Oxford State of Mind

Summer in Oxford: a rock band plays to the cows in Port Meadow

Over the weekend I was back in Oxford to catch up with some friends. While I don’t miss England that much, I do miss Oxford and its mix of grand architecture, rural landscapes and casual intellectualism.

While I was walking around town, I took some video of life on the river and in Christ Church Meadow. Hopefully it gives an impression of a lazy summer weekend in the most beautiful town in England.

The song I’ve used as soundtrack is “Summer’s Here” by Zim Grady, a band from Abingdon.

O’Spada: From Stockholm with Love

In May 2009, I remixed a track by O’Spada, and this Swedish band haven’t looked back since. They’ve now released their first album, Pay Off, a disc that is poised to furnish lounges and clubs around the world. It’s out now on Despotz.

O’Spada‘s debut album is chock-full of spiky, swaggering funk tunes, built around the in-your-face vocals of singer and principal songwriter Julia. Here’s a taste:

If I called their music “bulletproof prog-disco assembled by an unholy alliance of astromech droids and the Daleks “, then I would be guilty of using too many ridiculous metaphors, but I will have come close to describing the O’Spada sound.

The tone of the album tends towards darkness but there are bright moments. The shuffle-time Rainbow (with its ooo-wah vocals) edges towards Motown and provides a respite from the brain-freezing grooves that dominate the rest of the disc.

Most of all, O’Spada comes across as fresh, and rather unlike any other band I know. There’s a Swedish accent in the vocals, jangly rhythm guitar, irony-free slap bass, and ferocious sawtooth synthesizer licks that sound like they’re played by a dude with a Patrick Swayze haircut.

What more could you wish for?

Well, a tour maybe. O’Spada are in London in mid-June to promote the album. If you’re in town make sure you catch them before they’re Bigger than Bieber-Hur.

London city tour dates:

14 Jun Hoxton Bar And Kitchen
15 Jun Dublin Castle
17 Jun St. Pancras International
17 Jun YoYo @ Nottinghill Arts Club
18 Jun Last FM presents… @ Big Chill House
20 Jun The Luxe

Happy 80th Birthday Kenny Wheeler

Thursday 14th January was trumpeter Kenny Wheeler’s 80th birthday. John Fordham in the Grauniad offers a review of the Birthday Concert that was held this week at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Image: Juan Carlos Hernandez

It sounds like it was a predictably wonderful evening – with a monster band assembled to pay tribute to this most modest of master musicians: including Dave Holland, Evan Parker, John Taylor, Stan Sulzmann and Norma Winstone… all players with long histories of fruitful collaboration with Wheeler.

To catch some of the atmosphere, try out these recordings of Kenny Wheeler with the Colours Jazz Orchestra, recorded in Verona, Italy in February 2006.

As far as I know, the Verona date has never been released commercially, but you can pick up the superb Nineteen Plus One (recorded with the same orchestra) if you like what you hear.

Happy Birthday K.W.!

(Edit: for those of you who don’t want to download, Yann sent me the link to Kenny Wheeler on Deezer)

England – a week of it

Seven days spent back in England was a reminder of everything left behind across the Channel – good friends, bad weather, great pubs and fantastic Indian restaurants. Here are a few highlights:

On our way from the Royal Academy to the Picasso exhibition at the National Gallery, my aunt and I bumped into the band of the Welsh Guards toddling up the Mall. For a few minutes, I was a real tourist.

A couple of nights in Birmingham were enough to visit the legendary Punjab Paradise on Ladypool Road and attend my Business School’s “Summer” Ball at the Botanic Gardens, where the evening was cold enough for the peacocks’ breath to steam.

Oxford remains one of my favourite places in the world. A weekend was happily spent catching up with friends, eating fish, browsing old books at Blackwell‘s and being amazed once again by New College’s choir. The sun emerged long enough on Sunday for a sandwich picnic in the University Parks. It was like being home again.

A final whirlwind day in London, (tapas lunch in Angel, meetings in Old Street and a sneaky visit to the Parthenon Marbles which I had never seen before), was capped off by an unexpected view of sunset over the Upper Pool of the Thames from a pub in Bermondsey. The city looked like it was on fire, and the pints were less than 2 quid.

Thanks to everyone who let me sleep on their couch, and to all the friends who found time to say hello. Sorry I couldn’t see more people – but I’ll be back sometime…

Twittering Around Blighty

There’s unlikely to be any posts here for the next week – I’m spending 7 days in the UK for some meetings and catching up with friends, mainly in London, Birmingham and Oxford.

I’ve decided to leave my laptop and home, as a bit of an experiment to see if I can run my life from my HTC Diamond (pictured – it’s kind of like the Google Phone, but runs smelly Windows Mobile instead of Android).

I’ll be tweeting, so you can follow me on twitter, if you expect anything profound or amusing might cross my mind during the week.

Take care and see you soon!

This is Tom Milsom

One day, (probably quite soon), Tom Milsom will be seriously famous.  Multi-tentacled talent such as his will not remain undiscovered (or unsigned) for long.

This 19 year-old “from south London” writes songs, plays ukelele, drums and Casiotone AND he makes films, draws cartoons and runs one of the most popular YouTube channels in the world.  His Internet Love Song (singalong chorus, everybody now: “BRB, OMG, LOL. ROFLMAO“) has already been a hit on the web – and would make a great case study for Dubber’s New Music Strategies.

Here’s a song about a dead cat, and yes, Tom did the animation and played and wrote all the music:

Tom’s début album, Awkward Ballads for the Easily Pleased is 100% geeky and self-knowing.   Songs like Watching Paint Dry (about, er, home decoration) are infused with enough late-teen weltschmerz to hint that there’s more depth to Milsom’s music than first meets the ear. The disc glories in painstakingly-wrought rhymes and the sort of internal lyrical logic that only comes from writing and recording alone in your  bedroom. Really quite special.

It’s very possible that I am, indeed, easily pleased.  At the moment I haven’t quite decided whether Tom Milson is the Spike Milligan for the Millenial Kids, or the Ivor Cutler for the New Century. Either/or/neither, he’s one to watch.

Buy Tom’s album as mp3s on emusic, or the CD via his website. You can even follow Tom on Twitter.

Five Things I’ll Miss About the UK

Dorchester-on-Thames, Oxfordshire

I could talk about all the wonderful people I’ve met in England who I’ll miss when I leave, but that wouldn’t be very English, would it? One must control one’s emotions and remain self-deprecating in all social situations, including when blogging.

So here are five of the best THINGS about the UK that have made my time here unique and enjoyable.  Who knows, maybe I’ll miss these things so much that I’ll come back?

BBC Radio 4 – the best English-language spoken word radio station in the world? Some people accuse Radio 4 of being too white, middle-class, and biased towards the Home Counties.  But nowhere else can you hear John Humphries mercilessly grill  Gordon Brown, follow Sandi Toksvig up the Amazon or get advice on which side of the house to plant your camellia bushes.  Oh, and every night at 7pm Tom Archer will be worrying about feeding his cows.

Ale PintBeer – more specifically, ale and bitter, which I learned to love through many visits to venerable Oxford establishments such as The Turf and the Lamb and Flag. People must be truly mad to buy Amstel or Fosters when in Oxford. To drink lager in historic and well-oiled pubs such as these would surely be sacrilege. Bottoms up!

    Comedy – Like beer, comedy makes life in Britain tolerable.   The best British comedy and humour relies on self-deprecation, wit and a dose of surreal silliness, and there is so much of it to enjoy in the UK.  Personal favourites include Peep Show, the ubiquitous Paul Merton, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Private Eye and of course I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue.

    Choral music – I wrote about the long English tradition of choral singing in a recent post.  Even if most English people don’t realise it, English choirs are the envy of the world. Whether you believe the theology behind it or not, sung Evensong must be one of the greatest pieces of English art ever devised.

    Sandwich shops – Nowhere else in the world has sandwich shops quite like Britain. I’m not talking about Subway, Greggs or Pret. I mean the little independent shops squeezed into alleyways off high streets, where a husband and wife team (or their Polish assistant) will customise your favourite tuna and sweetcorn sandwich while you wait. Personal favourites include A Patch of Blue in Calne, Wiltshire and the Oxford Sandwich Co in the Covered Markets.


    For many parts of the UK, it’s been the coldest week for 30 years. In Birmingham temperatures got down to minus 9. The canals are still frozen and the geese and ducks in Cannon Hill Park are struggling to find a patch of water to swim in.

    I wish I could have been in Oxford this week – Port Meadow froze and people were skating on it! Percy at Oxford Daily Photo has posted some photos and some nice images have been uploaded to Flickr by Isisbridge and robbie_shade.

    Clive James on Silly Money

    Clive James is one of my favourite writers. When I was 13 years old I wanted to write like him.  I still do. Deeply funny and very, very well-read.  Cambridge educated, he wears his omniverous intellect lightly, rather like David Mitchell.

    He’s Australian, but like fellow brainy Aussie Germaine Greer, he left his native land early to forge a formidable reputation in the UK.  Occasionally Clive James does a series of talks for Point of View on Radio 4. (A 10-minute podcast each week – well worth subscribing to!)

    He nails his topic just about every time: last week he delivered one of the best atheist-agnostic descriptions of the continuing importance of Jesus I’ve ever heard.

    This week, he takes on the credit crisis, and makes one very serious point – why the heck do we need all this money anyway?  What WAS Bernard Madoff (already a wealthy man) actually going to DO with 50 billion dollars?

    James makes one prediction for 2009 – having lots and lots of money is going to look very silly.

    “We’ve reached a turning point. A madness has gone out of fashion: the madness of behaving as if only too much can be enough. There will always be another madness, but not that one. From now on a man will have to be as dumb as an petrodollar potentate to think that anyone will respect him for sitting on a gold toilet in a private jumbo jet.”

    The Wild West (Midlands)

    I’ve been living in Birmingham for just over three months, so any sweeping generalisations I make about Birmingham and its region can be ignored or ridiculed. But sweeping generalisations are fun (if dangerous), and they assist in cultivating a superficial veneer of knowledge…

    City Centre

    The first rule of Birmingham: nobody lives in Birmingham. There’s a mistake that all newcomers to Birmingham make at least twice: ask a local “So, how long have you lived in Birmingham?” The answer tends to be: “I’ve never lived in Birmingham. I work in Birmingham. I’ve lived in Dudley/Sutton Coldfield/Halesowen all my life.”

    This reaction seem particularly virulent among people from Solihull, who appear most unwilling to acknowledge that England’s second largest city lies just 9 miles north of them.  Solihull gives the impression it would much rather return to the bosom of mother Warwickshire.

    Most English people who aren’t from Birmingham know very little about the city, except for three things:

    • New Street Station is the 2nd worst place to change trains in the country (the worst place being Crewe, a subject for another post).
    • They don’t like the Birmingham accent (which is a purely English irrational prejudice – foreigners love the Brummie accent)
    • They don’t personally know anyone from the city (which makes sense, because nobody lives in Birmingham). Although they’ve probably seen Ozzy Osbourne or Jasper Carrott on TV.


    Birmingham (and the wider West Midlands) form a far more interesting conurbation than its external image gives it credit for.  Fierce local pride seems to define the various towns in the region – Dudley and Wolverhampton are right next to each other, but you’d do best never to confuse the two. And of course there are the usual football rivalries, with Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Wolves, West Brom and Coventry City all fighting it out in the top two divisions.

    It’s difficult for outsiders to tell, but there are several distinct accents across the region, too: Black Country people (whose dialect preserves otherwise extinct features of Middle English) don’t sound like Brummies, who  definitely don’t sound like people from Walsall.   (Second rule of Birmingham: Walsall English is just about the most impenetrable form of English you’ll ever encounter).

    It’s said that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice, and the canal paths form a good network of cycle routes to explore the city.  If you like old industrial architecture, it’s well worth a couple of days pedalling (take a good map). Cycle far enough and apparently you’ll reach Warwick or Stratford-upon-Avon.

    If you get bored with canals, Birmingham has a vibrant creative/new media community, and they all Twitter. There’s at least a few good pubs (the Fighting Cocks in Moseley seems like a friendly place from my one visit so far) and some good music to be had (try the Hare and Hounds in Kings Heath).

    Third rule of Birmingham? Don’t rubbish the place until you’ve spent some time here.