12 Downloads for this summer

cover400x400Ahead of the epic car journeys of the summer, I like to stock up on new music. For recommendations, I turn to the Rolling Stone Country account and their regular lists of artists to check out.

That’s not the only way I find new music, but it’s a fairly reliable barometer in the absence of the UK iTunes store doing anything to update itself. Anyway, here are my recent adds.

  1. Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. Got this because of his song “Portland, Maine”, covered by Tim McGraw. He’s a great songwriter with a voice that doesn’t match his face. Sounds are Americana-standard, acoustic in the main.
  2. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning. Discovering new music on iTunes is hard, partly because of the problem of categories. They have a Country section (not regularly updated) and a Singer/Songwriter section, but there is no Americana (or alt-country) and no Folk or Folk-Rock. There is plenty of music that would fit in either of these categories. Anyway, Amanda Shires Isbell (married to the similarly hard-to-discover Jason Isbell) kind of sways between Country-Americana and Singer-Songwriter. Pretty good.
  3. Keith Urban – Ripcord. Keith Urban has  made a reappearance on UK iTunes after a gap where several albums weren’t even given a UK release. This one is fairly standard: rock-pop/country with some decent guitar. His voice is limited: with the right song, it’s perfectly fine, but when he strains for those emotions he sometimes seems, well, strained. The standout track on this is “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” which is a hooky little number on which Urban plays lead bass.* I can’t stop playing it
  4. William Bell – This is Where I Live. This was a Twitter recommendation. A radio producer I follow got an early listen of this (it’s not properly out yet) and named it the album of the year. You can get three tracks now, and the rest should drop by the end of the week. It’s a soul record in the classic style, a throwback to 60s song values with 2016 production values. This is the one I’d be slipping into playlists and mixtapes if I still did that sort of thing, ahem.
  5. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town. The best songwriter of the “class of 2013”, Brandy Clark’s follow up to 12 Stories is bigger in every way. This new outing features some powerful songs, including the jaw-dropping “Daughter”, which basically wishes a daughter upon a cheating, lying male in the name of karma: so he can watch her get her heart broken by men like him. You think you’ve heard it all, and then this. Essential listening.
  6. Imogen Clark – Love and Lovely Lies. Another hard-to-discover artist. This one I came across when she guested on a podcast (My Favourite Album). At just 8 tracks and 35 minutes, this album is a proper throwback to the golden age of albums, when they were almost all about this long. Another artist with a strong voice and punch-packing songs, don’t be fooled by her appearance into thinking this is going to be some kind of folky background muzak.
  7. Larkin Poe – Reskinned. The Lovell sisters seem determined to leave their folk-country roots behind them. So much so, that they’ve remixed and revamped their album Kin, changing some of the tracks and giving the whole thing a harder, rock-stomping edge. If you follow them on Twitter or Facebook you’ll know that they’re both shredding like mad these days and Rebecca has started playing a Strat through a Big Muff distortion pedal. Talk about trying to reposition yourself in the market: unfortunately, these brilliant 20-something musicians will still find themselves staring at an audience of grizzled, balding 50-somethings, because those are the people who go to (non-festival/arena) gigs.
  8. Frankie Ballard – El Rio. Frankie Ballard’s latest is a real step up in quality from his previous release (2014’s Sunshine and Whiskey). The songwriting is better, and his gravelly but versatile voice is the one Keith Urban wishes he had. You can hear the influence of Bob Seger on the whole record (plus there’s a cover of “You’ll Accompn’y Me”). This is a really enjoyable album packed full of decent songs, like “El Camino”, “L.A. Woman” and “It All Started With a Beer”. Great for a road trip.
  9. Smithfield – Smithfield. This is on Rolling Stone’s July list. Another 8-tracker, these guys are like the new Sugarland or something, which, in the absence of Sugarland, will do.
  10. Anthony D’Amato – Cold Snap. Another one from the RS list, I’ve only played this through once but like it a lot. (Almost) like Frankie Ballard, this is country rock via the Jersey Shore. Where Ballard takes his influence from Detroit (Seger), you can hear Springsteen here, but also Ryan Adams, and Tom Petty references, if you like that sort of thing – and who doesn’t?
  11. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong. Another RS recommendation, this feels more like a punt for me. I’m thinking this is cowpunk, in the vein of Lone Justice. With songs titled “Dwight Yoakam” and “Fuck Up,” this can’t be wrong, can it?
  12. Lucie Silvas – Letters to Ghosts. Finally, this is a British-born, New Zealand-raised country artist who has (for whatever reason) waited years between album releases. Again, I’ve barely listened to this, but the title track is excellent, and it finishes with a spooky cover of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, which shows good taste, if nothing else.

*For non-religionists, like me, I looked it up. This verse is the one that basically summarises the new testament in a line: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

 

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Downloads of the Year, 2015 – music edition

300x300It has been a decent year for music, if not a vintage year. My one ongoing bugbear has been the lack of new product from many of my favourite female artists. It was an ‘off’ year for those still working, like Tift Merritt, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Larkin Poe; and there was still no sign of anything from Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks – and Trisha Yearwood has hidden her stuff away behind an ‘alternative’ non-iTunes service, and I just can’t be bothered to seek it out. As ever, I’m reluctant to sign up for yet another retailer who will bombard me with emails for my special valentine or dead relatives.

So it’s a male-heavy list you’re about to see, but not through any choice of mine. If there’s a story to this year it was the appearance of good music from people you’d long since have written off as retired or semi-retired. As with other years, it’s also the case that not everything I downloaded in 2015 dated from then. I recently discovered the Lo-Fi album, for example, which came out last year; and Jason Isbell’s earlier Southeastern came out in 2013.

10. Angels and Alcohol – Alan Jackson

Although this is not particularly memorable, and vied for 10th place alongside the not particularly memorable new one from Tim McGraw, I don’t think Alan Jackson can be faulted. His is a calculated sameness: each releases slotting in alongside the others, with similar production values, similar musicianship. A year down the line, you’ll be hard pushed to remember which album a particular track came from. His records still sound quieter than everyone else’s because he refuses to play the loudness game. Ten songs, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Nothing to make you jump out of your car seat, but it sounds good. Three to download: You Can Always Come Home, Gone Before You Met Me, Angels and Alcohol.

darlene-love---introducing-darlene-love-cover-art_sq-9372c2dbe6e8d67cf27d39408a50d23597c2d8f1-s300-c859. Introducing Darlene Love – Darlene Love

I reviewed this not long ago. Produced by Steven Van Zandt, with songs by him, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and others, this is a throwback in more ways than one. It’s a throwback to the Wall of Sound and Love’s belting vocals; it’s a throwback to the 70s, when Springsteen was a songwriter whose prolific writing was too much for his own needs, and so his songs would turn up performed by Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters, Southside Johnny, Patti Smith. This is a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album with guest vocals from the criminally overlooked Darlene Love, in the spotlight at last. Three to download: Forbidden Nights; Night Closing In; Just Another Lonely Mile.

1035x1035-ryanadams19898. 1989 – Ryan Adams

The bold stroke of recording the entirety of Taylor Swift’s recent 1989 garnered lots of column inches, but once the furore died down, was this album any good? Yes. Swift is a great songwriter, and while Adams is a limited performer in terms of his range and the speed at which he works (you can’t help thinking there might be some more creative arrangements here, given more time and a good producer), this is still one of the albums of the year. Three Four to download: Welcome to New York; Blank Space; Style; Out of the Woods.

7. Southern Gravity – Kristian Bush

How long before an ‘hiatus’ becomes a permanent split? Thinking of the recent events in Paris at the Bataclan, you can imagine how traumatic events might take their toll. When several ‘VIP’ fans were killed at a Sugarland concert in 2011, it probably didn’t occur to many (concerned as they would have been with the victims and their families) to consider the toll on the band themselves. To feel any sort of responsibility for those tragic deaths must be hard. Maybe it is better for them to record apart? I thought at first that Jennifer Nettles’ baby and solo album would be it, matched with this outing from the prolific Kristian Bush. But now Nettles is in the release cycle of another solo set (first single just out). Just as the Courtyard Hounds once seemed to be a side project from the Dixie Chicks, it seems the Sugarlanders are now solo artists. This is a fine set, and certainly had a good summer vibe in the middle of the year. Bush is a good egg, too, and you can feel that through all these tracks. A Decent record from a decent human being. Three to download: House on a Beach; Giving it Up; Southern Gravity.

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x6506. Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves

I’ll say what I said before: I really like Kacey Musgraves. I like her vibe, her approach to music, and even tolerate her taste for kitsch and the Nudie-suited side of country music. She is a rhinestone cowgirl, through and through, with her own line in boots. After her well received debut, this is another solid set, though it doesn’t advance much in terms of sound or sophistication. But I can hardly criticise her for that when I praised Alan Jackson for taking the same approach. If you liked her first record, you’ll like this. Or start here, go backwards. She’s a Radio 2-friendly, globally oriented country artist who works hard and is reaping the rewards. (Some country artists don’t translate because their redneck anthems about trucks, beer, and girls, conceals a basic bigot.) Three to download: High Time; Pageant Material; Good Ol’ Boys Club

f9h3_CCcoversmall_15. Cass County – Don Henley

Again, I reviewed this recently. I was completely unprepared to like this as much as I did. I’m a lukewarm Eagles listener at best. Never particularly liked their dry production sound or their 96-part harmonies (joke), but the occasional track breaks through: usually one with Henley on lead vocals. This is a great country album: feeling as effortless as you’d expect from a consummate artist like Henley, and with a surprisingly hip selection of songs, including a Tift Merritt track: and I do hope she’s making shedloads of money off the back of it. Three to download: Bramble Rose; No, Thank You; Take a Picture of This.

4. Second Hand Heart – Dwight Yoakam

This feels like a blast from the past: but it was only released in April. Recorded in LA, using the legendary Capitol Records echo chambers for reverb, this set sounds both contemporary and retro. Yoakam sounds ageless, still doing his thing and doing it well. Like Alan Jackson, he knows his sound and he knows his audience. All of which adds up, I think, to timeless music – which is precisely what Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam are aiming for. It’s that sense of timelessness that makes great country music great. He went through a few years in the doldrums, but looking back, I’d say his most recent releases are better in almost every way than even his early Pete Anderson-produced albums. He’s a better songwriter, a better guitarist, and a better producer. Three to download: V’s of Birds; Dreams of Clay; Second Hand Heart.

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560-560x5603. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

Isbell is one of the artists who is breaking through in spite of being completely ignored by US radio. He’s been on telly, though, and it’s odd to think that you’re more likely to catch good music on a mainstream talk show than on a specialist radio station. His brand of country-folk-rock is low key but appealing to a broad audience. Thoughtful, if gloomy, lyrics, good production, and a vocal that wanders between plaintive and indifferent, in tune with contemporary attitudes. A Ryan Adams who takes a bit longer between records, who takes more time over production? Maybe that’s it. Three to download: If It Takes a Lifetime; 24 Frames; Something More Than Free.

chris_stapleton_cover_sq-c95dfdd7b91189234fb82aeac25260ccfc908efb-s300-c852. Traveller – Chris Stapleton

Yes, it’s here. Many column inches and stroked chins after his triumphant night at the CMA awards, but before that? Flying so low under the radar he was basically underground, Stapleton’s album garnered good reviews and zero airplay. The ‘tastemakers’ in radio, like Jon Snow, know nothing. Why not? Because they’re not tastemakers but corporate shills, playing what the conglomerates want them to play. Payola never really went away, did it? And the conglomerate behind Stapleton’s radio decided that he wasn’t pretty enough for radio? Or something. It’s hard to get your head around the logic. Established songwriter with an incredible singing voice; record company gives him a deal, records and releases an album, and then – nothing. It’s as if they wanted it to fail, so they could all agree that scruffy-looking male vocalists with beards just don’t belong in the modern music industry. Anyway, here it is, the almost-album-of-the-year. Three Four to download: Tennessee Whiskey; Traveller; Fire Away; When the Stars Come Out

On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe

Inevitable, I suppose, given how much I played this both before and after it came out, that this would be my pick of the year. Another Vince Gill-produced mini masterpiece. The slickness of this production may not appeal to everyone (especially those who come to country for ‘authenticity’), but this sounded so good to my ears that it became my go-to album for testing out wireless speakers in shops (something of an obsession). Because of the beautiful sound mix and the smooth, rolling rhythm section on the title track in particular, I just love hearing this played through a decent set of speakers. Since my oldest was a toddler I’ve actually not had anything resembling a hi-fi in my house, and as she approaches that time when she’ll actually be leaving home, I’m becoming more and more obsessed with having something to play music on. This summer, you could find me in Fnac, trying out rows of Bluetooth speakers at various sizes and price points*, playing the title track from this. This album in particular fuelled that obsession. I want to play it, and because it sounds so good it feels wrong to play it on a shitty speaker, or even through headphones. Three Four to download: On To Something Good; Weight of the Load; If Love Was Fair; The Blade.

  • The best? I think probably the Marshall Action comes a close second to the Nad Viso. But that may be because I’ve got a soft spot for the Nad brand, it having been my late lamented hi-fi, semi-destroyed by my daughter and sold on.

(I have a set of Wharfdale Diamond speakers in the loft, bought a good ten years ago and only ever used for a few months when I was first experimenting with music technology/recording and my current plan is to get a bluetooth-equipped amp to pair with them, but the cost would be the same as for the Marshall or the Nad, so no diff.)

Red Oaks (Amazon Originals)

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 18.39.46It took me a couple of episodes to work out what Red Oaks was. It follows the half-hour comedy format (each episode is around 24 minutes, in fact), and it’s a single-camera show, no laughter track. If it’s like anything that’s been on TV recently, that would be Suburgatory, the sitcom about a teenager and her father who move from New York City to the suburbs. But Red Oaks is set in the 80s. David is a (communting) NYU student spending the summer working at the local country club, hoping to save enough to be able to afford to live in the City when he returns to class next semester.

So it’s a fish-out-of-water story, of a regular middle class kid rubbing shoulders with the wealthy. And it’s a coming-of-age story, about a young man finding himself (a bit like The Graduate). It had the pacing of a longer show, like something programmed for 40+ minutes, but no, every episode was short and sweet. But I kept returning to that question: why set it in the 80s?

Of course, there are lots of reasons. The 80s was when the steady post-war improvement in middle class standards of living stopped. When Americans (and Britons) started living on credit and illusions. When the disparity of wealth between the gamblers and hedge-fund managers and everyone else began to bite. So it’s a snapshot of a time when things were starting to go wrong with society, when the first deep cuts started to be felt, but at the same time the smoke and mirrors of what was then called Reaganomics was still fooling a lot of people.

Culturally, the 80s were also the last great decade for the music industry, when new sounds and new technologies meant that the industry was buoyant, and synth pop was in its pomp. And (here’s the point) the 80s was the heyday of a certain kind of movie: which had its greatest expression and created its most lasting impression in the days before the studios started to sink everything into superhero blockbuster movies.

Meatballs, Diner, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Dirty Dancing, The Unbelievable Truth, Trust: a decade, more or less, of coming-of-age, fish-out-of-water moves. Ensemble casts, great writing, memorable performances, no CGI.

And that’s when I realised what Red Oaks is. It’s an extended 80s coming of age movie. Or even two movies, one and a sequel. And it has that pedigree. Episode 5 is directed by Hal Hartley (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust). Two other episodes are directed by Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Clueless), who has also been involved in directing an episode of the aforementioned Suburgatory, which brings us full circle. The cast of Red Oaks is equally special. It has Paul Reiser in it, who not only has successful sitcom pedigree (Mad About You) but was also in one of my favourite 80s movies: Diner. And the lead character’s mother is played by none other than Jennifer Grey (Ferris Bueller’s sister before she was in Dirty Dancing), who is unrecognisable from her 80s pre-rhinoplasty self. The strong cast is rounded out by Richard Kind and Ennis Esmer, who looks so much like British comedian Adam Buxton that it freaketh me out.

So you’ve got your stoners parking cars, your 80s-hot girls on lifeguard and aerobics duty, you’ve got your teen movie parents, and you’ve got a (male, natch) protagonist wrestling with whether to follow his father’s boring career and marry his beautiful but unambitious girlfriend or get into something more risky with the arty and apparently spoiled daughter of the richest man in the country club. Nothing new there, but of course it’s something great that we haven’t seen for a long, long time, since Hollywood apparently forgot how to make movies like this without appalling lapses of taste.

Significantly, it was from the Hal Hartley episode on that I was hooked. I’d already decided I was going to watch it through to the end when the director’s name appeared at the end of the credits. While it does at times seem like an extended excuse for yet another 80s music soundtrack, it’s warm, funny, and good company while it lasts. And while I’m not a fan of much 80s music, it really does seem that the music of that decade was made to go on soundtracks.

Recommended!

Three Reviews: album, book, and tv series.

1035x1035-ryanadams19891. Ryan Adams – 1989

Is this controversial? It certainly caused a buzz and a stir and for something put together in a few weeks has certainly had a cultural impact. At one extreme, a lot of people were recommending it on the Twitter. At the other, there were chin-stroking New Statesman columns about mainsplaining. It has been featured on The Daily Show and played on Radio 2. Is Ryan Adams mansplaining Taylor Swift? Am I about to do it too?

I feel in an awkward position because I don’t want to be getting into arguments about sexism, but I don’t think that Ryan Adams is guilty of mansplaining Taylor Swift; neither do I think that many people have come to a realisation about the talents of Ms Swift just because.

In my own review of Taylor’s 1989, I wrote that I admired this new version of Taylor Swift and said that a number of the songs were ‘dangerously earwormy’. I linked her decision to abandon any pretence of a country sound to the appalling treatment meted out to women on Country radio, and suggested that the 100% pop move was akin to Miranda Lambert’s decision to pepper her own album with swears.

I am and have been a fan of the Swift oeuvre, and didn’t need Ryan Adams to reveal her brilliance to me. And it really annoys me that I have to pre-amble my review of this album with these credentials just because of some sneering knee jerkiness happening out there on the interwebs.

All that said, it was always inevitable that the original 1989 wouldn’t gain a permanent place on my phone’s playlist simply because of the pop production values which are not and have never been My Thing. Love the woman, love the work, but my ears weren’t built for 80s synth sounds.

The service Ryan Adams has done is not to ‘reveal’ the brilliance of Ms Swift’s songwriting but to allow it to exist more comfortably alongside the country/americana/70s rock sound vibrations in my life.

I’ve never been a particular Ryan Adams fan. So it wasn’t as if this was really calling to me. I certainly wouldn’t look to him as an arbiter of anything. Have a very few Whiskeytown tracks but not as many of them as I have Taylor Swift albums. He’s far too prolific to be easy to get into, and his philosophy of banging out recordings (while it’s probably the way I’d be as a professional musician) means that his work sounds less refined, less produced than most of the stuff I listen to. He admitted in his Daily Show interview that his version of 1989 took him about 3 weeks to put together – a long time for him, but not for most other people. It has a lively and spontaneous feel, but it also doesn’t feel particularly arranged. Whether this will last longer on my playlist than the original, I don’t know, but it is great fun, and it’s great to be hearing these songs played in looser arrangements with the vibe of a whole different genre. What’s great about it is, even with the loose arrangements and low-key production, these songs shine through.

A few years ago, Kris Delmhorst recorded an album of songs originally recorded by the US ‘New Wave’ rock band The Cars. It was very good. This is a similar kind of thing, the kind of tribute album you’d expect a Dylan or a Browne to get: and Taylor Swift is up there in that exalted songwriting company.

517iwyzVjoL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_2. The Girl in the Spider’s Web – by David Lagercrantz

Let’s begin with my objection to the titles this series of books gets in English. From Men Who Hate Women in Swedish to Millennium Series in other territories, there are a number of ways to refer to the Stieg Larsson’s work. But in English, the woman becomes the girl and the girl has a tattoo. It’s all a bit nudge nudge wink wink. It’s all a bit fucking annoying.

Deep breath.

I’ve only read the originals once, thought them good, but I haven’t paid much attention to the controversies surrounding this sequel. So Larsson may have planned ten books in total but didn’t get very far. Imagine if George RR Martin were to die unexpectedly. Would you want A Song of Ice and Fire to be completed by someone else? Probably.

I make the comparison deliberately because of the sheer number of pages in Larsson’s books, which compares to the huge Game of Thrones books. Whereas I found the latter heavy going (flat prose, flat characters), I enjoyed reading Millennium, found them properly gripping proper page turners.

Spider’s Web, or Men Who Hate Women volume IV doesn’t become properly gripping until about 250 pages in. It’s not as long as the Larsson books, so you’re well over halfway through by that point.

It has the grittiness of a thriller. The style is easy to read, the story flows along. There are a lot of different characters and points of view. I’m not sure the author knows what to do with Lisbeth Salander, though he has certainly picked up on details in the earlier books that left readers puzzled: why did Larsson make mention of this person when they don’t really feature? Well, here they are, featuring.

It doesn’t feel like the same series. There isn’t the attention to detail or the sense of immersion in a world. The plot burns too quickly, maybe.

Cynical marketing exercise? Possibly. But my expectations weren’t very high, so it’s all right.

651016-hand-of-god_768x10243. Hand of God – Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime has some good stuff (Bosch) and some forthcoming intriguing stuff (The Man in the High Castle) and some forthcoming already-a-hit stuff (Mr Robot). In the meantime, there’s this: a 10-part Amazon original about a corrupt judge having hallucinations/visions and seeking revenge for his son’s. er, comatose state…

It managed to get a positive response for its pilot, or they wouldn’t have made any more, would they? But the critics have slammed it, by all accounts. My feeling is, it’s all right, but it does have problems.

Problem number one is the religious element: the show wants to have it both ways: the judge is deluded and cracking up; at the same time, his ‘visions’ seem to contain enough truth to make you believe they are some form of supernatural intervention. Are we to believe in the agency of the son-in-a-coma’s spirit? Or are we to believe that the judge unconsciously knows stuff that his own delusions are feeding him? Either way, I’m uncomfortable with the religionism in this, and there’s an underlying nastiness to it which feels like someone’s world view.

Problem number two is that the show focuses on the suffering of the son who was forced to watch as his wife was raped. I’ll repeat that: his wife (notice the use of the possessive case) was raped. Her suffering is unimportant. It’s not her who attempts suicide. It’s all about the son, lying in a coma in hospital. And the lack of compassion for her, the treatment of her, is a problem. Why not make the show about the judge seeking revenge for her rape? Why doesn’t he care about her? Why do we have to have a rapey plot in the first place? Why can’t the son be committing suicide following a simple burglary/home invasion?

Problem number three is that there are too many sub-plots. Sure, they kinda tie together in the end, or some of them do, but there are enough character arcs to cover a 22-episode full season, and this is not that. It needed paring down.

Problem number 4 was the general lack of charisma in the cast. Ron Perlman is a born supporting player and couldn’t pull off the Dennis Franz trick. Dana Delaney has been in too many things. Julian Morris doesn’t have enough charisma to play the charismatic preacher. Probably the best of the bunch were Elizabeth McLaughlin and Emayatzy Corinealdi – though neither had enough to do. They tried to give the latter more, but that ended up being one of the sub-plots that didn’t really go anywhere.

So a mixed bag. On the one hand, loads of problems. On the other, I did watch to the end, and the major plot twist at the end did kinda work.

Too Much TV?

3ef0306f5741cfb33bfe3b16874aaf8f-jordskottThe idea that we might be reaching peak TV is currently in the air. John Landgraf, who is CEO of FX said as much during the recent TV Critics Association summer press tour:

“By our best current estimates, we believe 2015 will easily blow through the 400 series mark. I’m also asked when and if this proliferation of scripted series will level out and/or even decline. But just when I think we are at that point, another network jumps into the scripted game. I, long ago, lost the ability to keep track of every scripted TV series, as I know you do, even though we all do this for a living professionally; but, this year, I finally lost track of the ability to keep track of every programmer who is in the scripted programming business. And as you critics know better than anyone in America, this is simply too much television.”

So here we are. Far from having too much television over the summer, I had not enough. Our French TV has stopped working (the aerial has somehow become disconnected, long story). So when I got back to the UK and my Now TV box, I was eager to catch up on stuff I’d missed. For the record, the only TV I managed to watch over the summer were two series I was keen enough to download episodes from iTunes: Humans, and Jordskott, the latter of which was really for my obsessed daughters more than myself.

While I was away, I missed the final three episodes of True Detective season 2, and there were only two left on the box when I returned. But, although I was kinda enjoying it, and I watched episode 7 just before it disappeared, I didn’t pay much attention. It just wasn’t good enough for me to worry too much about it. So I doubt I’ll watch the finale.

In any other era, True Detective would have remained Must See TV, but now there’s always something else to watch instead. And that’s the point about Too Much TV. In times gone by, I would complain that TV Networks were too ruthless to give programmes a chance to grow an audience. We all lamented the passing of Firefly, which was probably killed by its own fans downloading episodes rather than watching them live. Now we live in a different era: a lot of whats out there is on download services like Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu, and some shows are dumped online wholesale, primed for binge watching. But these days, it’s the audience who are forced into the position of being ruthless. You watch an episode of something, a single episode, and if it doesn’t grab you, you give it up: because there’s always something else to watch. If something is being raved about, like Sense8, you might give it more time (I did), but you’ll still give up after three, four episodes (I did).

Since coming home I’ve checked out a number of new things. (James Patterson’s) Zoo was always going to be stupid and ridiculous, but would it have been so bad it’s good? No. It’s just silly, and I’m not even willing to hate-watch it. I’ve watched a bit of The Strain, but I’m not sure if I’ll see it through. I also watched an episode of Backstrom, which I quite liked, but it has already been cancelled, so what’s the point? Aquarius, a fictionalised account of the Manson murders was alright for one episode, but I’m already a bit bored of it. I watched a bit of The Fixer, but that was rubbish (had the geezer from the equally rubbish The Last Ship in it). I’ve seen a couple of Agent Carters, but (as with all superhero fare), bof. I tried Dag, but was underwhelmed (I rarely find modern comedies funny).

And now we get to the point. In this era, it’s not good enough to be good enough. Decent stuff just drowns in the flood. There is so much excellent TV that nobody needs to watch the merely adequate. And the chance that you’ll come across something good/excellent is increasingly unlikely. I’ve been on Amazon Prime for a couple of months now, and I’ve watched nothing. The big network shows of the recent past like the various CSI: franchises are slick, competent, entertaining, but no match for Game of Thrones or (if that’s your thing) The Wire etc. And they all seem to go on for too long – or have long ago passed the ends of their natural lives. Zombie shows, which can’t compete with The Walking Dead. 24 episodes? Really? To bother with a big network show you have to love it – notwithstanding its need to appeal to a broad audience. So I find the shows of this kind that I still watch have something about them that makes them slightly odd or quirky, an acquired taste. I still love Person of Interest, for my own reasons, and I watched both seasons of The Blacklist because, well, James Spader, and it still seems fresh. But there are vast swathes of TV I don’t even glance at these days. The BBC and ITV have nothing for me.

Into this world of too much TV, Apple are about to release a new TV product. Will it make good stuff easier to find? Because that’s what is urgently needed. A discovery feature. But can Apple deliver? As far as I’m concerned, they didn’t manage it with Music, so I’m skeptical that they could do it with TV.

The summer’s podcasts

A while ago, I wrote about the podcasts I like to listen to whilst on holiday, or to fill what would otherwise be boring Sunday mornings in the kitchen.

Since downloading Overcast (which I recommend) to use as my listening/subscription app I’ve branched out a little and have started to listen to more non-BBC podcasts, so I thought I’d list some of them here. These have all been entertaining me for the past 6 weeks.screen322x572

  1. The Incomparable – this is a total nerd-out, a podcast dedicated to science fiction (crappy film and TV science fiction), computer games, and even comic books. I love science fiction (the printed kind) but most of what they talk about doesn’t really interest me that much. Still, it’s a good listen. Why? Because the contributors are all passionate and knowledgeable, and – whatever the subject – it’s always worth listening to people who truly know their stuff.
  2. This American Life – this has appeared on Radio 4 Extra, but its existence predates the BBC adoption. Once you get used to the US presentation style, it can be very interesting indeed. As an example, try this episode (#492), about a  doctor, who investigates the case of his coincidentally named predecessor, who murdered his father. It’s fascinating, gripping, and surprising.
  3. Accidental Tech Podcast – another nerd-out. I’m more interested in technology than I am in superhero movies and computer games, so I prefer this to The Incomparable (there is occasional crossover of guests). A bit like The Talk Show (see my previous post), this offers exhaustive levels of detail, lots of follow up, and an aftershow that is sometimes longer than the main show.
  4. Freakonomics Radio – similar to This American Life, this is another show that’s worth a listen, once you can get used to the US presentation style. Covers a variety of topics, and likes to look at data, in the same way as Radio 4’s More or Less, which I mentioned in the earlier post.
  5. No Such Thing As a Fish – the QI Elves’ podcast. Always entertaining, sometimes inaccurate, but funny and engaging.
  6. Simon Mayo’s Confessions. I’ve come to prefer this to the Wittertainment podcast. If you know Mayo’s Radio 2 show (and I confess I didn’t), you’ll know this. Listeners send in improbable stories which reflect badly on them. I suspect Radio 2 staff rewrite them for style. Mayo reads them out and his studio friends pass judgement. It’s funny.
  7. Turning This Car Around – another American show. This is three guys talking about aspects of fatherhood and family life. Moderately entertaining, although their kids are a lot younger than mine.
  8. Punt PI – Steve Punt Investigates. Good show, from the BBC, in which The Now Show’s Punt looks into a mysterious true life case from the past. Missing persons, mysterious bodies, head-scratching scams and robberies. He rarely reaches much of a conclusion, but it’s fun. A shame there aren’t more of them.
  9. Just The Tip – This is Amy Gruber (spouse of The Talk Show’s John) with friend Paul Kafasis, talking about all kinds of stuff. It’s a little like Turning This Car Around, and can be funny. Never as long as The Talk Show.
  10. Radio Today – Radio news and interviews from a radio industry perspective. Useful for Media students/teachers. Probably not very interesting for anyone else, which is the joy of podcasts.

 

Breaking Bad Is Hard To Do

photo-1

After my blog post of some time ago, I had no intention of seeking out Breaking Bad, but it somehow got onto my wife’s radar, and, after she discussed it with some of her colleagues, one of them started to lend her the boxed sets.

So it’s been on, and I’ve usually been in the room while it’s on. I’ve popped out for the occasional bath, or to load the dishwasher. It is, in fact, on right now. We’re part-way through Season 4, and I’m finding it so boring that I decided to blog about it instead.

There’s no doubt it fits in with the ‘quality popular television’ narrative. It has strong scripts, good performances, high production values, and it aspired to be above the ordinary. Season One seemed okay. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to root for anyone, I didn’t like any of the characters, but it was a strong story.

So to Season 2, which several people told me was “the most boring”, with the promise that it gets miles better after this little dip. Season 2 was indeed a bit boring, and it struck me as remarkable that so many people stuck with the show, allowing it to survive for several more seasons. Season 3 was borrowed, and what struck me about that was that it was probably even more boring than Season 2.

And now we’re in Season 4, and I’m losing the will to even pay peripheral attention. We’re spending a lot of time on the negotiations to buy a car wash. Jessie is in a funk, surrounded by low-lifes and chaos, which is sad for him but boring to watch. I still don’t care about any of the characters, or what happens to them, I’ve overdosed on the law of unintended consequences, and I’m ironied up to the forehead.

So it turns out I was immune to its charms. And, hand-on-heart, I would have admitted if I liked it. Promise.

Now TV Box and Entertainment Month Pass

Springsteen DVD included for scale!
Springsteen DVD included for scale!

You may have seen this advertised interminably on Pick TV, if, like me, you’ve been watching the re-runs of Futurama and/or Stargate Atlantis etc.

NowTV is Sky’s version of internet TV, offering a way of getting Sky content without a long-term contract or satellite dish or Sky+ box. The current introductory price for a NowTV Entertainment Month Pass is £4.99.

You can buy the pass and watch on a tablet or laptop, and you can also purchase (for just under a tenner) the NowTV Box, which is smaller, even, than the Apple TV box. It connects to an HDMI port on your TV, and your wireless network.

I’ve been wanting to sample Game of Thrones, among some other things. Pick have shown a few GoT episodes. I thought it looked all right, and at least had some interesting female characters. But I wasn’t interested enough to spend £55 on a Blu-Ray boxed set. Neither was I interested enough to pay £1.80 something per episode on Amazon’s streaming video service.

It occurred to me that with the current offer, NowTV is probably the cheapest way to watch GoT without committing yourself too much. For £35, I bought the box and a 6-month pass, which should give me plenty of time to plough through it. As others have pointed out, the box is a bargain, as it ships with an HDMI cable, which would cost you close to a tenner, or even more, if you were foolish enough to buy one at high street prices.

It arrived promptly, and was dead easy to set up. I must say, shipping the thing with the HDMI cable in the box takes a lot of hassle out of the situation. Sure, it’s a bit of a pain entering passwords and user names using the arrows on a remote control, but it was glitch free. Once up and running, it’s extremely efficient, getting to the Home screen and loading content much more quickly than any other internet content through my Sony TV and Blu-Ray.

Video quality may be an issue for some. I’ve read reviews that the live sport streams (paid for separately, a much more expensively) are a bit ropey. For me, 720p content is absolutely fine. You have to remember that most of the content being broadcast on Freeview is Standard Definition anyway. Most of the stuff I’ve got sitting on my shelves is SD (on DVD), and so 720p is already better. Anyway, if GoT was to be shown on Pick (or Five, if Sky/Discovery end up buying it), it would be shown in SD.

I’m inclined to only work with 720p on my own account, and I’ve always wondered why people are obsessed with 1080p, which only hogs more bandwidth and disc space than it really needs to. How clearly do you want to be able to see peoples’ chicken pox scars, anyway?

As to the service itself, be aware that only some Sky content is available from the beginning. Game of Thrones can be watched from the beginning of Season 1, but The Blacklist, which also interests me, perhaps because it’s still being broadcast, is only available on a Catch-up basis, which means, the most recent few episodes. I guess it depends whether Sky own the repeat rights, or something. With GoT, I would guess its availability is a sign that it won’t be available on a Freeview channel any time soon. Whereas The Blacklist? Maybe it will turn up on Four or Five at some point? Who knows. Anyway, I’ll watch what I can, and in six months I’ll decide whether to cancel the pass before paying for any more content.

(As well as Sky content, you can access iPlayer, 4oD, Demand Five, and other channels, including Vevo music videos.)

You have the option of buying passes for Movies and Sport, but (as indicated above), these cost more. I’ve got very little interest in either.

Tunnel*

Clémence Poésy
Clémence Poésy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a scene in episode seven of Tunnel, the Anglo-French version of the Danish-Swedish cop drama The Bridge (Bron/Broen – keep up at the back) in which the British cop (played by Stephen Dillane) expresses disbelief that the public would do such a thing as vote on the question of which of two children, potential victims of the series’ serial killer, should survive. But of course, vote they do.

This scene made me think about the themes of the show, and whether it worked as well in French/English as it did in Danish/Swedish. Does the tunnel work as a metaphor in the same way as the bridge, for example?

It was an obvious move, I guess, though any border crossing between any two European countries could have been used, without the clunky bridging metaphor. A bridge spans a gap and offers easier communication and potential peace, love, and understanding. The American version goes straight for a bridge: easy, and much better television. A tunnel, on the other hand, hides under the ground/sea and is a bit of a pain in the backside to use, and instead stands for hidden things, guerrilla warfare, ignorance, being in the dark, struggling towards the light. It’s also cramped and not very visual when it comes to the opening body-cut-in-half sequence.

Clémence Poésy plays Elise as a virtual clone of the Swedish version (Saga), whereas Dillane seems to channel Michael Kitchen in Foyles War. This makes him seem more sympathetic and a better cop, though he makes similar mistakes to his Danish counterpart in the bedroom department. His wife is played by Guinevere from Merlin, who doesn’t look right in 21st century clothing.

The key villain, apart from the actual villain, is a journalist, as he was in the original. This journalist is a tabloid hack, who aims his work at the lowest common denominator, showing nothing but contempt for both his material and his audience.

All of which made me think. There’s no getting away from the fact that this Canal+ co-production is made in conjunction with Shine, which is of course part of News Corp/Fox, and headed by one of the Murdochs.

So. Contempt for the audience? Tabloid journalist as the lowest of the low? The public being asked to vote on something, as in some ghastly reality show? Are these mixed messages, or is there one big one?

Who is to blame, after all, for the low blows of tabloid stories? Why are journalists so underhand, nasty, and venal? While I was watching this, in France, a journalist supposedly disguised himself as a priest in order to gain access to Michael Schumacher’s hospital room. Whose hunger do they feed? Throughout the programme, the killer manipulates both the cops and the general population into acting out on his behalf. He directs anger at capitalist enterprises and the tendency of those in the private profit sector to put profit before people. A laudable message, of course, except in this case it is portrayed as coming from an unhinged fanatic. And those who do his bidding are portrayed as a pitchfork-wielding, molotov cocktail-throwing mob.

Ah, the crowd and the mob. While our killer critiques capitalists, they’re only ever portrayed as doing what comes naturally. Sure, they treat people badly, but only because the public demands low, low prices. Which we do. So when the mob attacks the sportswear shop that sells the shoes made in far-Eastern sweatshops, who is being critiqued?

I think the answer, as always, is the mob. It’s the mob who buys tabloids and swallows their lies; it’s the mob who walks around in cheap clothing made in sweatshops; it’s the mob that habitually votes in trashy reality shows. It’s the mob that demands the Leveson Inquiry, and the mob, on Twitter, who goes baying after stories, real and fake, bullying people into apologies, or worse. (I’ve noticed a new trolling tendency, on the Twitter. Some ass posts a link or a photo, and urges Twitter to “do your thing.”) Giving the people what they want is hardly noble, but we are all implicated. It’s a right wing message: capitalism may be horrible, but we are all horrible together, so shut up. The classic capitalist response to any activist is to fixate on some minor hypocrisy: you shop at Amazon, or you drink at Starbucks, you wear clothes made in sweatshops, so shut up.

So, is the tunnel an apt metaphor? We are deep underground, helpless, out of control, and struggling towards the light. We live in ignorance and struggle to know truths that are true and uncompromised by hypocrisy and lies. In episode eight, the cops are arguing about the relative lack of CCTV in France. One of the French cops says, “But, civil liberties…” and the English cop shouts, “FUCK CIVIL LIBERTIES!”

Yes, because without the cameras, we are all in the tunnel. Fuck Civil Liberties could be the motto of most cop shows, right?

It’s a good adaptation, though bleak and depressing, as these things tend to be.

*Tunnel is what it says on the box for the French boxed set. In Britain, it’s known as The Tunnel, I know. My version was the French one, which had English on the soundtrack, but only had French subtitles – none in English for the French sections. If I hadn’t already seen The Bridge, I might have been lost.

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Brothers Grim

The Harvest (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

The real title of this post could be, Why I don’t watch Breaking Bad, but I didn’t want to give the appearance of posting link bait.

It hasn’t escaped my notice that the whole of the Twitter has been abuzz with the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, a show I have managed to avoid completely since I first read about it in one of those Guardian roundups of the new season of TV.

There’s no one reason why I haven’t ever sought it out. I posted on the Twit that it all seemed a bit grim to me, but that’s not the whole of it. Part of it is a constitutional resistance to anything championed by the Guardian, though that hasn’t meant (for example) that I haven’t watched The Americans and Homeland. While the latter is silly, I do quite enjoy the former. On the other hand, I disliked The Sopranos, The Wire, and finally admitted to myself how boring I found The Killing at the beginning of Season 3.

So there’s a list of the kind of chattering classes fodder I generally avoid. One of the things that enrages me about the current media narrative of TV is that only now are people acknowledging TVs superiority over the movies. I even heard Eddie Mair spouting the line on PM the other day. Fact is, some of us have been saying this since the early fucking nineties. This book was conceived by Mark Jancovich and myself in the 90s, and because I left academia shortly afterwards, Mark edited it with James Lyons instead. So it absolutely drives me insane when people discuss quality long-form television as if it was a new thing. Here’s a list of my all-time favourite TV dramas, in no particular order:

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • NYPD Blue
  • The X Files
  • Battlestar Galactica
  • Alias

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. Homicide: Life on the Street might have made the list, too. A lot of genre stuff there. Also not much that’s current, so here’s another list of stuff I’ve watched and enjoyed recently.

  • Justified
  • Saving Grace
  • Stargate Atlantis
  • The Good Wife
  • Fringe

Again with the genre, but on the whole you’ll have guessed that my tastes tend towards the glossier, big budget shows. Justified and Saving Grace have/had a bit of grit, and could be grim, but they also feature characters with a moral compass and a bit of heart. What I don’t like about these cable shows is that they tend to be unremitting in their negative view of humanity, not to mention the gratuitous nudity and incessant swearing. People like what they like, but I always suspect a little bit of adolescent delight in the swears. Another thing that I find bothersome is that, when I enjoy something, I like it to have 20+ episodes a season. These cable shows often max out at 13, and often have even fewer episodes. When I want to binge, I want to fucking binge.

I’m generally bored with cop/crime shows and always approach with caution. I hated The Shield, but did enjoy Southland. I watch the light stuff like Castle and The Mentalist, but I don’t regret the loss of Dexter to Sky.

Sky is part of the problem here. If Breaking Bad had started on Channel 4, who knows, I might have started watching it. But knowing I would always have to seek it out online or buy boxed sets, I just couldn’t be bothered: too much friction. Fringe and Battlestar are two rare shows that I actually bought as DVD sets. But if Breaking Bad did turn up on Freeview, I would feel that it had already been watched for me, so I wouldn’t bother. And, no, a satellite dish and a Sky subscription will never be an option. I’m not being all left wing: I do pay Sky for my broadband, but since I’ve no interest in 90% of their content, I’m not paying for it.

So it’s the grimness, it’s the Guardian’s endorsement, it’s the brevity of the seasons, the fact that it’s yet another crime show, it’s the friction in obtaining it. My sister tweeted me to attest that Breaking Bad is not grim and is actually quite funny. So I read a bit more about it. I hadn’t even realised that it was the bloke out of Malcolm in the Middle. And you know what? When I learned it was him, I was even less interested in watching it. I also tried to work out if there were a decent number of female characters in it. I mean, does it pass the Bechdel test? Most of my favourite shows have strong female roles, don’t they? I hate blokeish stuff.

And that last point, more than anything, explains my lack of interest in Breaking Bad. If someone convinced me that it wasn’t male-centred macho bullshit, maybe I’d watch an episode.