Monday, 31 December 2007

Shut Up 'N' Play Yer Guitar

Well, here we are then. The kids are in bed, and I'm sitting here on my ownsome attached to the good old internet, just waiting for the worldwide outbreak of New Year festivities to reach this particular locale. This (here come the excuses, yet again. I'm so cursedly predictable), was supposed to see the long-overdue death-rattle of "Andy's inaccurate guide to a microscopic slice of the America that the rest of America studiously avoids" (think sub-sub-sub-Bill Bryson, but with added guitars), but isn't. If, and it's one hell of a big "if", that's disappointed anyone, then all I can do is once again say "sorry". (My "Word Of The Year", I reckon). Two main reasons for this failure to make good on earlier promises:

1. (The crap excuse) I've managed to acquire a bizarre 4mm cut across the tip of one of my fingers, which is making typing marginally painful and slow (because of sore, I'm so soft these days. Can you believe I ever played contact sports in horrendous weather? Or did competitive Olympic-style weightlifting? Sheeshhhh!! )
2. (The almost reasonable excuse) The piece I was intending to write would probably have stretched to nearly 2,000 words, (partially because I over-qualify, digress, deviate, and over-use adjectives in a ludicrous manner, I confess), involving far more typing than I felt like doing (see "crap excuse" above), and requiring a plethora of carefully-researched (hey, stop laughing! I know it sounds funnier than the planned "gags", but I'm renowned/derided/avoided in social situations for my "anality" when it comes to fact-checking) links, so would have taken about 3 hours to churn out. And since I'm feeling relatively old, tired, and spectacularly useless tonight, that could only ever have ended in a mess of tangled verbiage and harsh recriminations.

You'll be relieved to hear I'm not going to replace the scheduled content with the hoary old staple "A Personal Review of 2007", because such a piece would probably constitute several severe breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights, and lead to an arrest warrant for contravening little-known local by-laws against inflicting turgidity on minors without sufficient proir display of prominent warnings and disclaimers (Local Government in Scotland Act 2003, part 3, "Power To Advance Well-Being").

All I'll say is this - to anyone who, like me, has had a pretty crap 2007, here's hoping that 2008 sees an improvement in all our fortunes. And, as our parents used to remind us with annoying regularity, there are plenty of folk out there worse off than ourselves.

As for the other obvious "hoary old staple", the list of "New Year's Resolutions", well, I've got two. Firstly, I'll try to remember the person I used to be, but have slowly been burying over the last few years, (and maybe exhume the body if it turns out not to be completely dead and gone. Or transplant some of the bits in a psychological-Frankenstein manner. Could be fun! ). Apart from that, I'll follow the advice of the title of this post more often.

Might try to be more pleasant, too.

Oh, now that makes three. Might be pushing it a bit.

Well, we'll see, eh?

Happy New Year from this wee corner of Fife.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree...

...but not the "Hannah Montana" version. Oh no. If christmas wishes came true, then this pop-pap fount of perfectly-betoothed, saccharine-and-aspartame-laden wholesomeness will suddenly be found to have disappeared into a hitherto-unknown crevasse directly under the main studio set. Along with the entire cast, (and all known DVD copies), of "High School Musical", naturally. Otherwise it would be a bit of a waste of a perfectly good christmas wish crevasse. And that would be a terrible thing. I mean, just think of the carbon footprint that generating the energy required for the sudden, violent upheaval and fissure in the surface of the earth's crust would involve...

But leaving pleasing fantasies aside for a while, I know that I promised the third, and final - for the moment, anyway - instalment of my highly-biased and horrendously-jaded American music-shop-travelogues. That should, all things being equally unequal as they are at this moment, appear next week. Today, however, I've succumbed to the cliched lure of the (almost inevitable) christmas song list. Well, it'll take less time both for me to type, and you to scan through in a futile search for a decent gag, so it's a win-win situation, right?

So, for the sake of posteriority, (yes, that was deliberate - a heavy-handed linguistic conglomeration of 'posterity' and 'buttocks'. I did say the gag search would be futile, now didn't I? ), here's my personal, all-time "Christmas Rock"* Top 5:

5. Greg Lake - "I Believe In Father Christmas"
Forget all the standing-on-a-posh-rug silliness with ELP, forget the fact that the song only ever, as the Val Doonican album put it, "Rocks - but gently", this is the guy who came up with the main "Daa-da-da-da-da-DAAAH" riff for King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man", and taught Robert Fripp (according to that unique guitar genius himself) the ancient (and desperately elusive - for me, anyway, over the years! ) art of chatting-up women. Plus it's got a dash of Prokofiev in it - oh, and certain, irony-free, dogmatic types have issues with the lyrics. Brilliant.

4. Jethro Tull - "Another Christmas Song"
Sentimental nostalgia would have had me picking the more obvious "Ring Out, Solstice Bells" from the "Songs From The Wood" album, (which is still an all-too-brief interlude of joy to hear when it crops up on shopping centres' christmas compilation 'muzak'), but I prefer this ("handclap"-free, thankfully, unlike "ROSB") bit of seasonal philosophising from the oft-maligned-by-'purists' (always be wary of the 'purists'! ) "Rock Island", instead. Still, if you don't agree, they've done a whole bleedin' album of christmas songs, so there's bound to be something there to please everyone (well, almost - some folk are just impossible when it comes to christmas ).

3. Slade - "Merry Xmas Everybody!!"
Slade rocked. In spite of the public image generated by multiple "Top Of The Pops" appearances, and much "hit parade" success, when Slade played live they were a damn fine rock band (or so I reckon thanks to the wonders of modern technology - I'm not quite old enough to have witnessed their 1970s rock awesomeness first-hand ). And as for anyone who doesn't get a small physical thrill when Noddy Holder screams (melodically) "It's Chriiiiiiiist-muss!!", well, you're dead inside, that's all I can say...

2. The Darkness - "Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)"
Fashion, trendiness and "cool" be damned! This shameless slice of christmas-themed rock has great twin-lead-guitar harmony twiddly bits, autobiographically poignant (and really quite clever) lyrics - with splendidly juvenile double entendres, a children's choir - and that's before we even begin to consider the excellent accompanying video - what more could anyone possibly want from a christmas rock song?? Perhaps only...

1. Spinal Tap - "Christmas With The Devil"
From the "Break Like The Wind" album, this is the perfect marriage of a portentous neo-classical keyboard intro, hilariously over-the-top cod-satanic lyrics, ("The elves are dressed in leather, and the angels are in chains"), and a seriously big ol' heavy rock guitar riff. Inevitably, there have been some poor, sadly afflicted, groups and individuals (such as NBC, would you believe? ) who have failed utterly to perceive that the Tap are, ummm, a 'spoof' metal band, and that their songs happen to be hilariously-accurate parodies of existing tracks and styles, but for a naughty heretical skeptic like meself, that's pretty much just the icing on the cake. Knowing that someone is proclaiming their "outrage" and demanding their right to be "offended" by something they've entirely missed the point of is always good for a giggle.

And there you have it. That's my list - what's yours?

Merry Solstice / Saturnalia / Yule / Noel / Christmas / Hanukkah / Extremely Belated Eid / indeterminate festival of freezing-yer-arse-off-&-having-the-sniffles of your own choosing!

*using this tendentious categorisation has the wonderful benefit of allowing me to clear my mind utterly of all bland festively-themed pop drivel (e.g. George Michael's "Last Christmas", whichever one of Simon Cowell's air-brushed gimps won "X-factor-Idol" almost-singing something or other, the annual musical nightmare release by Cliff Richard, etc,etc) at a single stroke.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Lost In America pt.2 - "Achy Breaky Heart"

Last week I spent a disproportionate volume of verbiage trashing the relative cultural desert that is Florence, Northern Kentucky (apart from the wonderful oasis that is Willis Music, of course!). Today I propose we embark on a little road trip - heading about 140 miles eastwards on the old "AA" highway. A brief stop-off at Maysville for a bite to eat, (just across the Ohio river from "Aberdeen", itself only a wee bit along Ohio Route 52 from "Manchester" - so no prizes for guessing who settled those areas), then the road gets more interesting, rising up into the foothills of the 'Kentucky Highlands', providing entirely juvenile, map-based entertainment possibilities, since most of the local hill names end in the word "knob" - "Potato Knob" being my personal favourite. (This, however, pales in comparison with what is surely Kentucky's finest puerile place name, "Knob Lick", situated on the fantastically-titled "Knob Lick Wisdom Road" - look it up if you don't believe me! - over in Metcalfe County, but I do digress a little..) I swear at one point we drove past a "Beaver Lick Creek" sign, but without a map reference to confirm the siting, my filthy mind could simply have its double-entendre locations badly muddled-up.

Anyway, eventually you'll arrive at Ashland, a town of some 22,000 people nestling against the river, and a place I've liked from the moment I first got there. You see, in many ways, Ashland is the "Anti-Florence", which is definitely a cause for celebration. For a start, it's built around the (imaginatively-named) Central Park, which has many fine trees & open grassy areas in its 47-acres, as well as lots of great kids' play equipment - I know, not such a compelling feature if you don't happen to possess any offspring, but for those of us that do, it's a huge plus, so who cares about what you non-breeders think, huh? . Then there's the fact that people in Ashland have been known actually to walk to work - an activity that's almost considered "un-American" in some States, and came as a pleasant surprise after my earlier, muscle-atrophying, vehicle-bound experience of suburban life further west.

The town also has age on its side. Many of the buildings are of "classic" American brick design, and a few of the side roads have retained their original brick paving, too, which adds a certain character. Contrary to some of the (modern) myths of Kentucky being a "Southern" State, Ashland was the regional centre for pro-Union sentiment/recruitment during the Civil War, (which might not commend it to some folk, I suppose - no accounting for taste! ), and voters there are currently a pretty fair reflection of the country, splitting roughly equally in the last two presidential elections.What else can I use to promote it? Well, great food at C.J. Maggie's, (my no.1 choice), local regional history at the Kentucky Highlands Museum, and a 1400-seater gig venue, the Paramount Arts Center slap in the middle of the place. You've also got the biggest and shiniest medical facilities very long way in any direction courtesy of King's Daughters Medical Center which has slowly spread out to occupy what seems to be most of the aforementioned "downtown" Ashland. Every time we've gone back there, more and more hospital-related buildings have been either taken-over, or built afresh on brownfield sites.

When you throw into the mix the nearby outdoor joys of Carter Caves and Greenbo Lake, and realise that you're only a scant two-and-a-half hours' drive away from the incredible white water rafting experience (and much more) that awaits in West Virginia's beautiful, (and very exciting!), New River Gorge, hey, what more could you possibly want?

Well, to be brutally honest, Ashland is the "Anti-Florence" in negative ways, too. Florence is a boomtown, its population growing fast, but unemployment remaining very low...whereas Ashland is, at best, stagnant. Historically economically-underpinned by petrochemicals (Ashland Oil), mining and steel milling (Armco) - and we all know what condition those industries are in - the only thing that has saved it from the kind of neglect and deterioration sadly visible in nearby Ohio towns like Ironton, Coal Grove (names being a bit of a giveaway), and South Point has been the expansion of the King's Daughters hospital- which has, in its turn, made its money primarily from conditions linked to the well-above-USA-average, higher-than 1 in 4 regional obesity rate. So, tri-county residents, show your patriotism, and stuff your faces to save your city! You know it makes sense!

The Paramount also has the dubious honour of having been the venue for the video shoot for Billy Ray Cyrus's (no link to this artist provided because of the threat to musical health and taste ) song, "Achy Breaky Heart". Which isn't good, but it was all a long time ago now, so maybe we should just try to move on, and forget about such past unpleasantnesses. And mullets. Oooooh, that was a baaad mullet...(shudder).

Right, fine, enough of that particular source of shame, on to a more positive musical theme - Chris's Guitar Shop (cue trumpet fanfare, timpani, etc,etc, massive crescendo then abrupt discordant ending as I realise I haven't said anything about them to merit the fanfare. Yet.).

This has been another of my personal havens from the delights of "going to the Mall" - "Just drop me off at the guitar shop, honey, and I'll catch up with you later, when you're finished doing...whatever it is you women do when confronted with a cornucopia of shoes, clothes & 'accessories' [not that I have a clue what the latter entails, truth be told]." must be one of the finest sentences a bloke can utter...

Chris's guitars has moved around a bit, and had its share of ups and downs (at one point it was being managed by a guy who wasn't competent to sign his own name on a document attesting to his own competence, but, well...let's not get into details), but it's always been a true pleasure to step through the door, and have a browse through the stock in search of something interesting with which to annoy anyone within earshot. The staff have been supremely tolerant of my tedious, medium-paced, (you didn't seriously expect me to be fast, did you ?! ), prog-jazz-rock noodlings over the years, especially when you consider that I've never purchased anything more substantial than a plectrum or two. Oh, I've wanted to buy all kinds of gear - last time we were over they had some highly lust-worthy mandolins, for instance, and a couple of really nice valve amps at cool prices, but alas, the budget has always been constrained by the fact that the plane tickets and car hire were already making the visa card creak, and going any more over the UK national average for personal debt wouldn't merely have been foolish, but akin to hurling myself off the (267 metre/876 feet-high) New River Gorge Bridge, with only a gentleman's fine cotton handkerchief for a parachute.

There are a couple of other guitar shops in the town, and a pawn shop for odd second-hand stuff (where, for the first time in my life, I saw a triple-neck's a bit sad to confess that to be my most exciting and memorable moment from a major family holiday, but I'm nothing if not honest...! ), but Chris's has always been the first port of call for me.

So, if you ever travel through south-eastern Ohio, north-western West Virginia, or perhaps north-eastern Kentucky, take the time to visit Ashland - and if you pop into Chris's Guitar Shop, you might even be lucky enough to catch head honcho & impressive jazz dude Chris Kitchen putting an instrument through its paces. At least you'll know that I won't be there - be grateful for small mercies!

Next Week on "Lost In America" - our miniseries concludes with a time-warp town in Indiana, and the "twisted" guitars of Leo Burrell...

p.s. One slightly useful thing I learned in Chris's Guitar Shop earlier this year, was that the current range of Roland 'Cube' bass amps aren't up to much. 45 minutes of button-pushing/parameter changing and bass-abuse revealed that the "Ampeg" setting was ok, but the rest were pretty dreadful, some to the point of being offensively unpleasant to listen to. Which is a shame, given that they're usefully portable little amps, and a lot of work has clearly gone into the digital technology...but to steal shamelessly from the peerlessWallace & Gromit - "It's the wrong amp simulations - and they've gone wrong!"

Monday, 10 December 2007

Lost In America

Over the last 8 years I've been fortunate enough to have visited the USA five times, (most recently experiencing the delights of transatlantic air travel with two kids, one of them a 6-month old bundle of irregularly-sleeping, painfully-teething, "why can't I crawl over there and grab that???" energy. Still, as long as you try to be seen to be doing something about your children's obvious [ie. highly vocal] dislike of being cooped-up in a somewhat cramped, occasionally too bouncy, recycled-atmosphered flying metallic tube, then no-one'll hate you too much. And anyway, you're almost certain never to see any of your fellow passengers again, so who cares? ), spending a total of about 4 months in parts of the country that most Americans would never consider visiting, let alone your genuine international tourists (we were always doing the "go see the extended family" thing, so don't count).

Anyway, what with my current domestic situation meaning I'll quite probably not be making that particular trip again, I thought I'd do a bit of free advertising for some of the great music shops that gave me some brief respite and refuge from the worst tedious banalities of the middle-American suburban lifestyle - not to mention the incredible personal stress suffered when staying with my Mother-in-Law (oops, looks like I did just mention it after all...nae mind, eh? ).

This week, I have to offer up many heartfelt thanks to the kind people at Willis Music in Florence, Northern Kentucky. So let's begin with a quick public information broadcast for anyone who might not be entirely sure of where, what, or indeed, why, Florence, KY is...

Sitting south of the Ohio river, about 15 miles from downtown Cincinnati, Florence is a magnificent example of modern America's commonly-appalling town planning (or lack thereof?). A low-rise, sprawling, concrete nightmare that could, in places, double as a film set for that original "how to mess up a nice location" city, Los Angeles. The far nicer, older, centre has become completely swamped by seemingly-random large-scale developments, at least half of which are the worryingly-low-price, get-what-you-pay-for, homogenised franchise-chain diners that Americans seem inordinately fond of, and whose graceless plastic signs-on-stilts jockey for position along the sides of every road in the place. And there are lots of roads, all of them seeming to bear hordes of SUV's, desperately heading somewhere else - anywhere else - rather than Florence...unless you're on Mall Road, that is, but that's pretty much self explanatory. Every time we've gone back, Florence has pushed further and further out into the surrounding area, erecting subdivisions ("housing estates" in the UK) with names like "Oakbrook", and "The Glens", suggesting a pleasing local natural environment - lots of fresh air and space for the kids, but tearing-down acres of woodland and replacing them with (for the most part), expensive, large, "family" (i.e. big double-garage and plenty of driveway to park on besides) houses in the process. Then people complain when they find snakes and raccoons in their back yards...

The only buildings that appear to be able to compete with the diners are the plethora of churches of every conceivable denomination (and a few more who are opposed to any "conceiving", whatever form it might take ). There is, I have been reliably informed, no shortage of money available for religious institutions in the area when it comes to purchasing sites, and erecting their almost entirely architecturally-uninspired "houses of the holy" - alongside, naturally, the inevitable car parks required to service the automotive needs of the righteous. Indeed, the Sunday rituals of worship in Florence occur in two distinct phases - firstly, the good folk drive forth to the chapel / temple / "Church of God" / "First Church of God" (they're just along the street from each other, which might be a touch confusing) / "Church of Christ" (slightly younger and 'hipper' than "God" ?) / "Christian Church" (as opposed to the, er, other sort) / etc,etc, then, after completing their devotions, return to their cars, and travel on to the aforementioned diners, where they proceed to revere their bellies.

Some have even been known, when esconsed in the inner sanctum of a "Red Lobster", to forget the lessons of their absolutistic (it's a real word, honest) Pastors, and stuff their faces with the abomination otherwise known as crabcakes. (I find "cherry-picking" creationists - "we only apply the rules we want to, and only when it suits us" - are tremendous fun - can you tell? )

Of course, I am being a tiny bit unfair to the area - I don't drive, which makes me a 'deviant freak weirdo' in the Mid-West (sorry guys, but yes, you are in the Mid-West. Eastern fringe, I'll grant you, but still...), and I have no truck with the kind of people who loudly proclaim their "moral authority" to tell other people how to live, while resolutely ignoring any/all evidence that might undermine that claim to some degree. (As I said, 'deviant freak weirdo' ). Quick last point - in terms of population, the city is officially 92.4% "white" (similar to where I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, interestingly), which is 17% above the US national average - but much of suburban Florence would be practically 100%, which I must confess I find a little too "Stepford" for my liking. Not that I'm implying anything, but who'd a thunk the county would have voted 3 to 1 in favour of Bush/Cheney in '04, huh ?

Right, enough of that. There are many wonderful things in Northern Kentucky, and one of them is most definitely Willis Music. Located in a medium-sized building at the end of a "strip mall" (sadly not as exciting as it sounds), the shop (part of a local 'mini-chain'), may appear distinctly unprepossessing at first glance for the serious "gear-head". For a start, they stock a wide range of orchestral instruments, and pianos, which is usually a bad sign - less room for the Marshall stacks, man! - but fear not! Walk past these to the rear of the shop and a wealth of delights will reveal themselves! Seriously, they have an excellent range, from beginners' guitars up to custom-shop $7,000 Les Pauls - which tend to be bought by lawyers and dentists, apparently. Not that there's anything wrong with that, since every time a musically-inept-but-considerably-wealthy customer snaps up one of those babies at full price, the shop gets a little more profit-margin-leeway with which they can offer the average punter a cool deal on their more modest, but practical, instrument. And I can personally attest to this, having bought a truly fine, plain mahogany Les Paul Junior Special (before they suspended production for a while, so, in other words, a really good one!) at half the US retail price. Well, they are stuck in an area where the vast majority of their customers are either nu-metal-angsty teenagers, or country-and-western twang merchants, so no-one wanted the perfect "heavy blues" guitar, until I came along, and took advantage of our (inflated) exchange rate.

Thanks to the excellent staff (who have a surprising number of prog rock fans in their midst), I've accumulated several hours' worth of vital relaxation in the company of assorted guitars (especially one Godin that had been there for 4 years last time I checked - same story as the Les Paul Junior. If I'd had the cash spare, it could have been mine for $300 [£147] !), basses, and amps - including some of the more recent Kustom models, which were a revelation - they sounded much better than a twice-the-price, all-valve, Fender equivalent, which I found a bit surprising. Of course, if I'd had my brain engaged, I could have taken a short trip up the road to Kustom's HQ at Hebron, KY, but that would have required actual conscious thought, which I'm finding myself less and less capable of as the years of childcare accumulate.

So, if you ever find yourself stuck in Florence, Northern Kentucky, do yourself a favour - head over to Willis Music, check out the gear, and indulge in a convivial chat about "Discipline"-era King Crimson, then stop off for a bite to eat at Bob Evans (or try the local Cincinnati speciality Skyline Chili - chili that doesn't have any, er, chilis in it. Tastes great, though!), before getting the hell out of the place.

There are enough roads to choose from, almost any one of 'em will do! Personally, I'd suggest the "Double-A" highway heading east towards Ashland...but I'll leave that for the next instalment.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Love On The Rocks (With No Ice)

No "funny" low-rent-music nostalgia this week, I'm afraid. I've been waiting for my domestic world to resolve itself one way or another, and now it has, although I still fail to properly understand the reasons why - which may, in fact, be one of them. So not exactly in a "ho-ho-ho" sort of mood right now. Staying positive, however, at least I feel that I'm under no obligation to communicate with my passive-aggressive-nightmare Mother-in-Law ever again. (Not that she was talking to me after our last visit to the USA, but's the principle of the thing.)

Anyway, there's a bit of an inevitable personal retreat inwards going-on, so apologies to anyone I haven't been in touch with as I should.

Once upon a time (ok, 8 years ago), I was a guy with a flat in Edinburgh (recently voted best place to live in the UK in a tremendously scientific , who had a permanent contract day job, played in two 'official' bands (plus numerous dep gigs), and was a splendidly mediocre competitive weightlifter (olympic style).

Now....not so much.

Nobody's fault but mine...