Rebellious Subtitles

Like any good trekkie, I’ve turned the subtitles on for my fifth or sixth rewatch of Voyager so that I can be sure I’m not missing the spelling of any important names/people.

Look at them!

Look at them!

There’s plenty of important ways in which subtitles change the experience of the casual* Trek viewer, but one of the things it gives you is insight into how the people making the show** see their work. Take this, for instance:

2017-01-29 23.13.44The ‘triumphant theme’, for anyone who doesn’t recognise the tail end of that distinctive solar flare (FOR SHAME) is, of course, the Voyager theme itself. It is, I suppose, a triumphant piece of music – but that’s not the first adjective I’d have gone for, so it’s interesting that that’s how it’s seen here. In particular, it’s interesting because Voyager‘s setup – each episode (bar one) always-already closing with the ship’s continued isolation in the delta quadrant – seems ill-fitted to the idea of a perpetually triumphant signature tune. That, arguably, speaks to one of my broader ‘issues’ with Voyager, which is that it simply isn’t unpleasant enough (we are told that Ron D. Moore writes Battlestar Galactica, with its very harsh emphasis on survival in space, as a direct reply to the unusually cossetted lives of Janeway & co). But let that pass. The point is only that the use of the word ‘triumphant’, here, not only imposes partiality on a supposedly neutral relation of audio, but surprises us by demanding that we read the theme music in a new way.

So far, so obvious. You’ll imagine how far I sprayed my doritos, though, when whilst watching the very next episode I looked up and saw this:

2017-01-29 23.57.30Majestic! Now here’s a word we (or at least I) can more instinctively accept. The Voyager music is slower, warmer, and perhaps less ribald than the themes of the original series or The Next Generation. But it doesn’t have the ponderousness of the Deep Space 9 theme, either: unlike that music, which triumphs in establishing the mood of the first Trek show which is not predicated on the idea of movement, the Voyager music soars, rather as does the (literally) more aerodynamic little starship over the opening credits. But of course the exciting point here is not that we’ve found a better word to describe the music, but that our source for both words is a subtitle to the exact same shot. Since the credits sequence itself does not change at all between episodes, either visually or aurally, this little incident only serves to draw our attention to the fact that it inevitably reads (and, more, asks to be read) differently depending on the material which precedes and succeeds it.

That the same text can have its meaning altered by context is no new insight, but I hadn’t thought about it in relation to to the credits sequences of late-nineties science fiction shows before. The first screenshot comes from the season 4 episode ‘Retrospect’, which opens with the Voyager crew setting up an arms deal with a sinister local – the pre-credits teaser closes with Seven of Nine punching the local in the face, a sight which will never be entirely devoid of ‘triumph’ for me. ‘The Killing Game: Part 1’, meanwhile, which is where our second shot comes from, opens one of the season’s lavish two-parters, a deliciously ambitious holodeck saga at the start of which the Hirogen have already subdued the crew of Voyager and taken over the ship. ‘Triumph’ hardly seems fair in these circumstances, so the remooding of the credits music invites us to focus, rather, on the spectacular nature of the show in general and of this promising double installment in particular.

Tinged, now, with a growing nostalgia was well as with whatever prejudices about orchestral music and long opening sequences we might bring with them to the beginning, these identical sequences are already highly unstable. Netflix’s recent Series of Unfortunate Events acknowledges this by altering the lyrics (and some visual details) of its opening sequences between episodes; Game of Thrones, of course, changes the geography of its cartographical titles to match (roughly) the settings of each instalment. What Voyager‘s subtitling crew reminds us – urges upon us – is that even when these overt changes are not made, no title sequence is the same twice.***

* it is possible, I will admit, that I’m not in this demographic
** okay, probably some guy on minimum wage in a company contracted by the distributors of the people making the show, but let’s just breeze past that
*** FYI, I did some further checking on other episodes: many don’t have a subtitle on the solar flare shot at all (WHOLE SEPARATE BLOG POST), others seem most commonly to reuse ‘majestic’, but ‘triumphant’ makes reappearences too. I’ve yet to see a third adjective in play, but I’m only at the end of season 4.

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Radio Garden

I challenged my friends recently to provide new sources of internet radio (suggestions still gratefully accepted). My thought was to make more use of the radio feature of the Sonos speaker which diligently loops the only record I ever listen to as I chop garlic. Matt Sage, he of the Catweazle Club and Art Theefe and all that, hit me back with this incredible website. It doesn’t work on the Sonos, but man it’s good.

radio-gardenRadio Garden essentially lets you scroll around the globe listening, live, to whatever is streaming from a given geographical location. In the picture above, I’m spending my morning with Big B Radio out of South Korea, but before I’ve finished typing this post I will have moved on – perhaps across the Pacific, perhaps down to Indonesia, to find a new station. It’s a really amped up version of scanning between stations in the car – but the variance in place puts an extra layer on the act of retuning. I love the sense of scale you get from this: it feels like an oddly comforting way of finding out what the human race is up to in real time (oddly, because, of course, 95% of what you hear is pre-recorded). I guess it falls into the same category, for me, as the recent-ish internet project which rebroadcast the telemetary from Apollo 11 in real time. Test matches fall into this category, too – it’s that sense of a developing event that’s happening right now, somewhere else, that you can tune in and out of. Perhaps what’s ultimately appealing is the sense of alterity: the the world is bigger than your journey through it.

I’ve always thought that radio is an underexploited medium. Radio Garden exploits it in an exciting and, I think, a moving way! So I put it on last night, listened to some devastating rap from the south of France, and built this Charizard. Life.


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So Very Long 2016

2016 was not an annus mirabilis for FaceOmeter, but that’s okay – it wasn’t an annus mirabilis for anyone else (nice) either. Given world events, it feels even more self-indulgent than usual to draw attention to the benighted progress of a white, male singer-songwriter; compared to what others are living through, “I only wrote four songs” is positive tickertape fodder. There are other senses in which my unproductive and unenjoyable year was an extraordinarily privileged one: I have a house, now, and there’s a cat who lives in the house, and I pay extra to have garden waste removed. There are profound upsides and downsides to all three, but fundamentally it’s good.

I also rediscovered the baked egg; bought card sleeves and a hat on the back streets of Huddersfield; varnished a floor; got up early to look at the wreck of an incompetantly-designed ship; took an abbreviated tour of Cardiff’s major arcades; bought a deckchair; queued for twenty minutes in a hotel ballroom and then left as soon as I got to the bar; swam with an actual wild dolphin; carried a whole tree; accidentally shared a cab with a major novelist; did a midnight dorm party in Lancaster; smashed up a light fixture; fought knotweed; established a games night; bought a record on spec because it was for sale in the pub where it was made (it was good); got given nuts by the world’s fastest airline stewardess; watched the pterodactyls in a geodesic garden; publicly interviewed a television personality; saw a light sculpture of a lily pond on an actual lily pond; got taken out for an alcohol-free Lebanese; danced like a maniac to the Psychadelic Christmas (not for the first time); hung out on the most gratifyingly dog-heavy beach in the South West; was made egg tea in a Badger’s den; fed the pigs; noted hammocks and chalk on a sunset campus square walk; woke up at a chicken farm; went to sleep in the basement of a deli; crafted far too much game pie; did an ad hoc performance with the brides at a garden wedding; MC’d a Victorian slideshow; rued the ill-preparedness of Duncan; failed to see the Mappa Mundi; picked wild domesticated raspberries and made amazing jam out of them; battled illness to play supergrass chords in a fake Cuban village; bought ice cream from my alma mater; got a hero of mine to draw herself as a stick figure; invented a video game in a twisty Cornish garden; flew in a chair over the city of Stockholm; cried at a puppet bear; toured a hydropathic museum with an Egyptology section and Michael Fassbender’s coat; returned to an alligator golf course; got a summerhouse; greeted a rooster who was roosting on a shed threshold (Bernard for life); ate buffet near a famous comedian I like (didn’t say hi); cowered before the Kate Bush impersonator; made a sulky phone call to catering in a geology museum; sat up late discussing periodicals with a bluegrass afficionado; took the lead in a rainy boule championship; ate concept amuses bouche in a super dapper restaurant; chained an extraordinary amount of bedridden Netflix (The Expanse season 1 in a single day kids); stopped for chips in Stoke’s Croft; got some gluten free vegetarian fish and chips; hunted Pokemon on the set of Doc Martin; followed a trail of blood past Birmingham Cathederal just before a Dracula screening; and saw the only dodo soft tissue in existence. There was definitely more than that, of course – this, as ever, is a sampling, a random collection of most- and least-notable moments. Reading it through, though, does restore in me some kind of hope for the next twelve months. I certainly hope they are kind to you!

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Hallowe'en Again

What’s scary about the fact that it’s been five years since The Spooky EP? That we are brief flickers of cognisance shortly to be blown out in the gusts of deep time, and that each of our meaningless lives is over in the flicker of a cosmic eyelid. Well – it is meant to be a scary record.

I like The Spooky EP. It was my first collaboration with Dean McCarthy, and remains my only one with Sam Taplin – for that alone, it’ll always be special to me. But it’s also a record with a theme which makes me revisit it every year, and I really appreciate that. A lot of my other recordings I tend to forget or simply not listen to; this one sort of requires that I regularly come back to it. This year, I find it pleasingly unchanged: the solo in track 2 is still my favourite thing in the world; The Dapper Swindler’s vocals on track 5 continue to destroy me; and track 3 still has, despite its pared-down arrangements (two guitars and three vocals) the energy and power of a stadium rock band detonating a series of atom bombs in a massive can of Dr Pepper. I don’t know whether it’s because of anything innate in the record or simply because this is the only time of year when I listen to it, but it seems to suit the season. Falling leaves and crispiness outside, the turning back of the clocks, the distant smell of misty roasting vegetables or whatever – this record really does all that for me.

I think this is the lasting achievement – and the most surprising achievement – about this record: it actually does what we wanted it to do. We wanted a record that evoked Hallowe’en in a certain way (that found the fun, tossed the consumerism; kept the heart but lost the schmaltz) and so we went and wrote one and then recorded it. It almost never happens like that. I’m proud of my other records, but none of them so closely resemble the starting intention as this one does. The most vivid example of this is the last track, ‘Sentiments Expressed…’. I wrote that track because I thought that the record needed a pithy afterward, that the show couldn’t close at the Skeleton Express. And so I sat down and channelled some vibes, and the song just – happened. I talk to other songwriters who have this experience all the time, but it’s very rare for me. My songs turn up sideways, by accident. There’s one idea, and then there’s something in the composition process that changes it. Often, this change is for the better, but I’m glad that I’ve also written a song that does exactly what I first wanted it to. It makes me feel more of a craftsman and less of a conduit.

One of the reasons I was able to do that is because of the strength of the collaboration. TT&J was a curious and wonderful partnership: we did very little writing together (although I will always remember those frenetically exciting sessions very vividly), but there was something about knowing we were collaborating which made each of us, separately, write in a different way. When we put that separate stuff in a room together, it really caught fire. It’s still burning, for me at least, five years later. I hope you think so too.

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Forthcoming show!

After the longest haitus since I started this here blog, it’s time for me to tell you that there is a show coming up. Yay show! This one is special for me because it will be my first big one in ages, because I’m promoting it myself, because it’s in the bookshop where I basically learned to read, and because I’ve managed to persuade some friends from out of town to come and play sets with me!

04-faceometer-why-wait-for-failureThis is a picture which I didn’t know existed until I googled myself to find pictures for the events page. Thanks, Tim! It’s a photo from my album launch (already nearly 2 years ago – where does the time go?) and most of you will know already that the awesome loser to my left is The Magic Lantern, a guy who has not let the grass grow under his feet whilst I’ve been moving houses and organising performance arts evenings in Birmingham. Yes, the good ol’ ML is a media force in these straightened times, and it’s a thrill to be beckoning him back to the capital city (of his heart) for what I imagine will be a KILLER of a set.

p03kgy2mMeanwhile, here’s Ditte Elly. There doesn’t seem to be a picture of all three of us together – we’ll soon change THAT – but you can tell that she is a really big deal because she has the word “BBC” near her head. She has an album out which you should listen the ass off of at your earliest convenience. I went to the launch in Oxford a few months ago, and I actually meant to write a really long and deep blog post about how amazing it was, but I got paranoid about becoming too fannish and/or too similar to my last excessively lengthy post about people releasing albums.

This is not the first time that the three of us have shared a stage! We did a show up at the Star and Shadow in Newcastle many years ago when Magic Lantern and I were on our famous Spring’s Labour’s Lost Tour. It was a properly special evening and I have been waiting for the excuse to recreate. Our venue is the recently-refurbished and super-cosy Waterstone’s right in the city centre (about a minute’s walk from New St station, if you’re planning to jet in from a distance), and we’re gonna be playing unamplified amidst the books, trading songs and memories, and having a great time.

Tickets are availiable right now at this link, and the show takes place from 6:30pm on Tuesday, Nov 1st. It’s been far too long since I did a proper set, but this is my dream gig and I cannot wait to get out there. Please do come and be part of it!

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So I was on a covers album.

a0967852264_16I just had a nice postcard from Jamie “Currently in Australia” Doe, also known as The Magic Lantern, and it made me want to write a word or two about the distant experience of being involved with the Too Much Love of Living – Remixes album. It’s Jamie’s superb 2014 album remade by loads of his friends and collaborators. It’s based on a similar project conducted by This Is The Kit, who is also on the record – which means I’m on a record with This Is The Kit. And Rozi Plain! And Sam Brookes! And Hot Feet! And a buttload of awesome other people. (This Is The Kit were on Loose Ends with Jon Ronson this morning, which also means that by the transit of properties I am Jon Ronson).

The song I got to cover was ’28 years old’, which I wrote about in a stupidly discursive blog post a little while ago, long before I knew about this project. It’s the raw heart of the original album in my view, and I wanted my version of it to be raw to match. The challenge of a cover, of course, lies in doing something worthy of the original but technically distinct – so I messed around with some lyrics, popped into the studio with a rather bad cold, and sang the song at about half my usual ability level (and therefore at about 20% of Jamie’s). And then I forgot about it for ages, because the post-production took a really long time.

When I got the package containing a CD from Jamie – beautifully produced, of course, and a snip at £10 – I was more surprised than I should have been to discover that everyone else had put much more effort in than I did. The opening track in particular, Emilia Mårtensson’s version of ‘Harvest Moon’, is a beautiful and complex masterpiece which both showcases her own considerable skills and makes your realise the depth of Jamie’s original piece. The quality throughout is like this – it’s an eclectic listen, as you’d expect from a compilation album, but the overall bar is pretty high. There’s only one disjointed seam, really, which is when I gargle loudly and then start shouting. I don’t think anyone else did their version with a cold.

The gargle is real. The theory was that it masked the ill effects of the virus a little and allowed me to hit the notes I couldn’t hit any more. Dean wanted to edit it out, which shows that although he is a recording genius he still occasionally needs gentle and nurturing guidance. I spent the first few listens to this album with a severe impostor syndrome accentuated by not having heard my own lousy contribution since the day I recorded it, but I’ve come around to it now. I don’t think it hurts to have a little rough edge in there to remind Jamie where he’s from, and I think the song is not quite like his others – it asks for an honesty that only a really well-meant but quite substandard performance can truly do justice to.

In an abstract, ideal world, it’s not how I’d have chosen to appear right before Rozi, and I doubt it’s a track that will win me any ears among Jamie’s discerning audience. But it feels to me Right that it’s there in all its silliness, and Dean and I had a great time laying it out.


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So Very Long 2015

Glancing back at the blog, I notice that I really haven’t been updating it this year. Too bad, because a lot has happened! I’ve played a show in an indoor forest and eaten two separate gluten-free pizzas; been behind the scenes at three different natural history museums; hailed a Christmas llama; listened to Sibelius on swans; had my first real stint of copyediting; been offered strange drinks in Newcastle; attended a Victorian Magic Lantern show and a present-day wedding powerpoint presentation; discussed wine with a group of French philosophers in an 18th-century restaurant; been pissed on by a pretend camel in a listed building; climbed Glastonbury Tor for sunset to the accompaniment of savage beats; sung along to the mariner’s revenge; awoke with Port Meadow’s wild rabbits; carried a curry past an idyllic cathederal; had a reassuringly pink breakfast out; accidentally attended a birthday party; gone back for extra tea in the Sainsbury’s café (the quiet café, we call it) and for one last one in the Railroad; failed to buy a copy of Empire magazine; become, with about three minutes’ warning, the Archangel Michael; had my car smashed up; slept next to a famous diplodocus; found out what a steam room feels like; belatedly discovered Adventure Time; appeared on a covers album; attended a public talk about sleeping on roundabouts; been trapped by seaside cows; been decimated in a Necromunda tournament; learned about unclaimed babies; eaten the best mozarella in history; attended a print exhibition at a Quaker retreat; conspired with the Muse about how to use a door; run a stage at the Moseley Folk Festival; survived swimming in the Irish Sea; bought a house (nearly); bought a hammock (emphastically); had a bucket of water dumped on me by a zip line; talked to teenagers about bad writing; rearranged the tracks on an old friend’s record; cycled the perimeter of an entire submarine base; had a suspciously nice Holiday Inn breakfast; brainstormed in the Royal Society; and lectured on Jekyll and Hyde at a Catholic College. I’ve lost three mobile phones – two to drowning – and ended up with one I really like (cyanogen ftw). I saw the new Star Wars and didn’t die. I wrote about five songs – but I really like them! – and I started a new performance arts night in Birmingham (the next one is this coming Monday!); I also started writing about stupid games in the Catweazle Magazine, which has been a really fun project. My game of the year is Desert Golfing, but of course Mario Kart 8 is right up there. Next year, I suspect, will be about firming up a lot of stuff that is already in process – but Hatstand needs to be successful and FaceOmeter needs a definite next project, and these are my two ambitions as far as you’re concerned!

I’m certain I’ve missed a whole raft of amazing things about 2015 here. I always do, of course, and that’s part of what this annual post tradition I’ve got going on is – it’s a core sample, not a complete planet. Nevertheless, it’d be good to take some better notes next year, so I suppose I’ll add that to the list of resolutions.

You may or may not have a list of your own. I wish you well if so – I thank you for continuing to read this site and to listen to my foolish rhymes, and I trust that we two have many more such capers ahead of us. Forward, and onward, and be well. Happy New Year.

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The Elephant in the Room

This is a song I finished lately. It’s about living with an elephant. Don’t think this is an elaborate metaphor for anything! It’s about actually living with an actual elephant. I’m in Robert Frost country here; metaphors are banned.

Before you left,
The times we had!
Two very different bodies
With the same crockery.
In the same warm and immense
Companianable silence –
All our thoughts unexpressed.
There’s no problem with that.

You’d pour the tea –
Your special knack.
A little crackle from the fire
All our hearts could desire.
No need for conversation,
Warmed by our conflagration –
Quiet cameraderie,
From which nothing detracts.

I should have guessed,
I should have guessed I never could know
What’s going on,
What’s going on behind those bright eyes –
How much espoused in their discretely curving brows
Was only my surmise?

I had a dream
That you came back –
Settled into your sofa
Crumpets stuck in the toaster.
And the evenings got longer,
Leaves turned russet round songbirds,
And we sat on serene;
It’s a matter of tact.

I couldn’t say,
I couldn’t say without you starting
What’s going on,
What’s going on when creatures share lives –
Assumed one scene could hold the hopes of different beings
Regardless of their size.

I should have guessed,
I should have guessed I never could know
What’s going on,
What’s going on behind those bright eyes –
How much espoused in their discretely curving brows
Was only my surmise?

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The Hatstand night is developing apace. I just put up this short film, in which I test metaphor to its limits by building an actual hatstand as a promotional exercise.

If you’re in or near Birmingham I’d love to see you at our opening night on December 7th! More details on this post below.

What else has been going on? Well, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the company of this insane beast:

2015-10-20 00.28.15There is a small prize for guessing the species.

I’ve just finished a new song called ‘The Elephant in the Room’. It’s about the experience of living with an elephant. So I suppose “living with different animals” has been the theme of recent weeks. But I’ve been having other experiences, too – I’ve been seen at a few Catweazles recently, popped over to see a teen pop sensation thriving at an open mic in Edgbaston, and I got my hands on a first edition of The Hunting of the Snark today. Slow and steady wins the race!

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Of Hatstands

The project I’ve been working on for a few weeks is slowly coming to fruition, and I’d like to introduce the world to Hatstand.

hatstand color try2There have been two great influences in my life: the Catweazle Club and the city of Birmingham. I bore the socks off everyone I meet singing the praises of these things, but there’s a problem: Catweazle isn’t in Birmingham. Sick of racking up miles on the M40, I’ve decided to start a performance arts night with similar values three minutes’ walk from my front door, blending my two core interests.

Catweazle has taught me so much, and regulars will anticipate the main features: unamplified, no advance booking, performers enter for free. But Hatstand is not simply a duplication of the Catweazle formula, for this city is unique and requires individual treatment. We’re going to have a pop-up art gallery for visual artists with prints to sell. We’re going to have two intervals instead of one (edgy). We’re going to be based in a garden centre intead of a community centre (super edgy). We are going, I very much hope, to have an actual hatstand (I just lost consciousness).

This is the second night I’ve set up, and I know what the big challenges are. We need a good mix of music and spoken word; a strong communuity of regulars as well as high visibility for passing traffic; and we need an amazing audience who delight in and respect a huge range of talent. Most troublesomely of all, we need all that quickly – nights like this thrive or fail in the first year, and a monthly show only has twelve chances to get it right.

I hope you can be part of those attempts! Whether you’re a Brummie or at a distance, if you find yourself free on the first Monday of the month, starting this December, we need you. We had a trial run this Sunday at the Moseley Folk Festival, which went down a treat – we got Bohdan Piasecki down, Katherine Priddy was there, James Bell came all the way from Oxford to inaugurate, and there were loads besides! We camped out in the old tennis hut while the bassbins of the big stage outside boomed away and we performed songs and poetry for each other – it felt like the start of something new, but also timeless and comfortable, like coming home at the end of a long night.

Perhaps I’m overdoing this. My point is, we’re ten minutes old and we’ve already done a stage at Moseley Folk. We mean business! You’ll hear me yammering away about this loads over the next few months, but don’t wait for that – get your diary out now. Nights like this are the audience, nothing else. We need you. 7th December 2015. 8pm.

Check out the website! It has parallax scrolling so I look modern and cool and I used the guys who are always advertising on This American Life which by the transit of properties means that Ira Glass will personally attend every single Hatstand evening

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