Tuesday, 6 December 2011

A Whiter Shade Of Pale

Yesterday morning, while waiting for a bus home from the delights of family grocery shopping, I found myself standing beside a large poster promoting the seasonal rom-com-schmaltz-fest, "New Year's Eve". Immediately I was struck by two things - the relatively large number of 'featured' cast members, and the fact that only 2 of the 18 cheery, highly-expensive-dental-plan weel-kent faces on display were black. In New York. At the tail end of 2011...
Garry Marshall's New York - a touch light, perhaps?
Now, I'd like to point out that I'm a Mr. McSkinny-white-ass, living in a McWorryingly-obese-white-ass country, (until the latest census data appears in 2012, best estimate we have is that c.3-4% of the Scottish population are from "visible ethnic minorities"), but this comparative absence of non-white folk even struck me as being odd. I mean, this piece of lightweight sappy hokum is set in New York, supposedly one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world, right? Still, I thought, best check the statistics before rushing to make any judgements.

So I did.

Fortunately, the US Census Bureau have a very handy website, with all sorts of fascinating information available to those who thirst for demographic enlightenment.

For instance, did you know that in 2010, "Black" & "Asian" people made up 38.2% of the city's 8,175,133 residents?

That "White persons not Hispanic" were only 33.3% ?

And that between 2005 and 2009, 47.1% of the over-5s spoke a language other than English at home?

Ok, so the film isn't remotely representative, but they could, of course, use what might be termed the "Friends" defence - that this particular group of people occupy a small social niche where they just happen not to encounter/know/work with/etc many people from non-white ethnic groups. (I never said it was a good defence, but it has to be allowed as a possibility, however miniscule).

In this case, however, the film's own production notes (available online here) stress the diverse range of characters & locations within New York, which leaves us with the thorny question - is there some unspoken "difficulty" in the film industry with a portrayal that's a bit closer to the demographics?

Racial/ethnic invisibility in the media is a serious issue - why aren't we seeing more non-white faces on the screen (beyond the usual litany of "Guns, Drugs & Ho's" stereotypes)? Can "the audience" really have a problem with the idea that in this sort of syrupy, no-mental-effort-required pabulum, 4 (or, really pushing the boat out here, maybe even 5) of the cast could be black? (With a token Asian as "comedy sidekick", of course, otherwise it'd never sell...).

I'm the last person who'd argue that introducing box-ticking quotas ever solved anything - "Hey, Carla, for this next scene we're going to need the Native American, the Thai ladyboy and the half-Hungarian albino lesbian, ok..?" - but seriously, if this big-budget, big-star, mush-fest is anything to go by, perhaps it's time to introduce busing to Hollywood.

It can work.

Just a thought.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Little Black Heart

A bearded bloke wearing glasses & a cheap haircut walks into a music shop, plugs in a guitar, and plays really badly for about half an hour. When he's done embarrassing himself, he tidies up the cables, carefully wipes down the strings, says cheerfully,"Thanks, that was really great", to the shop assistant, and heads off, thoroughly pleased with the whole experience.

Alright, possibly not the finest joke you've heard in the last 20 seconds, but please, bear with me...I'll try to make it worth your while - not necessarily any more amusing, mind. Can't expect miracles on this budget.

So, there I was in Kenny's Music, (it was pretty obvious who the hirsute chap with the malfunctioning fingers was going to turn out to be, wasn't it?), sitting in front of a rather cute Blackheart "Little Giant" 5w/3w (switchable) amp head & 1x12" cabinet, clasping a good-quality-but-not-stupidly-expensive Godin LG HB guitar (ideal for doing an amp test with - twin humbuckers with a  5-position selector switch for single-coil tones, although the feel of the beast was slightly spoiled by its crappy tuning pegs), ready to inflict some terrible playing on the shop staff.

You see, quite apart from any technical deficiencies (many) I may possess, on the rare occasions I've played an electric guitar in the last few months, it's only been through a digital amp simulator. Now, these cunning little boxes are absolutely fantastic for indulging yourself in screaming-distortion-metal sessions at volume levels appropriate for maintaining sleeping children & convivial neighbours. What they are also very good at, however, is cheating, lying, and altogether deceiving us into believing our playing is faster - and more accurate - than is actually the case (A/D & D/A converters, my friends. Wonderful things, but oh, the fraudulences they do commit. That's my main excuse, anyway, and dammit, I'm sticking to it. Fortunately for me, being shred-tastically dexterous - or anywhere approaching it - is far from essential when checking-out an amp. I still ought to apologise to the staff, though).

"Little Giant" - big fun.  

The "Little Giant" isn't like that. Not at all. Oh, no. When it comes to replicating what your fingers are doing, it's direct and honest to the point of brutality - which is, of course, precisely what you'd hope for in an all-valve amplifier. Unlike a drunk, long-unseen & deeply-embittered cousin at a wedding, though, this truthfulness results in noises you'll want to listen to long past the point of forced sociability.

So what can it do? Well, it took all of about 15 seconds to set-up a reasonable impression of Deep Purple-era Ritchie Blackmore (one of my first guitar heroes, 30 years ago or so), then straight on to a fat, smooth jazz tone, the classic "just breaking up" blues sound, followed by some proper, old-fashioned, no-nonsense 'eavy rock. A very pleasing tonal palette, albeit one with a distinct "Marshall" tinge to it (nothing wrong with that in my book). And loud enough, even at only the 3w setting, to hurt my ears when I dialled the treble up a fair bit (but then, I'm a bit of a delicate flower when it comes to volume. If you've spent years getting used to multiple 100w stacks & double-bass-drum kits you'd probably not feel a thing. I SAID, "YOU'D PROBABLY NOT FEEL A THING", OK? I'LL GET BACK TO THE REVIEW NOW...YES...YOU GO & STAND BESIDE THAT RUNNING JET ENGINE FOR A WHILE, IT'LL BE NICE & RELAXING FOR YOU...GREAT.)

Add to that the previously-alluded-to excellent responsiveness to picking intensity, volume-and-tone-pot rolling-off, pickup selection, etc, plus the fact that the amp has been designed  to make third-party modifications incredibly easy, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this whole piece is really just one big letter to Santa. Ah - and did I mention that if you go & talk to them, Kenny's could most likely do you an amp-and-cabinet deal for something in the region of a tiny bit over £200 or thereabouts? (I believe that separately, it was Amp head £129, 1x12" £89 when I wrote this... Don't quote me).

Only I wouldn't want one of these for Christmas - thanks, though, (in the extremely unlikely event you were considering it). For what I do, the "Little Giant" could be a brilliant recording amp, but for playing live there's too little 'clean' headroom, it lacks a post-eq/power stage input for multi-fx/rack gear users, and there's no line out socket, so it can't be used as a super-valve-distortion/pre-amp (although I'm sure, with modification, that could be done. Just not straight out of the box). Oh, and nae reverb either - a wee touch of which can be nice, now & again.

But don't get me wrong - it's still a great piece of kit. Made in Korea, rather than China, so the valves are (much) nicer, and in ethical-consumer-terms should mean improved factory working conditions, environmental standards, etc, (although stuff like the Cort guitars controversy highlights just how much worse those conditions can be than what we judge to be acceptable in our own countries). Limited budgets, equipment choices, global trade...hmm. Difficult decisions all round.

Still, if anyone is desperate to buy me a new guitar amp, I'd be absolutely delighted if this particular item from the Blackheart product range showed up...

great value, but "handsome"..?

 ...it's a "Handsome Devil" 15w/7w, 1x12" combo - with separate "Master" & "Level" controls, 3-band eq plus "Presence"...and currently available to pre-order for only £199 (!)

I'm convinced that given a couple of months playing through one, I'd be...a great deal better than I am now. Huge improvements. For sure.

I'd better go now, I'm drooling too much. Still no reverb (or post-eq input) of course, but at that price, I'm complaining..?

"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening..."

p.s. A wee addition - I try to find (cheesily) appropriate song titles for my posts, so I reckon that since I'm nicking their words, it's only fair I link to the original artists concerned. So here are Norwegian pop-gods "a-ha", with a live performance of "Little Black Heart":

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

"I Am The Music Man"

Or perhaps, more accurately, "I am a music man. Of a sort. Domestic necessities permitting". But then this isn't about me at all...except it will be a bit, but only tangentially. Really it concerns that mighty sorcerer of low-end noises, Mr. Tony Levin (as per the pic on t'right)...well, strictly speaking, more precisely his Music Man bass & the sound(s) that he makes with it. You know what? This hasn't been a good opening at all, has it? Far too much floundering around. Probably for the best if I simply start again. Sorry. This time it'll work beautifully...maybe.

In the aeons since I last scribbled anything here, many vast, traumatic events have swept across the world. Since, however, there are a great many folk who are far more experienced, educated in such matters & have much more spare time than me, I'm going to do this instead...

(with many apologies to William Topaz McGonagall, and indeed anyone else who has ever engaged in poetical endeavours)

"Oh, 'twas several months previously in the year of two-thousand-and-eleven,
When I finally touched what, for some, might well be bass guitar heaven.
For in the musical instrument establishment known by the sign of a dog that is red,
There hung a fine bass with five strings, as used by Tony Levin (who can be recognised very easily by his moustache and bald head).

Nor was that all, for when to plug-in this deep-toned beast did I beg,
Directly underneath lay its ideal amplificatory partner, from Ampeg.
In less time than to brew a decent cup o' coffee it would take,
I had dialled-in "that sound", and oh! Far too many were the poor-quality Tony Levin impressions I did make.

And yet there came a fractious thought, a clich├ęd fly in music's ointment,
Could it be that with the range of other tones there grew a sense of disappointment?
My treacherous eye did glance awa', its goal the price-tag's brief perusal,
Therein it did uncover a further reason for refusal.
The sum required may well have been entirely reasonable,
Quality control, transportation, the costs of weather most unseasonable.

Alas! On repetitiousness's tempests blown I felt compelled, an old theme to return to,
For any off-the-peg creation, such an amount I would not pay - nay, not were I you.
Instead, your bawbees clutching, hie thee to a luthier o' uncommon skill,
Your heart's desire to build, for a couple o' grand,in the current economic climate I'm sure they will."

Sorry about that. I'll try to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Probably ought to make it clear at this point that I'm a huge fan of Tony Levin, both for his incredible musicianship, and the fact that he was enormously polite when answering inane questions from a certain daft Scottish bassist at a King Crimson/DGM event in London back in 1997 (or thereabouts).

(grainy pre-digital snapshot of this momentous occasion by Martin Lennon)

He was then, and still is, The Man.

Monday, 28 March 2011

A Woman's Work

With the imminent arrival of "Mother's Day", and another chance to cast our ballots in a Scottish parliamentary election coming up in a little over a month's time, I thought I could link these events in an extremely tenuous manner with a look at the current political gender balance here in Scotland.

(For those expecting music-related postings on what's ostensibly a music-related blog, and beginning to feel pangs of disgruntlement, don't worry - it's an interesting topic, I promise to be brief for a change, and there's a fun interactive graphical thing to play with further down. Honest, there really is. But don't scroll straight to it, there's some good stuff coming up...possibly)

First of all, the essential numbers - women make up 52% of the population (and almost exactly the same proportion of our 3.99m electorate), but in the last parliament only held 43 of the 129 seats (33.3% - sadly down from 39.5% in 2003). Which isn't likely to improve this time around...

For one thing, there are simply far fewer women than men standing for election - e.g. counting all the Glasgow constituency & regional list candidates from each party, there are 77 men compared with 37 women. Folk may be astonished to learn that such a progressive, forward-thinking party as the BNP has a male-only line-up on offer. I couldn't possibly comment. (Anyone who has the time & willpower to repeat this exercise for the whole of Scotland is very welcome to - the full list of would-be power-hungry egomaniacs can be found here.)

Why so few women candidates? Well, Labour's abandonment of "twinning" constituencies meant that local parties have been free of any gender selection criteria, and whereas back in the 1970s heyday of Winnie Ewing & Margo MacDonald the SNP may have been tagged "a woman's party" (a typically charming insult in ultra-macho Scottish politics, naturally) by Tam Dalyell & co, the current reality is that women make up less than a third of the party membership. (They do, to be fair, at least still have some prominent senior female figures - deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon [pictured], Fiona Hyslop, and Roseanna Cunningham spring immediately to mind. Conversely the departure of Wendy Alexander from politics this year has exposed a significant dearth, arguably of women & ability both, in the Scottish Labour hierarchy).

Of course, factors such as a candidate's rank on the regional list or the "safeness" of their constituency will also affect how many women are elected, but on those criteria it doesn't look promising for greater female representation come May 5th either.

Casting around for the faintest glimmer of a brighter side to all this, we can still say "we're not as bad as Westminster". In 2010 the UK House of Commons hit an all-time record high of... 143 female MPs. Out of 650 seats. Which is a massive 22%. And if we choose to look a little further afield, say, the world's second-largest 'democracy', perhaps? Well, the "land of the free & home of a large number of people who don't believe in scientific evidence" scores a frankly pathetic 16.78%.

In fact, since you've been exceptionally patient so far, here (all praise the mighty Google & their works) is the cool bar-chart toy I mentioned earlier:

(dragging the slider across shows changes over time, clicking on "explore data" lets you select different countries to highlight...ach, it's ridiculously clever.)

Just watch Kyrgyzstan go, eh? Ireland doesn't come out looking so good, mind...

It should always be the case, obviously, that we seek to be governed by the best possible representatives available - irrespective of gender, race, age, sexual preference, superstition of choice or even daft football obsession (for "Auld Firm" fans see "superstition of choice"). But the briefest of glances at the numpties who've filled some of the Holyrood seats thus far does beg the question - could a truly representative Scottish Parliament really be any worse?

Right, that's quite enough politics for now - back to the musical nonsense next time.

p.s. For any Scots considering not exercising their (extremely hard-won) right to vote in May for whatever reason, here's one I wrote earlier that should put you straight. Cheers.

Sources: (NB. Wikimpedimentia was not consulted in the creation of this blog post. If I wanted unreliable 'facts' & unsupportable conclusions I'd take the quick route & rely on my own memory).








Monday, 31 January 2011

Interstellar Overdrive

As the latest orgy of music technology pornography that is the NAMM* show fades slowly into a distant memory of smug postings/tweets/other annoyances from people who were in attendance to ogle and fondle its diverse splendours, and the next "International Day Of Kitsch Tat And Misery" looms hard on the horizon, perhaps this is the ideal moment to consider what you might proffer the bass player in your life as a token of your everlasting affection.

Well, given the plethora of the noisy little beasties that keep appearing on the market, what better than an overdrive/distortion pedal?

There are, (as an hour spent trawling Google & assorted music shop websites revealed), at least 46 different models to choose from that are designed specifically for bass - and that's a conservative estimate, given that I didn't count the various pre-amps which have a "drive" knob, purely "fuzz" pedals, or any multi-effects units, most of which contain several distortion options (usually stuck in amongst the digital amp simulators - which, it should go without saying, are the first thing you should turn off when using such units).

And if being spoilt for choice wasn't enough, they also come at prices to suit almost every budget - pre-Government spending/welfare cuts in the UK, that is. Once those really kick-in, the only affordable equipment for many people will be whatever they can obtain by employing their skills with a brick and Parkour. You can pay less than £30 for, say, a Behringer BOD400, all the way up to a wallet-jarring £240 for a Zvex "Woolly Mammoth". This might, however, even be topped by the Daring Audio "Laser Cannon" (pictured above), whose $349 US price tag could well translate into a retail price of £250+ once shipping, import duties and the inevitable inexplicable extra mark-up (because it's "not from round here"..?) have been taken into account.

At this point, we could (but in all probability won't) spare a grain of sympathy for guitarists, who, in their never-ending (and almost always pointless) quest for their absolute, ultimate, no-expense-spared-or-thought-applied "tone of utter perfection-ness", could easily hand over £330 for a "Tonebone Radial Plexitube" pedal. Much good that it'll do them, but still...a lot of money.

But (and you might have sensed this was where we were all headed), I really don't think you should buy any of these - assuming anyone out there could actually love a bass player enough to want to shell out hard cash on us in the first place..but that's a different issue.

No, the problem here, as I see it, is that all this huge array of distortion boxes demonstrates is an enormous failure of imagination. Maybe there are so damn many because the basic circuits are relatively simple to design. Or perhaps the companies look at bass players and say to themselves - "I'll bet they're all frustrated guitarists, and guitarists want distortion - so we'll give it to 'em...again and again and again and again...!".

A few more of them on the market and we may even be facing the "Distortion Pedal Event Horizon"**, where so much money is being spent on mediocre distortion pedals (as we search for the aforementioned "tone of utter perfection-ness"), they become the only type of pedal that it's economic to produce...eventually leading to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Or something like that. Worst case scenario. The asteroid'll probably have wiped us out by then anyway, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.

Seriously though, please don't purchase one. There are so many far more interesting "boxes o' noise" out there - how about the joyous hours of neighbour-tormenting an Electro-Harmonix POG2 ('polyphonic octave generator' - as demonstrated with fretless bass [and a few other effects] on this track here) could bring? And of course, in all probability they've already got several overdrive pedals kicking around - none of which they're satisfied with.

Best alternative? Give the bass-playing object of your desire a hug, a big smacky kiss, and possibly a small-yet-considerate gift voucher for their favourite music shop...?

Just a thought.

* NAMM = National Association of Music Merchants, in case anyone cared.

** Blatantly copied from the late, great Douglas Adams' idea of the "Shoe Event Horizon" in "The Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy".