Gomez – Liquid Skin

I’d been aware of Gomez since the won a Mercury Music Prize for album of the year in 1998 (with their debut, Bring It On). I’d never listened to them a lot, but every now and then I’d catch them on late-night radio, MTV-2, or playing live on “Later” with Jools Holland. Then, a couple of weeks ago, as we were tidying up our office, one of my colleagues put on this album: Liquid Skin

Right from the very first track “Hangover”, I was hooked. With its jangly guitar work and up-beat blues rhythm, it feels like it has stepped straight off the streets of New Orleans. The second song, “Revolutionary Kind” follows in similar footsteps, but at a more relaxed tempo. The third track, though (“Bring It On”), is completely different, and made me go out the next day and buy the album. It still sends shivers up my spine every time I hear it–especially with the volume cranked up as far as common sense and neighbourly courtesy allows.

Gomez has three main vocalists, Tom Gray, Ian Ball, and Ben Ottewell. On “Bring it On” they all join in, alternating and interleaving the lines of the first two verses, before giving way to Ottewell’s gravely roar for the choruses. And just when you think the song is going to carry on at a full rolling boil, they bring it back to a simmer and play it out loud but calm. It’s a masterpiece of tightly controlled raw energy.

The rest of the album is all about contained energy, too. Even at their most laid back, on tracks like “Blue Moon Rising” and “Rosalita”, you always feel like there could be a ripping guitar solo just around the next musical corner. Although they’re young guys from England, they maintain a very mature American sound throughout, partly Southern blues, partly Californian rock. But really, their style is uniquely their own. (The best comparison I’ve been able to come up with so far is Aerosmith crossed with the Neville Brothers. They trick you into thinking that they’re playing much harder rock than they actually are.)

My other personal favourites on the album are “We Haven’t Turned Around”, a hauntingly melancholy song that makes for great late night listening, and the last track, “Devil Will Ride.” Just as the album starts with three attention-grabbers, so they leave you with a wild ride through burning guitars, mixed-up vocal effects, ending up marching through the streets of New Orleans, with horns and clapping and everything. Majestic and absolutely marvellous.

(Now I’m going to have to go out and get their first album, too!)

End Of Days

If there’s a single image from this film that will stick with me, it’s Kevin Pollak’s expression whenever he’s on screen. If he’d turned to camera, shaken his head in despair, and said “what am I doing in this movie?” it would have seemed almost entirely in character.

Now, I have nothing whatsoever against Arnold Schwartzenegger, but he’s not really an actor: he’s a Movie Star. Put him in a film that plays to his strengths, like True Lies, The Terminator or the much-maligned Kindergarten Cop, and he shines. Put him in a role that asks him to display a certain depth and range of emotion, like that of Jericho Cane, the tortured anti-hero of End Of Days, and he is little better than a plank. He can pull a suicidal grimace in the morning twilight of a shabby apartment, but as soon as he opens his mouth you just have to wince. His lines sound like he’s chewed them at least twice before choking, and regurgitating them–with difficulty.

Arnie himself is the first, and biggest mistake this film makes. Kevin Pollak, who plays Chicago, Arnie’s sidekick, knows it, and you can read it on his face in every scene they share. Almost any current male lead you can think of could have injected more realism into Jericho’s character. Christine York, played by Robin Tunney (whom you may remember as the not-evil one from The Craft) is the only character who seems to be able to take him seriously.

The second great flaw of the film is its script. Written by Andrew W. Marlowe, who did a fairly decent job on “Air Force One” a few years ago, it takes absolutely ages to go anywhere. The first forty-five minutes lazily set the scene: in the last days of 1999, the Devil takes the form of a man so that he can impregnate the chosen one (Christine), and thus bring about the “End Of Days.” Just how the end of the world will come about is never explained. Is a simple bout of demonic nookie enough to open the gates of Hell, or will we have to wait for the resulting offspring to wreak Damien-like havoc on us all? Who knows? Who cares?

After this has been set up, the rest of the film consists mostly of a lot of running around with all parties concerned trying to find and snatch Christine from each other. All the parties are:

(1) Jericho and Chicago, who work for a private security firm. They were on duty trying to protect a Wall Street Banker (whose body had been taken over by the Devil), when a rogue priest tried to assassinate him. Rather than just taking their danger bonus and letting the police handle things from there, they take it upon themselves to figure out what’s going on.
(2) The Devil, played by Gabriel Byrne with about as much menace as a pop tart.
(3) The Bad clergy, who want to kill Christine before she can have it off with the Devil.
(4) The Good clergy, led by Father Kovac (Rod Steiger), who want to take Christine in and protect her until the whole thing blows over.

Any story involving supernatural beings has to be careful in plausibly restricting the powers that these beings have access to. End of Days falls woefully short in this regard: the Devil can apparently possess any body at will, but he chooses one with no straightforward access to Christine. He can raise bodies from the dead, but he can’t force or torture Jericho into revealing Christine’s location. The Devil only gets this opportunity to destroy the world once every thousand years, so why didn’t he plan the whole thing out more carefully? Oh, well, better luck in 2999.

Believable, no. Exciting, not really. Tense, only occasionally. Humorous, yes, but unintentionally so. There are some decent special effects (the sex scene is eerily impressive), but with the bulk of the film shot in almost pitch darkness, it’s hard to pick them out. It’s got high production values, but that’s just not enough to save a film.

Director Peter Hyams can do, and has done, a lot better than this (Outland, Capricorn One and Running Scared are a couple of excellent examples), but on the other hand, his career is littered with some amazing turkeys (Stay Tuned and Sudden Death immediately spring to mind). Unfortunately, End Of Days belongs in the latter category.

Slow news week

Slow news week

13 July 2000

…So I’ll just keep this one brief and to the point. The most interesting
event over the past week was, of course, Abi getting a tattoo. You can read
all about it on her section of the sunpig
, but that doesn’t stop me from mentioning it, too. Even though we
had to get up ridiculously early on Saturday morning to get an appointment
for that same day, it was still worth it. It looks great.

My favourite line now: “Hey, there’s something on your arm.”

If I didn’t have a severe needle phobia, I’d be tempted to get one
myself. (Not that I have any idea what I would like embossed on my skin for
the rest of my life, though, so it’s probably more a mild envy of Abi’s than a
genuine desire.) Abi has suggested that the next time I’m under general
anaesthesia, she’ll hire a tattoo artist to come and do one for me, so I won’t
have to suffer through the whole pain and fear thing.

Latest car update

Unfortunately, it’s nothing too exciting. I called up my good friend at
Fuji on Tuesday, and asked him if there was any progress. He said that he’d
been in touch with Toyota, and that they were now getting ready to take things
over from him. Then, on Wednesday morning I got a call from Toyota UK, first
of all congratulating me on winning the car, and then explaining what was going
to happen next.

They’re sending us out a brochure on the Picnic, and a colour chart, so we
can choose what kind of paint job and interior trim we want. Then, we send our
selection back to them, and they arrange for this vehicle to be delivered to a
local Toyota dealer. Unfortunately, because they don’t have huge numbers of
Picnics in stock, this will probably take somewhere between 4 and 6 weeks.
So we won’t be able to drive it down to Dumfries and the
Plumed Horse for our anniversary
next week. Oh well…

If we we’re not going to have our own brand new car, we’re going to have to
rent a car for the weekend. Because it’s a special anniversary weekend, I had
a sudden wonderful idea of maybe hiring a little sports car, rather than the
normal tiny hatchback we go for. I went by our usual rental place
(Enterprise, in Leith)
at lunchtime yesterday. They greeted me with their usual enthusiasm, but the
only thing they had that came kind of close was a BMW 3-series. That was just
a bit too big, though. I’d really had my mind on a Mazda MX-5, or an MG.

The ever-friendly staff at Enterprise mentioned that Budget might have
something more along these lines, so I gave them a try, but they weren’t taking
any bookings until August. (Can I also say that the very fact that Enterprise
were willing to refer me elsewhere is a typical indicator of their very high
levels of customer service. These people are great, and really do their best
to make car hire an easy and enjoyable experience.) Lunch over, I scouted
around on the web for a bit and came up with
Avis Prestige
, which hires out luxury and sporty cars. A brief look at their
prices, however, told me that this was not going to fly, though. (£320 for a BMW Z3
for the weekend? Hmmm…probably not.)

So, a little disappointed, I ended up back at Enterprise, where they were only
too happy to supply us with a Renault Laguna-class vehicle for next weekend. It
should have a CD player, and they assure me that it’s a really nice drive. I’m
looking forward to it.

Books, movies, and music

(Though not necessarily in that order)

We saw two films last week,
Chicken Run
Mission Impossible 2
Chicken Run was very funny, and a great family film, and MI-2 was a
pretty good action movie. (Towards the end, though, the stunts did cross the fine
line between breathtaking and ridiculous, though.) But between the two of them,
probably the neatest thing was the “CR-1” Chicken Run/MI-2 crossover trailer that
was shown just before MI-2. Almost worth going in to the cinema to it on its own!

Music-wise, I bought three CDs on Saturday, Liquid Skin by Gomez,
Dizzy Up The Girl by the Goo Goo Dolls, and I Like to Score by
Moby. Although since the weekend, the only thing I’ve had running on my MP3
player is Byzantium by Deep Blue Something. (Remember the song “Breakfast
at Tiffany’s”? That’s them.) See my
review of the album

And finally, I’ve just finished reading John Sandford’s Night Prey.
If you’re looking for an excellent police/serial killer thriller, pick up one of
Sandford’s Prey series. I’ll have to do a proper review on DooYoo, or
somewhere else at some point. (I’ve just found out about
ThemeStream, which seems to bill itself
as more of an on-line magazine and review digest than other reputation managers.
I’ll check it out and write some more about it, too.)

And that’s all for now!


Deep Blue Something – Byzantium

Remember the song "Breakfast at Tiffany’s"? I can hardly believe it was released back in 1995. Even now, you only have to hum a bar or two of its chorus, and pretty soon everyone around you will be humming or whistling, or singing along under their breath. But, as my lovely wife pointed out, it’s one of those songs where no-one can remember anything but the chorus.

The band was Deep Blue Something, and the album it came from was called Home. The one I want to review, though, is their follow-up, Byzantium. (I was just warming you up with some background…) Having loved Home, I got Byzantium as soon as I saw it in January 1998. At first I found it disappointing, because it was very different from the earlier album. They seemed to have lost some of the high-energy pop sound, and the tunes weren’t as immediately catchy.

After listening to it for a while, though, I started to appreciate the wide variety of styles and musical influences represented on the tracks. The first song, “Daybreak and a Candle End” starts off with a two-and-a-half minute intro reminiscent of latter-day Rush. “Tonight” has a chanty chorus that could have come from Chumbawamba, and “Cherry Lime Rickey” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Manic Street Preachers’ Generation Terrorists LP.

With 15 tracks on it, Byzantium has something for almost any mood, from the totally chilled out “Enough To Get By,” through the dance-like, driving grooves of “Dr. Crippen” and “Parkbench,” to the all-out rocking anthems “Light the Fuse” and “Becoming Light”. I think I found it hard to like the album initially precisely because it’s so varied. It doesn’t have a unified feel to it, and it isn’t “easy listening” music by any stretch of the imagination. The best classification I can come up with is “Indie Rock”, but that is still too narrow a description by far.

Although Deep Blue Something are from Texas, they have a distinctly British feel to them, and would fit well in a line-up next to groups like Dodgy, Toploader, or the Manics. They’re mostly a guitar band, but Byzantium uses some very nice horn and string arrangements as well. Lyrically, it’s is not hugely involving, but I find that the complexity and intricacy of the music itself more than makes up for this. Overall, it’s one of the most interesting albums in my collection, and one that I come back to time and again.

This seems to be turning into a weekly thing

This seems to be turning into a weekly thing…

3 July 2000

First things first: an update on the whole car thing.

On Sunday afternoon I had been playing with the idea of hopping on a plane
and delivering the winning ticket by hand, but by Monday morning this seemed a
bit over the top. So I called Fuji, and asked them what we should do with it.
The ticket itself said that we should take a photocopy and then send the original
to Fuji by recorded delivery, but I wanted to hear it from a real person. When I
spoke to them, this exactly what they said, but somehow that reassured me.

Of course, as soon as the envelope left my hand at the post office counter,
I immediately had second thoughts. The probability of the envelope getting lost
in the mail was surely about the same as of us winning the car in the first place.
Why hadn’t I splashed out on a courier instead? What if the person I’d spoken to
at Fuji wasn’t a real representative of their marketing department, but an impostor
who was going to intercept the ticket and use it for himself?

After an anxious afternoon and night, I called them again the next morning,
just to confirm that it had arrived. It had. (A victory for common sense, or
a lucky escape? Who knows…) They said they would be back in touch towards
the end of the week once they had verified the claim, and sorted out things with
Toyota. Unfortunately, when they did call
on Friday, it was to say that the only
person authorized to release a car is off on holiday, and won’t be back until
Monday 10th July. I’m sure we can wait, though.

Mobile Phonery

I thought the day would never happen. Neither did Abi. Even at the best of
times, I hate getting phone calls. Using an answering machine isn’t much better,
because I don’t like making phone calls either, and when someone leaves you a message,
they generally expect you to call them back. So why would I conceivably want a
mobile phone, so that I could be reachable all the time? The very
notion is absurd.

…But somehow, while I had the loan of my mum’s mobile phone while they were
away on holiday, I sort of got used to having it around. While I still worked
for the bank I used to have a pager, and although it had the same problem as an
answerphone (i.e., you have to call back), it was kind of useful (sometimes)
for keeping in contact with Abi. For meeting up after work, for example.

So, thanks to the friendly people at the
Carphone Warehouse
, I now have a
state-of-the art WAP-enabled Nokia 7110
with a spring-loaded front cover (like
in The Matrix).
In the past I’ve been quite disparaging about WAP, mainly
because it’s being marketed as mobile internet (you know who you are, BT).
While this claim is true-ish technically, the
shortcomings of the WAP protocol itself
and the size of the screens involved make it a thoroughly silly idea. Mini-services are the
way to go, but nowhere but Japan (with the
seems to have got a proper clue yet. And anyone
who seriously thinks that composing an email or text message on a phone’s keypad
is somehow clever, or a productive use of their time needs to spend some quality
time in a padded room far from the rest of humanity.

Will I use the WAP features? Probably not. I bought the phone because it
makes me look cool. Anything else is just a bonus.

And Finally…

…I’ve been playing way too much Diablo II. Not the most sophisticated game
in terms of graphics, nor does it have a hugely compelling storyline. But what
it lacks in innovation, it makes up in sheer playability. It’s easy to pick up,
but hard to put down. Check out
Gamecenter for their
initial thoughts on the game.


Darroch Learg

If, when you’re out for dinner, you ask for a gin and tonic, and get offered a choice of Gordon’s, Tanqueray or Sapphire gin, you can be reasonably sure that you’ve ended up somewhere that pays attention to detail, and prides itself on offering a selection based purely on quality. The Darroch Learg Hotel in Ballater (near Aberdeen) is such a place.

With three AA rosettes every year since 1997, it is recognised as one of Scotland’s top restaurants, and this recognition is thoroughly deserved. Two comfortable lounges (one smoking lounge) allow you to enjoy an aperitif or an after-dinner coffee in the kind of surroundings you only see in costume dramas. The dining room is half made up of a large conservatory, which allows the evening sun to sparkle in through the trees of the nearby forest. The whole place exudes old-fashioned charm and timeless style.

All of this would be for nothing, though, if the food wasn’t up to standard. No danger there. The tortellini of crab and langoustine I started with were large and succulent, with the shellfish inside chopped to a moist, flaky consistency. The home-baked breads (sourdough or wholegrain) served with the first course came in very handy for mopping up the crab sauce, and leaving my plate perfectly clean.

For my main course, I had the fillet of Aberdeen beef, with braised shin and green vegetables, served on a bed of creamed celeriac and Madeira sauce. (It was either that or the veal on a bed of puy lentils, with a gratin of potatoes and butternut squash; but fortunately my wife had that, and I could steal a nibble of hers.) Perfectly cooked, fresh fillet tastes buttery and creamy, and this was a fine example of the species. The braised shin provided a rich, almost gamy strength to the dish, while the peas and the green beans were crisp and ripe with their own flavour.

My dessert was crème brulee with toffeed apple rings and apple sorbet. The caramel crust of
the crème brulee was thin, but the body of it was deep and thick, and when I’d scraped the bottom of the ramekin as much as politely possible, the base was covered in tiny vanilla seeds… Rich and delicious.

The wines we had with the meal were an Alsatian gewürztraminer and an Australian Merlot, both from the lower-priced end of the 57-page thick wine list, but perfectly tasty and appropriate nonetheless. For those with more sophisticated tastes, the selection was elaborate, though my personal favourite (Tokaji, for dessert) was absent.

Overall, the quality of the meal was excellent, and the surroundings luxurious. The hotel is run by Nigel and Fiona Franks, who work hard to make every guest feel special, and succeed admirably. The price for this three-course experience is a mere £33 a head (excluding wine), and that kind of value is hard to find these days. If you’re visiting the area, you’d have to look really hard for a reason not to choose the Darroch Learg for an evening out.