Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier – live and lovin’ it

I trundled along to the very funky Pure Pop Records in St Kilda last night to catch Deborah Conway and partner Willy Zygier perform.

I saw them only weeks ago, supporting Leonard Cohen in front of thousands, so this gig, with 30 or 40 people comfortably arrayed around the record store’s brick courtyard, was something of a contrast.

But not in terms of the performance, strangely enough. The couple, with three daughters in the audience, were just as chilled, their rapport just as warm and endearing, though the interplay between the two was magnified thanks to our proximity.

Normally, the thought of spending 90 minutes listening to two folks armed only with acoustic guitars is nerve-wracking: should I bring a pillow? A razor blade? Ear plugs?

No such fears of folksy warbling or surfy somnambulism here; not with that voice, and not with that guitar — in fact, Willy pulls out (and isn’t it handy to have kids for roadies?!) a steel guitar, a ukulele and a mandolin in addition to the acoustic, while Conway plays rhythm. He also provides a wonderfully complementary background voice, accenting choruses and certain lines.

It’s a little surreal, hearing Conway, who burst onto my radar way back when with Do Re Mi singing about pubic hairs on pillows and hopeless men and defiant women, now turning her lyrical wit to suburbia, but the moment passed quickly. Such a voice! (Conway is included in the free Rock Chicks exhibit at the Arts Centre).

Conway and Zygier played tunes predominantly from a new album, Half Man Half Woman — available in a plain cardboard slipcase with origami insert — and a few from the more traditionally packaged Summertown. Songs of love abound, though it might not always be the peaceful happiness of Lying Next To You but rather a glimpse of that Do Re Mi fire in, say, Say Goodbye to What is Left, and there’s uptempo thumpers, too, such as the eight-minute saga of Take Pity on the Beast.

A highlight of last night’s gig was seeing the three daughters Syd, Alma and Hettie aka the Zygierettes perform two numbers, one a capella, revealing promising voices each with their own distinct qualities. (Conway and the girls stayed in the store to sign albums afterwards.)

The venue was also part of the attraction, with a tarpaulin covering the open area of the roof sometimes ruffling in the breeze, a small bar set up in one corner at the back, a coffee machine inside on the counter, vegetarian pizzas and open melts on the menu, and universally friendly staff.

All in all, it was a damn fine way to spend an overcast Sunday evening.

Devil Dolls and Duplicates

devil dolls and duplicates

It’s official enough to shout about … check out this spooky little book cover! Devil Dolls and Duplicates in Australian Horror — a collection of short stories about, um, devilish dolls and doppelgangers of all makes put together by Anthony Ferguson — is due out in February through Equilibrium Books (who are taking pre-orders).

Check out this quality list of tried and true yarns, which includes an early story of mine about one way to make the most of a clone. The title says it all, really:

Marcus Clarke: Human Repetends
Wynne Whiteford: Automaton
Van Ikin: And Eve Was Drawn from the Rib of Adam
Michael Wilding: This is for You
Stephen Dedman: A Single Shadow
Jason Franks: The Third Sigil
Jay Caselberg: Porcelain
Sean Williams: The Girl Thing
Chuck McKenzie: Confessions of a Pod Person
Lee Battersby: The Divergence Tree
Rick Kennett: Excerpt from In Quinns Paddock
Lucy Sussex: La Sentinelle
Jason Nahrung: Spare Parts
Robert Hood: Regolith
Kaaron Warren: Doll Money
Andrew J McKiernan: Calliope – A Steam Romance
Tracie McBride: Last Chance to See
Martin Livings: Blessed are the Dead that the Rain Falls Upon
B Michael Radburn: The Guardian
Daniel I Russell: Tricks, Mischief and Mayhem
Christopher Elston: Hugo – Man of a Thousand Faces

Monsters – a thoughtful alien ‘invasion’

If you’re looking for a bug hunt, you should probably head over to the aisle with Alien vs Predators or Aliens or somesuch. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is not about the critters from outer space, but our reaction to them.

The scenario is this: a NASA probe carrying alien life from somewhere in our solor system has burnt up in the atmosphere, but consequently, strange creatures have appeared in Central America, to such an extent that much of that region has been declared a quarantine/infected zone. The creatures have a seasonal migration during which things get particularly hairy for those caught in the zone. In this case, there’s a photographer, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), and Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of his media mogul boss. Kaulder, who would rather be chasing fame and fortune with his camera as the creatures hit the road, is instead saddled with babysitting duty — daddy wants his daughter shipped out on the first available ferry to the USA, where her fiance is waiting.

Naturally, the travel plans are somewhat interrupted, and the two get to reveal certain truths about their personalities and lives.

There’s no real big picture to the alien encounter, and I don’t want to give away much about the nature of the critters, but this is a very localised story — the opening titles annoy with mention of ‘half the country’ without saying which country (we presume America, the movie is set in Mexico); there’s no mention of how the rest of the world is faring, or even why Sam has to leave by ferry rather than say, by air, or by going to a different country south of the zone. Maybe I was dense and missed the salient details. Certainly, at movie’s end, I wished I’d paid more attention to the opening scenes; now I really want to see those again, just to confirm some things.

The thing is, this IS a very personal movie. It’s about the two Yanks and the place they’re in, about how the politicians have responded to the arrival of the alien lifeforms — America, for instance, takes its Mexican border fence a massive step further and builds a modern Great Wall — and how this varies to the response of the people still living within the quarantine zone who are dealing with this change in their natural environment while the jets rain down bombs and chemicals and the tanks rumble through the streets.

Monsters is elegant and understated and beautifully acted, the dialogue so natural in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if some was simply ad libbed. The relationship between Kaulder and Sam unfolds at such an unforced pace, it’s a delight.

The director knows when to use handheld and when not to and the use of the aliens is wonderfully controlled to deliver moments of tension and of wonder. Not a bad effort for a low-budget flick! (IMDB says the estimated budget was a mere $200,000. Amazing.)

There are some clever Jurassic Park/War of the Worlds moments to add tension and action, but it’s the very believable portrayal of two ordinary people, and indeed a nation of ignored people, under stress that makes this movie one of the year’s best, and certainly a sterling addition — following on from District 9‘s alien-as-refugee scenario last year — to the canon of alien invasion movies.

Birthday Massacre / I:Scintilla

iscintilla dying and fallingThe Birthday Massacre album Pins and Needles

Two young and rockin’ electro-oriented bands have newish albums on the shelves, and both share a further commonality: gradual evolution rather than revolutionary advances in sound or technique.

Canadian outfit The Birthday Massacre (Metropolis) offer a melange of influences melded into a gorgeous blend of heavy rock drums and metal guitar with pop sensibility and the juxtaposition of a cherubic female singer, the uber cute Chibi.

It’s been two years since I caught this entertaining outfit at Brisbane’s venerable Zoo (check out a review here my interview with Chibi here) and the band retain their signature sound on album Number 4, Pins and Needles. It blasts open with In the Dark, but then settles into familiar territory with less gruff metal and a few nods to 80s big hair riffs. You have to listen closely to enjoy the nuances and lyricism. The title track is possibly the catchiest, but there is plenty to reward patience (Shallow Grave, for instance).

Similarly, I:Scintilla are caught in their own wake on album Number 3, Dying & Falling (Alfa Matrix), sounding unmistakably like their fusion of metal and electro-pop with distinctive if slightly underpowered singer Brittany Bindrim up front. There’s a fair swag of studio noodling going on here, whether on uptempo dancefloor numbers or the more intriguing slower tracks: again, you need to listen closely to appreciate the effort, with too few really reaching out to grab the ears on casual listening. The title track is delightfully cruisy, with a raft of vocal and sound effects enhancing the appeal.

I bought the 2CD version, which has 11 remixes and a couple of additional tracks, including the engaging Hollowed; the majority amount to pleasant background noise.

Fans should be pleased with these solid outings but newcomers might find greater instant gratification on the most excellent earlier offerings, TBM’s Violet or I:Scintilla’s Optics.

Vale Ingrid Pitt

I was saddened to hear tonight that the wonderful Ingrid Pitt has died.

Strangely enough, the news came just before Kirstyn and I went into the Joy 94.9 studio for a Sci-Fi and Squeam segment on Hammer Horror with a particular focus on the Karnstein Trilogy. (Dear Christopher Lee, please do take care of your health!)

Pitt starred in one of my favourite movies, The Vampire Lovers, a classic from the Hammer stable and the first of the Karnstein Trilogy, and also the erstwhile Countess Dracula (trailer). Non-horror viewers might know her from war film Where Eagles Dare.

But it was the elegance and fragility of Carmilla Karnstein that I most associate with the Polish actress who made her way to cult stardom in England. Vampire Lovers was one of the first movies to break the lesbian taboo on the mainstream big screen, and it did it with a poignancy that still holds in a day and age of much fancier sets and production values, and of course much greater overtness.

As one of Hammer’s women of horror, she’ll always be remembered.

Digital books to boom

An interesting forecast from James McQuivey of Forrester Research about the changing face of the book trade and how it will impact on authors, including this key par:

Meanwhile, authors won’t like that advances are going down, marketing spend is plummeting, and royalties are shrinking (especially now that 30% of the eBook price goes to the bookseller in most cases). Suddenly, self-publishing is a real alternative for anybody with even a modest Twitter following, especially when Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) is offering 70% of the retail price of ebooks—paid monthly, not twice annually.

I wonder if this means authors who might be getting a smaller advance might also reap a higher royalty?

I do hope Amazon doesn’t become a publishing behemoth — I distrust monopolies and, besides, as much as I enjoy being able to access their store, it still irks me that their little customer loyalty mp3 vouchers are only available to customers within the US (thanks for shopping with us, Aussie, here’s something you can’t have that others can). I think the breaking down of the publishing regions will be a fascinating and angsty process, something perhaps we are seeing being eroded already with global (well, UK/US/Oz) market approaches from the likes of Harper Collins’ Voyager and Hachette’s Orbit.

I can foresee a time, alluded to by McQuivey, when the hard copy will be a collectable and the ebook will be the equivalent of the modern mass market paperback. I don’t mind that, either as consumer or content producer. McQuivey’s earlier post offered a neat summary of how going digital completely changes the economic model of business:

In the end, once the only channel from which revenue is derived starts to get remodeled, it’s not long before the whole structure gets torn down and rebuilt to accommodate the new dominant distribution model.

Leonard Cohen in Melbourne – bravo!

In terms of performance, I don’t anyone at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena last night could say that they didn’t get their money’s worth. Leonard Cohen promised he and his brilliant band would give everything they had, and they certainly delivered: for nigh on three hours.

The hits just kept coming: ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘Hallelujah’ …

He’s a fascinating performer, Cohen, the quintessential gentleman on stage, full of grace and modesty. When was the last time you heard an act thank their sound and lighting guys by name?

The night got off to a splendid start thanks to Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier, offering an acoustic set that was a mite too short, their rapport and her pipes proving to be a winning combination (it’s been a long time since Do Re Mi and the Sweet & Sour soundtrack, eh?).

And then it was time for the main event, complete with intermission, and thanks to the venue for letting food and drink be taken into the auditorium, a glass of red the ideal accompaniment on a rainy night.

There was a similarity to the set list in terms of mood and tempo, occasionally breaking out of the meditative lounge setting to trot or waltz — ‘Everybody Knows’ (such a brilliant song, I highly recommend the Concrete Blonde version), ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘Take This Waltz’. The musicianship was superb, clarinet and bass doing wonderful melds, Javier Mas on bandurria adding that hint of otherworldliness, Bob Metzer’s electric guitar adding some glue, the Hammond organ… each got their moment in the spotlight, often with Cohen singing their praise, but it was the combination that made the night, all those pieces fitting together, humbly, to make the big picture. And then there were the backing singers: Cohen’s long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson, who got her solo on ‘Boogie Street’, and the Webb sisters, Hattie with her almost-Celtic vocals and Charley with a dusty quasi-Stevie Nicks rasp.

Lighting and sound deserved their kudos, from what we could see and hear from way up side-on to stage. I never did see the drummer, the big screen being sufficiently tilted to cover him without actually showing much of a view of the action, and both bass and guitar being mostly obscured by a pylon. If I had a gripe about the evening, it was the undisclosed sub-standard seats for the price (buyer beware at the Rod Laver Arena!).

But it was the words and the man that the crowd was there for, and they were paramount. With each song offering Cohen’s gorgeous phrasing, delivered with such distinctive aplomb — the man picked up his guitar for a stretch, too, making those almost 80-year-old fingers do their thing, and delivered spoken word on ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ — you’d have to be made of stone not to be impressed, if not carried away. Love lost, love found, melancholy nights on the street, a touch of gospel and a slice of Bible story, cynicism and self-deprecation and songs about songs and those rays of hope, all sitting so seamlessly side by side.

There were two encores, the Webb sisters performing ‘If It Be Your Will’ with guitar and harp in the second before Cohen and Co. brought the curtain down with ‘Closing Time’. Outside, the puddles on the pavement and the mist hanging over the city’s neon heights were the perfect setting for the post-show walk to the station.

Songs we heard (I’ve probably missed some, and they aren’t in order): Dance Me to the End of Love (opener), Suzanne, Bird on a Wire, I’m Your Man, Hallelujah, A Thousand Kisses Deep (spoken word), Boogie Street (Robinson), Sisters of Mercy, Take This Waltz, The Gypsy Wife, In My Secret Life, Everybody Knows, There Ain’t No Cure for Love, Waiting for the Miracle, Feels So Good, A Singer Must Die, Born In Chains, Tower of Song, Chelsea Hotel #2, The Partisan, The Future, Anthem, first encore: So Long Marianne, First We Take Manhattan, second encore: Famous Blue Raincoat, If It Be Your Will (Webb Sisters, spoken intro by Cohen), Closing Time (closer).

Zero History by William Gibson: luke-cool espionage fashionably portrayed

I’m a big fan of William Gibson, the man who brought us Neuromancer and helped forge the cyberpunk movement and a great deal of our internet nomenclature in one fell swoop. And has continued to take a poke at near-future technological change in and on society.

His most recent novel, Zero History, returns to characters introduced in Pattern Recognition and Spook Country – a lot of them have names beginning with H – and further delves into industrial espionage, marketing and fashion.

Hollis Henry is back in Hubertus Bigend’s traces, looking for a mysterious clothes designer, with assistance from former bandmate Heidi Hyde and former addict Milgrim (who comes across as a sad, neglected fallout from a Le Carre novel circa Smiley’s People).

Add some gadgets, some pithy one-liners and weird decor, and that’s about it, really.

The story builds on its predecessors but does stand alone, though having read the previous volumes will deliver a bigger payoff. The writing is descriptive and label-laden, as you’d expect, but the commentary isn’t particularly biting and the action doesn’t really grab, partially because the threat level seems quite low. Neither of our narrators, Hollis and Milgrim, are in the loop, reducing us to bystanders on the rim of the action as Bigend’s curiosity leads them into vaguely dangerous ground.

In some ways, the mundane nature of the characters’ desires, framed within the hyper-real world of Bigend’s manufacture, is part of the appeal; in other ways, there is a feeling that a soap opera is being brought to a close, family trees tidied, rewards handed out, just desserts delivered, even if the chemistry of attraction might seem to be missing.

Zero History is enjoyable and comfortable, but not compelling, a bit like old jeans when we’re used to something a little more shiny from this label. Not so much lukewarm as luke-cool.

Wheeler Centre continues to wow, Tut is on his way!

If you haven’t checked out the Wheeler Centre’s amazing program of mostly free events, now is a great time to do so. This month, they are hosting much-awarded Shaun Tan, best-selling Kate Morton and tunesmiths Stephen Cummings and Clare Bowditch, amongst others. Not bad diversity, that.

And in other events to keep an eye on, it’s worth noting that an uber expensive Tutankhamun exhibit is on its way to Melbourne next year. Despite the level of crass commercialism suggested by the article, I still *shiver in anticipation*.

Feed by Mira Grant: the flavour really hits you

feed by mira grant

Feed is a clever zombie novel from pseudonymous Mira Grant, right down to its title: not only does it refer to the famed zombie appetite, but to western society’s appetite for connectivity – hence the RSS symbol on the cover.

In the world of Feed, the zombies reign. Created by a little-understood man-made contagion, the reanimated dead roam the wilds while an underpopulated and “uninfected” society lives in communes rated by risk. Travel has been reduced to a bare minimum, and the media – a major focus of the story’s plot – has suffered a severe reversal. Traditional news providers now face serious competition from bloggers, who have organised into their own corporations vying for ratings and the dollars they bring with them (I’m sure Rupert Murdoch would be fascinated by their income model!) to feed the connectivity needs of a largely sedentary and isolationist population. The bloggers are broken into distinct zones of interest: fictionals, who write stories that may or may not be based on current events (including slash); newsies, who act as journalists; and Irwins, nicknamed after Australia’s croc hunter Steve, who are the daredevils of the blogosphere, risking life and limb for the sake of entertainment.

Feed’s core characters comprise one of each: sister Georgia (George, newsie) and Irwin brother Shaun and their tech-savvy fictional “Buffy”. The Morgans are rather special, having been, Bindi-like, raised in the spotlight of the blogosphere since the zombie outbreak was hijacked by their parents as a fame platform. This, and the zombie death of their infant brother, informs the pair’s relationship. It’s a lovingly rendered co-dependency and one of the book’s great strengths.

The story is told primarily from George’s point of view, with neat quotes from various blog posts by her and others.

We are given the history of the outbreak and how the world has changed since, how technology and society have evolved to deal with the new circumstances. It’s very clever and quite believable (insomuch as you can make a zombie plague believable).

The story follows the trio as they are invited to join the election campaign of a US senator running for the presidency. And here is where it goes slightly off-track, with opposing forces acting in not entirely logical ways to achieve their outcomes, and the reactions of the public and officialdom likewise conforming more to authorial need than real-world likelihood. That a key piece of evidence required to trigger the story’s conclusion is handed over on a platter further diminishes the trajectory.

And yet these are small things that could’ve been overlooked were it not for the most annoying factor of all: the Morgans. Georgia is 22 but already jaded and cynical, the bearer of a noxious self-importance that erodes her likability as the story progresses. She and her team know more about everything than everyone they meet: politicians, security staff, experienced journalists are all minnows by comparison. Even their technology is superior to that of the American secret service. Her single-minded dedication to the ‘truth’ puts her into the category of fanatic, and fanatics are by their very nature, unreliable, unsociable and boorish. Not really what you want for a main character, and one who espouses her own virtues with such cocky assurance for more than 550 pages.

From what we see of Shaun, he suffers a similar ego-centric view of his place in the world.

There is an element of self-delusion that Grant reveals, most tellingly when George sets out to rip into a candidate whose policies she doesn’t like. Vowing to ask the hard questions and take it up to the man, what she actually does is present a set of standard, largely non-reactive questions which he answers in sound bites according to his platform. Nothing new is revealed, no pressure is brought to bear, and yet she proclaims it a victory, even though she is forced to add an op ed piece to reinforce the win. More of this approach, showing that just maybe the kids aren’t up the spotless standard they think they are – that just maybe someone else also knows what they’re doing — might’ve helped to humanise them to the point of being sympathetic heroes.

It’s easy to appreciate their youthful cynicism: America’s news services, particularly of the broadcast variety, are by and large woeful, little more than a dull amalgam of reality television and opinionated commentary slavishly devoted to domestic introspection. And in fairness, Australia is following a similar route, blurring the line between entertainment and information, reportage and commentary, in electronic, print and online media.

All of which isn’t to say that the characterisation isn’t good or even realistic: the Morgans are of an age and possess a background that make their self-absorption perfectly understandable, and it is certainly a fair call to tell a story through the eyes of obnoxious characters (in fact, I’m sure the very character traits that I found off-putting will probably endear the Morgans to other readers). I just wish that such a beautifully drawn and considered post-zombie apocalypse world could have been explored through the experiences of more likable characters.