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Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest (2011)

Issued some eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, it would be wrong to describe The Harrow and the Harvest as a hotly anticipated release, a phrase usually reserved for the second album of a promising debutant. Instead, I, like many, had largely forgotten that Welch was still out there in the musical ether, battling against writer’s block to compose a new batch of lazy country numbers with long-time partner and collaborator, David Rawlings (both of whom were heavily involved with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker).

The Harrow makes no attempts at a new musical direction, nor should it when you are widely regarded as one of the finest roots singers of your generation. Instead, it’s business as usual as Rawlings’ fingers scale the steel strings like an enchanted spider on gentle opener Scarlet Town before giving way to the naked beauty of Welch’s soaring voice on Dark Turn of the Mind. Each song is exemplary and without flaw, and I can think of few finer albums to stick on at a generous volume on a Sunday afternoon while reclining, eyes shut, on the sofa while the woozy charm of classic Americana passes over you. It is a cleansing experience.

By all accounts the duo come into their own during live performances, where familiar songs are treated to new meandering arrangements and I must make a point of seeing a show the next time they are in the UK. Check out the gorgeous clips below. Admittedly, Miss Ohio is not from the new album but it is one of my favourite songs – any excuse etc…

Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (2011)

The inclusion of Adam’s 13th studio album on this list (not taking into account his Whiskeytown records, Suicide Handbook, bootlegs etc) is more a reflection on my joy at hearing him put out some decent music for the first time since Cold Roses, a two-disc release from 2005, rather than this being a gold-plated must have. For those not familiar with Adams other than his Wonderwall cover (which Noel Gallagher started to use himself afterwards), to many people he was – for a few fleeting years – the finest musician of his generation who proceeded to waste his prodigious talent on liquor, drugs and dubious musical choices. I can still recall the goose bumps on my arms when I saw him for the first time at a sweaty Bristol Academy in January 2004 (Jesse Malin stood a few feet away from me) –a performance that ended with the wasted Adams deserting his band and playing Nobody Girl on the bar while bumming cigarettes off the ever-obliging and rapturous crowd. Despite his inebriation, the show was a blinder. At his next performance in Liverpool, his luck ran out and he feel off the stage, braking his wrist in the process which hampered his playing for many years.

Ashes and Fire is a welcome move away from the guitar-driven sound of the later Cardinal albums to the country soul/stripped-back sound of Whiskeytown and his masterpiece, Heartbreaker. As with all of Adams’ best records, the guitar playing is simple yet thoughtful and tight, with percussion only- if at all –featuring as gentle back-up, rather than a dominant instrument. Not all of the tracks work: Come Home is a pedestrian non-event and Save Me is – to quote Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of a Monster – undoubtedly ‘stock’. However, the rest of the album is solid fare, with Dirty Rain, the title track and Lucky Now welcome additions to the Adams cannon. You get the feeling listening to Ashes and Fire that this is the sober Adams working out how to write decent music without the sauce – a record as therapy, if you like; fingers-crossed the next ones will see him reach the levels of old.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

Jewellery - Primark-chic, as modeled by Kanye

Kanye and ‘The Jigga’s’ 2011 joint offering is the aural equivalent of going full retard – a brazen homage to fame, excess and bathing in the benjamins carried off with the musical and lyrical panache of two commercial rappers at the top of their game. Much has been made of the similarities to Kanye’s excellent Twisted Fantasy album, and it is true that The Throne takes in the layered vocals and eerie synths that dominated Kanye’s last album, although this is a more polished commercial sound designed to rattle the tills.

The pair are at their best delivering solid crowd pleasers such as the Redding sampling Otis, a strong contender for the Cowboy’s wedding playlist (I’d die a happy man after seeing my grandma shake her booty while mouthing “looking like wealth, I’m about to call the paparrazi on myself”), and the dirty slider Niggas in Paris (“fuck that bitch she don’t wanna dance, excuse my French but I’m in France”). Critics of the album cite the leaps in sound between tracks and indeed they don’t all flow, mixing by-numbers Rhianna-flavoured R n’ B with tight James Brown vocal samples. However this is a minor quam.

Personal favourites are Welcome to the Jungle, which shows off Jay-Z at his best, riffing to a mundane yet hypnotic staccato beat, and opener No Church in the Wild, heavy on strings with a predatory bass grove, while Kanye muses on drugs, threesomes and how Jesus ‘laid beats’. An album built on two guys talking about how great they are will to many be a nauseating affair, but I for one enjoyed shuffling on my sofa, vicariously drinking in their glory. It would be a cold man who would begrudge them their right to brag.

John Smith – Eavesdropping (2011)

Those of you who read my post on my most-listened albums of the past decade (https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/) will be aware of Devonian musician, John Smith, one-time school friend of my missus and unsigned by choice. His second and last album Map or Direction was a beauty and is available to all on Spotify – give it a go.

His latest offering was recorded on a whim at his bassist’s house over a one-week period and is, as the album title suggests, a collection of covers taking in mainstream sources as diverse as The Stone Roses, Elton John and Christina Aguilera, as well as lesser-known bands. Smith is a virtuoso guitar player in the mould of John Martyn who was his mentor and with whom he played for a number of years before his passing. Therefore like Martyn, his songs rely heavily on imaginative fret work, dropped-G tuning and groove riddled guitar-slapping. What stands Smith out from other talented singer-songwriters is the depth of his voice which he showcases to good effect on Eavesdropping, in particular the wonderful Elton John cover, That’s Why they Call it the Blues (see below); a voice that hushes and booms from one moment to the next.

Other highlights are This Killer Wave penned by a local band in Liverpool (where Smith now lives) and Jenny Again by obscure folk-act Tuung. The Aguilera cover is Genie in a Bottle, and I feel truly old realising that this was released by the scantily-clad Glitter-fodder in 1999. Smith’s version is a stripped-down plucking affair and I hear that it has recently gained airtime on BBC Radio6, however for me it’s a bit of a non-event and the same applies to Not Over Yet, formerly a dance anthem (yeh man Ibiza bruv innit etc) by Paul Oakenfold, whose face I always thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a compressed pickled scrotum (or rather my projection of one). Clearly, Smith is the kind of musician who likes a cross-spectrum of styles and will never lose the desire to throw in the odd curveball. But these are minor gripes on what is otherwise an excellent interim album, pending his next proper release.

Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

This was an impulse purchase after a suitably wordy 8.8 Pitchfork review (“the sound casts Bejar’s songs in a very particular light, and reinforces the feeling of the singer as persona” – yup, sure) and therefore I must confess to coming to the record with no prior knowledge of Destroyer or their members’ work.

The most striking thing about the album is the overall tone and sound, which flitters between Roxy Music, Steely Dan and The Pet Shop Boys, with a bit of Talking Heads thrown in (the album’s title track has a similar retro glitchy computer effect to that used in Once in a Lifetime). There is also a sense of film noir to proceedings, and I doubt that the naming of Chinatown and its inclusion as the album’s opener is a coincidence. Songs are cultured out of Casio synth, lazy chord strums, occasional heavy bass hooks and cheesy woodwind; for a moment they catch your ear before drifting off with the breeze.

Indeed, if I was to offer a one-line critique to stick on the front of the album it would probably be “sumptuous porn music by the XX” and I am pretty sure that if you crank up the volume on Blue Eyes and crane your ears to the speakers at 1:58, you can hear the gentle patting of Ron Jeremy’s waist against the buttcheeks of an obliging freshman. Ok, perhaps not but you get the idea.

It is difficult to explain why an album that is so inconsequential and derivative is both fresh and revelatory, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that each song is executed incredibly well. The title track is a good example – a multi-instrument number where deep thought has clearly been given to the timings of the various parts. The result is a rich array of sounds soaring against one another complete with soft male/female harmonies. Closer The Bay of Pigs catches you on the blindside, with a rambling vocal about nothing in particular suddenly brought to life by strings, percussion, harmonies and euphoric hand-clapping. It is a joy. Shit name for a band, though.

A few of the books enjoyed by the Cowboy in 2011 (not necessarily written in that year):

The End of the Party – The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Andrew Rawnsley)

Following the inevitable plethora of political memoirs that followed new labour’s demise in 2010, it was difficult to determine fact from fiction with each offering spun in favour of the author and his actions, no doubt to the detriment of the truth. Sight alone of Rawnsley’s chronicling of labour’s conduct in office following its second general election victory, suggests that his will be a more satisfactory appraisal, running as it does to 895 pages including 90 pages of references. Readers of The Observer will be familiar with Rawnsley’s concise and informative political commentary and it is this tight style, together with the attention to detail and quality of the sources (Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Powell, Balls, Darling etc), that gives The End its authoritative voice.

I do not consider myself as having more than a passing interest in politics, but I devoured The End in several days, captivated by the punchy, often wry and humorous writing used to describe the many key disagreements that punctuated this mostly shambolic government. The chapters covering the Brown and Blair wars are fascinating, and it is incredible to think that they managed to promote a (largely) united front to the unknowing public for so many years. Brown, in particular, comes across as the most grotesque individual imaginable; an emotionally retarded, yet physical hulk of a man with no concept of how his behaviour affected others:

“‘He was astonishingly rude to people.’ Civil servants were shocked by his habit of abruptly getting up and leaving meetings when officials were in the middle of speaking. He became notorious within the building for shouting at the duty clerks, bawling at the superbly professional staff who manned the Number 10 switchboard and blowing up at the affectionately regarded ‘Garden Girls’, so called because the room from which they provide Downing Street’s secretarial services overlooks the garden. When one of the secretaries was not typing fast enough for an angrily impatient Prime Minister, he turfed the stunned garden girl out of her chair and took over the keyboard himself. Word of these incidents reached the alarmed ears of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was becoming increasingly anxious about the Prime Minister’s behaviour. The Cabinet Secretary was so concerned about the garden girl episode that he made his own inquiries into it. Though the worst excesses of the Prime Minister’s temper were kept hidden, it was inevitable that some accounts began to filter out across Whitehall and then into the media, which reported stories about mobile phones being hurled in fury and the furniture being kicked.

One civil servant who applied for a position at Number 10 was asked at the interview whether he could cope with ‘extreme verbal abuse’ and violence done to objects. The civil servant was so scared by the description of what it could be like to work for the Prime Minister that he withdrew his application.”

Aside from the intrigue of warts-and-all access to our decision makers, what struck me was the draining nature of high politics – the frequent 6am talks, late-night skulduggery, briefings and de-briefings with the individual all the while expected to function as a human being. Family life seldom receives any mention and it is hard to see where moments that we take for granted – a simple Sunday lunch, a pleasant afternoon stroll – could ever feature in a career politician’s schedule packed with issues such as war, internal conflict and the credit crunch. No wonder Cherie turned into a fruit-loop.

Boxer Beetle (Ned Beauman)

“A collector of Nazi memorabilia. A nine-toed gay Jewish boxer. A 1930s aristocrat with a yen for eugenics. Ned Beauman’s time-travelling debut takes the cast list from the film Tarantino never made and adds perhaps the creepiest McGuffin of all time: a swastika-marked beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri.”

– Time Out

Whoever wrote the above paragraph that appears on the reverse of Ned Beauman’s entertaining debut novel should receive a stiff pat on the back for services to decent copywriting. It was likely the duel references to a nine-toed gay Jewish boxer and a swastika-marked beetle bearing Hitler’s name that encouraged me to dispense with £7.99 of my hard-earned English wonga. Thankfully, it was a worthwhile punt.

The book travels between the present day and the mid-1930s, with the modern-day narrative tracking the exploits of a Nazi memorabilia collector and the historic chapters dealing with said gay Jewish boxer (Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach) and hapless facist and discoverer of Anophthalmus Hitleri, Philip Erskine. Sinner is a ridiculous creation, an aggressive short-arse who lives for booze, fighting and squalid sexual encounters, barely offering sentences extending beyond one or two words (often a curt, “fuck off”, which reminds me of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski“shut the fuck up, Donny”). The narrative is fast-paced with hugely enjoyable exchanges between Sinner and the awkward Erksine:

“And just then, as he watched, the beetle shot out of the case with an explosion of glass and soil and flew straight for the opposite table, on which there was a sack of live earthworms that Erksine had ordered from a fishing shop in Richmond. It punctured the bag with a meaty thud and then the bag began to shiver. Erksine screamed.

‘Roach! Roach! Come, for God’s sake!’

Sinner came in and stared at the bag.

‘Get it out!’

‘Get what out?’

‘The beetle. Get it out of there before it gets away. But don’t kill it.’

‘How am I supposed to do that?’

Erksine wasn’t sure.”

The plot is entertaining enough but like a Tarantino film, you get the feeling that the style, development and activities of the characters are what drive the creator, and this is no bad thing. To some extent, Boxer Beetle reminds me of another great character writer – Carl Hiaasen – and in both instances the characters carry the story, rather than the reader avidly page-turning to find out the next plotline twist. While ‘serious’ literature (see The Corrections below, for example) rewards the reader on a traditional emotional level, surreal stylistic outings such as Boxer Beetle too have their place, and long may it continue.

The Celestial Cafe (Stuart Murdoch)

As a big Belle & Sebastian fan, I’ve often read Stuart Murdoch’s gently entertaining blog posts on the band’s website, and The Celestial Cafe is a collection of his diaries from 2002 – 2006 (by way of flavour, Dear Catastrophe Waitress – see my album review here: – https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/ was written in 2003). Anyone familiar with B & S will know not to expect raucous tales of binge-drinking, sexual promiscuity and general rock ‘n roll excess; instead, we read about his struggles on the football field, what makes a good cafe and occasional insights into the background for certain songs.

In terms of musical history, don’t expect nuggets of information about song-writing craft, which is a shame considering the information he must have to pass on. Similarly, discussions about one-time partner of Murdoch and fellow B & S member Isobel Campbell are off-limits, save for a few minor exchanges:

“Katrina asked if I was taking anyone to the dinner. She needed to know for numbers.

‘Is Isobel coming?’ I said.

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘I’m just curious. I might have to get a partner.’

‘What? I don’t understand.’

‘I just want… Well, I’m just thinking I might need some sort of…”

Murdoch comes across as a solitary creature during this period, not surprising as the start of the diaries comes soon after Isobel left the band in 2002. However rather than moping, he throws himself into community church projects with his religious faith omnipresent throughout the diaries. His love of the band is also a strong constant and it is clear that this is where his life priorities lie. As with his lyrics, Murdoch is best when making curious observations on modern life:

“I looked for the graffiti in the toilets, ‘PUSH BARman TO OPEN old wounds’ doctored as ‘plEASE don’t put YOUR FEET IN THE SEAts’, but it had disappeared, and I felt old like I always feel old these days. I ranted against the blokes who stand in the middle of dancefloors supping pints, surveying all, like frigging lighthouses, sucking up space, making it impossible to dance.”

The burgeoning Scotland music scene is also represented with enthusiastic praisings of his sometime football partners, Franz Ferdinand (‘they’ve got words, action and groove in all the right places’) and tales of coffee house rendezvous with fellow indie darlings, Camera Obscura. Murdoch also includes some of his participatory blog threads, where he allows his readers to create the content. Here are some of the responses to his poser on things that are sexy without involving sex:

“Clear and malleable unpierced ears. I find them sexy.

– Raquel

I’m a sucker for a boy with protruding veins in his forearms. I’m pretty sure this stems from my first love who played a lot of tennis and had great forearms. This might sound as if I like men with tons of muscles, but that’s not the case, just toned arms with active veins.

– Kristine

Long hair on a man. To keep long hair nice, clean and shiny takes dedication, and if a man can take the time to be that dedicated to his hair, you must wonder what else he could be dedicated to.

– Eve

I work at a university and yesterday there was a girl from the track-and-field team sitting and studying in the coffee shop. She was obviously a sprinter, and the torso of a young sprinter of Scandinavian descent is about as sexy as it gets.

– Ray”

Barney’s Version (Mordecai Richler)

I must confess to coming to this book after watching the recent film adaptation staring Paul Giamatti as the eponymous anti-hero. The trailer hadn’t really caught me, but I’m a sucker for a free Picturehouse screening on a Sunday and still relish Giamatti’s performance in Sideways, so I gave it a whirl. Alas the film was fairly average and failed – I realised after reading the book – to capture Barney’s voice as it appears on page, removing any redeeming feature from his character (the wit doesn’t come through) which allows at least a modicum of connection by the audience.

As is implicit by the novel’s title, the story of Barney’s life as delivered in the novel is but a version of the truth. The narrator is first of all Barney who of course cannot be objective about his own activities. We later learn that Barney has Alzheimer’s disease muddying the water further. The novel is littered with footnotes, which at first we think must be corrections by Barney of his disease-caused memory lapses, however we ultimately find out that [spoiler] these have been added by his son Michael, who finally edits the collected diaries. The footnotes made the book for me, occasionally exposing Barney’s knowing lies to enhance his own reputation, but also adding an air of seriousness to the absurd, thus creating farce. The following example concerns Barney’s decision at his own wedding to “The Second Mrs Panofsky” to pursue his future third wife by fleeing the reception to track her down on a departing train:

“’Please, Barney, don’t embarrass me any further. Get off the train at Montreal West.’

‘If I do, will you agree to have dinner with me in Toronto?’

‘No,’ she said, leaping and grabbing a bag from the overhead rack. ‘Now I’m going to my sleeper and I’m locking the door. Good night.’

‘You’re not being awfully friendly, considering the trouble I’ve gone to.’

‘You’re crazy. Good night.’

‘I did stagger of the train at Montreal West¹…’

¹My doubts about the chronology of these events were confirmed when I discovered that the hockey game, on April 9, 1959, ended at 10:29, but the overnight train to Toronto left at 10:25, which meant that it would have been impossible for my father to learn the final score and still have time to race to Windsor Station and board my mother’s train. However, when I confronted my mother with these troubling details, her lower lip began to tremble. ‘It’s true,’ she said, ‘it’s true.’ And then she began to sob, and I thought it insensitive to pursue the matter further.

I do not doubt my father’s veracity or my mother’s testimony, but I do believe Barney muddled things. Miriam probably left the Ritz at the end of the second period, at 9:41, and my father’s taxi was not tied up in Stanley Cup traffic until he returned from the Montreal West Station. Another possibility is that the departure on the overnight train to Toronto was delayed. I have twice written to Canadian Pacific to ask for the departure time of the overnight train to Toronto, on April 9, 1959, but I am still waiting for a reply.”

In terms of basic structure, the novel is divided into sections dealing with his three wives, the last of whom, Miriam, remains ‘his heart’s desire’. Indeed, even though the other Mrs Panofskys receive dedicated chapters, these are still punctuated by references to Miriam, and he labours under the delusion that he may one day win her back, despite his greater love for liquor and ice hockey. The reader knows, of course, that this will never happen and his efforts are both touching and humerous.

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of Barney’s Version is his regular contretemps with friend-turned-nemesis, Terry McIver. A writer of low-brow literature (in Barney’s eyes, at any rate) it is McIver’s decision to publish his memoirs that prompts Barney to do the same, determined to contradict McIver’s slurs on his character. The exchanges between Barney and McIver are comedy gold and while a small excerpt cannot do justice, below is a taster of the tone from a letter by McIver to Barney, after Barney’s son trashes McIver’s latest work in an American broadsheet:

‘Dear Barney,

To each his own albatross.

From the day of your arrival in Paris, touchingly gauche, ill-educated, pushy, it was abundantly clear to me (and others I could name) that you were consumed with envy for my talent. Nay, obsessed is what you were, ingratiating yourself by feigning friendship. I was not fooled. But I took pity on you and watched.

I have heard that your maternal grandfather was a junk dealer, so it strikes me as altogether fitting, a symmetry of sorts, that you have subsequently become wealthy as a purveyor of TV trash to the ‘hoi polloi’. I was not surprised, given your vengeful nature, that you considered it droll to title an especially prurient series ‘McIver of the RCMP’. Neither was I astonished to see you suffering at the Leacock Auditorium when I recently read to a sell-out audience. But, fool I am, I believed that there was some calumny that even you would not stoop to. Congratulations, Barney.’

I can do little more than recommend this with every feeble fibre of my mortal being.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

Well, OK – I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m in the final third and enjoying it immensely; lush, rich yet tight prose with characters that are somehow both familiar and slightly over-the-top. It is one of those books which you read around midnight, eyes half closed, willing a natural paragraph break so you can fold the corner and restart tomorrow. An excellent purchase at £2.50 from a second-hand bookshop and I look forward to seeing what the end brings. Sample paragraph below:

“She was naive enough, she told Denise, to think this ended the discussion. She had a good marriage, stably founded on childrearing, eating, and sex. It was true that she and Brian had different class backgrounds, but High Temp Products wasn’t exactly E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, and Robin, holding degrees from two elite schools, wasn’t your typical proletarian. Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn’t imagine that style had anything to do with happiness. Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp. That Robin dressed like a grad student in white sneakers and a purple nylon shell and oversized round wireframes last worn by fashionable people in 1978 didn’t altogether disappoint Brian, because he along among men got to see her naked. That Robin was high-strung and had a penetrating screechy voice and a kookaburra laugh seemed, likewise, a small price to pay for a heart of gold and an eye-popping streak of lechery and a racing metabolism that kept her movie-actress thin. That Robin never shaved her armpits and too seldom washed her glasses-well, she was the mother of Brian’s children, and as long as he could play his music and tinker with his tensors by himself, he didn’t mind indulging in her the anti-style that liberal women of a certain age wore as a badge of feminist identity. This, at any rate, was how Denise imagined Brian had solved the problem of style until the money from W—— came rolling in.”

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,300 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Inception (2010, Christopher Nolan)

Having gorged on broadsheet reviews and the opinions of respected friends before settling down to watch Christopher Nolan’s latest offering, it is fair to say that I was overly optimistic – a sense of anticipation that could only be mildly sated. True, some of the reviews were mixed, however I’m a sucker for a supposed mind-boggler and an ardent celebrator of Nolan’s previous works. As the credits rolled, two hours and twenty minutes of my life having left this planet, I can say that I enjoyed the majority of the film until the sub-conscious worlds took us to a cheesy skiing pursuit which invoked the worse parts of the James Bond franchise. In justification, Nolan could say that an alpine setting is just as likely a projection of the subconscious as anything else – all very fair. However, after some excellent anti-gravity wrestling scenes in the hotel, not to mention bending roads, it seemed odd for the director to drop the film into cliché, especially a perfectionist like Nolan.

[Spoiler alert] The final part of the film sees DiCaprio’s character appearing to return to life as-you-and-I-know-it along with Saito, the orchestrator of the main literal plot who, according to the film’s dialogue, should have been unable to make such a return as he had died in the sub-conscious world (to leave him in a state of perpetual limbo). We then see DiCaprio pass through airport security to meet his dad, played by Michael Caine (see ‘The Swarm’, below), who seems troublingly unmoved by his son’s return to American soil after years in exile. No explanation is given as to how Caine knew his son would be arriving from that specific flight, and whether the people gazing at DiCaprio are tangible homo sapiens or merely projections of DiCaprio’s subconscious (which would thus confirm he was still occupying a dream). If the coating of ambiguity wasn’t enough, the film closes with the image of DiCaprio’s two children visually unchanged since he last saw them. The shot then pans to the image of his totem (a spinning top) fizzing across the table, before the screen fades to black just as it seems that the top will yield to gravity and fall to its side (which would confirm that DiCaprio exists in real-time).

Cue mass hysteria over the internet, with some commentators berated for failing to understand Nolan’s vision and others decrying the film as a pretentious vanity project. My own interpretation is that Nolan wished to conclude with two themes: the first, that DiCaprio cannot know whether he is conscious or dreaming, just as neither you or I reading this can be certain that this world is ‘real’ (whatever that may mean) or a cunning rouse/global Big Brother (atheists and Christians are both equally naive: neither can prove their believes); the second, the film was an allegory for tackling loss and emotions i.e. only by truly investigating and understanding your predicament (going deeper and deeper into yourself – represented by the various sub-conscious ‘levels’ in the film) can you come out the other side (DiCaprio being reunited with his children). Either (or both) propositions could form the basis of a solid film, however Inception does not properly develop these strands of thinking: no positive qualities of the female character are shown to sell the audience the idea that DiCaprio should pursue redemption (we also know nothing of his children), and the film develops literal plotlines not abstract concepts through imagery and action. Contradict this with someone who works purely in the abstract – David Lynch. Lynch is the master of manipulating the viewer’s emotions through combinations of sensual/disturbing imagery and dialogue, visual tricks and general plays on perception, forming a world where reality is of little consequence and overreaching themes (identity, primarily) are central. Nolan tries to tap into Lynch via Kubrick (note the nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey in the bedside scene and wrinkly old Saito), but it’s a leap of faith with no foundations to support it.

Jaws 2 (1978, Jeannot Szwarc)

While Spielberg’s original remains a benchmark for populist suspense movies, the three films that followed (Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge) are universally recognised as shameless attempts to establish a cash rich franchise, with each possessing less artistic merit than a Turner prize retrospective.

In a series of diminishing returns, it would be disingenuous to lambast Jaws 2 as a worthless turkey, as certain aspects – setting-up Scheider as a paranoid loon rallying against the conservative Amity community – create a platform for a decent film. However the action falls flat for various reasons, particularly a lack of a Quint figure, lending mystique and intrigue to proceedings. All we are left with is a bunch of screaming, annoying children who we would happily push overboard to trigger a feeding frenzy. The finale itself is merely the continuation of a predictable and bloated plot-line where a bunch of kids go out boating, all smiles and song, oblivious to their cannon-fodder existence. When Scheider does turn-up, he grabs hold of an electric cable, banging it repeatedly until the shark swims towards him, bites the cable and electrocutes itself. Yawn. A far better ending would have been for Scheider to valiantly turn his bare arse cheeks to the beast and defeat it with an almighty guff. Amongst the high-voltage action, Scheider also offers the tried-and-tested knowing wink to the original film, goading the shark with a cry of “come here you son of a bitch”, similar to his closing ambit “smile you son of a bitch” from the original.

Jaws: The Revenge deserves an honourable mention for its atrocious ending – an exploding shark no less – and also for putting food on the table of shit-film stalwart Michael Caine who pioneers yet more dodgy attire (see ‘The Swarm’, below) as a cockney sea pilot. Less coy about The Revenge than The Swarm, Caine memorably claimed never to have seen it: ” I have never seen it, but by all accounts it’s terrible. However I have seen the house it built, and it’s terrific!”

Earlier plot workings for Jaws: The Revenge suggested that the shark was working under the influence of voodoo, boasting a ravenous thirst for revenge and possessed by a third-party. While sounding far-fetched, it’s difficult to see how Caine uttering satanic prayers wouldn’t have improved the final product.

Oldboy (2003, Park Chan-wook)

Before I’m accused of disparaging this critically acclaimed work, I should be clear that my love for this delicious slice of Asian madness is undiminished by time, or its flimsy denouement. The film has several standout moments that can instantly be recalled from memory: the beautifully choreographed 2-D corridor fighting scene reminiscent of a scrolling arcade game (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example), which took three days to perfect, and lead character – Oh Dae-su – eating a live octopus without so much as a flinch – a display of method acting that makes Christian Bale’s four-month hunger strike in preparation for The Machinist seem like child’s play.

As befits a film underpinned by stylised violence and beautiful visuals, the plot for Oldboy is ludicrous. Dae-su’s journey begins with his kidnap and imprisonment in a tiny flat, during which time he learns that his wife has been murdered and his daughter sent to foster parents. Fifteen years pass before Dae-su is released, with his movements informed by calls and messages from a stranger. He meets a young girl with whom he forms a bond, and eventually they sleep together. Having tracked down his kidnapper (Woo-jiin) in a swanky penthouse, he realises that they attended school together where he had inadvertently spied on Woo-jiin engaging in an incestual relationship with his sister. This rumour thus spread, no doubt causing grave embarrassment and difficulty for Woo-jiin and his family.

At the penthouse, Woo-jiin hands Dae-su a photo album from which it becomes apparent that the female stranger he has befriended and banged, is none other than his own daughter. Thus we learn that as revenge for a playground rumour, Woo-jiin killed Dae-su’s wife, imprisoned him for 15 years and miraculously arranged for Dae-su to engage in coitus with his own daughter. Quite restrained, in the circumstances. Rocked by the horror of the revelations, Dae-su chops off his own tongue, a gesture of his will to spare his daughter from knowing the truth. In the legal world, we call this ‘acting on the grounds of diminished responsibility’.

Part of me realises that as a work of cartoonish pulp-fiction, it is illogical to expect a realistic plot where the punishment fits the crime – indeed, the film revels in the overblown and outrageous. While on first viewing, the ending ruined the film for me (I perfectly recall ranting my displeasure to my girlfriend at the time) subsequent viewings, when one of course knows the ending, allows it to be treated as a visual feast rather than a substantive movie in the traditional western sense. Having not seen the director’s other two movies in the self-proclaimed ‘revenge’ series, it’s time to take advantage of the Christmas Amazon vouchers and make the purchase. This time I know what to expect.

The Swarm (1978, Irwin Allen)

The Swarm is both the greatest and the most horrific piece of cinema I have ever witnessed (probably circa 50 times). In protest, you might cite my reviews of Big Momma’s House and wonder what could rival such pleasurable aberrations, inflicted not one, twice but thrice on the unsuspecting public. The Swarm romps home in front as it was never meant to be awful, with the cast reel reading like a Real Madrid squad list, packed with acting galacticos supposedly at the peak of their powers. For Michael Caine, an appearance in a shocker is nothing out of the ordinary, however even for someone with such a chequered cinematic past, The Swarm is not so much a skeleton in the closet, but the statutory rape conviction knowingly omitted from the CV.

Caine plays ‘Bradford Craine’, an entomologist, who mysteriously appears at an American missile silo that has just been invaded by killer bees, claiming the lives of a number of military personnel. Just as confusing as to how the bees managed to glide through a securely locked military compound, is how Caine and his man-in-africa-during-the-empire jacket slimed his/their way in. In case the viewer was unclear on this point, Caine is on hand to provide a full summary of his espionage: “that’s a complicated story. It begins a year ago. But let’s skip that.’ And so we continue…

When not discussing the dramatic plight of the African killer bee, Caine offers a masterclass in seduction, with a few lines that Neil Strauss (he of the puppet show routine – see my post on The Game) might be proud of: “I have some cardio-pep in my van. Anderson: Cardio-pep?! I’ve just read an article in the medical journal about cardio-pep!” Dirty fucker.

Despite having watched the film no less than a zillion times, I continue to be mesmerised by the lunacy of the ending. With the swarm of bees inhabiting the town and taking out an entire train simply by force of its numbers, Caine craftily decides that it would be a good idea to lure the swarm out to sea with the sound of African killer bees mating. In an act of incredible self-sacrifice, General Slater perishes trying to fight-off the swarm single-handedly so Caine can put their plans into action. Being the 20th century, the sound is broadcast from speakers placed on life rafts with an oil slick craftily placed over the sea, and duly ignited with a flame thrower when the bees make their way to the ocean under the misapprehension of a bit of rumpy-pumpy. As the incinerated bees fall through the sea’s depths, Caine gets philosophical: “Anderson: Is this just a temporary victory? Craine: The world might just survive.” As someone who judges his life ‘pre and post’ The Swarm, it is difficult to recommend the film highly enough and I guarantee you will weep with joy after several viewings. At a bargain price of £24.75 from Play.com, can you afford not to watch The Swarm?

There Will Be Blood (2007, Paul Anderson)

I recall leaving the cinema at the end of There Will Be Blood seething at the ending which still, despite several subsequent viewings, I believe ruins the film. The main body of the film is otherwise decent (not even close to the masterpiece that frothing critics will have you believe) with the so-so delivery of the plot lifted with beautiful cinematography (beautiful in its darkness) and a fabulously creepy soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

The film is a tale of greed, power and its relentless force propelling the world forward without regard to core values (not so much good versus evil, as evil stamping all over good). Mr Method aka Daniel Day-Lewis plays Daniel Plainview, a disconcerting oil man, who strikes a deal to drill for oil located beneath the land of a religious family, the mouthpiece of which is the otherworldly Eli. Cue clashes between religion and profit-making greed as the project progresses, with Eli’s mission to rid Plainview of his greed and anger (a ridiculously over-the-top attempted exorcism at a church service) contrasting Plainview’s mission to exploit Eli’s land and apparent naivety for maximum profit. Plainview’s cold-hearted persona is enforced by his awful treatment towards his child, H.W., who he expects from an early age to act like an adult (dressing him formally and making a big play of the business being a family business).

There are hints at redemption, when a man purporting to be Plainview’s half-brother appears seeking work, and Plainview takes him under his wing. However once it is known that the man is an impostor of no relation, Plainview duly kills him. Prior to the final scene, we see a drunk, aggressive and defiant Plainview existing in self-imposed exile who shows nothing but contempt for his visiting now-adult son, H.W., claiming that he is not in fact his flesh and blood.

The ‘climax’ sees Eli meet the washed-up and booze-addled Plainview at the oil man’s mansion. The reason for Eli’s visit, we are told, is that Eli requires assistance in brokering a deal to sell family oil rights. Plainview then goads him by saying that he has no oil as Plainview drained it all away (famously delivered in a rant about milkshakes, no doubt the first and only time that Kelis’ seminal pop-offering will ever influence the dialogue of an Oscar winning movie) and demands that Eli deny the existence of God, before beating the bible-basher to death with a bowling pin.

The film’s title confirms the Plainview character – unchangeable, self-obsessed, tyrannical and violent. It is also a commentary on a particular age of America and how the motto – ‘the land of the free’ – can never apply to all, such is the inherent conflict between the needs of different social factions. Such heady topics tick all the boxes for the masterpiece tag, but Anderson’s film was to me, well, too obvious and didn’t say anything new. To use modern-day parlance, all one concludes upon leaving the cinema is that Daniel Plainview is a wanker. Running at 3 and half hours and the recipient of numerous awards, I expected something slightly more insightful and/or moving.

John ‘Darth Maple’ Part

As well as giving the world Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion and the faaaabulous Jay Manuel (America’s Next Top Model), Canada can lay claim to producing the world’s most dedicated professional darts player, a man who, according to his unofficial website, travels 140,000 miles a year ‘to quench his thirst for darts’. His name: John Part. Thirst is a recurring theme for Part, whose love of the booze is legendary on a circuit that prides itself on performing well despite utter inebriation. All those years on the liquor has left Part with an odd physical shape: regular looking from the front but with a gargantuan belly hidden beneath a sweaty black nylon darts shirt, the true scale of the beer baby revealed only in an expansive side profile shot.

As a player, Part claimed the British Darts Organisation championship a solitary time prior to the revelatory player breakaway to form the Sky-backed PDC in 1997, whose title he won twice in 2003 (beating no less than Phil Taylor in the final) and in 2008. His style is one of the most fluent and pleasing on the circuit, the hand rocking back and forth several times like a nervous masturbator while his face grimaces as the dart is rapidly released towards the board. His greatest asset is an ability to hit ‘cover shots’ (moving down from treble 20 to treble 19) at will, a skill bettered only by Phil Taylor. Beyond the oche, Part is a regular in the commentary box, his smooth, concise observations a welcome respite from the gibberings of the neurotic Sid Waddell and the insufferable patter of Tony Green.  An exquisite nine-darter can be found below.

Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams

Poster boy for the Beeb’s cack-handed coverage of the second-rate world championship, the BDO, Wolfie is the darts player most familiar to Joe Public, his grizzled visage as integral to Auntie’s festive viewing schedule as Pat Butcher’s dripping mascara. In addition to the facial fuzz, the lesser-spotted Adams can be identified through his tinted aviator-style glasses, and the sight of his long-suffering wife, Sharon, clutching a toy wolf and screeching like a demented banshee at the Lakeside. While a class act with the arrows, Adams will never go down in the annals of darting folklore by virtue of his refusal to leave the cushy British Darts Organisation to join the big boys in the rival PDC, choosing instead to hoover-up worthless BDO titles year-by-year against mediocre opposition.

Wolfie’s other notable accolades include the Peterborough Telegraph Sports Personality of the year 22007 – 2011, and patron of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust. I’m sure the wolves appreciate his support in these difficult times. While I may mock Wolfie and his unwillingness to play against the best week-in-week-out, his crystal clear life philosophy cannot be questioned: “People ask why I still play for a pub team. Well, it’s where I started and it’s where I shall finish, so why not continue playing in the pub in between as well? I love it. No pressure, no hassle. Just a good night out with good company, good beer and a game of darts.” Good beer and a game of darts. Amen.

Steve ‘Magnum-PI’ Beaton

Of all the presents I have received down the years, perhaps my favourite was an unexpected parcel enclosing a signed picture of Steve Beaton, and some Steve Beaton darts flights. To my fiancé’s obvious displeasure, I proceeded to frame the Beaton picture and place it above the toilet, where it remains to this day. Few things stir the blood in the morning more than the sight of Beaton’s pristine mullet when taking a slash.

His distinctive appearance has led Beaton to collect three different darts monikers: ‘The Bronzed Adonis’ owing to a radiant tan that your local chav would kill for; ‘The Housewives’ Choice’ for obvious reasons; and his preferred shout,’ Magnum-PI’ in homage to the Selleck-esque tash. As a player, Beaton never really capitalised on his huge potential, with a solitary BDO world title to show for his efforts for the year’s biggest prize. Alongside Ted Hankey and John Lowe, his action is perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing in darting history, the delivery smoother than a pornstar’s beaver. A mild-mannered man, I was surprised to note that his favourite film is Rambo: First Blood, anticipating Smokey and the Bandit as more his speed. If I were to try and sum-up the great man in one sentence, I could do worse than quote baggervance9’s YouTube comment: “fuck me, that mustache [sic] that could probably make women pregnant if they looked at it.”

Andy ‘The Viking’ Fordham

An athlete in his youth, the young Andy Fordham was apparently known as ‘the whippet’, a revelation that, in light of events of the past few years, transcends irony. Whether Andy first developed his hunger after a crazed occasion at the school tuck shop, is hard to say, however what is clear is that at some stage the whippet morphed into a colossal st bernard. His nadir arrived in 2004 when, weighing in at circa 31 stone, he had to retire from a game against Phil Taylor due to heat intensity. Upon attending hospital, he was informed that 75% of his liver was dead and he needed to stop drinking immediately, no doubt something of a culture shock to a man who supped 25 Holston Pils and munched six steak and kidney pies before toe-ing the oche. Even when darts wasn’t on the agenda, Andy would do his bit for the British economy, drinking, “probably 15 to 20 pints of lager more or less every day.”

Since his spell in hospital, Fordham suffered the indignation of appearing on Celebrity Fit Club with rent-a-celeb, Paul Ross, and a bunch of washed up jokers from Corrie. Whether he shat himself at the fear of living in such company, or actually undertook some physical exercise, Fordham managed to lose 3 stone, which, proportionate to his body size, was akin to having a haircut. He returned to darts in 2007 following a self-imposed spell in the wilderness, during which he lost a further seven stone. The returning Fordham is a sight to behold: the head, as small as a pin, while the remainder of the body remains majestic in its scope. However while his health has improved, his darts has suffered, with the weight loss affecting his balance, causing him to relearn his technique. Fingers crossed the Viking can get back to former glories, if only to stick two fingers up at the ghastly, patronising Kay Burley. See interview below.

Phil ‘Nixy’ Nixon

Perhaps the greatest idol on this list, Phil Nixon’s claim to fame is reaching the 2007 BDO final at the age of 50 in only his first appearance at the championship, having tried in vain to qualify for the previous 20 years. Such was the unexpected nature of his performances, the beeb’s production team seemed unsure of his nickname, veering between ‘The Ferryhill Flyer’ in reference to his home town, and the more rudimentary ‘Nixy’, a handle only marginally better than Mervyn ‘The King’ King.

The final itself was hilarious, with Nixy seemingly destined for a crushing defeat, only to launch an inspired comeback before Adams crept over the line. As the arrows flew, we heard how the journeyman Nixy was a dedicated house-husband to his two children, with six other Nixy offspring existing somewhere in these fair isles. From looking at the man with his bland facial expression and weedy physique, he appeared to be anything but a rampant stud, but, as he started clawing back the legs, I felt proud that my taxes went to supporting his darting dreams, and the hungry mouths of his spawn.

Since that glorious day in 2007, Nixy has alas wallowed in the doldrums, failing to qualify for the past two world championships, no doubt spending his time rutting away in alleyways shortly after closing time. Come 2017, being the ten-year anniversary of the epic final, I hope to flick over to BBC1 to see the 60 year-old Nixy, father of twenty by that time, putting Wolfie to the sword to claim the most unlikeliest of victories since Lee McQueen won series 4 of The Apprentice.

For those who missed out all those years ago, link to the closing part of the final.

Former BDO Darts World Champion, Andy Fordham - a man who knows how to celebrate

Rio Ferdinand (Footballer, Manchester United)

Wanna get a coffee after the game?

Reformed roaster and Twitter junkie, Rio Ferdinand, seldom scores any goals. Haunted by his meagre personal haul, he has made it his mission to destroy the glorious scoring moments of his teammates, by jumping on top of them like an excitable pooch raping its owner. The next time you see Rooney curl a sumptuous effort into the top corner, allow the seconds to pass by before the screen is interrupted by the bouncing Ferdinand, mouth agog, leaping on top of anything in sight, and imploring broken Britain to roar with him. If you ever fancy a laugh, follow Ferdinand on Twitter and revel in the hourly banalities issued from his iPhone, finished on most occassions with the hashtags “#oof!” and “#relentless”; as in, “I just spread some butter on my toast #oof! #relentless”. Steve Jobs would be proud.

Usain Bolt (Athlete)

The horror, the horror

I must confess to an utter ambivalence for athletics; the idea that people would get excited about, let alone spend any money to watch, a couple of preening blokes running in a straight line for ten seconds, or a butch Bulgarian throwing a stick passes me by. Sure, one must credit athletics for giving us the human laughter cannon, Chris Akabusi, and the amusing party game ‘find John Regis’ neck’, but it is otherwise the pastimes of the playground transposed to grandiose arenas.  Bolt’s celebration sums up the silliness of it all, as he spends more time prepping his imaginary arrow to the sky as he does running, the token mascot cleverly manoeuvred into the shot; the end-result a rampant mix of ego and corporate opportunism.

Facundo Sava (Footballer, ex-Fulham)

Without his celebration, Sava would be just another addition to the roster of woeful foreigners imported to the English Premier League since Sky began its monopoly in 1994. A desperately poor player, Sava managed to convince Fulham to part with £2 million to secure his services in 2002, money which Muhammed Al-Fayed could have sensibly used to buy a sculpture of Bubbles to accompany Jacko’s lone bronzed presence outside Craven Cottage. With an embarrassing haul of 6 goals in 27 games, Sava offered Al-Fayed and his cronies little reason for cheer, however if he spent more time honing his finishing ability than he did celebrating his few moments of glory, he might have troubled Emile Heskey in the proficiency stakes. The routine itself saw Sava delve into his sock and unfurl a Zorro mask, before spinning around the pitch like a wanker, all for no good reason. Recognition of basic human rights has seen the video taken down from YouTube, and an unsatisfactory picture is sadly all I can offer.

Lee Hughes (Footballer, Notts County)

Lacking the polished finish of an Al Qaeda production

Short, ugly and ginger, Lee Hughes was dealt a poor hand. In 2004, his hand ducked below the breadline when a judge sent him to the pen for 6 years for taking someone’s life in a hit-and-run incident. Before his incarceration, Hughes had been a decent footballer, hitting his goalscoring peak at West Brom circa 1999, when myself and friends would frequently spunk a few mill to sign him in Champ Manager. Thankfully, the virtual world of Champ Manager shielded the addicted gamer from seeing Hughes celebrate like a bell-end. While we rapped our keyboards in the comfort of our middle-class homes, I expect Hughes was forced to tone down his celebration while playing for prison team Featherstone F.C. for fear of scrambling for the soap in the post-match showers. The celebration itself is a piss-poor version of the Gyan dance (see below), with Hughes jumping up and down and waving his arms in the air like a drugged-up party reveller. While Hughes’ wiki page provides useful insights about his £750,00 mock-tudor mansion, it fails to explain the origins of the awful dance moves, perhaps because it was spawned in the playground as a form of defence to the inevitable playground bullies.

Andy Murray (Tennis Player)

Look, mum, I did a poo

Where does one start with ‘Muzza’? As a fairly useful tennis player, I can but purr with appreciation as Murray pummels a double-handed background down the tramline, before wincing in horror as he dumps an overhead into the base of the net. Clearly, the problem is mental rather than technical and one can only hope that he learns from the majestic efforts of Novak Djokovic and learns to embrace challenges, rather than remain a timid wreck. Even if he improves his mental health, public acceptance will be lacking until he stops celebrating an important set by turning to his long-suffering team in the stands and roaring “Cum ‘awn”, like a cocky toddler using the potty for the first time. There is no class in this celebration, no muted cool, just the unravelling of a man on the edge. Horrible.

Alan Shearer (Retired Footballer)

Brings tears to the eyes of any long-suffering Rovers fans

As a fervent Blackburn Rovers fan during their heady title-winning season, I became accustomed to the sight of Shearer lacing in yet another gritty twenty-yard bullet, his head ducked down to the floor while saluting the skies with his right mitt. An unbelievably boring man, it is perhaps fitting that Shearer’s one-hand-in-the-air celebration lacked any fancy flourish, however as no-one else ever scored for Blackburn, I soon longed for something better. What went through Shearer’s mind when he first selected this permanent celebration in front of a plethora of alternative options? Had he not been seduced by Roger Milla’s flirtations with the corner flag? Did he not not weep with Marco Tardelli at the 1982 World Cup? Clearly not, as Shearer chose instead to honour modest northern grit. As the man himself might say, ‘it did the job’.

Asamoah Gyan (Footballer and Mercenary)

Tossers

“Richardson, moving forward; now on to Gyan, Gyan gets past one, two, three…Gyan shoots OH MY WHAT A GOAL!!! And look at the…wait…oh ha-ha, have you got any dance moves like that, Mark?! Give over, John.”

For those unfamiliar with his work, Asamoah Gyan is a Ghanian footballer under the employ of Sunderland FC. Having paid £13m for his services in 2010, Gyan flicked the Vs at the club and fans alike, to move on a season-long loan to notorious football hotbed, the United Arab Emirates, no doubt comforted by his fourfold salary increase. While Sunderland fans may have been initially disappointed at the news, they will be saved the horrors of listening to John Motson express his embarrassed joy at Gyan doing some rhythmless jig after he finds the back of the net. It transpires that Gyan thinks of himself as a bit of a music affaciando, having recorded and released a song called ‘African Girls’ with the help of seminal Ghanain musician, ‘Castro the Destroyer’. The result is as woeful a piece of music as you will ever find, featuring the ‘trademark dance’ from 2:54 onwards. Bring back the Scatman, all is forgiven.

Documentation of an epic fight between cult wrestling figures from yesteryear and my feisty cat:

Round 1

You can't run forever, moggy. Let's dance.

Round 2

My hands are bigger than your paws. You ain't got a prayer.

Round 3

Shit, where'd he go?

Round 4

He-He-He

Round 5

...AND THE CROWD ARE ON THEIR FEET, GORILLA!!! IF THEY LAND THIS IT'S OVER!!!

Round 6

1, 2, 3...HE GOT HIM!

Victory

Your winneeeeeerrrrrrs...and NEW CAT V ANCIENT-WWF-WRESTLING TOYS-CHAMPIONS-OF-THE-WUUURRRRRLLLLD...yeh...you get the idea.

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