Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hedge Fund

When you live on a hill – and a hill that has a windmill, to boot – common sense tells you it is going to be windy; and it is. Every October, when the change of season starts to make the air currents even stronger, stuff starts getting blown about: allotment sheds, greenhouse windows, television aerials - anything that sticks its head above the parapet. But instead of any forward-planning to make these features windproof, we instead have a retrospective emergency fund to cover whatever disasters winter can throw at us and, after the St. Jude’s day storm, we had to raid the shoebox under the bed yet again.

When an unstoppable force - such as the wind - meets an immovable object - such as a solid fence - one thing happens: the immovable object becomes movable. With a whole line of fencing down, we would usually have got the panels replaced but, realising that we have been repairing this ugly edifice every year for eight years, this time we opted for a more sustainable solution. The penny finally dropped, and the emergency fund became a hedge fund.

We could have taken the easy option and planted the dense and rapid growing cupressus x leylandii, but with 60 million of these conifers - one for every person in Britain - there are already too many dense, lifeless shrubs blighting the lives of people up and down the country. I once walked along the Tanat Valley to Lake Vyrnwy in mid-Wales, and the route took me past a Forestry Commission plantation of leylandii. It was eerily still and quiet, something I mistook for a calm serenity until I realised that it actually repelled wildlife - I could not hear the cry of a single bird.

Instead, we went for a mixed native hedge. Taking advice from English Woodlands, at the Burrow Nursery in Cross in Hand, we planted a mix of traditional deciduous trees such as hawthorn, hazel, hornbeam and beech, and included some laurel for year-round greenery. Planting was hard work but, with reasonably mature plants rather than bareroot stock, there should be a hedge that is established – and immovable - within two years; and it will be attractive to humans, birds, insects and small mammals alike.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

In the Belly of the Beast

Being the best band in the world that most people have never heard of, The National are now probably too big to repeat their 2010 visit to the Brighton Dome, or last year’s curating of an All Tomorrow’s Parties at Camber Sands; so, it’s to North London’s Alexandra Palace on a school night to catch the Brooklyn band’s major cities-only visit to Britain.

With a capacity of 7,500, Ally Pally is huge. My only previous visit was sometime in the 90s when Black Grape and 808 State topped an endless bill on a night that I dimly remember as a scene from an Hieronymus Bosch painting. Outside on Wednesday night, it was like a scene from the Pilgrimage of Grace as the grey and black-clad hordes traipsed soberly up the hill from Wood Green tube. Inside the venue, it felt like an evacuation centre: huddles of overcoated refugees spread out as far as the eye could see, patrolling high vis stewards everywhere and the smell of frying meat wafting through the air.

Being near enough to the front, it was possible to imagine that this was an intimate gig if you ignored the massive screens, either side of the stage, beaming images to people at the back. There was always a danger that the band’s subtle and melancholic sound, and Matt Berninger’s sombre baritone in particular, would get lost in such a large venue, but his voice is gratefully high up in the mix and the brothers Dessner and Devendorf sound terrific when they kick off with Don’t Swallow the Cap and I Should Live in Salt from this year’s Trouble Will Find Me album. Over half of the 25 songs played come from this album and its predecessor, breakthrough album High Violet, but favourites such as Mistaken for Strangers, Squalor Victoria and Slow Show from 2007’s Boxer get an airing too. There is the surprising inclusion of Apartment Story with Cardinal Song from the Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers album of ten years ago, the gorgeous Pink Rabbits and a very pertinent England – “you must be somewhere in London” – before they finish with the sublime About Today, from the Cherry Tree EP, and the obligatory Fake Empire.

The five-song encore includes a new song, Lean, recorded for the soundtrack of the latest Hunger Games film, a raucous version of Mr. November - the only song played from my favourite album, Alligator – and a heart-warming acoustic sing-along finale of Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks. After a two hour set, we are disgorged from the belly of the beast out into the chilly night air, to a spectacular view south across the capital, spirits lifted for the journey home.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Les Enfants Sauvages

When the debut single by Savages was released in 2012, one review said that it “makes us dream of what it must have been like to have been around to hear, in real time, the debut releases by Public Image Ltd, Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, to feel, as those incredible records hit the shops, that unearthly power and sense of a transmission from a satellite reality." As someone old enough to have been around to hear and buy all of those records in real time, I sometimes feel that music is no longer tangible and rooted in experience, but is rather some sort of virtual heritage concept that can be plundered from any age; and it makes me feel old.

Savages, a London band who played Brighton’s Concorde 2 last night, are not old - they are very young; but their sound could have come straight from those defining years of post-punk at the end of the 70s. And it is a fantastic sound: thundering percussion from stand up drummer, Fay Milton; a rumbling bass that hits you straight in the sternum, from Ayse Hassan; powerful and strident - but highly emotive - vocals from Jehnny Beth; and stylish, coruscating guitar work from Gemma Thompson. It is Thompson’s playing that stood out for me: the searing and soaring trebly urgency of the Banshees and PIL, combined with a startling array of effects and noises straight from Martin Hannett’s box of production tricks; there was never a moment’s silence in the set as her guitar fed back and warped, even in between songs.

Most of the tracks from their debut album, Silence Yourself, were played last night and, with the addition of two new songs - the pleading and desperate I Need Something New and, closing track, the radio-unfriendly Fuckers - the pace was frantic from the start. The only change of speed came in the middle of the set: the mellow and atmospheric, Waiting for a Sign, was followed by a surprising cover of highly influential electronic duo Suicide’s single, Dream Baby Dream, from 1979. It was a vibrant and exciting performance and, watching the band last night - black-clad, gender-neutral, wreathed in dry ice, indifferent or diffident in front of the audience – I could have easily been in a reality from the satellite of 34 years ago.