name suggests, abstaining from romantic love in a world that valorises it. Sumney's musical backings sound, in places, ironically romantic in tone, with lush string beds and bossa-nova guitars evoking old easy-listening records (and, for a moment, another act who, a quarter-century earlier, queered/queried the subject of romance and intimacy, Blueboy); elsewhere, it's adjacent to trip-hop and R&B, and, in places, could pass for Radiohead. On top of this, Sumney's voice soars in falsettos evocative at times of 78RPM blues record.

  • Warm Digits - Wireless World (BandCamp)

    A curious thing happened to the genre of krautrock, sometime after the term was coined: it became a mostly British phenomenon, eventually merging partly with hauntology (a term which originated in the writings of Jacques Derrida before becoming a byword for pre-Thatcherite institutional kitsch) and memories of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Warm Digits, from Newcastle, are another exemplar of 2010s British Radiophonic/Haunto/Krautrock spectrum (alongside the sequenced Ostalgie of Scotland's Kosmischer Läufer, the unironic retro-optimism of Public Service Broadcasting and the analogue pastorals of Jon Brooks), though this time leaning strongly towards the motorik end of the spectrum, with touches of disco. Two drummers propel the grooves forward metronomically, covered by synthesizer arpeggios, angular basses, taut guitar lines, and in some cases, guest vocals (Warm Digits don't include a vocalist, but have guests including Field Music, Devon Sproule and Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell), stacked layer upon warmly overdriven layer; the effect is somewhat stylised, if not mannered, though they do it well. As is often the case in this genre, the music is self-referential, being both stylistically and thematically about modernity, with songs like Always On and Fracking Blackpool touching on our dependence on technology and the bargains we make. If there were a highlight (and the level is pretty consistent across the album), it might be The Rumble And The Tremor, which veers into punk-funk territory.

With honourable mentions going to: Beaches - Second of Spring (a cavernous 76 minutes of psychedelic, motorik fuzz-rock from the Melbourne band) ¶ Boogie Idol - 音楽より遠く (described as “the perfect soundtrack to shopping for vegetables or riding an elevator”, this is a sort of Japanese vaporwave, influenced by 1990s Japanese commercial background music; to non-Japanese ears, it sounds exotic and somewhat retro-futuristic) ¶ The Bran Flakes - Help Me (the plunderphonic collagists return, with their characteristic playfulness; this is essentially the Generation X zine culture's analogue of vaporwave, brightly coloured sound sculptures made of the detritus of the 20th century) ¶ Jon Brooks - Agri Montana (Warm, Buchla-driven kosmische pastorals, inspired by vintage postcards and climbing hills in Wales) ¶ Children of Alice - Children of Alice (the surviving members of Broadcast, paying tribute to Trish with a track of eldritch, and very British, hauntological musique concrète) ¶ Even As We Speak - The Black Forest (the Sydney band, who were perhaps the most eccentric act to sign to Sarah Records, return after a few decades, with four tracks of sunny indiepop and a rocking cover of the Horst Jankowski lounge standard made famous by The Goodies' pirate radio episode; short but sweet, and hopefully a harbinger of more to come) ¶ Jakuzi - Fantezi Müzik (krautrock meets synthpop, in Turkish) ¶ Lindstrøm - It's Alright Between Us As It Is (the latest slice of bouncy good-time electro-disco from the prolific Norwegian producer; also features an appearance by Jenny Hval) ¶ The Luxembourg Signal - Blue Field (Moody post-punk indiepop from Beth Arzy (of the Sarah band Aberdeen) and friends) ¶ Makthaverskan - Ill (their third album shows the Gothenburg post-punk indie-pop combo polishing their sound further, with Maja's voice soaring over crisp guitars like something off a John Hughes film soundtrack) ¶ Kelly Lee Owens - s/t (ethereal vocals floating over sequenced Hackney-warehouse-rave electronics, with some interesting progressions; there's also a guest appearance by Oslo angsteuse Jenny Hval) ¶ Pasocom Music Club - SHE IS A (Japanese retro electronica, nostalgic for the vibe of boom-era Tokyo; sounds like electro-funk made with Korg M1 presets, which is, needless to say, not a bad thing) ¶ Hannah Peel - Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (A short concept album about a fictional spacefarer, performed with modular synthesizers and a brass band, could have gone either way, though Peel manages to pull it off. Coruscating arpeggios, classical arrangements and the odd choral voice meld seamlessly into a beguiling whole.) ¶ The Radio Dept. - Teach Me To Forget EP (released on the back of their 2016 album, this nonetheless stands on its own due to a few excellent additions and an overall cohesion; I've written more about it here) ¶ Raven - The Night Is {dark,silent,bright,loud} (the full-length debut from the Sydney avant-gardist and cellist, a series of instrumentals, made with cello, piano, the odd field recording and digital processing; atmospheric, and in places discombobulating) ¶ She-Devils - She-Devils (the full-length debut album from the Montréal duo, recreating 1950s rockabilly/lounge grooves with loops and beats; vintage-styled fun) ¶ Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid (Smith has moved in a more pop direction than her earlier works, though the songs here have a layered, psychedelic sensibility, like Pikelet with a Buchla) ¶ Street Cleaner - Payback 2 (a concept album, the concept being the incidental music from 1980s direct-to-VHS action thrillers, which was made entirely with synthesizers, as that was cheaper, and thus sounded incongruously crisp and futuristic; file alongside John Carpenter and 1980s video-game music) ¶ Tornado Wallace - Lonely Planet (chilled, funky electronic grooves falling somewhere in the space between yacht rock, Balearic electropop and incidental music for a travelogue, with perhaps echoes of Virgin Suicides-era Air. Sui Zhen makes a guest appearance. Smooth sailing, or perhaps a 747 taking off into a neon sunset somewhere near the equator.) ¶ Underground Lovers - Staring At You, Staring At Me (known briefly during its gestation as Melbournism, this album follows on from their 2013 return Weekend, this time not veering far from the Undies' art-rock stylings; Vince does get his TR-808 out on a few songs) ¶ VAR - Vetur (the Icelandic post-rock band's follow-up to their 2014 debut; sweepingly atmospheric as one would expect, and sounding in places like iLiKETRAiNS crossed with a heavier Sigur Rós) ¶ Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology (the follow-up to The Silver Globe continues further along the kosmische-disco line, with analogue fuzz aplenty and echoes of Stereolab and Neu! in places; oh, and one of the members of Can shows up, but only to say something psychedelic about the cycle of life and death and such).

If I had to choose one record of the year, it be either Slowdive or Milk Teddy; two very different records, but both of them superb. I guess it would depend on whether one wants shoegaze or pop music.

As usual, there is a Spotify playlist here:

2017 cds lists music 0

Friday, December 22nd, 2017
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4:13 pm
Two records and 25 years

Recently, I have been listening a lot to The Radio Dept.'s Teach Me To Forget EP, and have realised that, to me, it feels in many ways like an echo of a record from a quarter century earlier, namely, Momus' Voyager.

The similarities are both stylistic and aesthetic; in the tonal palette and the emotional gamut. Both have a coolly electronic feel, built on clean synthesizer sounds and programmed beats; understated and with an undercurrent of disconnection under the lights of the nocturnal city, and what Ralf Hütter once described in an interview as “cold feeling”. One could, if one were to, pinpoint where aspects of the older record reëmerge in the new one: Just So, with its dry synth-bass, quietly spoken vocals and sense of guarded futurity, is a tentative Cibachrome Blue for a more anxious age; You're Not In Love, with its funky bassline and cold, fast electronics, has an echo of Conquistador and perhaps Trans-Siberian Express. And the opening extended mix of Teach Me To Forget, itself reprising the nihilistic obliviousness in Voyager, segues neatly from the closing track of Voyager, the 2½-minute instrumental reprise Momutation 3, into its programmed club beats and minor-key tension, the 25-year gap disappearing in the crossfade.

Thematically, of course, the two records come from very different contexts. Voyager is a product of that particular euphoric moment as the eighties segued into the nineties; a confluence of the end of the Cold War and with it, some say, history, the arrival of computer technology in everyday life, and the rise of MDMA-fuelled club culture. Everything was connected, the world was waking up from history and, indeed, from the old certainties of pre-digital, pre-postmodern reality, into the Long Boom, or perhaps the Long Rave. Music could now be made with samplers, just as images could be made with Photoshop and grunged-up typefaces could be drawn on a Macintosh in Fontographer, and it's there that the idea of postmodernity, of all being artifice and simulacra, starts to leak from academic theory into everyday life. (In Japan, a country with which Momus' career was becoming increasingly intertwined, the discontinuity was even more profound, with the break between the Shōwa and Heisei eras in 1989 serving as a proxy for that entire gamut of changes, the one-way bridge between the analogue and digital, the modern and postmodern.) Voyager (the penultimate of Momus' six albums released on the then ascendant Creation label) rides the crest of that wave—the Ecstasy-infused club euphoria, the melting of genres into electronic club music, the MONDO 2000 cyberculture futurism of smart drugs and virtual reality—though not without ripples of unease. Momus picks out the analogies often cited at the time between this moment and the 1960s “Summer of Love” and posits an “electronic inwardness”; a trip into a vast, luminously pulsating inner space, and in this there is estrangement: We hear the bass talk, it's saying nothing. Love has left the arena and the lost psychonaut attempts to reach out from the gravity well of their trip. Soma Holiday, 1992.

Fast forward to 2017, and things are somewhat different. History has very noisily restarted itself, the balance between democracy and capitalism has tipped in favour of the latter and sinister actors have weaponised freedom, stirring unrest and catapulting extremists into power with swarms of social-media sockpuppets, covert ads and algorithmic manipulation (“nothing is true, we move like shadows across the stage”). In the ever-warming political climate (“there are thunderstorms, and the weather's wrong”), the thawing permafrost has released the bacilli of various anti-liberal ideologies long thought extinct, from theocracy to obscurantist arguments for absolute monarchy, to several dozen variants on fascism, including ones mainly concerned with video games and represented by cartoon frogs. In some ways the period from 1989 to 2001 looks increasingly, in retrospect, as a golden age; its buzzing, coolly luminous optimism replaced by a sensation of preapocalyptic anxiety.

The Radio Dept. were not initially a political band. Starting in the Swedish indie scene of the early 00s, their songs were hazy and ambiguous, both sonically and lyrically, consisting of fuzzy guitars, cheap drum machines and gently wistful melodies, somewhere between The Field Mice and The Jesus and Mary Chain. Somewhere around the 2010s, this started to change gradually; a sample of Thurston Moore ranting about capitalism here, a song titled Death To Fascism there (back when references to fascism sounded like Rik-from-The-Young-Ones-style hyperbole or kitsch), but still the same overall formula. Until their most recent album last year, titled, pointedly, Running Out Of Love. Gone was the haze: in its stead, sharp, cold electronics (they do love the TR-808 cowbell, it seems), sounding more Factory or Mute than Sarah or Creation, and a sniper-like aim at serious issues: the rise of the far right, the arms industry, and, perhaps above all, the comfortably apolitical, the “good people” who do nothing in the face of evil. Of course, being The Radio Dept., this was delivered not as protest-ready bolshie chants but with frosty understatement. Running Out Of Love was a timely return to form, won many accolades (among them, this blog's album of the year title), and spawned three EPs for its singles; the most recent being Teach Me To Forget, the subject of this post.

Voyager and Teach Me To Forget could be seen to bookend an era; the decade or so of the Closing-Down Sale of History and the Long Boom/Now, and slightly longer afterwards—before Trump and Brexit and the Sverigedemokraterna and numerous equivalent local phenomena—when people still thought that we may yet return to this, the natural post-historic state of loved-up transnational consumerist utopia; the coming out of the cold into the futurismic cyber-rave, and the cold crashing in with a vengeance, the party having become the Masque of the Red Death in the interim; a reëngagement with a resurgent reality.

1990s momus music the end of history the long siege the radio dept. 0

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
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3:24 pm
Thank $DEITY that's over

LGBT+ Australians and their allies can breathe a cautious sigh of relief as one prolonged chapter of the national culture-war pantomime comes to a close, with 61.6% of Australians voting to legalise same-sex marriage. Sorry, did I say voting? It wasn't a referendum, or even a plebiscite, but a non-binding postal survey, whose sole purpose was for Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister to pander the alpha-males of the hard right, putting the human rights of part of the population to a survey and declaring a legal gay-bashing season, giving bigots carte blanche to gather their best arguments on why those people are disgusting and shouldn't be allowed, and shove them into every letterbox in the nation. LGBT mental-health help lines have, as expected, been busy.

Anyway, it turns out that most Australians are happy to let gay people marry. Which is to say, LGBT+ Australians can be somewhat reassured by knowing that, out of any five Australians they might see, statistically, more than three are happy for them to exist; which, one supposes, is progress. So now, a marriage equality bill will soon be debated in parliament. We can probably expect to see the LNP hard right, abetted by the Australian media's right-wing commentariat, use the fact that they have just under ²⁄₅ of the population opposed it to rationalise larding the bill with amendments effectively legalising all forms of discrimination and vilification against sexual minorities, as long as it comes from religious belief or deeply-felt visceral disgust. Hopefully, such amendments will get smacked down, as moderate Tories vote them down or abstain, though this is complicated by the fact that the electorates which returned majority results against marriage equality were predominantly Labor electorates with large ethnic-minority populations; and while this might not put them within easy reach of the (right-of-centre, big-business-oriented) Liberal Party, its more reactionary/traditionalist offshoot, the Australian Conservatives, not to mention the handful of religious fringe parties that cluster around the bottom end of Senate results, may be salivating at the prospect.

It is a good thing that the campaign is over, and that (hopefully) this issue will be sorted before the end of the year (after which, Australia may, slowly and painfully, have entered the civilised world where centre-right parties have realised that they have more to gain from affluent, established gay couples who can be persuaded that they should pay less tax than from a handful of burned-over religious zealots and the embittered and fearful). However, that is not the same as saying that this is a good result. For one, the legitimacy of a survey into whether a minority should be given fundamental human rights is, to say the least, deeply questionable. (Imagine, if you will, a survey on whether women should be allowed to own property in their own names, or if non-white people should be considered to be human for legal purposes.) Human rights should not be a matter of public opinion, and, if this has demonstrated anything, making them such serves only to embolden bigots.

Beyond the impact on the question, this episode may have other consequences. For one, the highly unorthodox way it was organised may have set a problematic precedent. Not being an election, a referendum or a plebiscite, the survey was not organised by the Australian Electoral Commission; instead, the Bureau of Statistics, until now a quiet, apolitical bureaucracy concerned with gathering data and tabulating it, was transformed by fiat into a parallel electoral commission, only without the responsibilities of one. From this, it is not hard to see it being used as a political football, and made to trot out an endless succession of surveys designed to bolster populist arguments and beat up on scapegoats. (Perhaps some year, to get One Nation's support at passing something in the Senate, there'll be an official ABS postal survey on whether Muslims should be allowed to enter Australia, and a 30% “no” result will be used to legislate for a ban on the sale of halal snack packs to under-18s, or something similarly idiotic?)

Secondly, and more immediately, in agreeing to this exercise, Turnbull may have inadvertently doomed his own party to losing the next election. While they have been polling badly recently, they have a history of scraping through with narrow victories. However, one thing that a referendum plebiscite survey on whether gay people should have human rights has achieved is a record surge of younger Australians, who vote predominantly left-of-centre, registering to vote. Many of these young people will be living with their parents, in marginal LNP seats, what with the traditionally left-leaning inner cities becoming unaffordable; when the next election comes around, they will vote. The LNP has reasons to be nervous about this, and the ALP probably shouldn't sleep too easily, given how poorly its rightward triangulation on various policies (particularly Australia's harsh deterrence policies against refugees) plays with younger voters.

australia culture war gay human rights politics 1

Friday, November 3rd, 2017
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12:11 am
Sainsbury's Own Label vinyl

The British supermarket chain Sainsbury's is doubling up on the fashion for vinyl records. For a while, they (alongside their rival Tesco) have been selling a small selection of classic albums, repressed on 180 gram luxury vinyl, to shoppers who want to own a slice of pop-cultural history in its most authentic format, and to be at one with Led Zeppelin or Amy Winehouse or whoever in a way that those listening to the iTunes download can never be. And to think: all this at your local supermarket. And now, they're launching their own brand of vinyl-only compilation albums. Named Sainsbury's Own Label, the records, overseen by pop historian and Saint Etienne member Bob Stanley, will contain classic vintage tracks, and come enclosed in retro-styled monochromatic sleeves, for that extra dose of supermarket-fresh vintage authenticity. Two albums have been announced: Coming Into Los Angeles, which features Californian rock from the sixeventies such as Fleetwood Mac and The Monkees, and Hi Fidelity, which leans slightly (but never excessively) prog, with the likes of Mike Oldfield, 10CC and Roxy Music, and sounds like just the thing for putting that expensively restored vintage hi-fi system through its paces.

Which is an interesting business decision (and it's good that Bob Stanley is getting paid for his expertise), though I'm not sure it makes that much sense. From what I understand, the fashion for vinyl is less about its function as a sound carrier than its role as an ark of Authenticity, a token of connection to a legendary album, artist or era. Surveys back this up, showing that almost half of all vinyl bought is never played, and instead purchased to have something to keep whilst listening to a streaming service. In other words, a vinyl record is primarily a 12" collectible poster, representing the body of music one enjoys listening to or the artist one admires; that it contains a legacy sound carrier adds gravitas to the mystique, but is secondary. And as a sound carrier, vinyl records leave a lot to be desired; other than the bulk and the fiddly nature of putting a record on, as compared to queueing up a track on Spotify or YouTube, the sound quality of vinyl is objectively, measurably inferior to digital sound in a number of ways. Some of those shortcomings (the surface noise, the “warm” frequency distortion) can, to those who grew up with them, induce warm feelings of nostalgia, but that does not make vinyl's fidelity superior, as some of its champions are wont to claim, except, of course, at producing a characteristically vinyl-like experience. To claim that the experience of recorded music with the surface noise, distortion and constricted dynamic range and frequency response of vinyl is “better” or more “authentic” is a claim of subjective faith. (And then, there is the fact that the PVC that vinyl records are made of is pretty toxic stuff, impossible to recycle, and slowly emitting toxic particles as they age.)

It seems that what Sainsbury's are trying to do with Own Label is effectively sell the equivalent of Spotify playlists of “Classic Tracks”, only pressed to a stylish-looking vinyl record. Fair play that they slapped some modishly retro-modernist artwork on the cover, but it really does seem like the worst of both worlds: none of the collectibility of vinyl albums (except perhaps to a handful of people who fetishise commercial ephemera, and wish to get a head start on tomorrow's) and less convenient than listening to it on a computer or phone or digital system. Good luck to them, but I suspect this might not be a runaway success story.

authenticity bob stanley music retro sainsbury's sixeventies vinyl 1

Sunday, October 1st, 2017
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4:09 pm
Crackdown in Catalonia

Spain uses force to suppress outbreaks of illegal voting, as Catalonia's secessionist government defies a ban on an independence referendum. Having failed to seize all ballot papers in the days running up to the election, Spain has ordered riot police to fire with rubber bullets on those defying the ban; currently, 460 people are said to have been injured. The optics, as they say in this age, are not good; meanwhile, somewhere in the circle of Hell reserved for tyrants, Generalissimo Franco is rubbing his hands with glee, knowing that his life's work has, in some way, endured.

The optimistic liberal commentariat on Twitter, of course, is adamant that this is the day that Spain's right-of-centre anti-separatist government has lost all democratic legitimacy, and will suffer a crushing judgment from History and or Public Opinion; the corollary being that, however questionable Catalan independence may have been until now, it is as inevitable as, say, the Irish Free State became after the Easter Rising. Though that conclusion neglects a few things: firstly, can a government that uses force against its population automatically be said to have lost in the court of public opinion, in an age when the public looks to Dubai as a model of aspirational glamour and gets its news from the Daily Mail, FOXNews and the like? These days, the idea of “human rights” has fallen from favour somewhat, and is regarded with suspicion, if not outright contempt, by a large proportion of the public, whose rights are assumed to be assured by the natural order of things. (After all, if decent folks' rights are in no danger, the reasoning follows, then “human rights” can only be a scam to take from us and give to those people. If you hear some nice well-meaning liberal talking about “human rights”, check your wallet.) Would your typical person, who's relaxed and comfortable with wearing clothes made by slave labour and holidaying in locations where uppity minorities are kept in their place by the threat of deadly force, judge Mariano Rajoy's Spain to have overstepped the mark? As long as any future settlement ensures that Spain remains a sunny holiday and/or retirement destination, this is fine.

Secondly, Turkey has set a precedent for how a member in good standing of the club of free democracies (which Turkey remains, and will remain as long as it keeps the threatened tidal wave of Islamic refugees from entering Europe) may deal with internal dissent. Turkey, as you will recall, was faced with its own ethnic/linguistic minority—the Kurds, who had been left without a homeland by the Sykes-Picot treaty—who had their own party (the HDP), held mayorships in Kurdish-majority towns, and at the last election, won a large number of seats in the parliament, becoming a de facto liberal opposition to Erdoǧan's authoritarian rule. Erdoǧan responded by escalating tensions, jailing most HDP politicians, dissolving Kurdish-run regional governments and replacing them with non-Kurdish administrators, and, in places, using military force against resistant populations. This, too, was judged to be fine, and in no way inconsistent with Turkey's good standing in the democratic world. And in doing so, it set the baseline for what any other free democracy faced with secessionist dissent may freely do.

There seems to be no way back; the Catalans will not surrender unconditionally and forever rule out independence, as would be the minimum required. Therefore, the only option Madrid has is to decisively crush the secessionist movement and salt the ground to ensure it does not return. In the short term, Madrid will probably impose martial law, possibly backed with a shoot-to-kill curfew, which will be in force until immediate tension dissipates. Voting materials will be seized and destroyed, and any ringleaders still at large and within Spain arrested. (Whether neighbours will honour extradition requests for Catalan nationalist activists remains to be seen; Germany, for one, has been refusing to hand over Turkish dissidents.) In the longer term, there are likely to be sweeping Turkish-style purges of the public service, media and universities, with anyone who liked any Catalan independence materials on Twitter/Facebook likely to face dismissal.

Which leaves the longer term, and the whole question of “Catalonia” in the first place. Does (or should) it exist in any way that, say, “Kurdistan“ or “Palestine” officially don't? Does allowing a regional government to exist, to maintain its own laws and mandate that signage must be in Catalan, undermine national cohesion and sovereignty? A Spanish government seeking to eliminate the possibility of future secession might take a number of courses of action, from demoting Catalan from a first-class language to a vulgar dialect, removing it from place names and official materials and school curricula, up to eliminating the region of Catalonia altogether, subsuming its component parts into neighbouring regions for administrative purposes. (This would also serve as a warning to the Basques not to get any ideas; you have a lot of privileges, it would say; this is what happens to those who abuse them.)

Of course, this is assuming that Spain does prevail. A strategy of raising tensions could escalate into an actual civil war, or if not, then into a guerilla conflict like the Basque one, which could fester on for decades, and interact unpredictably with events abroad (if, say, France goes fascist after the next election, or Russia decides that a frozen conflict in western Europe serves its geopolitical ambitions, or post-Brexit Britain turns it into some kind of jingoistic proxy war over Gibraltar or something, anything could happen).

authoritarianism catalonia human rights spain turkey 0

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017
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10:59 pm
RIP Simon Holmes

Today I heard the sad news that Simon Holmes, frontman and songwriter of 1990s Australian alternative/indiepop band The Hummingbirds passed away over the weekend.

I met him once, about a decade ago, at his record shop in Sydney. There was a copy of The Hummingbirds' debut album loveBUZZ there, which the band had all autographed back in the day, and which I ended up buying. Simon demonstrated his signature on a piece of paper to show that it was genuine; with his characteristic humility, he didn't know how much to ask for it. I think I gave him $30. We also talked briefly about Sarah Records. I got the impression that, as well as being a fine songwriter and musician, he was also a genuine, decent fellow, of considerable thoughtfulness and sensitivity.

A few years earlier, not long after I had moved, on a whim, to the northern hemisphere, I was catching a sleeper train from Paris to Zurich. I remember listening to the Hummingbirds MP3s which I had on my MP3 player, sometime around midnight, somewhere near the French-Swiss border, and feeling a little less disconnected from the home I had left behind.

And some years later, I heard that The Hummingbirds were reuniting to play a one-off show at Big Day Out in Sydney. I had been thinking of visiting Australia again, and brought forward my visit, timing it to catch them. They were well worth the airfare and the jetlag.

And now Simon's suddenly gone, which sucks, and the only Hummingbirds that exist are some Mumford-alikes from Liverpool, which sucks even more.

Simon's friend and sometime collaborator Tim Byron has written a fine memorial to him.

obituary rip simon holmes the hummingbirds 1

Monday, July 17th, 2017
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10:32 am
The Thirteenth Doctor

As the plume of white smoke emerged from the chimneys of Broadcasting House, the BBC announced that the thirteenth Doctor Who will be played by a woman, namely Jodie Whittaker. (Tilda Swinton, presumably, already had her hands full being the new Bowie.)

That sound you hear in the distance is the sad puppies of the “Mens' Rights” movement whining about their childhoods being ruined, irrevocably contaminated with girl cooties. Pity them; first they lost Ghostbusters, and now this. “It's Doctor Who, not Nurse Who!”, they rant, and “nobody wants to see a TARDIS full of bras”, before adding that feminism is a cancer and the realism of a story about an alien who travels through time in a wooden phone booth and defeats alien villains with a screwdriver would be completely compromised by said alien being played by a woman rather than a man. In any case, it looks like the new Doctor already has an entire legion of Cybermen set against her.

If Whittaker's Doctor has a long run, and possibly is followed by another non-white-male Doctor (Richard Ayoade was mentioned as one candidate), I wonder whether this will create the myth that the old Doctor Who was more of an old-fashioned manly man than he actually was; that before the BBC bowed to Political Correctness and Cultural Marxism, the original, real Doctor Who was a manly man of the first water, a two-fisted, hairy-chested swashbuckler, going mano a mano with the scum of the universe, between swiving wenches (to which his assistants—whom, of course, he was shagging as well—didn't object, as they knew their place), drinking robustly and making off-colour remarks about minorities. Much in the way that William Shatner's Captain Kirk is (inaccurately) remembered as much more of a Don Draperesque lothario than was on the actual shows, Tom Baker's stripy-scarved Doctor may morph in the popular imagination into some kind of hybrid of James Bond, Gene Hunt and Duke Nukem, with a bit of Jeremy Clarkson.

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