Herzog to Hold Your Head

Day three of the blog post a day in May and we are back to the A-Z iPod Challenge. It is concentrating the mind and a good excuse for listening to a lot of music.

THE current bout of activity apart, it has been pretty easy for the journey through my iPod to get derailed.

There’s been any number of distractions and, let’s be honest, excuses to keep from writing.

Lack of time, something good on the TV (doesn’t have to be that good a lot of the time), apathy, total lack of inspiration, the need for a break from the blog, spending too much time on Twitter or You Tube, drawing up or amending to-do lists rather than actually doing anything on them… they’ve all been used as reasons to delay writing. Even if it is only justifying it to myself.

But there has been one reason why the A-Z has stalled a bit over the last year or so – the lack of time spent listening to the tracks in order.

Part of that is down to listening to other things but a large reason is the loss of my daily opportunity to plug in the headphones for an hour and disappear into the music.

For a couple of years, my commute to work was an hour by foot and bus – the perfect excuse to plug the earphones in and work my way from A to Z.

Not always, there were the bus rides when it was far more entertaining to eavesdrop on the loud, endless phone calls of a fairly regular fellow passenger who combined a stream of unique pearls of wisdom with doing her make-up, eating breakfast (without ending the conversation) and working on her hair – often cloaking anyone within five rows in a cloud of hairspray.

Took to live tweeting her conversations for a while just before she stopped being a regular passenger.

And then the bus stopped being in my daily routine. The hour commute was replaced by a couple of hundred yards and it was not even worth getting the iPod out.

The journey slowed down and the search was on for another regular opportunity to plug in the earphones, disappear into music and work my way through the A-Z (any excuse will do, but listening to music at home tends to be new stuff or albums rather than anything alphabetical).

The gym provided the perfect answer.

It’s even nearer than the office (you can see it from my flat window) so there really is no excuse not to go – especially with the peer pressure of others in the office going providing an extra incentive to get straight out the door again, rather than sink into the sofa or in front of the laptop after work.

And after fairly steady progress in conjunction with the ongoing weight loss, which finally has the seven stone barrier tantalisingly close after a frustrating spell of slow progress following a colleague finally squeezing an article on it out of me for the website, the gym programme started to proceed at a decent pace.

My Gloucestershire Live weight loss article

Right up until the moment my calf decided not to play ball anymore.

The step up in intensity was partly down to getting bored with the same routine, partly due to the need to get fit for South America and partly the need for a challenge.

And having seen people take on Couch to 5K, decided that was a pretty good way to go, despite not having run since playing rugby and five-a-side and even then there was the advantage of scrums, lineouts or rolling subs to prevent constant running.

Haven’t run any distance since school and not that much then – an overnight, 26-odd cross-country challenge was more walking, not sure what convinced our team the final, long hill was the ideal place for our longest bout of running.

It being winter and the gym that convenient, the plan was to complete the programme on a treadmill and head outside – maybe even Parkruns – when the spring weather kicked in.

And it was going perfectly. The periods of running were getting longer, the pace was going up and it became difficult to stick to the walking bits as the urge to run grew. Even got proper running shoes and began to look forward to the next sessions.

But with the first long run with no bits of walking interspersed a couple of days away, it all went a bit wrong.

Two minutes into the final session before that, it became clear something was not right in my right calf. And while trying to decide if carrying on was a good idea, the shooting pain gave me the answer.

Good job my flat is not far away, given the hobble home which continued for the next two or three days.

But 10 days or so of complete rest and keeping it raised as much as possible (lying down basically, pretty good at that) seemed to have sorted it. Tested it out running for a couple of minutes and all seemed fine, so backed up a couple of sessions and got back to the treadmill.

Slightly wary and with no intention of pushing it despite good initial signs, was within 30 seconds of the end of the run when it became clear that it had been pushed a bit too far.

Not as painful but this time it had pretty much seized. The hobble home was even slower.

And have not run since, bar a couple of times over the road which brought a pretty quick reminder not to repeat it. Was walking on the treadmill to keep up some level of fitness, added in some new stretches and paid a couple of extra visits to the osteopath.

Who has banned me from treadmills while it heals. Never mind the stepper which was part of the plan for preparing for the Inca Trail’s uphill sections.

His alternative was sessions on the bike – calf is fine, not so sure about a few other muscles but it is definitely keeping up the fitness levels.

The soundtrack to all this has run from Five Eight to The Flaming Lips.

Back-to-back Grandaddy tracks – on the iPod and the wonderful, still unique The Sophtware Slump – took in large chunks of one session on the treadmill with He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot (one of the tracks which has given its name to a blog post) and Hewlett’s Daughter.

Hey Jack Kerouac by 10,000 Maniacs has supplied not one but two blog post titles from out on the road while there were appearances from Pixies (Hey), Outkast (Hey Ya), The Fall (a live Hit The North), Ian Dury and the Blockheads (you can work that one out) and History Eraser, one of the tracks which started a brief obsession with Courtney Barnett.

And there was High and Dry, the song which was a constant on the jukebox in a pub just over the water from the gym and above all others confirmed Radiohead were so much more than ‘that Creep band’.

All those years, all those travels and my life has seemingly made it a few hundred yards.

Need to travel again.


Best of 2018

JANUARY is far closer than intended and the days are running out before the ice rink and the (still) disturbing green goblin vanish from outside my flat.

So time for another couple of traditions for this time of year – this blog’s end-of-year best album post and the excuses for not posting it earlier.

The New Year’s Day state of the nation post will complete the trinity of Travel Marmot traditions (hopefully without being delayed far longer into 2019 than was intended, one annual favourite that needs avoiding).

The excuse for tardiness was pretty simple and frustrating – especially as most of this best of 2018 list and the appropriate links were sorted a couple of weeks ago. The normal download bonanza after scouring various end of year lists was delayed by a laptop constantly grinding to a standstill, so a few of the late entries may yet move further up the list. Or vanish altogether.

So what do we make of 2018? Seen a couple of reviews claim it had been a year packed full of great albums, but not sure about that.

There has been a lot of good albums, just not sure there has been too many approaching great status. How many will still be on regular rotation in a year’s time or longer?

And there is not one standout – for the first time since doing this on Travel Marmot, there’s not one clear winner (the 2016 list did not pick an album of year, but American Band by Drive-By Truckers emerged as the unrivalled number one.

So it’s a top two. Neither of them reinvent the wheel – one essentially a jingly-jangly indie guitar offering, the other best classified as punk – but both do them with a lightness of touch and reliance on bloody good songs. And there’s not much wrong with that.

Albums of the Year

Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever – Hope Downs

The Melbourne five-piece rely on a pretty simple template – solid, if fairly unwavering, rhythm section over which three guitarists/vocalists weave any number of patterns that head off in any number of directions but always seem to complement each other.

A debut album – albeit one that has had a fairly lengthy gestation – crammed full of cracking songs, An Air Conditioned Man, Mainland, Time In Common and the summery Cappuccino City among others.

Idles – Joy as an Act of Resistance

Rolling Blackouts had top spot tied up for much of the year but the argument for Idles just became too strong to ignore.

In many ways it is angry young men with guitars raging against… well, what have you got? But it is done with wit, intelligence, no little charm and, tellingly, any number of great songs.

Several standouts – and each end-of-year list seems to have picked a different one, while strangely ignoring the wonderfully snarling Television – but Danny Nedelko is up there challenging for song of the year. And possibly most thrilling Later… performance since At The Drive-In.

Not Really An Album of the Year

Boygenius – Boygenius EP

Regular readers will know my ongoing (mild) obsession with Phoebe Bridgers. She didn’t follow up her wonderful debut Stranger in the Alps, which made the upper reaches of last year’s list, but provided some excellent left-field covers (check out her version of Teenage Dirtbag). And this.

Teaming up with fellow rising singer-songwriters Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form an indie supergroup of sorts, they each took two songs into the studio and combined their very different styles to form one excellent whole.

And Bridgers’ Me & My Dog should be on any song of the year list.

Honourable mention in this category to last year’s top dogs Public Service Broadcasting’s White Star Liner EP.

The Always Reliable national treasure of the year

Half Man Half Biscuit – No One Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut

In a country seemingly hellbent on tearing itself apart and losing any sense of perspective, it is good to know that some things can still be relied on as a sort of national pride.

It is not, as some claimed, among their very finest but Nigel Blackwell’s spot on skewering of hipsters in Every Time A Bell Rings and clueless contestants in Knobheads on Quiz Shows are about the most telling analyses of modern times as you will hear anywhere.

Honourable mention for Mogwai’s Kin.

The Surprisingly Good Comeback of the Year

Buffalo Tom – Quiet and Peace

Didn’t see this one coming from a band once described in one of my reviews for a paper as “the Norwich City of Premier League guitar bands”. That rather dates it but, after both disappeared from view, Buffalo Tom appear to be ahead of the Canaries in revisiting those levels.

Honourable mention for The Breeders – All Nerve

It’s Good But… Of The Year

Low – Double Negative

I’ll throw Wide Awake! by Parquet Courts in this category, but purely by dint of how high it appears in so many lists it has to be Low. It’s OK, but been told more than once it needs several more listens as a whole to really appreciate – that just sounds a little bit too much like hard work.

Time for a rethink of the year

Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel

The second album from Melbourne on the list and once almost consigned to the previous category – good, just not as good as previous efforts from a past obsession.

But went back on the basis of a couple of tracks dropped on a playlist and there’s reward for sticking with it. Maybe the Low fans have a point.

Ridiculously Young, Ridiculously Good Award 

This one is shared, courtesy of the plethora of really good albums from young, female artists and groups this year. Barnett and Boygenius could easily have been in here as well, but think we’ve already got enough claiming the spoils.

Snail Mail and Soccer Mommy add to the singer-songwriter quotient, Goat Girl outdid so much of the indistinguishable lads with guitars that make up much of today’s indie landfill while Let’s Eat Grandma have moved on from their hugely-promising debut, continuing to provide something different and more ideas in one song than most bands manage in an album (which is, mainly, a good thing).

Snail Mail – Lush

Goat Girl – Goat Girl

Let’s Eat Grandma – I’m All Ears

Soccer Mommy – Clean

And worth checking out (or in need of greater air time now the problem downloading them onto my iPod actually appears to have been sorted)…

Deafheaven – Ordinary Corrupt Human Love
Lucy Dacus – Historian
Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – Live from the Ryman (OK, the songs aren’t new and not a huge fan of most live albums, but many Isbell tracks come alive out of the studio – Cover Me Up heading to a whole new level).
Car Seat Headrest – Twin Fantasy
Dream Wife – Dream Wife
The Orielles – Silver Moment
Yawn – Bill Ryder-Jones
Gruff Rhys – Babelsberg
Colter Wall – Songs of the Plains
John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness
Camp Cope – How To Socialise & Make Friends

The Not Actually This Year Discovery of the Year

Five Eight – Songs for Saint Jude

Nothing new, but in a year without anything new by The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady, this filled the Americans playing guitars like they are performing in the corner of a dive bar hole. Even if it was from last year.

and finally…

The album missed the list (worth a listen though, if only for driving me back to some old stuff and a brief obsession with all three parts of The Crane Wife) but they summed up much of the world in 2018 pretty well.


Ask to Ayla

“The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying”
Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett

A LOT of border crossings are littered throughout this blog and, with a trip around Africa heading up, there are plenty more to come, complete with plenty of hanging around, filling in forms and no apparent activity from anyone involved.

But this is the first border for this journey through my iPod, arriving at the end of A section – all 537 of them.

We’ve gone from A to B and are about to embark on the trip to the C, via 755 tracks (to be honest, the journey’s already started but just haven’t had a chance to catch up on the blog over the past few days).

After last week’s detour on the subjects of my tenants and Gloucester’s sacking of Nigel Davies, it’s back to the main business of the music.

There’s been no real movement on a new director of rugby (although a big-name signing looks imminent), while the cleaners and decorators have been in to my house and, most importantly, the tenants have opted not to contest losing all their deposit – not that they had much of an argument.

So it is back to the music and another trip to Cardiff tomorrow to clear out the stuff they left – with a few therapeutic bank holiday weekend trips to the tip – to help make real inroads into the Bs.

The final stretch before the alphabetical border was, like many actual frontiers, a weird sort of no-man’s land just waiting to reach that final track – Ayla by The Maccabees – with a surprisingly high number of songs beginning Au, Av or Aw.

The aural equivalent of “are we nearly there yet?” Courtney Barnett

Highlighting that final drag was Avant Gardener by Courtney Barnett – my current musical obsession away from this journey.

It has emerged as my favourite track from her combined EPs, A Sea of Split Peas, as she somehow manages to shoehorn Uma Thurman, pseudoephedrine, asthma puffers, radishes and a chorus about having trouble breathing into a tale of suffering anaphylactic shock while gardening and makes it sound like another mundane Monday.

While agreeing with her view that paramedics are deserving of more credit, as a confirmed non-musician it is hard not to empathise with the view that “the paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar”.

Anyone who does anything well – particularly those who make it look easy – attracts my admiration, particularly musicians.

Despite a few stabs at tackling even the most basic things, it always proved beyond me – largely due to a lack of patience when younger and the guitar teacher who had seen my sister through a variety of grades insisting on constant repetition on basic classical techniques when all that was in my mind was imitating the guys with guitars on Top of the Pops.

It didn’t help that my childhood fingers barely reached the positions he was seemingly trying to force them into.

“Anyone can play guitar”, Thom Yorke once sang (a song sadly missing from this journey as Pablo Honey only exists in my collection on cassette), but my efforts proved just how wrong he was.

And we are the better for it as a lack of any noticeable musical talent has meant the option has been to listen to it and that’s fine my me.

This section started with listening to Ask – Sharon Van Etten before the better known song of the same name by The Smiths, who have been surprisingly quiet through the opening stretches of this journey.

Ask is not towards the top end of my favourite Smiths songs, although something has to be pretty special to work its way into those higher echelons.

Asleep, which followed a handful of songs later, is creeping towards that level which we will explore in depth at a later date.

Belle and Sebastian have also been noticeable by their absence (without checking, complete up to this point) which was rectified by Asleep On A Sunbeam – again, not in the pantheon of their great tracks but they have a fairly distinguished list of those.

REM have managed to pop up more regularly so far, but have continued the trend of doing so with some of their lesser tracks – generally the ones after Bill Berry left and… that’s a long rant we will save for another entry.

But the boys from Athens, Georgia (which is looking increasingly likely to receive a return, slightly longer, visit on a post-wedding* road trip later in the summer) appeared with one of their better later efforts, At My Most Beautiful, and hints of their early splendour with Auctioneer (Another Engine).

There was more Americana from Bright Eyes (one of the slightly overlooked acts which has piqued my interest so far during this trip) with At The Bottom Of Everything and White Denim, who chipped in with At Night In Dreams.

That song popped up a day before they performed it on Later… Live. Interesting to watch it on the small screen instead of live in Bristol, which would have been the case but for the clash of dates. That’s one for this week instead.

We had two trips to Australia, first with the Manic Street Preachers (whose song of that name was once used to advertise Wales ahead of the Rugby World Cup) and then The Shins, while we reached 500 with The Attack, one of two songs in this stint from Les Miserables. Happily with no sign of Russell Crowe.

And to wrap up the As, we retracked through the three A tracks added to the list since this journey started (been a bit quiet adding music in the last few weeks) – Advance Upon The Real by Perfect Pussy (a mix of noise and ambient background, but be careful Googling them), Algiers from the welcome return of The Afghan Whigs and Amber Veins by Eagulls.

So to B…

*Not mine, think that might have cropped up before now.


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