Saturday, October 30, 2010

The X Factor - Week 4: Live Blog

It’s week 4 and, after my internet-free holiday from last week, I’m back with the nation’s leading X-Factor commentary. Well, that’s arguable, I suppose. I'm blogging live and will update as I go along.

First up is Mary Byrne, complete with ridiculous devil horns for Halloween. She sings up-tempo Barry Manilow. The crowd loved it. Must say, I’m bored with her now. Zzzzzzzz. Anyway, she sings very well, of course. I’ll give her 6 out of 10. Daughter says 9. ‘She’s very good,’ she says. Aw...

Aidan Grimshaw is next – singing Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, but in the style of Radiohead. A few weird notes – hard to know if it’s deliberate or not! Strange women in big black wigs wriggle around on stage. Just as intense as ever. Brave attempt to do such a song so differently. Cheryl wishes he would smile. Simon wanted him to smile and says it was bizarre. “Too much to the left,” he says. Ha! Can't have that now! Especially as it was as much to the left, which is not really much to the left at all. I’ll give this 8. Daughter says 7.

Third are Belle Amie. They step out of coffins in white costumes and sing ‘I’m Your Venus’. Men in swimming trunks writhe about. The singing is like what you’d expect at a school show. This is so utterly pointless it’s not even worth writing about. Louie says ‘we need a bit of girl power on the X Factor.’ Huh? Danii points out the dodgy singing. I’ll give that 4. Daughter says 6. She is being a bit tougher on everyone this week, you’ll notice.

Ah, Rebecca is next. She has been genuinely terrific in previous weeks. Great enunciation. She’s singing that song, ‘I want to fall in love with you’ or whatever it’s called. Great again, really intense in just the right way. Fantastic key change towards the end. “You stand out from the crowd,” says Louie. Too right. I’ll give it 9. Daughter says 10. She is probably right.

After the break, we have Treyc, who came in the bottom two and had to participate in the sing-off last week. “Re-light the fire,” she sings, or perhaps prays desperately. Sounds like the original version and strangely dated. Energetic performance, fine singing, and a troop of acrobatic dancers leaping around. She really went for it, but doesn’t stand out. “Nothing original,” Simon says. He’s right, but there again, he was going on about Aidan being “too left” earlier on. I’ll say 6. Daughter says 7.

Matt has something to prove in that he really sang well last week. Can he keep up the standard? Well, he’s doing a Leona Lewis song, ‘Bleeding Love’, which is a totally bizarre idea. Pitting yourself against the X Factor's finest vocalist ever is a risky thing to do. It’s not much of a song and the only reason it normally sounds OK is because of the power of Leona’s vocals. Can he do it? Simon rolls his eyes and says, ‘Best of luck.’ Matt starts singing. Hmmmm. He is toiling. His falsetto bit was good, but the rest of it made him sound second-rate compared to Leona. Silly song choice. “An off-week” says Cheryl. More than that, I’d say. He’s not quite good enough. Rebecca could have sung that. I’ll give him 5. Daughter says 10!! She really liked it.

Here comes Wagner! We don’t need to bother about vocal perfection here. Will he be fun? Oh yes, he will. What is it - Ride of the Valkyries? It soon evolves into ‘Bat out of Hell’ in any case. Girls writhe around wearing not much. He goes out of time and out of tune and who cares? He is a performer, a charmer, an entertainer. “What in the hell was that?” says Simon. It was a laugh, that was what it was. I’ll say 7. Daughter says 5.

Now it’s Paige, who is another of those guys who sings OK, but doesn’t stand out. “At the moment I’m more interested in what he wears than in what he’s singing,” says Simon. Well, he’s wearing a red bow tie tonight and a suit and singing Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black,” which is a fantastic song. He sings it adequately, that’s all I can say. Not a patch on Amy, but good. I’ll give him 7. Daughter says 7 too.

Katie now on stage. Daughter will give this 10, of course, as Katie is her favourite. I quite like her too. Tonight she’s singing from what looks like a Big Brother chair. She sings ‘Bewitched’. She jumps out of the chair. It’s fun, like a Marilyn Monroe up-tempo number. She waves her arms about and smiles. “Quirky,” seems to be the word the judges are using. Danii says her make-up is scary. It’s Halloween, Danii! Remember? I’ll say 7 again – that’s three in a row. Daughter says 10. Of course...

Now we have the boy band, One Direction. Change your name, guys – it’s terrible. Take my advice. Oh no!!! They’re singing Bonnie Tyler/Meatloaf – 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'. I hate the song. They have red make-up round their eyes – will Danii say it’s scary? Bet she doesn’t. The song suddenly speeds up and goes disco, then slows down again. Weird idea. Lots of screaming from the girls. Danii likes the scary make-up. OK for boys, you see (ironic cough). They have loads of energy and sing well. Not my thing though. Not that much in the X Factor really is, but some much less than others. I’ll give it 6. Daughter says 5.

Last song now – Cher Lloyd. She is a bit different. She is going to sing a ‘beautiful song’ tonight, rather than the usual rappy thing, apparently. It will go well, or she’ll fall flat on her face, says Simon. “Stay with Me” is the song. She sings it with quite a fragile voice, but with plenty of emotion, and in tune. Has she proved she can sing? Yes, she has, but we knew she could sing anyway surely? The song was a risk, but she pulled it off really well. Louie loves it – Cher is almost in tears. “The performance of the entire season,” says Simon. I’ll give that 9 as well. Daughter says 9.

So at the end of all that, who should go? Belle Amie or Paige, I reckon. Wagner has to go one of those weeks, of course, but I hope not yet. Plenty of voters won't like what Aidan did to 'Thriller', but I hope not enough to boot him out. Matt stumbled for the first time, but is probably safe. Best performances of the night were from Rebecca (again) and from Cher.

Everything Goes Around The Water

Fantastic song from The Delgados, one of Glasgow's finest ever bands.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Organist

My poem, 'The Organist', accompanied the artwork in my previous post, at the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh.

And here are three more photos from the installation (art by Fiona Nealon, Susie Wilson and Jennifer Bruce, photos by Andy Philip):

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Photos from the Hidden Door Festival, Edinburgh 2010

Here are a few photos from the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh. It was a huge affair with countless bands, poets, and artists combining for a feast of aural and visual art through an entire weekend. The Guardian presents a flavour of what was happening, and so did the Scotsman newspaper. The photos below (kindly provided by Andy Philip) are all from an installation built around my poem, 'The Organist'. It's a relatively new unpublished poem centring on the walk a minister makes to his church on a Sunday morning. Thematically, it deals with religious faith and emotion. I'm astonished by the artwork. Quite amazing to see the way the artists - Fiona Nealon, Susie Wilson and Jennifer Bruce - engaged with the poem, and it makes me want to do more such collaboration.

Fascinating, that pink hand daubed on the Bible, and the poem fragments scrawled on top of the cut-up Bible circles...

The words, 'My mind is his bootleg cathedral' and the other fragments come from the poem, which also features the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beatiful'. As for the bit in the middle, is that really what I think it is!?

Paper art, presumably more from the Bible, stuck to the walls

You could stand in the middle of all this and listen to me reading the poem, which is printed on the table below. Nice to see that someone actually did. Thank you!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Scottish Seaside Town Holiday

I’ve been away for a week, on the west coast of Scotland. Not the glorious mountains of the north, but the faded seaside towns of the south, ‘faded’ in that people who used to flock to them every summer now go to Spain etc. They are quite nice places to hang about in, although I can see why people prefer to lie on a vastly overcrowded beach in the Costa Blanca heat under a parasol than a vastly overcrowded beach wearing two jumpers and a cagoule under a wind-shot umbrella. No danger of being lost in a crowd these days, mind you. In October, even jumpers offer no protection against the chill beach breeze, but we found near-deserted play parks (our eight-year-old and her friend were also with us), a horse-riding school that offered children half-hourly ‘led rides’, a ruined castle, a massive indoor soft-play area, an indoor pool, an interactive Viking museum, and of course there was also Nardini’s famous ice-cream shop. Too cold for ice-cream? Not at all. Don’t try to buy a pair of swimming trunks in Largs though. No shop sells them.

On the way to Greenock, I caught side of a sign shooting off to the right – ‘Loch Thom, 3 Miles’. The rain was bucketing down that day and the clouds were almost at ground level. The thought of veering off the dual carriageway to the site of one of WS Graham’s most famous poems was tempting nevertheless, but wandering around a loch in the mist and driving rain is only obligatory when you have no children. I’ll just continue to sense the loch only vicariously:

Before me. Here is the loch. The same
Long-beaked cry curls across
The heather-edges of the water held
Between the hills a boyhood’s walk
Up from Greenock. It is the morning.

The timing of the holiday meant that I missed Hidden Door, probably the most exciting cultural event to hit Edinburgh all year. I was ‘present’ through a new poem, ‘The Organist’, and accompanying audio and art installation. Last night, Andy Philip has sent me photos of it, which I will share with you on this blog later. However, I feel depressed that I couldn’t manage to get there, but waltzing off for a day in Edinburgh during my family holiday might have led to my mysterious ‘disappearance’ on my return.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The X Factor - 15 October 2010

I’ve decided to blog the X Factor live as it happens. I’ll update this post during the ads.

First up, Storm Lee, whom Simon Cowell last week described as a ‘failed rockstar’. He’s singing ‘Born to Run’ and sounds like a thin papercut of Springsteen. Awful song choice, badly performed, and the dancers and lights make it even more parodic. Cheryl Cole is booed for criticising him, but she’s right.
Marks out of ten – 3. My eight-year-old daughter gives it 9.

Treyc Cohen is up next, singing ‘Purple Rain’, a song I can’t stand. The audience are swaying away to it. Here come the vocal histrionics, which the song was built for. Yes, she can sing, I think I’ve got the idea. Bet the judges love it. Yes, they do! All of them!
I’ll look past the song as far as I can and give her 6. My daughter says 10.

Now, here’s Paige Richardson, who killed ‘Killing Me Softly’ last week. I’ve never been able to listen to that song without cringing since the ‘About the Boy’ movie. This week, it’s... oh what’s it called?... Apparently he has problems with his breathing, so they’ve given him a song where he can take lots of breaths between phrases. Crafty. He sang it OK though. I’ll give him 6 too. Daughter says 8. She is more generous than me...

The first group now take the stage, One Direction. To state the obvious, that’s not a good name for a group. This is bouncy pop stuff of a kind I never listen to, but they are making a good job of it. So young though and they look to have an average age of about 12. Was it a Kelly Clarkson song? Louis mentioned her. I wouldn’t know. Cheryl wants to “hug them in a nice way.” Simon says they are “the most exciting pop band in the country today.” He can’t be serious. There are plenty of groups playing in bars up and down the country tonight who will have more ideas and originality. But I’ll still give them 8 for the energy. Daughter says 10. I had a feeling she would like that one!

Cher Lloyd is this year's kooky contestant, the kind of person you don’t want to see moulded too much, so I hope she doesn’t get to the final. It is quite strange too. ‘It’s a hard enough life for us,’ she sings over beats and then raps in a curiously American accent. Odd dancing too, stamping about. Simon says, ‘I’ve seen the future here.’ Strange thing to say about a cover version, but she does seem fun. I’ll give her 8. Daughter says 9.

John Adeleye
says he has to watch not to get too emotional in case he can’t finish the song. It’s a ballad. He’s a decent singer, but there’s nothing distinctive about him. Same with the song, could be anything. What is it? George Michael or something? I never know those things, unless I'm hearing a track John Peel played once on his radio show sometime in 1983. I might remember who played that one! Talented, of course, and he seems like a nice guy, but also forgettable. Better than Storm Lee though. I’ll give it 6. Daughter says 10! Shows how much I know...

Now we have Diva Fever. This is camp gay disco fun. A hilarious start – lots of men in swimming trunks and arms waving all over the place as a form of dancing. Barbara Streisland and Judy Garland are both referenced during the song. They made Louis smile. I’ll give it 8 as it was entertaining, and I'll award 10 to the choreographer. Daughter says 9.

Rebecca Ferguson next. She was one of the best last week, I thought. She is shy and the choreographer wants her to hoist her shoulders back and sing with confidence. Can she do it? Oh, it’s the Nina Simone classic, Feeling Good’. Now there is a song I like. She has a great voice, no doubt about that. Effortless, it seems. Danii M made a good point (amazing, I know) that she didn’t go over the top and try too hard. She doesn’t need to. I’ll give her 9. I’d give 10, but just in case someone does better... Daughter says 9 too.

Aiden Grimshaw is going to sing John Lennon. Hmmm. Depends what... He was really good last week too, so he has something to live up to. It’s ‘Jealous Guy’. It’s an intense, edgy performance, different from an average X Factor singer. But he muffed some notes, especially a big high note. Lacked the warmth of John Lennon somehow too. Louis liked it. Cheryl says it’s a shaky performance and is booed again (wasn’t she the UK's darling last year? How fickle is this country's obsession with celebrity!). Simon agrees with Cheryl. They are right. Aiden knows he’s messed it up, it’s all over his face. But he deserves to stay in, I think, as he has something. I couldn’t give that performance any more than 5 though. Daughter says 5 as well. She has suddenly become a tough customer.

Wagner is here! A born entertainer. Lots of fun. I'd never dream of buying a record by him though and can't imagine why anyone would. It's all in the live performance. A TV and stage career beckons. I'd say 7, daughter says 10!! She had her build-a-bear dancing to it, which might have influenced her appreciation.

Now it's Katie Waissel, my daughter's favourite. The judges want to see more of her personality and didn't like the fabricated image of last week. She looks like a typical X Factor hopeful this week! Oh dear... She sings the song adequately though and should get through. I'd say 6, daughter says 10 of course. She'd give her 11 if she could.

Another group now, Belle Amie. I keep thinking of the late TV botanist David Bellamy when I hear their name. Thoughts of the bearded one don't go with their image at all. It's most distracting. Go away, David! There is a Man City football player Bellamy, isn't there? On loan somewhere this year. A guy with loads of tattoos. Doesn't mix well with the girl group either. And they’re singing The Kinks! ‘You really got me’. Ouch. I really hate this. That’s what comes of hearing a song by one of my favourite bands ‘girl grouped’ with dancers and silly smoke and pained expressions. But Louis likes it. In fact all the judges like it. They are nuts. I’d give this 4. Daughter says 8.

Mary Byrne is next. A 52-year-old Tesco worker. Or ex-Tesco, we can confidently say now. She got rapturous applause last week. She will do great in musicals and I’m sure people will buy her music too, however far she gets in the competition. She is a fantastic singer. Not my kind of thing, but there again not much in the X Factor really is. The entertainment isn't so much in the music as in the competition itself. She sang well again, just as we all knew she would. Rapturous applause again. It’s the Susan Boyle effect. People can’t believe that someone over 30 who doesn’t have a a plastic face and a stick-figure can sing on TV. Weird. Cheryl “respects her as a woman”. Simon says “it’s just right that someone like you should be in the competition.” They must be having a competition to see who can be more patronising. I’d say 8. Daughter says 10.

Closing the show is Matt Cardle. He’s come over to me so far as a good singer, but nothing special. He has a falsetto, which is fun. He has also played in bands for most of his life, so he’s not new to performing. He’s singing very well tonight, and it’s not an easy song to sing either. I don’t care for the gasping between notes. Represents ‘emotion’, I guess. He hit the high notes perfectly. I’d say 7 for that. Daughter says 8.

So that's it all over - results tomorrow. I'd say Storm should be deleted, without a doubt. If I was a voting man, which I'm not, I'd cast mine for Rebecca.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Two Things that are Important for Writing

Very interesting interview with Michael Hofmann from Stylus magazine, March 2009, which I missed completely at the time. A quick excerpt:

RL: So what things should a poet keep in her or his kit? You’ve thrown away the notebook…

MH: Which I regret. You should all keep notebooks. I think the two things that are important for writing… The contrarian Karl Kraus said that a writer who read was like a waiter who ate, as if there was something very distasteful and to be discouraged about that. It’s a wonderful witticism, but I do think that one has to read, that’s the first thing.

And the second thing is walk, which I suppose I took up from Mandelstam or Montaigne, pacing back and forth. It has to do with rhythm. The brain requires a jolt. You need to get away, especially from all the machinery in modern life. (Though nowadays you can take them with you.) Modern life throws more and more machines at us, and writing is something so old. If you want to write, you need freedom from machines. You have to listen to things in your head, and if you’re surrounded by machinery and gazing into a screen, you’re not going to be able to hear what’s in your head. So I would say walking and reading and silence, although I often would type with loud music going on. That has a sort of disinhibiting effect. I used to like that; I’d play very loud records and type.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Three From Shearsman

I’ve been looking through the Shearsman Press 2010 online catalogue recently and have been impressed with the variety there. Three books in particular caught my eye.

The first illustrates the power of an interesting review. On the Governing of Empires by Alasdair Paterson is billed as a poetic document for the “imperially and post-imperially inclined,” and you’ll see from the .pdf sampler how that looks in practice. I’d read James Sutherland-Smith’s review of the book about a week before and had reckoned that anyone who thought John Ash’s collection was terrific had to be worth listening to. The review didn't make me buy the book on its own, but it did lead me to investigate further and now I am going to buy the book.

Incidentally, speaking of reviews, The Opposite of Cabbage could really do with a few Amazon reviews. I’ve been told it really helps with sales and it’s languished without any Amazon reviews for its entire existence. If any of you who enjoyed the book would like to write a review at Amazon, I’d be very grateful. An Amazon review doesn’t need to be long or detailed. A sentence or two is fine, along with as many stars as you can bring yourself to give, of course. In fact, good examples can be found at the Amazon page of On the Governing of Empires – three short, pithy five-star reviews!

Anyway, back to Shearsman. The second title which drew my attention was A Curious Shipwreck by Steve Spence. Now, again, this illustrates the power of title recognition. If a book seems familiar somehow, if it’s been ‘talked about’, then even relatively marketing-resistant readers like myself will notice it before others, and this book had been shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. So I clicked to read more. At that point, when I read about the book and read the .pdf sampler, the prize begins to mean sod all. I either like it or I don’t. In the case of this book, I felt naturally well disposed towards it. The first lines grabbed me and I liked the tone. I wasn’t quite sure always what was going on, but I still wanted to keep reading. The pirate theme was intriguing and, when I read Steve Spence’s interview at Stride magazine on the parallels he was trying to draw with contemporary culture, that got me more interested still.

The third book was Alan Wall’s Doctor Placebo. Why did I click on that? Was it something to do with the title, the cover, the blurb? I’m not sure, but I did click on it and found poems which made me think immediately of Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Mr Cogito’ (not the first time I’ve thought of Cogito when confronted with a new collection) – the searching character, the philosophical enquiry, the barbed sense of humour, the pointed ironies. I’m not sure whether this book has been published yet (due ‘October 2010’), but it looks exactly my kind of thing.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Forward Prize 2010 Results

I confess I had forgotten that the Forward Prize results were due yesterday. Possibly, that was due to a general lack of excitement over the shortlist for Best Collection. My feeling was that, of the shortlist, Jo Shapcott’s collection looked the strongest, but it was an absurdly conservative list – more on which later. Seamus Heaney won it, the first time he has won the Forward Prize, for Human Chain. I don’t want to say too much about the book itself, as it’s possible I might be reviewing it for a proper magazine. I wonder, though, how readers think it ranks alongside other Heaney collections.

Anyway, the shortlist contained collections by Lachlan MacKinnon (Faber), Seamus Heaney (Faber), Jo Shapcott (Faber), Fiona Sampson (Carcanet), Sinead Morrissey (Carcanet) and Robin Robertson (Picador). One of the judges said that “what we have got represents the quality and brilliant variety of poetry, and poetry publishing, in Britain today.” Of course, it does no such thing. In fact, it represents an incredibly narrow range of poetry and poetry publishing. It’s difficult to imagine how it could be any narrower!

I feel it’s vital, if such prizes are to retain any credibility whatsoever, that a far broader range of styles and publishers are selected. I don’t know how to achieve that, but there must be some way of breaking through the hegemony that afflicts UK poetry at the moment. I mean, I look at Poetry (Chicago) magazine and see a genuinely wide range of poetic styles – everything from Billy Collins to Ron Silliman. People on all sides of the various poetic divides can find something to moan about, which has got to be a sign of health! In similar magazines in the UK, the range is far narrower, apart from works in translation: it’s as though idiosyncrasy in work originally written in other languages is fine, but not in English please... Generally, the First Book and Best Poem shortlists (although not always the winners) have tended to reflect far greater range than the main awards. Could it be that judges feel under less pressure to make the obvious shortlist-choices in these categories i.e. in that they are not, as established poets, having to pick and choose among their equally (or more) established contemporaries?

In any case, Hilary Menos won the Best First Collection prize with Berg – you can read a few examples from it at her website – and Julia Copus won the award for Best Poem with An Easy Passage, originally published in Magma 45, edited by Clare Pollard.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Beta Band - Dry The Rain

One of my favourites by the Beta Band. Builds itself up really nicely to the conclusion which is as anthemic as they get. The horns in the studio version are missing but the bassline is great.