Posted in Books, entertainment, music, Podcasts, Review, Writing

Uncommon People by David Hepworth (review)

coverI have David Hepworth to thank for my podcast habit. It was the flash of insight that went along with listening to an episode of The Word podcast several years ago: I realised that I could listen to people talking about The Beatles forever, and took a mere two-hour discussion in my stride. Whereas, I thought, mainstream radio might offer a 5-10 minute whiz-around of talking heads and that would be your lot. Not since John Lennon died had I been able to indulge myself in hours of nitpicking and train-spotting. Some podcasters apologise now and then for being a little too much inside baseball, but that, for me, is the whole point.

Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars 1955-1994 is Hepworth’s follow-up to 1971: Never a Dull Moment, which I reviewed a while ago. I ended up being underwhelmed by that book because I had little interest in the music being discussed (turns out that 1971 didn’t see much that I like released). I’m underwhelmed by Uncommon People for different reasons.

I just watched one of my favourite movies, Pleasantville, with one of my classes, and when it finished I told my students that I thought it was almost perfect bar two things. The first thing was that it had too many endings. The second was that, for a movie that uses colour as a metaphor for change and prejudice, it neglected to include any actual people of colour.

So here’s what’s wrong with Uncommon People. On the one hand, Hepworth has a tendency to labour the point. He was always the shouty one on the Word podcast, and it could start to get on your nerves. As an editor, I’m sure, he would be able to look at such writing and strike out the third-to-tenth ways in which he expresses the same idea. As an author, one suspects that each chapter needed to be a certain length, and he just couldn’t stop himself from adding just one more pithy way of explaining what he meant. This is the Too Many Endings problem.

When the material is familiar, this starts to grate. I’m sure there won’t be many people reading this who don’t know at least 50% of the lore herein. Which is a problem. Because what can Hepworth say about Bob Dylan, or the Beatles, or Elvis, that hasn’t been said many times before? And while we might enjoy sinking into the warm comfort of this history, it still reads a bit like Shouty Dave trying to bludgeon you with his point.

Screen Shot 2017-07-12 at 16.20.22
This is a bit about Elvis that starts to labour the point

On the other hand, Uncommon People is a victim of rock’s historical sexism and tendency to think colour doesn’t matter. There are chapters on Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt (who I’d never describe as a rock star) and Madonna (likewise), and it opens of course with Little Richard and features Jimi Hendrix. But give or take Michael Jackson (not a rock star) and Bob Marley (*sucks teeth*), the subjects of each chapter are overwhelmingly white and male.

As to the idea that the breed died out after 1994 and Curt Cobain, I’m afraid I lost interest at least a decade before that. He argues that tech and Hip Hop took over from Rock after 1994, which may well be the case. The fact was, nobody was measuring sales properly before the 1990s, and it’s almost certainly the case that Country was bigger than Rock all along. I made the mistake of commenting to this effect on the Guardian review of this book and got shouted down. I didn’t feel like explaining that US charts are based on airplay not sales, and that the absence of Country in mainstream playlists doesn’t mean it’s not outselling other genres. Still, with this book, the idea of a rock star is the point. Sales don’t matter, popularity doesn’t really matter. What counts is the image and the attitude.

The conceit of the book is that he takes a single date for each year and tells a story about a particular star in that era. This allows him to cover Bob Dylan twice, for example, but his choices seem perverse and arbitrary all the same. Bob Dylan in 1961 was not a rock star (though I take the point that his reinvention of himself sets the template). Bob Dylan in 1986 is a rock star, but not really at his peak. Of Dylan the original rock star of 1965-66, or 1975-6, there’s nothing. The sheer charisma of Dylan in white face on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour is stunning.

As to the inclusion of obvious pop stars like Duran Duran, Jackson and Madonna, one wonders why they get in while others don’t. Obviously, everyone will have their own lists/ideas, but Tom Petty (an inspirational figure to many musicians who is name-checked and referenced in tons of songs) is mentioned only in passing. More, um, damningly, Damn the Torpedoes, which is objectively the best album of the 1970s isn’t even included in the end-of-chapter playlist for 1979. What’s up with that? It’s like doing a list for 1967 and ignoring Sgt. Pepper.

Anyway, this is a bit of a grind. Grinding your teeth through the over-egged pudding of some chapters, and grinding your way through chapters about insignificant nobodies later on. I borrowed from the library, so I’m not too disappointed.

Posted in entertainment, music, Podcasts

Pepper @ 50

1fecb043e656c03ff9c8dd1aa4ec23fe

Listening to John Roderick and Merlin Mann talk briefly about The Beatles (with more promised to come), I was prompted to write down my own thoughts. It’s fair to say that I started to listen to podcasts when I had the realisation that I could listen to two hours of people* talking about The Beatles forever, whereas the mainstream media would almost always consider a 10-minute segment in a 40-minute programme sufficient. My epiphany was that there is no such thing as too much of something to the true obsessive. That said, probably the most interesting thing I’ve heard related to the Sgt. Pepper anniversary this week was the World Service documentary, How Sgt Pepper Changed the World, of which more below.

Knowing that Roderick on the Line was going to actually discuss the 50th anniversary release of Sgt Pepper, I went out and bought the new “stereo remix”, which is a hyped up way of selling you a package and no doubt renewing some mechanical copyright. How many times have I bought it now? Three times, at least, which is not as many times as I’ve bought The River, but close. As to hearing a difference, well. I’ve got nothing to play it on, really. I can play it in the car, or through the TV speaker board via the blu-ray player, or I can rip it into iTunes and listen on headphones via my phone — but I’m not going to hear any significant differences. Low end? What? My ears can’t reach down there.

I bought my first copy about 12 years after it was originally released. Prior to that, I’d only heard those tracks from it that were included on the Blue 1967-1970 album, which was the first record I ever bought. In an intense period between the ages of 14 and 16, I bought the whole (then available) Beatles catalogue, which included some dodgy Hamburg recordings, the Hollywood Bowl live LP and a boxed set of their singles. I then became known as The Beatles Guy at school, and a number of people borrowed the albums from me to tape them. Jennifer Hargreaves returned at least one of them with chocolate in the grooves.

There was a certain amount of surprise and delight in opening the Sgt Pepper package. The eye-poppingly colourful gatefold portrait, the glossy finish, the cardboard cutouts. This was matched by the colour 8×10 portraits and the lyric poster that came with The Beatles (white album), and counterbalanced by the disappointment of both Abbey Road and Let it Be, which came with nowt. You get about 1/10th of that surprise and delight in a CD-sized package.

Merlin said, upfront, that he did not consider Sgt Pepper their best work (though his recent tweets indicate something of a reassessment). But it is by now a common enough thing for a fan to say. My own firm favourite has always been Beatles for Sale, and if you made me pick a Late Period record, I would plump for The Beatles or Abbey Road, depending on my mood. A lot of fans prefer Revolver, and I can see why. Lennon is stronger on that one than he is on Pepper, but while I can appreciate “Tomorrow Never Knows” on an intellectual level, I fucking hate listening to it, and I think quite a lot of the album is insubstantial and half-baked in a way that the stuff on Pepper wasn’t. And “Taxman” is such a Tory song. Sure, the top rate of tax in 1966 was 98%, but Britain was a better country for it, producing stuff like, oh, Sgt. Pepper, for example. Bless him, but George could come across as overly concerned with material goods, and he did a lot of moaning in his songs.

Like The Beatles themselves, Sgt. Pepper is greater than the sum of its parts. A handful of the tracks stand out, but the album’s cohesion (notwithstanding Lennon’s dismissal of it) is what makes it exceptional. There’s talk that George Martin regretted the convention that didn’t allow them to include “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, but I think they’d have tipped the balance. It may have been wishful thinking, fairy dust, smoke and mirrors, but Sgt. Pepper is its own thing. It works.

It mostly works as a conversation between generations, with The Beatles acting as media. Which is to say, Sgt Pepper is a message from the Baby Boomers to the Greatest Generation, via four War Babies in the guise of a fictional band which itself straddles the period covered by recorded popular music.

It’s the in betweenness of Sgt Pepper that makes it great. The Beatles could always do this: they could do end of the pier, they could do variety and music hall, and they could do sweaty rock ’n’ roll. Sgt Pepper rolls it all together, and that’s its genius. I hate “When I’m Sixty-Four” as a song, but on the album it’s perfect. It’s the turn of phrase, mostly from McCartney (but Lennon to an extent), who manages to perfectly reproduce the vernacular in song. “She’s Leaving Home” captures the voice of the quintessential Daily Mail reader, whose bewildered, passive-aggressive response to their daughter leaving home is met with the apparently impenetrable blandness of “she is having fun”, a four word phrase which contains a generation gap so wide that the Daily Mail still hasn’t managed to cross it.

Meanwhile, Lennon perfectly captures the Andy Capp voice of The Mirror, with “Nothing to say but what a day, how’s your boy been?” And you keep hearing such lines throughout, turns of phrase that transport you back to black-and-white, shillings-and-pence, garden-fence Britain, when there were still people living in WW2 prefabs, and you could smoke on the top deck of the bus, and people saved up for things instead of just buying them on credit.

And the Beatles are in between the prefabs and Carnaby Street, between Andy Capp and Oz, between Morecambe and Wise and Art Happenings. Musically, they’re between John Philip Sousa’s marches and hard rock. They’re the static in the wires, the parasite on the message, talking about ‘taking tea’ with a knowing wink, or drifting off into a dream after smoking something, offering parody and sincerity in the same breath. They’d do it again with their Boxing Day film of that same year, Magical Mystery Tour, with fish and chips all round and tank tops muddled in with the walruses and fools on the hill. That same mix of end of the pier fish and chips mixed with hard rock would show up again in Tommy the following year.

It’s fair to say that Lennon was struggling on this album, as he himself admitted. The chip on his shoulder, and his paranoia about whose fucking band it was, and his general demeanour of being a bit of a dick caused him to piss all over the legacy of The Beatles in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. And even later on, when he was slightly more mature, he still didn’t really like it because it was “mostly Paul”, and he felt under pressure, scrabbling to keep up with McCartney’s prodigious creativity. I think he looked back on that period and remembered the flop sweats and not the actual music. And it’s so infuriating that he died before he could finally grow up properly and escape from his ego trap. Sure, he was taking too much acid, but his dismissive recollection of Pepper as ‘A Day in the Life and that’s it’ was way off beam. As to his contribution to the album, it’s still significant, even if his own memory was faulty. The dour refrain on ‘She’s Leaving Home’, as well as his own songs.

As to the year he had, between the end of 1966 and 1967, and in spite of his flop sweats, he contributed ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘A Day in the Life’, ‘All You Need is Love’ and ‘I Am the Walrus’. Not bad for a struggler.

The only song on Pepper I still can’t really listen to is ‘Within You Without You’, not because of the Indian sounds, but because of George’s dreary voice singing that endlessly dreary melody. And if there’s anything that doesn’t fit with the music hall vibe or the snapshot of mid-60s British culture, it’s that one track, which screams out to be skipped.

One thing Merlin pointed out was that The Beatles were working in an atmosphere of being constantly dismissed by the hipsters of their time, and written off by the British Press, who had been asking the question, Are The Beatles finally over? since 1963, and would go on asking it until 1971, when they switched to, Will The Beatles ever get back together? Even now, if Macca and Ringo are set to appear on the same stage, The Guardian rolls out a Surviving Beatles to Reunite headline.

Every single, every album, was reviewed by the music press as a certain flop. People had been waiting for them to fail in much the same way that the tech press are (now) waiting for Apple Inc. to fail. Meanwhile, ‘serious music fans’ were getting into Hendrix and the Floyd, or spray painting Clapton is God in underpasses. The Beatles were a pop band, and nobody had heard a note they’d played live since 1962. Sgt Pepper was similarly dismissed, but it was too important and too powerful and too good to be damaged by bad press. That the Daily Mail have always been negative about The Beatles is proof of their brilliance.

Most of all, the album raised consciousness, creating the conditions that allowed others — in many fields, and all around the world — to experiment and succeed or fail on their own merits. I still think it’s incredible that these four individuals, this alchemical combination of introverts and extroverts, were able to produce music of such artistry and genius as a group, when later on, as solo artists, they only sporadically managed to produce a similar spark. Whatever John said later, about not really liking The Beatles, the answer should always have been, ‘But John, your solo stuff is rubbish in comparison. You know that, right?’

Never before, never since. Nothing like them. 1960s Britain. 98% tax.

* Usually Middle aged blokes (sadly).

Posted in bastards, documentary, entertainment, Podcasts, Review

Notes on Shit Town

Now, I’ve had enough, my box is clean

You know what I’m sayin’ and you know what I mean

From now on you’d best get on someone else

While you’re doin’ it, keep that juice to yourself

Odds and ends, odds and ends

Lost time is not found again

Bob Dylan, “Odds and Ends”

Screen Shot 2017-03-30 at 17.03.16

Spoilers for S-Town below.

Since the original Serial (and consider this your regular reminder that I listened to it before you did), podcasting has exploded all over again into a smorgasbord of true crime, true stories, true documentaries, true meditations and true history.

Serial itself spawned an array of spin-off shows, with mixed results. The original Adnan Syed / Hae Min Lee story was continued and given more detail and depth by the Undisclosed crew, who (notwithstanding patchy production quality) managed to bring a nitpicking legal rigour to the story that led to a landmark court case. It’s fair to say that Adnan wouldn’t have got his post-conviction hearing without the tireless work of people who picked up the thread abandoned by Serial, once it had reached its concluding shrug of a final episode.

Then there was Serial season 2, which focused on a case (Bowe Bergdahl’s desertion of his post in Afghanistan) that had far less global resonance, and in the end a lot less human interest than they’d perhaps hoped. It too ended on an inconclusive note, and perhaps people started to yearn for a less open-ended style of podcast. It must be hard being Serial.

Meanwhile, true crime stories spring up all over the place, and the recent Missing Richard Simmons tried to create a fascinating mystery over the abrupt retirement of a minor celebrity. Again, the global recognition wasn’t there, and I’m afraid Missing Richard Simmons (which credited three production companies) was being hyped by certain media organisations trying to muscle in on the success of podcasting. (Stitcher)

The second season of Undisclosed was a salutary lesson for the Serial people. Rather than casting the net wider, it focused on another potential miscarriage of justice, this time in a small town in Georgia. Giving the people what they want, in other words. The case of Joey Watkins lifted the lid on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small community, and gave an insight into the aimless and violent lives of American teenagers living on the edge. It demonstrated the sad poverty of outlook and opportunity in such towns, and how ordinary teenage angst and upset can lead to deadly violence in the land of the gun. It also revealed how easy it is to end up rotting in jail, all avenues of appeals used up, even though nobody believes anymore that you committed the crime for which you’re in.

Counting against this second season, however, was the nitpicking detail brought to the case by the team of lawyers, which dragged the narrative into the weeds of 24 episodes. It turns out that 8-10 episodes is a sound length for a pod-umentary. Very few people can stick the course for the full 24.

Which brings us to what might have been Serial Season 3, but which instead has been spun off into its own brand: S-Town, or Shit Town. All seven episodes dropped at once.

It’s focused on the petty jealousies and rivalries of a small town in… Alabama. At the beginning, it seems to focus on a possible murder and possible miscarriage of justice (in the form of a cover-up). It features a colourful, larger-than-life character who is flamboyantly (probably) gay in a redneck community, not unlike the missing Richard Simmons had been when he was young. So it seemed to be a mash-up of the original Serial, the second season of Undisclosed, and even Missing Richard Simmons.

But then things take a turn.

At first, as I listened, I thought this was going to be a meditation upon what you might call Broken America, the Deep South of grinding poverty, not just in economic terms, but cultural and aspirational poverty, which manifests itself in racism, sexism, Trumpism. What would it be, the show seemed to be asking, to be an intelligent, educated, liberal in a small town to the south and west of Birmingham, Alabama? And are there corrupt police, and senseless violence and cover-ups and favours and sexual assaults, and a disproportionate number of child abusers?

Then came the turn, and the show became instead about the death by suicide of an individual who seemed complex and strange, a puzzle of a man whose contradictory personality seemed to be embodied in the hedge maze he’d created on his land, a labyrinth with multiple solutions. Who was this man? Was he a millionaire, or was he broke? Did he have gold buried on his land? Did he leave a will? If he hated tattoos, why did he have so many of them? Who are all these people who claim ownership of his stuff?

So then it was about that: a still-interesting, but perhaps smaller story of a life lived in a small town, of a man so depressed at the state of the world that he couldn’t bear it any more, and all the people whose lives he touched.

And then, I think, as I listened to the sixth and then seventh episodes, I came full circle, and decided that the show was about Broken America, and that the central metaphor of the podcast was not this man, or his maze, or his gold, but his profession: clock restorer.

The show’s opening episode talks about the marks left on old clocks by the people who make and repair them: witness marks. And by the end, you understand that this “deep dive” into the intimate life of a lonely and depressed middle-aged man is all about looking for the witness marks of a well-lived life, but also about thinking back to the lost time that is not found again. And then there’s the lost America, the great democratic experiment, which has descended into a mere sketch of the country of Benjamin Franklin and Frederick Douglass.

As America sinks into its swamp of wilful ignorance and denial of reality, here is the story of a man, a modern-day Ben Franklin, an inventive polymath and raconteur, who tried to face up to the truth but who gave in to despair. And, at this time, at this precise moment, we are all facing this choice. Whether you consider climate change, which is being officially denied by America’s new buffoon of a president; or Brexit; or the erosion of the tax base and the end of social cohesion: there are a great many reasons to despair. And here is a show about a man who got lost in the maze of that despair and then gave into it and killed himself. And the question is, what do we do? How do we bear witness to our times and also live through them?

Posted in entertainment, musings, Podcasts, Review

Some Podcasts worth a listen

The Guardian, in typical, desperate old-media fashion, have published an article entitled 50 Podcasts You Need to Hear, which is just inviting a punch to the face. So here are some podcasts you might find interesting if you like that sort of thing.

  • 2 Dope Queens (WNYC) – Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams host standup which is more inclusive of women and minorities than you get from the mainstream. Funny.
  • Afoot! (Incomparable) – a mystery genre focused podcast hosted by the affable Glenn Fleishmann with a roster of guests. So far, the team have discussed Marple, classic radio mysteries, Sherlock Holmes – and the latest episode is about Veronica Mars.
  • The Eddie Mair Interview – the only thing I miss about listening to Radio 4 live is Eddie Mair on PM. This programme features him interviewing one guest – and you get a longer slice than you do on the radio.
  • Sophomore Lit (Incomparable) – a discussion show hosted by John McCoy with a roster of guests which is focused on those books you had to read at school or college.
  • TV Talk Machine (Incomparable) – in these times of confusion™ of too much TV™, how do you sort through the merely okay for the stuff that’s really worth watching? How do you keep up with the unbelievable quantity of scripted TV that is now in the world (and who would have seen that coming when ITV shares were down at 37 pence?). TV Talk Machine is the answer. Hollywood Reporter critic and Jason Snell will keep you up to date.
  • Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin (WNYC) – another interview show, with a single guest per episode, hosted by the gravel-voiced Baldwin. He does tend to ask a second question before his guest has answered the first, but that’s only because he’d so interested.
  • The Incomparable Game Show – my second favourite podcast, this. A rotating series of different games, from panel and quiz shows to family parlour games and tabletop adventure games, the usual Incomparable suspects play ’em all. They often *cough* borrow *cough* show formats from times gone by. Whatever your opinion of the original shows, the podcast version is guaranteed funnier. My favourite is the nerd quiz Inconceivable, which could surely find a spot in the mainstream, but they’re all very enjoyable.
  • My Favourite Album with Jeremy Dylan – documentary maker and music industry insider speaks to a variety of musicians about their favourite record. Not always going to be your cup of tea, but most of the time, an interesting interview.
  • Reconcilable Differences (Relay FM) – My favourite in the ‘two blokes talking about stuff’ genre, the chalk-and-cheese combination of the friendly, easygoing Merlin Mann and the hypercritical and uptight John Siracusa is an excellent listen. Starting from the premise of answer the question, How did we come to be this way? this show takes in a wide range of topics, from family and film to drugs and cars, and really digs into them. This is the podcast I would make if I made a podcast. Long.
  • Robot or Not? (Incomparable) – the antidote to long podcasts, the same John Siracusa sits with Jason Snell and delivers a verdict on the most vexed question of our times: is it a robot, or not? Short.
Posted in documentary, entertainment, Podcasts, Review

Sneerial: Season 2

nn_01_jmi_berghdahl_140602I deliberately didn’t post an instant response when Serial Season 2 started. Those who listened to Season 1 from the very beginning were obviously hanging on the release of the new season, and the temptation to react hotly, instantly, and disappointedly (Prometheus style) was strong. I wanted to give it a chance.

On its own terms, Season 2, about Private First Class Bowe Bergdahl, was okay. It’s a high quality production from the same team and it’s not doing anything wrong, per se. But it doesn’t hold the fascination that the miscarriage of justice featured in Season 1 does. Bergdahl deserted his US Army military post in Afghanistan, got captured by the Taliban, and was held captive for five years, but his story didn’t chime with me. He’s certainly a bit of an odd character, but I don’t care about him, nor about the Americans’ misadventures in war.

While the Adnan Syed case was unknown to almost everyone outside Greater Baltimore, the Bowe Bergdahl case was more notorious – at least to some. To be honest, it was as new a story to me as the Season 1 story was, but I’m aware by now that it has been widely discussed in the media, and certain presidential candidates have weighed in with their opinions. I don’t know what other choices they had, but it seems odd to have gone for this.

So there’s that: the sense that Season 2 was raking over ground already ploughed by Big Media, which made it less gripping. Season 1 worked because it shone a spotlight onto a single murder case in a city that sees a couple of hundred homicides a year. In other words, there had been another 2800 homicide cases in that city alone since Syed was jailed. Picking his case out of thousands and making it such compelling listening was a great feat of journalistic detective work, and made you, the listener, feel part of something special. Bowe Bergdahl’s case doesn’t have the same obscure fascination.

Then there’s what happened as Serial started to broadcast. Just as it was building up a head of steam, with weekly episodes at least being listenable and the details of the case starting to get a grip, they decided to swap to a fortnightly release schedule. Obviously, they had their reasons, but any momentum that Season 2 had gained was lost. And we’re up to 9 episodes now (the 10th is out this week), which means it must be nearing the end, but I just don’t feel the same level of anticipation. In fact, I barely notice its releases among all the podcasts I consume.

One interesting side effect of the slightly subdued reaction to Serial 2 has been that the ancillary podcasts that came into being around the original are struggling for relevance. Some, like Crimewriters on Serial just spun off and started to do more of their own thing (such as talking about Making a Murderer instead). The Bowe Bergdahl case didn’t really fit with the Crimewriters On theme, and anything else they discussed was of less interest to me (I didn’t think much of Making a Murderer), so I’ve unsubscribed. Meanwhile, Undisclosed has clearly come into its own when it comes to the Syed case, and has put forward more new evidence in its run than Serial ever managed. With the recent PCR hearing in Baltimore, Undisclosed remained on top of its detail-oriented game, while the Serial updates from the first few days of the PCR seemed detached and superficial.

Meanwhile Season 2 seems to meander around, poking into Bergdahl’s case in sometimes interesting ways, without ever feeling like it’s going anywhere important. While they could have gone for the military and foreign policy jugular, it feels to me like they’ve back pedalled, taking care not to offend the military industrial complex and their supporters.

So it’s a shame, but in retrospect, Serial 1 was something of a black swan, impossible to reproduce, and should have been left in its own unique category. In the meantime, its parent podcast, This American Life has lost a lot of its mojo and really misses those standalone episodes that Sarah Koenig used to produce.

After this showing, I’d be really surprised if Serial spawned a third season. It’s a shame, because now it will be remembered for a failure, which is neither fair nor just. Still, if it means Sarah Koenig is let loose on a wider variety of stories, it will be a blessing.

Posted in music, Podcasts, Review

Mimi Music

Screen Shot 2016-03-12 at 14.25.24
Mimi

I saw this app featured on the iOS App Store, and because I’m always on the look out for a viable alternative to the horrible Apple Music app, I downloaded it for a trial (it was free)

The premise of Mimi Music is that you also download the Mimi Hearing Test app, and then link your results to the app, which will tweak the EQ (I guess) of your music so that it sounds clearer to your ears without increasing the volume.

It seemed like a good idea, though some might see it as a bit of a gimmick. I’ve known for a long time that I’ve lost the highest frequencies from my hearing, so I was curious to both try the hearing test and then listen to the result. What the ‘gimmick’ crowd probably don’t get is that being able to listen at a medium volume rather than turning it up loud is better for long-term listening, likely to lead to less fatigue.

You need to be in a fairly quiet environment for testing your ears. Your headphones will only be on 50% and some of the sounds are very quiet, so if you’re sitting next to a washing machine on a cycle or a television set, the test won’t work.

I ran through both the mini test (which takes a couple of minutes) and then the longer one (which takes around ten), and then gave the phone permission to link the results to the Mimi Music app. The test consists of a series of tones played at various amplitudes and you respond by touching your phone’s screen when you (think) you can hear the tone. The highest frequency tested is only 8kHz, so you’re probably not going to hear anything beyond your range unless you have severe hearing loss. In terms of music, 8kHz is an extremely high pitched whine – the highest note on a piano/piccolo is around 4kHz. The lowest tone I remember hearing was around 200Hz, but I might be wrong about that. So when you’re talking about frequencies over 4kHz, it’s the harmonic overtones you might be missing, and I guess it’s the volume of these that Mimi Music might tweak to make music sound ‘brighter’ and ‘clearer’ (the usual caveats about visual metaphors applied to sound notwithstanding).

Anyway, the results surprised me. The test gave me ‘hearing age’ of 39, about 15 better than my actual age, with my right ear at around 98% (of perfect I assume) and my left at 91%. So I’m not as badly off as I thought. Where I do have issues is in the ‘conversational range’ which is somewhere between 1-3kHz, and there’s a distinct scoop in my graph at that point, explaining why I have problems hearing people speak against background noise (a common problem).

So then you listen back to your music through the app, adjust the slider to different levels of the ‘Mimi” effect, and see what you think.

It might be a gimmick, but through headphones my music definitely sounded clearer and brighter at the same volume. The headphones I used were an AKG on-ear model, but the app does warn you that the test is optimised either for the Apple earbuds or a pair of Sennheiser ‘phones. In my view, my AKGs were probably a match for the Sennheisers in terms of frequency response.

But I do have a number of quibbles with the Mimi Music app.

I don’t listen to all my music through headphones – in fact, I rarely do. Through speakers (a Bluetooth one in the house, or the ones in the car), the music does sound brighter, but you can also hear the tiny distortions caused by the algorithm. It’s not a deal-breaker, but this does seem to be an app that assumes you’re wearing headphones.

My second quibble is that, over time, your ears get used to the effect (of course) so it quickly becomes the new normal. You’re not really noticing it, but other people in the house or car (listening over the same speakers), might well be irritated by it, especially if they have much younger ears.

Thirdly, and more importantly, I found that playing music back from existing playlists was problematic. The app refused to play anything until it was added to the Mimi playlist, which is odd behaviour. It also showed a ‘locked’ icon next to any tracks bought before 2009 and couldn’t play them because of the DRM. Thanks, Apple. I also found that selecting songs was just as much of a pain in Mimi as it is in Apple music – its behaviours seem just as pointlessly malicious, not to mention that the playback controls were too fucking small and hidden down at the bottom of my huge iPhone screen. There’s also a distinct lag when you start the app and press Play – so much of a lag that you think you have mis-touched, and then hit the (tiny) Play button again, and again, until the music suddenly starts, then stops immediately, then starts etc.

Finally, here’s the current dealbreaker. The app uses a lot of battery power, even when running in the background with the screen off. I was using it just last night to play during dinner because we had a guest in the house and weren’t watching telly. And by the end of the evening, my phone was down to 30%, and 71% of the daily usage was down to Mimi’s background processing.

Sure, it’s doing maths on the music as it plays it back, but so is the built-in EQ in Apple Music. And so is Marco Arment’s Overcast podccatcher, which does both voice enhancement and ‘smart speed’, which strips out lengthy silences.

So on those very rare occasions when I do go out for a day and carry headphones to listen to music, I’m not going to be able to walk around with music playing through Mimi because my phone’s battery (which usually ends the day on 40% or higher) won’t last the day.

To be fair to the Mimi people, they did contact me on Twitter and say they’re working on the battery issue. But there are around 20 of them, whereas there’s just one of Marco, so c’mon! Priorities, people.

Anyway, your mileage, as they say, may differ, but if you do suffer from some kind of hearing difficulty, give it a go.

Posted in bastards, documentary, Podcasts

The State vs. the State vs. Adnan Syed

fax_cover_disclaimerI have of course been following the Adnan Syed post-conviction relief hearing on the Twitter and via podcast updates. These hearings can only take place if the defence team has new evidence to present, which means their scope is very limited, and cannot, for example, continue arguments from the original trial, or include stuff like, hey, the internet thinks Jay was probably lying. It’s interesting to contrast the carefully impartial journalistic updates from the Serial team with the more partisan and personally involved updates from the Undisclosed podcast crew. Less professional, but with more of a stake in the outcome. And do I detect, in the studied way that Serial is ignoring all of the things that Undisclosed has uncovered, a certain chilling in the atmosphere between the two podcast organisations?

So this PCR hearing rests on two bits of ‘new evidence’. The first is an alibi witness who was not called in the original trial, being presented in support of the idea that Adnan’s original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, provided ineffective assistance of counsel by not including her testimony. The second is a complete rebuttal of the original trial’s cellphone location evidence, which sounds like it might not be ‘new evidence’, except it includes part of an exhibit (a fax cover sheet) that was perhaps deliberately excluded by the prosecution the first time around. This is – possibly – what is known as a Brady violation, which is when the prosecution doesn’t disclose evidence under the rules. What the cover sheet discloses is that the cellphone company, AT&T, included a disclaimer saying that the data was only reliable for outgoing calls. Obviously, if this had been introduced into evidence at the original trial, the whole cell tower narrative would have been called into question.

The alibi witness undermines the original prosecution narrative of the case, which argued that Adnan murdered Hae at a certain point in the afternoon after school. Asia says she saw him in the library opposite the school during the 20 minutes or so that he couldn’t account for previously.

Serial, of course, started with that question: can you remember what were you doing at a particular place/time six weeks ago? The podcast framed this as Adnan’s key problem: because he couldn’t account for about 20 minutes of his time, because he didn’t remember, or he had nobody to corroborate his memory, he was screwed. (My personal theory about why Adnan had such trouble remembering that day is because it’s possible his whole day revolved around either smoking or obtaining weed.) So Asia’s testimony is important because she’s accounting for that time in the afternoon, when Adnan said he was in the Library. Though apparently, he himself didn’t recollect speaking to Asia. (Why not? Weed? You see how it goes.)

So it really was a big fucking oversight that Gutierrez didn’t contact Asia.

But here’s the thing. If Asia’s testimony gives Adnan an alibi for the prosecution’s timeline of the murder, the cell tower evidence completely destroys the prosecution’s timeline, which they painstakingly constructed around their understanding of (selected highlights from) the cell tower data.

If the cell tower evidence is invalid, the timeline is invalid and Asia’s alibi isn’t relevant to it. So it’s not so much the alibi that matters as it is that the original defence counsel didn’t follow it up.

All of which means, in my mind, mistrial, and should certainly lead to a new trial.

But I called this post ‘The State vs. the State’ because, as we all know too well, the State hates to be wrong. The judge sits between Defence and Prosecution but is also a representative of the State, connected to all the other judges who have passed sentence and turned down appeals etc. over the year. The reluctance of a judge to overturn a verdict rendered by colleagues is inherent in the structure. So while the judge might not be personally biased against Adnan, they are going to be biased in favour of the System – because to admit that the System isn’t perfect is to dismantle the State.

In a larger sense, too, the defence is part of the State, because the (perfect) system cannot function perfectly when accused persons don’t have access to a defence. This system, by all accounts, is under extreme pressure both here and in the US, where public defenders, for example, get an average of a few minutes with their clients. As portrayed in a recent episode of the always-zeitgeisty The Good Wife, this means that detained people with no financial support get very little chance of a fair hearing.

This situation isn’t helped by people who sneer at the idea of defence lawyers trying to defend guilty people. The tenor of many of the Adnan Syed trolls on Twitter is that ‘he did it’ and therefore all these liberal campaigners are in the wrong. But the thing is, nobody can be that sure of anything in this case, other than the person or persons who actually murdered Hae Min Lee. If that’s Adnan, so be it, but I don’t know, and nor do any of the internet people who make such strong assertions. The kind of people who get angry when a person is released ‘on a technicality’ are similar to the people who try to justify torture. The State has to be held to account, has to prove the case, and cannot be allowed to conduct themselves dishonestly – even in the name of justice for victims.

The problem with the evidence in the original trial was that it was, on the one hand, constructed and presented by the prosecution in a way guaranteed to mislead the jury in certain ways. They didn’t point out that Jay was getting away with his supposed accessory role. No mention of the Crime-stoppers witness who received an oddly specific amount of money, for example. No mention of how the State’s star witness managed to change his story so many times to precisely match the eventual narrative of the cell tower pings.

The standard of evidence is supposed to be, as any fule kno, beyond reasonable doubt, but though the jury in the original trial were (reportedly) leaning towards not guilty, that at the second trial got an entirely different impression (perhaps because the star witness was more convincing second time around). Now, taking into account the Asia testimony, the doubt now clouding the cell tower data, without even mentioning the possible police and prosecution misconduct, I think we’ve got nothing but reasonable doubt here. Case not proven. No matter what you suspect, no matter your prejudices or theories, there isn’t enough evidence for the conviction to stand.

As to that misconduct, I think that Undisclosed have done a sterling job of uncovering Brady violations, blatant witness coaching (tap tap tap), junk science and a complete lack of effort in pursuing any other suspects, as well as a history (in Baltimore) of similar misconduct in other cases. Whereas Serial finished on a note of open-ended (but reasonable) doubt, I feel that if you followed the case through the incredible detail work of Undisclosed, you’d now be assured that (at the very least) a new trial is what this case needs. It’s a shame, I think, that the family of Hae have to go through this, but their anger should be directed at the police and prosecutors who did such a shitty job all those years ago.

Posted in entertainment, music, Podcasts, Review

Ted Baker Fastnet Bluetooth speaker

IMG_8956First things first: no way is this thing worth anywhere near £200, which was its list price before being reduced to about £90, which is when I bought it.

Available in several colours, this leather-and-metal object evokes nothing so much as a 1950/1960s transistor radio, if those things had been built like a brick shit-house rather than a throwaway battery-powered plastic mould with a speaker and a circuit board. It’s even only got one speaker. We’re Back to Mono and I’m not complaining (my band’s 1985 single release was proudly mono in a stereo world), but when did people stop caring about stereo? It’s name too evokes retro radio listening: Fastnet is one of the areas on the UK shipping forecast, which night owls will hear just after “Sailing By” on Radio 4 in the middle of the night.

If any of the other colours had been reduced as much, I might have gone for a more colourful option, but they were still up as high as £150, so black it was.

I wrote before about the price point problem when it comes to these ubiquitous Bluetooth47fb625bbcbbb0c0d0e41e7b2fb30307 speakers. The situation I identified then, where there was a gap in the market between around £50 and £200 for a decent enough speaker of a reasonable size for not too much money has been somewhat alleviated. You can find something now at £80, £100, £150, all the way to the moon, but of course there is so much choice that you can never settle on anything. There are weird shapes: cylinders, flat-ish lozenges, zeppelins, domes, cubes, even some kind of strange hexagon.

What do you get? Depends what you’re after. These speakers have become something of an obsession with me. I like to stand in Fnac and audition them. They always sound better in the shop, even the little ones. I want one of these but don’t really have anywhere to put it or any way of justifying it. Or I could get some kind of digital amp with Bluetooth and plug it into my Wharfdale Diamonds, which have been sitting up in the loft for over 10 years. In the house we’ve also got a fairly decent set of cheap Edirol studio speakers which could plug into some kind of Bluetooth adapter. I’ve also got some really high end K+H studio speakers and (cough) several cheapish Bluetooth things. There was the orginal €49 I bought a few years ago in France, which is terrible really: too quiet and distorts anything above a certain volume. Things have come along: I recently bought (in my favourite shop Nature et Découvertes) a rechargable LED lamp with a built-in speaker, which is also mono and actually sounds okay, considering it too was only about €50. I’ve also got the Panasonic under-the-telly speaker, which is pretty good as a living room Bluetooth sound system.

There’s more. A couple of years ago, in the John Lewis sale, I bought a Pure Jongo, which is like a poor man’s Sonos, because you’re supposed to be able to hook several of them up together and have a stereo spread or a multi-room thing. I only bought one, and only because it was reduced. It’s wifi feature was flaky as shit, so I immediately abandoned it in favour of Bluetooth. It’s been in the kitchen, mostly, but I have a couple of problems with it. First, it’s not battery-powered, so it always needs a power socket, which is not convenient when I need both the Magimix and the KitchenAid. Secondly, it’s plenty loud (20 watts) but sounds flubby to me, with boomy bass (like all of the Pure products I’ve ever owned, actually). I didn’t say so in my review, but long term listening to podcasts means I’ve grown tired of hearing the bass of voices reverberating through the house.

Bass is always an issue with these small speakers. They try to do clever things with ports and so on, but we’re dealing with the laws of physics here, and to my ears a lot of these bassy things sound too boomy, with no definition. This is especially an issue when the majority of my listening is to speech (podcasts).

So the Jongo has been demoted, like the JBL plug-into-the-wall thing before it, and my new kitchen speaker is this portable, retro, leather and aluminium designer thing. The JBL Airplay speaker stopped working after an iOS update, which is always the danger when you marry 3rd party products with system integration. The beauty of Bluetooth, at least, is that it’s some kind of cross-platform standard.

Take it as read that fashion designers know naff-all about audio, assume this is just a mass-produced Bluetooth thing in a fancy case. What does it bring to the table?

First of all, you can bring it. Like a (hefty, solid) portable radio, you can carry it into the kitchen while you make dinner, up to the bathroom, into the bedroom, or out into your shed, without having to find a plug socket (built-in battery lasts up to 6 hours). Its Bluetooth connection is better than the Jongo: it remembers up to two devices and will automatically pair once you switch on via the satisfyingly large On button. With the Jongo, I always have to pair manually, which is a pain.

Because it’s so heavy, it’s solid and doesn’t vibrate, and I’ve noticed no distortion. It’s not very loud (the Ted Baker web site is coy about its technical details; I’m guessing no more than 10 watts, possibly less), but the thing about a portable speaker is that you carry it with you, so you don’t need to fill the house with sound. I’m listening mainly to podcasts, and it’s perfectly fine for voices, and loud enough to be heard over a boiling kettle or a mixer kneading dough.

I really like the manual controls. There’s the chunky on-off switch, but also a satisfying dial for volume, which is far better than the button-pushing you get with a lot of these things. There are also buttons for muting (for phone calls) and pairing, plus a mini-jack line input for when Bluetooth lets you down, maybe? And a built-in mic, again for the hands-free speakerphone option in the fantasies of Ted Baker-clad office drones. The hands-free phone call with my iPhone that I never use as a phone is not a scenario I will ever be in.

For music, it sounds decent enough. There’s some roundness to the bass, but there’s definitely more high end than low. Sounds all right, but it’s not for a party. And it’s mono, of course, so you won’t hear the stereo effects on those Frank Sinatra/Billy May recordings.

One quibble: it came with a carry case which is not leather (more like one of those cheap wash bags you get in a perfume gift set) and doesn’t have room inside it for the power supply, which (usefully) comes with a removable British/Continental plug.

I’m fairly pleased with it. It’s a nice object to look at and touch, and has that heft to it so it doesn’t feel cheaper. But of course, no way should you be paying list price for it. Even £150 is too much for this thing. This is a £50 speaker in a £30 enclosure, so £80-ish is fair enough.

One final note: Ted Baker got all the gadget/tech sites interested in the press release when it and the related headphones were launched, but nobody serious seems to have reviewed it. That’s because it’s only a £50 speaker, which could not possibly live up to a £200 price point.

Posted in bastards, Podcasts, Review

The most useless apps of 2015

It’s end of year list time, and everyone’s going on about the best of this and that, but what about the worst?

1. Apple Music

670px-Treat-Deep-Cuts-Step-5-Version-2
Deep cuts, my arse

No matter how hard I try, I can’t enjoy Apple Music. It has ruined music on the iPhone for me. This isn’t as serious as it might be, as 95% of my listening is to podcasts via Overcast, but the reason I have relied so heavily on podcasts in in large part driven by the upset caused by Apple Music. My first experience of it: the set up process, whereby you select artists you like or like a lot on those circle things; that alone was enough to annoy me. But after you tell the app that Bruce Springsteen is one of your absolute favourite artists and they throw up a playlist curated by some no doubt underpaid 20-something called “Bruce Springsteen Deep Cuts”? Well, that’s just an insult to the very notion of fandom. What? As if I don’t know all those and more? As if a fan of a particular artist can’t lovingly construct a better playlist and not give it such an overbearingly pompous title? As for playback: rage, and more rage. Why can’t the fucking app remember where it was in the alphabetical playback? My iPod managed it. But every time I plug my phone into the car, whatever unfortunate track has found itself at the start of the playlist becomes the focus of my hatred and ends up being deleted forever. More complaints about this app will be included below. Can’t delete, but would if I could.

2. Écoute

My search for an alternative to Apple Music threw up Écoute, which takes away the awful radio option (at least on iTunes I can hide Radio, why not on my phone too?), but doesn’t help the phone remember where it was in the playlist. As with Apple Music, the playback buttons are way too small. I have a massive 5.5″ phone screen, so why is play/pause the size of a marmoset’s finger? There’s a horrifying lag when you hit play, too, so you think it’s not working, and so you hit it again, sometimes multiple times. Oh, the fun we’ve had. It also fucks with your music database: Elodie has ended up with four different artists, all called The Rolling Stones, and three Bruce Springsteens. Deleted in the end.

3. Pacemaker

Still searching for an alternative playback app, I tried several others, including this, which encourages you to “be the DJ” and crossfades songs based on beat detection/matching. First of all: no right-thinking individual ever wants to “be the DJ”. Those people, as a breed, are unrelentingly horrible human beings. Second of all: this crossfade beat-matching nonsense might work for EDM, but it certainly doesn’t work for country/rock/Americana/60s soul etc. What you get is a sometimes terrifyingly long mishmash of two completely incompatible tracks playing at the same time. The only thing this app might do worse is have some shithead come in and talk over the song. It’s final sin: when your playlist ends, it starts playing shitty EDM, which it streams from some internet back alley without so much as a by your leave: and you can’t tell the app not to ever, ever, ever do that. Delete.

4. Vivino

Seems like an interesting idea. You’re in the supermarket or the wine shop, and you take a photo of a wine’s label, so the app can tell you whether it’s any good, and give you a guide price. Clever, if it works. Doesn’t. Scanned a bottle I had (a £15 bottle, not any old shit), and it got the grape variety completely wrong. Tried again, with the same bottle: completely wrong again, but a different wrong variety. It’s like a random grape variety generator. Deleted.

5. BBC iPlayer Radio

This used to be all right. Had a simple interface with the day’s schedule (you could change the day) and another section with recommended listens and a third with podcasts you could download (although I use Overcast for those). Then they “improved” the app with an update and I find it unusable. Launch takes you to live radio, so if that’s your thing, I suppose it’s okay, but I’m almost never interested in what’s on right now, or it’s halfway through something. Menu takes you to a screen with Schedule, Highlights, Downloads. I’ve tried downloading things several times, and it either doesn’t work or when it does work does it so slowly that you forget you wanted to listen to something and it just sits there. Highlights splits between Featured and Podcasts, and neither of the interfaces works as well as the old app in terms of discovery. The app has added layers of unnecessary taps (anything more than three to get to what you want is too many taps, just as four mouse clicks is one too many) and “features” that nobody really wants. All in all, I’ve stopped using the app except on those rare occasions when I’ve listened to all the podcasts.

6. Hipstamatic*

A recent update made it look like most of the other camera apps. You can put it back to the “classic” look, but it was never the way it looked. It was always a bit of a faff to choose lens, film, flash etc., so I rarely bothered. Now it seems like even more hard work. Too many options, in the end, to make it fit into a busy life or for it to work as your main camera when you want to snap a quick photo. I’d delete it if I hadn’t spent a fortune on new films/lenses over the years (most of which I’ve barely used). Pictures of my living room are all I ever took with it.

*And, let’s face it, all the other camera apps other than the main camera app and the companion Photos. Too many apps, all doing the same thing, and it’s all a big wash. The one exception: Hyperlapse is better for timelapse.

7. Odeon.

I downloaded the app because I thought it’d be a quick way to book tickets, but it’s actually quicker to just get the laptop out and do it online. The app doesn’t even remember your preferred cinema: doesn’t even use location services to pick it automatically based on distance.

8. Stocks, Game Center, Videos, Watch, Find Friends, News, Podcasts

All the Apple apps they won’t let you delete, with special mention for News, which is utter shite, and which flashes a stream of offensive right-wing news propaganda in front of your eyes. There’s a special circle of hell reserved for Game Center. As for Watch, what if you haven’t got one? What if you want to free some fucking space on your fucking 16GB phone? Think of the children, Apple. (My own phone is 64GB.)

9. DropBox, OneDrive

There might be some people who make use of these apps on their phones. I’m not one of them. I’ve got them because I do use the services from my laptop, but they are always getting updated and I never use them. Deleted.

Posted in entertainment, Podcasts

On the charming Mystery Show podcast

Mystery-LogoI spotted Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show podcast cropping up in the recommendations section of Overcast, and immediately downloaded episode one to give it a try. I was instantly charmed, and although I’m a jaded podcast listener who was into Serial long before you were, I promptly downloaded the rest of the half dozen episodes that have been broadcast so far.

I  think Mystery Show definitely owes something to Serial, in that it’s a species of investigative journalism with a brilliant female presenter and clever editing. But whereas Serial tackled the life-and-death case of a possible, probable miscarriage of justice, Mystery Show tackles puzzles on a much smaller scale. The one rule is, these mysteries can’t be the kind of things you can solve with a Google search.

And therein lies its charm. Episode one features a woman who swears she once joined a video rental store, borrowed a video, and then, the very next day, when she went to return the film, the store was gone. Episode 2 tackles the mystery of a book Britney Spears was photographed carrying (apparently she is frequently photographed clutching reading material). Episode 3 is about a fancy belt buckle that some guy found in the street. That’s my favourite so far (made me cry). Also: the how tall is Jake Gyllenhaal episode is laugh-out-loud funny.

Presenter Starlee Kine is brilliant: very witty, with a savant-like gift for getting people to open up to her. The subject matter is light enough to be endlessly amusing, and the mysteries are trivial, everyday, and yet somehow deeply fascinating. It’s not studio bound, but somehow manages to get out and about, into the country, and Kine seems to encounter interesting people everywhere she goes. Every interview gives a little boost to your faith in humanity. It’s heady stuff: this podcast spreads happiness

I’ve culled a few podcasts from my list lately (my commute being so much shorter now), but this one makes the grade. It’s refreshingly different, too, coming from a different stable (not Radiotopia, not Incomparable, not 5by5 etc.). Starlee Kine is already a podcasting star, and I particularly thank her for introducing me to the guy who runs an artisanal pencil sharpening business.