Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Almost, but not quite...

We're almost there. After four months and lord knows how much stress, we finally moved all our belongings (well, bar a suitcase worth of clothes) from Auld Reekie to Colchester.

It took three hours of loading a van, eight hours of driving a van and another two hours of unloading a van before our ordeal was over. But, now, it's done. Finito.

My current flat in Edinburgh is barer than the torso of a publicity seeking reality TV star. But there's something reassuringly empty about it. The echoic silence signifies the calm after the storm of the last few weeks.

In one week, I leave my flat. In two weeks and two days, I leave my job. In two weeks and three days, I leave Edinburgh for good. The count is going down...

Photos from moving day*

* Taken on my camera phone because I've had to leave my D700 in Colchester.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Album Review: Fionn Regan - 100 Acres of Sycamore

For those not up to speed with the latest happenings in reality TV, a show called The Voice is set to expunge across UK plasma screens and tabloid newspapers very soon. As you’d expect for a mindless Saturday night extravaganza, the show’s format is standard fare: a panel of judges passes comment on auditioning singers who are subsequently appraised by the watching square-eyed masses, with the winner taking home a neat, but ultimately unrewarding, record contract.

So what?

Well, The Voice sells itself with an added twist. Instead of focusing on the entire ‘package’ on offer, the judges hone in on one attribute: the voice. Before seeing the goods, the panel – which in the States contains the rapidly decomposing Christina Aguilera – chooses those who make it into the business end of the competition based only on the strength of their vocal-chord busting prowess. Oh, the authenticity of it all.

As anodyne as it seems, the show does form an intriguing basis for debate. Who in today’s current musical climes would cut the muster in a blind audition? Would Beyonce manage to holler her way to public approval without the taut jiggle of her derriere? Could Justin Timberlake brace himself for an audition knowing his artillery of robotic-jiving and A-list collaborators was as redundant as his acting acumen? And what about Cheryl Cole? Could she succeed if… actually, let’s leave that one alone.

One man who’d surely have no problem progressing past the blindfolded preliminaries is Fionn Regan. In full flight, the Irish-born songsmith’s pipes coax a remarkable sound. Soaring and swooping with eagle-like effect, Regan’s spine-tickling intonation is the auto-focus of his work, rising beyond the arrangements that form the backbone of his work. If The Voice is looking for a surefire bet, Regan is all they need.

But this strength can work its way into a flaw. Too often Regan’s records are vocally imposing, yet musically lacking; too frequently his towering cries capture attention, only to be released by a lack of musical clout. Somewhere along the way he seems to miss the vital connection between his natural and creative abilities. Sadly, new record 100 Acres of Sycamore does little to redress the detachment.

Laid to tape in just seven days, 100 Acres… was recorded live in a quest to stay true to the integrity of Regan’s songwriting. And, to an extent, it’s an aim well struck; the confessional narratives and layers of instrument bleed a sincerity that bypassed last year’s folk-rock throbber The Shadow of an Empire. But while Regan produces an undoubted cosiness of sound, there’s a lack of bite to the record and a distinct hum of sterile predictability percolating through its spine.

On their own, these candle-burning canticles float with poignancy and poise. 'Lake District’s ivory key balladry is an opulent tearjerker, wailing out a symphony of string and gentile guitar plucks. More positivist in rhythm, 'For Nightingale' finds Regan tingling out scales like Rufus Wainright without the drama school histrionics, crowing “You’re a star” as though it’s the climax to some love-sloshing Disney animation.

When he gets it right, it’s an instrumentally rich affair; strings, piano and acoustic guitar are woven into a fine tapestry of contemplative melody. The quivering title track is testament to Regan’s ability to fine tune. His gorgeous, tear-soaked strain coils around the weeping violin and officious percussion, lilting and wilting its way through a soundscape so sparse and atmospheric it could rival Cave at his balladeering best.

Yet, as a whole, the record has one obvious flaw: it’s dreary. Too much of 100 Acres... passes over without need for recognition. The melancholic tint of 'North Star Love' is indeterminable from 'Dogwood Blossom’'s equally emotive plodding. Likewise, the bleak, mournful narrative and minor-key weep of 'Vodka Sorrow' swills along at the same painful pace as '1st Day of May', so much so it’s barely noticed that a distance of two tracks segregates the pair.

Ultimately, 100 Acres of Sycamore biggest failing is its own consistency. A banal collection of candle-lighting acoustic numbers, it’s little more than a mild-mannered soundtrack to a bourgeois dinner party in suburbia. He may well have the voice, but Fionn Regan needs something more powerful to convince the record buying judges he’s worth their vote.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Album Review: Memory Tapes - Player Piano

Dayve Hawk is not a man who seems particularly comfortable in the limelight. In fact, so attuned to the shadows does the brainchild behind Memory Tapes appear, you suspect one moment in the neon glare of fame would render below him a sweaty pool of anxiety as he gnaws and gnarls his way, rat-like, back into the sanctity of anonymity – a place where all good bedroom-bound producers prefer to reside in these prevailing times.

Given this predisposition to invisibility, the follow up to Hawk’s blog-wooing 2009 debut, Seek Magic, throws a surprising curveball: his voice. For all its homespun beauty, Player Piano’s most noteworthy trait is the omnipresence of Hawk’s airy tone. Sure, it was there on Seek Magic, but it was a backseat companion to the record’s glowing soundscapes. Here, its hands are firmly on the wheel, driving the album into fresh pastures and – surely to Hawk’s chagrin – wider spheres.

‘Wait In The Dark’ is an early flagbearer of his saunter to the vocal fore. A luminous shifter of pop melody, the wiggling synths and agile percussion bear heavy Postal Service hallmarks, albeit with Hawk’s crotch tightening mew replacing the emotive strains of Ben Gibbard. It’s an irresistible opening, doused in love-struck regret and indicating a new approach to song creation, where organics replace synthetics.

Despite its ever-expanding chill-wave contours, Seek Magic was at heart an industrious play on highbrow French house, built on robotic arrangements and primal dancefloor urges. Player Piano finds Hawk scrawling a new signature, crossed and dotted with thick, rich swathes of sound, rather then textures. What he’s created is a record pounding to the beating heart of pop; alive to the nuances of live - or at least live sounding - instruments (particularly keyboards), translucent melodies with a sweet spot and cheek dampening narratives.

Of course, to call it a pure pop excursion does Player Piano a disservice. Complexity rolls through the record’s contents like an antidote to puritanical song structures. ‘Sunhits’’ rollerblading rhythm may shimmer to surf guitar, but the deep choral undertones balance out the slinky, early Nineties swell. Likewise, the simplicity of ‘Offers’’ blissful, day-breaking melody is offset by the foibles of a tin-can synthesizer cross-stitching its way across the cut’s zesty exterior.

Lyrically, the focus often falls on the aftermath of a tumultuous relationship. Through the two-part run of ‘Fell On Ice’, Hawk is buried deep under emotional rubble, examining the remaining painful shards while insisting “I don’t want to remember”. This poignant moment finds Hawk’s brittle tones accentuated by the quiver of an abandoned guitar. Part II washes away such melancholy; a cloud-bursting ivory key shower suggests hope is on the horizon, although you suspect Hawk never quite believes it.

But it’s not all doom-harbouring and girlfriend grieving. ‘Today Is Our Life’ is a striding, steel drum lather of ebullience that grins widely like some Yeasayer-inspired special of Glee, bearing proclamations of “we will never be better off than we are”. Less sweetened, ‘Worries’ opens on a looping Hammond rhythm and pounding tribal beat. From there, it explodes as a hazy ray of optimism, the thick carp of instrument ladling out an impossibly infectious chorus.

Complex of subject matter and sound, Player Piano could have been weighed down by intricacy. Instead, Hawk has interwoven his artistic lusts with clean melodies, creating a nailed-on summer soundtrack that treads the precipice between romantic laments and illuminating, cocktail-shaking jaunts. For someone who’s naturally inclined to back his way into the shadows, this is the sound of a man taking a significant step forward. The limelight awaits.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

You've got to get yourself a wee jobby, son...*

On the day I discovered Bert and Ernie’s courtship will never jet-boost beyond platonic, I accepted a job offer in London.

It’s an odd connection, admittedly, but there is a tenuous link between the two. Both were possibilities I never thought would really happen: One did. One didn’t. Sadly for Jim Henson’s finest and most convivial creations, I handed in my resignation yesterday.

It’s a strange feeling. On one hand, It’s the greening of new pastures; the end of job hunting, Skyping and cooking for one. But, on the other paw, I’ve just signed the release clause from the city I love. A place I’ve built a life, friends, reputation and career in the twelve years since I scuffled down from the very northern tip of Scotland.

It’s going to take some acclimatising. A 50 minute train journey in and out of London is going to feel like a life time in comparison to my normal 10 minute bus trip from just outside our meagre one bedroom flat on Murrayfield. While London, for all its places of intrigue, doesn’t have the rose-tinted allure of Edinburgh for me – yet.

Today, in preparation for the Big Move, I’ve been boxing up all our mounds of stuff. It’s incredible just how much tat/crap/Su’s clothing we’ve accumulated in the three years we’ve lived here. We came to this flat with just a couple of suitcases each and a few boxes. We’re leaving it with a van crammed to the rafters. God knows what it will look like when we eventually leave Colchester.

But this is an exciting time. It’s only really been a month since Su left, yet it has felt like a lifetime in terms of stress levels. Finally I feel like I’m getting my life back in to some semblance of order. Thank God.

As for Bert and Ernie, well, who knows what the future holds. Marriage might not be on the cards, but at least they’ve still got each other.

Here's a picture from just outside my soon-to-be new place of work.

*It's something my gran once said to me when I was 15. It still makes me laugh today

Monday, 8 August 2011

Standing in not so good stead

I don't mean to boast (and honestly I really don't), but my carbon footprint is getting bigger every week. In the last month and a half I've been on eight flights. After Wednesday I'll have another two stubs to add to by burgeoning collection of EasyJet tickets. Having a wife, as well as my preferred job market, based hundreds of miles away certainly doesn't do anything for the environment.

Given its proximity to my Colchester abode, London Stanstead is my plane station (calling them airports just seems so drab) of choice. It is, in every sense, a hell hole. The third busiest airport in the UK it may be, but Stanstead does a good job of resembling a dysfunctional sheep's pen.

Dead-eyed security wardens shepherd travellers into an uncoordinated, never ending drove; lager-sodden Ryanair hoards jetsetting it to Alicante pass voluble judgement on less loutish explorers; while air-conditioning is only a daydream in this perspiring people-coup of adventureless air travel (there's no transatlantic flights, hence the perceived lack of adventure).

As a child I used to find just the thought of an airport a thrill. A congregation of people gearing up to take flight to unexplored destinations was wholly ambitious and aspirational. But Stanstead has killed that. It has no joy within its monochromatic casing; no goose-flesh to its practical but wholly prosaic skin. London Stanstead is the embodiment of a modern airport. A place to get from A to B. Maybe I'm wrong to expect something more.

Incidentally, I was in Colchester last weekend. Here's some pictures I took while I was there. My white balance was unknowingly set to fluorescent, so there's a slight blue tinge to my pictures. I've tried to touch them up in Photoshop but I'm afraid there' not much I can do to cover up such a rookie faux pas!

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

D Day (D is for decision, by the way)

Today is the day I've finally made the decision. Not that it fills me with any sense of satisfaction, the trepidation is still there, but it's easier functioning knowing what the future holds, instead of not having the faintest impression of where you're going to be in one month, nevermind six.

I could call it an exit strategy, but it's not. This is a blind leap. There's a certain thrill in not knowing where you're going to land (apart from Colchester, obviously) and the prospect of falling knee-deep into something new tingles with an edginess I'm not particularly familiar with.

So from the sedate, to the shaken I go. Bring on September.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Job hunting is not my favourite pastime

So, I'm aware this is my third post in as many days, which means I'm currently trailblazing this blogging shizzle like a jet-propelled cowboy!

I guess I've just made that all sound quite exciting, haven't I? In reality, all I'm doing right now is trying to resist the allure of one more round of toast topped with lashings of cold, supermarket own brand strawberry jam.

I was supposed to be going to a gig tonight but I've got a scuffed up, gland-bloated throat right now, so a night in is probably a good idea. I've also have the fairly pressing concern of finding a new job to contend with, which is keeping me rather occupied.

Admittedly, I don't have to worry too much about not having an income. My comms job in Edinburgh pays good and it's not going anywhere. But, if I wish to be reunited with my estranged wife for more than the fleeting weekends we're getting at the moment then a new source of employment is a must.

Quite frankly, job hunting for jobs in another country is a major inconveniece. Particularly in communications. The best jobs are freelance and that means needing to be available ASAP. Which I'm not. For permanent jobs, agencies want to see you first, to do some form of aesthetic inspection of your ability to work - something that's a bit problematic when you're 400 miles away. And even when they do put you forward for a role, it's not a role you actually want (I recently walked out of an interview after 20 mins because it was definitely not pitched for someone with no online technical skills like me!!).

Anyway, I'm currently at a standstill. I need a job. But I have a job. And to find a job I will need to leave my current job. But to do that I need money, which - of course - my current job provides. Something, somewhere, has got to give. So do I chance it? Do I quit my current vocation and take the gamble, risking being impoverished? Or do I hold out in the hope something comes up?

Right now the answer is: I really don't know. But, I do need to know quite fast. After all, my Auld Reekie flat lease is up in 30 days!

As a bit of relief to my head-scratching job conundrum, here're some shots from when Su and I were taking our last walk down the Water of Leith before ending up at Holyrood Park to see the Swans