So first, a quick digression to say how utterly disappointed I am with this year's BBC Eurovision antics. After last year's syncretic attempt to engineer the DNA of our entry to the contest by grafting in genetic material from the father of West End stage musicals - resulting in the ungodly bastard offspring of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren - this year's pre-contest programme was left rudderless and adrift in the ocean of light entertainment scheduling. Without Lord Andrew on board (he was about to set off finding Dorothy) the show was reduced from the overstretched five-week format of 2009 to one dumb show which still retained the warmongering title, Your Country Needs You, as well as the same jingoistic CGI Dad's Army arrows opening sequence. In place of "the king of musicals" the Beeb had allegedly installed "the king of pop". No, not Michael Jackson back from the grave, but lardy music impresario Pete Waterman of late-Eighties music pop production line Stock Aitken and Waterman. The wisdom of this move was dubious given that Waterman hasn't had a high-charting pop single for well over a decade. Although I'm not normally conscious enough to watch breakfast TV, I serendipitously happened to catch an interview with Waterman on the BBC's early morning couch the day before the show. Momentarily my faith in him was restored when I heard him speak cogently about various styles of European music, about writing catchy melodies, about how his years of experience would stand him in good stead.
But such faith was shattered to a thousand tiny grating pieces the moment I heard the song itself, co-written with erstwhile business partner Mike Stock. It was like Steps reject material. Classic SAW melodic structure and chord sequence backed by a lazy bland arrangement as if played on a Casio keyboard with an autochord setting labelled PWL. The show, hosted as these things unfailingly are by Graham Norton, tried its best to inject some drama into the proceedings but as per last year the potential singers were all - fittingly for the final song I suppose - shamefully mediocre. In a supreme piece of irony, the track is called That Sounds Good to Me. No. No, it definitely doesn't.
In an odd sidenote about the British song, the shadow of a far larger worldwide contest looms on the horizon, overshadowing the ESC and yet curiously embracing it. The sportswear manufacturer Puma ran a series of videos on YouTube (they even got Old Tel fronting it) called The Hardchorus European Song Contest which showed burly aggressive football fans from various European nations chanting songs from their respective national ESC repertoire. The Germans fans for example are shown singing their winning 1982 entry while the French fans opt for this year's song which is almost custom-made for the terraces (more on that song below). Italy, who have not competed in the ESC since 1997, have two videos: one where they sing the entry from that valedictory year and another where they are simply standing mute. Aren't advertising directors drole? Personally I think Scooch's Flying the Flag would have been a quirky but appropriate choice for the Brits. But bizarrely the video of skinheads, scallies and other angry gentlemen standing outside a pub has them singing this year's entry. Stranger still, they actually give a better rendition of the song than the lackluster X-Factor-reject Josh Dubovie. I'm secretly hoping this footie mob might storm onto the Oslo stage for the last chorus on Saturday night.
So what are we up against? A surprising outbreak of ballads for one thing. It seems to me that ironically this may be some sort of legacy from our Lloyd Webber torch song last year. Notably, the host nation Norway are fielding a pop-operatic (popperatic?) song called My Heart is Yours which could easily fit into a West End musical by the Lord himself. Since I've always banged on about the conquering might of insistent eurobeat anthems, I'm at a loss this year since they're in scant supply as more countries opt for slower emotional songs. Even Ukraine, who I keep tipping for the top with their creative and original pop machinations of the last few contests, have pared it back to a solitary female singer and a slow blues rock-tinged ballad. As Serbia proved in 2007, insipid songs such as these can win, but they need to be better than most of the stuff on offer this year, if you ask me.
Briefly then, here are the cream of the crop in my humble opinion.
In the ballad category, the Belarus entry, a track called Butterflies, has a stirring melody and ought to do well, but I fear the slowburning pop of Azerbaijan Drip Drop is more on the money. The slew of other ballads I will happily ignore, though that's usually a good sign that I'm about to be proven wrong and the winner is amongst them.
Picking up the tempo to a brisk walking pace, there's Denmark's song, In a Moment Like This, which sounds a bit like The Pretenders dressed up with Abba stylings. But if we're after proper uptempo pop, and I think we are, Albania's electro shufflebeat track, It's All About You, is acceptably groovy. In the semi-final, the singer, Juliana Pasha, sported a top with early-Ace-Frehley stylings and shared the stage with a mopheaded violinist whose kerr-azy performance tried in vain to make up for the fact that she and he were dwarfed by the vast stage. If a track like this were coupled with more theatrics it could easily go into the top five. As it is I'm not so sure it'll capture the audience's imagination.
Romania have a couple seated at a double-headed light-up perspex piano. The song, Playing With Fire, only really takes off in the chorus and the faux Richard Clayderman middle-eight seems incongruous, but on the refrain alone it should do well. I know that I can't stop humming it and the young lady of the duo, Paula Seling, is suitably pleasant to look at for the three minutes she's on stage. Her male singing partner, Ovidiu Cernăuţeanu (but you can call him Ovi), not so much.
In recent years I've noted that tracks which incorporate eastern musical influences are not only get-up-and-dance guaranteed but play well in the more oriental regions that the contest now reaches. In this year's final it's really all down to Greece to keep this sort of flame burning. Their track Opa is a hefty Hellenic testosteronal workout, continually lurching and driving, like a taxi ride through Athens after an ouzo-fuelled night of dancing. However it's possible the eastern nations will favour the more overt Balkan brass sound of the Serbian entry from androgynous pudding-bowl head Milan Stanković, which features the Technotronic-like cry "Balkan! Balkan! Balkan!" Mind you, if it comes down to a fight, I'm backing the big Greek bloke.
Iceland have fielded credible modern pop tracks over the past few years. 2010 is no exception and Hera Björk (no relation to the more famous Icelandic export I believe) gives the anthemic eurotrancey track Je Ne Sais Quoi suitable welly. But then I expect no less from a big girl in a tent of a dress. She may even pick up points from the French for having a title they can understand (even though the rest of the song is in English).
Last year I personally advised the French (or at least, those who might read my blog) to get the Ivory Coast group Magic System on board. It appears they took my advice and got the next best thing, a Congolese singer called Jessy Matador who used to be in a band with some of Magic System's musicians, fronting a song called Allez! Ola! Olé! It's the sort of tube de vacances I'm used to hearing on the radio in the south of France of a summer and it ticks all my boxes. Unfortunately nobody seems to like France these days so I don't expect it to fare well in the voting. Dommage!
I'm told that the betting money is on Germany this year with the song Satellite. The singer, Lena, in the video and pictures I've seen looks like a nondescript demure European 19-year-old, which seems an ill fit for the hooky jumpy song which she sings in a bad Kate Nash accent. ("I even pie-ainted my toe-niles for yuoo.") Not sure if they'll be adding any wacky stage antics for her performance in the final or, like the official promo, she'll just turn up looking like she works in the Hanover branch of Gap. The song's secret sauce comes from the writers, one Danish, one American, both of whom have good chartbusting pedigree. And unlike Waterman and Stock, I'm talking charts of the last few years here. (Curiously, a version of Satellite by Jennifer Braun, another competitor for the German national contest, shows the original direction for the song was a slower rock ballad. Having heard it, I prefer the individualism of Lena's wonky cockney vowels set to that itchy jazz rhythm.) Final top three almost certainly, but I'm still not sure if it will grab the winner's trophy. The swingbeat groove reminds me too much of fellow German Lou Bega's Mambo No.5, and, over a decade on, I still haven't recovered from the psychological scars that left.
Stephen Fry wrote a brilliant blog post recently about the election which I thought was both honest and fair. Like him, I respect and value the proper functioning of an open democratic system such as we enjoy. Like him, I have concerns about the type of government that we might end up with if the Conservatives take office. Like him, I think Gordon Brown, though much-maligned by the vapid media and restless electorate, is in essence an authentic and serious politician who has deep-seated moral values that compel him in his vocation. Fry linked to the following speech which I had missed in the pre-election news circus.
To my mind the depth of passion and the weight of conviction demonstrated by Gordon Brown in this clip utterly demolishes the shallow posturing of David Cameron. As this nation stands on the brink of an almighty tussle by opposing parties to take the reins of power, personally I would feel happier entrusting this country to this son of a Scottish minister than to the upstart Etonian who Barack Obama branded (allegedly) a "lightweight". The next round is just beginning but I hope that somehow we can keep the governance out of the feckless hands of the Bullingdon cronies.
Update: I survived Derren's attempts to take over my brain and mentally attach my rectum to the chair. (Although from what I hear, allowing Derren to take control of one's rear end is not generally advised.) Peep my tweets to catch my witty asides.
Also, concentrating on updates probably meant my attention was elsewhere. New possible marketing slogan: Twittering frees your mind.
A couple of weeks ago, before iPhone OS 3.0 was released I gave a quick roundup of some of my moans in the 2.x version which I’d lived with for the last several months. Now 3.0 is out and I’ve had time to play with it for more than a few hours, I want to follow up on my list of gripes and see if I can add any new ones to the list. Before I do I should preface any complaints with my overall opinion that 3.0 reminds me of Leopard on the Mac: it finally feels just about right. If that’s too fluffy and subjective, perhaps I ought to clarify - I mean it is eminently functional and aesthetically polished in ways that previous releases of OS X weren’t. Not to say I haven’t had some initial glitchiness though. A black screen for a worryingly long time on startup (after the Apple logo) one time made me sweat. Contacts app sometimes pauses mysteriously going from listing to contact page to placing call. Third party apps are of course not Apple’s responsibility but I noticed some visible page swapping in NetNewsWire going from feed listing to actual post content, and given its similarity to the Contacts experience wonder if it has a related source. In a similar vein some UI transitions don’t even seem to find time to render since things are so much faster, which feels super responsive even though it means less dissolves and icon swooshing eye candy.
But alas some of my old UI niggles remain! Let’s get to them after I recap previous points which have been addressed:
Grumbles now abated:
Contacts database accessible across apps
Yay! Accessing a contact from Messages or indeed a bunch of other places gives you the same access as from Contacts app itself. Points for UI consistency.
Phone call log refinement
Woot! Major improvements here show call duration, detail regarding which number has been called (helpful for visually knowing which phone someone called from, eg, home, work, mobile), even a new dinky icon to distinguish outgoing from incoming. But on this last solution, it feels a bit ad hoc to me. Why don’t outgoing calls get an icon? Why not simply add a sort tab at the top for Incoming and Outgoing as well as All and Missed?
Of course, the old magnifier metaphor is still there, but I’ve noticed the redesigned look to the glass. The fuzziness is gone, the text is clearer. Cut, copy and paste seems to make working with the cursor generally less of a crapshoot. So far.
While I’ve got a side-by-side screenshot comparison of Notes up here to illustrate my point, can I just say that I’m surprised John Gruber of all people hasn’t commented on the new improved Marker Felt? Wider, crisper, more legible, it even improves the look of all those shopping list apps. All in all, the subtle but worthwhile Notes app overhauls are to be applauded. Oh, and they sync. Praise be.
Improvements still awaited:
Phone app stays in foreground
I don’t think I’ve read anyone else moan about this. I must be the only one who gets narked by the persistence of the Phone app.
Global Alerts dialogs still demand attention
This seems so built into the current OS at a fundamental level, I don’t expect this to get a rethink until someone at Apple finally gets annoyed by all the new Push notifications interrupting their workflow/gameplay like a nagging child. I expect something more akin to Growl notifications will emerge in the next iteration. Looks like the jailbreak community is already onto this one.
Losing data input due to incoming call
Calendar app still fails to preserve any data entry until you hit Done on the Add Event page. Contacts app data entry is smarter. In edit mode, each page corresponding to a data field (eg name, phone number, email, address etc) actually has Save in the top right. Each time you hit that, it actually saves your data. My advice: Calendar app team, get the Contacts guys to bring you up to speed. (PS. See also next para.)
Location field in Calendar entries should be tappable to launch Maps
Calendar app presents entries with a certain insouciance as to their actual data, so it seems. The location field is simply a secondary string of text under the title. Similarly, once an event is created, the calendar type to which it belongs cannot be altered. So if you added that work event to your family calendar by mistake - tough luck. You’ll need to correct your error elsewhere. Not to mention the mindbendingly ridiculous lack of capability to unsubscribe from subscribed calendars. Even unpublishing a calendar doesn’t force an unsubscription.
[UPDATE: Both I and the aforelinked are being dense and short-sighted. Unsubscribing a Calendar requires going to the Settings app under the 'Mail, Contacts, Calendars' page.]
System-wide dismissable keyboard
The new Messages app has done away with the onscreen keyboard persisting even after you had deleted text in the reply field. In other words, if the reply field is empty (or emptied) no keyboard is presented when you re-open that message thread. But it’d still be nice to dismiss the keyboard at will in all apps so you can release screen space for reading. And landscape mode exacerbates the situation, as I suspected.
iPod is still not a good iPhone app experience
My major axe for grinding hasn’t really been dulled - or should that be sharpened? Yikes. Metaphor mismatch! - by the subtle UI tweaks in OS 3.0. I’m genuinely appreciating the more accurate playhead scrubber. I’ve even noticed the slightly smaller ‘album art’ for podcast and video listings (though why these can’t be consistent and match the size of Music album art I don’t know). These are all good and welcome improvements. But dammit all, playlist creation and editing still languishes in the dark ages of the earliest iTunes/iPod method. A device like this ought to be able to let people mix up their media how they want away from the iTunes host computer, and Genius is a poor AI substitute in this regard. I’m going to keep making a stink about this until Apple sees sense. Though I suspect that some vestigial structure regarding iTunes and iPod playlists is the cause. And given that iTunes is an evolutionary kludge built with the DNA of SoundJam, I’m fearful that only a major rewrite of the behemoth will fix it.
While I’m banging on about playlists, let me put it this way. I keep coming across people sharing Spotify playlists on Twitter. I know the hosted/subscription model of Spotify can’t be compared to iTunes but it struck me that the new ‘email a friend about this podcast’ feature in the iPod app is like a poor imitation of this concept. If I can buy music from iTunes away from my computer, I ought to be able to put together a playlist of new tracks I’ve discovered and share it with my friends right from my iPhone. iTunes on the desktop has long been able to create an iMix out of a playlist which can be shared. But the big difference between this and Spotify is my friends can potentially buy the playlist/iMix. In effect, by sharing I become a sales rep for iTunes. How many million iPhones out there now, all with the ability to buy music on-the-go? Imagine only a small percentage of those users being able to create and share playlists that can be bought wirelessly from iTunes. Mr Forstall, Mr Cook, call me and we can work out the numbers.
Finally, just to follow up on one of my points in the previous post: swipe deleted videos and podcasts stay in the grave after phone restarts.
Truncated overlong text
Talking of the iTunes store, what the hell happened to make my example of truncated text WORSE in 3.0? I even turned the phone into landscape mode hoping that’d help, but alas, the App and iTunes store apps don’t get the new horizontal treatment. Regardless, truncated text is an issue throughout the OS.
Partial application of MobileMe
Still no monkey-fighting ability to use MobileMe aliases in Mail app. Since I posted my last screed about this, a big chunk of my visitors have got here by searching with terms like ‘mobile me alias iphone 3.0’. There’s plenty of people looking for this to happen. Make it happen, Apple.
A new features page on Apple’s MobileMe section says that an iDisk app is ‘coming soon’. At least it can replace my no-longer-supported MobileFiles app by Quickoffice which I mentioned previously, although unlike that third-party solution Apple’s app makes it possible to share any iDisk hosted docs via a download link. It’s a step in the right direction.
Hitting the top bar shortcut
The new horizontal layout option everywhere actually makes this a pressing issue. Any moderately long web page, email message, SMS thread or Note actually requires more laborious swiping to navigate in widescreen mode. Quicker paging up and down and going to the end is definitely needed. Perhaps a two finger swipe could scroll at twice the speed? (Not everybody knows it but a two-finger gesture is already used by Map apps: try a two-finger single-tap if you haven’t before!)
YouTube player outside of YouTube app
No change regarding my existing complaint, despite the upgrades in the YouTube app itself. If you’re viewing a YouTube link that is presented via the dumb controller, sharing or favoriting is still out of your reach. Make YouTube filetype handling globally consistent, s’il vous plait.
Introducing an all-new 3.0 gripe to add to the list
Voice Memos is the oddest app I think Apple has crafted for the iPhone. Besides the anachronistic graphic of an old-timey microphone with needle meter (I was expecting some Garagebandesque woodgrain in the bottom panel to round it off), the file management is simply inept. Once you figure out that the left button goes to the list view of recorded memos, you’ll find that your recordings are titled with the time, and then the date in secondary grey text. It takes one page to go to a detailed view which tells you no additional data but offers you Trim and Share buttons. A page deeper still and one can change the title of the memo, except that it’s called Label and you have to choose from preset list or go to yet another page to add a custom Label. That’s three pages just to label your recording!
But it gets worse. Having named your file, you probably want to sync it to your computer. No problem, since iTunes has a checkbox to ‘Include voice memos’ under the Music sync tab. Given that I manage my music manually this was greyed out so I didn’t expect it to sync at all, but surprisingly it did. But what did it sync? I’d re-labelled the voice memos on the iPhone but the files that were copied to my Mac (into a new Voice Memos playlist) were titled with time and date. Perhaps my custom label was buried in the metadata elsewhere? Nope. Then I noticed that Voice Memos on the iPhone appear as a playlist in iTunes, but items in that playlist also fail to display any user applied labels. Also, this is no ordinary playlist; it doesn’t show in iPod app on the phone, and bizarrely you can freely edit the titles of the items in the iPhone playlist via iTunes on the computer, but those alterations won’t affect the file listing in Voice Memos app on the phone which will remain the label previously applied.
Overall impression: a torturous app hiding behind a shiny interface. So until Apple addresses these crazy behaviours, I’m sticking with Griffin’s iTalk, despite the fact it requires a separate sync app on the desktop. At least its UI looks like something fitting for a 21st century digital device.
And finally, I regret some of my pre-emptive criticism
Not having used Spotlight, I pre-judged it. I was wrong to be so hasty. I think it’s a beautiful implementation. I still think a text-driven search UI could be improved by the possibility of graphic-driven saved searches. And, as with OS X on the desktop, making data inside third party apps searchable from the global interface would be good. Top tip for searching: don’t waste the Home double-click setting on Search. As you probably know, when you are on a Home screen, one press of the button takes you to page one. Now, a further press takes you to Spotlight. No need for that new right swipe at all!
Talking of the Home button pref, I hope Apple offer the ability to assign the Home double-click to start any app. I’m certain that quick launching of fart apps is what the public are really clamoring for.
When the official history of electronic music gets written up in neat handwriting and submitted to the shelves of cultural history I sure hope that Telefon Tel Aviv gets a good few pages and isn’t simply relegated to some disparaging marginal footnote (you know, “a list of derivative american synth bands that styled themselves on previous musical luminaries” sort of thing). After the untimely death of one half of the band, Charles Cooper, earlier this year, their latest album which was released only weeks before his passing, stands as a testament to his and Joshua Eustis’ immense talent. ‘Immolate Yourself’ is a remarkable album featuring Telefon Tel Aviv’s signature booming, shattering, juddering electronic beats married to rich chordal washes and shimmering shining melodic phrases. And in the midst of it all, Eustis’ lilting open singing, wrapped in reverb and sounding like monastic plainsong lost in the machine. It’s a departure from their previous works which seemed like fragile shattering overtures predicated on forensic glitchy microsampling and warm electronic piano tones. Still there’s the incredible meticulous attention to rhythmic detail, but the tonal character of the new material is a more overt synthetic sound derived from classic analogue synthesis: fat slabby basses, warm undulating pads, neon bright pizzicato top lines, all mixed to tape to further saturate the textures. It trembles with echoes of mid-eighties Depeche Mode, carries tinges of post-Foxx Ultravox (indeed, it hints at John Foxx’s solo sound too), and I hear strains of BGM/Naughty Boys era YMO in there too.
After Cooper’s demise, Eustis had stated that Telefon Tel Aviv’s tour to promote this album was understandably cancelled. So I was surprised and excited when my friend told me only a week or so beforehand that they were appearing in London. Eustis was backed up by Fredo Nogueira, a close friend of the band who had played guitar on their second album ‘Map of What is Effortless’. Soaking up the latest Telefon Tel Aviv tracks live at the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen last week made me appreciate afresh just how ingenious and intricate they are. And how they once again refute the persistent nonsense that sequenced synthesised sounds are somehow hard and unemotional.
I think it was Elvis Costello who suggested that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Telefon Tel Aviv’s new tunes sound like overpowering architectural structures but many make you want to dance inside them. Music for dimly lit cyber cathedrals.
Be sure to check the post-3.0 follow-up to this tirade after you've read this...
Apple fans have often said it’s a company that sweats over the small details to make the user experience so much better, so I felt my petty gripes with the 2.x OS on my iPhone 3G, while seemingly nitpicky, were like flies in an otherwise rich and luxurious ointment. I originally began this write-up after half a year of living with the device. Then neglected it. Revisited it in the light of the 3.0 beta launch in March. Decided it was dead horse flogging. Left it again. Mulled over it once more with the WWDC 2009 keynote imminently approaching and threw all caution to the wind. Without experiencing the beta release for myself, I just don’t know whether all my complaints will be addressed in the update. Yes, I know the glaring omissions like MMS and cut-copy-paste are coming, but what about pedantic GUI moans: the keyboard’s behaviour, the YouTube transport controller, truncated text strings? So here they all are. Let’s see how many are non-issues once I get my hands on 3.0. In no particular order:
Contacts database accessible across apps but inconsistent functionality
A trivial one to get the ball rolling. You’ve probably never noticed that contacts are editable when accessed from Phone app and Contacts app but not from SMS app. It’s not an earth-shattering limitation but it has frustrated me on a few occasions when I want to add data to a contact after an SMS message. I’m hoping that the new Messages app will fix this, especially since it can send and receive attachments like VCFs.
Phone app stays in foreground
This also feels a bit petty but it still irks me. With an incoming call, Phone app leaps into action to handle it. No surprises there. End call, iPhone goes back to sleep. Next time you wake the phone from sleep, Phone app is still open in the foreground on whichever tab you last left it (eg, Favorites, Recents etc). So unless you are about to initiate a call, very often this means a press on the Home button to get out of Phone app. It’d be elegant if the OS could simply retire Phone app to the background and revert to the homescreen after an incoming call, unless of course you sent the phone to sleep with Phone app open.
Phone call log refinement
I think this one may be coming in 3.0 (there was mention of call logs somewhere) but the Recents tab of Phone app only offers All or Missed for sorting the call log. It shouldn’t be too hard to be able to sort by Incoming and Outgoing too. Call Length would be an extra (and overly anal) bit of data that I sometimes wish I had, but I’m sure that’s just me.
Alert dialogs that need to be dismissed in order to terminate a call!
If you’re on a call when a low battery life or incoming SMS alert pops up, you have to first dismiss the alert before you can hit the End Call button. I can understand the need for global alerts - the kind that dim the rest of the screen and require your attention - but if it gets in the way of basic functions like controlling a phone call I think something’s awry. The demo of ngmoco’s Touch Pets during the 3.0 beta launch showed the Push Notification alerts continue this trend of seemingly monopolising your attention until dismissed. Gina Trapani at Lifehacker mentioned this, preferring the notifications of Google’s Android OS which seems like a better model than global alerts in most cases. What does method does the Palm Pre use?
Losing data input due to incoming call
This one has caught me a couple of times in Calendar app. I’m entering the details for a new event over the several screens of Add Event (title, location, start/end, alerts and so on) when a call comes in. Of course Calendar quits and yields the floor to Phone app. But after the call, returning to Calendar, the unsaved event is gone for good, even if you were basically ready to press Done on the Add Event page when the call came in. Given the methodology is essentially the same, I can imagine this might also happen while adding a new contact though I haven’t experienced this personally. Now, even as a non-programmer, I think I know what’s going on here - the Done button is equivalent to Save and until then the data entered is volatile - but I also seem to recall Apple proudly saying to the effect that apps which quit when a call comes in do so “gracefully” implying you can resume where you left off. It’s certainly seems to work that way with some other apps (eg, an uncompleted SMS or tweet is still there in the text field) and maybe that’s why my data-entry loss in Calendar feels so frustrating, perhaps moreso given that it’s a default system app not some poorly-designed App Store impulse purchase.
That magnifier tool for cursor placement is both genius and madness at the same time. It’s a witty and inventive solution to a touchscreen problem but in my experience is beset with irritating inexactitude. Countless times I have cursed the cursor having placed it after a lowercase ‘i’ or ‘l’, only to find it has jumped in front of the letter as I take my finger from the screen. Such characters are of course not much bigger than the cursor itself, but it happens with fat characters too as the motion of lifting the finger from the glass sometimes alters the placement. And it doesn't help that text viewed through the magnifier has a slightly unfocussed effect to it. The new cut-copy-paste functions announced in 3.0 builds on this paradigm further so it’ll be interesting to see how I get on with that. I have started to write longer and longer blocks of text on the iPhone as I have learned to let the predictive/corrective keyboard work its voodoo, but going back to edit stuff always feels hard work by comparison. Cut-copy-paste will make iPhone text editing bearable for me. Who knows, with potential dock accessories and bluetooth enhancements hinted at in 3.0, maybe someone somewhere is building a micro qwerty keyboard for those occasions when only proper typing will cut it.
Universal dismissable keyboard
Talking of text input, while everyone’s wetting their pants about the upcoming widescreen keyboard, it’d be nice if the keyboard could also be user-dismissable system-wide. In Notes app the keyboard only appears when you place the cursor in the text area. But importantly, there is the ability to tap Done and the keyboard is dismissed from view, leaving the screen clear for reading. In SMS app, once you’ve tapped in the text entry field, that keyboard’s there for good, leaving a reading area only about a third of the total screen height - not great if you want to read back over a conversation to refer to a previous message, for example. And the keyboard state is even dynamic per message thread, so if you’ve started to reply even switching to another thread of messages won’t dismiss the keyboard in that original conversation. To my mind the to-be-desired methodology is straightforward and it’s how the keyboard appears to work in some other apps: only call up the keyboard when text entry is required, but at the same time providing a means of rolling back the keyboard at will, as per Notes. With landscape mode coming to all apps in 3.0 this is even more pertinent, given that on a horizontal aspect the keyboard takes up most of the screen real estate leaving you looking through a letterbox-like slit at your actual text.
iPod app doesn’t champion the iPhone app experience
I remain unconvinced that the iPod app on an iPhone lives up to the promise of the device itself. Perhaps forgiveable on a phone-oriented device, but the iPod Touch makes this criticism especially pertinent. Recall that when Apple released Remote app at the launch of the App Store, someone pointed out that it actually surpassed the iPod app in various aspects of its user interface.
Thankfully the big ears at Apple got wind of this and the next update saw some marked improvements in the iPod app to bring some sort of parity with Remote (which, to point out the obvious, remotely controls a full-featured iTunes app on a computer connected over wi-fi). But even now Remote shows up the deficiencies in the current iPod app, and the 3.0 beta announcement made only scant mention of new iTunes/iPod features to come so it’s not clear what changes lie ahead.
The biggest failing of the iPod app in my opinion is its playlist functionality. These features still seem to be constrained by the paradigm of the old classic iPods. You cannot edit playlists which you constructed with iTunes on your computer, and furthermore once away from your syncing Mac/PC you can only have one On-The-Go playlist at a time until you sync again with iTunes. This seems daft given the superlative interactivity of the iPhone OS. You ought to be able to create and save playlists at any time - fully editable playlists with all that swipe-to-delete, grab-to-rearrange iPhone editing experience that other apps take advantage of. The recent Genius feature offers a save function for playlists it concocts, but they are essentially locked lists, incapable of tweaks (for example, if you liked the selection that Genius suggests but want to swap the position of tracks 5 and 6, you can’t). Whereas On-The-Go offers track rearrange and delete but no way to save that list so you can create another. Remote is better in this regard, showing how it could be done, by creating and editing playlists from your touch device (but which reside on the computer). For people who like to be in control of their music (and video) away from their computer, iPod app is frustrating and seems oddly restrictive given the potential of the OS.
On the subject of editable content, did you know some iPod content can be deleted? Video and podcast media on the iPhone seem to allow ad hoc deletion, unlike anything in the music library. A simple right-swipe on any video or podcast brings up a Delete button. I can see this would be handy if you are away from your syncing computer, perhaps on a trip, and having loaded up your iPhone with movies for the journey wish to delete such large files to make space for, say, all the travel photos you intend to take. But be warned: items deleted this way pop back from the grave like a zombie messiah if you power down and restart the iPhone - which you might well do on a long spell away from your computer. In other words, the intended deletion is only made permanent when you sync with iTunes, which goes some way to making the away-from-sync convenience of the feature debatable. (In fact, iTunes shows any “deleted” content like this as still being on the device until you sync, even if iPod app itself regards it as trashed.)
My other ongoing beef with the iPod functions on the iPhone is to do with controls from the lockscreen. Like most sensible people I have the Passcode Lock enabled so that anybody helping themselves to my phone with nefarious intent would be unable to access my data. (The “Erase Data after 10 failed passcode attempts” option is also a fantastic reassurance, and I’m thankful that the number is so high based on some failed attempts to unlock my own phone after a few too many drinks.) I also have the Home Button double-click prefs set to enable iPod controls if music is playing. Thus, from a lockscreen, a double-click on the Home Button calls up basic playback controls. My nitpicky quibble with this is the controls on offer: back, play/pause, forward and a volume slider. What I frequently crave is a track playhead scrubber, inexact as it is when in the narrow screen of portrait orientation. If I want to manually scrub track playback, I have to unlock the screen whereupon the aforementioned playback controls are now positioned at the bottom of the screen with a playhead/shuffle/repeat/genius bar at the top. Firstly, from a user-interface perspective, I find it odd that the basic controls don’t occupy a consistent place on the screen. Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever used the onscreen volume controller. I eschew the touchscreen control in favour of the hardware route essentially because, when holding the phone, my thumb or finger is resting on or near the volume button already. And personally I can’t fathom the thought process of powering up a sleeping screen and then double-clicking Home to adjust playback volume when there’s a simple shiny silver button on the side. Of course I’m disregarding all those people with docks who no doubt need an onscreen volume slider and I can anticipate the response that a slider for playhead and one for volume could be confusing (in normal playback the playhead slider is only disclosed after a further tap in the cover art area), but all it really needs is for the lockscreen controls to more resemble the layout of the regular version. Perhaps if the user has chosen to show playhead controls (it seems to be a persistent toggle on or off) they are presented on the lockscreen too.
Truncated overlong text
Familiar to OS X users on the desktop, I call this the “curse of the ellipsis” for truncating long titles. At least with Mac OS X, the Finder chops out the middle of filenames in the Finder, so “My Very Long Filename Is Bigger Than Yours.mp3” would appear as something like “My Very Long F...Yours.mp3”. In most instances iPhone OS is content to simply lop off the ends of long text strings. This would be a fine time for the iPhone to learn from the non-touch iPods where for some time now long song titles have happily scrolled across the small iPod screens so that you can read them in their entirety. It’s particularly frustrating in the iTunes Store app where you might be exploring new music with unfamiliar titles, or as in the illustration here of an album with five remixes of the same track, the precise distinct identity of which you will never know. In a case like this, perhaps title scrolling ought to begin when you hit the item preview and the 30 second snippet plays, although that does preclude being able to read long titles without initiating playback. Of course, it’s not just the iTunes Store app where this problem turns up; long feed names and post titles in RSS apps, video and podcast listings in iPod app. Mail app offers a font size preference in its settings pane. Is this the simplest solution? Perhaps this problem will be less obvious with the upcoming landscape screen layout across all Apple apps (and no doubt other developers will keep pace). But if even widescreen is too narrow for exceptionally long text strings, what then?
Partial application of MobileMe capability
When .Mac was rebadged MobileMe, living in the cloud was held out as a viable option. Unfortunately, Apple overreached and the service was beset by problems for weeks. With push notifications via Apple’s servers now becoming available in 3.0 for third party developers, it’s tempting to think everything is rosy again. But there’s still a handful of functions I’d hope to see working with MobileMe. Firstly, Mail on the iPhone doesn’t support MobileMe aliases. The browser-based Mail UI and the OS X app can happily send from a MobileMe alias, but I can’t reply from that alias address on my iPhone. This is a silly limitation and frustrates me every time I boot up MobileMail.
Secondly, the data storage aspect of MobileMe could act as an extension of the iPhone’s limited capacity. For example, rather than emailing myself a PDF simply to read it away from my desk, wouldn’t it make sense for Apple to offer a built-in MobileMe app to pull the document down from ‘the cloud’. If the app could also edit text files, RTFs, Word docs, XLS spreadsheets and so forth, you’d have a powerful and truly useful MobileMe office suite. I have a free third party app called MobileFiles by Quickoffice Inc which works well enough as a remote file viewer, but I see it is no longer available. Quickoffice Inc’s full-featured paid app, Mobile Office Suite, offers most of the above wishlist but if Apple offered similar functionality built-in to the iPhone, surely it would make it a smarter smartphone and a more attractive prospect for business. Plus it could drive more paying customers to MobileMe.
Hit top bar to go home is the only shortcut
I imagine most iPhone users have learned that they can instantly ‘page up’ (or rather go ‘home’) by hitting the top bar. But darn it, there is no equivalent for paging down apart from the cute but tiresome screen swiping gesture. On long web pages such as comment threads on blogs - and given the narrow screen width, pages increase in vertical depth quite naturally - this drives me insane in next to no time.
Location field in Calendar entries should be tappable to launch Maps
I think that subheading says it all.
Oh ho, 3.0
Having read all these finicky complaints you might think I spend my time in vexation, continually dashing my iPhone to the ground. Not a bit. It is the most enjoyable mobile phone I have ever had the fortune of owning. Previous phones have often touted similar features (media playback, email, web and the like) but consistently failed to deliver anything like a pleasant user experience. That I can derive such stupid childlike joy from this gadget is embarassing but true. So whether or not 3.0 addresses any of my above gripes, I think the publicly confirmed features are good and will help the iPhone inch ahead of newcomers like the Palm Pre.
But while I’m on the subject, let me offer a few kneejerk observations to some of the new features recently demonstrated.
Hurrah for system wide searching akin to Spotlight on Mac OS X! How clever to access it from the Homescreen by a swipe to the left! But rather than simply calling up a text field and a waiting keyboard, why not offer the possibility of Saved Searches? They could each have an icon, not unlike the way favourite websites can be added to homescreens. If there are search terms you use regularly, this could be massively convenient. Of course a Spotlight Homescreen with Saved Search shortcut icons also relates to my earlier comments about a keyboard invoked and dismissed by the user rather than OS 3.0 Spotlight’s default waiting-for-text input mode. Search initiated by text must be driven by a keyboard, but adding icons (or even a list of bookmarked searches or search history, to borrow from a browser paradigm) would require a default GUI mode which to my mind suits the touch-driven OS better.
New YouTube features
I’m not a heavy YouTube user, either on the iPhone or my Mac, but I notice that the YouTube app History only seems to keep a record of videos watched through the app itself. Thus, embedded videos in RSS feeds or Twitter URLs for example do not seem to get added to History which can be mildly frustrating when you want to revisit a movie you watched earlier but don't have the original link to hand. It seems YouTube playback functionality is a system wide filetype handler, independent of the YouTube app itself, in much the same way that an invisible Quicktime app handles direct links to media content like MP3s etc. You can visually tell the difference in the transport interface. The app version has bookmark and mail icons at each end of the controller, which are lacking in the non-app version. When I find myself watching a video in the non-app version, I’ve come to learn that I won’t be able to conveniently bookmark it or share it via email. But it’d be nice if you could. OS 3.0 promises YouTube user account log-in with access to channels and subscriptions. Perhaps YouTube might eventually offer the ability to access your account-based viewing history from any device. But for now, at the very least, it’d be a step forward to maintain bookmarked Favorites on the iPhone regardless where you clicked the YouTube URL.
There remain two fundamentals to the iPhone OS that are still unavailable to the user and, although their absence is frustrating, I can understand why they aren’t yet apparent. I’m referring of course to a global sync mechanism and a common file system. Currently individual apps are forced to roll their own solutions to both of these. I fully appreciate why sandboxing app data/documents is a security priority for Apple in order to prevent possible malicious apps getting their grubby hands on your personal data. But the fact that several of my third-party iPhone apps each need their own sync conduit app on the desktop feels like reinventing (and reinstalling) the wheel. It means that if I want to get a simple text file on my iPhone - to choose a very rudimentary example - I usually need to jump through several hoops. I currently use wifi connection app Air Sharing to punt such documents to my iPhone. In essence it is a read-only file browser. If I want to edit that text file on-the-go… well, forget it. With OS 3.0, I’ll be able to cut and paste its contents into an email or note but then it ceases to be the original file.
At least wifi file access is more evolved than the dependence on iTunes for syncing. One day we’ll all be living in ‘the cloud’ when bandwidth and storage will be effectively limitless. Then we’ll look back at technology like iPhone OS 3.0 like we do at grainy black and white film of people using early telephones, cranking a handle and saying ‘Operator?’
Might even have decent editable media playlists by then too.
So a few weeks ago, realising that my design was approaching its first anniversary and was still sitting on the bench, I decided to find an existing Blogger template and hack at it 'til it looked as close as I could get it to my design. That work is now done. If you spot any fatal wonkiness please leave a comment in this post. If you're using a crap browser don't bother. I've made it good enough to work for most people. Given it has taken so long to even get me to this point, if it looks wrong in IE6 then frankly I don't think I can find it in me to even begin to care.
To spruce things up, and because the new wider whiter layout permits it, I am revisiting some old posts and adding a few graphics here and there. I have even deleted a few really pointless old posts and trimmed some bits of dead wood. If you landed here from a search engine (bing!) and what you were after is no longer available, it is likely that you have fallen victim to my stalinesque revisionism. (I have covered up a few murders too, simply by removing the URLs.)
There seems to be a good smattering of songs with that Balkan brass band sound and I also noticed more than a few going for the onstage miming with stringed instruments schtick, faux gypsy style fiddlers included. (Worst offender: Norway.) But as ever, the key to success this year will be a big ballsy memorable pop tune loaded with eastern flavour.
So what are my top picks?
Turkey's Hadise is a sexy babe with a sassy eastern europop banger. I swear if this doesn't get in the top three I will never eat turkish delight ever again. (This isn't an empty threat - my Christmas isn't complete without a box of the pink sickly sticky sweet treat. Please don't ruin Christmas for me, Hadise.)
Sakis Rouvas is a kind of Greek Enrique, referred to as "the ultimate pop star in Greece" on the ESC website no less. The ladies will love him as he has the chiseled good looks of a god. But he appears to have the stage routine of a failed old David Copperfield trick, with a magic sticky slidey floor gizmo. Despite that, behind the stagecraft there’s a big eurohouse pop tune with a catchy if somewhat disappointing chorus.
I've got a soft spot for the electropop shufflebeat revival (Britney, Katy Perry, Sam Sparro, even the anodyne British girlgroup The Saturdays have had some winning tunes in this genre). So Armenia's track Jan Jan by sisters Inga and Anush floats my boat and sails it round the Caspian sea before returning to the bay for a skinny dip. Not bad for a landlocked country. Seriously, this tune is catchy and quirky in all the ways that a Eurovision song ought to be. This is my pick for an underrated outsider to get in the top five.
Ukraine. What to say that I haven’t said consistently for the last few years. These guys get pop music like no other nation in the contest. That they have been robbed of the winner’s crown (or is it a strange glass trophy) in recent years is a mystery to me. This year’s tune is another itchy catchy number. And who can’t love a floor show that has a singer with too much slap playing a drum solo surrounded by muscly Roman soldiers in shiny armour. Don’t know about you but it’s a recurring fantasy of mine. The official video has Svetlana Loboda dipped in crude oil or chocolate or both, confirming to me that the Ukrainian pop industry has a healthy appreciation of the potent marriage of fetishistic imagery and huge pop music. A year ago, I hastily predicted a landslide win for Ukraine in 2009. I don’t think this is it, but it ought to do well. If I’m wrong you can roll me in oil and chocolate.
Hopefully you know the score by now (and I don’t mean “Grande Bretagne, nul points”) in that the semi-final rounds are where the lesser nations fight it out to compete in the grand final. But the host nation (this year Russia) and the Big Four who help bankroll the event get a fasttrack ticket straight to the closing heat. The little guys literally earn their right to be there. How do these others measure up in 09?
Taking the hosts first, this female-sung ballad is all very nice but not the sort of song to distinguish yourself in a contest like this. I’d wager they went for an average act because they’ve spent more than the Russian GDP on staging the two semi-finals already.
Spain finally seem to have caught the current of the ESC in the 21st century. It has an advantage in this regard: it understands the gypsy, North African and Arabic cultures that have infiltrated the Iberian peninsula throughout history. So it's fielding leggy blond Soraya and a pounding eastern sounding pop anthem. I don't think it's good enough to win, but it's certainly their strongest contender for years.
Germany go the Lou Bega route (dear lord, no!) by melding the popular electropop shufflebeat stylings to the classic hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho big band jazz of Cab Calloway. I hear they have Dita Von Teese lined up for the live act, so at the very least there might be the ESC's first glimpse of nipple tassles. How I have longed to write a sentence like that.
France tend to regret nothing, but one wonders if they repent of sending the peerless Sébastien Tellier last year who sung in - sacré bleu! - English. They've found a sultry woman to sing a nice French pop ballad this time which must make them feel happier. The song’s okay but nothing more. (Trivia interlude: French is still one of the official languages of the contest - thus all the “douze points” nonsense at score time - although the rule that countries must sing only in one of the approved tongues has long been retired. And before you ask, yes, when that rule was abolished there were inevitably entries in entirely made-up languages. This is Eurovision after all.) Last year I dared to suggest Daft Punk as French Eurovision prizefighters. They’re too busy working on the Tron sequel soundtrack (yay!) so can I suggest the formidable Magic System instead. Those guys are French North African dance pop geniuses.
I think I've made my feelings pretty clear about the whole Lloyd Webber Eurovision strategy already. This type of contest really isn't the setting for his stage musical meanderings even though the PR says he has something of a following in Eastern Europe. That he is reportedly interested in casting Britain's Got Talent shock-sensation Susan Boyle in a musical says it all for me. Listen, Britain - by which I mean the BBC - stop treating Eurovision like some retro camp joke while insisting that the contest isn't fair and is spoiled by eastern bloc voting. (Jonathan Ross last night even used the word “fix”. How, pray, do you fix continent wide phone voting?) Field an artist who has some genuine sex, street smarts and an insanely catchy quirky tune, and you can save our national reputation at this event. If you really don’t know how to do it, call me. I have notes.
A couple of brief honourable mentions from the semi’s: both the Serbian guy sporting a goatee, bleached afro, golden yellow blazer with the troupe of bald dancers, and also FYR Macedonia’s curly-perm mopheaded rock twins were amazingly good entertainment value and I was shocked they didn’t qualify not for their underwhelming songs but on their memorable visual presentation. Top marks!
But back to Lost. This season has been reminding me - somewhat nerdily - of a short story by Robert A Heinlein called By His Bootstraps (actually published under the pseudonym Anson MacDonald). Heinlein has been previously been alluded to in the Lostiverse with regard to his novel Stranger in a Strange Land, used as the title of episode 9 of season 3, fact fans. Without telling the whole story of By His Bootstraps, it is essentially a time travel puzzle wherein the actions of the protagonist are both the cause and the effect. In other words a loop in time where there is no prime mover, no deus ex machina (s1 e19!) just a wonderfully perplexing circularity.
Witness Locke in the penultimate episode this season being the source of the instruction to himself that Alpert should convey how he must bring the others back to the island. Or there's Eloise Hawking killing her future son in 1977 only to send him off in later life to meet his demise by her hand. We are starting to see the characters inescapably trapped in a series of events from which there is no deviation. Whatever happens, happens.
But then there is Faraday with his notebook, trying to record every twist and turn so as to figure out a way to prevent the inevitable. It seems to me he is being mirrored in Hurley who also has a notebook in which he is writing The Empire Strikes Back. But the big guy is making a few ameliorations of his own. Star Wars geeks will tell you that Lucas of course had already written Empire in 1977. The course of events can't simply be changed on a whim. Empire also alludes to the missing hand motif, an injury which we can expect Dr Chang to receive at some point soon, and something that was forshadowed by the Smoke Monster taking the French crew member from his fellow hands by dismemberment, so to speak.
Iain Lee, Geeky Tom and Paul Terry on Sky's online Lost fan show have wondered whether this season's finale might offer us more about the Black Rock, but I think Richard Alpert's ship-in-a-bottle moment is a brief glimpse ahead in that direction. It makes me wonder if Alpert was one of the Black Rock's crew or maybe a dead man who, like Christian Shephard and Locke, was re-animated never to die again. But then again, we know the American military photographed the island in the 50s, about the time of the Jughead warhead when Widmore, Eloise and co seem to be dressed in army fatigues - perhaps he's some kind of immortal military agent. Certainly, Alpert is being revealed as someone who is not in control or even prescient of oncoming events. But then, so is Eloise Hawking. The only one who seems to have an idea is the resurrected Locke who wants to kill the island's totemic leader.
So who is Jacob? I find it interesting that the three leaders of the Oceanic group all have inter-related names: Jack is a common abbreviation of both John (Locke) and James (Sawyer) and James is the Greek form of Jacob. That's not to say Jacob is any of those characters per se, but in setting off to kill Jacob is Locke merely going to reveal the "man behind the curtain", somehow unveiling a ruse that Alpert and Ben have perpetuated?
I've reached the point where I expect the end of season 6 to either loop back to the start of the first season making the entire story arc self-contained, or the events are averted and the Oceanic flight lands safely in LA and the entire run of six seasons are truly lost time which the millions of viewers will never get back.
But before I empty my brain and my spleen blogwards, a little historical preamble. The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) was established in the 1950s as a cheery post-war European unifier. Great Britain is known as one of the Big Four nations (together with Germany, France and Spain), whose financial input into the contest effectively helps bankroll the whole affair. It may surprise trivia-lovers to know, however, that Britain wasn’t actually a founder in the debut contest in 1956, only joining the following year, and the Spanish didn’t get on board until 5 years later. But money talks and, in recognition of this funding, these countries automatically qualify for a place in the grand final, bypassing the two semis. But Europe is a changed continent since those halcyon days. The fall of the Soviet bloc has led to a flurry of eastern nations joining the fray. This year, as last, forty-three nations will compete; out goes San Marino (still have no idea where that is) and off the bench comes Slovakia, returning for the first time in a decade. But it’s not just geography that has changed. Pop music is a very different beast to what it was even a few years ago. Technology has put the means of production in the hands of young people and out of the expensive studios of the old guard. It has also allowed a means of distribution that completely circumvents the established labels and media channels. The worldwide web has also brought down barriers of style and taste. Urban American artists cheerfully sample Asian and Middle-Eastern music for chart topping tracks, and the oddly misnamed genre World Music has burgeoned as middle-class dinner parties are accompanied by the sounds of Gypsy tangoes, African tribal chanting, Brazilian capoeira or Japanese koto folk. Many of the newer entrants to the ESC from the eastern bloc have brought an edgier, clubbier, downright sensual dance music that brings new shades of meaning to the tired moniker Euro Beat. This is the sound of an emergent, vibrant, youthful 21st century Europe. And Britain, which has trailed at the very bottom of the results board in the recent past, still doesn’t get it.
Exhibit A, m’lud, is the recent contest to find our national representative to send to Moscow. Sure, some of the old furniture is being replaced. Out goes one old Irish presenter (Sir Terry Wogan) to be replaced by a younger, camper version (Graham Norton). But in most other respects, the whole affair was woefully outmoded. BBC1 has been battling hard for the last several years to win the Saturday evening ratings war. ITV’s allegiance with Simon Cowell has led to audience dominance when The X Factor or, to a lesser extent, Britain’s Got Talent are running. The BBC’s answer was to hark back to the Saturday evening light-entertainment of yesteryear. Bruce Forsyth was thawed from his cryogenic storage tank and fronted another reanimated corpse, Come Dancing, which was somehow made to seem more contemporary by adding the word ‘Strictly’ to it, alluding to a movie from 1992. (1992!) When this was off the air, Norton acted as host for an endless panoply of collusions with Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber who mounted revivals of well-loved musicals in London’s West End, making the advert-free BBC into a massive billboard for his endeavours. Which brings us neatly to this, a weekly Saturday evening show where a Lloyd Webber production has been replaced with the ESC and entitled Your Country Needs You. The title is of course borrowed from the infamous First World War poster featuring the bloodhound stare of Lord Kitchener, now replaced in the opening sequence with the St-Bernardesque jowly visage of Lord Lloyd Webber posing arms-crossed amidst dancing musical notes and zooming Union-flag arrows. It was like a high-octane, high-gloss and bevelled CGI homage to the opening animation of Dad’s Army; surely an odd reference given the creaking ineptitude of the Home Guard characters in that sitcom, but yet embodying a patriotic idiocy that our once great hun-beating nation can conquer the Eurostate with a humble, hummable tune.
The credits revealed YCNY was devised by the “BBC F.E.D. Team” (humourous suggestions for that acronym, anyone?), a shady-sounding committee at the Beeb who are credited on IMDB for such ground-breaking shows as Never Mind the Full Stops and Sudo-Q. Despite the decision to axe Old Tel, the show still felt like something from twenty years ago. The live studio band (even the ESC itself ditched the live orchestral accompaniment years ago in favour of the ubiquitous backing track), the pokey stage (compared to the megawatt, big cajones, sensorygasm that is The X Factor setting, for example), the guest commentators sitting awkwardly on a couch in the corner (don’t they realise that if you have an opinion on these kind of shows you need to be behind a desk to give you authority?) - it all said we are going to lose spectacularly again, and that was before any of the prospective performers had even sung a note.
I won’t weigh this tirade down any more by vexating over the half-dozen competing acts individually (suffice to say they were IMHO mostly Opportunity Knocks standard, circa 1989) because in many respects the show almost wasn’t about them, though you were of course expected to call a money-making phone line to vote for your faves each week. Instead, the BBC’s USP for our entry to the ESC this year is Lloyd Webber. Together with prolific award-winning songwriter Diane Warren, he is responsible for devising our secret weapon, our dambusting bouncing pop tune bomb that Britain expects to explode the Moscow Olympic Indoor Arena, and to be met with a salvo of “douze points”. (A quick parenthetical to ask why the hell are we paying an American songsmith when we have our own equally-feted and certainly more gorgeous Cathy Dennis? Possibly Cathy - if she were asked, and I’m afraid I have no intel in this regard - may have said “no” to aligning her prowess with her country’s need. But she’s the sort of talent we need, not a musical luvvy and the woman who wrote 'Rhythm of the Night', which was but one of her songs to be given a soulless rendition by the leggy bland female contestants. At least she’s making money off the PRS.)
Unlike previous years, the elimination process to find our British hopeful was spun out over five weeks, and it wasn’t til the final installment - oh, the suspense - that we got to hear the almighty song and find out which lucky artist was going to have to take it to Russia in May. In the end it came down to three: Mark, a seasoned board-treader and panto performer with capable pipes but at heart a vapid vacuum of emotion; The Twins, ditzy blonde northern siblings who I first thought were those equally fame-hungry BB contestants from a couple of years ago; and Jade who had the best voice of all the contestants by several euro-approved kilometres. And the song? Somewhat reminiscent of Peter Kay’s brilliant spoof of the talent show genre, the “winner’s song” was interpreted in three different ways by the three artists. Mark gave it an over-sincere, strangled vocal performance fitting of the moment at the end of the first act of a West End musical when you reach for the box of chocs and start thinking about your interval drink. The Twins similarly emoted from the diaphragm, while looking like two slightly tacky angels in dazzling white dresses floating in a sea of dry ice and desperation. Finally, Jade is no Leona Lewis but she gave it the best vocal treatment despite pleading a little too much with her non-mic hand.
The tune itself, 'It’s My Time', is typical Lloyd Webber writ large, and plain and simply light years away from what a 2009 ESC entry should be. As sofa-sitter Duncan From Blue tactfully put it: “what you expect when you put Andrew Lloyd Webber and Diane Warren in a room together”. (Kinda hard to tell if Duncan was still being all-round-nice-guy fictional self from C4 comedy Plus One.) The trouble is the whole thing rides on the strength of the song alone. You can’t dance to it. You don’t get an especially good feeling humming it, it’s far too slow. I can imagine milkmen and posties whistling it with lots of vibrato on the plethora of long notes. Dare I say, for a ESC contender, it even puts that abominable Scooch song in a good light. Don’t misunderstand me - balladry always gets a fair showing at the ESC (albeit usually rock ballads), but if it’s going to fare well it needs so much more than an okay singer in a sparkly dress. Am I saying gimmickry wins the ESC? Not really, but the most recent winner with a song of this ilk was Serbia’s triumph in 2007 and at least the song had anthemic contemporary stylings and a distinctive stage performance.
A slim segment of one show was VT of Norton and Lloyd Webber watching clips of the few other Euro finalists chosen so far. And once again, even this brief glimpse showed how far from the mark we are. Turkey, for one, are on the money with a seriously sexy singer and a suitably sensual pounding eastern-beat pop song. Last year, I made a rash prediction that this year will be Ukraine’s year to shine. As far as I know, they haven’t even selected their entry yet, but I guarantee, whatever they choose, it will rate higher on the final scoreboard than lamb-to-the-slaughter Jade.
But why tonight? Actual bona fide genu-wine Thanksgiving is still seven days hence. You'd think after a few years practice we'd have understood the whole thing, rather than acting like a hindu who doesn't know when Christmas Day is. By way of blame-shifting I'm pointing the finger squarely at Stephen Fry. In his recent BBC series where he taxied around the States at, let's face it, our expense (note to non-Brits: the BBC is funded by Britannia's humble citizens in the form of a TV licence), Fry was in the "Deep South" for Thanksgiving. His voiceover intoned that this national event took place on the "third Thursday in November". Like ignoramii, Mrs Food and I took the QI trivia master at his word and made sure we marked off 20 November 2008 in our diaries. When our dinner hosts sent out invites to the meal marked a week later than we had expected, we thought they had got it wrong. But Wikipedia confirmed we had been duped by an ill-informed member of the British intelligentsia. The very thought! Unfortunately by then the wife had got something else planned for the fourth Thursday so everybody had to revolve their social plans around us. Bloody Stephen Fry.
So, it's a Franksgiving (named after FDR who plumped for the third Thursday before Congress passed an act in 1941 pinning the national vacation for the fourth Thursday of the month), or as I prefer a Fakesgiving. I guess it means that tomorrow I can officially start looking forward to Christmas. Actually, much as I love Christmas, I think I can wait one more week for that.
(Of course, I'm staying up late here in the UK watching it surrounded by snack foods and beer, but liveblogging would be a bit of a stretch.)
The evening got no points for event management. Advertised simply as “6.30pm”, we were left to surmise this actually meant the gig would kick off an undisclosed time later. We turned up near 6.30pm to find it wasn’t expected to get going til 8pm. A drink and a meal later we returned to the theatre to find a pent up throng trapped in the lobby. The doors to the auditorium were still closed due to a “technical problem” (not with the doors themselves) - though I’m not sure what was technically difficult about the stage set-up of a mic, some lights and a couple of barely adequate video screens. With only a quarter of an hour before the advised start time, the sweaty and impatient crowd were finally admitted.
Once most of the capacity crowd were seated, time was ticking by with no signs of a show, and a slow handclap developed in certain seats. At long last, a cheery host stepped onstage to announce that he was merely going to introduce Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry. Although I enjoy the Mighty Boosh, of which Fulcher is a part, having seen him perform a dire solo stand-up act previously, I got nervous at this point. To my relief, Fulcher and Berry served no comedic purpose other than to brag about how they had both appeared in separate episodes of Silverman’s TV show, and that they were here to apologise for the illness of the advertised support act, Steve Agee. However they then revealed that Steve was able to be with us via the magic of iChat video conferencing and his washed-out face appeared on the video screens. Agee mumbled a brief apology, a quick joke and then introed a showreel promo to the second season of Silverman’s TV show (complete with its Comedy Central US showtime bumper graphics; in the UK the show airs on Paramount Comedy Channel).
After this strangest of introductions it was Sarah Silverman herself wandering onto the stage and fumbling her way into an apparently unrehearsed set. She brought on a cribsheet, prominently set upon a high stool next to her, which she continually referred to while fiddling with her ponytail. Several gags were rambling as if still half-written. She even apologised that she hadn’t quite figured out how to finish a few of them. Her songs were stronger and she seemed to tap into a better more confident performance when singing (she has a great voice). But even here she started a song about Jewish people driving German cars that didn’t (pardon me) actually go anywhere and seemed to be a reference back to a gag she had delivered only minutes before. It felt like she didn’t yet know whether the idea worked better as a spoken joke or a comedy song.
I dare say the main reason for Silverman’s appeal among her fans is her shock tactic humour. Her racist jokes are ironic, about racism itself, a political incorrectness acting as a reflector back on the political correctness of popular culture. I found however that her shtick ends up being very “one-note”: there’s only so many jokes a pretty female Jewish comedienne can make about rape or being Jewish before it gets a bit “what else can you do?” Which is why her musical humour actually is the saving grace of her performance, bringing some extra nuance and poetry to the table. Her song about porn stars actually carried a certain existential pathos, unique to the evening. By her own admission, even taboo words can lose their power to offend and she riffed a joke about how she was attempting to make the word “pussy” regain something of its previous shock value.
When she left the stage and the audience almost as one checked their timepieces to see she had performed for barely 45 minutes, practically nobody moved even though the house lights came up. There would be an encore. There must be an encore. With nothing forthcoming a slow handclap developed once more, this time gaining more widespread support. Finally, almost propelled on stage, Silverman returned seemingly baffled by the crowd’s reaction. “Go home,” she told us. “That’s all I got.” The heckling started. “I want my money back,” said someone. “Sarah, you’re over-hyped,” lamented another. It was all a bit ugly, but having all coughed up a considerable chunk of cash to be there (apart from the freeloaders and celebs in the comp seats) we all felt massively short-changed. So Silverman tried to improv but admitted she wasn’t used to working a crowd. One voice in the dress circle suggested she sing her song Give The Jew Girl Toys, feeding her the first line. Gamely she picked up her guitar and progressively realised she remembered neither the chords nor the words. It’s an ominous sign for a stage performer when a member of the audience knows the lyrics to your own song better than you and is yelling them from the back of the auditorium while you flounder in the spotlight unable to oblige. After a few uncomfortable minutes you could tell she wasn’t going to stay any longer and be pilloried. With a fart noise and a mock ingratiating bow she left the stage for good.
I’m sad to reflect that the best part of the evening was the beer and burger I had before the show.
(Picture credit © JJ Hall)
Last Sunday night I went on a pilgrimage. I went to sit in the presence of three musicians who had a profound impact on my blossoming musical taste as a teenager. That these men from the other side of the world haven't performed in this country together for nearly thirty years only served to make this a momentous and precious occasion. It was at the Meltdown festival at London's South Bank Centre, this year being curated by Massive Attack who had invited Yellow Magic Orchestra to perform on English soil for the first time since 1980. Actually, I have no idea of the behind-the-scenes politics that caused the gig to take place; I see YMO are also playing a gig in Spain on 19 June so it's likely that Massive Attack weren't responsible for initiating the event and certainly not uniquely for this festival. Indeed, prior to this, the three members of YMO have played together occasionally under the moniker of Human Audio Sponge, although the Live Earth concert in Kyoto last summer and the release of a new version of one of their classic tracks, Rydeen, all under the YMO name, seemed to indicate a coagulation of the trio who never officially split up but simply "spread out".
I came across Yellow Magic Orchestra around the same time as Kraftwerk. Fascinated by synthesizers after a pre-adolescent foray into the guitar-driven riffs of punk and metal, the explosion of "techno pop" at the start of the Eighties gave me plenty of artists to discover. The German electro pioneers had just released their bleepy and quirky single Pocket Calculator and I later managed to see them live on their Computer World tour. Around that time A&M released the Yellow Magic Orchestra single Computer Game (Theme from the Invaders)/Firecracker which, being a kid who loved video arcade games, hooked me in with its Space Invaders noises and oriental synth melodies. In the years that followed I scoured record stores for their elusive albums, usually imports from Japan. And not just YMO group albums; as individual artists, Sakamoto, Takahashi and Hosono released solo material, produced and collaborated with other artists in both the West and the East, leaving their distinct signature on many recordings. I tracked down as much of it as I could and loved every second. There's something about the scarcity of hard-to-find records that can make them even more emotionally poignant.
So bringing all my sentimental attachment to their prolific work no doubt coloured my expectations for the concert on Sunday. I've read a few reviewers who found the whole thing a bit dour and disappointing. As a devotee, however, it was just simple joy, even relief, at actually seeing these revered artists performing in front of me. And fittingly, they weren't just reprising old classics, but had remixed and reinvented their material to reflect their current musical approaches. Under the name Sketch Show, Takahashi and Hosono have in recent years been exploring the whole glitchy microsampling sound, all the while maintaining the hallmarks of their own unmistakable songwriting. Sakamoto too, both in collaboration with other artists and in his own recent electronic material (separate from his classical and jazz influenced recordings), has veered towards a similar sound. I have read some accusing them of jumping on a stylistic bandwagon, adopting a trend in electronic music that has been evolved by a younger generation of musicians. I think such criticisms are misplaced. As trailblazers in electronic music, YMO often co-opted the latest technology (usually from the Japanese manufacturers who no doubt courted their approval) to craft their distinctive sound. It seems to me someone like Sakamoto was responsible for creative sonic innovation with samplers long before most of the mainstream caught up years later. For example, his 15-minute track Exhibition, on the flip side of his 1985 single Field Work, sounds uncannily prescient of the fragile, glassy, broken soundscapes of many laptop glitch musicians nearly two decades later.
Sunday's set list was a good mixture of YMO tracks together with non-canonical material. So we heard new glitchier arrangements of YMO classics like You've Got To Help Yourself (though to my mind a peculiar choice for an opener), Ongaku (Shoko Ise's linear graphics were a simple perfect accompaniment), Rydeen (which was essentially the 79/07 version of last year), and as a final encore Cue (a similar downbeat version of which appeared on the Wild Sketch Show recording, though this time with a return to the solid beat of the original). There was a good few Sakamoto tracks, notably a suitably kicking, updated version of the 1980 electro classic Riot in Lagos, and the sampled pacifist sentiments of War & Peace - even the instrumental Tibetan Dance was set to visuals that included the text of a homily by the Dalai Lama. Sketch Show material such as Supreme Secret and Wonderful to Me were stripped of some of their sonic edginess and came over as more of straight-forward funky pop tunes, whereas tracks like Turn Turn and Chronograph retained the skitty sample textures of the original versions.
I can map the enduring influence of Yellow Magic Orchestra on my own taste in electronic music: rhythmic invention, richly textured symphonic chords, melodic hooks and above all ideas, ideas, ideas. The combined creativity of Sakamoto, Takahashi and Hosono had all of these in large measure. They also opened a door for me into Japanese music and culture and for all this I owe them a debt of gratitude. Sakamoto played several concerts in this country over the last couple of decades: each one I managed to miss. But I was glad to finally be able to enjoy the live artistry of all of YMO. Being there was the least I could to do to honour them for their lasting musical influence on my life.
Postscript: I wasn't expecting there to be a support act, but to my surprise Australian band Pivot took the stage, three young guys dressed in crisp dark grey shirts looking a bit like a 21st century OMD, apart from the drummer's mad shock of hair. I really enjoy listening to the performance of an unknown live act without bringing any presuppositions, and being won over with each successive track. To begin, I thought they were yet another average hybrid of modern laptop breakbeatery and Eighties New Wave synth chunkiness. But as each track evolved and morphed into compelling, insistent rhythms and riffs, I began to see there were more and more layers to their sound. In the midst of their set the guy who had been previously drumming moved away from the kit to behind the synth, and a track of beautiful chord washes and plaintive melodies quite simply knocked me for six with its beauty. In the brief vocal intro to one track they mentioned their upcoming August release on Warp Records called O Soundtrack My Heart. That title is just perfect. If I have heard any artist lately whose blend of broken effect-laden loops, pulsating sub notes and soaring resonant synths expresses the sort of music that pleases my heart then, on the basis of their performance, it is Pivot. I've since grabbed their debut (non-Warp) release, Make Me Love You, off iTunes and although the material feels quite a bit different from the newer tracks, it's a nice slice of quality electronic music.
This year has seen a notable change in proceedings in that there have been two semi-finals, partly it seems in order to get through the ever-increasing number of allegedly European countries gagging to compete (this year saw the debut of San Marino - where the hell's that?), and also so that voting for neighbours could be whittled down a little (for example, British viewers couldn't vote for Ireland in Tuesday's semi). However, with the qualifiers out of the way, tonight's final still comprises a staggering twenty-five contenders. Thank the musical gods that all the songs have to be under three minutes long.
So here's the rundown: Romania's Nico and Vlad (I have no idea whether he's a vampire or not, if he is he's certainly a very handsome one) will kick off with some faux-operatic pop balladry, the sort of thing that could do well across a wide demographic. Trouble is, being the first out the gate can work against you by the time viewers have got to the end and the voting begins. Next up is the United Kingdom's Andy Abrahams, already a runner-up in another TV talent show (The X Factor), with a sub-Hot-Chocolate girls-night-out disco stomper. Unlike his look-and-soundalike Errol, I don't believe in miracles. Albania in third, with a 16-yr-old girl showing a cheeky belly button display under her napoleonic militaristic garb. For me the song was trying hard to be a power ballad but could do with a steroid injection. Germany's entry from a female quartet called No Angels (are they admitting they're actually sluts?) is a driving throbbing tune that feels like a 21st century Bangles track. I quite like it but can't see it doing better than the top ten. Armenia are fielding some catchy beat-driven shenanigans which has the potential to do well with those who like their pop tinged with eastern flavour. Plus the singer Sirusho is the sort of sultry maiden to raise the temperature a little.
Bosnia & Herzegovina are next with a bonkers duo who look like the offspring of Spark's Ron Mael and Björk. When the BBC's Paddy O'Connell interviewed Laka, one half of the couple, the other night he looked like a heroin-addled bohemian poet. The tune isn't too bad but not likely to win enough votes to go far. To the holy land next with Boaz, an Israeli beefcake who is probably a gay icon for all I know, he certainly looks the part. Apparently the local Pop Idol winner, his rather ploddy song is co-written by previous winner Dana International - remember him/her? Finland bring back the rawk with their song, but it's hard not to feel this Lordi-esque offering doesn't live up to the standards of the last Finnish victor. Less Kiss glam-rock and more Judas Priest topless leathery-panted wailing and, unlike Lordi, sung in rolling guttural Finnish, it sounds like the sort of thing you'd find on a norse god's iPod. Devil horns aloft during the guitar solo everyone! Croatia's performance in their semi-final was a Gotan-Project-ish gypsy fedora outbreak and I think I saw the pale spectre of dead jazz entertainer Humphrey Lyttleton rapping before being assaulted by a blood-bottle-bashing dancer. You couldn't make this stuff up. Tenth on the bill is Poland who have a strange plastic woman called Isis Gee with brilliant white teeth, orange fake-tan skin and bottle-blonde hair. The song isn't half as crafted as she is being a dreary ballad that has a poor chance of succeeding. You can usually rely on Iceland for some pop smarts (the controversial ejection of the brilliant Sylvia Nott in 2006 still upsets me), and sure enough the generically-named Euroband bring a scintillating slab of banging eurotechno pop all about beloved long-running TV show format, This Is Your Life. Or something. Don't miss the YouTube ironic video as well.
A song from Turkey called Deli seems to be crying out for a weak gag. But I'm not the one to make it. The band are long-established Turkish rock band but the song is fairly pedestrian pop-rock by numbers. Portugal have opted for sending a Demis-Roussos-tented women to Belgrade on their behalf. She wafts over an accordion and pizzicato verse before a big chorus that tries to soar but really only rides the thermals of the bombastic military rhythm that underpins the track. Another of this year's “wacky” entries comes from Latvia whose pirates song only reminds me of the identically-themed but infinitely better song in the colour-saturated hyperreal kids show, Lazy Town (from Iceland no less). Straight to Nick Jr for this one, I'm afraid. Sweden's pneumatic Charlotte Perrelli returns nine years after winning, in an attempt to restore Eurovision glory to the land of Abba with a song called Hero. Bookmakers won't give you very good odds on this one as its apparently a favourite, but my money is elsewhere as I find the Bjorn and Benny stylings of this track a bit dated. The lady wins my award for most impressive forehead and eyebrow combo in the contest though. Fellow scandinavians Denmark have a curiously English-named artist called Simon Mathew whose song, All Night Long, is a 70s-style strumalong with waistcoats and caps. It's like something The Feeling might write on an average day, but I can't help thinking they'd do it a hundred times better. Needs some Gillespie magic pixie dust.
Georgia's track is an anthemic peace chant sung by a raven-haired young blind lady in oversized dark glasses. I really want to like this one but it reminds me too much of another pop track which I can't quite put my finger on. Nevertheless I'm reckoning this will make the top five when the results are in - it has all the right ingredients: disabled artist, hippy anti-war sentiment, strident chorus. To Ukraine now, who over the last two years, have blown me away with their almost perfect grasp of pop genius. 2006's Tina Karol and 2007's Verka Seduchka were both addictive tunes with more hooks than a school cloakroom. This year's entrant, Ani Lorak, is a slinky young woman who calls herself a Shady Lady over an arrangement of almost perfect pop synthery. The song is good but not as devastating as previous year's entries. It'll probably do well but not well enough to take the final to Kiev next year, I feel. Ani Lorak is allegedly Karolina spelt backwards, but I notice it is also only one letter short of an anagram of Tina Karol. My hunch is Ukraine is producing exquisitely tooled (ahem) pop fembots, each one based on the blueprint of the previous generation. Total out-there prediction: next year's entry from Ukraine will be utterly fantastic and win by miles. You heard it here first.
France have called on their pedigree of leftfield artistry and found the marvellous Sébastien Tellier willing to step up to the plate. Tellier, for the uninitiated, looks like a character from a Wes Anderson movie but writes sublime music: Divine is no exception, with a great video to boot. Unfortunately it's a kind of sublime that will be lost on Eurovision voters, I believe, so don't expect a Paris final next year. A mon avis, France could revolutionise the ESC if they got Daft Punk to have a go. It'll never happen but Tellier is a step in the right direction. It's Azerbaijan's Eurovision debut this year. Their offering is, according to my scratchy notes, “mad angel wings, spray-on silver hair, average rock pop but bonus points for screeching and laughing”. Good first effort: try harder next year. Kalimera Greece! Or should that be Kalomira, the name of the NYC-born Greek chick whose ionian-seasoned RnB pop track Secret Combination seems like a surefire hit to me. Top five, surely? Spain go for the wacky angle this year, finding their entrant Rodolfo Chikilicuatre via a MySpace competition. The amusing but tedious raggaeton-lite number Baila El Chiki Chiki just doesn't manage to sustain itself over even three minutes which is a shame because I just love the spindly-man-with-Elvis-hairpiece-glasses-and-sideburns look that Rodolfo has going on here.
Host country Serbia have a sort of balkan Riverdance folksy number that is big on emotion and penny whistles. This sort of middle-of-the-road semi-traditional fare can go down well with older viewers, and being late in the line-up will, I think, help Serbia to pick up more votes than their Romanian cousins. Penulitmate performer Dima Bilan from Russia represented his country in 2006 when his performance was the only one to have a figure emerging from a piano like the stomach-burst in Alien (but without the blood). This year he is orbited by a violinist and a skatey dancer as he croons over the bump'n'grind beat of Believe. For his upcoming album he has recorded with Timbaland and Nelly Furtado and his manager has also worked with t.A.T.u. His industry connections speak of an artist who might just make it internationally, but this track is too prosaic to catch the imagination of the voting denizens of Europe, I aver. Last up on stage tonight will be Norway. Maria has a history of performing that takes in musical theatre and the norwegian Pop Idol. She sounds like she has a great voice but, for me, the insistent-but-never-quite-taking-off tune Hold On Be Strong lets her down.
And that's it. My guess for top slot: Greece, Armenia or Georgia. But, as per last year, the slow-burning Romanian/Serbian ballads may conquer all. All will be revealed in the next few hours.
[UPDATE: My stated aversion of Mr Bilan was misplaced it seems as huge swathes of Europe fell in love with his fake American r'n'b crooning. Still, Greece and Armenia's sexy solo females did as well as I hoped. Once again the lesson to be learned is that we Brits are literally miles away from spotting the dominant cultural trends. We need to field a Kylie-esque funky strumpet rather than a fortysomething soul brother if we want to do any better than gracing the bum end of the leader board.]
[UPDATE UPDATE: Thanks to the power of Midomi, a website powered by witchcraft that helps you identify songs just by singing them, I have finally tracked down the song that Georgia's "Peace Will Come" reminded me of. It's "Wake Up Call" by Maroon 5. I can only imagine incensed Maroon 5 fans across Europe mobilised, resulting in Miss Gurtskaya not even making the top ten.]