Friday, April 30, 2010

Underground Resistance - Journey of the Dragons (UR)

I love Underground Resistance, and Galaxy to Galaxy from 1993 is one of the most mindblowing releases (in my mind) that dance music has ever conjured up - 2 12" slabs of insane deep soulful electronics.

Somewhere in that doublepack is "Journey of the Dragons", a massive building swell of swirling emotions, clicking rimshots, pinned down with an insistent 808. Re-reading the label now, I find out that not only does it have Mad Mike's hands on it, but also features 'magic' Juan Atkins.

The writing on the label reads:

(dedicated to the memory of Chris Hani,
Bruce Lee, Brandon Lee & Yoshihiro Hattori.
May your journey through the stars be peaceful.

Deep, deep, deep shit.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ireland, the Housing Market, and the Future

I've been a bit of a keen watcher of the Irish housing market - well - ever since buying an Irish house. Sinking yourself face-deep into negative equity tends to focus your attention like that.

Without having a crystal ball, and setting aside the possibility of a black swan such as a sovereign default, breakup of or expulsion/exit from the Euro, or some sort of economic disaster driven by an IMF package to avoid one of the first two possibilities, here's some random thoughts on what I (as an untrained eye) see happening and coming in the Irish housing market:
  • Prices - Achieved prices at the lower end of the Dublin market are probably now about 55% of peak asking prices.

  • Activity - finally, yes. Some sales are starting to go through again at the levels prices have now reached - probably a combination of some stability in prices for the first time in 2 years, and a glut of first time buyers who (a) have been waiting, and (b) can get finance at these prices. The employment situation and continued pricing stability is the only thing that will keep that wheel slowly turning.

  • The commuter towns - asking prices boomed fastest, and achieved prices have probably collapsed hardest in the peripheral counties to Dublin. It's going to be a long road back for equity in the area surrounding the city.

  • The city and the country - rural areas physically removed from Dublin (i.e. once you get beyond commutersville) probably see price changes lagging Dublin timewise. As people move less frequently, less urgently, and in smaller numbers in the country, the fall in house prices has much further to go in the more sparsely populated parts of Ireland. The fall in equity and prices in Dublin will eventually drag the rest of the country into line, but it is going to take time. (If I had a big paid-for house in the country, and wanted to swap it for one in the city, now might not be a bad time to take advantage of this presumably temporary differential)

  • No tradeup market - a lot of people are in negative equity, so anyone who owns a house not in the cheaper part of the market (i.e. not a first-time-buyers house) is going to be waiting a long time for someone able to trade up from below.
So if I had to bet any money, what would it be on?

The most likely scenario to me is a distinct two-tier market. As the housing market hits bottom (and there is always a bottom, though you probably won't know where it was until we're long past it), it will likely fracture into two sections
  • Houses in good repair, solidly built, in good locations, together with the best of the apartments, will start to slowly stabilise or recover some value.

  • Houses that are brand new, poorly built, insanely situated, and the vast tracts of apartments in the middle of nowhere (that never made sense), may never recover value.
I'm not sure that fracture has occurred yet, or that it'll even be a distinct event as opposed to a subtle, drawn-out process - but I can't see any other logical conclusion as to what's in our future.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

U2 - "No Line On The Horizon"

U2 albums always go through a process with me - from nonplussed, to interested, to fascinated, to amazed. The last few have been easier to get in to, but there's always a twist.

Their latest, No Line on the Horizon, opens with the title track - an amalgam of everything U2 have been. I know a girl, whose like the sea. Walking-pace drums, rumbling bass, verses squeezed through musical passes with vocals hanging on thirds and sheets of distorted guitars that hark back to Achtung Baby, while the choruses open out into plains of more relaxed lyrics and a New Years Day/City Of Blinding Lights piano line. I watch her changing every day for me. A decent chunk of the album was worked on and/or recorded in Fez, Morocco, and you can hear the first evidence in the first track in the form of an Arabic stringed instrument. There's a lot of more subtle percussive stuff happening as well - lots of toms, tabla-type bits, and the kick has been cut right back, managing to keep the rhythm driving while quietly changing the form - clever and subtle. Every night I have the same dream - I'm hatching subplots, scheming some scheme, oh yeah...

The next track, is Magnificent. By far the most commercial track on the record, it's an absolute belting epic of classic U2, featuring the most monstrous guitar line on the album, 4-on-the-floor kick, a thunderously anchored bass playing root lines, and the most celebratory lyrics. I was born... I was born to be with you. Everything here is right - all the sounds are perfectly chosen, and the mix is a killer. Obviously the mixing on every U2 track is amazing, but this one is pretty produced, and they really, really nailed it. I was born, I was born to sing for you. The arrangement (something people often ignore) is also in a completely different class here. In the verses, the guitar riff is history and you're left with Bono's vocals exposed over the bassline. The first verse backs the vocals with real background guitar chords, verse two adds soaring Eno synths and some organ pieces over the top. Backing right off during the verses creates acres of space for the melody to sing, and it also means when the guitar riff comes back in the chorus, it hits like a ton of bricks. The vocals and the guitar back each other from start to finish, stepping out of each others way at the appropriate moments, while the whole track rises and falls in intensity with the verses and choruses. It's a masterpiece of arrangement - if you are looking for the Beautiful Day on this album, you can stop searching here. Only love, only love unites our hearts.

So far, so optimistic but "Moment of Surrender" takes a much gloomier turn, opening in a Thomas Brinkmann style scuffle of looped glitching and resolving into a sequence of strings that heralds the darkest track on the album, an agonising work revolving around getting the wrong side of addiction. I tied myself with wire, to let the horses run free. It's one of Clayton's great moments too, because while the bass work is unspectacular, it's perfectly judged, and (like the verses in Magnificent) without the bass, this song simply doesn't exist. We were barely conscious. Whether the song references Clayton's difficulties isn't clear, but someone writing knows what they are talking about. I've been in every black hole. Horses are always up for a run, but it's difficult to know whether can you get them back in the stable before you take them out. Life, from leaving the house, crossing the road, to playing the stock market, has something to do with judging your own comfort in the face of risk. It's an unremittingly bleak song: I was punching the numbers at the ATM machine - I could see in the reflection a face staring back at me.

This bleak darkness sets the stage for one of the great moments of the album.

Birdtweets, happy muted chimes, clean wake-up guitar arpeggios... Sunshine... Sunshine. Welcome to Unknown Caller. I was lost between the midnight and the dawning. There is a story being told here, and it's not just a series of single songs. Bono carries the pensive verses as he explains the depth of where we've just come from. In a place of no consequence, or company. And over and over again, Bono keeps finding the head of the nail (rusty or not)... I had driven to the scene of the accident, and I sat there - waiting for me... The verses having outlined the troubles of the past, the choruses talk of a hope for the future: Go - shout it out - rise up. These two songs together are the addiction analogy of the lift plunging down, where every so often you pass a floor where, if you are ready, you might be able to get out. Restart and - reboot yourself - you're free to go. The corner around these two songs is a gobsmacking illustration of the power of the album, and it's a stunning reminder of what you will forever lose with single-song download models. It proceeds into riotous ecstasy, bombastic organs and brass heralding the hope of tomorrow. Deep in the second song of this story in two parts, corners are being turned and chances are getting handed out. Shout for joy - if you get the chance. Jaw-dropping.

That done, we're into "I'll go crazy if I don't go crazy tonight", which is a journey into surviving as a couple dressed up as an ode to - well - an ode to going crazy tonight. Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot. There's much revisiting here of ground covered in "A man and a woman", and one understanding the other. It's not a hill it's a mountain, as you start out the climb. Musically it's more straight U2 in the vein of the last two albums, and you have to pinch yourself to remember that while this doesn't stand out on this album, most other bands would kill to have one track like this on their record. We're gonna make it all the way to the light.

Sixth is "Get on your boots" - the lead single from the album, the one that sounds least like the rest of the album, and the one that always made least sense to me. You free me from the dark dream. Heavy distorted bass riffing, drum machines, synth noises battering around, some semitone tuning and weird harmony vocals that certainly aren't straight out of Dalkey - and walls of distorted guitars. I don't wanna talk about wars between nations. Less commercial than much of the rest of the album to my mind, it's got one of the more odd vocal references I've ever heard from U2 on record, when towards the end, Bono starts intoning an unmistakeably Shaun Ryderesque "Yeah hey hey". Madchester referenced in a new U2 record? Perhaps not for the last time!

Next is Stand Up Comedy, a stunning full-blooded emotional call to arms. I gotta stand up - the wire is stretched in between our two towers (surely a Man On Wire reference?). Again maybe it's me, maybe it's just the dominant 7th, but every time I hear Bono yelping Come all ye people, I'm hearing Shaun Ryder again and the drugged out bawling of Reverend Black Grape. Which is weird because at the back end of the instrumental break, the "God is love and love is evolutions very best day" is set back and positively reeks of Stone Roses era Brown. NLOTH Manchester influence - in my head only, or on the album?

As we progress into "Fez - Being Born", it does feel like we're leaving the classic widescreen U2 behind as a half-speed sort of almost William Orbit-esque dub thing winds slowly along with Bono, a million miles away in fields of reverb intoning "let me in the sound". Then suddenly the track breaks, and it's into more classical U2 stylings. Atlantic sea cut glass... It's not a track that immediately grabs you (which probably means it'll be a stone cold classic in a few years) - but it's a pretty amazing mood. African sun at last...

White As Snow follows, and it's a slow, lyrical walk through heart-wrenching territory. My brother and I would drive for hours - like we had years instead of days. It's another strange track, which has been in some corners ascribed to the feelings of a soldier dying in Afghanistan following a roadside bomb. Only poppies laugh under the crescent moon... Loaded with suspensions and emotive harmony vocals (how come the Edge can sing so high?!), it's both absorbing and uncomfortably emotionally claustrophobic at the same time. Now the wolves are every passing stranger - every face we cannot know.

Breathe is the penultimate song, and it's a triumphant return to the joyous best of the sound of Pop. The verses are nearly scat/rapped in an uncontrollable torrent of ideas (Doc says you're fine, or dying, Please, Nine 0 nine, St John Divine, on the line, my pulse is fine, but I'm running down the road like loose electricity) - while the choruses are transcendent thanksgiving (Walk out into the street, sing your heart out, the people we meet, will not be drowned out, there's nothing you have that I need, I can breathe). If you didn't like old U2, you're not going to like this - and if you love old U2, you need to get yourself a copy of this album.

The eleventh track, Cedars of Lebanon, brings the tempo right down, and closes out the album in a contemplative and densely pensive atmosphere. I'm pretty sure it's been put out there that the lyrics on this album were written from the perspective of different people, and from the lyrics here, it's only possible to conclude that Bono is thinking of veteran Middle East columnist Robert Fisk. The evidence is everywhere - Yesterday I spent asleep, woke up in my clothes in a dirty heap, spent the night trying to make a deadline, squeezing complicated lives into a simple headline. See this brief interview with Fisk (he actually doesn't say he's retiring, despite the title). Child drinking dirty water from the river bank, soldier brings oranges he got out from a tank... Following the greatest studio reference I can remember (the worst of us are a long drawn out confession - the best of us are geniuses of compression), the song and the record close out with cryptic advise - Choose your enemies carefully 'cos they will define you, Make them interesting 'cos in some ways they will mind you, They're not there in the beginning but when your story ends, Gonna last with you longer than your friend.

An awesome album and (I suspect) a massive grower, I expect songs from this to be getting discovered by people long in to the future.

For my money and despite some incredible U2 records in the intervening period, No Line On The Horizon is possibly the best U2 record since Achtung Baby. Don't believe me?

Come back to me in a few years.