Friday, January 21, 2011

After the deluge

Bus ride: 21 January, 2011

(Imagine this written in indecipherable shaky hand, on roads just reopening after the floods)

Tooth rattling ride; the blacktop roiling and bumping mercilessly at the whim of the black soil swimming underneath it.

Old wooden houses are adrift in seas of grass: paint peeling like old dead skin, windows to nothing. Dead dried muddy grass is whipped around fences and signposts at nonsensical heights; as though frozen in a moment of strong wind.

The coach’s panes don’t frame, so much as enlarge, the infinite sky. And with someone else behind the wheel, I am a child again: transfixed by the rows of crops opening up as we pass, like pages falling open from a spread-eagled book’s spine.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Swimmer's ear

The St George pool, oh cruel mistress, has turned on me. I have an outer ear infection, better known as "swimmer's ear". So until these drops from the doctor clear it up, no more swimming. I'm bussing out of the George tomorrow anyway, so that means no more arvos at the town pool - no more feral kids getting in my way, no more swallowing of sandflies, no more accidentally groping the bottoms of my childhood doctors.

Luckily that last one only happened once; as I neared the end of a backstroke lap I had my hand extended feeling for the wall. Instead it found a fleshy obstruction, the aforementioned buttocks of the medical practioner who delivered my sister, as she clambered out of the pool at exactly the worst possible moment. We used to call her "Doctor Deadly" due to her apparent pleasure in administering needles.

As ailments go, swimmer's ear is one of the few I've ever felt good telling people about. After all, it makes one sound so athletic; as opposed to, say, athlete's foot, which just makes one sound like a grot (is there a fungus among us?). Really, are there any medical conditions people happily brag about? I am reminded of Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping Up Appearances, who wanted her henpecked husband to tell people he had a nice upper class disease, like gout, which smacked of over-indulgence and therefore wealth. "Gout is an infliction acceptable in the very highest circles. It comes from an excess of good living. Gout is practically a pedigree."

Much as I can't hear anything properly right now, I'll miss the sounds of the pool while I'm marooned on dry land for a few days. Roaring lawnmowers, bicycle bells, the squeals of kids and their bombastic illicit cannonballs. An invisible mute button clapped on/off each time you break the surface. The dreamy near-silence of being submerged. There's something so cinematic about being underwater: the goggle-clad POV and slow-motion movement like those scenes in The Graduate, or imagining yourself on a Life Aquatic-type expedition spurred on by electronic muzak.

I'll miss that, and the little girls who'd race me to the end of each lap, and the specifically St George sight of men swimming in footy shorts, the ghosts of work polo shirts haunting their pasty bare trunks. And overhearing rascally kids' conversations like this one:

Boy 1: Is S your cousin?
Boy 2: I think so, why?
Boy 1: She's got the hots for you bad.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My beautiful dark twisted grape madness

Grape varieties that sound like stripper names:
  • Midnight Beauty
  • Black Fantasy
  • Red Flame
  • Crimson Seedless?
  • Globes??
For the gutterally-minded, there are plenty of opportunities for lowbrow humour in the vines. With sun-softened fruit the current scourge, it's not unusual to hear someone say something like "I don't care how big it is, if it's not hard I'm not putting it in my box." That's what she said.

Meanwhile, I puzzled for days over what the little seal on the Menindees box could mean. This (usually) dry, inland area is not generally known for its performing aquatic mammals, after all. Could it be a printer malfunction? An animal lover's prank? A secret code? Turns out it's the farm's "seal of quality". Daaaaaaaaaad!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Summer salt

And this time next week
When planes find their feet
We'll dive and somersault
In the brine, the summer salt
Tasting sun on our skins
Sweet split watermelon grins
Sand, sea, sky - each a line
Fish in paper, lemon, wine
New tanlines will cross backs
Roadtrip mixtapes in stacks
And the flip flop beat songs
Of what you call flip flops
...and I call thongs.

Grape expectations

Ever wondered how grapes get to you at the supermarket? They grow on vines, planted in rows, in blocks on farms of varying sizes. And people like me pick them. The first farm I worked on early this year was a lovely small family farm with just 54 rows of seedless white menindee grapes. The big farm I'm working on now has about a dozen blocks, and each of those blocks has over 100 rows. That's a lot of grapes. And they take a lot more pickers - I believe there were around 300 at the peak of the picking.

Pickers generally work in pairs, one person on each side of a row. You pack the bunches into boxes as you go, pushing a trolley that carries empty boxes and a set of scales so you can get the weight right. Each box should have at least 10 kilograms of grapes. Full boxes are set down under the vines, picked up by tractors staffed by "cart boys" who pack the boxes onto pallets. Then the boxes go back to the shed for quality checks and cold storage before trucks take them to the markets in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

Pickers are paid by the box, at a rate which fluctuates according to market price and the speed with which pickers are putting down boxes. Years ago, when people were picking hundreds of boxes a day, we'd get $1 per box... At the moment, nearing the end of the season with fruit scarce but still in demand from supermarkets, we're being paid up to $7 per box. As seasonal work goes, grape-picking is pretty sweet - you get a lot of shade from the vines, the fruit is at a good height so you're not doing anything back-breaking. But it can be frustratingly slow when the fruit isn't good, and you have to snip out rotten and soft berries.

I still remember vividly my first taste of grape picking, the summer I'd just finished high school. I remember a massive induction meeting in the vast, echoing shed. I remember getting lost trying to find the bay we were supposed to pick from, led astray by some nerdy boys who swore they knew where they were going. Just being back at the same farm now makes me feel 17 again; young, and uncertain. And poor.

Working at Table Grapes became a yearly summer routine throughout uni, and a reunion of sorts. In those days many of the pickers and all of the cart boys were students, so there was often almost a school dance atmosphere - a lot of weird flirtation in the vines, throwing of grapes, mucking around. The farm provided accomodation for pickers from out of town, dongas that soon came to feel like an extension of boarding school or college. The rest of the pickers were a motley crew. Retirees who'd pick for a couple of months to finance their caravanning between grandchildren for the rest of the year. Professional itinerants who followed the seasons and various fruits around the country. Slightly sketchy people looking for quick cash to get back on their feet. Lots of mullets and terrible tatts and quite a few immigrants. I can remember the Australian Federal Police turning up at the farm once or twice to check visas.

Nearly ten years later, and four or five since I last picked, the big farm is a different place. Under new management, it's now staffed with mostly foreign contractors. My first day there a couple weeks ago, I think my picking partner and I were the only white faces in our group. As well as the dongas, there is now a temporary "tent city" to house more pickers. Many are from India, and there are lots of Koreans who can extend their visa to Australia by doing work like this. Later we found some Dutch and French guys, a mob of Poms and even a couple of Irish who'd blagged their way into jobs in the shed. But it's a very different mood from the old days. On the farm, time is literally money - and these pickers need money much more urgently than the laissez faire uni students of old, who just needed to fund their textbook purchases and Sunday sessions at the RE.

Many other small things have changed in the last decade. Branding has obviously become more important. Once we'd pack only into plain black boxes, which would have lids put on them in the shed. Now boxes must have a plastic liner and often a sulphur dioxide pad on top of the fruit, to preserve it in storage. Then there are different lids to denote different types of fruit - from premium quality (the biggest berries, the cream of the crop) to lesser picks. I really liked the design of the small farm's premium branding, their "Black Knight" grapes... in comparison the magenta lids at the big farm just say "Australian grapes" in comic sans. COMIC SANS!! Dear god.

Now we're in the dregs of the season - the rows we're picking from have been picked once, twice, even three times before - we're packing into bunch bags. Bags have been around since I first started picking, but they've become very elaborate. I guess it's a sign of how the big supermarkets can dictate to farmers now. Once we would have just picked ten bags into a box and checked the overall weight. This week, filling an order for Aldi, we've had to weigh each bag individually to ensure it's exactly one kilo; close a zip on the bag; rip off the zipper tab so the customer can't open it when they make their purchase; and stick a label over each zip. Plus adding a sulphur pad and lid. Making money in this kind of work is all about systems and efficiency of movement. All these extra steps - folding boxes, extra packaging - complicate the picker's task.

Also, this is why you should always wash fruit from the supermarket before you eat it. Most fruit isn't handled between when it's picked and when you get it home - all the chemicals sprayed on it are still there, along with traces of anything grotty your picker has been touching.

A good picking partner can make all the difference to your days in the vines. In my first season I got off to a rough start with those nerds. They only wanted to talk about Lord Of The Rings and their terrible metal band, and kept giving me burned CDs to try to get me into Steve Vai and Led Zeppelin. Mercifully they were fired for picking too many rotten grapes and I spent the rest of the season with a procession of randoms from around the world. Like Tony, who wasn't quite an Italian stallion but rather the Persian version, and who finished every day singing "another day, another dollar" and stole bunches from my side of the vine (a cardinal grape sin)... And Jacob, the Slovenian philosopher and motorcycle enthusiast...

In later years I formed a solid partnership with Matty, a St George local who's now a teacher up north. Matty loved to listen to cricket on the radio as we worked, and would mimic high-achieving batsmen with a "raising of the snips" when he hit his ton of 100 boxes. Later still my friend Reboot picked with me - we were by then slightly too old to check out the cart boys, but did anyway, as she sang her reworked version of a terrible song about cowboys - "save a horse, ride a cart boy". And even later I worked with my sister when she finished school, and I wish we had recordings of our ridiculous conversations. More than once I swear we'd composed whole musicals before smoko.

Currently I work alongside an old hand with the snips. He's a high school teacher who'd be nearing 70 and has had an amazing life travelling the world. Bill's what we call a "gun picker", one of the fastest of the fast, and he prides himself on finding the quickest way to pick. He times himself on each box, charts his progress through the day, and is furious if he makes any less than $200 per day. Meanwhile I'm lagging behind, lost in music on my ipod, occasionally startled by a tractor bearing down on me or the guttural grunts of kangaroos fighting. Repetitive menial work soon takes on a routine; the hands work away while the mind wanders. I've been writing this post in my head for a week, but too exhausted each night to get it written down.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Whether you're high or low...

I'm way late on the Janelle Monae bandwagon but this song has been making grape picking bearable for the last few weeks. The video is even better. How good is it to see a hip hop video that's not all flesh and ostentatious bling? (I'm looking at you, Yeezy) And more importantly, where can I get some of these shoes?

I tip on alligators
And little rattlesnake-uhs

The "classy brass" and the ukelele fade-out are just gorgeous. And how great is Big Boi in this? He was always overshadowed by Andre 3000 in Outkast, but by all accounts his 2010 solo record Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty is the business. I love the chorus to his song "Shutterbug" (now party people in the club it's time to cut some rug / and throw the deuces in the sky just for the shutterbug / I'm double fistin and you're empty you can grab a cup) and it has a great video - including some muppets! But I think I prefer the song mashed up with the Black Keys:

Perhaps most of my pleasure in this comes from the phrase "cut a rug"... So reminiscent of the rum-sozzled discos they used to hold at the agricultural college my friends attended just out of school. I didn't turn eighteen until almost a year after we left school, so I spent a lot of my first year in Brisbane bussing out to Gatton and Forest Hill for weekends - where my mates were studying things like "agribusiness" and "animal studies", and where the publicans never bothered to check IDs.

They had the best parties out there - pigs on spits, bands on the backs of trucks, and the aforementioned Wednesday night discos where there were always random themes. And there, dressed as rednecks or Hawaiians or whatever, we'd bust out all our best moves. "The shopping trolley", "the sprinkler", even "the worm" for those with gymnastic leanings and no fear of writhing in the rum spilled on the dancefloor.

Oh my god, that reminds me. Around this same time I was, as I remain, laughably naive about drugs. And I remember someone telling me about how everyone on ecstasy does the same dance - this kind of jerky robot, all elbows and angles, a stylised mime of filling boxes and stacking them.

Years later, shortly after moving to Sydney, I was having drinks with some new friends and desperate to appear urbane. A number of beers in, I was tuning in and out of the conversation when they started talking about pills. Thinking of the box stacking dance, when they mentioned "shelving" I enthusiastically brought up my own experience in this area, to the surprise of the group. It was months before I realised what the process of shelving actually involves (kids - and Mum - please don't click that link). Suffice to say I have never done it, and I hoped fervently that conversation was forgotten...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bonne nuit!

Work/routine fatigue is setting in a little today... I'm working on some fun upcoming posts, but for tonight it's nighty-night, I'm afraid. Spoon's Transferance is an album I'd dismissed. If any other band had made it, it would be a revelation, but Spoon are so consistently awesome and their latest didn't seem as immediately magical as 2007's Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga... But spending some time with it is paying dividends. Amid their standard crafty guitar pop there are some glorious chilled moments - "Who Makes Your Money" is woozy and melancholy, "Goodnight Laura" is the best lullabye I can think of right now.
You can fall asleep by being very still
And let your breath slow down
And when you think your thoughts be sure that they are sweet ones
Don't you know, love, you're alright

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Things I Love Thursday: January 6

The Bureau of Meteorology have downgraded their predictions for flood levels in the George, so things are feeling less frantic around town. Channel Nine have sent out the big guns though - Bruce Page is here - so I hope they don't know something we don't! At any rate, the biggest thing I'm grateful for this week is that our place hasn't been threatened by the flood at all. That said, many people face terrible losses, not just here in St George but throughout the state. So our thoughts are with those returning home to face massive clean-up efforts, and those who are still stuck in evaucation centres waiting for the waters to reside.

Other highlights of this week include:

Baking biscotti... The insane patterns in the pool surface when it's raining... Wonderous words from across the seas, and discovering ee cummings... Vicarious glimpses of Milan from a talented photographer... Long phone chats with old chums... Afternoon naps on rare days off, and the crazy dreams they bring... Pesto made fresh with basil from the garden... And forget the boring official video for Kanye's "Monster" (to which I am ADDICTED) - clearly what's really needed to visually complement that song is muppets.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Guilty pleasures

One blog you should be reading every day, even if you’re not that into fashion or celebrity but you just like to laugh, is Go Fug Yourself. The Fug Girls are hilarious, and pepper their outfit critiques with heaps of old pop culture references to send you giggling down memory lane – Brenda Walsh and Alexis Carrington are their fashion, nay, life gurus after all.

Today they posted a fantastic interview with Mandi Line, the costume designer from Pretty Little Liars. PLL is a ridiculous teen soap that was one of last year’s off-ratings-season winners for ABC Family. Not sure when it’s going to get a run on Australian television, but it's second season has just started in the US and I have no hesitation in saying PLL is the new Gossip Girl. Fourth season return to form notwithstanding (Juliet snapping to Serena “no, you stupid bitch!” is surely one of the best moments in GG’s history), PLL’s first ten episodes trump much of Gossip Girl’s bloated melodrama.

PLL centres around four high school girls in the aftermath of the disappearance of their friend and queen bee Alison. The story picks up a year after they last saw Alison, as Aria (the tortured, artistic one) returns from a year in Iceland with her family. The other main characters are Hannah, the fat girl turned new queen bee; Spencer, the preppy OCD overachiever; and Emily, the sweet-natured jock. The four band back together when they start getting mysterious messages from “A” who knows all their deepest, darkest secrets.

It’s all very implausible, over-the-top and at times wildly inappropriate – the show oddly glorifies a downright illegal relationship between Aria and her teacher, not-as-innocent-as-she-seems Alison seems to have had flings with a number of much older dudes, and Spencer has a history of macking on her older sister’s adult boyfriends. But it’s all so camp and silly and fun, with twists you really don’t see coming. And to the show’s credit, it handles a lesbian storyline really gently and realistically. It’s probably the least sensationalised storyline, not to mention one of the few age-appropriate relationships!

The GFY interview with Line is interesting because on many of these glam young shows, the costumer is arguably as important as the scriptwriters. Costume has always been integral to how characters are presented, a kind of shorthand the viewer often picks up on subconsciously. And it's cool to hear Line talk about the decisions she makes to express characters' personalities, and the input the actors have. I like the point that stylists just have to make someone look good, whereas a costume designer has to consider background and context as well as character.
"Rachel Zoe is amazing, she’s great, but she gets what is in and what is right. She doesn’t have to do a background thing, like okay, Aria can’t be with the person she loves, her parents are going through this, and she’s at home reading… like, Aria isn’t going to always be glam. She’s going to be in sweats and the things that fit the situation, the tone."
Today we see incredibly high production values and attention to detail in styling shows like Gossip Girl, right through to period styling on shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. It would be fascinating to know more about how they source and age fabrics and props on these shows – all the Lucky Strike cigarette boxes on Mad Men, etc.

But there's a mercenary aspect to the rise of the costume department too. As the way people watch television changes – on demand and online rather than dictated to by the networks – traditional ratings systems and sources of revenue like advertising lose value. So programs are increasingly driven by product placement. Remember all the jarring references to Vitamin Water and Bing in Gossip Girl? On a slightly more subtle level, the clothing and accessories characters wear are more of the same. Whole blogs and websites are now dedicated to helping kids source the products to emulate their small screen idols.

Feeding the trend, labels and designers also recognise these shows as important outlets to tout their wares. Just as stylists have become celebrities in their own right (see Zoe, Rachel) names like Eric Daman, costumer for Gossip Girl, have also become well known. What’s less well known, that comes through in the Line interview, is how punishing the work is.
“Most costumers who do what I do, like, their feet, I have to have surgery in January. I wear braces on both feet. You don’t sit down. You walk the malls all day, and you’re fitting people Lucy’s height, and you’re on your knees, getting up, bending down. At the Warner Bros. office we have people from The Hangover, Chuck, Undercovers, and I’m not kidding, probably 75 percent of them have had surgeries on their feet, their elbows, shoulders, or are in braces.”

I got to thinking about depictions of privilege in teen television after another GFY-sponsored nostalgia binge. On a routine fugging of Kate Bosworth, the Fug Girls recalled a summer soap called Young Americans. I remember it starting when we were in high school, full of pretty young things, and we were excited at the possibility it would be “the new Dawson’s”. They actually went quite out-there with the storylines – the old accidental-incest-romance, the boy-falls-for-girl-in-drag-thinks-he’s-gay...

The ratings didn’t spark and the show was cancelled after eight eps, and it’s far from amazing quality, but if you wanted to it is possible to find all the episodes on YouTube. Don’t ask me how I know this, I’m just sayin. What’s crazy is where many those pretty young things from a terrible forgotten soap are now. It was Kate Bosworth’s breakthrough role; Ian Somerhalder is now on The Vampire Diaries; Kate Moennig went on to star in The L-Word (perhaps playing a teenage drag king was good practice for playing a butch lesbo?); Michelle Monaghan even shows up as a love interest.

What’s noticeable about a series like this from just a decade ago, as well as the much more relaxed approach to costuming, is how different the vibe is to something like Gossip Girl. In both a “poor” kid with a talent for writing is the audience’s peephole into a world of privilege, and the class struggles between rich and poor remain. But Young Americans glorifies the part-time jobs and resourcefulness of the townies in contrast to the blithe idleness of the rich boarding school kids. Whereas in GG any aberrance to the expensive lifestyle of the Upper East Siders is viewed as unnatural. Even new money is frowned upon, and those who attempt to crack the upper echelons with no more than talent and determination are rewarded with condescension and comeuppance. Consider how many times Jenny Humphrey and Vanessa Abrams have been humiliated for trying to rise above the class they’re born to (even if Vanessa is wildly irritating). Go back a few years, even just to The OC or One Tree Hill, and the rich kids are the other, the amoral characters, and they learn from the less privileged outsiders who are thrust into their world. But today the rich kids are still amoral, and yet they’re the ones we want to emulate.

Perhaps the rise of excess and escapism is some kind of reaction to the global financial crisis? Food for thought... Or just me trying to rationalise my addiction to trash TV? You know you love me. XOXO

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Under the weather

The bridge on Saturday

So you might have heard things are a little soggy here in St George. All the water from the flooding further north in Queensland is making its way down the river system, and the Balonne River is swelling. The river is expected to peak on the weekend at 14 metres or higher, which would apparently see 80% of the town affected (that could mean inundation of houses or just backyards). It's looking likely the water levels will exceed March 2010's "once in a century" flooding in town. Then, the river rose to 13.39m and spilled across the Terrace, the street which runs alongside the river. A number of homes were inundated along the Terrace.

Saturday January 1

Some people had only moved back into their flood-damaged homes a few of weeks ago. Now they're again building levee banks and sandbagging in an attempt to resist the floods. Three days ago, on Saturday, the river was just level with the bridge and creeping into the riverside parkland. It seemed funny to see playground equipment in puddles and picnic tables surrounded by water. Today levels reached 12m. You can't get within a coupl of blocks of the bridge for all the water - streets leading to both ends of the Terrace are closed off.

The Terrace at Barlee Street, today

There's an overload of information - constant updates on ABC Radio, news coverage on TV and updates from the Bureau of Meteorology online. Rumours are swirling and everyone has a different opinion on what will happen. The floods last year ended up peaking at a lower level than the dire predictions, so many people I've spoken to are sceptical that these floods will be any worse. Others are packing up their stuff and filling sandbags. No one really knows what will happen, and while we are fortunate to have time to prepare (unlike those up north) it's hard to know what to prepare for. Mum wants to move our piano to higher ground; Dad reckons it's a storm in a teacup.

The hospital was evacuated today, the nursing home will be evacuated in the morning. The state primary school has been sandbagged. Nearby Dirranbandi is expected to be isolated for a month. All day the sky stutters with choppers - both news crews and emergency services. The SES are running a ferry service for people who live on the other side of the river, whose access to their work and supplies from town have been cut off with the bridge. Almost all other routes into town are also cut - so we haven't seen many fresh vegies for a while. Meanwhile all the grapes that are being harvested at the moment look like sitting in storage here for some time. I've even heard a rumour that one grape farmer whose vines are in a lowset area has been sending out his pickers in a boat.

Humid days have built into electrical storms the last couple of nights, and there are rumours of big rain coming tomorrow night or Thursday. Last night the power was cut off and the entire town was in blackout until the early hours of morning - hence no posts yesterday! I was driving back into town around 8.30 as the streetlights, and every other light in town, suddenly clapped out. It was quite eerie. It's really something, though, to watch a storm roll in amidst pitch blackness - a blanket of cloud extinguishing the stars one by one.

But for now life goes on as usual - albeit with a lot more traffic along the Terrace as the locals go stickybeaking! Marauding kids swim in what was once the riverside ampitheatre; a family sit watching fishing lines where there was grass a few days ago. And we wait.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The new workout plan

I've been swimming laps since I got back to Australia in early December, one to two kilometres at a time, but since Christmas I've been doing a more structured 2km session. Ironically enough, it was put together by the woman who taught me to swim as a baby! Now it's being quietly passed around the ladies of the town like a prize recipe.
  • 200m freestyle, breathing every three arms (helps fitness)
  • 200m freestyle kick, no flippers (helps define legs)
  • 200m breastroke (help inter legs and upper arms)
  • 200m breastroke kick on board (helps inter legs)
  • 200m backstroke kick (works legs)
  • 200m freestyle kick with breastroke arms (helps "tuckshop arms" AKA bingo wings)
  • 200m freestyle pull, no kick, with pull buoy and paddles if you have them... one arm only for 5om then other arm for 50m, repeat. This is killer - I have to do 25m on each single arm then a lap of both arms together (works arms)
  • 200m fly kick with flippers, breastroke arms (works legs and arms)
  • 200m reverse fly kick with flippers (works lower tummy)
  • 200m warm down any stroke
It's long enough on paper to leave you feeling nice and smug for completing it; but it's actually quite easy, though you can feel it working your muscles. The 200m blocks make it slip away quickly.

The meditative joys of lap swimming are something I've written about before (one of my favourite posts). But it's quite a change from the ladies' ocean pool in Coogee to the St George town pool. Replace salt water with electric blue chlorine. Replace submarine fish and crabs with swarms of sandflies above the surface, zooming at your eyes and nostrils and leaving itchy bites on your skin. And replace nannas baring their boobs with ragamuffin children getting in your way. Lap swimming in the George is less a spiritual commune with nature, than a lateral thinking exercise and an obstacle course.

Still, it's an oddly beautiful prospect - the chlorinated water almost fluorescently bright in the afternoon sun, black lane lines running up and down like seven spines. I'd love to take some photos there, but I think that kind of behaviour can get you arrested these days.

There's a nice symmetry to being back in that pool, where I learned to swim and hammered out countless kilometres in primary school squad training. It's had a facelift since then - some new tiles, lifeguard towers, a lot more safety signs. They put in fancy new diving blocks for the swim club, but unfortunately then realised that due to the unconventional design of the pool - two shallow ends deepening to six foot in the middle - the end was too shallow for people to safely dive from the blocks. So now there's a permanent row of fuck-off orange witches hats perched atop the blocks.

After a day of working in the sun, slipping into the pool seems more like a luxury than a chore. And the daily sessions seem to be working - today I swam hundreds of metres of freestyle without stopping. My usual panting breaks at each lap end were replaced with rusty but triumphant tumble-turns. Touching the wall at the end nearly felt as good as the old club days. All that was missing was someone's mum leaning over the end with a stopwatch, cheering you to the finish, and then a little paper bag of mixed lollies to eat on the way home.

For anyone contemplating that new-year-bikini-body bollocks, this song is a good start for keeping things in perspective.

Kanye West - The New Workout Plan
That's right, put in work
Move your ass, go berserk
Eat your salad, no dessert

[Girl] Thanks to Kanye's workout plan
I'm the envy of all my friends
See I pulled me a baller man
And I don't gotta work at the mall again

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Best albums of 2010 - Part 1

As promised! I've been surprised to see some bloggers saying 2010 was a weak year for music - I know I fell in love with a whole bunch of albums. I'm splitting my top ten list into two halves since it turned out a little longwinded. Where a song title is linked you can follow it through to a YouTube video if you want to listen! "Tighten Up" is definitely worth a look...

1. The Black Keys: Brothers

The cover kinda says it all – you don’t need to search for hidden meaning here. Which isn’t to say there aren’t delicious layers to discover in Brothers. From a whistled riff (“Tighten Up”) to a drum intro that could be another sequel to Gary Glitter’s “Rock n Roll” (“Howlin For You”), it’s hard to believe these are the same two guys that made Thickfreakness in 2003.

After producing their previous effort Attack & Release, Dangermouse pops up again at the helm of “Tighten Up”. And tighten up the Keys have, from their joyous garage blues mess of years gone by. They dabble in a range of genres here - blues, RnB, soul, rock, even a T-Rex style glam stomp. But their sixth album marks a return to their roots, and somehow for all their experimentation in different genres the Black Keys have made a record that only they could make.

There’s a hand-made, smoke-stained, bar-scuffed feel to the production, driven by Patrick Carney’s furious drumming. It sounds vintage (particularly when Dan Auerbach tests out his falsetto on sixties-style pop tunes like “The Only One”, or cover “Never Gonna Give You Up"), and completely fresh all at once. Brothers is a dirty, sweaty, sexy rock record with a wiggle in its rump and grime under its fingernails. God, I can’t wait to see these guys live again.

2. Beach House: Teen Dream

Another two-piece, this time from Baltimore, in my number two spot. Victoria Legrand’s voice is so luxurious I want to nestle into it like a bed; but it’s taut with strength as well. Just the name of this album is so evocative, right? Maybe that’s why to me, Beach House’s songs sound sunbleached and softened – like a memory of a summer holiday, viewed through a window pane caked with dried sea salt spray.

They’ve always nailed dreamy harmonies and gauzy production, but with Teen Dream Beach House have made their most assured, accessible record yet. I love the woozy, lazy guitar riffs lagging just a little, as though everyone’s feeling slightly sluggish after a long lunch. I love the whimsy and optimism of the refrain coming home / any day now in “Used To Be”. And I love when the piano changes up toward the end of “Real Love”. One for lazy, dreamy Sunday afternoons.

3. Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

I’ve already written so much about The Suburbs, I won’t bore you again!

4. Menomena: Mines

Menomena sound like storms building, especially the wind-rattled percussion and rumbling piano at the start of my favourite track, “Tithe”. This is an album I’ve loved for months – it will always remind me of getting lost in the Hasidic back blocks of Williamsburg, feeling like an alien stumbling through another world – but I knew nothing about the band until I went to write this.

Turns out this trio from Portland OR broke out years ago when they developed their own software, called DEELER, to make songs from recorded loops. Do check out this review, which goes into detail about how the looping software works – it’s quite fascinating and gives a whole new insight into how Mines was probably written and recorded. The architectural construction of these songs, the spatial relationships between instruments and layers of sound, seem made for engineers. But for we mere mortals there’s still loads to love. “TAOS” is another cracking tune, playing out a tipsy flirtation and the vagaries of drunken lust:

I’m not the most cocksure guy
But I get more bold with every smile...
Underneath this fleshy robe
Lies a beast with no control
I fed it once look how it's grown
Oh my god, bring me peace
From this wolf covered in fleece
I can't shake loose from its teeth

5. Dan Kelly: Dan Kelly's Dream

There’s so much going on in Dan Kelly’s Dream – lyrically and sonically. He’s a maximalist perfectionist in bringing his dreams to life. Sometimes I worry that Dan’s quick wit with a pop culture quip is holding him back from the timeless tunes I know he’s capable of writing... though I daresay Uncle Paul’s shadow is one he’s in no rush to step into. But come on. I love every track of this. The girly harmonies and tropical touches of 2006’s Drowning In The Fountain Of Youth endure, and there’s plenty of silliness but some genuine poignancy as well. “Gap Year Blues” is a sweet schoolyard love song, and "Bindi Irwin Apocalypse Jam" is suitably insane.

As ever, Dan shoehorns whole novels worth of narrative into single songs – an innocent discovers a new high in “Hold On, I’m Coming On”; a comely nun runs away with a lovestruck janitor in “The Catholic Leader”. The wordplay is joyously clever, and in many songs it feels like you can pinpoint the germ of a rhyme that infected Dan’s imagination.
She was framed in the window in a papal windcheater
His knees were knockin like a Mormon team leader
Under the moon the handyman freed her
Now read all about it in The Catholic Leader
Like another of my top ten (which will appear later), this is an album that I didn’t really want to like because of the arrogance I sometimes perceive in the artist. But like that bad boy you crushed on as a teenager, he wins you over with flashes of vulnerability; and ultimately you’re left dazzled by just how smart this kid is.