Monday, November 27, 2006

Stage Presence #8

“Characterful” by Adam Hills
The Tobacco Factory, Bristol, 19/11/2006

As he ambles cheerfully onstage, the immediate impression of Aussie Adam Hills is that he’s a bloody friendly bloke and – judging by the resounding welcome – well loved. Hills engages with members of the audience from the outset, encouraging and including their humorous input, rather than extracting it at their expense. As the title suggests, Hills’ show focuses on his preceived lack of character in contemporary society, skillfully creating a stand-up performance that that this full of it, whether through personal anecdotes, political commentary or frequent audience participation.

Adam Hills’ style could be described as gentle or easy going, but don’t confuse this with unchallenging, safe or boring; Hills is laconic without being laidback, insightful without being spiteful. How many comedians have you seen display their artificial foot as a prelude to a hilarious true story about applying for a drivign licence, or encourage a theatre full of people to engage in a bout of “tummy drumming”? After two hours’ consistently entertaining stand up, it was easy to believe Adam Hills’ expressions of disappointment that it was time to go home. I felt the same way.

Adam Hills website

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #23

One Dove “Morning Dove White” (1993)
Pure and simple, one of the great lost bands and underrated albums of the 1990s. On paper, it’s hard to see how One Dove could fail. Their blend of dub-driven club-friendly pop, shaped by Dot Allison’s breathless vocals, caught the attention of Andrew Weatherall, whose own Sabres Of Paradise remixes gave the band an added dancefloor cachet. Getting Weatherall on board to produce One Dove’s debut album was an astute move, given his infleunce on Primal Scream’s seminal Screamadelica, but seemingly at odds with the sound presented through their singles. Whilst the 12” mixes continued to aim for the heart of the dancefloor, including jaw dropping reworkings of White Love and Breakdown by Slam and Secret Knowledge (aka Kris Needs) respectively, Stephen Hague and William Orbit delivered more homogenised mixes for radio airplay. The latter takes toned down the bass and left Allison’s occasionally weak vocals too exposed. On this basis, hardly a great incentive to buy the album. But Morning Dove White remains one of Weatherall’s finest achievements and only hints at what this Scottish trio could have achieved had they not been drained by record industry politics. The vinyl version spread tracks 1-9 over four sides of vinyl, but in fact the CD provides the most complete listening experience. The version of Fallen which opens the album is breathtaking and complements Weatherall’s ten-minute remix of White Love. The producer’s influence threatens to subsume the band’s identity only once, with instrumental My Friend sounding more like a Sabres of Paradise outtake rather than One Dove. There Goes The Cure and Why Don’t You Take Me provide the album’s most downtempo moments. The latter at times evokes Black’s maudlin classic Wonderful Life and showcases Dot Allison’s reflective songwriting, developed to great effect on her two subsequent solo albums. Provided you skip Stephen Hague’s ‘radio mixes’ of Breakdown and White Love, both thoughtlessly tacked onto the end of the CD, I challenge you not to fall in love with Morning Dove White after a single listen. If you don’t, then check your pulse, because I suspect you may be dead.

Tracklisting: 1. Fallen / 2. White Love (guitar paradise mix) / 3. Breakdown (cellophone boat mix) / 4. There Goes The Cure / 5. Sirens / 6. My Friend / 7. Transient Truth / 8. Why Don’t You Take Me / 9. White Love (piano reprise) / 10. Breakdown (radio mix) / 11. White Love (radio mix)

One Dove fan site
Dot Allison offical website
Andrew Weatherall's Rotters Golf Club website

The Human League “Reproduction” (1979)
Like most people of my age, my introduction to The Human League was through Smash Hits (RIP), Top Of The Pops (RIP) and their genre defining album Dare (still going strong). I remember being fascinated by (and equally squeamish about) the striking cover to this, their first album proper, when seeing it stacked in HMV. This may account for the reason why it took me the best part of a decade to listen to Reproduction and a further fifteen years to buy a copy. The first thing to strike me is what a bloody good record it is. Built around the core of Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware (who went on to form Heaven 17), Phil Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright, the album’s layered electronic sound lays the foundations for both The Human League’s own subsequent material and the synth pop revolution. This is particularly evident in Empire State Human (which should have been a massive hit) and their cover of The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. This reissue doubles the original album’s number of tracks, notably with the original single version of Being Boiled (subsequently sampled by Richard X) and The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1-4, replete with the bonus Flexi Disc issued with limited copies of the 12” EP. The latter is an extract from the band’s conversation about what to put on the flexi disc in the first place and makes for hilarious listening. These days, The Human League may be earning a crust from touring their early 1980s heyday but both this and follow-up album Travelogue are a testament to the band’s groundbreaking songwriting.

Tracklisting: 1. Almost Medieval / 2. Circus Of Death / 3. The Path Of Least Resistance / 4. Blind Youth / 5. The Word Before Last / 6. Empire State Human / 7. Morale... You've Lost That Loving Feeling / 8. Austerity / Girl One (medley) / 9. Zero As A Limit / 10. Introducing / 11. The Dignity Of Labour Part 1 / 12. The Dignity Of Labour Part 2 / 13. The Dignity Of Labour Part 3 / 14. The Dignity Of Labour Part 4 / 15. Flexi Disc / 16. Being Boiled (fast version) / 17. Circus Of Death (fast version)

There are loads of Human League fan sites worth a look, including:
Secrets Online
Blind Youth (specifically covering their 1977-1980 material)

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bang(ers) Out Of Order

I was simultaneously amused and dismayed by the news that Powys Council’s trading standards department have brandished the cosh on one of it’s popular local products. Black Mountains Smokery have been advised to relabel their Welsh Dragon Sausages, to include the word pork, to ensure that vegetarians do not mistakenly buy the product believing them to be meat free. Sounding far more cloak and dagger than reality suggests, Powys Council were “tipped off” that the sausages breached the 1996 Food Labelling Act. I guess the assumption here is that vegetarians are a largely illiterate lot (my wife would strongly disagree) and therefore incapable of reading the word pork on the ingredients list, cunningly placed as it is ahead of other items such as leek and chilli. When I buy Welsh Dragon Sausages from my local butchers, they’re displayed amongst a cornucopia of raw flesh – again, a heavy hint to vegetarians that these product ‘may contain traces of meat’. Despite Powys Council conceding that they “don’t think anyone would imagine that dragon meat was being used” (well, hoo-bloody-ray for common sense!), you have to wonder if their trading standards staff have a little too much time on their hands. What’s next in the firing line? The good old Cumberland? The Frankfurter? Toad In The Hole?!

Black Mountains Smokery website (go to News for other links to this item) Posted by Picasa

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Stage Presence #7

Health warning: these reviews are laden with puns, some intentional, most inexcusable.

“As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela” by Mark Thomas

The Tobacco Factory, Bristol, 26/10/2006

I’ve seen several of Mark Thomas’ live shows, though these have tended to be ‘works in progress’, performed in the pleasingly retro working mens’ club environment of The Comedy Box, above the Hen & Chicken pub in Ashton. As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela is part of a ‘proper’ tour and has consequently resulted in a shift to a larger venue, albeit only a few hundred yards down the road. The Comedy Box’s fag-smoke laden (more imagined since it’s ban on smoking) air provides an intimate, almost confessional atmosphere, the microphone almost superfluous as the comedian performs to an audience of no more than a hundred. The Tobacco Factory couldn’t be more different, adopting the air of a university lecture theatre, with seemingly three times the number of people squeezed into rigid rows of plastic seating and jostling to catch sight of the performer on stage. However, given that his shows are effectively political commentaries and calls to action, Thomas is equally at home in either venue and plays to his strengths. Tying in with his debut novel of the same name, and recent Channel 4 documentary After School Arms Club, As Used On The Famous Nelson Mandela sees the global arms trade squarely in Thomas’ sights. The show covers Thomas’ attempts to challenge the law governing political demonstrations in Parliament Square, his attendance at an arms trade fair and efforts to expose loopholes in arms trade laws that culminated in a controversial unbroadcast BBC Newsnight article about the Hinduja Brothers. There’s no doubting Mark Thomas’ commitment (or research – the show is positively loaded with facts and stats), but his disarming delivery prevents it coming across as political ranting and/or bullying. Where Thomas succeeds is in populating his narratives with well defined characters, challenging stereotypes and separating the (often relatively likeable) people from their questionable occupations. If you’ve not seen Mark Thomas before, then try to. As his website states, if you’re not pissed off, you’re not paying attention. Time to wake up and smell the smoking gun.

Official Mark Thomas website

“Shame” by Russell Brand

Bristol Hippodrome, 29/10/2006

Russell Brand is undoubtedly the comedian du jour, thanks to a strikingly retro style makeover and his brand of high octane presentation seen on Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Big Mouth and Russell Brand’s Got Issues, as well as his BBC Radio 6 show (moving imminently to Radio 2). Much as I enjoy his on-screen presence, I’ll admit to wondering if this could translate to a full stand up show, particularly in a humongous venue like the Bristol Hippodrome. Phill Jupitus is a case in point: often funny on quiz shows like Never Mind The Buzzcocks; died on his arse during his Quadrophobia tour at the Bristol Old Vic in 2000, thanks to a complete humour bypass. But I digress. Warm up was provided by Trevor Lock, Brand’s Radio 6 sidekick, but half baked is probably a more apt description. Lock’s dapper appearance and delivery disappointingly resemble little more than Russell Brand Lite™. An over reliance on bland ‘stream of consciousness’ musings and a frankly tiresome heckler do not make for an inspiring show, so it was relief when Mr. Brand himself finally appeared on stage. There’s no denying that Russell Brand is an eye-catching, engaging personality., describing himself as an ‘S&M Willy Wonka’ or ‘Victorian pimp’. In fact, the long, back-combed bouffant and all-black attire, including neck scarf, ammunition belt, skin tight ladies’ jeans and winkle pickers will remind those of a certain age (and musical taste) of a Fields Of The Nephilim / Dogs D’Amour* hybrid. Brand gets off to a slow start, exploring the Hippodrome’s ornamental balconies framing the stage, then returning to a bar stool and flicking through a copy of the Bristol Evening Post. Amusing though Brand’s critiques of the day’s ‘big’ stories are, and despite his insistence that the show itself has yet to start, stretching this ‘prelude’ over half an hour is a tad indulgent. However, Brand really hits his stride as the focus shifts to himself, more specifically, his addictions to drugs (former) and sex (ongoing). Despite some graphic descriptions (and miming) of his exploits, Brand conveys this sometimes cautionary, sometimes celebratory tales in an amusing and accessible manner. I have to confess at this point that, thanks to a stinking cold, I was heavily medicated and am embarrassed to admit that I nodded off on a couple of occasions (thankfully brief and drool free). This should not be seen as a reflection on Russell Brand’s excitable and exciting show. Unlike Mark Thomas, who seems capable of running and running, there’s an inherent fear that Russell Brand will implode in the not too distant future. In light of this, I’d recommend that you catch this talented performer while you can. Russell Brand may have issues, but an active and appreciative audience seems to be damned good therapy.

* I discovered whilst writing this that Tyla from the Dogs D'Amour played an acoustic gig in Bristol the night before. Maybe he and Russell Brand are a shape shifting single entity, after all. Spooky.

Official Russell Brand website

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