Friday, 27 February 2009

Bob Log III - My Shit is Perfect (Birdmen Records)

It’s hard to tell how far Bob Log III extends his well-tongued cheek. He obviously has a sense of humour, having been a fine purveyor of boob whisky, playing in a deep sea diver’s outfit and including songs on his latest album ‘My Shit is Perfect’ called ‘Bump Pow! Bump Bump Bump Pow! Bump Pow! Bump Bump Bump Baby! Bump Pow! Bump Bump Bump Pow! Bump Pow! Bump Bump Bump.’ But is he taking the piss with the music? Like a pisstake Beck or Bubba Sparxx, he fills his voice with distortion singing empty epithets over scuzzy glitched samples of beatboxing or drum machines with some classic blues riffing in there. It’s musically very samey but so laden with personality, it’s really listenable. But how far is he taking the piss? I imagine he’s not, really, and takes pride in his essential commandeering of the blues from newbies(!) like Seasick Steve. ‘My Shit is Perfect’ ‘Buckwheat Potato’ ‘Bang Your Thing at the Ball’ all provide the ample soundtrack for South Park and My Name is Earl, showcasing the highlights of an album of comedy hip-country blues, a simple album brimming with silliness and humour all the way through.


Boob Whisky - one of Log's finer moments...

Crystal Antlers - Tentacles (Touch and Go 2009)

Crystal Antlers are a sonic experiment of rioting guitars and elongated screams into the abyss of pain and tortured souls, the tentacles of doubt surrounding them, cocooned in a cacophony of sound as the world implodes. Seemingly an album about environmental decay and global climate meltdown, the torchbearers of an apocalypse are Crystal Antlers, begging the world to not disintegrate around us as sombre death-march drums lead us towards the inevitable imploding star. ‘From ‘Glacier’ to ‘Until the Sun Dies (part 1)’ singer Errol Favis wails the fragility of nature and its destruction by humankind, all under a cloudburst of epic sound and energy. He sounds like Mark Lanegan and Kurt Cobain, his scream and fragile world-weary gravelled throat weep their way through these emotive beautiful and fragile yet brutal and exhausting tracks. The freejazz experimentations seem to throw the music off-kilter, threating to derail the songs, allowing them to build into frenzied climaxes while the guitars summon up Thor and Ares and wage thunderous wars on our ears. This is a brutal and brilliant album, every inch as worried as we should all be about the futility of our lives in a world we no longer control, the fragility nature suffocates us.


Thursday, 26 February 2009

Ponytail - Ice Cream Spiritual! (Inertia 2009)

Ponytail’s new album ‘Ice Cream Spiritual!’ is pure pandemonium from start to finish. While two guitars duel over Bonham-esque rolling drums, singer Molly caterwauls her way through a series of shrieks, coos, howls and whinnies, screeches and falsetto yelps. There’s no bassist, which is a problem, as the music tends towards the high-end shriek, leaving the bass frequencies thin and unexplored. Eruptions into tic-ish 80s duelling air guitar solos and extended jams while Molly does nothing recognisable on the microphone makes this an impenetrable listen, one of those albums you can never quite find the right mood to be in the mood to listen to. It sounds like an extended drunken jam in a garage, paying no attention to song structure and any perceived audience. A series of jams that amble along towards no conclusion, journeyless and almost redundant. At Ponytail’s core, though, are some talented musicians, who, with restraint could pearl out some beauties. Molly could keep her wails and yelps to choruses and breakdowns and allow bits you can sink yourself into to happen. A trebly mess of chaos with no real connection, with the occasionally invigorating guitar lines, the singer does this no favours by being so unnecessarily over the top in her attempt to be punky, cool and different. There’s something to be said for 3 minute pop hits sometimes.


Magik Markers - Balf Quarry (Drag City 2009)

‘Balf Quarry’, the new album from Magik Markers is melancholy weeping with melody and soul, yet tinged with heartache and soaked with tears. It’s a discordant paean of the heart, glitching through moods and jerking in an out of fuzz like only Sonic Youth would dare to do. Opener ‘Risperdal’ sounds like it should be an explosion; instead, a slow distorted androngynous quietly menaces, soundtracking a new Tarantino Grindhouse film, it is all embittered passion and spit and bile flowing up through the pores and leaking all over the straining guitars, desperately duelling with each other, trying to gain the upper hand. ‘Don’t Talk in Your Sleep’ captures that menace with an eerie almost disturbing obsession evolves over a slow penetrative bassline and incongruous wah-wah. This is menace and eeriness and complete obsession, maniacal love and passion gone wrong. Then just as you feel like you’ve wandered into a creaky haunting house, ‘Jerks’ explodes in the stereo, drenched with fuzz and some clashing booming drum roles. Singer, Elisa, finds her inner Patti Smith, screaming and wailing her way through 2 minutes of spasmodic jittery loud brash punk. Some off-kilter guitar and electro glitch-sampling lead us through ‘Psychosomatic’ and ‘7/23’, both more ballady and yearning for some peace to reach the soul. The second half of the album is more sombre and experimental as standard song structures disappear and Elisa becomes a stoned siren torch singer, left alone in a house, by candlewind, slowly driven insane by the rumble of the piano and occasional solitude of the electronic drums that veer in and out of our ears, flanging from side to side. ‘The Lighter Side of Hippies’ returns her to Patti Smith banshee territory shouting and attacking with power guitars behind her. This album manages to evoke such distinct moods and landscapes, it is filmic in its ambition, somewhere like a Sonic Youth journey, never settling for standard song structures or moods, always evolving and changing up its styles, always interesting and aching with pain and hurt and loneliness, desperately seeking a companion who has the guts to try and handle this raw shit.


Love is All - A Hundred Things Keep Me Up at Night (What's Your Rupture 2009)

Like a shoutier, spikier, funkier, punkier Zutons, Love is All launch into their new album with the clittering clash of saxophone and angular guitars as lead singer, Josephine bellows over the top, a squeakier Karen O, matching her blow for blow in the attitude stakes. The meat of Love is All is a loud celebration of love and life’s optimistic forces, a testament of raw energy to positivity. This is something that other bands would inflict a darker more menacing tone on. Instead, Josephine tries to uplift, finding the realities that destroy any pretence of perfect ‘Movie Romance’, a spiky powerful ballad that is both searing and soothing all at once, with her comforting yelp drawing the listeners in. ‘Last Choice’ is all false-starts and glockenspiels over sweltering oohs and aahs, with the sweet story revealing a delicate world of dreaming and falling in and out of love. The tinges of sadness that permeate this song and other moments in the album are emotive yet they ask you to join in, hand in hand, and unify as a legion of heartbroken, something that pounds in the band’s simple edict, of wanting everyone to be happy. The music bolts between influences never settling in one tone long enough to get boring. The 80s stylings on the vocals bounce along as the guitars swell and thud in the background, razor sharp and power-drill-like. Moments feel like indie pop, others feel like 80s ska, there is a union happening, a chaotic party where everyone is invited to raise their hands like antennas to a sky begging for their love, and together, and with Love is All at the helm, we all swoon and fall in love for ever, living happily ever after, safe in the knowledge that bands like this are always looking out for our best interests, with a joyous celebratory sound forevermore.


Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Two Fingers - Two Fingers (Big Dada 2009)

Two Fingers are electronica whizzkid AmoN Tobin and Joe 'Doubleclick' Chapman, working in Montreal, trying to make hip-hop with drum'n'bass production techniques. The result is a bunch of beats that sound like brewing storms, glitching and erupting in short sharp bursts like stoccato pieces of gunfire, pushing the boundaries of electronica forward. Where it gets interesting is the vocal guests they've chosen. Dancehall legend Ce'Cile laces some riddims with her patois class. Miss Jade, a Missy Elliot affiliate, joins in for some feminine attitude. I remember drunkenly watching her on Ricki Lake about 6 years ago, singing 'bling-bling-ching-ching' over a Gloria Estefan sample. It turns out that in spite of that ill-advised sample journey, she has got lyrics.

Then there's Sway.

I once gave Sway Dasafo (as he was a while back) one of his first interviews, so taken was I with his humour, delivery, charisma and ease of phrase and metaphor, his ability to turn stutters, ticks and repetitions into rhythmical surfing, riding difficult beats with difficult intricate tricky flows, always clear and razor-sharp, always keeping you engaged. When I interviewed him, he expressed his preference for making beats than rapping, which is a shame because ever since, through all his releases, his production (very accessible, very poppy, very mainstream) I felt his production let down a truly magnetic vocalist. Everytime he laced a beat by Secondson or The Last Skeptik or Blufoot, he sounded above everyone else. So to hear that he was working with Amon Tobin, a renowned beatmaker, was exciting. The seven tracks he appears on are all highlights, brimming with class and humour; this time though, he's harder, fresher, harsher, more serious, almost gallows-black with his turns of phrase. Opener 'Straw Men' always sounding like the moment before take-off, sees Sway becoming a machine-gun with his lyrics, gunning down any takers, completely mercenary with everyone. 'What You Know' dissects the perceptions of black men, flipping stereotypes through wry social commentary; 'That Girl' is about the nightmare girl on a night out who overindulges in chemical romances, causing no end of stress for Sway, over a booming defiant club banger. 'Two Fingers' is a punky squelch and swell of fat basslines and thick synths, Sway is defiant sticking two fingers in the air making other rappers turn nightmare. 'Jewels and Gems' is the one to seek out though, with its Arabic mandolin processed thickly, flanging from ear to ear, the menace is thick in the air, always threatening to spill over, always threatening to punch you in the face, before tricking you and adding some funk-flutes into the mix. Miss Jade and Ce'Cille weigh in with some impressive turns, but Sway saves this from lesser rappers, destroying every beat, almost taking the shine completely off the intricate meticulous beat production. This is essential hip-hop. Forget N.A.S.A., the real stars are here.


Thunderheist - Thunderheist (Big Dada 2009)

Canadian dancefloor destroyers Thunderheist tempted us with the sleazy 'Jerk It', featured on 'The Wrestler' soundtrack. Titularly named, they arrive with their monstrous debut album, fizzing with hip house, whippersnap smart and all eyes on the dancefloor. Grahmzilla provides the electro house beats, crunked up and garaged down all at once. Like Spank Rock and Wiley and Santogold and so many other things out there, this is all attitude, instructional dance-moves and baritone voices filling the mix. Disco, hip-hop, r&b, electro, house- they all get a look in. Vocally, Isis is halfway between Peaches and MIA, calmly instructing and cooing her way through the sleazy vocals, she is neither too shouty or too lost in the mix. She oozes personality throughout, able to sound like a sickbag full of vice contorting itself into insane dancefloor shapes. 'Do The Right Thing' stomps like the righteous anger of a Spike Lee film; 'Pusherman' is like a dystopian future Travis Bickle washing all the scum off the streets with the ambling electricity of the synths. They are un-posing, unpretentious and concerned with having a good time, ensuring you do too, and with this type of good-time music arriving in the midst of months of angst-rock and murmur-sourpuss music set out for the months ahead, seems like the best bet for a good ol fucking time, jerking it on the dancefloor like space cowboys chewing pink bubblegum.


Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Writing IV: The Revenge

Good article. Put that pen down.

Yasutaka Tsutsui - Salmonella Men on Planet Porno (Alma 2008)

This bizarre set of short stories, written by Yasutaka Tsutsui and translated by Andrew Diver, continue the world of absurdist sexual science fiction and modern day claustrophobia made famous by Haruki Murakami. Where Tsutsui succeeds is in the lightness of his tone, accessibility to his themes and complete abandon with which he builds his satires. While Murakami focuses on serenity and silences as well as action, his subtleness lends itself to the beautiful almost ethereal plots that delve into surrealness- on the hand Tsutsui is brash and wild with it. His moderns are far and wide. ‘Rumours about Me’ focuses on a nobody office worker and the media starting to report his everyday mundane life, turning him into an unwitting celebrity. It’s amazing that something written in 1979 remains so poignantly fresh and relevant now. ‘Farmer Airways’ broaches the subjects of whim, fate and placing your trust into the hands of chaos. ‘Don’t Laugh’ is an absurd almost deliriously drunk vision of time travel that teems with frivolous laughs. In "The Last Smoker," a defiant citizen is hunted by vigilant anti-smoking police, and vows to finish his last cigarettes before committing suicide rather than living a smoke-free life. And in "The World Is Tilting," a city slowly begins to sink into the Pacific Ocean, leaving residents struggling to keep up with their daily lives. The title story lives up to its bizarre name, following a group of research scientists as they explore a sex-crazed earth alternative where libidos run rampant and no one wears clothes. Tsutsui's imagination is vivid, and his prose is enchantingly simple, perfectly chronicling the banality of daily life. While he remains unemotional and focuses on exposition and wild flights of fancy that never really get under the skin of his characters, it’s the situations they find themselves in that make the pieces work. The way the science fiction and surreal landscapes interweave into dreamlike escapes in ‘The Dabba Dabba Tree’ allow the story to breath as a comedy of unerotic errors. The idea of sex as a barrier to be conquered, as something that is just out of the reach of the characters make them all act in delirious feverish ways. This collection is worth seeking out and persisting with. Its quieter bits unfurl slowly but persist as they pay off, as do the wild fun fast-paced pieces. Alma is also publishing three other translated works by Tsutsui.

Emma Rendel - Pentti & Deathgirl (Jonathan Cape 2009)

Jonathan Cape once again presents some of the best underground/non-costume graphic fiction for our viewing pleasure, and this time it’s disturbing. More disturbing than the awkward sleaze of Daniel Clowes’ work. Finnish graphic artist Rendel presents two short stories, both about death and awkwardness; about the inability to translate your inner-thoughts to the outside world.

‘Pentti’ is about two brothers, both grotesque, rural farmers in a seemingly small town. One brother is calm and friendly; the other is angry and homophobic. He is Pentti. He spies two new male neighbours move in next door and wonders if they are gay. Angered at the possibility, he goes out on the town looking for a fight, his heart filled with fury and fighting spirit. As he rails on any possible gay man around him, pounding them into submission till they are all afraid of him, we get a glimpse into the obvious secret he is hiding. The book ends murderously and violently, though sadly inevitably. All the characters are drawn with angular balloon shapes, all contorted like misshapen biceps, or with grotesque cartoon faces and human bodies, all sweating and worried. The mosaic patterns that burst into colour filling the backgrounds, the natural surroundings and the forests and fields of Finland make for a beautiful yet bittersweet tale that is predictable yet snappy in its telling and beautifully drawn.

‘Deathgirl’ is also mercifully short because the sadness depicted in this diary format is heart-breaking. An awkward girl, obsessed with death and murder, constantly surrounded by instruments of torture and destruction, writes down her thoughts and feelings. Each double spread is a diary entry of a childishly scrawled text. As she falls in love with Karebear, a similarly odd looking boy, she tries her hardest to show him her misplaced affection. Her parents worry, her schoolfriends keep their distance and her diary becomes her best friend. She is massive and her contorted shapes take up most of the page and the action.

Both stories are short and full of angst and awkwardness. Though hardly ground-breaking in their content, they are wonderfully depicted in a woefully foreboding fashion, their grotesque Elephant Man features contorted into the hideousness of their deepest souls.

Mongrel - Better Than Heavy (Wall of Sound 2009)

Mongrel is Reverend of ‘and the Makers’ fame; Drew from Babyshambles; the original Artic Monkeys bassist; the actual Artic Monkeys drummer; badass UK rapper Lowkey and a few others, doing live hip-hop mixed with standard indie choruses, very polemical and political, a band seemingly born out of the amazing conscious work that Love Music Hate Racism, who seems to have brought this collective together. It’s all very worthy and well put together. Lowkey is now an electric MC. The drumming and basslines are incredible. So what’s the problem? The problem is, hip-hop in this country has been a running joke for years, full of kids stuck in 1990s New York rapping scientifically over badly constructred Diet Pete Rock beats. But there were a small group of live hip-hop bands who rocked the stage ridiculously, mixing reggae, hip-hop, indie/rock guitars/ funk, rapping and mad metal drumming... bands like Dirtburg, Imperial Leisure, Lazy Habits. What makes this more worthy? Well, the patronage of a few Monkeys helps, as does the vocal presence of Reverend. It’s a good project with some tight songs, all brimming with rage and energy and righteousness, but it’s nothing amazing, nothing new, and everytime Reverend Jon (didn’t he retire from music?) comes in with another generic indie chorus, with awkward rhymes and soundbites, it loses it’s snarl and bluster. Lowkey is articulate, passionate and full of fire. So are the other MCs- the interplay and back and forth of ‘Act Like That’, the fierce and fresh ‘Barcode’, all feature some badass rapping, angry and well-constructed, rhymes that Chuck D would patronise. Musically, it dips in and out of interest. The beautiful ‘Better Than Heavy’ has a lovely delayed Arabic mandolin echoing around some deep skanks and bottomless bass, sounding like a world town version of ‘Ghost Town’. The guitars of Drew from Babyshambles are subtle, not too overpowering or arpeggioed, more as a power device to lend the songs some gravitas. The sampling is light and funky too. It’s the bass and drums that make this album (and Lowkey) and on songs like ‘Alphabet Assassins’ and ‘Hits from the Morning Sun’ they really grind the songs into submission. The album ends on a duff downer with ‘Acts Like That’ which is two different songs, one is a typical ‘funky live hip-hop number’ the other is a weird Manic Street Preachers ballad chorus. Either way, you have to respect the intentions, which are incredibly worthy; the politics, which are truly diverse and right-on; and the love of hip-hop shown by this collective. Lowkey is brilliant throughout, truly magnetic and affable, emotive and well-poised. Unfortunately, for all his intentions, it’s Reverend Jon who ruins this album by giving it its playability factor in the indie crowds, generic whining indie choruses that never lift the songs into flight, rather they give them a plod factor. Which is a shame, because with the pedigree of this band, it has the potential to change worlds.


Empire of the Sun - Walking on a Dream (Virgin 2009)

The culmination of The Sleepy Jackson’s psychedelic Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore of Pnau fame, inspired by JG Ballard, 80s Bowie and synth-pop mashing up with indie yelps, the album ‘Walking on a Dream’, is a beguiling yet enthralling collaboration. Electronic and spacey, like the musical equivalent of Labyrinth and Flash Gordon, this is accessible fun 80s pop. Together, the pair's 1980s-influenced soft pop synthesisers and blissed-out space beats have already taken them into the Australian top 10. The music is coupled with a striking image of two colourful, cosmic crusaders that has been inspired by movie characters and rosily-remembered childhood idols. The music is so light and fluffy, with pulsing guitars, spacious harmonies, and that thud-thud one-drop of the eighties drum pad. Steele squeals vaguely about love and friends and those ambiguous themes that makes pop so electric and instantly relatable to any casual listener, while Littlemore’s synths are eerie yet swelling up throughout the mix, exploding on every frequency. ‘We Are the People’ feels like their most obvious collaboration considering their day jobs, a psychedelic plaintive acoustic guitar and Sleepy Jackson vocals over Panu-esque electronics. 'Delta Bay' invokes the deranged vocoder of an evil genius to deliver some menacing spoken word over clashing harmonies and jangling keyboards. The rest of the album is pure pop joy, frivolous and designed to mask them from their everyday jobs, their usual schticks, in the same way that Neon Neon took Gruff Rhys and Boom Bip away from the psychedelic indie/experimental blip hop they were famed for. The result of Empire of the Sun is a batshit crazy frivolity in that classic Noughties reinvention of bad 80s synth-pop, all angular and squeal-some with irony oozes from its every pad and shimmer-effect.


Happy birthday, Sean!

Cabein and I were talking last night about two things that became linked. One was about leaving a lasting message forever and thus discovering the trick of eternal life. We were also talking about eschewing new bands and trends for old favourites. We were talking about Sonic Youth’s ‘Daydream Nation’ album and how there’s never really a mood to stick it on for. You just have to do it. Cabein mentioned relistening to ‘Nevermind’ on loop in hope of the inevitable grunge resurgence, which clicked something in my mind. Occasionally, I take loved but unlistened-to CDs to second-hand shops and swap them for new things- sometimes I’ve heard an album so much I’ve discovered everything I need to about it so think someone else should discover and enjoy this, I don’t need to listen to it again, I’ve had my time with. This happened with ‘Nevermind’, which I now regret, because talking with Cabein I realised how much I needed to dip in. I remembered my tatty already-secondhand copy of ‘Nevermind’ and realised that someone somewhere owned a private moment of mine now, preserved in infinity. An ex-girlfriend gave me her copy of ‘Nevermind’- she bought it in the spirit of rebellion and subsequently hated it. She gave it to me. Before she did, she wrote a little note on it, a private joke between us to me on the front cover and signed it. It now exists forever on someone’s shelf somewhere as a private moment between two exes. One of the most heart-warming things about buying secondhand books is the chance that there’s a dedication in the front-cover, from a lover or dear one, something that says something about the gifter and the giftee. One of my favourite dedications was in a secondhand copy of ‘American Psycho’ that I bought from Barnados in Brixton.

I hear this book is the exact mix of anti-capitalism and excessive violence that you love so much.


Happy 16th birthday!

Love, grandma’

Everytime ‘American Pyscho’ catches my eye on my shelf, I wonder how Sean turned out after his 16th birthday. We are linked through the thinnest of strands but I feel like that private glimpse into his life has bonded us forever.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Lily Allen - It's Not Me, It's You (Regal 2009)

It’s been 3 years since Lily Allen came along and breezily breathed life into pop, reinvigorating the mockney troubadour, female singer-songwriter and cod-reggae sampling worlds all in one cornucopia of summery fun and frolics, funny and frivolous yet touching and tender at the same time. Since then, her leanings towards being a pop star, the press circus surrounding her every move, the dissections of her every quote, the beholding pop star Lily to higher standards than anyone else when she is rougher round the edges than the likes of Gabrielle Thingy et al have created a personality that borders on self-obsession and coke-choked ego, which makes the weight of this album all the more heavier. The break-up and the miscarriage, the drunken behaviour and wardrobe malfunctions, the loud-mouthing and blogging. What will Lily Allen come out with? Because, in terms of the deification and subsequent destruction, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You...’ trusay blud... trusay.

But what of the music? Oh yeah. Umm... the music. The music. Well, this is Lily Allen popstar. Gone are the funk ticks and deep basslines, the sampling nous and the summery breeziness. This is a pop album. This is Kylie Minogue music fronted by the same Allen. But in the softening of the music, has she softened. Choice of beats aside, her tongue still lashes, in cheek or in vitriol. She has the mouth and the simplicity of delivery to bring some barging lyrics to your ears. Musically, it’s harder to engage with her because she seems lost in the crunch of synths and 80s guitars and bit beats thudding around through hundreds of processors. That mockney raspy toasting singsongy style is lost in the middle. ‘Never Gonna Happen’ is the cloest to ‘Alright Still’ Allen, with its plinky-plonky gypsy skank and screw-you-boy lyrics. The piano-skank of ‘F*** You’ is her clunky but endearing stab at Bush’s exit and preceding antics. It’s fun and poppy, deliriously fist-pumpingly magnetic. The hard processors of ‘The Fear’ and ‘Back to the Start’ seem quite incongruous. There are two albums here: her fun side, the side we all fell for, and the side that says ‘serious popstar thank you’. ‘Everyone’s At It’ is a startlingly honest look at drugs that landed her in trouble. ‘Who’d Have Known’ is the album’s ballad, with its emotive ‘Smile’ factor. ‘Him’ shows growth as a songwriter, both lyrically and in the marriage of her two contrasting styles. ‘He Wasn’t There’ ends the album, a paean to an absent father, sweet and searing all at once. Containing the closest sample bank to her previous work, it works beautifully. This is a transitional album, showcasing Lily Allen: Superstar, caught between her original incarnation and the next step, which is mainstream-takeover. I hope she loses none of her personality in the process, because when it shines through on this album, it works brilliantly; when she settles into her new role as nu-Kylie, it loses the panache and originality and spiky humour that made her so inescapable three years ago.


Colson Whitehead - Apex Hides the Hurt (Alma 2009)

‘Apex Hides the Hurt’ is a bizarre tiny book with big ideas and scathing satirical solliloquies. The nameless main character is a ‘nomenclature consultant’- he names products. He finds their most innate aspirational qualities, and builds them into a name that can’t be beaten in the modern marketplace. We meet him after a sabbatical following an incident that knocked him from the top of the game into a self-imposed exile, involving a severed toe, bruised ego, and competitive vulturous colleagues. They pass him a job- go to the town of Winthrop- a tiny ex-free slave-built place and rename it to reflect all the current business-redevelopment and gentrification going on. There, he meets the bizarre town leaders: Lucky Aberdeen, responsible for bringing in all the new business opportunities and housing redevelopment; Regina Goode, mayor and descendant of the original free slaves who named the town ‘Freedom’; and Albie Winthrope, descendant of the man who gave the town industry and his name. Each has an agenda for the town’s name and each resorts to bizarre methods to convince the nomenclature consultant that their way of thinking is the best. Slowly we are treated to a slow-burning satire on the nature of marketing and branding and how it can change our perceptions of the most banal products. The book is severely tongue-in-cheek and represents a growing economy that is cynical at worst. It was parodied in ‘Survivor’ Chuck Palahniuk’s messiah-apocalypse book, the idea of patenting names before products are invented, and in a world where the business is in the look and feel and presentation of a product rather than its actual properties, this biting satire proves to be a whippersnapper of a dark biter. It’s funny and quick to breeze through, with purpose-built sentences that read like novels themselves, so carefully constructed they are with off-kilter slang and terminology, and a fascinating look at a bizarre culture of marketing-gone-mad.

Poe Ballantine - Things I Like About America (Old Street 2009)

With a cover designed by Geek Pie’s very own Jawatron, ‘Things I Like About America’ is a gentle paean to the underbelly of the states. These true life short stories are about down-and-outers, the forgotten, the poor and the stuck, those cycling in loops of repeated patterns spanning generations in dead-end drifter towns and rural outposts, forgotten by mainstream American society, existing on industry and beer, below the poverty line and trying to triumph over adversity. Poe Ballantine has spent his entire life drifting and writing, sometimes futilely. He writes to escape, he writes to reimagine his perfect surroundings, he writes to describe his drifter lifestyle. He writes about the towns he has visited, looking for the perfect quiet rural experience. This is a calmer sedate ‘On the Road’ less concerned with finding oneself and more concerned with discovery where one’s self will best fit. Ballantine avoids much talk about his druggy youth. The first stories concern his dalliances with sex and crack and the hairiness of some of the scrapes he has needled his way out of. Once he starts travelling, cooking from restaurant to restaurant, a quiet solitude pervades the text, minimalist and descriptive yet never really overwrought with emotion and overly picturesque vistas. Only ‘Things I Like About America’ concerning his return from self-imposed ex-pat exile in Mexico goes into his thoughts about the America he despises- the stripmalls and endless fascination with assimilation, while simultaneously listing all the aesthetic and surface things he likes. The rest of the book serenely paints a picture of an America we as tourists will never see. As he struggles to find the smallest quietest city to simply exist in austerity in, he slowly wheedles his choices down into an American rural purveyance of beauty and peace. Ballantine has 3 other books coming out on Old Street publishing. ‘God Clobbers Us All’, also boasting a Jawatron cover, is out at the same time and will be reviewed here shortly. In the meantime, if you’re sick of reading the same repetitive excessive love letters to the great America of vice, then this is its older self, world-weary, in love with America and that grand tradition of expanse, yet searching for a place to call home, a simple peace and a quiet stillness of solitude and self.


I've been away for a week and I doubt you want to read about me eating fish, sitting on a beach, drinking beer, reading and writing my new novel- whoops, there that sums it up.

Reviews later of Apex Hides the Hurt and Things I Like about America.

Here are my answers to some questions a creative writing degree person asked me about writing. I wrote the answers really fast with no self-editing, as if she was recording me and I was the transcription, warts and all. Here's what I wrote (ignore all the spelling and half-arsed thoughts):

1) Do you think writers (specifically, writers of fiction) have a responsibility?
Writers of fiction do have a responsibility to their audience. Whether that responsibility is a worthy one or a political, polemic, conscious one is another thing. Writers of fiction, frivolous as it may be, fantastical as it may be, take you on a journey- they create infinite universes for you to wander into and immerse yourself in. Once you’re in, you’re living their truth and their fiction and the rules and agendas of their universe. Writers have a responsibility to you to ensure that their universe is immersive and consistent with the rules they invent, to keep you trapped on that journey. But on top of this, all fiction should represent a truth about the world, whether it mirrors or satirises the present, past or future, whether it creates fantastical situations ripe for triumph, there should be a nugget of truth about our world. Sometimes the most science fictional piece of work (e.g. Battlestar Galactica) will reflect the modern world in a way more salient and telling about the human spirit than someone worthy and factual like Frost-Nixon. To put this into book terms, William Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’ told us more about the dystopian technological future ahead than most other books. It reflected an innate truth within us all.

2) What is your own definition of the truth in fiction?
As above, truth should be a consistency within the universe you inhabit. But truth in fiction should ultimately be a reflection of a truth in human behaviour and human interaction. We read mirrors of ourselves and we read vicarious versions of ourselves, we find ourselves in characters and we find characters in ourselves, either living the life we wish or living a version of our own sordid truth, and fiction should reflect that in however small or big a way. ‘The Collector Collector’ by Tibor Fischer, written from the perspective of an ancient jug revealing the secrets of its every owner, though told by a seemingly inanimate object, reveals a truth about our history and our perceptions of time and nostalgia. Though the jar can’t empathise with human emotion, its discussion of such truths reveals a lot about the human spirit as it tries its hardest to understand why we’re programmed the way we are.

3) Fiction is expected to be made up, do you think readers will be disappointed if there is truth in a fictional story?
Readers would probably be disappointed to know how much truth there is in fiction. Writing for me is all about collecting. I collect characters and anecdotes and behaviourial ticks. I collect names too. My favourite is a friend’s mum’s boss: Radford Quist. Such a fiction-rich name yet readers would be disappointed to know that he manages an ambulance call-out centre in East London. I collect anecdotes, my latest novel currently in draft, is a collection of all the wonderful anecdotes I have collected about the immigrant experience of integration into UK society woven into a plot. There are greater stories in real life than in fiction sometimes. The comedy wrought from everyday real conversations in the Guardian Guide’s ‘All Ears’ column always gets me laughing, meaning I listen intently to conversations and speech patterns on trains and buses, trying to match my fictional characters to some real life persona, a realistic flow. The book ‘Shantaram’ should be fiction and reads like an amazing thriller, yet purports to be true. The greatest fictional books are weaved from real-life events. The novel I am drafting at the moment would be hampered by the limits of my imagination if I tried to make it all up. Instead, I have an intricate web of stories, all rich for fictionalising and exaggerating for comedic/dramatic effect to base my narrative on.

5) Was your interest always to be an author?
I wanted to be a world-famous rapper.

I always knew I wanted to write. I’ve tried to write a book so many times. I got through 40 pages of a novel when I was 16 before getting bored with trying to construct something that flowed. I knew I wanted to write, I just didn’t know what format. I always knew it’d be fiction though. Much as I am political and identity/culture-conscious and want to reflect that in my writing, I felt that fiction was always the best format for me. Which is weird because the first book I finished and wanted to heavily promote was a non-fiction travel memoir about a bizarre year I spent in Kenya living with the ex-pat Brits. It’s non-fiction, and again it’s the case where true life was more interesting than fiction, though (and don’t tell anyone this) I changed some names, amalgamated some characters and made their conversations more narrative-based! My next work is fiction. I can safely say now that I feel most comfortable in an author’s slippers than a rapper’s gleaming white trainers and that’s where I’m content to me. It’s where I can express my universal truth as intended.

6) How did you get to publish your book?
I haven’t published my book yet. I had a short story published in an Arts Council-sponsored book; the Arts Council invited me to a workshop on how to get a grant for writing your novel; I applied; got the money; wrote the book; found an agent; reworked the book; wrote another book; she preferred the second one; she’s currently trying to sell it...

7) Where do you derive your ideas from, for your stories?
My fictional ideas all stem from real-life situations and relationships. No matter how fantastical, they all derive from a truth in the real world. They usually spark off from a tiny event that transpires or a conversation with my father, friend Nick, brother Neel, fiancé, something I hear on the train, an article in a supplement, someone’s theme I remix- anything is up for grabs in terms of the ideas factory. Seeing the potential for spinning a story out of random occurrences is your job as a writer. It helps to keep a weekly blog (, where amongst the book and music reviews, I keep a daily diary of something from the previous day that either inspired me or made me laugh, and often I’ll refer back to the themes in that diary for inspiration.

8) Do you think it's a risk to have 'realism' in your stories?
Not at all. In fact, sometimes it’s important to have some grounding in realism, otherwise the reader has nothing tangible to hold on to for the duration of their journey.

9) What's your opinion on readers reading for escapism?
I love it. I still read superhero comics every week. I read Spider-man and Daredevil and X-Men. It’s complete escapism but there’s enough tangible reality amongst all the aliens and bizarre science and mutated creatures. Spider-man is a man down on his luck, driven by a responsibility to the greater good, reviled by the public for always doing the right thing; Daredevil wrestles with his upbringing and the limits of his disability; the X-Men experience racism, prejudice and revulsion at every turn. Yet they’re all dealing with the Green Goblin, a man who controls magnetism, an alien who eats planets and other assorted evil geniuses. Why these comics have lasted for over 40 years, is not the kick-ass drawings and vivid depictions of badass fights- it’s the human element, the tangible hold on to a recognisable characteristic within yourself as an outside, or other and how that impacts on your life. And the kick-ass drawings.

10) Did you write for leisure first? If you did, do you find it difficult treating it as a job?
I wrote to express myself. I was a shy kid, in a comfort zone. Reading took me to places I was too scared to experience in real-life or too sheltered. Writing was how I translated my thoughts into something recognisable. Treating it as a job can be a complete drag because you have to think of yourself as a factory and your work as a product and your every indulgent whim may not be sellable or indeed readable by the general public, so doing this as a job,y uo have to temper your inner-censor and do what you want to do, stay close to your inner truth but deliver something that is worth a wider audience immersing themselves in. Otherwise, just keep a diary and never show anyone.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Modern Reviews - Final Fantasy VII Advent Children

The Japanese are immensely better than us at many things the first and most important thing is being completely batshit insane. Rather than being a hinderance this is actually highly beneficial to their creative output.

Today I watched the absolutely gorgeous but completely nonsensical Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. It's a feature film sequel to a video game released in 1997 on the PSX (PSone to all your UK fans). The gist of the video game put you in the shoes of the preposterously named Cloud Strife, an androgenous manga-haired blonde mercenary, on a quest to stop the sinister Shinra corporation from draining the planet of energy life force. For all this i remember Final Fantasy VII as being a spectacular game with an environmental slant all set in a dystopian japanese created wonderland in glistening 3D. This was back when 3D was new and crazy.

So it was with some vague nostalgic anticipation that I watched Advent Children today whilst working. Much to my amusement the storyline made absolutely no sense starting with the assumption that you knew what the fuck had been happening immediately before the titles started. I would find it hard to believe even a die hard fan could make sense of the plot or gain any further understanding of the Final Fantasy universe. However, and its a big however, the visuals blew my brains out. I have literally never seen any 3D animation of this quality and beauty. Protagonists clothes flap in the changing breezes, the typically oversized eyes glisten with real depth, and the large building destruction really have a weight to them. Stylistic flourishes tend to lead to insanely over the top concepts... Clouds main weapon is a 5 foot sword made up of at least 6 other swords and probably weighing at least half a tonne and yet he swings it around like an empty wrapping paper tube on Christmas eve. There is also about ten years too much fighting on motorbikes. And you thought there couldn't ever be too much fighting on motorbikes. Akira this is not.

Cloud seems to have changed from my memories of the PSX game from a chirpy plucky hero into the ultimate androgynous emo. It's like the lead singer of My Chemical Romance only more feminine, carrying impractical equipment, and being able to jump 40 feet in the air. Tifa's got bigger jebs though so i guess everything works out.

All in all... if you forget about the plot and the general ridiculousness of the whole thing this is a visually rewarding experience. It's like letting your eyes have sex with the most beautiful and incomprehensibly exotic person whilst they spout random gibberish about 'lifeforce' and 'remnants' and after its all over you cant tell if they're a man or a woman.

It's exactly like that.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Gemma Weekes - Love Me (Chatto & Windus 2009)

‘Love Me’ is the startling new novel by poet and singer Gemma Weekes, who as Goldiroxx and MisFit, has wowed and hynpotised audiences all over the country. Her ability to tell simple stories wracked with human emotion and real characters interacting has made her one of the best-loved must-see acts on the London poetry circuit. Having taken time off a few years ago to write her debut nove, flitting between New York sofas and Hackney homes, she has finally delivered a debut novel that is punk rock, and it is hip-hop and it is the purest form of poetry. Written in similes that drip with cultural relevance, rhythmical intelligence and poetical sibilance, she weaves textures into a simple tale where a punk rock girl falls in love with a hip-hop guy and obsesses over the perfect memory of a summer they once spent together. Now they’re grown but she never outgrew him and he’s trying to make his way, but she unsure and directionless, abandoned physically by her mother and emotionally by her father, holds on to him as the one perfect memory of her life. He is Zed and she is Eden. When Zed comes over from New York to be a rapper, she follows him around wracked by jealousy and consumed with envy for anyone who warrants his attention more than her. After a crisis point where she takes her obsession too far, she decamps to New York and her mystical but absent aunt’s family of strays who welcome her in and teach her to love herself. Empowered and ready to take on the world, hers is shook once more by the reappearance of Zed in her life and her burgeoning yet difficult relationship with privileged revolutionary rock musician Spanish. As they head for a cataclysmic conclusion, her mediations on love and what she thought was a traditional infatuation becomes a deeper manifestation of her soul.

Gemma Weekes uses the rhythms of poetry to weave a poetry that is snappy and tight. Each chapter is short, like a poem, a flurry of thoughts that build to a larger whole. The flips into letters and into poems are beautifully focused and keep the breaks in action smoothly ticking over. Weekes’ command of beautiful similes and achingly poignant metaphors for the path of love crashing and burning make this a strong self-assured piece of work, full of bravado like hip-hop, full of energy like punk rock. It’s a beautifully written debut novel and one that makes hip-hop and the communities of Hackney and New York accessible, yet in that London flex with the slangalang, and the inflections that would make any yoot daps your fist. The begging pleading naivety of a sentiment like ‘Love Me’ works well for conflicted and directionless Eden, a girl with no ambitions and no tether to her family or friends, someone who has simply existed in stasis coming alive for Zed only. But is he the one for her? Does he even want her? Well, you’ve have to read the novel to find out.

Gemma is performing at Book Slam on 26 February and deserves your time. She’s one of the sweetest, hard-working and lyrically sound performers I have ever had the pleasure of performing with, and this novel is proof enough that she is a true masterpiece author waiting in the wings. And with a debut this electric, she’s hasn’t got long to go before she explodes.

Close to You

This morning, I was standing on the reading my friend Gemma Weekes’ brilliant debut novel ‘Love Me’ on the tube (review to follow), when at Euston, suddenly piles and piles of people piled on. They pushed and shoved, trying desperately claw millimetres further into the carriage, begging for already packed-in sardine-commuters to push in further and move down the carriage. There was nowhere to go. A short woman ended up stood next to me, pressing into me. Usually this type of bodily closeness is completely uncomfortable and inappropriate, but on the tube, you just have to go with it. I had to accept that my butt was butt-kissing a businessman’s butt. I had to accept that no matter where I placed my hand on the rail, someone’s fingers would brush. You make do, suck it up and get on with it. Pressing into me was an angry-faced woman in her thirties, grimacing at being squashed in the busiest hour of the busiest day on the busiest network of trains in the country. The points of her boots was over my toes, she was leaning into me. I was in the middle of a tense section of the book and wanted to keep reading. I lifted the book close to my face, so close that my glasses were redundant and I carried on reading. This exchange followed:

‘Excuse me, can you get your book out of my face please?’
‘Your book. It’s too close to my face.’
‘It’s nowhere near your face.’
‘It is. It’s all I can see. I don’t like the cover, can you read it at some other time?’
‘I’m sorry but it’s not in your face and I wish to read my way through this uncomfortable journey.’
‘Look, sometimes, you just have to get on with it...’

WHAT? What? I HAVE to get on with it? She’s the one with face-book (geddit). I couldn’t believe it. I’m ashamed to say, I defied her and carried on reading, albeit with the pages practically brushing my nose in a new arena of closeness, so close that I could no longer decipher the text anymore. The commute is annoying, full of angry selfish people who don’t move down the carriage, leave their backpacks on, push into you, past you, through you, never say ‘excuse me’, cross their legs in the gangway creating no space to walk, fart, paint nails, eat kebabs, stare, pick their nose, have long loud conversations, listen to bad grime- it’s amazing isn’t it? All the country’s microcosmic filters all playing today nicely in a tiny carriage of doom and despair, like the black hole of Calcutta.

I got off the train and bought a Valentine’s card and joke-bawdy present for my betrothed. The American store manager was a ray of sunshine and joked with me about the bawdiness of the present and how it would be enjoyed and how she owned one and it was just a bit too close and a bit too familiar and she was too classically American-loud and overly talkative and I balked and retreated at her over-familiarity, I still had the rot and rage and repression of the tube leaking from my pores. I walked out of the shop and resolved that I should be nicer to people today even though it took me an hour to get from A to B this morning.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

M.Ward - Hold Time (4AD 2009)

Noel Gallagher-approved M.Ward has been making a quiet noise for a hot minute. His dalliances with indie-actress Zooey Deschanel produced the euphorically retro She & Him. His solo albums have always skirted best-of yearly lists, and with 'Hold Time', he might finally cross over from respected to known journeyman. His finger-plucking dalliances with acoustic guitar and his gravelly world-weary voice all compose a beautiful sound here. Opener 'For Beginners' in its acoustic glory, just man and axe, taunts us with its misdirection as it descends into the boogie-woogie love song electric squelch of 'Never Had Nobody Like You.' With Buddy Holly cover 'Rave On' and the ever poignant 'Fisher of Men' Ward provides a beguiling versatility to his sound, a real showman headily hitting the top of his craft. Former Grandaddy impressario Jason Lyttle pops up to lend a musical hand and Lucinda Williams adds her weighty vocals as well as Deschanel herself, helping out where help is needed. The homespun aesthetic and the remoteness of the context, the lyrical conceits all adds a superior weighty tone to a beautiful album.


Micachu and the Shapes - Jewellry (Rough Trade 2009)

This album has buzz oozing from its pours. Put back about three times as different labels scrabbled to get her, finally it sees its release on Rough Trade. Precocious experimental 21 year old Micachu brings out an album with her Shapes that has more wit invention ideas and ideals than the average BIG record from your favourite BIG band. Matching bizarre electronics with hyperactive drums and strummed acoustic guitars, this album is a scuzzy mess of invention and power-avant-garde pop. Songs mutate and genres tussle with each other for space as each song, though short is a breakneck explosion of different styles. Electronics pulse, hoovers create a dense fuzz around her voice, blessingly disguised as an instrument rather than a confessional zeitgeist hive of self-references like Kate Nash or Lily Allen. Her lyrics are often obscured by sounds and the vocals tend to provide a thudding rhythm rather than be spotlit. But her every yelp and tick has a benefit to the evolution and mutation of each song. From the horrorcore pulse of 'Vulture' the first evil jangle, a torrent of yelps is unleashed while drums and percussive 'found sounds' all make their mark on the track. 'Lips' explores grime and punk crossovers like an aural Venn diagram. In 'Sweetheart' and 'Eat your Teeth' she plays with her voice, sampling and manipulating its every squeal and yelp and processing them into explosions of off-kilter sequencing. 'Golden Phone' is the dirtiest pop punk song ever. It's amazing to hear so many ideas in each short song that by the exhausting 34th minute ending, you're left breathless and beguiled by the mess of ideas and complete auteurism on display. 'Worst Bastard' is vitriolic punk brilliance; 'Calculator' is 50s rockabilly manipulated into hip-hop rhythms. There are so many influences on here, it is ridiculous. From the grime MC-sampling 'Abandon Ship' to 'Turn Me Well's countrish tinge. It's only March and yet a strong surefire contender for album of the year has suitably laid down a gauntlet that will be impossible to match ideas and progressiveness with. Suitably fucking brilliant.

Website containing free grime mixtape download

N.A.S.A. - The Spirit of Apollo (ANTI 2009)

This album is nuts. It is crazy. It is full of life and character and complete mayhem. It’s the most over-indulgent album this year. It’s the hip-hop record most likely to appear to the hipsterrati, who tend to shy away from booming beats and aggressive rhythmical talking in favour of spiky angular singing. Squeak E. Clean is Spike Jonze’s brother and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ producer. DJ Zegon is a Brazilian baille funk wunderbar kid. This album is their chance to have a wet dream stellar cast. The wealth and richness of the cast of collaborators overweighs the album itself and I found myself loving it, salivating for it, lusting after it, obsessing over it for the first five spectacular listens, so won-over by the castlist was I. Only after the novelty died down did the cracks start to appear. But then, I thought, screw it, this is spectacular.

Nick Zinner and Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
Posthumous Ol’ Dirty Bastard
Method Man
Lykke Li
Lovefoxxx from CSS
Tom Waits
David Byrne
Kanye West
Fatlip from The Pharcyde
George Clinton

Phew, there are still more but these are the standouts. From the funk and yelp of Clinton and Chali 2Na’s rallying ‘There’s a Party Going On’ to Sizzla and Lovefoxxx’s soca-dripping ‘A Volta’, the disparate gamut of the hip-hop experience is lifted. It’s never downbeat, never too thoughtful or sombre. This is block-rocking party music throughout. Kanye and Santogold drip class and sophistication on the poptastic electro-beast that is ‘Gifted’ while the tailend of the album descends into booty-shaking entertaining baille funk. The true mastery of this album is the way the stars are mixed up. To hear Karen O alongside ODB suddenly sounds perfect, while Tom Waits’ disturbing wails offset Kool Keith’s spacious special raps. MIA, Spank Rock and Nick Zinner all bring disgusting riddims to the beguilingly aggressive and brilliant ‘Whatchudoing’. Ultimately, this is an album with no cohesive theme nor political agenda, nor concept like similar forays by Handsome Boy Modelling School and others, but it is the most interesting use of its cast. The production is tight and fun and always light, full of bass and bounce, while the castlist is a constantly rewarding treat. Treat yourself hipsters, rap isn’t scary, here, it’s just ridiculously funky. Essential listening.


Here is an extract from my as-yet-unpublished travel memoir, The Honorary Mzungu:

But the holidays beckoned and while the girls headed home for cheese, Eastenders Christmas specials and tinsel, Katie and I boarded an early morning flight to Nairobi. From River Road, one of the most dangerous roads in Nairobi, we took an incredibly bumpy bus west towards Lake Victoria and a town called Kisumu. The bus was over 8 hours long, through all manners of terrain, from mountainous to rural to shanty. The roads were all back-breakingly shaky and uneven. The bus driver, sick of trying to avoid the alarming array of pot-holes, took to driving straight through them rather than concentrate on avoiding them. It shook our spines out of alignment. Above us in the luggage racks, chickens tied into boxes bounced about and squawked when it got too much, their beaks poking through holes in the boxes. We couldn’t read as our eyes couldn’t focus through the jolts. We couldn’t play cards as they flew off our unstable laps. Eventually we gave up, tried talking and eventually fell into a silent admiration of the countryside flying past us. We stopped in Naivasha for samosas and toilets. We passed through long stretches of expanse. We neared Kisumu as darkness encroached.

We arrived in Kisumu, tired and worn and unused to being still. I retrieved our backpack from the boot of the bus. Katie and I looked around for a taxi. The bus driver glared at me and screamed at me in Swahili, like I had done something wrong. I shrugged at him dumbly and smiled. I couldn’t help him. He continued to shout. We tried to understand each other but he wouldn’t lower his voice and I couldn’t pick out any of his words as I had shamefully not made much attempt to learn Swahili. I felt so Brit-abroad. We walked out of the bus station towards the main road assuming we would find a taxi to our hotel. On the main road, I stepped forward to hail tuk-tuks screaming past us.

“OI! STOP IT! YOU CAN’T DO THAT!” I heard a scream behind me and whirled round to find a young boy trying to rip Katie’s handbag from around her head. The bag was around her neck so every time he yanked it fiercely, he only pulled her towards him, so savagely that she bit him on the nose at one point. I ran to her aide, grabbed the bag, containing her passport and half our funds for the week and wrestled it from his hands. He grunted and looked fiercely at me, flaring his bit nostrils and pulling the bag to his chest. Katie started to acquiesce and tried to take it off from around her neck as he was getting nowhere yanking it off her. He continued to pull though. I continued to wrench it back, on autopilot. A crowd gathered and stared at our violent stalemate. The boy dropped the bag into my hand, punched me square in my beautiful nose and ran off. A security guard blew his whistle and ran off after him.

Katie and I walked off quickly trying to find a taxi. The gathering crowd looked shocked. One asked if we are okay. We screamed that we are fine and that they should have helped us. My nose was bleeding freely all over my face and the back of my throat was tinged with blood. I coughed and cleared my throat on to the ground in bloody sputum. Katie and I walked off. We stomped out of the gathered crowd, our faces screwed at any other tryers. Katie tripped on the steep sharp curb, twisting her ankle as she fell off it. She burst into tears. I pushed people back away from us. I helped her up. She limped on. I could see car lights. People swarmed around us, a protective useless shield. In our states, we glared at them, too little too late. A man asked if we needed help finding a tuk-tuk. He led us in the direction we were walking in, down the deserted main road. We eventually found a tuk-tuk. My face was covered in blood. My beautiful nose throbbed. The tuk-tuk driver drove us two streets to our hotel and overcharged us in our hour of need. Opportunism. Thanks.

In our hotel, the apologetic hotel clerk found me some ice and some bandages for Katie. He apologised profusely for such an event, imploring us to not think Kisumu was dangerous.

In our room, we addressed my nose and dressed Katie’s ankle with some ice and we ate cold sandwiches and marvelled at our luck that the would-be mugger didn’t have a knife or worse and also that he didn’t get the bag, which contained all Katie’s money and passport and other useful bits like make-up and a reading book I hadn’t had the chance to consume yet.

I read the Lonely Planet’s dangers and annoyances section about Kisumu as we huddled together in our room, united against the outside world. It warns us against steep curbs and glue-sniffing purse-snatchers. Why oh why did I gloss over that bit in the shaky coach?

Our night was fraught with fear and paranoia. The drip-drip of taps and the tap-tap of shoes and the coo-coo of birds and the creak-creak of rooms and beds surrounded us. We whispered to each other frightened. Should we go home? Were we safe? Was everyone under suspicion? All those friendly warnings our paranoid Asian friends gave us, were they all true? Was Africa safe? Did we need to return to England? Would we be safer on the streets of fashionable Brixton, where we used to live? Of course, walking out of a bus station lamenting your disorientation and the lack of taxis and wearing a big Western tourist backpack did scream vulnerable but still, why us? We felt like victims.

The next day we got up feeling miserable. Both of us had dreamt about being attacked by unknown forces in various guises and scenarios. I went downstairs to enquire about buses back to Nairobi as we were considering just going home to the sunny safety of Mombasa. Ahh, the beach, the sea breeze, the dodgy cops, and Cinemax… lovely lovely Cinemax. It felt so far away.

As I related our tale to the worried receptionist, an American lady who overheard me approached us and told me she was a relief nurse and would look at Katie’s ankle and my nose. My nose was fine, she told me, just emotionally scarred. Katie had twisted her ankle. The nurse dressed the ankle tightly and gave her some tiger balm to ease the swelling. We decided we needed to regain our adventurous mojo so took a stumbling walk around the town in the daylight in an attempt to demystify the air of dark forces by facing them in the daylight. Unfortunately, it was foggy and cold and everyone stared at us menacingly. Kids followed us, sucking on bottles of booze, their eyes glazed and fiercely red. There was a menacing air around us. Everything seemed shut. We did not like this place. We contemplated going home the next day. Katie suggested a field trip out of the town to a fishing village on Lake Victoria to raise our spirits, as we could go back that day. We hopped in a hotel-sanctioned taxi and headed to Dunga, by Hippo Point, on Lake Victoria.

Dunga was tiny and thin, on a long stretch of road. People were surprised to see Western faces pass through and all stopped to look at us. The kids were fascinated and smiled at us, shouting ‘how are you?’ as we hobbled past. We cut up the coast of the Lake towards a beach resort where we were spotted by a bunch of playing kids. Two of them stopped, fixated by Katie and they ran up to her. They stopped in front of her and she greeted them with a smile. They touched her skin, fascinated by its whiteness. One of them rubbed a mole on her arm. One kid was playful, funny and full of giggles. The other had a distended stomach, bites all over his face and legs and an unhappy grimace. He was extremely clingy. He took to Katie and grabbed her little finger with his entire small hand, melting our hearts. The other kid did the same with her other hand and they walked silently with us as we walked to the beach resort. Everyone we passed laughed at them, obviously knowing who the children belonged to. There was no fear here, like in Britain where we fear the paedos and the crack so we lock our children up in front of Playstations and Sky Plus boxes. Here, children were free and if they wanted to escort two fearful Westerners to a hotel on the Lake, then that’s what they would do. No one tried to sell us anything, no one hassled us, everyone just smiled and laughed. Mostly because we were walking, Katie was hobbling in a comedic way and there was no barrier of a car.

The unhappy kid eventually grabbed my little finger as well and we became a huge walking family. Our fears started to dissipate. These children were melting our hearts. I considered doing a Madonna and adopting one. When we arrived at our destination, it took some effort to disconnect ourselves from the kids. We considered taking them inside for a snack but disapproving looks from the doorman made them scarper before we could challenge the social taboos. We had a drink of tea inside and marvelled at this oasis of luxury in the middle of a poor fishing village.

Later, we went up to Hippo Point on Lake Victoria, which was the best place to see hippos in this part of the lake. We got on a rickety wooden boat with some other Kenyan tourists and a man I swear to this day was Sir David Attenborough, and we paddled out on to the Lake. Katie and I were careful to try not get too splashed by the water as it was notorious for being full of snail-parasites. We saw hippos and monkeys and fishermen. A hippo reared its head not far from the boat and started to give it chase, giving us a momentary panic. Everyone, it seemed, was out to get us. Through conversation with one of the guides on the boat, we discovered that Kisumu was changing. It used to be a thriving port town, but now there was nothing, no industry, no work and children, with no hope of future employment, were turning more and more to robbery and drink. He said that all the kids in the street had the dead red-eyes of glue-sniffing and they were ruthless. He told us we were lucky. He told us of two incidents of vigilante justice in the last year: One, where a would-be mugger was shot by the guy he was trying to mug. Another, where a would-be mugger tried to mug a Japanese tourist. The Japanese tourist broke his arm first and then gave him the money anyway. Pure badass. The guide marvelled at our luck that the would-be mugger didn’t have a knife or worse. The sun shone off Lake Victoria as we sailed, the water itself was brown with mud and contained potentially violent hippos or parasites, but it was so beautiful. We watched monkeys swing from sausage trees to scoop up handfuls of water. We watched the far-off glimmer of Tanzania. We saw ghosts of a former industry left to ruin in favour of road-destroying lorries. We soon returned to land.

After a restorative trip around Hippo Point and an encounter with police asking our boat for money to let us hit land, we felt like we were getting that spirit back, that adventurous fire. So we checked out of our hotel and drove up with a taxi driver to Kitale in the north. We were too chicken to take a matatu north. We passed members of Luo tribes, with white painted faces, headed to towns for initiation ceremonies. Our taxi driver for the day yesterday, it turned out, was planning to drive up to Kitale anyway to take his son there for Christmas. Our temporary fear of buses and matatus meant that we offered to pay his petrol and a little extra to go with him. He agreed. As we drove out of Kisumu, we drove past an incident of mob rule. A would-be mugger was being beaten by a huge crowd of people. It was a horrible sight, one of real violence and contempt. We wondered whether to call the police, until we saw them idly standing by. Mob rule was more disturbing than actual mugging. Although, it did make me wonder whether petty theft ought to be the crime of choice for Kisumu residents. None of them seem very successful at it.

The drive to Kitale was slow and bordering on boring. The roads were smoother and Chacha, our driver had better suspension than the cross-country bus. We were rising up and up into the Western Highlands and it was getting colder and colder. Along the way, we drove through 10 separate police check-points. We were stopped at 3 different ones, so the police could walk around the car and spot something wrong. Only once did a policeman manage to spot something wrong, which was the licence plates. Our driver had all the correct official paperwork showing why there was a problem with the licence plates and that it was in the process of getting sorted. The policeman caused a fuss though, and in the end, for the sake of ease, the driver gave him some money to not be difficult and we pressed on. The driver noted to us that even when you are in the right, if they want to cause a problem they will, the easiest option was to always just give them money and move on. They could cause a fuss about anything, and they would. Who would you rather? The cops or the robbers, I wondered? Police and thieves, the age-old reggae question…

In Kitale, we were dropped off in the middle of town where we wondered about for an hour taking in this bustling tiny little place. After consuming a plate of chips, we found reasonably-priced transportation to 20 km out of Kitale, a farmhouse near an equatorial swamp we wanted to visit. The farmhouse was owned by Mad Jo’s mum. Mad Jo’s mum was away so we were dealing with Mad Jo. An eccentric 50 year old ex-pat spinster with a growth defect on her arm, a shrill voice and a career in meddling, she was constantly making and changing plans for us. She was short with wild stringy mousy blonde hair, which her short arm would sometimes get caught in and she would flounder to free herself. Her constant flicks of her stringy hair usually caused the clasping. She was bossy and confusing and commanding and irritating all at once. She greeted us with a barrage of confusion about where we would be sleeping. She had so far neglected to email us a current tariff for staying with her, so when we arrived and found out how expensive the rooms were, we immediately downgraded ourselves to a tent at the back of the farmhouse. We also found out that the farmhouse was not walking distance from the swamp, as inferred in our guidebook, but a good 6km away. The tariff also hinted at hidden costs. She offered us tea and cake, which we accepted, weary from a day’s travelling and haggling with local law enforcements. She was gracious and we were thirsty. She told us she would only accept cash as cheques were useless in Kenya. This was without us engaging her in any conversations about payment. On seeing the tariffs, we started to worry about how much cash we had left. During a relaxing tea and cake, she started hustling us to take a walk of the surrounding area. She coerced us into paying one of her guides -but paying him through our final bill, so she could take her cut obviously- on taking us for this walk. She was colonial in the extreme. She had communicated with me through a dozen phone calls triple-confirming we were coming. She had earned the moniker Mad Jo. She was a master of the guilt-trip. We were a bit annoyed at her subtle coercion but it ended up being an entertaining walk.

We walked. The guide tried to flirt awkwardly with Katie, asking her if he could come visit her in the UK. He told me about his love for Wayne Rooney. We met all the local children, who ran up to us to say ‘how are you?’ and begged us to take their photo, which we did and showed them the results immediately on the camera screen. They were amazed and shrieked that they were now inside a camera. We saw fields of tea plants and fields of guava and avocado trees and coffee plant orchards and found it outside our frame of reference that this stuff was just there, growing. It had seemed in the realms of the exotic before. This was stuff you saw over-packaged in supermarkets. Here, it grew wildly and here it was farmed and here it was a normal sight. The kids kept coming, thick and fast, fascinated with Katie’s skin. When she replied to their ‘how are yous’ we found that they couldn’t reply, so we switched to our pidgin Swahili and they were amazed that we could speak their Daviduage. Later Mad Jo chided the guide for not shooing the children away and we defended him, saying it was the best part of the whole experience. We had our first hot showers in months and went up to her colonial farmhouse for our expensive half-board dinners. She put on a huge three course meal with options for meat-, fish- and vegetable eaters. There was an abundance of food. She had three smiley Kenyan servants who she commanded through the use of a bell on the table that she rang abruptly when things came to mind. We found it embarrassing, as did the other guests, an amiable Dutch family, staying there. We all smiled at the servants and tried to communicate to them with our eyes and our ‘thank yous’ and ‘pleases’ that we were sorry Mad Jo was so bossy, and a bit Victorian England in her treatment of them. No one should be summoned by bell. There was no upstairs and no downstairs here. Status remained important here.

We went to sleep that night, in an outside tent, freezing, with hot water bottles, creepy crawlies dropping by, strange moonlit sounds echoing around us. We huddled in one of the tent’s single beds, shivering and trying to fall asleep in the pitch black surroundings.

The next day in the farmhouse, we were bombarded with a full English breakfast to set us up for the day. Over breakfast, we agreed with the Dutch family to all go to the swamp together the next day. That way, they could drive us and we could split the charge of the expensive swamp guide, much to Mad Jo’s annoyance. She was haemorrhaging money here. She attempted to convince us that the Dutch family’s car was too small and we were imposing on them, but we ignored her. She repeatedly checked with them whether they minded us tagging along. They told her it was fine. She told us we were being rude. We said it was fine. She saw the money she was losing set aflame in her mind’s eye and sloped off to assert some power over someone. Minutes later, we heard shouting from the kitchen.

Saiwa Swamp is famous for being the home of evolved antelope that are now semi-aquatic and spend their time submerged in water, so we were anxious to see this natural anomaly.

We headed out with flirty Benson, the guide from yesterday to a nearby waterfall. We took a matatu to the next village where we caught a taxi up to the hills looking up towards Mount Elgon on the Ugandan border. There, we trekked down towards a waterfall. Benson was more subdued today. He mentioned something about a telling off from Mad Jo about letting us near the locals. We said we would put in a good word for him. Katie reassured him. He said it was better to not say anything at all. She was good at twisting words, he thought. As we started to descend towards the edge of the waterfall, my vertigo kicked in. I started to feel like the wind was pushing me towards the edge, calling me to jump or fall into the expanse before me. I was being dragged down and to the side. My legs were shaky and my mind was all over the place. Katie and Benson continued down to the edge, while I sat in a field of grazing cows and tried to calm down a little. I breathed in and out; I slow my breath down to a regular beat and wrote some quick thoughts down in a notebook braving the elements. They soon returned and we walked back to where we left the taxi, to find that the taxi was no longer there. There was a trail of tyre scrapes and nothingness into the distance.

Our guide lost his cool and started cursing the taxi driver. He was supposed to be a friend of Benson’s, but he had driven off, leaving us stranded in the hills, next to a scenically colourful Pentecostal church where they were singing in a multitude of Daviduages from English to Swahili to Latin, and a red soiled dirt track. Plus, the driver had driven off with Benson’s only waterproof jacket. He was not happy. His cool flirty façade slipped. He seemed a lot more real in that moment. His genuine annoyance was in stark contrast to the polished jovial flirty guide that Mad Jo had been training up since he was 13.. We trekked 2 miles back up to the main road and waited for passing cars to stop and assist us.

Some kids came out to play with us. Their mad dad soon joined them, wild dreads under his beret, slightly insane tone to his English accent, he was a wonderfully colourful character. He laughed at our predicament when Benson explained it to him. He laughed at us and offered to take us to his home, which was behind us, women peering out of windows at these strange strangers. The surprise always came when we weren’t in cars. Used to walking, tubing and cycling everywhere, it was normal for us to walk five/ten/fifteen minutes down the road. Going to the internet café every morning, I found everyone smiling at me, actually walking, actually outside. We declined as we were waiting for the possibility of cars on this remote road. Pigs squeaked, long grass swayed, shacks surrounded, there was nothing else for miles around. This was a gloriously beautiful spot, away from anything that offered Western comfort. I felt that fleeting pang of being in Africa. This is realer than Nyali, I kept thinking. T-I-A… This Is Africa. The mad dad kept us company. He asked where I was from. I replied, ‘England’ and he told me he didn’t believe me. I didn’t look white. I ran him through the condensed history of me, through the gamut of my parent’s origins in India, Kenya and Aden and he laughed and said that I could not say I was an international person because it was obvious my heart is in England, so I must be English. He said, it’s important to know where your heart feels most at home. He winked at me and let this sage advice sit with me. He looked at Benson and told him he could help us with our stranded predicament.

He called his brother-in-law who owned a taxi, and half an hour later, he arrived to pick us up and drive us back to the village where we got the original taxi from.

In the village, Benson seethed and said he needed to wait for the taxi driver to re-emerge so he could get his jacket back. Katie and I decided to go back to the farmhouse and told Benson to point us to the right matatu and leave us to it, as he lived near this village and it made no sense to us for him to drop us off and come back again on a pointless round-trip. We had taken matatus before. We could cope. He explained that he couldn’t let us go back alone, and he certainly couldn’t bring us back early as Mad Jo would be angry. We told him that either way it was our choice what we wanted to do as it was our holiday. We said that we would go back but he should just go home. He protested, saying that Mad Jo would tell him off for allowing us to go home unaccompanied. We noted aloud that she sounded like a difficult boss. We could do what we wanted. If we felt comfortable going back, surely we could. It would be a 90 minute round-trip for him. It was pointless. She sounded crazy. His knowing smile spoke volumes. We decided to wait with him for the taxi driver who had stranded us, so Benson could get his jacket back. We waited an hour, walking through the narrow rural markets, picking through charity shop clothes from the UK and US, marvelling at the New York chic second-hand shop dream t-shirts in front of us, wondering if we could make a killing on Brick Lane with T-shirts advertising the Alabama Hawkwinds and Joe’s Diner and Bob’s Repair Shop and every generic profession and small-town football town that ever existed.

The taxi driver eventually returned. This lead to a tense showdown between the taxi driver and Benson. Benson climbed into his car and they had a heated argument. Benson grabbed his jacket and wrenched it in his clenched fists. Benson, looking like he may lash out at the driver, caught sight of us in the corner of his eye, remembered himself, wrenched his jacket out of the car and led us away, grinding his teeth. He told us that the driver’s excuse was nothing more than ‘I didn’t know if you would be coming back.’

Back at the farmhouse, we met a new arrival, an American called Jenny travelling on her own. Mad Jo approached Katie and ordered her to make friends with Jenny, ‘unless, of course, your boyfriend values his privacy too much’ she added snidely, referring to my argumentative ways. Jenny was travelling alone and came to the farmhouse on the same pretext that we did, that it appeared close to the swamp. We learned that since her arrival Jenny had also been subjected to some Mad Jo-isms in the last hour. She had been banned from coming to dinner tonight as this would upset the table arrangements already laid out. She could have soup as long as she was finished 30 minutes before we wanted to start. She could however sit in an armchair by the fire. The look in Mad Jo’s eyes when Jenny moved the armchair around to face the dinner table could have floored a hippopotamus in hot pursuit. She has also been forbidden from going to the swamp with the Dutch family and us the following day, or even asking permission as this would disturb the other guests. This would not be appropriate. Mad Jo sent us over some tea and cake while Jenny related all this to us.

Over dinner, we learned more about Mad Jo. She was not in Saiwa out of choice. Her mum was ill, and so she has been summoned from the coast to help with the running of the farmhouse as her mum refused to move. Mad Jo had now been here since 1997. She grew up in Kenya. Mad Jo’s family were some of the original settlers. They were now the only ones left in the area and Mad Jo’s father had helped to turn the swamp into national parkland. We started to understand, but not accept, her Victorian attitude to servitude and money a lot better now that we knew that she was not in fact an ex-pat. She was the generational remnants of a white colonialist, one of the originals and one of the last few remaining. This did not excuse the horrid attitude she carried towards her black staff, nor the rigid way she insisted those around her conducted themselves.

During dinner, the Dutch family invited Jenny to come with us all to the swamp, as it made no sense paying three different guides when we could all pay one. Mad Jo’s face turned sour, turning green with the colour of money she would not be making through the backdoor. As we all said our goodnights, Mad Jo, in an attempt to confuse Jenny, asked her what her plans were for the next day. Jenny stated that she was going to the swamp with the rest of us. Mad Jo asked her how she planned on getting there as the Dutch family had said they had no room for her. She said she would manage somehow, deciding that ignoring her is better than fighting her on her home turf.

Saturday morning and we were up at 6am to go see these mythical semi-aquatic antelope. We all squeezed into the Dutch car. Mad Jo came out to note surprise at all the tag-a-longs. She told the Dutch family she apologised for the situation and they were able to say no if they wished. The leader of the Dutch troupe told Mad Jo definitively that she personallyhad invited us all. Jo watched us as we drove away twirling her hair with her shorter arm, chewing her bottom lip.

After a trek around a park disturbing the mythical evolved creatures, we returned to the farmhouse, packed up and settled up with Mad Jo. We discovered that Mad Jo had been sneakily charging us for all those benevolent cups of tea and pieces of cake. We would have to we pay her by cheque as we did not have enough cash. The hidden costs she had added pushed us over the budget for the rest of our entire trip. We still had 4 days to go. She made us add a handling charge, and a service charge for all her staff. She tried to test my honesty by writing the wrong number of beers down on the bill, before questioning me on how many I drank, just to see what I would say. I couldn’t remember and had assumed the beers were part of the exorbitant cost. She caught me out, as I was unable to remember, it being her responsibility to keep tabs not mine.

‘I can’t remember. Three?’

‘I think it was more like four wasn’t it?’

We paid, worried about cash and head back into Kitale.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Smoking on the mic like Smokin' Joe Frazier

The hellraiser... raising hell with the flava.

Yesterday I met with the incredible Marc Lee Brown and BuzzLightBrown (my future Bhangra Pistol). Three musical minds, in a pub, playing Joy Division and Belle and Sebastian, and what did we talk about? Vocoders; Logic plug-ins; basslines? No- films and television cop shows. We spent a good hour discussing the finer points of Slumdog Millionaire, the lesser points of The Shield and the wilder side of Will Smith. It was a real dichotomy to what we should have been talking about. Music, man... music. We did live twitters from the pub and tried our best to keep warm. Marc told us about his latest work, nurturing a talent called Ishen Amara, a gifted young songwriter. BuzzLightBrown told us about his dayjob doing webshit. And I lectured everyone on the importance of Oxford commas, which they didn't give a f*** about.

Later the iPhone came out and Buzz showed us an amazing new plug-in application where you can have a virtual MPC player on your iPhone so you can have 16 pads, cut up your own samples and tap in your own beats. Incredible. We played about with it. Then after Marc left, Buzz and I started brainstorming lyrics hooks and ideas for Bhangra Pistols. The only problem was, we were two thirty year olds sat in a pub in Camden freestyling, attracting stares from the indie-a-like droids around us, all perturbed by our rhyming apparations, trying our hardest to sound scattological like Ghostface or Doom or poignant and political like Chuck D or Nas.

Things we learned last night:

1) Will Smith should stick to big Willie style films.
2) iPhones rule.
3) Twittering from the pub is pointless.
4) Haloumi kebabs rule.
5) Marc Lee Brown needs more sleep.

The end.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Radiohead - 15 Step at the Grammys

Hanif Kureishi - Something to Tell You (Faber 2009)

Hanif Kureishi’s latest novel takes on a weighty subject on which he is a profound expert: himself. Crushingly unambitious from a personal hero of mine, someone whose grace, humour and pomposity made him such an electric writer in his time has now taken the time to fart out a book that lazily conveys his opinion on everything in London through the thin veil of a wafer-thin plot. Hanif Kureshi plays Jamal Khan, a psychiatrist with some problems. He’s left his wife. He’s in his fifties. He’s super-cool, suave, pretentious, sexy, a stoner, brimming with important friends and gutter-street origins. He flirts, gets high, says ‘wha’garn’ to his son and listens to 50 Cent and M.Ward. Hanif Kureishi is a man trying to hold on to his cool status in his old age by playing a man trying to hold on to his cool status. It is a breezy read and fun and funny but there are elements- like where he only ever singles out peripheral black characters but never white or brown; his referencing of mainstream and underground culture; the vicarious unrealistic old-man sex; the attitude to other Asians (they’ve all written novels) that make you wonder why he bothered phoning in this work. At 500 pages, a thinly disguised mediation on the power of guilt and the folklore of old travesties washed away by living them into your past stretches barely across its bow. Kureishi... sorry Khan, jumps from anecdote to anecdote where ostensibly the result is that he comes off as cool, suave and calm.

The plot is thus: Jamal once loved Ajita. He found out a detail about her he couldn’t handle causing him to commit an act of violence. She disappeared. He went mad. He then saw a shrink, fell in love with him, became a shrink, had a few more affairs and a son who is his best buddy. Along the way his best friend and riotous sister are engaging in extreme sex, he gets involved. Then Ajita returns into his life and it is flipped about 30degrees off-kilter. Everything happens as should and is dealt with easily. Jamal is the only character worth caring about because so little time in invested in the others. Everything is peripheral to his descriptions of his consummate attention to the latest trends and things and his thoughts on London. Quite bizarrely and unnecessary he crowbars the timescale into the 7/7 bombings and it becomes a subplot about fear and London’s cathartic unity, yet bears no relation on anything else. I don’t hate this book and I do covet Kureishi’s sardonic tone and wayward way with words, but this book is lazy and plump, phoned in and containing as much depth as a Girls Aloud opera. Lazy in its rehashing of similar Kureishi staple characters, bohemiam intellectuals, disparate deadbeats, immigrant marauders and sexual deviants, down to the resurgence of characters from My Beautiful Laundrette and The Buddha of Suburbia, completely unnecessary and lazy for a man of Kureishi’s wit and invention. This is pretty light disappointing stuff from someone who could do a lot better. It’s just a shame it was so entertaining and easy to read at the same time, quite the pickle.