Saturday, 26 May 2012


So as to address the transatlantic imbalance, the next two LPs that are exciting me at the moment come from the US. Both affiliated with the wonderful Bella Union record label (as it is known in the UK) which has been a recent hotbed for outstanding alternative music, Beach House and The Walkmen look set to produce amongst some of the most influential records of 2012; that is if all the anticipation has been anything to go by. First of all, a review of Beach House’s Bloom...  

I like what the duo from Baltimore, Beach House, stand for. Their musical representation is minimalistic with their central tenet of song construction being that of simple, yet exquisite texturing of synth, drums and cyclical guitar and piano hooks. With these basic ingredients, the archetypal Beach House track will incrementally build before culminating in their other-worldly sound which has earned them so many admirers. Rather akin to that of their abstract expressionist American counterparts – Rothko; Pollock; Newman – Beach House continue to produce music that spins the listener into a centrifuge of abstraction leaving behind only that intangible negative space which is what every Beach House fan has grown to love.       

Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand of Beach House have been forthcoming in raising their concerns surrounding the maintenance of an “artistic integrity” in the modern music industry. In an environment where artists come under such high degrees of media scrutiny it is easy to see why these two are cautious to disclose too much personal information and uphold a healthy scepticism of social media. If they had it their way, Beach House would use their music as the sole means by which they connect with their audience; even in their live performances they play hard-to-get with their phlegmatic demeanour and monochrome set and dress sense. This all paints rather a dull picture; shouldn’t they be doing more to win us over? Well – not at the moment, at least. What the pair believe is at stake for them is the loss of their mystique that has been generated from their last two albums and not only would this detract from what they do best, but would in fact erode their artistic ideology. This way of thinking could be perceived as being a little bit “too cool for school” from some quarters but I suspect that it is genuine and even a vague attempt at being showy would be considered gratuitous and would force them firmly out of their comfort zone.

All of their four albums to-date directly descend from this sense of uncertainty and caution about the world and Bloom, to me, represents an albeit measured progression along this same line. Legrand’s plaintive and fragile vocals really come to the fore on this album and she has become a master of those deliberate, slightly off-pitch notes that hold so much sway with the listener. Whilst there are no tracks on this record that are quite as immaculate as Zebra (Myth does come close), the record fits together more seamlessly and is awash with yet more of those hooks and dreamy synth that we have come to expect. It is certainly a more accessible record than Teen Dream; tracks such as Lazuli have an instant impact with Scally’s gorgeous guitar melody over which Legrand’s vocal, “like no other you can’t be replaced,” grows in significance with each repetition at the song’s climax. New Year is but another example of how Beach House reel one catchy hook after another off their seemingly endless melody by numbers production line.

It is a strange irony with Bloom being released in springtime - a period of optimism and when this part of the world is almost fully in blossom –  that the duo were quick to dispel these positive sentiments. Instead, they are keener to focus on the more sinister aspects of the word; the organic and most human of notions that nothing is permanent; everything comes in cycles; everything has its time. From the micro-scale loops and repetitions that underpin a Beach House track through to their wider reliance on the same basic elements for song and album construction, Beach House are themselves, a cyclical entity. Perhaps Bloom – their most manicured and most accomplished record to-date – represents the ultimate distillation of their musicianship. Perhaps Bloom does in fact represent them coming to the end of a cycle?                

So as Beach House bask in what they might unashamedly express as their Indian summer, they will inevitably have to make some difficult decisions. It is unquestionable that they are very good at what they do – there is perhaps no one better – so why, one might ask, should they change anything? Wonderful though Bloom is, there is only so much repetition of repetition that one can take and I fear that a similar progression for a fifth record could start to alienate even the most ardent of fans, like myself. I fear they may have to step out of their comfort zone somewhat to find a new musical direction. Given that they acknowledge their own “bloom”, and given their talent and thoughtful, introspective nature, I have little doubt they will be able to succeed in doing so.

Thursday, 17 May 2012


Hundreds turned out for this cycling tour event as the riders took to a slippery, cobbly and certainly very undulating course on the leafy avenues of west central Durham. For what the 1.4 km course lacked in length, it made up for in terms of terrifying hairpins and precipitous slopes; and all in an initially very compact field. This made for an exciting spectacle at the low point of the course where Crossgate and South Street converge (pictured below) acting as the honeypot for crashes and collisions. You certainly get a real sense of how much balls these athletes have!  

The cyclists hurtling down Crossgate at frightening speed before turning virtually at right angles and ascending the agonisingly steep South Street. 

From here the competitors tackled the cobbled South Street. In one of the most affluent areas in the city given the outstanding and unhindered views of the cathedral, the cyclists could perhaps admire the scene to their left as they climbed - or perhaps not!

The cyclists then veered right into the realm of Durham School which marked the completion of one lap. With laps completed in a matter of minutes, and once the field had spread considerably, this made for a steady stream of cyclists which kept the crowd involved. The event MCs did a good job of enthusing the crowd for the hour that the race was run, occasionally providing the odd humorous moment which included confusing the race leader as to how many laps he had left to ride. The eventual winner, Kristian House, did not seem pleased when the bell didn't ring for what he thought was his final lap.   

The British-born Texan, Kristian House (pictured above left and right) ended up winning the event by the proverbial country mile. The chasing pack were a good half a minute short of the pace. And of course, with cycling being a team event also, the Endura team earned the accolade for the best collective effort. This was a fun event in a lovely setting; and all right on my doorstep.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Summer 2012 Releases - Part 1 

These watery months that lead us into the first vestiges of summer are a reminder that festival season is fast approaching; an exciting time for any music lover and one that will thankfully, yet shamefully, be my first. But what makes this time of year doubly exciting from a personal perspective is the vast array of new releases from artists that have been sprung into the spotlight upon the back of their previous LP successes. There are four new releases, however, that are grabbing my attention the most. For the sake of symmetry and fairness, there are two from each side of the pond. From Britain: throwbacks from a bygone era and from the US: two emerging heavyweights of the popular alternative music scene. 

First up, Richard Hawley’s Standing on the Sky’s Edge that was released on Parlophone records last Monday 7th May. One could seek criticism in this overtly grandiose and wistful album title but it appears that the Sheffield crooner has gone back to his real strength – his guitar playing. With what Hawley has described as his “angry” record, it has earned rave reviews from far and wide and looks set to gain more admirers following headlining performances at festivals such as Latitude this summer. Whilst I didn’t enjoy this record as much as I thought I would (I had incredibly high expectations), I can still see tracks like Leave Your Body Behind You going down a treat at festivals with it’s anthemic and northern wall of sound qualities.

Despite the title and release date unconfirmed, 2012 will most likely see the reappearance of a Manchester band who had been toiling through the doldrums until a combination of songwriting excellence and a fruitful collaboration with fellow Mancunians brought I am Kloot to the forefront of public consciousness. The culmination of this rise can be seen in The Sky at Night receiving a nomination for the 2010 Mercury Music Prize only to eventually lose out to The xx for their debut album. A recent tweet from Elbow’s Mark Potter – producer alongside Guy Garvey for both I am Kloot’s last and, we think, next LP – suggests that one of I am Kloot’s new tracks “will kick your balls in!” Perhaps not the first thing that would spring to mind when describing the impact of IAK track, but we get the sentiment! 

With what could appear - like Hawley’s - as a pretentious-sounding album title, one might hypothesise that they were setting themselves up for a large fall but with Potter and Garvey’s eye for the orchestral, IAK delivered a wonderful collection of tracks that were able to match the title’s grand ambition. Putting Elbow’s influence to one side for a moment, John Bramwell conjured some poignant moments and truly memorable lyrics; my favourite of which being from Fingerprints where the line “If heaven is a place upon your skin || That I may have touched from without to within” is so stunningly embroiled in pathos when Bramwell repeats the line at the track’s conclusion.

One suspects that Bramwell would have been wary of the criticism that would inevitably come his way with what one might consider rather syrupy album motifs like the homage to the north in “See the stars and constellations || Sit beneath their congregation” on Northern Skies. Equally obvious is the idea of radiation from distant suns falling over you as the dawn breaks on Radiation. However, The Sky at Night doesn’t come across syrupy at all; it is honest, unashamedly romantic and basically, just downright beautiful. Let’s hope for something similar when the new release comes around. 

Sunday, 13 May 2012

A belated springtime in Durham

After weeks of what has seemed like constant rain, the sunshine breaks through on a gorgeous Saturday morning in Durham. With the river levels exceptionally high after recent weather, the Wear is flowing rather vigorously over the weir just downstream of Prebends Bridge. 


Monday, 7 May 2012

Ronnie's final crucible appearance?

After delivering the most effervescent and brilliant snooker that we have witnessed in years from him, we are (yet again) left pondering the prospect of this great game without the most naturally gifted player to have ever graced the baize. Such is the enigmatic and capricious nature of Ronnie O’Sullivan, this latest of a series of retirement hints coincides tantalisingly with his best World Championship form since his 2008 victory.

Nothing is ever straightforward with the Rocket. Whenever he takes to the table there is always something inside me that is willing him to win, or at least to provide the kind of entertainment that to me, without question, can be considered one of most thrilling sights in sport. At his buccaneering best, an O’Sullivan century has been known to captivate even the most stoic supporters of the "if it doesn’t involve physical exertion, it is not a proper sport” brigade.

But for all his talent, O’Sullivan is an infuriating character. The class which he shows in abundance on the table does not necessarily always translate to the press room. Often contradictory and insecure, O’Sullivan gives the impression of a tortured soul who frequently – whether intentionally or not – manages to show a lack of respect towards a game that has treated him rather kindly over the years. His comments in the wake of his semi-final victory over Matthew Stevens were a stark reminder of this. Not only is it odd to announce on the eve of the final that this appearance at the Crucible may be his last (why not do a Hendry?), but with all the inevitable clichés that splurge out like verbal diarrhoea in situations such as these ( fitting an end it would be and what better way to bow out...etc), it is actually quite disrespectful to his opponent in the final, Ali Carter.

With these continual threats of prolonged breaks, sabbaticals and indeed, retirement over the last few years, it has been easy to become blasé about them; brushing them off as yet more hollow Ronnie talk. But perhaps Ronnie truly is out of love with the game and he has been waiting for that sacred moment when a majestic streak of form coincides with the game’s biggest stage - to use the cliché: the perfect way to end one’s career. The rare focus and determination that Ronnie has shown over the last seventeen days suggests that he has been in a solid place mentally; something that we have not been accustomed to seeing throughout his career but particularly in recent times. Whatever his mental state, his form has been exemplary and he has genuinely looked like he has enjoyed every moment of the championship.   

Whether Ronnie sticks true to his word and retires from snooker after the final remains to be seen. Like him or loathe him – or if you, like me, are somewhere in between – it is hard to resist the charm of watching O’Sullivan at the peak of his powers. Snooker will, without doubt, be left with a mercurial entertainer-shaped hole that, at a time when the place of such a slow game in a furiously fast-paced modern world is being called into question, may be too large for the rising stars of Judd Trump, Cao Yupeng and Luca Brecel to fill. My advice would be to watch and appreciate every single lusty delivery of his cue and every expert manoeuvre of the white as if it was his last tonight; but just don’t hold your breath.