Parkrunnin’ USA

I’m a latecomer to Parkrun. Like ordering a salad at a restaurant, I was aware that it was a thing that you could do, but never did. I started running 10ks, half marathons and full-blown marathons back in 2010, but never “Parkran”.

One of my favourite things about running races is the feeling of camaraderie with other runners. I ran through a constant torrential downpour in the Oxford Half Marathon in 2013 with an army of equally foolish people. I ran the Edinburgh Marathon in May 2012 on one of the hottest days of the year, with residents utilising garden hoses and Super Soakers to hose down runners as they passed by. There’s a certain spirit that is borne from these events. You cross the line and pat the runner beside you on the back, complain in unison about those brutal hills, or ask if they also saw someone dressed as King Kong sprint past you or if it was a figment of your imagination. But then you go your separate ways, and never see that person again. And that feels a little bit sad.

I “committed” to going to Parkrun in Oxford toward the end of 2017. By that point I’d been a couple of times after getting a ride from my old housemate Holly, but many weekends I would just sleep instead. For some reason, it wasn’t until she moved out and I had to cycle the 3 miles each way in rain or shine that I became a regular.

file-1

A volunteer view of Oxford Parkrun start last summer

At this point, Oxford’s Parkrun is well established, so between 300-450 people show up each week. You start to feel that sense of camaraderie as you find yourself running alongside the same people most weeks. You feel a sense of community as you volunteer from time to time to help the event take place. A small part of me always wondered what it was like at the beginning as they slowly built up Oxford’s event, with fewer people in attendance, and everyone running and volunteering knowing each other. But that’s just my inner hipster talking.

At 8:55am on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago, I found myself in bed in Ann Arbor, Michigan on a work trip. I’d been there a few months earlier too, and had rather-optimistically searched for a local Parkrun, with no luck. To put this into some kind of context, Ann Arbor is the 230th most populous city in the US, and to date there are only 27 US parkrun events. So the odds were not in my favour.

But rather than get out of bed and eat Mac ‘n Cheese for breakfast that Saturday morning (which is something I definitely didn’t do, wink wink), I did another cursory search. Of course, I found that Ann Arbor’s FIRST EVER Parkrun was about to start in 5 minutes. Perhaps my superpower is being able to sense Parkruns nearby. After being mad about missing it for a minute, I set about figuring ou how to cycle the 3-4 miles to get there next Saturday.

For some reason I decided to write on their Facebook Page just to say hey! I’m here! I’m hoping to come! I think the real reason I did it was because I half-expected them to call it off with snow and freezing temperatures forecast, and if they knew some foolish tourist was planning to come, they could at least spare me a grizzly death by letting me know it was cancelled.

Instead, I ended up getting to experience what’s probably the most quintessential Parkrun experience: A new Parkrun finding its feet, and an incredibly welcoming set of race directors, runners and volunteers spread out across three different events that I got to attend.

After writing on their Facebook page, the founder of this new Parkrun, Stephanie Evans, reached out and offered to give me a ride. Steph might say she was just paying it forward after another Parkrunner did the same for her when she arrived in the US, but it just goes to show how far people go to help each other out as part of this community. It certainly sounded a million times more appealing than cycling in sub-zero conditions. So on the Saturday Steph and her husband Richard picked me up for Ann Arbor’s second ever Parkrun.

Steph and Rich hail from Leeds, and as with so many Parkruns overseas, this was another case of Brits moving abroad and wanting to bring that Parkrun experience with them. If there’s one thing I learned about them above all, it’s that they miss having access to good Indian food. And for that, I truly felt their pain, despite only being away from the UK for three weeks on this trip. It was literally the first thing I did when I got back.

We arrived at the park on that first Saturday, set up the course and started talking to those getting ready to take part in spite of the freezing temperatures. Watching Americans try to take in a run briefing done in a Leeds accent was a joy to behold. I’m secretly hoping by the time I get to return that everyone who attends is also speaking in a Leeds accent as a result of spending Saturday mornings with Steph and Rich.

AASteph.jpg

The course itself is pretty special. Three laps of a wooded trail around a lake, and a pretty stunning lake crossing. That first time I attended there were 26 runners, and the following week 48, the majority of which headed down the road for coffee afterwards along with the volunteers. Although this was only the second and third official events, I discovered that new Parkruns hold a number of test events before launching. This meant there was already a real sense of togetherness among volunteers and runners which is what helps make Parkrun to be such a success.

AABridge

There was also a Thanksgiving day Parkun in ‘nearby’ Livonia, a 30 minute drive away that Stephanie and Richard also let me tag along for. Livonia was the first ever US Parkrun established way back in 2012, so for Parkrun nerds it’s almost as cool as going to Bushy Park in London, home of the first ever Parkrun. Temperatures were absolutely freezing for the Thanksgiving run, and being the plucky / stupid Brit, I only had shorts to run in, with only one other runner wearing shorts…….who was of course also a Brit. The event was full of another bunch of super-friendly volunteers and runners, and the course was flat and quick so I was just 15 seconds off my P.B., despite having spent three weeks eating and drinking EVERYTHING in Ann Arbor.

Livonia ColdSuddenly my trip was over. It’s now a week since I got back to the UK and I still have this fuzzy warm feeling. It’s either from that Parkrun experience or a Mac n’ Cheese breakfast doing strange things to my internal chemistry.

I’ve always felt a kind of community from running my local Parkrun, which is what I always felt was missing after finishing those one-off races in the past. However the nature of my US Parkrun experiences really brought home the fact that it takes a huge crew of passionate and dedicated people to help make these free, timed 5k runs happen every week across the world. I want to run them all and tell every race director and volunteer what a difference they make. A small part of me wishes I could stay in Ann Arbor and get more people running that Parkrun every week. But I think I’d miss good Indian food too much.

Advertisements

Dear Esther – Xbox 1 Edition

dear estherI’ve been playing far too much Fortnite recently. Or to be more accurate, I’ve only been playing Fortnite. For about 6 months or so, I haven’t played any other game. I usually only have 30 minutes or so to play something, so it fits so readily into that space. However, in recent weeks, it has left me feeling a little cold. It’s a game that you can never get lost in, or immersed for hours. I played Breath of the Wild earlier this year, and it did exactly that. So I started looking for some games to give me that feeling of escapism.

After reading through a few best-of game lists, Dear Esther (first released in 2012) kept appearing. Even after buying the game (for about £7 from the Xbox store) and starting to play, I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Even now after finishing the game, I’m not entirely sure what happened.

There’s a lot of talk in business these days about ‘experiences’. And yes, I use the italicisation with sarcastic relish. At its simplest,  it’s a way to help build brand identity and advocacy. For me, it’s just one of those terms that gets used way too often, to describe something that isn’t all that different from whatever it was that preceded it. However, playing Dear Esther was like no other game that I’ve played before. I didn’t feel as if I was playing it, I felt like I was experiencing it.

The game starts with no intro. No half-hour cut scenes giving you more exposition that you can shake a stick at. No demo levels helping to explain the controls. It just starts. You’re on a craggy, wild-looking island, walking. You can stop and look at things. Turns out every button on your controller is a zoom button, but that’s it. As you get to certain points, a narration kicks in. At first, there’s a lot of subtext and context in the narration that makes little sense. The island is covered in markings and drawings from white paint. And all you do is walk. No running. For anyone who has ever said “The Lord of the Rings movies were just 9 hours of people walking,” this game is not for you.

But something strange happens over time. You begin to enjoy this landscape. And it is beautiful; wild and untamed. You start to piece together some of the information you are receiving from the narration, coupled with well timed and fiitting musical pieces. You start to feel immersed. And then things get a little weird.

For all intensive purposes, you are alone on this island. However, this game reminded me of the brilliant Firewatch game, where you start to see figures and faces in the landscape. A part of me wants to pin that on just how immersive this game is. It’s not designed to make you jump, but it had my hairs on end numerous times.

There are two more acts in the game as you first pass through the underground centre of the island, and then come out on the other side. The caves of the underground look fantastical, with thousands of years of water passing through them helping to build stunning features. Whereas earlier in the game you had a feeling of aimless wondering, as time progresses you start to feel you are on a defined path with a clear destination in mind.

dear esther 2.jpg

Doing my best to leave this review spoiler-free, I’ll leave the description of the game  there. But let me come back to this theme of experience. It was so refreshing to play through a game with zero cut scenes. It helped to keep you as a player so immersed in what was actually in front of you. I felt as if I was living and breathing this game, and was actually in this place. As VR gaming develops, this feels like a perfect example of the type of game that could work so well in this format. Sometimes games help to provide a perfect dose of escapism from every day life. Being transported to this island using VR would help to add that additional level of immersion, and add to that feeling of Dear Esther, or games of its ilk, being experiences. And look, no sarky italicisation that time.

Husky Loops – Live at The Cellar

HL

Husky Loops

Today is March 18th, and The Beast From the East (v2.0) has reared its head again, burying the UK under the sheer crushing weight of…a little snow. Everything grinds to a halt, resulting in cancelled plans and crushed dreams. The same happened earlier in March, when Husky Loops were due to swing in to Oxford as part of their UK headline tour. TBFTE (v1.0) resulted in them calling off the show and rescheduling.

husky1

Husky training commences

This was a secret blessing for me. I was on the fence about going the first time round. I’d just started listening to them a little more, but was thinking I’ll either have to work late and go straight there, or go home to build an igloo and start training huskies to use as transportation for the months of snow that were ahead of us. In the end, I decided to go home, only to find out the show was cancelled, rendering my selfish choice 100% valid. Ayn Rand would have been proud. I ultimately spent most of the night just simulating a Husky Loops gig by watching this performance on a loop, very loudly. It was at this point that I realised, God, I really need to see this band live.

Fast forward two weeks, and we’d slowly started picking up the pieces following the fallout from TBFTE (v1.0). Husky Loops braved the fierce mild weather to come ply their wears at The Cellar. First, a quick word on The Cellar. How brilliant is it that the venue, with overwhelming public support, managed to overturn their landowners initial decision to shut the place down as a music venue. It’s such a great place for live music. Low ceilings, very intimate, and the sound is always so good. So hooray for that. But now for Husky Loops.

For the uninitiated, they typically create this angular, fierce noise, throwing in frequent time signature changes, and sneaky little melodic moments. After watching the live video above a million times over, the movements between songs show off their love for J-Dilla esq sampling / hip-hop in general, and suddenly I realised that their music also had little moments where this influence comes through.

However, watching the live video didn’t come close to the experience of seeing them live. First, the brutality of the noise when they are at their loudest is just so good. ‘Tempo’ is a favourite of mine, with the bass and drums driving much of the noise, but the breakdown at the end with the guitar jumping into the chaos was just brilliant. In a similar vein was ‘Dead’ which came toward the end of the show. It’s such a rough and ready racket that ticks all kind of Fugazi and Gang of Four boxes for me.

But what’s fun is that amongst that wall of sound, they’ve got moves when it comes to pumping out songs with real melodic, pop hooks. Recent single release ‘When I Come Home’ shows off those chops, with this sunny guitar line that runs right through the whole track, but sounds so good in particular during the chorus, along with backing vocals. Same story with ‘Girl Who Wants To Travel The World’, which latches on to this excellent groove from the bass that is carried throughout, with these perfect flourishes from the guitar. And the drums. I haven’t mentioned the drums yet, but the Husky Loops drums might be some of my favourite drums ever. I’m too much of a plebian about drums (and music in general) to really know what the hell is going on, but there’s so much more going on besides just setting up some regular beat. If anything, that clear appreciation of hip-hop production comes shining through in the percussion. And to be able to do that live is quite something.

Besides all of the eulogising above, I haven’t even really talked about the show as a whole. It’s so all-encompassing and overpowering. They have visuals projected onto the wall behind the drummer that accompany each track so well. Many of the tracks are linked together with little interludes, sometimes with or without samples triggered from a drum pad. There’s an intensity and commitment to the show that just leaves you feeling like you’re suffering from a Bush era shock-and-awe campaign when it’s over.

Husky3So thanks to the snow for giving me a second chance to see Husky Loops. And for giving me an excuse to post some pictures of when I lived in a country with real snow (Oh Canada). I’m off to build my new house made of snow. Let’s see you try and charge council tax on that Oxford City Council.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Taste Of China – Authentic Chinese Dishes In Oxford’s Covered Market

Let me tell you a story. A story of discovery. A story of love. A story of heartbreak, redemption, and a story of Dave spending £5 a day eating the same goddamn delicious noodles for the rest of my life.

There’s a brilliant open-air market in Oxford on Wednesdays and Thursdays. A bunch of food stands serve up a whole variety of international food, most hit, some miss. Vendors change from time to time, but typically it’s pretty stable. Some months ago, I was doing my usual aimless stumble around , trying to decide what to go for. A place that I’d gone to on an alarmingly-regular basis was no longer there. That was OK, sometimes vendors don’t show up for whatever reason. The next week, they still weren’t there. I was a little more concerned that they’d gone forever, but hoped they were just taking a long holiday. A few weeks go by, and still no sign of them. It got to the stage of being like the classic Futurama dog episode, where after Fry is cryogenically frozen, his dog keeps showing up at the pizza parlour where he worked, hoping to see him return. Time goes by, and eventually the dog dies without re-uniting with Fry.

Well, lucky for me, this story has a happier ending. One day they magically appeared, in a permanent location inside Oxford’s Covered Market. Trading under the name Taste of China, they are serving up some of Oxford’s most authentic and tasty Chinese food.

file

Pre-mixed Dry Noodles

The dish that first got me hooked were their hot and dry noodles. The internet tells me this is a regional dish originally from Wuhan. It’s certainly a dish I’d never seen before, let alone tried (even while in China), but it’s ridiculously delicious. It’s a noodle dish made with sesame paste, various pickled vegetables, as much chili as you can handle, and plenty of coriander. It sounds simple enough, but it’s so addictive. The sesame paste is the magic ingredient here – it gives the dish that Unami flavour that makes it a winner.

file-3 (1)

The challenge I often face is trying to convince myself to have something else from the menu, and sometimes I manage to convince myself….but only sometimes.

Of course, they do have a lot of other great things to try. Another favourite of mine is the biangbiang noodles, a thick and long homemade noodle served cold with greens and a simple sauce. Another good choice shown below is the hot and sour noodles with spare rib. It’s a warming, fresh and authentic tasting pot of deliciousness.

file-2

There are lots of other great dishes on their menu that I’m trying to work my way around to having, but that’s largely dependent on me not just lumping for the hot and dry noodles EVERY TIME I GO. I can’t promise, but I’ll do my best to mix it up a little in the future.

You can find Taste of China here, and here’s their menu to see some mildly better photographs of food than my own!

 

One to watch – Kidepo

KidepoYou learn something new every day. Today, I learnt a bunch of new things. First, that Kidepo is the name of a national park in Uganda. Second, that it’s possible to include the words “Savoir Faire” in a chorus hook and not sound pretentious. Third, that Beth Ditto (of Standing In The Way of Control / Gossip fame) had an entire song called Savoir Faire. And finally, savoir faire means expertise in French. Don’t come at me for my lack of French savoir faire, I studied Spanish at school. But also, don’t ask me what expertise is in Spanish either, I’ll just say no lo sé.

So, what do Uganda and Beth Ditto have in common? Well, not much probably. But Jonah Mutono, otherwise known as Kidepo sent me down this rabbit hole. So far he has an EP and a couple of singles floating about, but I’m keen to hear more.

The first track I heard from Kidepo was ‘Ramada’, and it firmly lodged itself inside my brain. There’s all kinds of woozy atmospherics gushing out from it, coupled with this sense of off-kilterness. The intro starts with a drum beat that teeters away from staying in a logical step with the reverby keys at first, before nestling into a sneaky groove. It’s the kind of groove where you start nodding your head without even being conscious that you’re doing so. The lyrics are intriguingly abstract and surreal too, as he describes being trapped inside a hotel without just resorting to complaining about the price of the mini bar. When I stumbled across the fact Kidepo is signed to Good Years (home to the likes of Banks and Lil Silva), it made complete sense, as those two artists create something similarly atmospheric, surreal and brooding in their music. 

Recent single ‘August In New York’ follows in a similar vein, although it shows Kidepo showing off his vocal range a little more. Ramada is sung entirely in a falsetto, but on ‘August In New York’ he shows off a soulful voice at a lower register. And here’s where I got my French / Beth Ditto  lesson from today, as he sings “I don’t care ’bout your savoir faire.” Perhaps he just really hates Beth Ditto’s ‘Savoir Faire’. This video of a woman dancing to Beth Ditto’s version on an office chair while wearing the severed head of a polar bear might help to change his mind.

Fingers crossed we get more from Kidepo in 2018, but in the meantime, have a watch of the excellent (and very off-kilter) video for Ramada below.

 

 

 

Favourite Podcasts of 2017

As a resident of Oxford, I cycle. A lot. It takes me about 7 minutes to cycle to work. If there’s traffic, well, it’ll be a tortuously slow 8 minutes. If I hit every green light, I can be there in 6 minutes. As great as that is, it still means I get to work feeling like I’ve only just woken up. If only I had a long commute.

A couple of months ago, my dreams came true. I had a couple of issues with my bike that I was slow to fix. That meant walking to and from work. I discovered that this gave me regular time to listen to podcasts, instead of just listening as-and-when I had the chance. That and the fact I finally started using a podcast client (that downloads new episodes of podcasts you’re subscribed to) meant that I found myself wilfully not fixing my bike, because I wanted to keep my daily podcast itch scratched.

I have since fixed my bike, and resentfully ride the 6-8 minute journey to and from work. But as I usually do a Top 10 albums of the year thing for fun, I figured it’d be fun to do something similar for podcasts. So here it is.

Harmontown

ht3.jpgI was a big fan of the show Community that ran for six seasons. Netflix’s clever little algorithm put me onto Harmontown – the documentary which is where I first discovered the existence of the podcast. Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, and more recently, 50% of the creators behind  Rick & Morty gets on stage on a Sunday evening in L.A. alongside Jeff Davis, a regular on Whose Line Is It Anyway, and Spencer Crittenden, their dungeonmaster (let’s put a pin in that). There’s never much of a plan for shows. It largely consists of Harmon monologuing his way through whatever is on his mind at the time, with Jeff and Spencer either supporting or antagonising Dan. Occasionally things descend into farcical improv, or Dan raps; sometimes there’s guests, sometimes audience members are brought up. Spencer’s story is great though. He attended his first Harmontown as an audience member when Dan decided he wanted to start playing Dungeons & Dragons on the podcast. Spencer became their dungeonmaster, and is now an integral part of the show, as well as ultimately getting to DM on a D&D TV show – Harmonquest.

As well as the podcast version, if you pay $5 a month you can watch the show live as it’s recorded. I’m a freeloader, so I don’t subscribe, but the upshot of them filming it means end up seeing videos on YouTube of various chunks of the show. Below is a Dan rap from when a thousand people a day were asking him when Rick & Morty Season 3 was coming out. By the end of the rap, he talks about how Superman is susceptible to gout. That’s a pretty good indicator of how the show goes.

 

Pod Save America

PodsaveIf there ever was a time to get more interested in American politics, now is probably that time. For one thing, it can help you feel better about the momentous shitshow that is Brexit, due to the fact other countries can be equally self-sabotaging, so that’s nice. I’m used to having a superficial understanding of what’s going on in the US, based on whatever news makes it across the ocean. The joy of listening to Pod Save America is that you get much more of a dissection of what Trump and in particular the GOP are doing to the US. You get some honest criticism of Democrats. And you get some laughs too.  The show is run by Jon Favreau, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett, and Daniel Pfieffer, who all had various roles within the Obama administration. Jan Favreau was Obama’s chief speechwriter during his 2008 election campaign and for several years while he was president, while Jon Lovett worked as a speechwriter for both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama. That expertise in communications is probably one of the big reasons why they have managed to create something that’s in-depth and analytical, but at the same time accessible and funny.

They frequently have guests on, and are doing their best to encourage grassroots Democrat activism, which will be super-important to help potentially flip the Senate in 2018. And if you want to know why that’s important, then it’s probably worth listening.

This American Life

talThis American Life is the king of podcasts, so if you haven’t heard of it, and you’re into podcasts, you’re doing something wrong. Even before I get into This American Life, the fact that they are the producers behind two monster podcast hits (Serial and S-town) should tell you what you need to know. These guys are experts at telling real-life stories. This American Life is a weekly podcast that typically has an overarching theme each week, with 3 or 4 short pieces related to that theme, although occasionally they’ll dedicate an entire episode to one story. One of my recent favourites was where they followed the story of a car dealership for a month. Every month, the dealership is set a sales target for the month by the car manufacturer. If they make the target, they get a big bonus. If they are short of that target, even by one sale, they get no bonus. A handful of different salesmen are followed for the month, each fulfilling different roles. One is the all-star salesman, who frequently has more than double the sales of anyone else. One is one of the worst performing salesmen. One is the boss of the chain. One employs a strategy of saying yes to whatever offer a customer lays down regarding what they want to pay, although often then gets them to change it down the line. All the parts come together right at the end of the month as they battle to make it to the sales target, even selling cars at a loss just so they can try to make the target. This American Life are just so good at telling stories, you can’t help but become instantly captivated by whatever story it is that they are telling.

Criminal

CriminalCriminal is a short, bi-weekly show. All stories are based on true crime stories, but take on much more of a broader scope than a lot of true crime shows do, and often go for more surreal stories. For example, one episode interviewed a botanist on how she randomly ended up becoming the go-to person for government agencies wanting to analyse people’s stomach contents, to help determine time of death. Another detailed the story of Carrie Nation, who strongly opposed the sale of alcohol in the late 1800’s. She did this by smashing up taverns with a hatchet she carried around. All stories are brilliantly told by host Phoebe Judge, who has one of those perfect radio voices. I just listened to an episode this morning called ‘Unexpected Guests’ that was created after the show asked listeners to email them with stories similar to a story they told some months ago, about a woman discovering after several months that someone was living in her attic crawl space. As with This American Life, there’s two aspects that make this a great show. First, that they are real stories, typically told by the people who have experienced them. Second, the way the show is produced is spot on. Phoebe Judge is a very natural interviewer, who seems to have a knack for getting the most out of people that she interviews.

My Favourite Murder

MFMAnother true crime podcast, this one hosted by two L.A. based hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. 50% of the show is just the two of them talking about everything and nothing in between, like how much they love Del Taco, or talking about other shows or podcasts they have been into that week. Then each take their turn telling a true crime story. The show leans heavily on support for victims, rather than attempting to glorify the bad guys. One of the catchphrases is “fuck politeness” as so many stories come about as a result of people just being too trusting of strangers. While the stories they discuss are at times quite dark, they often find humour in those dark places, which is what makes the show so great.

Spontaneonation

SPTThe first thing to love is the host of Spontaneonation, Paul F. Tompkins. He’s the voice of Mr Peanut Butter in Bojack Horseman, so it’s like listening to a podcast made by Mr Peanut Butter, which is probably my #1 dream. Plus he’s effortlessly and endlessly hilarious throughout. The show starts with him interviewing a guest, starting with a question asked by the previous week’s guests. Recent guests included Ira Glass (of This American Life fame) and Ted Leo (of one of my favourite album’s ever fame). Then they have a different set of improvisers on each week, and they will create around half an hour of improv from a suggested location, and typically weave in points from the interview that week. One of my favourite episodes has to be “a deliberation room” where four improvisers ultimately tried to play the role of 12 jury members AND an orderly, which ended up being just as chaotic as it sounds. This is just an endlessly funny show.

The Bugle

BugleI first listened to this satirical news podcast back when John Oliver was a part of it, along with Andy Zaltzman. Now that Oliver (AKA Jonny Showbusiness, according to The Bugle Wiki page….no really) no longer does the show, a rotating set of hosts take part alongside Zaltzman. I started listening again recently, and heard a live show where he was joined by Nish Kumar and Alice Fraser. It’s the kind of show that will actually make you laugh out loud in public, making you look insane to strangers. A highlight from that recent live show was Nish Kumar talking about how he accidentally encouraged Buglers (the term given to fans of the show) to edit his Wikipedia page, with some very high concept results. Some of that spillover is quite possibly the reason for John Oliver’s nomenclature listed above!

Off Book

OBI started listening to Off Book after I heard Paul F. Tompkins (of Spontaneonation / Bojack fame) was the guest on their first ever episode. The show is another improv show, but this one is an improvised musical. Hosts Jess McKenna and Zack Reino host each week with a random guest, and I’m continually amazed by their ability to improvise hilarious songs, and to make them rhyme. All the stories are typically as surreal and ludicrous as Spontaneonation. During an episode where one character was following their dream of becoming the person who demos shamwows in malls, one character goes to buy a pretzel, and I think it’s my favourite song they’ve done so far. The highlight has to be Zack Reino just nailing the improvisation of the song, but then struggling to do maths under pressure. You can listen to it below!

 

Rachel’s Café Oxford – Asian Bakery with great Char Siu buns!

I’m living a cursed life. I ate my first ever Asian bun (bao) in China. I followed that by eating about 100 more, still in China. I spent three weeks there when I was 20, and discovered that you were never more than 400 metres away from someone selling something delicious. Most of the time, I’d go for a char siu bun, which is a delicious BBQ pork variety, often made with something along the lines of soy sauce, honey, brown sugar, rice wine, hoisin sauce, and Chinese five-spice.

I came home depressed, thinking that now I was 4,000 miles from a good char siu bun. If I’m ever in London, and anywhere remotely close to Chinatown, I’ll always make a sharp b-line toward one of the Asian bakeries there. The great irony is that the bus stop I wait at to get a bus from Oxford to London is in St Clements, literally outside of Rachel’s Café, a nice looking Asian bakery.

4.jpg

Occasionally I would actually look inside through the window, and could see buns 10 feet away from me. Somehow, whenever I thought about going inside to get something, the bus would always arrive, right on cue. It’s like the bus drivers of Oxford don’t want me to be happy, although that’s probably how everyone in Oxford feels generally.

One day fairly recently I just missed the bus I wanted, so I actually had 20 minutes to kill. I stepped inside Rachel’s Café, and now I’m happy, because I know I’m 400 metres away from a good Asian bun, at least when I’m at home.

First up, the important stuff. The place is independent, so that makes hipsters like me happy. Second, everything is home-made, so you know it’s good. So much of my bao disappointment in the UK has come from eating what’s clearly mass-produced stuff, which always lacks a little something.

3Let’s start with the char siu bun. When i was younger, and flying on a plane, I always wanted to open the window, and grab a passing cloud. Of course, that would have been the last thing I ever did if that actually happened, besides falling to my untimely death. But a good bun to me makes me think about eating clouds. They have this part-baked, light quality that just makes me want to bake one into the shape of a hammock and lie in it. And then eat my way out. But as well as having the right texture and flavour to the bun itself, the filling needs to be generous, and delicious too. Fortunately, the buns at Rachael’s are. The pork is super-tender, the sauce has the right level of sweetness and flavour, and the volume of filling is great.

2

 

1On another visit, I also tried the pastry version of the char siu. With the same filling, you can’t really fail, but you have the added benefit of a little more crunch if that’s your thing. I also tried their coffee, and that in of itself is worth a visit. Plenty of places in Oxford do pretty average coffee, so it’s something easy to phone in, but they get it right here.

They also do plenty of sweet pastries, and Bánh mì baguettes. I’m working up the courage to trying something else, but I can’t stop myself from ordering as many char siu buns as I possibly can every time.

You can find Rachel’s online here, and in the real world here: 55 St Clement’s St, Oxford OX4 1AG. Important note – It’s a cash only place, so be sure to bring some!

Top 10 Albums of 2016

N.B. – As I’m a law unto myself, this Top 10 includes albums that were released before 2016. They’re included because I first heard them in 2016. So there.

 

  1. The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

the_1975This may have been the easiest decision I’ve ever made. I raved about their debut album in 2013, and was a big fan of this band even before they became The 1975, after stumbling across them when they were called BIGSLEEP and had a couple of tracks littered across Soundcloud. But after hearing the lead out single of The 1975’s sophomore album, I wasn’t entirely sold.

However, something fairly coincidental helped to cement this album as not only my favourite of the year, but one of my favourites ever. Forever? Forever Ever. Forever Ever?

The album was released on February 26th, 2016. I’d spent the previous month working all hours of the day for something work related, that all culminated in a meeting that took place on…you guessed it, February 26th. The meeting just so happened to take place in San Jose, California, and I had the next 8 days to myself, along with a rental car, and one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the world. So after the meeting, I downloaded the album, jumped into my car, and had a little bit of a ridiculous adventure, soundtracked by this album.

Now I can hear what you’re saying. Yes, the album had the benefit of extenuating circumstances.

tweenies-final

All I’m saying is have you ever seen them in the same room at the same time?

My journey could have been soundtracked by the seminal Tweenies live album and I’d be sat here ranting and raving about…uh…*googles Tweenies names* Bella, Milo, Fiz and Jake’s gift to the world. But as it was, a stunning California road trip was accompanied by an equally stunning album.

It was an album that just pushed all the right buttons. It was enough of a move forwards from the previous album to be brave, but not disconcerting. The radio-friendly pop hits were there (The Sound, Somebody Else), but the heart of the album, from the tail end of If I Believe You, to Please Be Naked, and lostmyhead, showed off their ear for ambient music.

First of all, look how casually I threw away that ‘radio-friendly pop hits’ line. How hard must it be to write a song as perfect as those two. In particular, Somebody Else is a lyrical and melodic monster. Beyonce topped a shit-ton of End Of Year album lists for Lemonade, which was great lyrically, but didn’t capture me with melodies as much as the 1975 record did.

And then back to that ambient comment. Ambient music helps to capture an atmosphere, without necessarily being obtrusive. If I Believe You and Please Be Naked build to an euphoric climax, which when accompanied by ridiculous views, sunshine, and bearclaws (all the bearclaws), I couldn’t help but feel giddy for most of that trip. Even now, 9 months after the fact, it still sounds as great as ever, and makes me (probably the only person in the world to) reminisce about my Nissan Versa, and that road.

 

 

2. Kaytranada – 99.9%

kayIf bees had knees, these knees would be these. Kaytranada is a Canadian born producer, who makes you think “what would J-Dilla be doing if he was still alive?” Probably this. Kaytranada spent the years before 2016 making the whole world want to work with him, and on 99.9%, he worked with the most zeitgeisty list of collaborators. Anderson. Paak before he took over 2016, Craig David before his revival really took hold, Little Dragon and AlunaGeorge as the ‘always there for a feature, but always a good feature’ twosome, and names like Phonte and Goldlink that I’d not heard before. So a perfect mix of collabs, but also a whole blend of styles. ‘ONE TOO MANY’ and ‘GLOWED UP’ are highlights, but the album doesn’t have a single slack second in it.

3. Maribou State – Portraits (2015 Release)

mariCitadel Festival, a one day festival in London landed on my birthday, so I toddled along to review it for Bearded Magazine. Sigur Ros, Caribou and Lianne La Havas were the big draws, but I spent some time familiarising myself with most of the other acts playing. Maribou State were one such act. As it transpired, I didn’t even get to see them perform, but I’ve carried on listening to their 2015 album Portraits anyway. It’s an atmospheric, warm collection of groove based electronica, with a great mix of vocalists and sampling. A perfect summer album that still sounds good in freezing January.

4. Brand New – Leaked Demos 2006 (Mastered for 2016 Release)

leakedI’ve written at length about my Brand New obsession before. In 2006, we were three years past Deja Entendu, their second album, and desperately waiting for their third. Somehow, a set of demos got leaked and spread across Limewire (remember that?) and the like. Despite being demos, it still felt like a new album. Because of the leak, those tracks largely got scrapped and didn’t appear on The Devil & God Are Raging Inside Me, bar the odd scrap being used, like on ‘Sowing Season’. Fast forward to 2016, and we were (and still are) in another of those interminable waits for a new Brand New album. What we did get is a release of those leaked demos, now fully formed and mastered (and released on cassette. 2017, we don’t need more of this please). Besides the retro release format, it was like having a new release all over again. Tracks like ‘1996’ and ‘Nobody Moves’ neatly stack into Brand New’s modus operandi of post-emo alternative rock, and sound 10 times better than the demos, as great as they were.

5. Glass Animals – Life Itself

glassOxford has done a decent amount for music. Ride , Radiohead, Supergrass, and Foals to name but a few. Glass Animals will be are the next band worthy of joining that list. Their first album Zaba was full of woozy jungle beats, and Life Itself shows a band full of ideas. I mean, any band that can open up a chorus with “Pineapples are in my head” deserve our attention. It’s another thematic album that just works in its entirety, with the hip-hop influences a little more at the forefront than they were on the previous record.

6. Bon Iver – 22, A Million

I’m still mad at him for cancelling his European tour three days ago.

7. Frank Ocean – Blonde

Not as instantaneous as Channel Orange, but well worth the time, and probably worth the well publicised wait. That outro on ‘Self Control’ is worth the admission fee alone.

8. Asylums – Killer Brain Waves

A really fun rock album full of melodic chops and sing-along choruses, while skewering social trends and society in general at the same time.

9. Makthaversan – Makthaversan II (2013 Release)

Spotify started doing podcasts. Hooray! A series called AM/PM gets musicians to create two playlists, one for the morning, and one for the evening, with commentary on their choices. Indie dreamboat Ellie Rowsell (of Wolf Alice fame) got put onto Makthaversan by a friend, and I got put onto Makthaversan by her. It’s a fiery guitar-driven album by a Swedish band, and that’s about all I know. Other than the fact it’s great. Obviously.

10. Let’s Eat Grandma – I, Gemini

+5 points for the name alone. I heard ‘Deep Six Textbook’ once or twice, but it wasn’t until I saw them on Jools Holland and was equal parts captivated and baffled that I dug a little deeper. A Guardian review called I, Gemini “Nightmarish Fairytale Folk” which just about nails it. The record is made by two teenagers that met when they were four, and can seem to play about a million instruments. One of those bands that you watch and think “what the hell was I doing when I was 16.”

GUNSHIP – Tech Noir

My mind wanders when I run. A whole lot. Different things will drift into my head, I’ll think about it for a couple of minutes, and then I’ll get distracted by something happening in front of me. Today I witnessed one squirrel chasing another squirrel that had grabbed food from it, for around 300 metres. They were running alongside me, oblivious that I was running alongside them, separated by a chainlink fence. And once that day’s squirrel larceny event or its equivalent is over, I’ll have forgotten about what I was thinking about 30 seconds previously.

Today was different though. I followed through on a thought. I’ve listened to a decent amount of Fightstar in my time, and I’ve often found myself thinking: “That other vocalist (so not Charlie Simpson) has such a great voice.  He should do solo stuff.” I mean, the gaps between Fightstar albums are fairly lengthy, so it’s certainly a possibility, right? Well, today I listened to Fightstar’s latest album while running, and resolved to check their Wiki page to see if he (Alex Westaway) had.

Well, the result was unexpected. Alex and Fightstar bassist Dan Haigh formed a synthwave band called GUNSHIP. They released a self-titled album in 2015 that channels everything great from the 80s. Their wiki page describes what they do far better than anything I can say, so here it is. GUNSHIP is “a neon soaked, late night, sonic getaway drive, dripping with luscious analog synthesizers, cinematic vocals and cyberpunk values, exploding from the front cover of a dusty plastic VHS case which has lain forgotten since 1984.”

Not only that, but their videos perfectly channel their aesthetic, recalling the influences that drove them to make this type of music in the first place. Take a look at the video for ‘Film Noir’ below, and get ready for me attempting to follow through on more stupid brilliant ideas I have while running.

 

Citadel Festival – Victoria Park – Sunday 17th July

CITADEL-2016-GS-4251There’s a certain amount of schadenfreude on offer as you watch a rain-sodden Glastonbury from the comfort of your own sofa, but nothing beats a sunny day listening to live music, and so it was as Citadel Festival happened to sync up perfectly with Britain’s annual 4 day burst of what the rest of the world calls ‘summer’.

Citadel Festival, held in East London’s Victoria Park is a relatively new addition to the festival season. A one day event run by the hippy-chic team behind its big brother festival, Wilderness Festival, it offered a line-up well curated enough to stand out among the dozens of festivals competing for attention. Additionally, they made the most of their location, building stages around existing features in the park.

After stumbling past the Park Bandstand Stage on arrival, which made use of the 150+ year old Bandstand, Barbarella’s Bang Bang were finishing off their Euro gypsy punk set. The crowd were melting in the sun like the chocolate they were asked to call and respond to in the breakdown of the final track, ‘Cioccolata’. Of course, call and response is usually plan A for a performer in a festival set to get the crowd involved, and it was a theme that ran across the day, save for the final act. But more on that later.

Next up were the Pierce Brothers at the Urban Forest stage, which made use of, surprisingly, a cluster of trees to create an intimate, closed off stage. The Pierce Brothers consist of two Aussie brothers playing acoustic guitar and drums to produce typically anthemic folk rock. During their closer, ‘Golden Times’, the drumming brother holds a xylophone to the guitarist brother’s mouth, while simultaneously playing the didgeridoo.  It’s the kind of move that just helps to elevate the levels of fun beyond just being another band simply playing their own instruments, and makes them look a little more like Vishnu, what with his four arms….and his known love for a mean acoustic guitar. One of those things might not be true.

Nathanial Ratcliffe and the Night Sweats were doing plenty of day sweating dressed mainly in blue and black denim as the sun beamed down on the Main Stage. Nathanial’s slice of Americana-filled rhythm and blues swings enough to capture everybody’s attention, even before he shattered a tambourine into a thousand pieces by hurling it to the floor. He also indulges in what he described as his first attempt at call and response. “I’ve never done this before, but then again, neither have you guys.” ‘Son of a Bitch’ gets everyone singing along, showing that some songs just beg to be yelled out into the hazy afternoon air, whether they’ve been asked to do it or not.

Over on the Communion Stage, Matt Corby and Lianne La Havas play one after the other. It’s a fitting arrangement, as both have the most incredible vocal skills, but do so much more than just sing. Matt Corby’s performance is focused and understated, but his voice melts people’s faces right off. He dips between some of his more psych-funk tracks, and the more straight-up gospel-rock  of ‘Knife’s Edge’ and ‘Brother’.

As the sun sets, Lianne La Havas plays what for her, as an East London native, is a homecoming show. While fire and brimstone moments such as ‘Forget’ and ‘Never Get Enough’ are ferocious and fun, it’s her cover of ‘Say A Little Prayer’ that’s the standout moment. Her band take a break and watch, and they do the same thing that most of us in the crowd do when she sings; tilt their heads to the side a little, and just watch in awe. It’s an impressive confirmation that even those that perform with her regularly can’t get over how incredible her voice is. She finishes off with a little call and response moment too, before the main stage headliners Sigur Rós finished off the event with the most disconnected festival headlining set likely ever witnessed. This sounds critical, but really, it’s the complete opposite.

CITADEL-2016-GS-4969

Now operating as a three piece, Sigur Rós are known for their atmospheric and sprawling music, with a rich and diverse back catalogue. They do have their lighter moments, but the Sigur Rós 2016 experience is very much focused towards the darker, broody side of their sound. The performance was tied intricately into an array of trippy and dazzling visuals. Captivating video filters were transposed over live footage, background video was displayed on a giant screen at the back of the stage, and sail-shaped skeletal lights hummed along in accompaniment. Huge crescendos would build as tracks moved from gradual, spacey arrangements towards thunderous endings. On one occasion, Jónsi, the lead singer, guitarist, and multi-instrumentalist channels Hendrix as best he can as he shreds a violin bow’s strings (which he uses to play guitar). Older tracks such as ‘Sæglópur’ and ‘Glósóli’ get an airing and new single ‘Óveður’ opened the show before the ferociousness of ‘Popplagið’ ends it. It’s a moment where all of the visuals from the previous 75 minutes or so suddenly crash together, causing a frenzied assault on the senses. The performance acted as an entirely cohesive piece, showing the possibilities of what can be done with a festival headlining set. It was a thrilling end to a diverse and perfectly curated festival.