(A) Touch Sensitive to Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues

TIME for a catch-up.

For those who have forgotten in the year it has been away and anyone who may have stumbled across it via the Trans Africa blog which has superseded it during that time, welcome to the A-Z iPod Challenge.

The whole point sounds pretty simple, listen to the contents of my iPod in alphabetical order – from A Day In The Life to < (OK, it’s A-Z and beyond).

And, along the way, this blog reveals any number of tales which spring to mind on hearing those songs. Or any random ramblings which seem worth sharing.

There are rules.

  • My iPod decides the order – It’s in-built alphabetising system determines the running order. Some of the alphabetising is a bit weird, especially with definite and indefinite articles.
  • No skipping – To count, the song must register as having been played in my iTunes library, which means playing it until the end. Long silences at the end of songs test patience.
  • Tracks count, not songs – Multiple versions of the same song all have to be listened to. The most found so far is five – one cover and four of the original in various different guises. That’s five tracks to be listened to all the way through.
  • No revisionism – There’s some rubbish on there, no hiding away from the fact. But nobody put it on there but me (even if the reason is lost in the mists of time), so there’s nobody to blame. It has to be listened to before moving on.
  • Breaks are allowed – Let’s be honest, two years or more without any new music or being able to choose exactly what to listen to is not really an option. This is a challenge to be paused and picked up again from where it was left off.
  • New additions count – This remains an evolving collection, so when something is added and drops into the list before the current point, at some point there will be a catch-up session. Plan is to do this at the end of each letter by running through the last played details on iTunes and find out what is missing or out of sync.

And, having finished off the Cs, that last one is where we are, wrapping up the long list of ABC tracks which have been added amid the big musical catch-up since returning from Africa.

Initially, the plan was to continue the A-Z alongside the missives from the trip, but the technicalities (particularly the little playlists which sit at the bottom of each entry) and purely keeping track of it on the road and keeping up with it amid intermittent wi-fi meant that plan never survived until Morocco.

When this musical journey started, it was 11,235 songs long, it is now 12,107. The song which, in the last entry, was the 2,000th (Cry Baby Cry by The Beatles) is now the 2,049th – the 2,00th landmark now falls to Crawl by The Wedding Present.

The influx of new material comes from a list drawn-up while away, sprinkled with advice and obsessions from my brother-in-law (a sort of spirit guide for this while process), carrying us on a trip of 75 songs from (A) Touch Sensitive from Super Furry Animals (a band my brother-in-law rediscovered in my absence) to Cry Me A River Williamsburg Sleeve Tattoo Blues by Sun Kil Moon, an obsession all of mine over the past year.

Most entries came from Ryan Adams – now the biggest contributor to this whole idea – courtesy of me and my completist tendencies falling for his whole deluxe multi-CD Live At Carnegie Hall thing (although have so far resisted his Taylor Swift covers).

New versions (yep, occasionally multiple on the same purchase) of Heartbreaker classics Amy, Call Me On The Way Back Home and the truly wonderful Come Pick Me Up, plus an excellent cover of Bob Mould’s Black Sheers of Rain and more snippets from his bulging back catalogue – complete with his between-song ramblings which sometimes pushed the listening to the whole track rule to the limits.

There were more old favourites, notably The Decemberists, Jason Isbell and John Grant, all of them producing new albums to follow previous outings which were on heavy rotation for the whole journey around Africa, plus Sufjan Stevens, Mercury Rev, Wilco and New Order, all fairly regular points along the route.

Throw in new(ish) discoveries like Courtney Barnett, Waxahatchee and Hooton Tennis Club and a few that are still in the worth investigating but not totally sold on category – Beach House, Young Fathers, looking at you – and we are fully up to date.

We’ve learned our ABCs, just D-Z (and beyond) to go.

We might be a while.

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Contact On The World Love Jam to The Crane Wife 3

In the kingdom of the blind
It’s said the one-eyed man is king
And in the kingdom of the bland
It’s nine o’clock on ITV
Corgi Registered Friends – Half Man Half Biscuit

TRAVELLING souvenirs come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of tackiness.

Barring the odd bottle of ouzo or Metaxa brought back from Mediterranean beach holidays – which never taste quite the same after spending months or years in a suburban sideboard – not many of them have resurfaced at the back of a cupboard during a clean-out before moving out of a flat.

But one of the more memorable keepsakes of my London to New York overland trip popped up in just those circumstances (the others being a surprisingly large collection of shot glasses from a cruise liner and a selection of T-shirts providing a guide to our progress across the USA – and where we were running low on clean laundry).

Three-plus years past its sell-by date may be, but it was still tempting to use it while cooking, such were the memories it brought back and the impact it had on a succession of meals.

Certainly far more than we thought likely when it was thrown, almost as an afterthought, into a Latvian supermarket trolley.

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Multi-Purpose – The pepper which made any number of train meals palatable

And while most of what we brought that day has been forgotten – not all, some of it evokes some less than tasty memories – that magical bottle of pepper has gone down as one of the stars of the trip.

The magic pepper bottle fell into our hands in a scamper around a Riga supermarket on the lookout for food during our upcoming stint on the Trans-Siberian Express.

And… nope, absolutely no idea where this was going.

Written more than 10 months ago, those first few paragraphs were supposed to start the final entry in the A-Z Challenge before heading off on my travels around Africa but time sort of got away from me.

As tempting as it was, listening to loads of music and writing an article about it could never really take precedence over packing, jabs, the chance to buy shiny new things (which, in one case, had broken in the first couple of months) and the need to move out of my flat, unearthing the magical Latvian pepper in the process.

Think the intention, given the opening Half Man Half Biscuit quote and the mere fact a picture of the pepper was taken on my phone, was to recite a few tales of the meals we rustled up on the Trans-Siberian – essentially, anything we could make by just adding hot water to (lots of Smash, noodles and soup, often combined) and spray pepper all over.

It sort of worked, especially when washed down by a fair amount of vodka.

Thankfully, the food our revolving cook groups created during the past 10 months on the road was, mainly, better. Surprisingly so, given the limited budget to feed up to 22 people with three meals a day over an open fire in whatever the elements could throw at us at whichever remote bush camp we had pitched up in.

A lot of eggs, a lot of veg (leaving meat out altogether can be easier and cheaper when you have to do a veggie alternative anyway), a lot of potatoes (especially from our cook group, even for breakfast), a lot of stir fries (anything thrown in a wok and stirred about a bit), a lot of stews (anything thrown in a pot and stirred about a bit) and a fair amount of curries (anything thrown in a wok or a pot with some spices and stirred about a bit).

There was only one truly inedible meal – and that merely down to too much (way too much) spice – and a few that failed to deliver, mainly down to personal taste (one which had peanut sauce sticking my tongue to the roof of my mouth for much of the night).

Everything Everything
Everything Everything

But any complaints about to the food were mainly down to our shortcomings as cooks and, on the whole, my diet was much better than back home (even without the magic pepper) as it finally featured breakfast on a daily basis, regular ingestion of green, healthy stuff and much less snacking – courtesy of a self-imposed rule not to stockpile food on the truck.

Admittedly, my consumption of fizzy drinks crammed full of sugar rose – some achievement given how high it already was – but the outcome of all this is the need for a new wardrobe, particularly trousers, as all my clothes are now too big.

The jeans bought this week are four inches smaller than the ones which went round Africa and needed holding up well before the end and that flat clearout just before the off included throwing out any clothes which were deemed too small and never likely to be much use again.

D’oh!

One thing which has not shrunk – nor, until a mass catch-up of stuff missed over the last few months, grown – has been my iPod collection, which remains at 11,638 tracks.

And until today, the trek through those tracks from A-Z had not progressed any further after the decision to put it on hold while away, given the difficulties in keeping up with one blog while away, let alone a second subject.

Before the off, Public Enemy kicked off this latest section which also rattled through Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, a couple from Half Man Half Biscuit (Corgi Registered Friends and The Coroner’s Footnote) and rounded off with Cough Cough by Everything Everything – owners of possibly the poshest and most-inept moshpit in history.

The Decemberists, Cambridge. 03/10/07
The Decemberists

In the unrealistic hope of actually finishing the C tracks before departure, there was a catch-up on the then newly-installed ABC tracks which had joined the collection, mainly from Johnny Marr, more HMHB, Weezer and some Gaslight Anthem.

And then it stopped… until a couple of bus rides (still to replace the car scrapped before departing) got things up and running again through the 1900 mark with Cousins by Vampire Weekend, followed by the excellent Jason Isbell – whose latest is high on the list of catch-up albums – with Cover Me Up.

The Decemberists then took over. Totally. Their three-part The Crane Wife opus – based on an old Japanese folk tale and forming the backbone of the album of the same name – goes on for a fair amount of time in its own right.

Throw in the live version of all three parts and it will take you all the way from Cheltenham to Gloucester and beyond.

But after 40 weeks around Africa and with close to 10,000 tracks still to go, that’s not really very long.

And at least there will be no trying to remember what I was going on about.

photos by: &
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C’mon Kids to Cass and Henry

USEFUL things learned this weekend:

  • The Somerset town of Frome hosts a seemingly very popular agricultural and cheese show each year;
  • The fields which host the Frome show can seemingly only be entered through one single gateway, approached by single carriageways with no way for drivers not heading for the show – heaven forbid – to take a fast track round the waiting traffic;
  • If Google Maps gives directions which take you anywhere near Bath, ask for an alternative route;
  • Drivers in and around Bath rarely get out of second gear.

This was not the sort of valuable information that was the target for a trip down to the head office of Oasis Overland for their open day ahead of the overland Trans-Africa adventure – the first chance to explore one of their trucks (home for much of the next year), meet a few of my fellow travellers and chat about our preparations and what lies ahead. More of that in an upcoming post.

But all those lessons were learned on the 85-mile journey from Gloucester to the rural Somerset and Dorset border.

To be fair, avoiding anywhere near Bath is something that was already known, but given the additional, longer route meant heading down the southbound M5 car park, the decision was made to take the suggested best route which came with a target travel time of two hours five minutes.

End of a long journey - start of an even longer one
End of a long journey – start of an even longer one

Building in a little extra for those Bath problems and a breakfast stop for fuel – both for me and the car – that schedule should have had me rolling into the Oasis car park just about the start time at 11am.

Instead, having travelled around 25 miles in around three hours at one point, it was almost 1pm before the welcome Oasis sign finally hoved into view.

Thankfully, the return journey was much better – the three miles around the Frome show taking five minutes, as opposed to an hour – despite yet another cramp-inducing spell standing on the clutch and the brake negotiating my way around Bath.

But let’s look on the bright side – so many hours sat in my car provided the perfect chance to make major inroads into the C section of my iPod.

Inside a week and a single blog entry, we have rattled off almost a quarter of the C tracks and reached the point where – albeit with a decidedly smaller collection – this iPod challenge ground to a halt when first attempted a few years ago.

From the Boo Radleys’ call to arms to The Von Bondies (track number 1450), the Bs have headed off well into the distance as the miles were logged up via a trip down the west of North America (if not in the west of England).

Starting in the Pacific north west, Oregon’s The Decemberists provided two versions of The Calamity Song to send us over the border to Canada and two versions of Calgary – the original from Bon Iver and a cover by Juliana Richer Daily.

My couple of visits to Calgary have been synonymous with cold. Remember that scene in Cool Runnings when the Jamaican bobsleigh team recoil in shock and pile on all their clothes as they walk through the airport doors to be assailed by the extreme cold?

What they don’t show is the affect that cold – way, way below freezing – has on you, the first being that my nose all but froze itself shut. They also didn’t show passengers being forced to wait for their bags to be unloaded off the plane as the luggage compartment had to be defrosted before they could open it.

We headed back into Calgary from our base in Banff on our second ski trip to the Rockies to watch an ice hockey match, passing a lorry which proudly proclaimed it was refrigerated to -20°C. All a bit pointless when the temperature outside was around -45°C and enough to limit our excursions outside the next day to KFC for breakfast and the bar round the corner for pretty much all our other needs.

It was a fair bit warmer on my, to date, sole trip to California.

That was far too brief a visit – albeit more than enough to position a return visit high on the bucket list – but we had a decent stay in the Golden State musically speaking as John Murry and The Wedding Present (three times apiece), Gomez and Mazzy Star all popped up with songs named California, while Billy Bragg and Wilco teamed up for California Stars among others namechecking the state.

The US road trip was taken on by a variety of other artists – if not in subject matter, but a succession of bands and singers from around the 50 states.

There were three versions of The Breeders’ classic Cannonball (as excellently covered by Courtney Barnett in The AV Club’s always interesting Undercover series), while Kim Deal featured heavily twice more on Caribou by Pixies.

There were also two more appearances from Mark Kozelek, this time in the guise of Sun Kil Moon – both Carissa and Carry Me Ohio strengthening the view that my life was so much poorer without him in it for so long.

Thankfully, my life has had Sufjan Stevens in it for a while – he contributed Casimir S Pulaski Day – while REM (Camera and Can’t Get There From Here) and Ryan Adams (Call Me On Your Way Back Home) have been a big part of it for many a year.

Flying the flag for the Brits were The Clash (Career Opportunities and Card Cheat) and The Sundays with the still wonderful Can’t be Sure.

Which all made sitting in a car for that long just about bearable.

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