Saturday, September 29, 2007

Show me the colour of your money

Last weekend, while playing 'cafe' with my three year old daughter I used the phrase "Show me the colour of your money..." at one point.

All week since then she has been doing precisely that - showing me any money she happens to have or find and telling me exactly what colour it is.

"I'll show you the colour of my money... this one is silver..."

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

I want one of these!


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Van Halen: 1984

Currently listening to Van Halen's 1984 album (actually released 1983, but hey...). I don't think I've listened to it in about 15 years (I have it on vinyl, not CD), but listened to it a lot in the late 80s.

I still remember all the lyrics and every note in the instrumental breaks! How much of a sponge was my memory when I was a teenager? And how come it doesn't retain half as much these days? Humph.

Good album though.

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The Prestige

Watched The Prestige (2006) at the weekend. Great.

Its a tale of two rival stage magicians / performers in Victorian London. Christian Bale plays Alfred Borden a.k.a. 'The Professor' - an excellent magician but without the flair of Robert Angier a.k.a. 'The Great Danton', played by Hugh Jackman, who is a great performer but perhaps not as great a magician.

At the outset they are colleagues working together on a magic show. But an accident happens on stage which may or may not have been the fault of Alfred and Robert's wife dies. From this point on they are rivals, each seeking to out-perform and best the other, and occasionally resorting to underhand tricks and worse to bring the other down.

There are many twists and turns in this movie and it is hard to comment on it without giving anything major away. So much falls into place at the end that you want to go back and watch it for a second time, just to see how everything fits together.

The performances of the main actors are great and Scarlett Johansson adds an extra bit of shine to the film. However, Michael Caine is Michael Caine and I have no idea what David Bowie is supposed to be. It takes a few minutes of screen time for both of them to turn into character, rather than being the iconic actor and singer. Good to see Andy Serkis in a film where he's not being a CGI puppet, even if his role is small.

Minor spoiler below.

But I have one gripe with the film. For most of the film we see the illusionists wowing the audience with 'how on earth did they do that?' type trickery. But at one point (towards the end), one of the magicians does something which is actually impossible (or certainly is currently impossible with today's technology and certainly would have been impossible in Victorian times, however clever Mr Tesla might have been; but maybe it will be possible in the future, who knows?) and this is dressed up as 'science'. But this is really pure science-fiction. The film crosses the boundary from possible fiction to impossible fiction and in some way that cheapened the cleverness of the 'magic', even if there is a further twist that is quite shocking, and more so the more you think about it.

But I can't let that minor gripe spoil the review. Although it took a while to grab my attention, it was a very good film once it got going and the ending was all it should have been. Recommended.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Lucky Star?

Fish, who as I said below is my favourite solo artist, released his 9th solo studio album last week (mail order, you'll have to wait a bit to buy it in the shops). Counting the four studio albums he recorded as part of Marillion, this is album number 13. Hence the title, The 13th Star.

But is it unlucky 13 or lucky star?

The release of a new album often produces one of two reactions from fans (of any band):
  1. "Brilliant, fantastic, best thing they've ever recorded...", or
  2. "Not very good, don't like it, worst album ever..."
Quite often the fans aren't able to find the middle ground and acknowledge that something is neither fantastic nor rubbish. So I set my initial reactions aside and listened to the album a few times before deciding to declare my opinions to the world. But here goes now:

Fish, the 13th Star.

Is it any good? Well, its neither fantastic nor rubbish. I don't hate it, but I also don't love it (yet). However, it is growing on me with every listen, in much the same way that Sunsets on Empire did.

Lyrically, this may be Fish at his most heart-felt, his most open. Certainly the man's true feelings shine out from several of the songs, revealing his hopes and heartbreak. For those of you who don't know, Fish wrote most of this album in the run up to his marriage with Heather Findlay of Mostly Autumn - presumably a happy time in his life. Then they split up 'with no possible chance of reconciliation' - and times must have been tough. Both the happy and the sad are reflected in the lyrics.

Musically, however, something is lacking. I've commented before that the quality of Fish's music is entirely dependent on his co-writers. Here, most of the songs were co-written with long-time band member (since 1998) and bass player Steve Vantsis. Crucially, Steve has never written songs before. It shows. That's not to say that there are not any good songs on here, there are, but several of the songs are quite run-of-the-mill musically and I suspect I may skip a few of them on future listens. Some of the songs have clearly been composed by formula - there are times when you know that there should now be an instrumental break, and sure enough there is. But on a number of occasions its just formulaic and uninspired. None of the solos on this album stand out in the same way as, for example, the guitar solos on 'Cliche'. None are exceptional.

The feel of several of the songs is what I would describe as 'industrial' - grinding, overdriven guitars and heavy thumping drums. It has a rawer, harder edge than Fish's more usual melodic style. I'm not entirely sure this is a good thing. I suppose its more in keeping with the style of Sunsets on Empire than any of the more recent albums.

Song by song:
  1. Circle line
    Continuing the trend of the past three albums, this one opens with a perfectly serviceable but fairly unremarkable track. Of course, the song is trying to convey the boredom and pointlessness of a life going round in circles, so perhaps expecting something interesting is too much.
  2. Square go
    Reminiscent of 'The Rookie' (one of the weaker tracks on 'Field of Crows'), this is quite a low point on the album. Dull and unengaging. Tends towards being simply 'a racket'. Or maybe I just don't relate to the feelings expressed in the song.
  3. Miles de besos
    The first great song on this album. A beautiful, gentle song with nice acoustic guitars. Great use of the female backing vocals on the chorus. Builds nicely into a powerful climax. This is one of those songs that are pure Fish - a bittersweet love song juxtaposing declarations of love with moments of despair and anger.
  4. Zoe 25
    On first listen this was the track that stood out from the rest as being something special. It still does.
  5. Arc of the curve
    Musically this is a quite nice but is hardly an earth-shattering song. It suffers slightly from having the phrase 'magic of the moment' early on in the song - this always reminds me of naff Scorpions songs. This is one of the better formulaic songs here, but its still clearly rooted in a prescribed pattern.
  6. Manchmal
    Sorry, don't like it. Back to the 'industrial' sound again. Drum loops, hmmm. 'Manchmal' is German for 'Sometimes'. Strange syncopation in the verse and the angry chorus, which is clearly meant to be emotive and powerful, doesn't engage me at all. And I usually like the angry Fish songs best. Interesting lyrics though.
  7. Openwater
    This one is still growing on me. I hear more in there with each listen. I think I'll probably like it better in a few weeks time, so I won't say much about it here. This one was co-written with Frank Usher.
  8. Dark star
    Almost 'Manchmal part II'. Another one with a slightly odd beat. Not sure if I like that. This song tries to be mean and moody but I'm not sure if it hits the mark. Its oddly reminiscent of 'Black Canal' from the Suits sessions. Slightly muddled metaphors - which is it, do you want to be a meteor or travel at the speed of light, you can't have both? I think someone had been listening to Tony Iommi's guitar playing before recording this. Dark and heavy.
  9. Where in the world
    Deep breath and relax. Ahhhh. Take it gently, open your heart and let it all pour out. Its hard to listen to this one, I mean really listen to this one, without a tear in your eye. Seventeen years ago, in Vigil, Fish sung "If there's somebody up there, could they throw me down a line...". Here he echoes that again "...if we found out no one's listening to our even louder prayers... where in the world do we go from here?". Here is a man, lost in the world with questions and no direction, looking for an answer. Heartbreaking. And sounds quite like Pink Floyd too.
  10. 13th Star
    An unhurried and appropriate end to the album. Heartfelt and moving. I wonder if Heather Findlay has managed to listen this far into the album yet. This song is clearly for her, the 13th star. Its all very sad, really.
So, in conclusion, this album isn't as great as Vigil, Internal Exile, Fellini Days or Field of Crows, but it is much better than Suits and far more coherent than Raingods with Zippos. It wears its (broken) heart on its sleeve and invites you to look. Its hard work. Musically its not an all time classic of all time, but pretty good nevertheless. And still growing on me. Probably on a par with Sunsets on Empire, to which it is a close relation.

By the way, Gareth also reviewed this album.

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Something beginning with... C

So I've been 'tagged' to name my ten favourite songs beginning with the letter 'C'.

Here goes (in no particular order):
  1. 'Carry On' by Spacehog
  2. 'Credo' by Fish
  3. 'Changes' by David Bowie
  4. 'Comfortably numb' by Pink Floyd
  5. 'Crazy little thing called love' by Queen
  6. 'Closer to the heart' by Rush
  7. 'Can't find my way home' by Blind Faith
  8. 'Crazy on you' by Heart
  9. 'Childhood's end' by Marillion
  10. 'Carry on' by ManOwaR (no, seriously, its a great song)
So how about you? I challenge you to name your 10 favourite songs beginning with the letter 'E'. (Or 'J' or 'P' if you want a challenge, or 'D' if you want an easy life. NB fans of Christian worship music can't choose 'J' cos that would be too easy...)

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Potted Fish

To put the review (which I will write in the next day or two) of Fish's new album in context, I thought I'd give you (the loyal readership of this blog) a potted history of his solo career so far...

In 1988 Fish parted company with the rest of the band Marillion and embarked on a solo career which has had its fair share of highlights, low points and occasional U-turns.

Despite the fact that I acknowledge the variable quality of some of his solo recordings, I still consider Fish to be one of my favourite artists - certainly my favourite 'solo' artist. I have seen him live in concert many times (10, I think) and he has never been less than great. On occasions (most notably Tarlair 1993, Haddington 1999 and Glasgow 2005) he has been outstanding.

But, of course, a great performer and showman doesn't necessarily make a great songwriter. During his time in Marillion it was clear that the others did the music and Fish provided the lyrics. This remains apparent throughout his solo career as the quality of the music is directly related to the co-writers of each of them. The lyrics are always interesting and generally good, but the actual tunes vary considerably, depending on the songwriters.

For his first solo album, Vigil in a wilderness of mirrors (1990), Fish struck solid gold - the songwriting partnership with keyboard player Mickey Simmonds produced an entire album of great quality 'neo-prog' and melodic rock. And it was head and shoulders above the first couple of Marillion's post-Fish albums, which must have boosted Fish's ego no end. All nine tracks on this album are great and it remains one of Fish's finest recordings to date. If you're a newcomer to the world of Fish, this is the place to start.

The next album, Internal Exile (1991), was also mostly co-written with Mickey Simmonds and is also great throughout, although perhaps not as perfect as the first album. It is here that the two sides of Fish's character and music are most apparent - great, hard rocking, angry songs like Credo and Tongues sit beside gentler, mushier ballads like Favourite Stranger and Dear Friend. This pattern has been maintained ever since. Mickey Simmonds left the band after this album.

Fish's third solo album, Songs from the mirror (1993), marks the start of his 'wilderness years' - an album of cover versions, well performed but not greatly inspiring. An album of cover versions always sounds warning bells for me - it often indicates the musical equivalent of writers block, that the artist had simply failed to write any decent songs, yet was contractually obliged to release an album. Unfortunately this hypothesis was kind of confirmed when the next album came along...

Then came Suits (1994). Undeniably the low point of Fish's career, this is an album of songs mostly co-written with members of his backing band who were great musicians, but not great songwriters. There are still gems in there but, in my opinion, songs such as Emperor's Song, Somebody Special and Fortunes of War are much better in some of the live recordings since then than on the original CD. Oddly enough, the best song (IMO) on Suits, Out of my life, wasn't on the original CD release, it was a single b-side which only made it onto the CD for the remaster a few years later. No dummy is quite simply the worst song Fish has recorded. This is the first CD in Fish's career which I always skip certain tracks on. While I like about half of the songs on the album I don't think I've actually listened to No Dummy or Pipeline so far this century.

Following this, Fish remained in the wilderness for a few more years, doing an acoustic tour and releasing two compilation CDs of original and re-recorded versions of his singles and other selected songs; Yin and Yang (1995). The re-recorded version of Somebody Special from 1995 is better than the original from the previous year.

And just when I thought it might all be over for Fish, he made a staggering comeback. Despite the really quite bad cover art, Sunsets on Empire (1997) was a masterpiece. Mostly co-written with Steve Wilson (from the band Porcupine Tree), this album takes the angry rock songs and makes them angrier and rockier and takes the gentle, mellow songs and makes them gentler. It works. More than half of the album (mostly the rock songs) is fantastic and the rest (the mush) is merely quite good. In the middle of all this is the truly outstanding song Jungle ride, co-written by long-time guitarist Robin Boult. Sadly he left the band after this album, just after figuring out how to write great songs. Shame. I still do regularly skip a few of the tracks though, generally Worm in the bottle, Tara and Say it with flowers.

Raingods with Zippos (1999) is also a 'hit and miss' album. The second half of the album is a fantastic, epic, six-part masterpiece called Plague of Ghosts - a collaboration with Tony Turrell and Mark Daghorn, collectively known as The Positive Light who had remixed Marillions's 1997 album This Strange Engine and briefly made Marillion cool on the dancefloor! The rest of the album is less focused and contains a thoroughly mixed bag of songs. Sadly, the two new collaborations with Mickey Simmonds were nothing like as good as the stuff they co-wrote for the first two albums; Tumbledown is OK, but nothing special, while Rites of passage is more like something Celine Dion should be singing. Urgh. Sandwiched between these are an uninspiring bop-along song, Mission Statement, an interesting duet ballad with Elizabeth Antwi, Incomplete, a strangley out of place folk-esque song, Tilted Cross, and a hard rocking cover of SAHB's Faith Healer, which is great but adds nothing new to the song. On the whole the first half of the album is fairly directionless. This is not a coherent whole - this is even clear when you look at the sleve notes, there are different musicians on each of the songs. Once again, I selectively skip certain tracks when listening. This album features the first appearance of Steve Vantsis on Bass... he'll be important when we get to the new album.

Fellini days (2001) is the first Fish album since Internal Exile which I regularly listen to in its entirety (i.e. without skipping tracks). Here the songs range from good through to excellent. The opening and closing tracks on the album are longer than they have any right to be, but aside from that the album is great, with the run of four songs from track 2 to 5 being some of the best songs Fish has ever recorded. So Fellini and Long Cold Day are two of his finest outright rock songs, Our smile is the best ballad he'd recorded for a long time and Tiki 4 is a unique, hard to classify song which is pure Fish. Fantastic. The entire album was co-written with two Johns, guitarist John Wesley (no, not the famous Methodist) and keyboard player John Young.

And then came Field of Crows (2003*), mostly co-written with Bruce Watson (of Big Country fame) who had worked with Fish in the past. Like Fellini days, this is a consistently good album, with no need to skip any tracks when listening. Indeed, I'd probably say it ranks alongside Vigil as one of the best two Fish albums. Much like Fellini days (and unlike Vigil!) this album starts with one of its weakest tracks, The Field being, once again, a much longer song than it has any right to be. But after that the brilliant songs come thick and fast. Track 2, Moving Targets, is probably the finest song on here, great music, poignant lyrics and full of emotion - this is Fish at his best.

2005 saw the release of a two disc solo career 'retrospective' called Bouillabaisse, featuring most of the best songs and one 'new' track, a cover of Frankie Miller's Caledonia which had been recorded for a Frankie Miller tribute album in 2003. It also marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Marillion's classic Misplaced Childhood album, so much of the year was given over to the 'Return to Childhood' tour, during which he played the entire album of Misplaced Childhood as part of the set. Fantastic!
And now we have the release of the 13th Star - Fish's 13th studio album (including the 4 with Marillion). Given the quality of the last two studio albums, it has a lot ot measure up to. But is it any good? I'll tell you later.

[*] Released December 2003 via his website. Didn't hit the shops until Spring 2004.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

(Still) Clutching at straws...

I saw half a Fish gig last night. I won a pair of tickets in a competition on Planet Rock, but I had a prior engagement earlier in the evening so had to go late. Fish was due to be on stage at 9pm but it was nearly 10pm when (my colleague) Pedro and I made it to the Jamhouse in Edinburgh for the gig.

This was the first gig in the '13th Star' tour, the new album of that name went on sale for the first time at the gig last night (I bought it, review to follow). This tour also marks the 20th anniversary of the Clutching at Straws album. So I was expecting a mix of tracks from these two albums, with maybe a few other classics thrown in for good measure.

I don't yet know what songs we missed in the first hour of the show, but the remainder of the set was (with the exception of one song) from the Clutching at Straws album. This is not a complaint. Indeed, it is far from a complaint, it was a great (half) gig!

The setlist in the second half of the gig was (from memory, so song order may be a bit muddled):
  1. Warm wet circles
  2. That time of the night (the short straw)
  3. Vigil
  4. Sugar mice
  5. White Russian
  6. The last straw
  7. Incommunicado
The sound in the venue was not great (not terrible either) - everything was a bit bassy, muffled, too loud and the vocals were too far down in the mix, but the band were on form and Fish was having a ball. There was more than usual in-between-songs banter and the whole atmosphere was more party-like than usual.

The crowd was a mixed bunch. Clearly there were a lot of Fish fans there but, given that many of the tickets were won online rather than bought, there were quite a lot of non-fans too. I suspect that there were quite a lot of Planet Rock folk and media people there too. This gave the atmosphere a peculiar vibe. The audience was half-halfhearted, if you know what I mean.

But a good start to the tour. Fish promised to return to Edinburgh next year, so I'll probably go again then.

More photos (not mine) from the gig can be found here...

Update: the full setlist for the gig was:
  1. Slainte Mhath
  2. Circle Line
  3. So Fellini
  4. Square Go
  5. Perception of Johnny Punter
  6. Manchmal
  7. Hotel Hobbies
  8. Warm wet circles
  9. That time of the night (the short straw)
  10. Vigil
  11. White Russian
  12. Sugar mice
  13. The last straw
  14. Incommunicado
Fish had also intended to play Dark Star and Cliche, but dropped them due to time constraints.

Impressive that, of the songs from the new album, he managed to pick my three least favourites to play... Just as well I missed the first half ;o)

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fish and Marillion on stage together once more...

A one-off, never to be repeated reunion, according to Fish.
The Market Square, Aylesbury, 25th August 2007

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Doctor Who in my dreams...

I had a really vivid dream last night. Basically it was a two-part (yes, I dreamt it in two parts, complete with end credit music!), end of series, Doctor Who cliffhanger type story. It featured the David Tennant version of the Doctor, Billie Piper as Rose, Matt Lucas as a character who was taken over by an alien parasite (a bit like the face-hugger in Alien, but this one clung onto the back of people's heads), a spectral knight on horseback who came crashing through castle doors with alarming regularity and small, sinister, snake-like aliens who were masquerading as flute-like kids' musical instruments. Oh, and lots of laser beams.

I just wish I could remember the whole story - I woke up thinking it was really good.

Hmmm, what does all this tell you about my subconscious?

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Sunday, September 02, 2007


I finally got around to watching Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy on Friday night. It was funny in bits, but nothing like as funny as I'd been led to believe. I mean, the characters are great and funny, but the actual plot isn't really that funny. Shame.

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