Notes from the Animation Festival 2013
Russell Degnan

Another year, another Melbourne International Animation Festival. Hopefully Malcolm will hold to his statement of not making it 11 days next year, although it is invariably the last Saturday that almost kills me - going to bed at 2am and waking up for a 7am podcast probably didn't help. The extra time meant I saw more of this festival than I had in previous years. Indeed, the only bits I'd have liked to see were the CG Symposium - passed on in favour of the Canadian Indie programs, and the Australian program, that is inexplicably the only competition program not repeated, but that was a fault in my scheduling.

I might be getting old and jaded, but until the International Program #5 I hadn't found many of this year's competition programs memorable. But there were a couple of brilliant films in that screening, which rounded it out well. As is traditional - albeit in a sloppily ignored traditional kind-of-way - here are a few of the films I liked, by category (sans links, surprisingly, in this age of YouTube, far fewer films are available online than perhaps they ought, but you, my absent reader, can find them):

The Entertainers

Wind Int. 2 - Wore thin after several viewings, but the interaction of animation and wind always works.

Cleo's Boogie Int. 4 - Good song, good mix of techniques, but mostly the song.

Stewpot Rhapsodie Int. 5 - A mother cooking with loads of movement, charming aesthetic, and a fantastic soundtrack.

A La Francaise Kids 2 - Chickens in 18th century Versailles. Hilarious film.

The Technically Superb

Bydlo Int. 1 - An oxen comes to life out of the clay. Didn't like the plot, but beautifully constructed.

MacPherson Int. 5 - One of those languid oil painted films that always look superb.

Here and the Great Elsewhere Int. 5 - Ditto pinscreen animation, although this pushed a rare technique along too. An amazing film.

Jailbreak Abstract - Really well constructed abstract set to a syncopated rhythm.

Illogical Imaginings Next. Aust. - Characters rolling into each other is old hat, but this was well constructed.

The Well Plotted

Linear Int. 1 - Simple concept, a 2-inch man painting a road, but executed well.

Marcel, King of Tervuren Int. 4 - The sort of personal story that animation produces very well. Lovely depth of visuals too.

Junkyard Long - Live diverge then meet. This took a while to get to an obvious conclusion, but it was worth it.

Edmond was A Donkey Long - Long features have an advantage when it comes to plot, but this still kept me interested. An odd little story with a silent title character, much put upon.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mister Lawrence Lessmore Kids 2 - A genuinely touching film, simply and beautifully animated.

The Bizarre But Brilliant

Tram Int. 3 - Was tempted not to mention it, but it is very well paced and funny.

Oh Willy Long - Might have gone under the technical category too, for the texture and light, but the sheer oddity is its most endearing feature.

The Brick Bizarre - The sort of film that should be in Late Night Bizarre instead of the crude poorly animated rubbish. Completely odd-ball.

A final shout-out to the Kevin Schrek documentary The Persistence of Vision. The three decade long failure to produce a feature film of epic proportions, largely because it seemed to be epic mostly for the sake of being epic, was fascinating through-out. That the animators involved also meant that Richard William's film bridged from the golden age of animation to today somehow made it important and valuable in spite of itself.

Finer Things 2nd July, 2013 01:17:19   [#] [0 comments] 

Lamington Chocolates
Russell Degnan

After distributing some truffles to work a couple of months ago, a colleague suggested they'd like some lamingtons for their birthday. I don't bake cakes though - I can, I just don't - but the concept intrigued me, so after some hunting around in Greweling's masterpiece Chocolates and Confections I endeavoured to bundle together a few recipes and create the closest thing: Lamington Chocolates.

Strawberry Jelly

300g Strawberries (chopped)
150g Glucose syrup
250g Sugar

100g Water
20g Powdered gelatin

5g Lemon Juice

1. Hydrate the gelatin with the water, and melt in a water bath.
2. Combine the strawberries, glucose syrup and sugar in a saucepan and cook to 135degC.
3. Pour mixture into another bowl, allowing mixture to cool to 120degC then add gelatin and lemon juice.
4 Put aside.

This is the jam part, obviously. It is a bit of a mismatch, and might do with some kirsch or similar. The general rules seems to be to have 1/3 water and 2/3 sugars and to cook to 106 to 135 degrees. Any jam recipe with the gelatin added will work as well.

I decided on a jelly instead of plain jam for two reasons. Firstly, the last time I made jellied chocolates I got significant moisture bloom. Although I suspect that was a tempering issue, I didn't want to risk it with a runny jam. Secondly, although I'd have liked to encase the jelly as in a lamington, I wasn't sure if that would be feasible - I am still not - so I included enough gelatin to not only set the jelly, but ensure it could support the weight of the nougat.

Soft Chocolate Nougat

60g White chocolate (melted)
50g Milk powder
20g Sugar

20g Fresh egg white (1 egg's worth)
20g Glucose syrup

240g Sugar
60g Water
270g Glucose Syrup

10g Vanilla paste

1. Melt chocolate and sift together milk powder and sugar.
2. Combine egg white and 20g glucose syrup in mixer with whip attachment. Do not begin mixing.
3. Combine sugar, water and 270g glucose syrup in a saucepan. Cook to 110degC.
4. Start mixer whipping on high. Continue cooking to 118degC.
5. Stream the hot syrup into the whipping whites. Continue whipping for approximately 8 minutes until mixture is cooled to 50degC or machine slows.
6. Add the vanilla. Remove the mixture from the machine and mix in melted chocolate, followed by sifted dry ingredients by hand.

Who knew nougat was so simple? This literally took 20 minutes. Nougat was the closest I could come up with for a cake-like centre. Soft chocolate nougat is normally brown (like in a Mars bar) but the white chocolate and milk powder kept it a white colour. A few of my pieces had slight leakage, which means it either needed less whipping, or more dry ingredients. It could probably have used more white chocolate too, as the flavour is delicate, and it came out very marshmallow like, rather than the slightly denser chocolate nougat I expected. There was nothing wrong with the flavour.

Slabbing and coating

As needed Dark Chocolate
As needed Shredded Coconut

1. Prepare a slice-tin (approximately 25cm x 20cm) by lining with baking paper.
2. Empty nougat into tin, press into corners and flatten.
3. Pour partially set strawberry jelly onto nougat and refridgerate.

4. Melt and temper a large amount of dark chocolate.
5. Coat the jelly side of the slab with chocolate. Let set.
6. Turn slab onto board, nougat side up, and cut into 1.5-2cm squares
7. Dip each square in chocolate, and immediately sprinkle a pinch of coconut on top.

This was the easy if tedious, part. Keeping the chocolate tempered is the difficult bit, but with practice I am starting to recognise when it needs a little heat, or re-tempering. I would have liked to put the jelly in the centre, as in an actual lamington. I think it is possible, but the nougat will need to be divided and rolled into shape, then layered on gently. I don't know if it is worth it. The book always indicates hundreds of pieces from this weight of ingredients, but I only got 88, and found it difficult to cut without a guitar. Alternative methods being considered. Still 88 pieces of chocolate is a lot, even when you give a lot away.

My jelly didn't turn out perfectly because the strawberries weren't cut sufficiently, and therefore weren't distributed very well. I have adjusted the recipe to include more fruit as the pieces with a large amount of fruit perfectly offset the nougat. The jelly only bits tasted a little fake, over-powered the nougat taste and the layers separated (sometimes during dipping). Nevertheless, these came out really well.

Finer Things 22nd November, 2012 07:07:47   [#] [0 comments] 

Notes from MIAF #2
Russell Degnan

Day 4

The panorama sessions are often good value entertainment, less likely to be memorable, but generally entertaining, and a far cry from the technical abstract session that can't help but lull me into sleep. That said, a lack of memorability makes it hard to identify standout films.

The well plotted

Blown AwayAust. panorama A clever combination of mundane encounters and out-there comedy with a feel-good ending unusual in animating.

The entertainers

MillhavenPoland #2 The Nick Cave song makes the film, but the gradual movement into insanity of the character is impressive in its use of colour and movement as well.

Day 5

Animation has big sunk costs, in scripts, drawings, models and backgrounds that might only be used for a few seconds. The longer the short, the more worthwhile it is to invest in those elements. The long short session is almost always the best for that reason, fleshing out a story, and elevating the form to art.

The entertainers

Rubikale lab de'images Great idea, didn't really run with it as far as it could, or build characters.

The technically superb

Babellong shorts Merges layers of live action seemlessly to reflect on development and the different paths of men and women in urbanising China.

The well plotted

Zbigniev's Cupboardlong shorts Eastern european amimations do't often deal with communism. This is a touching and sad reflection.

The bizarre but brilliant

Muzoramale lab de'images Completely odd, but amusing with a unique animating style.

The External Worldlong shorts So random it is almost abstract, but with moments of sharp humour, only ruined when it broke the 4th wall.

Love Patatelong shorts I love the subtle mix of styles in this film, from 2D to live action. The premise is a little odd.

Day 6

Seeing the Supinfocom logo tends to be somewhere between excitement and a relief. They aren't necessarily incredible, but they usually bring colour, fun and music into programs that can otherwise drift into artistic corners. As 3D animation has developed, their style has become more complex and diverse, which has limited their pure entertainment value this year, but strengthened the films. Having them all in one session ruins their value as fun interludes, but is an interesting experience given their general style.

The entertainers

8 Bitssupinfocom Questionable plot, but love the use of gaming techniques and variable graphics quality of old platforms.

Hezarfansupinfocom Typical Supinfocom, lots of movement, colour and fast paced, comedic action.

The technically superb

D'Une Rare Cruditesupinfocom Simple idea: plants with heads, and therefore personalities. But wonderfully put together through the seasons.

Day 7

A day now traditionally book-ended by kids and late-night bizarre, with the bulk of international programs in between. The latter can be trying when it is something other than uncensored amusement, though the uncensored, technically awful and not funny are the ones I'd really like to see cut. Still a better program than last year though.

The entertainers

Mobilekids Charming, funny. Variable physics is the great friend of animators.

Memeeint #4 Whimsical take on a nursing home resident and her neighbour that, without being special, worked.

Mr Choco In Lovebizarre So many chickens had their head cut off this week.

The technically superb

Pixelsint #2 Plotless, but another making great use of live footage, computer graphics, and old school computer games.

Love & Theftint #4 These type of morphing musical films are brilliant when they work, and this one does - or I was going crazy by this point of the day.

The well plotted

Bike Raceint #2 Not as funny as the very similar bicycle from a decade ago, but the ebb and flow of narrative is mesmeric.

The bizarre but brilliant

Wisdom Teethint #2 Don Hertzfeldt, an awful lot of blood, what more needs to be said?

Day 8

The more animation I watch, the more I start to agree with the judges over the popular choice. I don't know if that is a good or bad thing. Nevertheless, I still see some films way more than I want to, and some never enough. This year's winner, Love and Theft was good, not the best, but it was a year with no standout film. I won't choose, because I don't have to. The list of worthwhile films serves its purpose for jogging my memory.

The technically superb

Big Bang Big Boomint #3 In typical outdoor style for Blu, but more ambitious in use of external objects and the scope of its reach.

The bizarre but brilliant

Polo's RobotAust. Still not entirely sure what to make of this film, but it looks brilliant.

Finer Things 28th June, 2011 13:47:47   [#] [0 comments] 

Notes from MIAF #1
Russell Degnan

Day 1

The problem with student films is they have to be made. In the absence of a better idea they tend to fit three categories: animation that displays technical mastery but has no plot/point; a basic and unsatisfying cliched plot with no character development to speak of; more ambitious storylines that with rare exceptions distract from the film through sheer awkwardness.

Advice for student animators: writers write these things called short stories.

On the plus side, the preponderance of quick and dirty 3D animation seems to be a thing of the past, with a great mix of animation styles coming through the programs - some far too derivative for my liking, but you have to start somewhere. Partly this is a programming decision, but it is undoubtedly a positive development. Now if only tv productions would change.

The entertainers

Mad Dogs And EnglishmenRCA grad Clever, but went nowhere.

A Tire D'Ailegrad #2 The better of two films with the same plot: second bird escapes death to wreck revenge.

Zhengrad #2 Very pretty. Travel orientated

The technically superb

Lose This Childgrad #2 Gorgeous 3D sand animation about turtles that got very depressing for unknown reasons.

The well plotted

Correspondencegrad #3 Timing a joke like this is everything. This was perfecy and it looks great too.

The bizarre but brilliant

LovermanAust. grad By Sacha Bryning. A touch of Bill Plympton; but in a fast-paced technically brilliant way. Far and away the best film in the program.

Day 2

I love walking home from the animation festival late at night.

Very few people have the time or energy to immerse themselves in a film festival but it has its own rewards, particularly animation, which draws you into its own world.

Objects in an animation have stunted lives; unlike film, until the animators moves them, they don't move, until the animator colours them, they remain grey, until the animator inserts a sound, the film remains silent.

That dearth of extraneous life has its good and bad points. Animation tends towards dystopian realities, because they are easier: robots, faceless creatures, empty landscapes, particularly deserts, space or dark streets. Lifeless environments and lifeless objects haunt the industry but they also make the truly exquisite scenes that much better.

It also heightens the senses. If an animator provides life in such limited quantities, then the viewer must be alert to every movement, action, colour or change. That is animation's strength. It can emphasise the miniscule detail by making it the only detail.

Merging back into the real world, late at night, when the streets really are quiet, every detail of the mundane becomes something: the single light in a hotel window, the lonely cab, the play of shadows from the trees or the shaking of a street sign.

I need a particular mindset to see the charm of mundane life, but the festival is a fail-safe method of achieving it.

Day 3

Polish animation is technically brilliant, but obsessed with death and destruction. Perhaps that is not limited to Poland. If animators want to write a tragedy, write a tragedy. But anarchic distopia for the sake of funky technical effects displays a certain misanthropy. That said: the technical quality makes up for the disconnected space the plots leave the audience in much of the program; and the less horrific films have great charm.

The technically superb

Paths Of HatePoland #1 Utterly mesmerising plane battle that goes mental at the end. A studio in need of a writer: Cathedral was the same.

Gallery / GaleriaPoland #1 A poster-child for making art from simple lines.

The bizarre but brilliant

Danny BoyPoland #1 Quirky, very funny, and charming (for once). Worth watching for the suppressed mirth of half-offended audience members at the finish alone.

Missed the New York session to play basketball... shot well, won by 1.

Finer Things 22nd June, 2011 02:39:26   [#] [0 comments] 

Planning as Misguided Faith in the Impossible
Russell Degnan

As part of an ongoing attempt to define what planning actually is, some six years after I started learning about it, I've begun a reading group with some equally misguided collaborators. To that end, we plan to work through assorted key texts from the past thirty years, beginning with the low-point of rational planning, that, in a way, marks the beginning of alternatives.

Wildavsky, A. 1973, "If Planning is Everything Maybe it's Nothing", Policy Sciences, v.4, p.127

Rittel, H., Webber, M. 1973, "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning", Policy Sciences, v.4, p.155

Published in the same journal, these two papers present two fascinating criticisms of our ability to plan, one expressing hopelessness, the other bordering on contempt.

Wildavsky begins by trying to define planning, distinguishing between attempts to plan - to create a plan, or to make rational decisions - and the ability to have control over the future. The semantic confusion over what planning is, in many ways being the key theme of the article, but one that needs resolving if one is to judge the efficacy of planning as an activity. Is it an activity to be judged according to its inputs - the quality of its planning - or its outputs - its success. And more importantly, when are we actually engaging in planning, in order to judge it; as Wildavsky says:

"Since practically all actions with future consequences are planned actions, planning is everything, and nonplanning can hardly be said to exist"

The remainder of Wildavsky's work consists of dead-ends, each pursuing some conception of planning to show that, in fact, planning is always something else. Thus, planning as causation - the ability to predict the effect of actions, and therefore choose them rationally - is, regardless of whether there is a plan, merely another form of decision making.

Planning is, therefore, merely a form of power - "the probability of changing the behavior of others against opposition" - or politics. But power is necessarily limited, and planners, not being dictatorial governors, are also limited, perhaps irreparably. The plan itself shares a similar limitation. Objectives must necessarily change with circumstances, but too many changes imply a lack of planning whatsoever. To plan in an adaptive way avoids the problem of "future control", and becomes, by Wildavsky's reasoning, indistinguishable from any other form of decision making. A logical pattern repeated for planning as process - as goal directed behaviour, indistinguishable from goal directed decision making.

But if planning is just decision making, then Wildavsky argues, perhaps instead it can be judged against its intention - did it succeed? Here too lies a problem: when a plan fails, was it the fault of the plan, or was the plan itself merely a conduit for the decision making process. Plans stop being intentions to deliver and start being symbols of a policy process that is rational, efficient, coordinated and consistent. These goals though, are, again mere platitudes, indistinguishable from other forms of decision making contained within the machinations of bureaucratic governance.

The true meaning of the tile is thus derived. Planning is either indistinguishable from any other governance activity, or, it is a badge of honour, worn by professionals as a means of arguing for their specific forms of governance, and a (possibly costly) article of faith for those who believe that decision making should be rational and planned.

While unarguably true in some ways, Wildavsky clearly over-reaches in others. Planning may be merely dressed up decision making, but it is not clear whether the costs of those plans do indeed outweigh some improvement in the decision making process. In the past I've argued against a formal bill of rights, on the basis that they rarely seem to matter when the rights are being questioned, that indeed, like plans, they are no more than well intentioned articles of faith. An interlocutor disagreed, arguing that those symbolic words meant something - they affected the relations of power, merely by existing. Plans too, may do that, provided they point somewhere - which is not necessarily the case these days.

There is some hope to be derived from Rittel and Webber's equally disparaging article on the technical problems of planning. Rather than stretching across the gamut of planning definitions, Rittel and Webber consider planning from a position of power, where planners are capable of directing and solving problems from within a sympathetic government. Here the problem of planning is not governance but ability.

Planning problems, they argue, are wicked, meaning they: are ill-defined problems ("the formulation of a wicket problem is the problem); are never ending; have ill-defined solutions; have innumerable potential solutions; are essentially unique; are merely the symptom of some broader problem; are immune to logical hypothesis testing; and require solutions that work.

Effectively, Rittel and Webber argue something now taken for granted: that social problems are intractable by purely scientific means. Although their formulations are somewhat repetitive when taken together. Providing a solution that works is only necessarily if a solution could be judged objectively, which they have already dismissed. Being essentially unique is irrelevant if the problem is defined by the actor. As it is often said, "if all I have is a hammer, all problems look like a nail"; as above, such an approach is only a failure if somehow viewed objectively.

Stepping beyond mere problem solving, Rittel and Webber come to a similar conclusion to Wildavksy. In a pluralist society, planners are incapable of solving problems objectively, and are therefore only political players, not value-free experts. But as with Wildavsky, they overstate their conclusions, taking out the nuance whereby some solutions might still be considered "better", even in a pluralist society, and seemingly dooming planning completely:

"We are also suggesting that none of these tactics will answer the difficult questions attached to the sorts of wicked problems planners must deal with. We have neither a theory that can locate societal goodness, nor one that might dispel wickedness, nor one that might resolve the problems of equity that rising pluralism is provoking. We are inclined to think that these theoretic dilemmas may be the most wicked conditions that confront us."

Finer Things 14th August, 2008 23:55:33   [#] [1 comment] 

Beams - The Presets
Russell Degnan

I might be too busy to blog, but I certaily not too busy to listen to music, while I slave away procrastinating over my reading. But I won't recommend The Presets for reading to. Syncopated beats, and sparse musical arrangements make it hard to concentrate. It also makes it a hard album to get into at first, having lots of rythym but few hooks (Alex is right).

It is an excellent album though, fully deserving of the praise that has been heaped upon it, and upon which I am throwing my two cents. Being a huge fan of 80s pop, I'm sucked in by the melodic synths and drums of their radio-friendly songs, but there is much to admire, and only a few songs dont bear repeated listening.

Track Highlights
Steamworks - The driving rythmic opening track.
Girl and the Sea - Synths, and a smooth vocal, reminiscent of New Order in the bass work, and culiminating in an gorgeous chorus.
Kitty in the Middle - Funky french-style syncopated beats and noises worked together well.
Hill Stuck - An odd instrumental, bringing to mind visions of a denuded urban landscape through a car window as the horns play.
Beams - Cute, drifting last track, very like Air with its strings and horn work.

Finer Things 2nd October, 2006 12:09:18   [#] [0 comments] 

The Book (and Band) Meme
Russell Degnan

Having had my bluff called by James with respect to the infernal book meme, which he had modified into an infernal musical version, I shall, reluctantly, do both. There is never a bad time to dissuade people from their misplaced notions of your cultured nature.

1. One book you have read than once

I try not to do this anymore, except dipping in to the odd favourite. I return regularly to The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination by Jacob Bronowski, mostly because I imbibe but don't apply its message.

On fiction, excluding Asterix books, the book I have read the most, by some margin, is Guardians of the West by David Eddings. Sad, but true.

2. One book you would want on a desert island

The suitcase from Joe versus the Volcano comes to mind, so perhaps a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, or for light reading, the still not entirely published, complete set of Peanuts comics. Alternatively anything by Dan Brown, so if it became necessary to use it to start a fire I could do so without remorse.

Otherwise, Tolstoy's War and Peace since I skipped his historical essays last time and it deserves a repeat.

3. One book that made you laugh

All books need to make me laugh, else I can't be bothered reading them. No Booker nominees for me then. Rain Men by Marcus Berkmann made me laugh the hardest, but you probably need to be a cricket player to know why.

4. One book that made you cry

Um... I've only read something and cried twice. Neither were books.

5. One book I wish I had written

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome. A brilliant mix of comedy and geography and history. Exactly what all my travel posts are like before I start typing.

Also, A History of Venice by John Julius Norwich. A book so infused with a love of its topic it reads like a tragedy when the Republic falls.

6. One book I wish had never existed

I'm not opposed to recording any thought, no matter how obnoxious. However I will nominate The Princess Bride by William Goldman. It is merely a leech attaching itself to film's better lines, with nothing worthwhile to add.

7. One book I am currently reading

For the longest time now, The Aesthetics of Music by Roger Scroton. An extremely interesting book expressed in the most excrutiatingly tedious and pretentious manner.

8. One book I have been meaning to read

Too many to count, but perhaps near the top: The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney by Henry Handel Richardson, a book about Melbourne that I've yet to find justification for reading in the context of my other Melbourne history readings.

9. One book that changed my life

No fiction to speak of, that I can recall. But The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs for reasons already mentioned.

1. One band you have seen more than once

Not being a big attendee of concerts, I'm lucky to have seen any band once. I've seen Angie Hart/Splendid several times though; and Erica and co.

2. One band you would want on a desert island

A band, or just an album? If the former, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. The latter, implying repeated, endless listens is more interesting. Despite the potential for wallowing in depression for several months, and notwithstanding recent comments I made that OK Computer is better, I can listen to The Bends by Radiohead forever.

3. One band that made you laugh

Humour is under-rated in bands. TISM are the undisputed kings.

4. One band that made you cry

The last tune I recall crying to is Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, and not just because it seems to finish on an unresolved chord.

5. One song I wish I had written

Since I believe music should reflect the artist, I am not sure I can think of anything that I'd really claim. Once, however, when I was extremely stressed out I dreamt about a bagpipe symphony. I wish I had written it down, it was pretty awesome.

6. One band I wish had never existed

Band Aid. The super-group that launched the idea of largely self-serving charity songs for otherwise worthwhile causes. If the artists involved released some half-decent music under their own name and donated from that, they'd have not ony raised more cash, but we wouldn't have had to put up with either their endless self-congratulatory preening or their half-baked political ideas. Admittedly Do They Know Its Christmas? is an alright song, if mildly insulting to Ethiopia's minority muslim poplation. We Are the World however, was extraordinarily annoying.

7. One band I am currently listening to

People will find this odd, given my predilection for not listening to lyrics, but I have been listening to Leonard Cohen of late.

8. One band I have been meaning to see

All and none. I'd really like to see Modern Giant if they come to Melbourne. They could be entertaining.

I've also been trying to find Regina Spektor's stuff without any particular success.

9. One band that changed my life

Growing up in country areas, radio was limited to some truly appalling stations, from which I derived much of my love for extremely bad music. Brit-pop, and specifically, Blur, Oasis changed that. Against my better judgement, I've been getting progressively less mainstream since.

10. Now tag 5 people

All seems terribly rude, but perhaps I can convince certain people to update their blogs by nominating Erica, Alex, Ben, Freya and for variety, Bridgegirl.

Finer Things 1st September, 2006 21:46:47   [#] [4 comments] 

Casino Twilight Dogs - Youth Group
Russell Degnan

What do we make of Youth Group. A band with the pseudo-independent popularity only exposure on a popular television program can bring. A band that plays support for various bands of significant popularity. Should we hate them for being popular in a demographic whose musical taste inspires hatred? Or praise them, for gaining recognition for Australian music in areas hitherto unknown?

The answer is probably neither. Slowly, the depressing hold of teenage sheep on the cultural reins of popular musical taste is being eroded, in favour of artists with some claim to decent music. Youth Group, without challenging any musical boundaries on this release, provide an accessible and decent album with a few worthy highlights.

However, nor are they a band running at the forefront of some new Australian sound. The production is clean and professional (very un-Australian), but from the opening chords of Catching and Killing or Let it Go that bring to mind late-90s Brit-Pop, to the Shins like sounds on Sorry or The Destruction of Laurel Canyon this album remains no more or less than an international pop sound. Sadly, I suspect it is a genre whose time is past -- albeit one that might yet be dined on for another two decades -- hence, while it is a worthy album for a collection, it is just as likely to be in the bargain bin within a year.

Track Highlights
On a String - An unevenly paced song, that doesn't really fit with the catchy opening song, but finishes with some lovely pop "ah-ah-ing".
Daisychains - A song with some emotional angst, beginning with a simple guitar riff that slowly dominates the tune.
TJ - Again, emotion that seems lacking elsewhere. Somewhat reminiscent of Paul Kelly.
The Destruction of Laurel Canyon - The best song by some margin. drifting, almost acoustic work, with a great descending chorus line.

Finer Things 29th August, 2006 15:58:25   [#] [0 comments] 

Desert Lights - Something For Kate
Russell Degnan

A new Something for Kate album is always worth waiting for. They have shown a consistency over six albums that few bands can match, and they've done it without becoming a parody of their early work. Partly, this might be because they've never achieved any sort of mainstream success. Paul Dempsey's voice is just a little too grating, the songs a little too inaccessible, the style never been the current fashion.

Desert Lights won't change that. The world may change around them, but this offering is everything you'd expect from a Something for Kate album. A mix of ballads and catchy guitar riffs, solidly produced from start to finish, with just the hint of raw Australian folk-rock. There are no bad songs on the album, nor are there any moments of outright genius. Most songs follow their traditional pattern of a slow start, building up to a big chorus at the finish. As per usual, Something for Kate are worth listening to.

Track Highlights
California - I can't work out whether I like the start of the album or not, full of energy and an unresolved melodic line. Interesting song though.
This is the Life for Me - A typical Dempsey ballad, with an almost 80s-esque quitar finish on their standard 90s grunge.
Transparanoia - A more interesting melody, with an odd beat, and and a heavy guitar riff.
Washed Out to Sea - Maybe I'm just a sucker for a piano and a moody voice, but I like this slow impassioned closing track.

Finer Things 2nd August, 2006 02:42:32   [#] [6 comments] 

Khancoban - Khancoban
Russell Degnan

It was luck that led me to see Khancoban. The band that is. Though I have a lovely photo of the road leading into the town from the trip to Canberra last year. Not that I saw much, of either. The town is small, and I spent most of their set (running support for Sodastream) chatting where I couldn't see them. But what I did hear was very good, and I was easily persuaded, or perhaps not unpersuaded, to buy their, ah, CD.

I hesitate to call this an album, do they not have more tracks than seven? Yet it is too long for an EP at almost 30 minutes. Perhaps though, the real surprise is how much they get onto it. Khancoban start like Augie march and finish like Sigur Ros, with a stop in the middle to play a little country music. That's a bit like the town too.

It's a great sound they have going, the country satisfies my fix for dodgy pop, and the diversity of instruments from the six players [1] makes for some interesting and compelling songs. Not the best album you'll get this year, but not the worst either. Unless you only get one album, in which case it will be both.

[1] Just five members though, cellists get no respect.

Track Highlights
These Lines Can Be Traced - Great opening: long keyboard sound, drums, bass-line, guitar. Very moody.
Smoke and the Light - Nice acoustic number. Very Augie March, but with a couple of interesting changes.
Little Lights, Little Rows - Love the piano in this song. Essentially that, a bass-line and a snare drum, but works beautifully.
Take Me Where I Might Want To Go - And a song heavy with strings, leading into the untitled experimental closing track. Both nice and moody.

Finer Things 16th July, 2006 20:07:50   [#] [1 comment] 

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