The Problem with Plumbers (and other Tradesmen)

There’s nothing particularly pleasant about the process of moving house. Especially if you actually have to sell the house you are living in first. We have been meaning to move out of our current house for at least two years. I just couldn’t motivate myself to organize tradesmen, visit hardware stores, paint walls and ceilings, and do all the other things necessary to get the house ready to sell. In the end I just went to a real estate agent and said ‘sell my house’. He put me onto all the ‘right people’ and in the space of a few weeks, we had tradesmen painting the guttering, installing new light fittings, erecting pergolas, fitting carpet and so on. More work was done on our house in three weeks than has been done in ten years.

With all this activity going on, I realised that one of the main reasons it has taken me so long to get all of this organized is my extreme awkwardness with tradesmen. I just can’t seem to relax, or even behave normally, when a stranger is working in or around the house. For example, we had some people working on the garden. It was quite hot outside, and the two gardeners has been shoveling bark chips and gravel for hours. I was inside, supposedly working on a writing project. But I just couldn’t sit still. I felt guilty. In the end, I began cleaning. And I couldn’t just clean quietly; I had to make lots of noise so that the guys outside would hear that I wasn’t just lying around. I couldn’t bear the thought of them saying to themselves: ‘Lazy bastard. We’re out here sweatin’ and he’s takin’ it easy.’

I even turned off the air conditioning just to let them know that I wasn’t much more comfortable than them.

Then there’s the issue of actually interacting with them. I know they are meant to be working, but I find it impossible to just ignore them and let them get on with their job. I feel compelled to make small talk with them. Ask them things about their job, talk about sport or the weather. The things I have found myself talking about are just ludicrous.

The alternative is the tradesman who seeks you out for conversation. Only recently, one of the plumbers I had working on my house thought nothing of spouting racist nonsense within two minutes of meeting me. What can be done with such people! There’s no point in arguing with them, particularly when such people are dealing with necessities like water or electricity. I’d hate to confront a plumber about his apparent racism, only to find that he’d subsequently connected my outgoing sewage pipe to the incoming bathwater tap. So I just grinned like an idiot, not agreeing, but not challenging his stupid comments.

Finally, there’s the food and drink situation. What exactly is the etiquette here? Are you expected to feed someone who’s been painting your house all day? Do you offer beer? Hot food? Sandwiches?

I recently offered a bricklayer some cake. He took the cake, but I’m sure he was laughing at me behind my back. (‘Cakebaking, doughpoking pansy!’) At least I didn’t offer him fairy bread!

Thankfully, all that anxiety and awkwardness is now over. All the work is complete and it’s just a matter of finding someone to buy our neat, clean and sparklingly tidy house. I’m just hoping that the plumbing holds out until we’re gone.

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One Minute Music Reviews

A selection of the most interesting new albums to come my way so far this year.

Arctic Monkeys – ‘Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’

Yes, they have been massively over-hyped, and, yes, they are just a glorified pub-punk band, but the Arctic Monkeys also write clever, catchy pop songs about urban life as teenagers in 00s England. Their sound isn’t particularly interesting or original, but they’re still well worth a listen. (3/5)

Belle & Sebastian – ‘The Life Pursuit’

Soul, funk, glam and much more adorn the latest offering from Scottish music ensemble Belle & Sebastian. It’s a celebration of 70s pop and superior songwriting. For full review click here. (4/5)

Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – ‘Ballad of the Broken Seas’

Former Belle & Sebastian vocalist/cellist, Isobel Campbell and Screaming Trees frontman, Mark Lanegan, (the most unusual musical pairing since Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue) combine to produce a collection of haunting tunes about love, loneliness and despair. An overwhelming success. (4/5)

Cat Power – ‘The Greatest’

Chan Marshall relocates to Memphis and records the best album of her career. Veteran soul backing musicians provide a richness and polish to her songs sometimes missing from previous outings. Highlights include ‘The Greatest’, ‘Love & Communication’, ‘Living Proof’ and ‘Lived In Bars’. (4/5)

The Concretes – ‘In Colour’

Despite luke-warm reviews in the UK and US this second album is not much different to the band’s critically lauded earlier material. A little more polished perhaps, but tracks like ‘On Their Radio’, ‘Sunbeams’ and ‘Chosen One’ retain all the charm that made them so appealing in the first place. (3/5)

The Flaming Lips – ‘At War With The Mystics’

Not really the protest album that we’d been expecting, but a fine collection of songs all the same. ‘Mystics’ bristles with the kind of invention and wonder we’ve come to expect from the Flaming Lips. For full review click here. (4/5)

Jenny Lewis & the Watson Twins – ‘Rabbit Furcoat’

Rilo Kiley singer, Jenny Lewis, and friends record an album of gospel, country and folk tinged songs, including, most unusually, a version of the Travelling Wilbury’s ‘Handle with Care’, which features guest vocalists Conor Oberst and Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard. The seeds of an indie-supergroup? (3.5/5)

Secret Machines – ‘Ten Silver Drops’

Often described by critics as ‘Pink Floyd-prog meets Krautrock’ this New York-based trio deserve better. Yes, their songs are long and their sound is big, but at heart these are (mostly) just great pop songs. Highlights include ‘Lightning Blue Eyes’, ‘Daddy’s in the Doldrums’ and ‘I Hate Pretending’. (3.5/5)

Stereolab – ‘Fab Four Suture’

As much as I love Stereolab it’s getting really difficult to tell one of their albums from the next. This latest release is no better or worse than ‘Sound-Dust’ or ‘Margerine Eclipse’. Standout tracks include ‘Vodiak’, ‘Sunny Rainphase’ and ‘Kybernetcika Babicka’ but beyond that it’s ‘business as usual’. (3/5)

The Strokes – ‘First Impressions of Earth’

After the unfair critical mauling of ‘Room on Fire’ The Strokes return with an overly self-conscious attempt to overcome the stigma of ‘Is This It?’ It’s a (mostly) disappointing and patchy affair. For full review click here. (2.5/5)

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Show Your Bones’

The much-anticipated follow up to their debut album ‘Fever To Tell’ sees the band expanding their sound palette to include synthesizers, programmed beats and piano, while both Karen O’s vocals and Nick Zinner’s guitars are more restrained and reflective. Depending on your taste, this is either a good thing or a bad thing. I, for one, think this an excellent album. (3.5/5)

Lost in Music

I’ve been a slow convert to the idea of the personal music player. During the 80s and 90s I owned a series of cheap Walkmans, but I tended to use them sparingly, on long bus trips and similar. I guess I just didn’t like having to haul around a swag of messy, easily-damaged tapes. The sound quality was never great and either the tapes or the Walkman were always breaking. It just wasn’t worth the effort.

I was pleased to discover that the latest CD Walkmans played MP3 files. The average cd holds up to 170 MP3s, which means about 10 hours of music. I could fit all of the Cocteau Twins’ albums on one cd. With just two or three cds I could be kept happy for a couple of days. Of course, the downside was the size and shape of the compact disc. It just doesn’t fit easily into the average pocket.

The real revolution came about with the advent of the MP3 player. After scraping together enough money I bought a 60gb iPod, nearly enough to house my entire cd collection. There was not only room for the Cocteau Twins’ studio albums, there was room for all of their singles, eps, live releases, rarities and bootlegs, and much, much more. And all of this fit into something about the size of a cigarette box. The wonder of technology!

All of a sudden the iPod became indispensable. I took it to work, the supermarket, in the car, on walks, plane trips, and even to bed. I put together elaborate playlists to accompany me on my travels. I had a ‘shopping mix’, an ‘exercise mix’ and a ‘commuter mix’. And it wasn’t just the music I was carrying around, it was the memories associated with that music. I would be sitting on the bus on the way into work and ‘More Songs About Buildings And Food’ by Talking Heads might come on. Suddenly I was transported to my last year at High School. Or a song from The Cure’s ‘Seventeen Seconds’ or ‘Faith’ would start, and it was 1981 and I’m walking home from my friend’s house in Ingle Farm. It’s the middle of winter and Robert Smith’s wail seems to capture the desolation of the wet, empty streets perfectly.

I liked the way that the personal music player disengaged me from some aspects of reality. The trip to the supermarket no longer involved listening to the shop’s muzak, the screeching radio or other shopper’s conversations; it was now soundtracked by Depeche Mode, Sleater-Kinney or Primal Scream. The lunch-hour walk to the post-office was now enlivened by the latest Doves or Belle And Sebastian lp.

A friend of mine has said that they couldn’t listen to an iPod or other personal music player. Apart from the discomfit of the earplugs, they like hearing the sounds of suburbia: traffic, machinery, birds, people, the wind. Frankly, I don’t miss them. I only worry about the car I won’t hear when I stumble into the road, my senses focused elsewhere, lost in music.

Homer Sweet Homer

Some weeks ago, a woman at work said; ‘You look like Homer Simpson.’ There was nothing malicious in her tone or body language. In fact, I believe she thought it was a compliment. She smiled broadly, eyes sparkling, and said it in a friendly, singsong kind of way, as one might say; ‘You look lovely today’ or ‘I like your haircut’. I didn’t reply, not really knowing how to react to such an observation, but merely smiled and nodded. Should I have thanked her? Should I have reacted angrily? It was difficult to consider any reaction without first determining what she’d meant by the comment.

In what way did I look like Homer Simpson? True enough, I was wearing the sort of short-sleeved business shirt favoured by the character. And my hair is thinning on top. But is my head shaped like a football? Am I yellow? Am I flabby and overweight?

Or did her comment refer to Homer’s other qualities – his laziness, dishonesty, stupidity, greed, clumsiness.

It really was a struggle to find anything complimentary about the comparison.

After discussing it with my daughter, I could only conclude that there was something about my physical appearance that made me somewhat Homer-like. Maybe I had put on some weight. Maybe my head was a little more egg-shaped that I’d imagined. (Why this person thought the comment was a compliment was still a mystery, however, as I was too afraid to ask.)

There was nothing I could do about the shape of my head, but I could try and lose a few kilos. We drew up a dieting and exercise plan and, to help motivate me, my daughter L agreed to participate, despite the fact that she doesn’t look like any of the Simpson family. (She looks a bit like Betty from the Flintstones, but even that is stretching things.)

The first thing to go was any Homer-like food – doughnuts, hot dogs, soft drink, pizza, pastries, biscuits, ice cream – in fact, anything remotely tasty. L drew up a daily menu plan that included lots of apples, carrots, celery, lettuce and water – litres and litres of water. According to L water is the cure for all evils. I can’t drink enough of it.

An exercise regime followed. L tried to come up with a suitable plan, but the fact that I set down a series of limitations made the process very difficult. I refused to swim, run, lift weights, go to a gym, do yoga or aerobics, or wear sports clothing of any kind. That left walking or cycling, and without a bicycle or helmet, the cycling option was pretty much ruled out.

We live in a quiet suburban neighbourhood. There is nothing especially interesting or beautiful about our suburb. It is, in fact, quite dull. But every day, for the first week at least, L and I were up early, trudging up and down the local thoroughfares. L was in shorts, t-shirt, sneakers and sunglasses, looking like a healthy, active, sports-minded teenager. I was dressed as I would for any occasion – short-sleeved casual shirt, blue jeans, business shoes – looking like I was on the verge of a breakdown – pale, sweating, gasping for breath. I think L was embarrassed to be with me, as she kept sprinting off ahead.

We did this religiously for a week. During the second week, I kept finding myself busy with other things (surfing the net, watching tv) when it came time to exercise, although my dieting plan remained on track. By week three, both L and myself had given up the walking plan altogether, and I was sneaking muffin bars and biscuits in between meals. In short, our plan was failing miserably.

L and I are determined to revisit our dieting and exercise regime again in the near future. In the meantime, I am trying to think positively about Homer Simpson. He is kind of lovable, in a stupid, oafish sort of way. And he can be very passionate (about food, beer, get-rich-quick schemes), even if only for short periods of time.

Doh!

At War With The Mystics – a Review

The ‘mystics’ in the title of the latest Flaming Lips lp are the Christian fundamentalists running the United States. But don’t get the impression that this is simply a protest record (as if anything the Flaming Lips ever do would be considered simple). Apart from a sprinkling of songs about power and politics, the album does not focus on exploits of the Bush administration, but manages to explore far more profound subject matter – grief, death, the universe, and so on.

The opening track ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ is the first single, and probably the catchiest song about the abuse of power that you’ll ever hear. Over jerky stop/start rhythms, cartoonish backing vocals, fuzzy guitar and all manner of beeps and clangs, Wayne Coyne asks:

If you could blow up the world with the flick of a switch, would you do it?
If you could make everybody poor so that you could be rich, would you do it?

And then the chorus:

What would you do with all your power?

It is not necessarily a question for any particular politician, but a question for anyone in a position of power. How does power change us? What would we do if we were given the power to change things?

Second song ‘Free Radicals’ is minimalist funk in the Prince tradition – with crackling guitar, stuttering percussion, and a chorus of falsetto vocals, while Coyne pleads with a potential suicide bomber:

You’re not radical, you’re fanatical.

The following group of tracks form the emotional core of ‘At War With The Mystics’ and contain some of the most beautiful sounds on the album. Each is concerned with grief, death and the search for meaning.

‘The Sound of Failure’ describes the inadequacy of pop culture to deal with real despair. The death of a friend leads a young girl to question the optimism of the music she listens to:

Go tell Britney, go tell Gwen…

The chorus is breezy, filled with summery flute sounds and soulful guitars. But there are no answers for the girl, and when the song drifts into its instrumental postscript, she is left in darkness and confusion.

‘My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion’ is similarly concerned with death and renewal, but it is more optimistic, swelling from a quiet beginning to almost anthemic proportions.

In the third song in this group ‘Vein of Stars’, Coyne says that maybe ‘there isn’t a vein of stars calling out my name’. It suggests a meaningless universe, but is one of the most gorgeous Flaming Lips songs, driven by acoustic guitar and piano, and adorned with shimmering keyboards and bubbling electronica.

At the album’s halfway mark, the instrumental ‘The Wizard Turns On…’ acts as a sort of interval, best described by Wayne Coyne as a ‘space jam’.

The second half of the album opens with a return to the immediacy of ‘Yeah Yeah Yeah Song’ and ‘Free Radicals’. ‘It Overtakes Me’ is a fuzzy, funky, shrieking stomp about existential panic, again best described by Coyne as ‘a mashing of Gwen Stefani and the Stooges’.

We’ve heard ‘Mr Ambulance Driver’ before (it was included on the ‘Wedding Crashers’ soundtrack), and I initially baulked at its inclusion on this album. On reflection, however, one can see the sense in it being here. It is another song about death, this time from the point of view of the survivor of a car crash as they sit waiting for an ambulance, wishing that they, and not their partner, were dead. It is grim material, but perhaps the sweetest-sounding song on the record.

There are no prizes for guessing who ‘Haven’t Got A Clue’ might be aimed at:

You used your money and your friends to trick me.

And:

Every time you state your case I want to punch your face.

The song itself is a delicious pot-pourri of squelches, bleeps, bells, squeaks and voices.

‘The Wand’ is the album’s protest anthem. Over a fuzzy prog-rock riff and funky beat, Wayne Coyne sings about self-belief:

We got the power now, motherfuckers, that’s where it belongs

Coyne admits that the song does not offer any solutions, but suggests that it is ‘cosmically empowering’. It might not work as a protest song, but it makes pretty good music.

‘Pompeii Am Gotterdammerung’ is perhaps the most unusual song among an album of unusual songs – a chugging 70s prog-rock epic about a young couple planning their suicide. Again, grim subject matter, but musically triumphant.

The closing track ‘Goin’ On’ comes as somewhat anti-climactic. Both musically and lyrically, it is the simplest song on the lp. Here Coyne suggests that suffering and anxiety can be relieved by acceptance. The message is plain enough, but doesn’t quite sit with the ideas of protest and war mentioned elsewhere.

Like all great bands – The Velvet Underground, Joy Division, The Smiths, Radiohead – the Flaming Lips have successfully created a unique sonic landscape. ‘At War With The Mystics’ completes a trilogy of captivating and utterly original albums. It might fall a little short of the achievements of ‘Soft Bulletin’ or ‘Yoshimi’, but the shortfall is small indeed.

All pop music should be this good.

‘At War With The Mystics” is released in Australia on April 3rd 2006.

Amelia Walker – Guest Poet

Each month I hope to host the poetry of a South Australian (or, in this case, former South Australian) poet on this web log.

This month I am very pleased to introduce the poetry of Amelia Walker.

Amelia has been writing and performing poetry since she was sixteen. Her work has been published in magazines and journals throughout Australia, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Germany and online. In 2002 she was awarded the Independent Arts Foundation Scholarship for Youth Literature, which enabled her to publish her first collection, Fat streets and lots of squares: Poems for Adelaide.

When I think of Australia

I think of my childhood
that distant land
on the other side of puberty.
My family moved house
the same year I got my first bra’.
When I think of Australia
I think of star shaped cakes
dusty with icing sugar
of homegrown tomatoes
and loud Greek voices.
Our neighbours, three generations
in one house. A bungalow
like ours, maybe smaller.
They always brought us food.
I think of the deli’ on the corner
racing my sister on our bikes
to buy icy poles
and eating them, half melted
in the backyard
wearing bathers
running under the sprinklers
sopping and sticky.
Summer seemed hotter in those days.
Just like winter seems colder
and colder.
Australia is getting colder.
I switch on the TV and see wire
with children behind it.
If this isn’t their country
it isn’t mine.
I came here on a boat
smuggled piece by piece
like a jigsaw, in many boats
over more than a century.
I came as a refugee, persecuted
I came for work, a better life
I came from Prussia
from Germany, Scotland
and Ireland.
I was born in Australia. But
my bones were already millions
of years old
and bones remember everything.

previously published in Voiceworks

Bread and Cigarettes

The Man

His skin is pale.
He opens the curtains
sometimes.
Inside his house
he eats toast
and smokes cigarettes.
He goes out
sometimes
to buy bread
cigarettes
and cat food.
He wishes he could
get them
from a vending machine.

The House

Kitchen
Bedroom
Toilet
Shower
Curtains

The Cat

Siamese sleek
she makes little
flicks of her tail
catches rats
rejects his offerings.
She sometimes sleeps
curled up, almost
making him believe
she is not cruel.
She sometimes demands
to sleep in his bed
(a futon)
when she wants to
on his pillow.
After such nights
he wakes unable
to turn his neck. However
after such nights
he wakes having slept.

Letters

Electricity Bill
Water Bill
Bank Statement
**Look 10 Years Younger Overnight!**
(conditions apply)
Library Notice:
‘I’m Okay, You’re Okay’
two years overdue.

Thoughts Running Through His Head On A Sunday Afternoon

I should get out of bed…
shouldn’t I?
I should.
Why?
Because…
I’ll only have to
get back in later. If
I get out of bed
I can eat toast.
But I’m sick
of toast. I do
need a cigarette
and a piss.
I wonder where
the cat went last night.
Hope she’s okay.
I really should
get out of bed…

Items On His Table

Coffee Cup
Ash Tray (overflowing)
Copy of ‘I’m Okay,
You’re Okay’
(book mark in page nine)
Porno Mag (edges tatty)
Photograph of a woman
with brown hair
green eyes and a gap
between her teeth.

previously published in Salt Lick

First Job

Submersed in the hum of fluorescent lighting, the meat shop girl
is mopping blood from a cracked floor and dreaming
of love. She can do this
because she is fifteen. And she is beautiful
but does not know it. Her mouse brown hair smells
of death and her boss’s pack a day habit.

Out back, he hangs pictures of women with breasts
bigger than the meat shop girl’s head.
He gazes at them whilst whittling flesh from carcasses
a sculptor, cigarette between his teeth.
The meat shop girl is fascinated
by the women, huge cats shaved, lounging on motorbikes.

Alone in the bathroom, she peeks
at her own breasts. Bigger than they once were
no where near the size of the picture women.
The meat shop girl touches her nipple. It touches back
surprising her. Face red, she pulls her baggy t shirt down
a tent, almost to her knees.

Still, the meat shop girl dreams of love
as she mops blood from the cracked floor and listens
to her boss call his ex wife a witch.
His nose is red with wide deep pores; thin purple veins
knit his cheeks. His red hand falls heavy
on the girl’s shoulder. She tenses, keeps mopping.

previously published in Pendulum

Copyright

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Here Lies Love – a Review

Since the demise of Talking Heads in the late 80s, David Byrne has diversified his creative interests in a way few pop stars are able to do. Apart from maintaining a successful career as a solo musician, Byrne has been involved in film, photography and design; he has written a number of books, and worked on a host of musical collaborations. At the 2006 Adelaide Festival of Arts, we are lucky enough to have seen two of Byrne’s recent projects, a presentation on the Powerpoint software application, and the world premiere of Here Lies Love, a ‘song cycle’ about the life of Imelda Marcos, co-ruler of the Philippines in the 70s and 80s.

Here Lies Love takes the form of a series of fairly traditional pop songs (verse-chorus-verse) played in a variety of styles (disco, rock, funk, latin, ballad) by Byrne and a small group of colleagues. Augmenting the core of guitar, bass and drums, is a percussionist and a keyboard player. The vocals are shared by Dana Diaz-Tutaan (Imelda), Ganda Suthivarakom (Estrella), and Byrne, who represents the ‘voice’ of other key players in Imelda’s life. The stage itself is unadorned, although behind the band a small screen plays news clips and home movies of Imelda’s life.

The narrative of the ‘song cycle’ follows a familiar ‘rags-to-riches’ formula, starting with Imelda’s beginnings as a small town beauty queen, and ending with the fall of the Marcos regime in 1986. Along the way we meet the faithful servant Estrella, former beau Benigno Aquino and, of course Ferdinand Marcos. Between songs, Byrne provides additional insights and snippets of information. Unfortunately, this commentary sometimes lessens the impact of the songs themselves, as the lyrics repeat what we have just been told.

As already mentioned, the songs themselves are simple pop tunes, leaning heavily on the disco and dance genres, and could fit neatly onto any number of Byrne’s solo albums. They are tuneful enough, and skillfully played, but I wonder about the connection of the music to Imelda’s life. Would it have been possible to blend some traditional Filipino sounds and flavours into the music of Here Lies Love (although, admittedly, Imelda was a fan of Western dance music)?

I attended the premiere performance of Here Lies Love, and it might have just been first night ‘jitters’, but there seemed to be overly long pauses between songs while the band fumbled around with cables and instruments. David Byrne even seemed a little unsure of himself during his song introductions, tripping over words and pronunciations. The already restless crowd filled these delays with the sort of noise more often associated with a rock concert than a theatre performance. The layout of the venue didn’t help matters, as two bars selling alcohol and soft drinks flanked the ‘general admission’ area. This meant that steady queues of people were constantly moving around in front of the stage, causing further noise and distraction.

While the concept of Here Lies Love is highly original, the production itself, for a variety of reasons, struggles to transcend the rock concert formula. Maybe I was expecting something more? Nevertheless, there is enough going on to make the performance consistently interesting and informative. I certainly feel as though I know more than I need to know about Imelda Marcos.

And, by the way, there was no mention of the shoes.

P.S. For some insights into his Adelaide experience check out David Byrne’s online journal.