Monthly Archives: May 2018

Acclaimed Albums – Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 147/250Title: Carrie & Lowell
Artist: Sufjan Stevens
Year: 2015
Position: #220

At the end of 2015 I ranked Carrie & Lowell as my second favourite album of that year behind Father John Misty’s I Love You, Honeybear. That was a tough call as, honestly, there was less than a hair between my top 3 of that year. Even now, two and a half years later, it is incredibly difficult to rank them. However, there is absolutely no denying that Carrie & Lowell is an incredibly special album.

As someone who has been a loyal fan of Sufjan Stevens’ music for over a decade (and seen him live twice) a new album always produces a lot of excitement for me. With Carrie & Lowell it was even more so as it was a return to the folk roots that he abandoned for his previous album (The Age of Adz). Not only that, but this was going to be his most personal work to date. I couldn’t wait.

I was right to be excited. Carrie & Lowell is an album of outstanding beauty that has been created from Sufjan Stevens’ own pain and his love for both his mother and his step-father. There are still times where track from this album have the ability to make me feel tearful, and considering how many times I’ve played this album in the last 3 years that is no mean accomplishment.

As an album is an incredibly cohesive time capsule  for a short period in Steven’s life. His lyrical quirks and asides (such as the line from ‘Eugene’ about his stepfather calling him “Subaru”) with the beautiful arrangements that are at times sparse and at others lush just make this whole album sound like sonic therapy.

At the centre of all this are two tracks which, somehow, were even better when I saw him play this album live: ‘Fourth of July’ and ‘The Only Thing’. The former is about a conversation between Stevens and his mother as she lay dying in hospital. It’s a story about how, in the face of death, they were able to properly communicate their feelings of unconditional familial love.

Then there’s ‘The Only Thing’. A song that, if you are someone who has ever had the misfortune to come face to face with part of you that seeks self-destruction, speaks a strange truth. In essence, it is a song about all the ways you imagine topping yourself, wondering how much you care if you end up surviving and finding a reason to carry on.

There’s a similar song on St Vincent’s amazing album MASSEDUCTION called ‘Smoking Section’. For her the reason to keep going is love, for Sufjan it’s the beauty that can be found in nature and his own faith in God. I cannot imagine how hard it must be sing a song like that every night when on tour – must be like continually prodding at an open would.

Then again Carrie & Lowell, as an album, is an open wound. It’s made of some of the most beautifully and brutally honest songs that I have ever heard. Hopefully this has been the catharsis he needed.


XL Popcorn – Lola

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 649/1007
Title: Lola
Director: Jacques Demy
Year: 1961
Country: France

Feels like I’ve been on a bit of a role lately with films. I guess that’s what feeling sick gets you, time to catch up on your movies and napping. Lola ended up being the last of these films in what appears to be a tradition with me and the films of Jacques Demy. Guess that means I’ll be waiting until my next bout of sickness before watching his best known work: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

If I had to some up my experience of Lola in one word it would be: vague. The world of Lola seems to exist in a vague town build for thousands, but only houses about 20. At least that’s the only way you can explain away the way that every character seems to meet and interact as if by chance. This isn’t a criticism, but the whole thing made me think of this as being a classy French soap opera from the 1960s crossed with Groundhog Day (because the whole feeling of pre-destination).

This is not a criticism, but it just speaks for the fact that if you are looking for a film with a lot of substance… then Lola may not be it. If, however, you are looking for a light and well done piece of fluffy cinema (and you’re not too sick that subtitles are out of the question) then this might be the film for you.

It scratched my itch today because of the well written dialogue and the fact that I didn’t need to concentrate too much on what was happening. It was also cool to see Marc Michel (who I previously saw in Le Trou) in another movie, even if I was glad that he didn’t get the girl in the end.


XL Popcorn – Things To Come

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 648/1007
Title: Things To Come
Director: William Cameron Menzies
Year: 1936
Country: UK

When setting out to make 2001: A Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick was told to watch Things To Come as a source of inspiration. Kubrick did not like the film at all. I haven’t found out why Kubrick felt this way, but I think I can hazard a guess.

The overall idea of Things To Come is that it posits an alternative history based on the then contemporary word and then extrapolates from there with the whole thing being fed through the filter of H.G. Wells. Having read The Time Machine I came in fully aware of just how philosophical this would end up becoming.

You see, Things to Come is not a completely coherent film when it comes to plot. It’s full of a lot of interesting ideas about where society could head given a certain set of circumstances, but it is very much of a view that technological progression should be the be all and end all for humanity. Whilst I don’t necessarily disagree that progress should not be a goal, this film posits that it should be prioritised over happiness… and that isn’t something I can get on board with.

One thing that I loved about this film, however, was the art design. Whilst the latter sections were not as interesting in terms of plot, it was a complete feast for the eyes. The futuristic sets and the scale models used for the moon-launcher gun were utterly fantastic. Similarly, the large scale sets for the UK in 1940 felt expansive and incredibly effective.

Speaking of the 1940s section, this first part of the movie was the best by a country mile. Setting aside the fact that Wells was only a year off with his prediction of World War Two, the depiction of the blitz was incredibly visceral. I honestly don’t know how many war films I have seen where the focus was on the panic of the civilians as their world is being bombed into oblivion – but Things To Come does this in a way that felt genuinely shocking for a film from 1936 (or that might just be my sitting here ill at home).

So yes. There was an awful lot of promise in the early minutes which then gave away to a lot of philosophising with plenty of on the nose examples. Still, it’s interesting to see a film where H.G. Wells had a hand in the production.

Good Eatin’ – Tupperwared Manx Kippers

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Isle of Mann Kipper

I never thought that it would be so hard to find verified Manx Kippers. I’ve seen many a kipper that is labelled as Manx-style or, simply, kippers. However, this is the first time that I’ve been to a fishmongers that specifically stated their point of origin.

So then came the question… how do I cook these. Well, according to Delia Smith there are two ways of cooking them: grilling or jugging. Since I didn’t want to completely fill the kitchen with the smell of smoked fish I opted for jugging. However, since I didn’t own a suitable ‘jug’ I used a small bit of Tupperware and kept it warm in a makeshift water bath.

It turns out that the main benefit of ‘jugging’ is that it helps to finish off the cooking process whilst also re-hydrating them. The other benefit is that really helps for bone removal. I’m not kidding when I say that the spine and most of the smaller fishbones came away from the flesh incredibly easily. That alone made these better than the Abrorath smokies.

Speaking of the smokies, because of them I honestly did not have a high expectation for these Manx kippers. However, these were far more subtly smoked than most of the other smoked fished I’ve done for the list. The flesh just melted in the mouth, and I am really glad that I followed the suggestion of having a little bit of butter on top so it could melt into the fish and compliment the natural oils.

Unlike the lamb kidneys, I can see myself having these kidneys again. Even if it’s for breakfast with some egg on top.

Progress: 684/751

Acclaimed Albums – Freak Out! & Hot Rats by Frank Zappa

List item: Listen to the 250 greatest albums
Progress: 146/250

Title: Freak Out!
Artist: The Mothers of Invention
Title: Hot Rats
Artist: Frank Zappa
Year: 1969
Position: #285

Man, it’s been an awfully long time since I last did a double bill for albums. Then again it’s been an awfully long time that I was posting over six months in advance. Also, this is one of those rare instances where I had the chance to listen to both of them in quick succession. I know that Hot Rats isn’t within the 250, but in for a penny etc.

Okay, so I had them on in the background during an all day remote meeting, but after the weirdness of Trout Mask Replica this felt like the best way for me to deal with two hours of Zappa’s music. I know, sacrilege an’ all that.

Honestly, I am not sure what to write about these two albums. Compared to his album with Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, these Frank Zappa albums feel normal. I was going to use the word ‘pedestrian’, but that would imply that these albums were boring. Quite the contrary really.

Both albums are, as expected, experimental. It’s just that these experiments aren’t as off-putting as those on Trout Mask Replica. Freak Out! is very much an experimental album in the same way that The White Album by The Beatles, i.e. a lot of the impact has been lost in 50 years of music evolution. In fact, it’s beginning to just sound like one of the better albums of the mid 1960’s that covered psychedelic rock and proto-punk.

Hot Rats is in a similar position as Freak Out! in that it feels fairly tame. However, what helps it to stick out is that – apart from one track – it is an instrumental album. The idea behind this album was to create a ‘movie for your ears’, which sounds like it could be pioneering until you realise that is that classical composers have been doing for centuries. Then again, where would we be without a hint of pretension.

So that’s where we are, two more albums down with not a lot to say about them on my part. Maybe because I listened to them as I would most albums and not as if I was to write something about them? By this point I had hoped to be further into this list and thinking of expansion. Hey ho, as long as I finish it eventually, right?

XL Popcorn – Shadows

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 647/1007
Title: Shadows
Director: John Cassavetes
Year: 1959
Country: USA

It bears repeating that the reason I am going through the 1001 list is because of the variety of movies. This isn’t just in terms of style or genre, but also the types of stories that are being told. I know I am likely to repeat this spiel when I get around to watching Tongues Untied, but considering I have 359+ more introductions to write before completing this list I hope some repetition is forgivable.

Shadows is an interesting entry on the list for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s an independent film that, in its current state, is a completely re-worked version of an earlier disparaged version. I can’t think of a current film where, after an unsuccessful first set of screenings, the director decides to go for a complete re-shoot. That alone make this film an interesting artefact.

Then there is the fact that it deals with inter-racial relationships in a manner where it is clear that it is the prejudiced white man that is the problem. This alone marks out Shadows as being remarkably liberal and forward-thinking for its time. However, that alone is not the most interesting way that they handle the story.

The casting of the siblings that are central to Shadows does something that you don’t really see from films of this era; there is a conscious decision to have them all to have colours of skin along a light to dark scale. Lalia, the lightest skinned of the siblings, is so close to being white (because the actress herself was white) that her racist suitor, Tom, has no idea that she is African-American.

It is when Tom meets Lalia’s family that the shoe drops and we see him for the bigot that he is. The initial surprise stings for Lalia because, to him, this really matters. We later see him at a party where he is very aggressive about black party-goers touching him or giving him a beverage. Yet, through this, he still thinks he can talk her around to being with him despite his views, which may be one of the most blatant examples of white male privilege I have seen on film.

Shadows has a place in the history of cinema because it was a catalyst for American independent cinema and helped inspire a movement that could come up against the New Wave that was coming out of Europe. Sure the acting is a bit patchy and the story of the brothers is a bit lacklustre, but this is an important film and one that needs to be seen to help understand some of the roots of New Hollywood, whose era would begin nearly a decade later.

XL Popcorn – The Long Goodbye

List Item: Watch all of the “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die”
Progress: 646/1007
Title: The Long Goodbye
Director: Robert Altman
Year: 1973
Country: USA

It’s always weird to see Elliot Gould in a serious role. To think that prior to being known to my generation as Jack Geller in Friends he was making films like MASH and The Long Goodbye. It’s also a trip to re-discover that he was once married to Barbra Streisand. The things you learn when listening to cinema history podcasts.

If the name Philip Marlowe, the protagonist of The Long Goodbye, rings any bells it’s because he is a character that has appeared in many films over the years. He is the hero of a number of pulp novels by Raymond Chandler and has been played by a number of actors including Robert Mitchum, Toby Stevens and Humphrey Bogart (in The Big Sleep).

As with The Big Sleep I had some degree of trouble with the pacing of The Long Goodbye. It goes for something that is complex, but does it in such a languid way that everyone feels like they’re either on drugs of succumbing to the California heat. Unlike The Big Sleep it was easier to understand the twists and turns of the storyline. It’s just that by the time you get to the end you wonder why you ever cared.

Then again, I wonder if that’s the point. After being given the runaround for a number of weeks Marlowe just seems mildly annoyed at the conclusion and is just happy to put an end to this case. I don’t blame him either and can completely get on board with him playing his harmonica in a carefree fashion after just killing someone.

One thing that The Long Goodbye does better than The Big Sleep is the character of Marlowe. Gould’s portrayal feels more rounded and realistic, which is mostly because of the first ten minutes where we see him doting on his cat who is very choosy about the brand of cat food they’ll eat. Also, Gould’s interaction felt more naturalistic and less ‘acted’ than Bogart’s… I guess I’m saying that I feel this is the superior performance.

However, one thing I did miss was a truly memorable secondary female character performance. There’s no Lauren Bacall or Martha Vickers here, just some cookie cutter tropes of women (and not many of them at that). It did deliver a good male secondary character in the form of a security guard who delights in impersonating stars of old Hollywood.

It’s an okay film, just not something I’d watch again… or really recommend.

What’s On TV – Clocking Off

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 201/501
Title: Clocking Off
Episodes Aired: 27
Year(s): 2000-2003
Country: UK

At the moment it would appear that an increasing number of new shows on TV are following the anthology format. It’s weird, therefore, to think that when Clocking Off first aired it was pretty much unique. Whilst not a true anthology series it is at least anthology adjacent.

Clocking Off is a series set in a textile factory in Manchester with each episode focusing on a different worker in the factory. Some of these stories are completely self-contained whilst others have a direct impact on the main narrative. By constructing a series in this way Clocking Off is able to tackle a large number of subjects and bring in some of the top UK television acting talent due to the limited nature of their appearance.

When you consider this is a series that features the likes of Christopher Eccleston, Lesley Sharp, Philip Glenister, Marc Warren, David Morrissey, Sophie Okenedo and Sarah Lancashire it is little wonder that this show became a critical darling. Although, I think we could all agree, that any show that features Sarah Lancashire in something close to a leading role is worth every award it gets.

The main award this received was the BAFTA award for Best Drama Series. It won it for the first, and best, series with the latter all three series being nominated and ultimately missing out. It’s a fair shout because the first series is exceptional, varied in it’s scope and contains the best episode (Yvonne’s Story).

Whilst there are a number of heavy episodes there are still light moments, but these seem to disappear as the show went along it’s run – resulting in a lot of heavy episodes. Then again, the point of creating a pseudo-anthology series is to allow for the covering of a large number of topics such as racism, paedophilia, mental health and LGBT issues alongside the more mainstream stories.

There is no question that the first (and most of the second) series of Clocking Off was must watch television. With all things it appears that by series three the originality and the realism began to wain. Still it was an exceptional show at its peak.

Good Eatin’ – Rocamadour

So a good friend came to visit over the weekend and, seeing how it’s the happiest place in London, I took him to visit Borough Market.

I don’t know how, in our 8 year friendship, we’ve never been to a food market together. Still we rectified this now and put together a deli lunch containing some of the former list items that I thought he might enjoy:

This lunch gave me a chance to actually go back and re-evaluate an item in particular:  Boulette D’Avesnes, the Devil’s Suppository itself. Once again we were given fair warning by the vendor and, once again, I completely discarded this.

Now I don’t know if I’m more used to strong flavours or if there can be such a wide variation in the production of this cheese, but it was nowhere near as strong as I remembered. The smell was still pungent, yet it was actually pleasant and spicy compared to the last one I tried. In terms of taste it was still had the creamy herbal heat with an aftertaste that stung, but it was more palatable this time.

I guess this goes to prove that just because you are eating the same type of cheese from the same manufacturer, the experience can still be quite different when sampled a few years apart.

List Item: Try three quarters of the 1001 Foods You Must Try Before You DieFood item: Rocamadour

Within this lunch there was a new item to cross off: Rocamadour. At present it feels like this is the last item from the dairy section of the 1001 list that I will be able to get from Borough (although I am more than happy to be proven wrong).

At £1.50 a disc this was a steal compared to some of the other foods I’ve recently purchased. It also served as a reminder of why I enjoy a good bit of goat’s cheese, especially as (since I bought this in November) I was at the end of the production season, resulting in a stronger/more mature experience.

From the first bite Rocamadour is unmistakably goaty. I don’t know how to describe that other than by highlighting the grassiness and the extra lactic burn that you tend to get from goat’s cheese. Despite being on the mature side this cheese was still smooth and spreadable. I didn’t get any of the nuttiness that I was meant to get, then again that’s a taste I never seem to get unless it is extremely obvious; probably just my taste buds being a bit weird.

Progress: 683/751

What’s On TV – Big Brother

List Item:  Watch half of the 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die
Progress: 200/501
Title: Big Brother
Episodes Aired: …countless
Year(s): 1999-2006 (original series)
Country: Netherlands (original series)

When I first started crossing things off for the TV list I had left shows like Big Brother uncrossed because I had only seen the British version. I’m now two years in and I’ve gotten to thinking. How likely is it that I’m not only going to be able to find the original Dutch version of Big Brother, let alone have it be with English subtitles. Not very likely.

So, from this point onward, I will be adding English-language versions of reality and game shows if I cannot find subtitled versions. Means that I might have a fighting chance at seeing Bauer sucht Frau… so hooray?

When it comes to Big Brother in the UK, I was one of the people watching the original series. Well, the latter half of the original series thanks to all the ‘Nasty Nick’ furore. I even remember voting for my favourite (Anna) only to have her lose to Craig. I would later go on to watch series 7 and 8 as well as the first and fifth editions of Celebrity Big Brother UK.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that, back in the day, I was able to enjoy Big Brother. However, I have literally no desire to start up on a new series. Haven’t had that desire for the best part of a decade though. Still, I think I’ve watched enough to cross this off.