This Is The Life

This Is The Life - boat

Until recently Crotchety Man’s living room contained a TV, a video recorder and a conventional Teac Hi-Fi system consisting of an amplifier, a digital radio tuner, a CD player and a pair of speakers. The TV was a basic model but it had a good picture. The Hi-Fi system wasn’t that expensive but its KEF Q-Series loudspeakers meant that it lived up to its billing of ‘high fidelity’.

I listened to speakers by 5 or 6 different manufacturers when I bought the system some 12 or 13 years ago. Each pair had its own characteristic sound: brighter or warmer, fuller or brasher than the one before. Then, when the KEFs were switched in, something magic happened. It sounded as if there was nothing at all behind the silver fabric – no cones, no magnets, no wires, no baffles – nothing to impede the passage of the music. They were not loudspeakers, they were windows into a concert hall or studio. These were the ones for me.

I was very happy with the audio system but the whole set-up was generally lacking in features that might be considered essential in today’s Internet-connected, Wi-Fi capable, consumer electronics market. The TV measured 32 inches across the diagonal – not nearly big enough to impress visitors. The video recorder could only record one TV program at a time. And none of the boxes had any kind of network connection: no Ethernet, no Wi-Fi, no Bluetooth. As a result, the sound from the TV came only from the tiny, tinny speakers in the TV itself and there was no way to stream music from the computer to the Hi-Fi.

Then, about six months ago, when we switched on the video recorder and tried to add a TV programme to its schedule the whole screen went green and a message box popped up saying “Operation has stopped”. From the scrolling front panel display we deduced that the recorder was re-initialising; presumably, its internal computer processor had crashed and it was rebooting. We watched anxiously for a while but it recovered successfully. Having quickly established that it hadn’t lost any recordings and everything seemed to be working normally again we shrugged and forgot about it.

The green screen appeared again sporadically over the next few months. It was mildly annoying but we kinda got used to it. Eventually, though,  when we had finished spending money on Christmas presents and recovered from the hectic festive season the green screen became more irksome. After some online research we replaced the video recorder with a similar but more up-to-date model.

The new recorder can record two TV programmes at once and it has two other functions we had never had before: it can play Blue-Ray discs and it supports DLNA. I had to google ‘DLNA’ to see what it means. Apparently, it stands for Digital Living Network Alliance, which is an organisation that develops and promotes a set of interoperability guidelines for digital devices. The guidelines cover Plug and Play protocols that enable multi-media devices to connect to each other and stream digital audio-visual information over a suitable data network.

Crotchety Man’s nose twitched as a thought bubbled up to the surface of his conscious mind. This might mean I can stream music from our computer in the study to the video recorder in the living room via the Wi-Fi. Wouldn’t that be nice? A little more research turned up a dozen or so DLNA apps that could be installed on the computer. I chose one called Plex; it’s free, has good reviews and runs on our iMac. The Plex app looks nice and it does a good job. The trouble is the video recorder plays through the TV whose tiny speakers strip every last ounce of life out of the music leaving it empty and withered like the desiccated corpse of a Dracula victim. So much for DLNA.

The disappointment of the DLNA experiment prompted me to re-assess our listening requirements. What we really needed was Hi-Fi sound from the TV and video recorder. In principle we could connect the audio output from the TV to the existing Hi-Fi system. But that would require running wires right across the living room. It would also mean switching on the Hi-Fi amplifier every time we wanted to watch a TV program or a DVD and we would hear voices from the speakers on the left of the room while watching action on the TV screen to the right. Somehow this didn’t seem entirely satisfactory.

The usual way to improve the sound from your TV these days is to buy a soundbar, so we looked at what is available both online and in the shops. There are many different models ranging in price from about £50 to well over £500. I knew I would not be satisfied with anything whose sound quality fell below that of my beloved KEF Q-Series speakers and, unfortunately, that meant a high-end model. It seemed a bit odd to spend that sort of money on a soundbar for a TV that itself didn’t cost much more than that and, anyway, the best soundbars were too long to fit on our furniture.

This Is The Life - soundtouch 220Changing tack again we turned our thoughts to home cinema systems. Most products in that category are designed for 5.1 surround sound and we didn’t want that. We didn’t have space for loudspeakers at the back of the room and we weren’t hankering for cinematic sound effects. I could only find one home cinema system that met our requirements: the Bose SoundTouch 220. (There is a similar Bose system at two-and-a-half times the price but that was beyond our budget.)

I first came across Bose products eons ago at a Hi-Fi show where they had their 901 speakers on demo. Not only did the speakers sound amazing but there were also reprints of an academic (but readable) paper on the stand. The paper claimed that it is possible to make a ‘perfect’ loudspeaker – one that exactly reproduces the input signal – but that it sounds utterly unmusical. It was that discovery that led to the design of the Bose 901s with their eight rear-facing drivers and two forward-facing. I have admired Bose products ever since.

If the SoundTouch 220 sounded good enough it could replace the old Hi-Fi completely. It doesn’t have a radio tuner but it does have Internet radio built in. It doesn’t have a CD player, either, but the new video recorder can do that. The SoundTouch does have a Wi-Fi transceiver unit through which smartphones, tablets and computers can stream audio and video. It can even be expanded into a multi-room system with the addition of further Wi-Fi-enabled gadgets. Perhaps this was what we were looking for.

Crotchety Man booked a demonstration at one of the nearest Bose dealers, although ‘near’ isn’t quite the right word – it was an hour’s drive up the motorway. Still, it gave us a chance to visit the famous Meadowhall shopping centre and browse around the shops there. What greater incentive can a man give his missus than the promise of a day-long shopping trip? So a week ago we went to Sheffield, we listened distractedly to the salesman, we listened intently to the demo equipment and we came home with a big cardboard box containing a Bose home cinema system.

The new kit has fulfilled all its promises. Compared with the KEF speakers it delivers slightly more detail and a much more exciting overall sound. I worry that it will seem too exciting at times but, so far, I’m loving it. It certainly enhanced the DVD version of Star Trek Insurrection when we watched it the other day. The best thing about it, though, is that it streams music from the computer without a hitch even when Mrs Crotchety’s iPad struggles with its Wi-Fi connection.

This Is The Life - amy beach

The other day I was alone in the house. Firing up the SoundTouch app on my iPhone I put my iTunes music on shuffle, settled back on the sofa and thought, “This is the life”. Some people want to sit in the sun all day in exotic locations, some are compelled to seek the excitement that comes from climbing mountains or jumping out of planes, but I am content to sit at home with a steady stream of my favourite music flowing through wires and wireless networks, rippling through the flimsy air, to fall gently on the ears and, like nectar, soothe the weary soul.

So, to celebrate my next step on the road to audio Nirvana, I have chosen This Is The Life from the album of the same name by Amy MacDonald. It’s just a simple pop song – the sort of thing any singer/songwriter worthy of the name might write. But the track isn’t just Amy’s voice and guitar. There’s a rhythm section of bass and drums that really rock; there’s a nice bit of piano in the background and subtle sounds of synths; a violin adds a little textural roughness; and Amy’s voice is multi-tracked to provide vocal harmonies. It’s a good song and a wonderfully balanced production. In fact, it’s just the track to bring out the strengths and weaknesses of a new sound system.

This Is The Last Time

Keane released their first album, Hopes and Fears in 2004. It’s a collection of strangely captivating songs, more pop than rock. Superficially, there’s nothing much to lift them from the mediocrity of the mass music market and yet they soothe like an Indian head massage, seep through your skull and infiltrate the mind.

This is the Last Time - door

This is the Last Time is probably the best known track on the album. It sits deep in Crotchety Man’s mental vaults, a guilty pleasure hidden from public view. But, today, I’m going to open up the strongroom and make the song available for my friends to enjoy. Come. This way. Through these iron gates. Now down the stone steps and along the concrete corridor. The CCTV cameras are watching us as our steps echo off the bare walls. Wait a minute while I turn the keys, crank the shiny steel wheel and heave open the armour-plated door.


Young woman looking through car window

As the door swings ajar piano notes float through the crack and a soft voice carries a message of regret. The narrator is speaking to you for the last time. He has told too many lies, you have made too many demands. But that’s OK. It was a deal you both accepted willingly. Now, though, it’s time to move on.

This is the last time
That I will show my face
One last tender lie
And then I’m out of this place


The music swells with bass, drums and synthesisers. The sound fills the stark chamber, echoing off the walls. The melodies wash over us and around us as if we are floating in a sensory-deprivation tank. The walls dissolve, the floor melts away, we are suspended in an infinite space. While the singer wrestles with the conflicting emotions of regret and release we are at peace.

This is the Last Time - floating

It’s hard to explain the appeal of those early tracks but Crotchety Man isn’t the only Keane fan in the world. Hopes and Fears has sold over 2.7 million copies in the UK alone, four of its tracks made the UK top 20 and in 2005 it won Best British Album at the Brit Awards. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I open up the vault and wonder why it sounds so good.

Fine and Dandy

Fine and Dandy - Upton

Upton upon Severn

Back in June 1994 Crotchety Man and some friends bundled into a couple of cars and travelled down to the small West Country town of Upton-upon-Severn for the annual jazz festival. It was a warm and sunny day, perfect for a day out, and we were in good spirits.

I remember very little of the bands we saw that day. In the late afternoon we joined the throng in the main marquee and were entertained by two excellent ensembles: one with a double bass player called Phillipe Bass (which is what I would be called if I was French – honestly!) and a quite hilarious comedy outfit. But the gig that stands out in my memory was by a band called Fapy Lafertin and Le Jazz. None of us had heard of them before; we chose that one simply because the programme promised something special.

Fapy Lafertin is a Belgian guitarist. He plays gypsy jazz in the style of the great Django Reinhardt. In the late eighties he teamed up with two other guitarists, a violinist and a bass player to form Le Jazz. Together they toured extensively throughout England and recorded two CDs on which they tried to recreate the sound of the famous Quintette du Hot Club de France.

As they played for us on that sunny afternoon in Upton-upon-Severn Crotchety Man was transfixed. We were treated to a virtuoso performance worthy of Reinhardt and Grappelli themselves. Some of the tunes were familiar, others were new to us. The jazz standards could have sounded corny but, in this setting, they came over fresh and invigorating. It was sheer bliss.

Fine and Dandy - Swing GuitarsAs far as I remember no recordings of Fapy Lafertin or Le Jazz were available in 1994 but I came across a CD of theirs called Swing Guitars some two or three years later and snapped it up. It contains a total of sixteen tracks, including two featuring a vocalist by the name of Annabel Da Silva. The music on that CD has all the zing of the live session at the jazz festival but, in their attempt to reproduce the sound of the Quintette du Hot Club de France, it had been recorded using a single ribbon microphone of 1938 vintage. The result is a disc marred by a muddy recording sadly lacking in the detail that the performance deserved.

Fine and Dandy - album coverIn spite of the poor quality of that CD I was going to choose it as my Album of the Month for February 2016. Until, that is, I discovered that neither Swing Guitars nor the double album 94-96 The Recordings (available on iTunes) from the same period are on Spotify. So I explored Fapy’s solo album, Fleur de Lavande, and the later Fine and Dandy by the Fapy Lafertin Quintet and Tim Kliphouse. I am delighted to say that both of those capture the pzazz of the live jazz performance and are of a quality that does full justice to the artists.

I suppose gypsy jazz doesn’t appeal to everyone but if it’s ever on your radar I heartily recommend Fine and Dandy.

Le Jazz, Upton-upon-Severn, June 1994: YouTube video.

Red Right Hand

Red Right Hand - title

Crotchety Man is easily bored. Because of that he is always listening out for something different. Red Right Hand is deliciously different. The very first sound you hear is the Tang! of a tubular bell ringing out over a deep bass riff with punctuated organ chords and the soft swish of brushes sweeping taut snare drum skins. That’s an exceedingly rare combination in popular music and it conjures up a vivid mental picture.

Red Right Hand - face

The juju man is dancing slowly by an open fire shaking his rattle at the air and thrusting a hideous mask towards the heavens. His bare feet stomp across the dusty earth with a hypnotic rhythm. The fire crackles softly; smoke drifts before your eyes and perfumes your nostrils. Staring into scattered bones the half-god’s arms stretch up to the sky and a disembodied voice begins to chant.

The juju is strong. The spirits are telling your future: where you will go, what will happen to you.

Take a little walk …
Like a bird of doom  …
Where secrets lie …
You know you’re never coming back.

On a gathering storm comes a tall handsome man
In a dusty black coat with a red right hand.

Yes, you are going to meet a tall, dark stranger, and he is going to capture your heart.

The bass riff rolls on, the organ chords stab ominous sounds into your ears, and those brushes are still pattering along on that snare drum when the ground shudders to the boom of a kettle drum and the bell clangs loudly once more. It is the end of Act 1.

The juju man sways forward and the mesmerising voice picks up the story again.

He’ll wrap you in his arms, tell you that you’ve been a good boy.
He’ll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy.
He’ll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinking soul,
But there won’t be a single thing that you can do.
He’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a ghost, he’s a guru.

Boom! goes the kettle drum. Clang! goes the bell. And, as Act 2 fades out, the organ wraps you in a cotton wool tune, soothes away your terror and caresses your trembling soul. Out in the African bush the familiar rasp of cicadas accompanies the beat of the dance and in the distance a wild dog howls at the dying sun.

The bass rolls relentlessly on, the organ punches out chords again and the prophecies spill once more from the behind the magic mask. There are no specific predictions – no places, no people, no dates to be avoided. You are being swept along to an uncertain but inevitable doom.

You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his red right hand
.

Red Right Hand - juju dancers

Red Right Hand is a single taken from the 1994 album Let Love In by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It’s unusual in many ways. A cradle rocking rhythm carries utterly incongruous words of menace and foreboding. There’s almost no tune – what melody there is is confined to the instrumental breaks – but this is no dance track. The lead instrument is an electronic organ; there is no synthesiser listed in the album credits. At first Red Right Hand might sound like a rough backing track plus vocals but there are delightfully subtle effects in abundance: the main three-chord theme contains a jarring dissonance, for example, and there’s that fire-engine clang from the tubular bell. All in all it has a sublime aural texture that both soothes and excites for the whole of its 6 minutes and 11 seconds.

Curious Postscript

According to Wikipedia somewhere on the album the drummer, Thomas Wydler, plays a fish.

Tokyo

Tokyo - Alice

Sophie was a confident young woman now looking for friendship, romance, love. She had come to this restaurant a few times before. It had an Alice In Wonderland theme, which appealed to her sense of fun and Sophie always felt comfortable here. Tonight, though, as she walked past the sign saying “private function” and made her way down the steps to the basement, she was a little nervous.

She had come alone. She would be meeting others here but they would all be strangers. Sophie had never been to a speed dating event before. As she reached the last few steps she could see about a dozen people, some announcing their arrival at the organiser’s desk, others sipping complimentary drinks or furtively scanning the room assessing prospective partners and rivals.

The participants had been carefully selected and vetted by the dating company. They were all graduates, they were all under 40 and there were no obvious weirdos that Sophie could see. A single girl would be safe enough here; the men might be wimps or crushing bores but they wouldn’t be aggressive. Sophie gave her name at the desk and waited for the session to start.

Tokyo - Mirror

The first interview candidate reminded Sophie of Arnold Schwarzenegger – an impressive package of muscle and bone but not what you’d call handsome and with a hint of clumsiness in his movements. It turned out that his name was Jake and he was an athlete. He offered to let Sophie ask him questions first and she immediately put her pre-prepared plan into action.

“Imagine you are a city”, said Sophie. “It could be any city in the world: Paris, New York, Kuala Lumpur, whatever. Which one are you?”. It was a more interesting question than “Where are you from?”, it would show how her suitors would react to the unexpected and it might provide a deeper insight into the character of the guy across the table. It was the kind of question that might lead the conversation anywhere.

Almost without hesitation Jake replied,

I am Tokyo.

In her mind’s eye Sophie saw a modern city full of skyscrapers lit up at night proudly telling the world “I am here“. Jake was clearly no shrinking violet. Sophie raised an eyebrow and asked what else he might be.

I’m an army of wind turbines marching over your countryside.

Sophie imagined a battalion of Jakes in military fatigues tramping across England’s green hills, arms flailing an indecipherable semaphore message. She laughed helplessly at the thought. Jake was more puzzled than affronted and he accepted Sophie’s apology with an amused grin. The event was off to a promising start.

Tokyo - Skyline

The lyrics of Tokyo from Athlete‘s 2007 album Beyond the Neighbourhood are quite obscure. My little story about Sophie and Jake is just the Crotchety Man interpretation; it is far from authoritative. We can take it a bit further, though. Let’s suppose Sophie and Jake did go out together for a while. For Sophie, Jake was good company and a passionate lover but in the end he wasn’t the one for her. Jake, on the other hand, was smitten with Sophie and he knows he will never forget their embraces.

And no one around could tell us apart
‘Cause we were one mouth and one robot heart

Jake is remembering it all: that first meeting, his clumsy attempts to paint a picture of himself and the overwhelming emotion of falling in love.

An indie rock song provides the soundtrack to his thoughts. It has an urgent, pulsing beat forcing the memories to stream through his consciousness. Piano and synthesiser chords ebb and flow recalling the warmth of a fresh new friendship. A taut rhythm guitar echoes the thrill of a new romance and distorted lead guitar riffs scrape like sandpaper on sensitive skin as he remembers the pain of breaking up.

Tokyo is a fairly typical indie rock track, but a good one. Along with Hurricane from the same album it prompted Crotchety Man to buy the CD and it’s certainly worthy of my Track of the Week award.

Now, imagine you are a city. Which one are you?