Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Alone in the Universe

I bought the new ELO album in Barnes and Noble on Union Square last night. I only became aware of the album's existence whilst standing on 42nd Street waiting for an advert for Cindy's latest project to flash up on a giant screen.

The album is called Alone In the Universe, and I listened to it this morning. It's legitimate ELO, in that Jeff Lynne wrote and sang all the songs. Quite a number of the original line-up of ELO are now dead, including the bass player, Kelly Groucott, but I was slightly disappointed (albeit simultaneously impressed) that all instruments on this album were played by Lynne himself, so there was no Bev Bevan on drums, and, crucially, no astonishing virtuoso keyboard solos were played by Richard Tandy. The saddest aspect for me however was that all the strings, which I would define as the most crucial element of ELO's sound, were played on synths, so the album loses the surging, dramatic, engulfing, over-the-top sound world that typifies masterpieces like Into The Blue, which taught me everything I've ever known about writing for strings. As a result of all the above, there's a demo-like quality about the album. There just aren't the layers of detail one might expect from an album by the band.

There are shades and hints of the ELO back catalogue, which I quite like. Can't Get it Out of My Head finds its way into the title track, and there's more than a whiff of Showdown in Love and Rain. This self-referencing feels like a deliberate choice. At one point Lynne sings that he's feeling "Midnight Blue," which fans of the Discovery album will appreciate!

The songs are short, and there are only ten of them on the album, but what shines through is Lynne's astonishing song-writing ability and his distinctive voice. It's worth hearing the album just for this and to be reminded of Lynne's genius when it comes to finding catchy, yet quirky chord progressions. I'm convinced that a few extra pennies spent on real strings would have taken the album from being a wonderful curio into something quite fabulous.

We had a dreadful time this morning trying to find something to eat for breakfast in the hustle and bustle of midtown and downtown New York. We kept assuming we'd find a little diner we liked the look of, but sadly, the nearer we got to the impenetrable crowds of people, the fewer places we could find to eat. Nathan ended up in a Starbucks behind 50 people in a queue. It was noisy, over-crowded and reminded me why touristy areas of this city are to be avoided like the plague, particularly when I'm grumpy and hungry! If another person had screamed "Statue of Liberty boat tours" in my ear, I might have decked someone!

We were in the downtown district to visit the new World Trade Centre, which is currently the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. I'm not actually sure what the Western Hemisphere is, but I'm sure the statistic is very impressive!

It's well worth a trip to the top, if you don't consider $32 to be a rip-off and aren't gullible enough to be pulled in by the offer of additional expensive bolt-ons like photographs and weird noisy iPads to show you the buildings you're seeing when you look out of the windows.

...But the views are staggering. The building is so high that the only way I could comprehend what I was seeing was by imagining I was in a plane. Up there you're looking down on skyscrapers and passing helicopters! It's very strange.

The New Yorkers refuse to call it The Freedom Tower, which is a fake nick name they believe politicians have coined. No one can ever force a building to have a nick name. The people will call it what the people want to call it. (I think the architects of the Swiss Re building in London were actually quite upset when people started calling it The Gherkin!)

Anyway, I found the experience of going up the building mostly awe-inspiring but periodically unnerving. I don't like heights and it's impossible to shake away images of the dreadful things which happened in the area on 9/11. I guess more than anything the experience reminded me that there would have been tourists at the top of the original World Trade Centre buildings when they were hit by the planes. I'd never really thought about that before, but it adds another layer of horror to a scenario I've replayed in my head so often and from so many differing perspectives.

I've always sensed that the streets around the building feel a little sad. Of course, I might be projecting something, but whenever I've traveled down that way in the past, I've always felt a really heavy and lugubrious atmosphere. The first time I ventured down that way was a couple of years (almost to the day) after 911, and I remember how silent those blocks suddenly seemed compared to the rest of Manhattan. Maybe they always were, but I guess these were the streets that would have been covered in white dust for months after the terrible events. They're also the burial ground of thousands of people whose bodies were never found. Sadness pins itself to locations through the people who populate it.


We walked from the World Trade Centre back to the village, finding the American obsession with the concept of "happy holidays" increasingly amusing. Now, I'm not religious in any way, but I appreciate the story of the nativity and the concept of Christmas as a time when families get a state-sponsored period of time to stop work and hang out together. Christmas is simply what we, in countries which were (and in some backward cases still are) Christian call this lovely day off.


I appreciate the effort not to offend, but, let's face it, as our friend Lesley put it on Sunday, "how offended would you be if someone wished you a Happy Hanukah?" Surely no Jewish or Muslim person would really object to being wished a Happy Christmas? In any case, Like Easter, it's merely a pagan festival which has been appropriated by people who have read a novel called The Bible, so what are we all panicking about?


The village in New York has its own very special light. I think it's something to do with the colour and low-rise nature of the buildings in those parts and the fact that the streets in the district break away from the grid pattern which means the sun hits buildings low and from a variety of angles. The shadows are always long and a very specific white light bleaches faces in a hugely flattering manner. The photographs I take in the village always have a washed-out, timeless quality. Like the place itself.


We met Cindy for lunch and then took the subway up to Midtown to meet Christopher for more lunch. Every time we meet friends here, the assumption seems to be that we'll get a little something to chow down on, so we're learning the hard way to walk lots and eat little and often!


We saw Christopher in Matilda tonight. He plays Trunchball (brilliantly) and had sorted us out with amazing tickets in the stalls (or "orchestra" as the stalls are known on Broadway.) The English accents coming off of most of the cast were very dodgy, to the extent that we felt they were limiting the acting (and in one case the vocal pitching) of cast members. I couldn't tell what half the cast were actually trying to say. The word "hot" in most Americans' mouths becomes "hort" in a cod "British" accent and certain vowel sounds get expanded into mini cadenzas which absolutely destroy the sense of sentences! My main bug from last night, however, was the cast's grotesque desire to remove the lateral plosive release from the word "little" and replace it with an ordinary "t" whilst the "l" became a "w" (in the style of someone from Hertfordshire who's trying to sound posh.) Personally I'd have dropped the accents. The show was written by an Aussie, and only references England once. If you're going to get better performances out of people by letting them find characters from a world they know, then you're often better off. I heard one English couple in the interval. Their conversation went: "I think the doctor was English" "darling I think they were ALL meant to be English!" I also walked past a young American lad who asked his Mum how long "half time" was! It would have been a distinctly underwhelming production, I felt, had Christopher not been so epically brilliant. He was insanely good.


After the show we met our friend Frank at Les Mis. He was collecting money for the Broadway Cares charity and we went back to his flat afterwards for cocktails. He lives in Hell's Kitchen right by the river in a flat with astonishing views over into New Jersey on one side, and a very pleasing vista along 42nd street into the theatre district on the other. He's actually right next to the spot on the river where the plane landed five or so years ago. Remember that story? The pilot (with some sort of insane name) got into trouble after taking off from Newark and successfully landed the craft on the river, where a set of somewhat bewildered passengers were rescued by a fleet of boats. I love stories like that!

1 comment:

  1. always love reading your blogs , and as usual very interesting and informative , and I as usual will be wishing everyone a Very Happy Christmas ,

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