Sparrows in the hedge

The most striking things I heard today were the sparrows. Most of them live in the hedge at the end of our garden, where it backs onto the railway, but there are some under the eaves where our house joins our neighbours’. Last year there were two broods born in the hedge, and this year around fifteen birds are flitting above, or dotting the hedge’s new, highest shoots like pricks on manuscript paper.

We’re south of the river here, so these aren’t the cockney sparrows of folk sayings. These are more like midweek teenagers, throwing chips by the bus stop and teasing each other to try their luck in the off license. They hang out in gangs, drawn together by nothing more than accidents of birth. A robin has tried to make his territory here – on the fat balls, the greedy bugger – and I can’t always tell who has the upper hand, he or they.

When I went out mid-morning today I was hit by a wall of noise. Every sparrow, chirping at once. Not the usual rising and falling, filigree counterpoint of spring birdsong, but a sheet of sound, rectangular and opaque. It would all stop at once, then start again. In between they span around the air just above the garden, sounds like shards. There’s something about the spatialisation of birdsong, how it draws your mind out of your skull and stretches it across the sky. We’re used to placing sounds or sound-making objects within our field of vision: when a noise startles us we immediately turn to where it is. Sounds behind us or to the side act very differently. Set up a noise, like boiling a kettle, then turn your back on it and feel the hairs rise. It speaks to a primal need to be connected, sonically, to space in some way – the need of a hunter and a prey. And it seems to do us good to use those skills and to touch those feelings from time to time.

One last thing: a starling, stood in the gutter, squawking like a parakeet.

My mortal coil…

I am, of course, much too Notorious to own an iPod. I’ve got one of these instead, and it’s the business – trade in some looks and a decent navigation system, get in return 35 hour battery life, FM radio, recording, OGG, WAV and FLAC support, allegedly superior sound (although I’ve never tested this out), and possibly more that I’ve not even figured out yet.

I can still do the shuffle thing, though.

(Opening caveat – while it’s representative of something, the music on my computer/mp3 is probably not representative of my music collection as a whole: for reasons of space, I operate a strict ‘if you have the CD, it comes off the harddrive’ policy. So what’s on the computer isn’t necessarily what I want to listen to all the time; it’s rather the repository for one particular format. While there’s some great music on here, it does make things tricky when, as during a recent weekend away with friends, the suggestion is made to play music from my laptop in the background of a game of poker. I did introduce a lot of people to Wim Mertens this way, however.)

1. Clear Pools – A Produce / Ruben Garcia (from Early Sessions, 1991–1993). I’ve been on an non-classical/ambientish tip for a year or so now; this album’s from an early sweep around eMusic looking for anything Cold Blue related. Probably not the best track on the album, but very nice nonetheless; the whole record is recommended for fans of early 90s synth pads with Harold Budd-ist improvised piano over the top.

2. Lila Engel – Neu! (from Neu! 2) Do Neu! need any introduction? Probably not, but to my shame it wasn’t until earlier this year (another hat-tip to eMusic) that I finally got round to listening to them properly, and sure enough they met all my expectations and exceeded several on top. Neu! 2 is often regarded as the band’s real masterwork, but while I appreciate the massive significance it has for the history of the remix – for one thing – musically I find all the wrong speed tape stuff a bit tedious when heard end to end. And I don’t Lila Engel is one of their best moments either.

3. Iambic 9 Poetry – Squarepusher (from Ultravisitor). One of the more puzzling albums of recent years. In amongst the breakcore and drill’n’bassisms, you get a whole load of live (or live-sounding) noodly soft jazz. More than once it sounds embarrassing. Iambic 9 Poetry starts off on a Smooth FM tip, but morphs into something much more interesting as the electronics slowly engulf the live instruments.

4. Good Moanin’ – Dead Meadow (from Shivering King and Others). Can’t say I know much about this, or recall how it got onto my computer. I suspect it’s a random mp3 blog download from a while ago (naughty!). This is one of the problems I’ve found with filling your iTunes with too many bits and bobs from sources like mp3 blogs – you lose track of what everything is and, more importantly, why it’s there. I find it quite disorientating to be unable to recall, at least to guess, why something’s in your collection. Maybe Nick Hornby was onto something with his whole biographically arranged record collection thing. Good Moanin’ is a psychedelic/shoegaze number, and rather good in a brash, rolling-riff sort of way.

5. Keysound Radio: 4Bristol – Blackdown. As a writer and general booster, Martin Clarke is one of Dubstep’s most valuable assets; as a DJ the occasional sets posted to his Blackdown Soundboy blog are among the most convincing testaments to dubstep’s emotional range. The original Keysound Radio mix is the one to treasure, but this one, posted as an apology to Bristol for being forced to miss a show through flu, is a worthy accompaniment.

6. Revolution – Spacemen 3. Oh yes! Close observers will have noted my predilection for sound applied in big washes, and they don’t come much bigger than this classic piece of British space-rock. He may divide opinions these days over his more recent Spiritualized albums, but Spacemen’s Jason Pierce is, I reckon, the most interesting guy in British rock and I’d pay good money to listen to anything with his name on.

7. memory fifty nine – The Caretaker (from Theoretically pure anterograde amnesia). This comes from a 6-disc set of 72 tracks, so one of them was likely to come up. TPAA is available to download for free (or to buy) through Brainwashed; it’s a mix of dark ambience and crackly recollections, and if ‘hauntology’ means much in music at all I guess it applies to this. On their own, individual tracks don’t make much sense – they’re largely anonymous sweeps of static over deeply buried suggestions of melody – but as a set they draw a huge power from the apparently endless variations on the basic template.

8. July 2, 1997 – Kenneth Kirschner. One of a number of dated-but-untitled tracks available on the composer’s website. This one uses layers of wooden percussion sounds to create an uneven, knobbly weave.

9. Moment of Clarity – Danger Mouse (from The Grey Album). I revisited The Grey Album recently and concluded that it was better than I first gave it credit for. At the time I thought, sure, it’s a great idea and a major event in the relationship between sound and the law, but it’s a pity it doesn’t musically rise to the moment. Well, I’ve revised that view: it’s still not quite the bomb that Grey Tuesday deserved, but it does still sound good three years later, which lifts it well clear of any gimmick tags.

10. Back with a big f*** you – Frenchbloke. Another mix – my music folder is full of such things, a niche in which the internet excels. This one’s by the remarkable Frenchbloke, likely the world’s only DJ with the balls to play Stockhausen next to Kelis and the skills to pull it off. OK, there’s not a great deal of postwar modernism on this one – it’s more a giant high energy pop/electro/techno mash-up extravaganza – but I am ridiculously smitten with it. From the opening Tom Baker outtake (“Oh, come on, I can’t do that, they’re not halfwits. Yes, I know you’re selling aspirations, but you want me to sound like a f***ing disc jockey … this sounds like every other kind of sh*t, as opposed to magic, and dreams”) this is 90 minutes of grinning lunatic fun, and probably one of the most listened-to DJ sets in my collection.

Bubbling under: 11. Hot Like We – Ce’Cile, 12. Mouseketier Praxis: Private and Consensual Activity II – Mark Applebaum, 13. Nocturne – Leif Segerstam. Look! Real life modern music! I’m not a complete fraud, etc.

Current listening

Blogariddims 6: Collide/Coalesce. This came out yesterday, and of all the mixes we’ve had so far, I guess this one works best for this date. Ian SoundsLike who put it together is also the first one of us to actually put the date of release into his ident – I don’t know if this was a deliberate move, but it added anew dimension to something I’ve been listening to regularly for the last few weeks. It’s a beautiful piece of work. SoundsLike has been posting his ‘texturematched’ mixes to Dissensus for while now – there are at least three others that I can recall – and while they’re all wonderful things, I think this is the best so far. The historical range is a little narrower than some mixes (one earlier one includes Vivaldi and Mozart), which helps tie it together, but more to the point I think the overall flow of this mix works best – it doesn’t feel like an hour long, yet it doesn’t sit still for long at any point, it’s such a dense piece of work. The corner tracks that shape its skeleton – Björk and Robert Wyatt, Suicide, Rachel’s over Stockhausen, Arthur Russell, Reich over Can, are strong enough to fit over and among almost anything, but SoundsLike has a real knack for picking out surprising connections between tracks and across the whole mix. The whole thing – incorporating Krautrock, British electronica and industrial, American jazz and avant-garde, Tanzanian tribal song, and lots more, emerges with the sound of a sort of freeform global folk-funk, which sounds like an exciting place to put your ears. Sign up now.

The Lisps – The Vain, The Modest, and The Dead. Debut EP from Sammy Tunis and César Alvarez’s band (César also plays things and stuff with Corey Dargel if you’re wondering where you’ve seen his name mentioned on the blog before). Five mostly cute, indie-ish songs that at first appear catchily straightforward, but actually get stranger the more you listen to them, as they aren’t quite how you remember them, the playing just slightly not what you thought it was, and the arrangements disarmingly detailed and off-kilter. The EP’s lead track, ‘Pepper Spray’ is downloadable from the Lisps’ site, but the EP is well worth buying on top of this for the other tracks, which include a frantic live number ‘Chaos’ that includes the best pocket summary of chaos theory I know of – ‘That’s just the way snowflakes work / They’re never exactly the same / But they’re never anything but snowflakes’.