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Grandville

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on November 30, 2009

Section from Bryan Talbot's Grandville

Your hairy English bottom

Bryan Talbot’s Grandville is a huge stylistic change from Talbot’s other recent work. While his most recent work, 2007’s Alice In Sunderland (which would have to be on a shortlist for best graphic novel of the decade) was a deeply personal discursive essay about the history of Sunderland, Lewis Carroll, and the comics medium, Grandville is an utterly straightforward – though hugely enjoyable – genre piece.

Most of those reading this will, on being told that the genre in question is steampunk – and that furthermore it is steampunk with anthropomorphic animals as the main characters – dismiss it instantly. That would be a mistake. While this is nowhere near as weighty a work as Alice or The Tale Of One Bad Rat, Talbot’s craftsmanship shines through in every panel.

Set in an alternate universe in which Britain lost the Napoleonic Wars and has only recently gained its independence from the French Empire, Grandville follows Detective Inspector LeBrock – a badger with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes and the violent streak of a Tarantino character – as he investigates the murder of one Raymond Leigh-Otter in Nutwood. What starts as a simple murder investigation turns into a conspiracy that leads all the way up to the French leader, far right nationalist Jean-Marie Lapin.

The story itself plants ‘9/11 truth’ conspiracy theories in Talbot’s imaginary world, but the plot isn’t really the important thing here, so much as an excuse for Talbot to draw animals and Victoriana (one of the rooms in the story is taken directly from Sarah Bernhardt’s rooms, while one panel is Manet’s A Bar At The Folies-Bergère ‘but with the perspective done right’ as Talbot put it in his talk at the recent Thought Bubble convention) along with great, sturdy steampunk contraptions.

Talbot’s imaginary world doesn’t hold together under even the lightest scrutiny – despite some surface similarities, this isn’t a League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen style exercise in worldbuilding – but the characterisation between the central character and his rat assistant (whose speech patterns are clearly modelled after Penfold in Danger Mouse) makes for some wonderful comic moments, and Talbot’s action scenes are perfectly executed (if excessively gory, especially one scene nicked from Reservoir Dogs).

The whole thing, in fact, is full of references – not only to Tarantino and Manet, but to Rupert The Bear (we see Rupert’s father in the background in an early scene, and before the story moves to Paris it’s set in Nutwood) and Tintin (a homeless junkie dog called “Snowy” Milou who hallucinates trips to the moon and the Congo). As much as anything else, the book is a celebration of a whole tradition of anthropomorphic animal-art (which really is the thing that, more than anything else, ties this to Talbot’s earlier work – One Bad Rat was of course hugely influenced by Beatrix Potter, and Alice by Tenniel). If you ever get a chance to see Talbot’s lecture on the history of anthropomorphic art, go.

All in all, Grandville is fluff, but fluff by one of the greatest craftsmen working in the comic medium, and while it doesn’t break any new ground, it’s just fun to read someone who knows exactly what he’s doing hitting every single beat perfectly. The level of attention Talbot pays to even such supposedly-trivial things shames most of his contemporaries, let along his juniors.

Which makes it all the more disappointing to have to report one big problem – the colouring. Talbot has clearly paid a great deal of attention to this, but it could have done with him paying a lot less attention to it. While someone else did the colour ‘flats’ for a big chunk of the book, Talbot has rendered every page in Photoshop to an excessive degree (a problem I also had, to a lesser extent, with Alice).

Some of the colouring is very tastefully done – the sampling of Manet’s colours to provide the background for the Folies Bergère scenes, for example, or the way that every scene has a separate colour palette – but in general, everything is over-rendered and artificial-looking. Talbot’s impeccable taste appears to have deserted him when it comes to the use of Photoshop gradients and filters, which just take away from his stunning line art.

But that’s a minor blemish on what is otherwise a wonderful little story. Talbot is already planning a sequel to this, though one has to wonder if this will find its market (it looks for all the world like a children’s book, but it definitely isn’t). It’s not Talbot’s best work – it’s probably not the best graphic novel of the year, even – but it’s damn good work, and well worth a read.

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PEP! Progress

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on November 29, 2009

With a couple of days to go til the deadline for writers, the articles for my new magazine PEP! (Politics, Entertainment and Pthings) have started coming in, so I thought I’d give you a rundown of what I know for certain will be in there.

I’ll be writing linktext throughout, and I’ll be doing a comics piece and a music piece, but I’ll write these after everything else is in place, to try to provide a throughline for the magazine.

Incidentally, if anyone has any visual art they’d like to submit (Prankster, I know you do comics – fancy doing a one-page strip or something?) I’d be very grateful…

Politics
Be Extreme by Gavin Robinson (an argument for extremism)
‘something about liberalism’ by Alex Wilcock
Sick With The Fear by Bill Ritchie (about how pervasive cultural messages cause anxiety)

Comics
The Function Of The Filth by David Allison (“A sort of Ultimate Filth Essay, built around an almost feminist critique of Morrison’s use of pornography and biology as metaphors for ‘persistant, nagging soul-ache’. “)
The Prismatic Age by Duncan Falconer (previously published at Mindless Ones)

TV
‘Something About The Avengers’ by Bill Ritchie
‘Possibly Something About The Avengers’ by Alex Wilcock
‘A Fractal History Of The Origins Of The Time War’ by Millennium’s Daddy Richard (not sure if he’s wanting this under his own name or as Millennium yet)

Music
Pure Pop For Then People by myself – an article on the LA Powerpop music of the last decade or so
Scott Walker Is God by Sean Witzke
We’re Ugly But We Have The Music by Holly Matthies

Sport
No Joy In Stretford by Holly Matthies

Incidentally, I’m well aware that the list of contributors is heavily skewed towards men, and this is something I want to fix in future issues. Unfortunately, I did ask a few of my favourite female writers to contribute, but other than Holly they either didn’t reply or have too much else on to get anything done for this issue. Some have expressed an interest in writing for future issues though.

The magazine will run to about sixty pages – more than I’d anticipated, but I’ve just got so much good stuff to go into it it’s unbelievable – which means that the paper copy would normally cost about a frankly excessive $12 US. However, the POD site it’ll be done through is having a discount this month, so if you buy it between Xmas day (when it goes on sale) and Jan 1st, you’ll get it for a more reasonable $8 (prices will vary depending on page count).

We’ll be making it free as a pdf shortly afterwards, and we’ll be making little or no money from the actual magazine (I’m expecting one cent US per page of text per copy sold to be what gets to the writers, if anything ever does) but it’ll be a nice item to have, so if you can afford it, buy a copy…

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The Beatles Mono Reviews 6: Help!

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on November 28, 2009

An edited version of this essay is now included in my book The Beatles In Mono. Hardback paperback

Cover of the Beatles' Help! album

This is actually the stereo cover. Couldn't find a scan of the mono one anywhere.

I’ve never been able to understand why Help! is critically regarded as one of the Beatles’ weaker efforts. Yes, it’s a slightly hazy album, due to it being the first since the Beatles discovered marijuana, and it accompanies a film that’s usually regarded as not very good (though I think it’s far better than people usually give it credit for, myself), but seriously – if any other band in the world had made an album containing Help!, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, Ticket To Ride, I’ve Just Seen A Face and Yesterday it would be regarded as their masterpiece, and talked about in hushed voices for decades.

Of course, as it turned out, Help! wasn’t even the best album the Beatles released that year, but judged against any other band’s work, it’s just astonishing.

Help! and Rubber Soul differ from the other Beatles albums in that they were remixed when the band’s original CD releases came out in 1987. The first four albums were originally issued on CD in mono, as God Martin intended, and everything from Revolver on was issued in stereo, which is at least a defensible position for those albums. For the two 1965 albums, however, it was felt that they deserved reissuing in remixed stereo. So on the mono box we have been given the mono mixes, but also the original 1965 stereo mixes, of those two albums.

Having previously owned all the Beatles albums on vinyl, this gives me a chance to compare the mono and stereo mixes more accurately, and figure out what about the difference in sound is down to the hugely improved clarity of the new masters (and they do sound ASTONISHING) and what is the mix. So with each song on these albums there will be a note about the differences between the mono and stereo mixes.

The main difference between the mono and stereo mixes, noticeable throughout, is that the mono mixes are very bass-heavy, compressed and murky, matching the dopey feel of much of the music, while the stereo mixes are all treble with no bass-response whatsoever – light and fun-sounding, but missing much of the actual musical information.

Help!, the first song on the album, and the second single, is the pivot around which the Beatles’ singles revolve. Before this, every Beatles single had involved romantic relationships of some kind. After this, no songs about romantic relationships (with the possible exceptions of the Day Tripper/We Can Work It Out pairing and Hello Goodbye) would appear on either the A- or B-side of a Beatles single until Don’t Let Me Down, by which point the band had effectively split.

Help! is the first attempt by the band to marry the two biggest influences of the band’s mid-period, Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. The Dylan influence is most noticeable – the song is based around strummed acoustic guitar, has a confessional lyric, and (other than the intro – many of the songs on Help! have distinct intros, the only Beatles album for which this is really the case) has a very simplistic structure – 16-bar verse and 16-bar chorus alternating. There’s even no third verse, just a repeat of the first – this is structured as a folk song.

The Beach Boys influence is more subtle (unsurprisingly – while Lennon was a fan of the band, he was never as open about his admiration of them as were Harrison and especially McCartney), but starts with the title. Just before this was recorded, the Beach Boys knocked Ticket To Ride off the US number one spot after just one week, with Help Me, Rhonda. But the influence is also shown in the backing vocals. On most other Beatles records up to and including this album the band’s vocal arrangements had been essentially girl-group ones – call-and-response, straight harmony or ‘ooh’ chords. Here they’re anticipating the main vocal line in a way the band had never done before, entering into a much more interesting relationship with the lead.

Sometime around 1965, someone asked Lennon why he didn’t write lyrics more like his books, and his whole writing style changes. I suspect it was just before writing this song…

mono/stereo differences This one has the most obvious differences of all – the lead vocal is actually a totally different take (which means that this is the first legitimate CD release of the version of this track that actually went to number one). The backing vocals are mixed far higher in the stereo mix, and the bass is almost inaudible. The mono mix is generally murkier, with far less separation of instruments, and the opening has less impact in mono (the backing vocals jump out more in stereo), but in stereo there’s practically no drum sound at all, and overall the mono is punchier.

The Night Before, Paul’s first song on the album, is notable mostly for introducing the electric piano based soul-influenced sound that would dominate this album and Rubber Soul. Even though it’s only 2:36 it could have done with cutting down to about half that length, truth be told, although one of Paul’s better vocals redeems it somewhat.

mono/stereo differences The stereo mix of this is pretty horrible. Again there’s much less bass response, and the electric piano is mixed down (making the track sound like much less of a departure from their earlier work). The hi-hat is mixed up at the expense of any other drums, and the whole thing is just a wash of trebly echo.

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away is the most obviously Dylanesque Lennon song ever, with Lennon practically doing a Dylan impression. Apparently about Brian Epstein’s homosexuality (an interpretation first advanced by bisexual activist singer Tom Robinson in the 1980s, but apparently confirmed by the other Beatles since), this is one of Lennon’s very strongest songs, although the best line (“feeling two foot small”) was apparently an in-studio slip that was then kept in. There’s very little to critique here – it’s just as close to perfection in song, arrangement and performance as you can get, and the remastering allows us to hear every perfect detail that much more clearly.

mono/stereo differences Once again, the stereo version sounds like it’s coming through a tin can in comparison – too much reverb on Lennon’s voice, all treble and no bass. The stereo version is still an improvement on the vinyl – there’s a percussion part I never noticed before that’s very clear on both the mono and stereo versions – but it loses all sense of weight from the tracks, which sound lighter and frothier. This is arguably not so much of a problem with McCartney’s tracks, which are more lightweight on this album, but Lennon’s songs here are very much inspired by a depressive period (what he later called his ‘fat Elvis’ period) and the weightier, heavier sound of the mono versions works infinitely better for them.

I Need You is George’s first song on the album, and his second on any Beatles album. Perfectly serviceable as a song, it doesn’t show many of the signs of his later ability, though it does have the depressive, introspective feel of many of his later songs. Much like The Night Before this could have done with having the repeat of the middle-eight and last verse cut. The most interesting thing about it is the use of the volume pedal on the lead guitar.

mono/stereo differences Again, the stereo mix is echoey, treble-heavy and vocal-heavy (the backing vocals are far more prominent, and sound very lazy and slightly out of tune). One can at least hear Ringo’s bass drum in the stereo mix though, which makes a pleasant change. It’s not until you do direct A-B comparisons of the mono and stereo mixes that you realise just how appaling the stereo mixes really are…

Another Girl, Paul’s second song, is notable mostly for its arrangement – the rhythm guitar is almost reggae, with its emphasis on the off-beats – presumably the same ska influence that crept into She’s A Woman and I Call Your Name, while George’s lead guitar is pure Chet Atkins, mirrored in the bluegrass harmonies. (McCartney is credited as lead guitarist here, but it sounds like there are two separate guitarists here – I think McCartney just played the thicker parts around the 1:19 mark, which sound like his style) The song is typical McCartney – breezy, light and callous, but enjoyable.

mono/stereo differences Surprisingly little. The stereo mix is more reverb-heavy and trebly, but other than that there are no huge differences.

You’re Going To Lose That Girl is John in Shirelles mode – this is from the same mold as My Boyfriend’s Back, and in fact could be an answer song to that from the point of view of the boyfriend. It has an element of Lennon’s occasional psychotic jealousy to it, but played mostly for laughs.

mono/stereo differences The stereo version of this sounds very slightly sped up (and looking at the timings, it’s a second shorter), and the piano and bongos are almost buried in the mix. In the mono mix, Ringo’s bongos percolate away under the whole thing, adding an absolutely delightful extra element, and McCartney’s piano holds the whole thing together. The stereo mix just isn’t as fun.

Ticket To Ride, despite being an utterly John song, is mostly Paul’s record. McCartney definitely did play the lead guitar on here, and while Ringo plays the astonishing drum part, that broken style (which lessens throughout the track and is almost entirely subsumed into a standard rock drum part by the end) is McCartney’s One Drum Idea. I’d also bet good money on McCartney having come up with the coda (which, ending side one, bookends it nicely – it starts and ends with separate sections of songs that aren’t directly connected to the main body of the song).

I imagine, actually, that this started as a fairly straightforward Motown stomper before McCartney got his hands on it – the obsession on one chord until the chorus is very much of a piece with records like Dancing In The Street, though it does of course also presage the band’s later Indian influence.

Either way, though, this is an astonishing record. Just listen to the shiver in John’s voice on ‘sad’. The song is also typically Lennon in its self-obsession – the girl the song is about has only one characteristic, that she doesn’t care for him, and that she thought living with him was ‘bringing her down’.

While I’ve been complaining about the length of some of these, this is actually one song where the repetition pays off – this too could have had the last middle-eight and verse/chorus cut, but it would have been a mistake. The repetition works well with the self-obsessed, circling tone of the record too – it’s the first Beatles original to top three minutes (3:08 in mono, 3:11 in stereo) and the longest thing they’ll do – except You Won’t See Me – until Sgt Pepper.

mono/stereo differencesMore than any of the other songs except Help! itself, this differs between mixes. Here it’s almost all down to the drumming. In mono, RIngo’s drum fill at the beginning jumps out and practically throttles you. In stereo, it’s sedate and sounds like he’s playing on cardboard boxes.

Act Naturally is the song given to Ringo to sing, a cover of a comedy song by Buck Owens, and seems to have had very little attention paid to it, although George Harrison once again gets to do a Chet Atkins impression while Paul’s high harmony actually manages to make RIngo’s voice sound good in those sections.
mono/stereo differences Not that many – there’s not that much to the recording, although McCartney’s vocal is buried in the stereo mix.

It’s Only Love is one of the great disappointments in the Beatles’ discography. The melody is actually one of Lennon’s strongest, and his double-tracked vocals in the chorus show what it could have been, sounding absolutely astonishing, but he obviously knocked off the verse lyrics in about half a nanosecond, and his evident contempt for them shines through in the verses. It’s a shame, as there’s a great *idea* for a song here, just not an actual great song. The most notable thing about this is it’s the first Beatles track with a Leslied lead guitar.

mono/stereo differences Not a huge difference, though once again the lead vocal is mixed up at the expense of every other instrument, and the lead guitar almost vanishes in stereo as a result.

You Like Me Too Much is another George song, and another one with the slight country flavour that permeates much of this album. Nothing much to say about this, which has some of the same feel as Harrison’s then-unreleased You Know What To Do. Nice electric piano by Lennon, and the intro is fun (Lennon, McCartney and Martin all playing the same piano part), but this is the third filler track in a row on side two.

mono/stereo differences Again, the stereo mix is too trebly and echoey, but otherwise little difference.

Tell Me What You See on the other hand should be a filler track, being mostly McCartney winking his way winningly through two chords (though like a lot of his songs from this time it has a fairly impatient lyric, hinting at his strained relationship with Jane Asher at the time), but the combination of McCartney’s superb melodic gifts and the arrangement make this something rather special. Especially of note are the way McCartney is almost impersonating Lennon when he double-tracks himself (though of course Lennon also harmonises in spots) and the instrumental breaks where it drops down to just electric piano before McCartney’s One Drum Idea comes in again briefly.

mono/stereo differences The big differences here (apart from the constant echo/treble difference and the usual way the vocals overpower everything else) are that Lennon’s harmony vocal is mixed far higher relative to McCartney’s melody, and that the various bits of hand-held percussion are far more audible in stereo.

I’ve Just Seen A Face is McCartney finally stepping up and offering a song as good as his collaborator’s songs from the first side. Still as lightweight as his other songs on the album, this one has a quite astonishing melody and lyrics that fit it perfectly, with some of McCartney’s cleverest internal rhymes. It continues the country feel of the rest of the album, being a bluegrass track (with McCartney singing two part harmony with himself) and like much of the rest of the album has a separately composed introduction. It’s just a fun, clever, enjoyable track that sits in your head for days after hearing it. Stylistically a world away from Lennon’s depressed tracks on this album, and less ‘intense’ than them, it sounds like nothing so much as a precursor to Mike Nesmith’s work. A minor classic.

mono/stereo differences relatively few. There’s little bass end to the track as it is (bluegrass style songs being very trebly anyway, this has no bass guitar but three acoustics) so while the melody on the bass strings of an acoustic guitar, and Starr’s scuffing on a snare drum, are slightly lower, this is one of the closer mixes.

Yesterday is one of those hidden little tracks that nobody knows about…
To tell the truth I’ve never regarded the track as anywhere near as special as most people do – and it’s yet another song on this album that has an unnecessarily repeated middle eight and last verse – but you can’t really argue with the consensus on this one. It may not be McCartney’s best song, but it’s still a good ‘un, and you can’t fault the craftsmanship. But the track is really more about George Martin’s string arrangement than anything McCartney’s doing.

I do find it odd, though, that pretty much nobody notices the little joke in the second verse – he’s not singing ‘oh yesterday came suddenly’ (which would make no sense) but ‘oh yes today came suddenly’…

mono/stereo differences There are very few, for the most part, other than McCartney’s vocal being higher in the mix relative to his guitar on the mono mix, but one that does stand out is the treatment given to the vocal track. On the mono track this is dry until the strings come in, gets a smidgen of reverb from there on in, and gets a thick extra layer of reverb to emphasise ‘something wrong, now I long’ on the middle eight, where he double-tracks himself (the double-tracking, just on this spot, is almost inaudible and sounds like a mistake on the stereo mix, like leakage from an earlier take, but is clearly deliberate on the mono mix). On the stereo mix, on the other hand, there’s a constant (small) level of reverb throughout. Other than that, the viola countermelody in the last verse seems more prominent on the mono mix, but that’s all.

And Dizzy Miss Lizzy is the last cover version ever on a Beatles album, a pounding Larry Williams cover led by doubled bass and piano, with Starr’s clomping cowbell, some fantastically powerful fills from Starr, slightly out-of-tune but effective lead guitar, and one of Lennon’s best screamer vocals. It feels like it’s constantly about to fall over into incoherence, but never quite does, thanks mostly to Starr’s fantastic performance holding everything together. It’s no coincidence that this was one of only two songs he’d recorded with the Beatles that Lennon performed at his first solo gig.

mono/stereo differences Oh dear. What a difference a mix makes. The bass end of the piano is completely lost, the out-of-tune guitar is higher in the mix (and more obviously double-tracked, with the two guitars not even in tune with each other), Starr sounds like he’s playing cardboard boxes, and the hi-hat is ludicrously high in the mix. The exact same performance sounds like a sloppy, incoherent mess.

Help! might not be the Beatles’ strongest album, but it’s the one where their production tricks come together, where John realises that lyrics can be *about* something, where George starts writing songs, where Paul finally comes up with a couple of classics rather than one good one per album, and with some of Ringo’s best playing. Really, what’s not to like?

Of course, the next album was *very* special…

Linkblogging For 26/11/09

Posted in linkblogging by Andrew Hickey on November 26, 2009

Apologies for the lack of new contend. I do have a few posts planned for the next few days: HELP! tomorrow, James Bond on Saturday, a review of Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel Grandville on Sunday, but I’ve been quite tired for the last few days and also planning stuff for PEP! – my new magazine, out next month, as well as planning my contribution to the Mindless Ones’ zine.

In the meantime, have some links:
Jazz Hands Serious Business is unimpressed with the Lib Dems’ new social network ACT (I’m on it myself, but haven’t found a real use for it, and suspect it, like a lot of online campaigning stuff, is preaching to the converted. But we’ll see).

Millennium talks about how the banking ‘loans’ were more like outright fraud, and reviews The Empty Child, from the first series of the Welsh series.

Laurie Penny thinks that there should be no feminism without trans feminism.

And a couple more people have come up with reworkings of classic characters – Gavin B has done Doctor Who, as has pillock, while Rab has done a Tarzan.

Linkblogging For 23/11/09

Posted in comics, Doctor Who, linkblogging, politics by Andrew Hickey on November 23, 2009

Just a few quick links today…

Justin Zyduck has posted a Doctor Who revamp idea in response to mine.

Jennie asks Do You Know A Rapist? while Roz Kaveney wants feminists to speak out against the murder of transpeople. I wish neither post was necessary…

Over at the Mindless Ones Tymbus talks about the Uncle books

And Eddie Campbell has a couple more posts on ‘the graphic novel

Oh, and finally, you should all buy Bryan Talbot’s new graphic novel, Grandville. It may sound like the most cliched thing ever (anthropomorphic animal detectives in a steampunk alternate universe investigating a conspiracy) but it’s great anyway.

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