Busy Week Off

I’m on a train, heading back home from That London. It’s late, and I won’t be in bed before midnight. On any normal Wednesday night this might be an issue. But my working life is changing shape for the next few months, and I am no longer a slave to the standard routine.
Once again, I have been shifted onto a night shift at work. The difference is that I have decided to embrace that life, complete with benefits and pitfalls, and am going to try to make the best of it.
I’m working a seven-day fortnight, which is a week on, week off deal. Obviously, the week on is a prize pig. Six 12 hour days on the trot. 72 hours crammed into one long working week. The compensation is that week off. Careful holiday planning can help take the sting off, and I find that I’m getting more things done in the down time, as opposed to monging in front of the telly. It’s early days yet, and I’m sure that’ll change. The worry is how long it’ll take to recover from the on week, and how much desperately needed sleep is going to eat into that time off. That is something I’ll have to see about, although I can’t pretend it’s a situation I’m looking forward to much. I guess if I start posting in monosyllabic grunts, then you’ll know how well I’m dealing with it.
For the mean time, I’m just enjoying the benefits of a late night out without consequence. The reason for my late train journey? Finally, I went to see Watchmen. A faithful, loving adaptation of one of my favourite books. Surprisingly sensitive in places, jaw-droppingly crass in others. I didn’t mind the change of ending, although it’s a worry when you find yourself thinking that the only reasonable opinion in the room is coming from Rorschach. And I never really even noticed Dr. Manhatten’s big blue dong. I guess the storytelling must have worked out after all.

Thoughts on The Year Of Change

I thought I’d wait until we were safely past the random celebration of a random date in an outdated calendar (hope you all enjoyed the leap second) before posting my musings on what I have been calling The Year Of Change. I’m not even going to mention the state of the global finances, the regime change in Washington, or the re-evaluation of Andrew Sachs’ career into the role of a sweet old thing with a saucy grand- daughter.

No, just on a very personal level it’s been a wild ride. The company I worked for no longer exists, and I am busy on a fairly high profile long term project. I put up a proper website, with a promise of a lot more writing (yes, I know blogging is displacement activity, why do you think I gave the site that particular title?) Clare changed jobs. So did several of my close friends. One mate saw his company bought put by a private investment firm. Two people very close to me went through painful seperations and moved back in with their parents. Two friends announced marriage plans. Two others got married secretly. Three others, one of whom I would not have expected, announced upcoming parenthood. Oh, and Mum and Dads’ cat was run over.

Seriously turbulent times. Five years of change crammed into one tumultuous twelvemonth. I guess surviving upheaval makes you stronger, but I really hope that this year we get slightly more solid foundations. Otherwise, how can we rebuild what has been lost, or build on what we have gained?

The image of the year for me is one that was used during the blackest part of WW2, and began popping up on tshirts and posters this year. I offer it in lieu of any decent advice.

I remember a conversation I had with my mate Kevin back at the turn of the century, where we considered what we were, the state of the industry and our chances for the future. We considered the matter thoughtfully, over more than a several pints of IPA. And we came to the conclusion that, like the Chinese curse, we would be living in interesting times.

I hate it when we’re right sometimes.

To all of you, oh Readership, I wish you a dull and uninteresting 09.

Sounds of the year

Hey ho let’s go. Here, in no order of preference or alphabetical…ness… are the songs that most moved, inspired or cheered me during the last tumultuous twelvemonth. Complete with commentary, so I apologise for the length of this post. Just listen to the songs if you’d rather.

The Hold Steady: “Lord I’m Discouraged.”

“Stay Positive” is the most recent Hold Steady album, and an instant favourite. It was conspicuous by it’s absence on a lot of critics best of years lists – a criminal omission in my view. It’s an epic song cycle of Catholic mysticism, rock and roll hedonism and dirt poor street tribalism. A triumph, and on pretty constant replay here at X&HTowers. There are better tracks on the album (although the guitar solo is a thing of majestic beauty), but this is the one that gave this website it’s name, and it gets the nod for that.

AC/DC: “Rock and Roll Train”

Oh, yes, here’s the good stuff. “Black Ice” marked a return for one of my favourite bands after an eight year absence, and they did it in style by not changing a damn thing. Their irascible refusal to put the album on iTunes hacked me off a bit, but  the album gets plenty of routing into the regular playlist, so they are forgived. And I’ve bought tickets to see them at Wembley this June, which is gonna be a great day out. “Rock And Roll Train” is the chosen track. As solid a statement of intent to head up an album as any I’ve heard in a while.

Bruce Springsteen: “Radio Nowhere

“Magic” is a fantastic album, and seeing Broooce at the Emirates last summer was one of the highlights of the year for me. The three-hour show he pulled was non-stop energy, fire and thrills. I’m a rabid fan, and he lived up to every expectation. Like “Rock And Roll Train” above, “Radio Nowhere” tells you exactly where Bruce is heading from the first 20 seconds of the record. A new album coming this January, and rumours of him headlining Glasto this year are going to make me a very happy fanboy.

Elbow: “Grounds For Divorce.”

About flippin’ time that everyone caught up with me. Winning the Mercury Music Prize was one of those moments when the world made sense, and one of the most genuinely innovative bands on the planet finally got the recognition they deserve. “The Seldom-Seen Kid” is a record in widescreen. Stirring, moving and endlessly rewarding. A true highpoint.

I’ve chosen this track because, let’s face it, why would I not choose a track that starts with the line “I’ve been working on a cocktail called Grounds For Divorce”?

Eddie Vedder: “Rise

This is from the soundtrack to Sean Penn’s Into The Wild, a film of rare restraint and beauty. The same could be said of Eddie Vedder’s accompanying music. Acoustic textures and Eddie’s trademark croon makes this album a late night favourite. “Rise” is the perfect example of the pleasures that the soundtrack offers.

Fleet Foxes: “White Winter Hymnal

I played this album on Christmas Day. After Bruce doing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town,” of course, which has been a family ritual for as long as I can remember. The Fleet Foxes album, an evocative rendition of crisp, cold winter days could become an addition to that tradition. White Winter Hymnal gets the nod here as the absolute distillation of that “Beach boys fronted by Jim Jones from My Morning Jacket in a church” vibe that permeates the album. Chilling in all the right ways.

Freezepop: “Less Talk More Rokk

A Boing Boing find, and one of those perfect pop moments that just digs under the skin and hides in the hindbrain. I love the balance of cool female vocals and deranged electronic riffage. This track also appears on Guitar Hero 2, and I can imagine it tying your fingers in knots. That intro is harsh.

The Gutter Twins: “Idle Hands

Mark Lanegan and Greg Dulli, both artists I admire greatly, got together this year as The Gutter Twins, and came up with one of the albums of the year. Epic, taut, vicious and oozing a bruised romanticism all at once. “Idle Hands” is the theme to the best horror movie never made.

Martha Wainwright: “Tower Of Song

Time to get meta on your asses. I had the distinct pleasure to see both Leonard Cohen and Martha Wainwright live this year. The Martha gig was especially memorable, as it was an intimate gig at the Borders in Oxford St for winners of an online competition. It was a thirty minute acoustic set, which showcased her brilliant album “I Know You’re Married But I’ve Got Feelings Too” (one of the titles of the year too!) That album contains a track called “Tower Song”. This, though, is a cover of my favourite Cohen track for a Mojo covermount.

The cross-contextuality makes my head spin.

Dig, Lazurus, Dig!!!“: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds

Three exclamation points in a song is always worthy of comment. A big, fat swagger of a track from a big fat swagger of an album. Nick Cave has never been afraid to deal with issues of faith and filth, and he’s utterly confident on both on this record. I find I drop into a strut whenever this comes up on the playlist. Don’t be afraid to do the same.

5:05“: Paul Westerberg

This track appeared as a free download earlier in the year, as a taster for a new album that PW was going to release under a similar model as Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”. As yet, that album is yet to appear, but the ramshackle charm of “5:05” makes me eager to see if the album can live up to the promise of the single. The title? It’s the duration of the track, of course…

The Rip“: Portishead

Soundtracky noir and I have always got along especially well, so it’s no surprise that I’m a Portishead fan. But 3, their long-awaited third album took all the preconceptions about what they were, gave them a noogie, a spitclean and a long hot kiss and sent them off to do great things. I love the single, Machine Gun, the best use of syndrums since New Order’s Blue Monday, but The Rip is a movie in miniature, a transforming monster of a track that gets better with every listen.

The Great Gig In The Sky“: Pink Floyd

Richard Wright’s death finally ended all speculation of a Pink Floyd reunion. It was a deeply poignant event, as he had been playing live again with Dave Gilmour, and was beginning to be regarded as the quiet still point at the heart of the Floyd. I offer up his greatest moment, the song he wrote that is the highwater mark of their greatest album. I always found it especially moving, and even more so now.

Consoler Of The Lonely“: The Raconteurs

This came out of nowhere. Released within a fortnight of it’s completion, “Consolers Of The Lonely” is a monster of an album, like “Music From Big Pink” as played by Led Zeppelin. Jack White has never been on better high-hollerin’ form. Love it to bits. The first track tells you exactly what to expect. Incidentally, the first verse describes the low points of my mental and physical state over this year pretty accurately. Another reason I relate so strongly to it, I guess…

I’m Gonna DJ“: REM

2008 saw my Georgia boys finally step up and deliver the album they’d promised for the past decade. A tight, sharp, bright shot of sunshine, Accelerate included a live favourite that was part of the mythos to such an extent that lyrics from it had featured on official tour t-shirts. It’s great to see it finally on record, cos it’s a stomping beast. Music will provide the light. You cannot resist.

Please Read The Letter”Alison Krauss and Robert Plant

“Raising Sand” is a spare, intimate and subtle album that feels like an intrusion into a delicate, careful courtship. Planty calms the wailing loverman act, tempering his urgent heat in the face of Alison Krauss’ sweet ice-cream coolness. “Please Read The Letter” is the track that does it for me, a tale of yearning, loss and sacrifice that fills me with emotions that I cannot quite name.

“Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur“: Sigur Rós

One of my favourite bands and one that I was lucky enough to see live this year, at the Westminster Methodist Hall. At this point in their career, they have learned that melancholy can only get you so far. They lightened up, and started to sing and dance. With a track as infectious as this, you can only join in. Even if you don’t speak Icelandic.

Oh, and one of the weirdest points of the year – Sigur Ros interviewed on More4 News about the collapse of the Icelandic banking system. A true WTF moment.

I Feel Alright“: Steve Earle

The final season of The Wire was the major TV event of the year for me, and the soundtrack to that show, “… And All The Pieces Matter” is a perfect counterpart. This Steve Earle track, that played over the end of the final episode of season 4, sums up the show for me. Bitter, beaten, yet eternally hopeful in the face of a cruel and arbitrary universe that seems to delight in punishing you for doing the right thing. And it’s said Americans don’t do irony…

That’s Not My Name“: The Ting Tings

I heard this for the first time on Jonathon Ross’ show, and instantly had that spinal zap-chill that told me it would be a phenomenal hit. Feminist anthem, the 21st century’s own Clapping Song (a debt that Katie and Jules acknowledged by having a double dutch crew on stage with them at Reading), an earworm of the highest order. It’s a track that polarises people, but I bloody love it.

Krimanchuli“: Orera

The random one. Not even sure where I heard this first, but this dose of Georgian jazz-pop gets my tag as Song Of The Year. Dating back to the late 60’s, it starts as a choral exercise of rare medieval power, before morphing into a finger-popping bounce groove that just grows and grows. It’s one of the reasons I love random surfing for music, and shuffle remains my playback mode of choice. Quite simply, I love it when music surprises me, and that’s something that every song I’ve featured here has done.

I hope you approve of my choices. Here’s to more of the same this year!