Sunday, January 27, 2013

Northern songs: I Am Kloot's Let It All In

Viewers and listeners to the BBC's national and international services may have noticed recently a distinct reorientation of the accents delivering the news.

This is the result of the BBC, in its ridiculously ultra-orthdadox political correctness, moving all of its staff to Manchester owing to its output being, apparently, too London-centric, and its presenters too plummy to "connect" with the rest of the country.

Clearly, this lack of regional awareness was the root-cause of Britain's cultural fragmentation, urban dysfunction, family breakups, riots, crime spikes and the recession.

Anyway, as a result of this relocation, any BBC refuseniks who preferred to stay in London, have been replaced by Salford locals. Thus, the 10 O'Clock News now commences with "Eh-up, chuck, here's news 'eadlines, read by our kid".

Recentering Britain's cultural heart in Manchester probably does nothing for people living in Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Plymouth or Newcastle, but you have to appreciate the gesture, futile as it truly is.

On the plus-side, though, the increased prevalence of Mancunian has added to the familiarity of Manchester bands singing in their natural accent. In the 1950s and 1960s, pop stars affected American accents. In the 50s it didn't matter if you were a gorblimey Cockernee knees-up merchant like Tommy Steele, the American accent represented everything shiny, new and aspirational about the country across the Atlantic. And if you consider it, Mick Jagger would have sounded absurd singing Little Red Rooster in his ever-so-slightly posh Dartford delivery.

More progressive performers didn't play that game, however. David Bowie has mostly sung in a voice that reflects his south-east London roots, from the prototype Mockney on the Anthony Newley-influenced novelty The Laughing Gnome right up to the surprise new single Where Are We Now?, varying only in pitch and tone.

Perhaps the best - and to be acclaimed the most - example of a refusal to adopt the Yankee twang is that of The Beatles. Despite the heavy influence of Elvis and the Glasgow-born Lonnie Donegan on their early repertoire, the Fabs became the voice of north-west England, spreading the region to the rest of Britain and, subsequently, the world.

So it's no great stretch that I make between John, Paul, George and Ringo and I Am Kloot's John Bramwell. On their superb, sixth album Let It All In, there is no question of the band's Manchester roots and the common denominator they share with all north-western bands - Oasis, James, The La's, The Smiths - an uncanny gift for melody.

It's nigh on impossible to avoid comparison between the Kloots and their Liverpudlian ancestors, in particular: Let It All In's sublime Masquerade really could have been on Revolver, Bramwell sounding eerily like John Lennon. Likewise the closing track Forgive Me These Reminders even sounds unintentionally, like Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally), though it should be noted that O'Sullivan was born in Swindon.

Let It All In is blessed with delightful breadth, depth and texture. The opener, Bullets, sets off with a Kurt Weill swing before ripping up a seering rockabilly guitar solo. The title track, with a gentle acoustic guitar lilt similar to Athlete's Wires, finds Bramwell unashamedly Manc-ing it up with "I can't hear the words for the sound of the information, I 'aven't got a job, or an 'obby or an occupation."

Hold Back The Night unveils more of the album's subtly varying topography, with a melodrama, ambience and progression reminiscent of Portishead's Glory Box, opening into a theatrically glorious string-based middle eight. It is here you also recognise the production skills of Elbow's Guy Garvey and Craig Potter, old friends of the band, who've helped craft one of the best records I suspect we'll hear this year.

Scallywag tales of teenage mischief in Mouth On Me, the romantic gentility of Shoeless (which closes with another Beatley conclusion) and the sparsity of Even The Stars, which could easily be from the Richard Hawley canon. There's a beautifully bittersweet nature to I Am Kloot's compositions, songs that sit on the softer edge of acerbic without become excessively wry.

Some Better Day fits this bill perfectly, a gentle song with a cut to it that you suspect must end up as the theme tune to a sitcom someday. Think of Half A World Away and The Royal Family.

The Elbow touch returns on the album's penultimate track, These Days Are Mine, the kind of building, bassline-thudding anthem that builds to a stadium-filling chorus. And just as Elbow have made it OK to like uplifting, arena-friendly music in these depressed, repressed times, I Am Kloot have made a record of glorious warmth and comfort.

Releasing it in January, at the outbreak of a fearsome blast of winter, was an inspired choice. Forget buying a onesie - just buy Let It All In and curl up on the sofa with a cheeky bottle of rich red wine.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

A Hazard in the garden of Eden

Look, I know this is another rant about Chelsea, and that means WWDBD? posts on a plethora of other rip-roaring topics - thankfully non-footballing - are piling up, but I can't let last night's extraordinary scenes at the Liberty Stadium go without comment.

First, there's this contretemps involving a 17-year-old scamp of a ballboy, who must be feeling a proper Charlie in the cold light of day.

Young Morgan didn't exactly cover himself in glory when he apparently covered the ball, only to have £32 million worth of Belgian forward try to hoof it out of his possession.

For a start, his acting skills need a lot of work. Surprising, given that he's been a ballboy for several years and must have seen some horror reactions from players rolling around as if shot by Dirty Harry.

Not that I'm defending Eden Hazard for going in with all boots blazing: even if Morgan had - as is being suggested by his Twitter activity before the match - premeditated the whole thing, the Belgian really should have applied some cool. Now he's facing a minimum three-game ban, and the ignominy of being forever known as 'the footballer who kicked the kid'.

In fairness, Chris Foy had no option to give Hazard a straight red card. No matter how much mischief Morgan was making, Hazard made it impossible for the referee to make any other decision. In the process, he has also created a media monster. Absurdly, Morgan now has more Twitter followers than Swansea FC itself. No doubt by the end of the month he'll be in Celebrity Big Brother or hosting his own game show.

The tragedy of all this is that it completely overshadowed Swansea's admirable and deserved victory over Chelsea, and their securing of a place in their first ever major trophy final. Chelsea, by comparison, were abject in the Capital One Cup Semi-Final second leg. Toothless up front - and looking like an old man with his dentures out by the time Fernando Torres came on to "strengthen" the attack - they were awful in midfield and splittable like a hot knife through butter at the back.

Michael Laudrup's side, however, had their gameplan and stuck to it. They had a 2-0 lead to defend from the first leg, and they dealt with everything Chelsea threw at them, including Demba Ba, Juan Mata, the highly ineffective Oscar and, of course, the appropriately-named Hazard.

So here comes the obligatory opportunity to stick the boot into Rafa Benitez: for the second game in a row, Benitez has demonstrated all the tactical nous of Dick Dastardly's Vulture Squadron. In fact, Klunk of that outfit actually makes more sense.

Last Sunday, against Arsenal, we waited 80 ineffective and sulky minutes of Torres moping about the pitch before Benitez brought on Ba to shore up the attack as they defended a 2-1 lead. 80 minutes. That's like England playing an entire rugby match with only 14 players.

Despite this, we in the East Stand had the pleasure of watching Chelsea's entire bench of substitutes warming up for virtually the length of the game before Benitez decided any of them could play a part. And thus this indecision extended into last night's match in Swansea.

Surely any footballing tactician would know when to change things around to try and wrest control of a game that is slipping from reach for lack of penetration through a well organised wall? Apparently, with Rafa, not. As always, the puffed-up chump knows best.

And, so, Chelsea let slip another piece of silverware for the season. They started out in the hunt for seven different trophies, and now have only the Europa League, the FA Cup and, at a stretch, the Premier League to contend for.

Swansea, on the other hand, go to Wembley with their reputation enhanced even further. Laudrup follows Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers in polishing his management chops at the Welsh club before possibly going on to bigger things. Meanwhile, Swansea themselves - through three almost back-to-back encounters with Chelsea - have sealed the nation's appreciation as upstarts you want to watch. And in Laudrup, a manager going places. Maybe, even, Stamford Bridge...assuming he'd want all that madness to contend with...

Friday, January 18, 2013

Rafa fiddles while Roman burns

I can’t verify this, but it is possible that the under-communicative oligarch Roman Abramovich is currently still enjoying the good life on St. Barts. For it is there that the Chelsea Football Club owner has been - and may well still be - enjoying an extended New Year’s holiday with his pregnant girlfriend, Dasha Zhukova. And good luck to him. Everyone needs to take time out to spend with their nearest and dearest every once in a while.

Unfortunately, while Roman has been sunning himself on his Nimitz-class yacht, his football asset - managed by a hapless Rene-from-'Allo 'Allo lookalike - has acquired the sort of toxicity that turned Erin Brokovich from struggling single mother living in the Californian desert into the subject of a blockbuster movie.

It is, though, still the pantomime season in Britain, which means that seasonal booing and hissing is a national ritual at this time of year. So, as matinee audiences of Cub Scouts and church outings boo soap stars and game show hosts playing Baron Hardup in provincial theatres, Chelsea fans are booing anything not nailed down at Stamford Bridge. 

First, there is Rafa Benitez, the ruddy-cheeked, portly Spanish restaurateur who, despite being as popular as a fart in a spacesuit before he was appointed "interim first team manager", has succeeded in galvanising his unpopularity via a variety of methods: 1) getting out of bed in the morning; 2) turning up for matches; 3) picking star striker Fernando Torres; 4) not picking club legend Frank Lampard; 5) winning some games handsomely while drawing or losing quite disastrously others.

It's not all Rafa's fault, of course. The club's reward for Lampard and Ashley Cole continuing to be, respectively, a prolific goal scoring central midfielder and the world's still-finest left back, is to show them the door at the end of the season and not extend their contracts. Meanwhile Torres, who these days permanently carries the demeanour of a sulking 15-year-old girl, is not even responding to diagrams of cow's backsides and instructions on how to hit one with a banjo. Demba Ba, the crock-kneed Senegalese brought in from Newcastle for a fraction of the Spaniard's money is, however, scoring goals everytime he smell a goalkeeper's boot polish.

Into this background is the club's extraordinary approach to fan engagement - i.e. to not have one. This is a club that would rather do its business in private, with the owner "advised" by a coterie of people whom, it would appear, are no more qualified to advise about running a Premier League football club as I would be about running a hospital. Unless you regard Michael Emenalo, the former Nigerian defender and now Chelsea's technical director as being of distinguished experience in the game. 

Thus, the rare on-pitch appearance of club chairman, Bruce Buck, making a pre-match presentation to goalkeeper Petr Čech, results in the sort of sustained and vitriolic booing chancellor George Osborne earned when turning up at the Olympics last summer to give out medals. Booing the chairman may sound like impudence bordering on frustration, but the fact that the fans were bothering to boo a club executive they'd never actually bothered about at all previously says a lot about where fan sentiment at Stamford Bridge is at the moment.

There are those - including club executives - who will continue to dismiss the religious singing of Roberto Di Matteo's name on 16 minutes each game as rambunctious fandom, even considering it morale-boosting collective sprit. It's not. Most of us do genuinely regard the sacking of Di Matteo as counter-productive, and the appointment of Benitez as poisonous as opening a Spurs club shop opposite the Emirates Stadium.

The singing for Di Matteo, even the singing for Jose Mourinho, is not just a rallying call. Chelsea - and for that we must assume Abramovich - have miscalculated too often the depth of stakeholder sentiment. It is, of course, a valid argument that Abramovich's decision to sack managers has often produced the results he'd hoped for - an improvement in form and silverware - but it would appear that with this latest act of petulance, there won't be a happy ending.

Despite a few impressive results, like the pre-Christmas mauling of a pathetic Aston Villa, who barely seemed to have turned up, Benitez is still struggling to make impact. Torres is a waste of space, although Ba has become a bright spot, but the defensive frailties that Di Matteo was suffering with are still there, if Wednesday night's embarrassing 2-0 lead turning into a 2-2 home draw to Southampton was anything to go by.

And so, as Chelsea go into a weekend when they face Arsenal at Stamford Bridge - a fixture rich in both turbulent entertainment and sour disappointment over the years - there is a creeping deflation amongst supporters of the West London club. 

Most Chelsea fans have never had a problem with the club being unpopular with other fans. We don't really care. We've been perfectly happy with our club long enough - whether courting 1960s celebrities, being seen as a bunch of Fancy Dans in the 1970s, being pretty rubbish in the 80s and almost bankrupt, or being regarded as a home for ageing internationals in the pre-Abramovich, latter Ken Bates era. We have worn the "shit club, no history" goading with good grace. But whereas "shit club, no class" used to wound - but perhaps they have a point. 

The constant upheaval, the inability to retain managers, the lack of consistency in player policy ("Will we not buy this summer due to lack of funds and then buy some expensive trinket of a player in the January window as a panic acquisition?"), on youth development and even stadium development.

Every football fan will find fault with their club of choice. That's why we love football. Football IS chaos! It is still our excuse - and I'll admit, an almost exclusively male preserve - to have a moan about something. Even if our team is running away with a telephone number-nil win, we'll find something to niggle. 

However, the complaints against Chelsea are piling up and, yes, much has to be directed at Abramovich. Elephant in the room, and all that, but the man who has ploughed an insane amount of personal fortune into the club is also directly responsible for creating the toxicity around it. 

It comes from a lack of communication. Yes, we get plenty of communication from whomever is in charge of the team from one week to the next, but do we have any idea about what is really going on at the club? No.

We assume Lampard and Cole are being treated shabbily because that is how the press is reporting it, how Lampard and Cole's people are telling it, and our instincts are receiving it. But we could be wrong. Perhaps a little explanation of the strategy would go a long way. Perhaps Abramovich himself would break cover and speak. After all, it's hard to really read a man when we only ever see that half grin of his as he stands at the back of his executive box in the Stamford Bridge West Stand, the grin occasionally evolving into high-fives with his sidekick Eugene Tennenbaum, before returning to its bemused state.

Like the wizened old crone that I am, I'd foreseen much of this disease spreading at Chelsea in November when the club's annual Halloween nightmare rendered Roberto Di Matteo redundant and Benitez installed. I even suggested that Pep Guardiola, the manager coveted by Abramovich more than any other, might be wise to give Chelsea a miss when he chose to come back to football management. 

And thus it proved to be so, as arguably the greatest football coach of his generation chose Bayern Munich over anyone else. In so doing, he chose a club with history, with class, with money, with German efficiency, in a league that is quietly becoming Europe's most exciting. As opposed to a club with history, money and a boatload of dysfunction. Well, maybe an expensive super yacht-load of dysfunction.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

But I never wave bye-bye...

So the Dame is back, back, BACK.

Unexpected and brilliantly unannounced.

On his 66th birthday (a date he appropriately shares with Elvis Presley), out of seemingly nowhere, David Bowie has released Where Are We Now?, a haunting and, to be oxymoronic, joyously melancholic single.

And there's more: the equally unexpected new album The Next Day, due in March. This amounts to a bounty of riches from Bowie. For an artist who appeared to have withdrawn from public life following heart surgery nine years ago (his last "appearance" was being papped in New York while out buying music magazines in October), this most enigmatic of reappearances has brought delight and wonder to the Bowiedom.

His last live performance - singing the Roger Waters parts of Comfortably Numb on a David Gilmour solo show - was in 2006, and since then it was assumed by many that the Dame had  entered gentle retirement. Even news that London's V&A museum was to be stage a major Bowie exhibition this spring raised speculation that the singer himself was behind its curation, suggesting new activity. His 'people' strenuously denied any involvement from or endorsement by Bowie, but given the dates of the exhibition and the release of The Next Day, one can't help feeling the timing is more than coincidental.

Time will tell. For now, let's savour the moment: Where Are We Now? - produced by Tony Visconti, Bowie's producer on the legendary Berlin trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger - nods to that period with various references to Berlin streets.

A suggested album cover for The Next Day, with the  title simply superimposed over the Heroes sleeve, hints at Bowie using these new recordings to reflect.

Where Are We Now? certainly has the air of someone in retrospective contemplation. Its piano-driven melody, with a simple synth bed and spacy drum track, is tied to somewhat mournful lyrics and an apparent sadness in Bowie's voice.

The accompanying video is equally downbeat, featuring Bowie's face attached to a puppet, with the song's lyrics peppered throughout like an abstract karaoke screen, while suitably dour images of Berlin pass through.

Plenty will assume that this is Bowie's most strident gesture yet of bowing out, just as Bob Dylan's Tempest was meant to be his signal to the world that it was all over (based on the loose conjecture that The Tempest was thought to be Shakespeare's swansong as a playwright). But Bowie is, and always has been, an enigmatic actor, and his moments of Greta Garbo moments of withdrawal have been numerous. But then, as his official spokesman said today in a statement, "Throwing shadows and avoiding the industry treadmill is very David Bowie." Quite true.

He hasn't performed live since 2006 and has rarely been seen in public since then. His last studio album came out 10 years ago, and there has been an air of reflection in a lot of his most recent work, "most recent" not fully reflecting how long it has been since we've had anything new to devour. The beautiful Survive, taken off his final EMI album, Hours is a perfect example of a reflective Bowie, rather than the more provactive and even upbeat Bowie of yore.

Last year Bowie was reportedly approached to play a part in the London Olympics opening ceremony, but turned the opportunity down (to be replaced by a projected montage that served only to remind . The assumption was made that, following his Reality tour in 2003, and the heart bypass that truncated that, the Dame had walked - not trounced - quietly off into the Manhattan sunset.

However, first thing this morning, Bowie's official Facebook and Twitter accounts had other ideas: "CHECK OUT WWW.DAVIDBOWIE.COM NOW!" trumpeted @DavidBowieReal. "Think we're in for a big surprise..." If you've not already stumbled upon it, you need to check out for a very well kept secret right now. This really is turning out to be quite some birthday!".

Few have disagreed. Indeed, some have become quite emotional at the news. Where Are We Now? may not be a classic Bowie song, but it is certainly classic Bowie.

"I'm so insanely excited," tweeted Caitlin Moran. "It's like hearing King Arthur's voice from the cave."Even Duncan Jones, Bowie's film maker son, commented on Twitter: "Would be lovely if all of you could spread the word about da's new album. First in ten years, and its a good 'un!"

2012 was a year of major anniversaries, in particular celebrating 1962 as a year of cultural epochs - debuts for The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and James Bond amongst them. With the surprise appearance of new material from David Bowie, it's quite possible that we have a lot to look forward to in 2013, with the emphasis on "forward", even if with a tinge of nostalgia about it.

Happy Birthday, David. And thanks for the present. It really is just what we've always wanted.