Thursday, 18 May 2017

Nome, Alaska

There's something I want to get off my chest. A few weeks ago I read this great article about Nome, a town in Alaska where men are real men and women are hard-wearing. Nome is separated from the nearest McDonald's by hundreds of miles of bleak, frozen tundra. It is the hub of a small road network, but the road only leads to the nearest towns; the only way to get to Nome from civilisation is by sea or air.

It's very unlikely that I will ever visit Nome, but Google has mapped the place, so I can visit it virtually. It even has Street View, which was achieved by making a poor Google employee walk back and forth down Nome's frozen boulevards with a camera on his back.

Nome is a fishing village with very little tourism, but it has a certain appeal to motorcylists and offroaders who fancy a challenge. A century ago it was swamped by gold prospectors; half a century ago it was home to Marks AFB, what with it being just across the water from the Soviet Union. Today the population is slowly approaching 4,000, and on the whole it seems a pleasant place to rest and write a very long novel. But does it have broadband internet?

The Bob Blodgett Nome-Teller Memorial Highway leads to Teller, which is fifty miles away and has a school. One-third of the way from Nome to Teller the road goes over the Sinrock River. In 2016 someone stopped there and took a panoramic photograph. The place looks like Sweden:

Let's have a look at those rocks under the bridge, just visible in the right of the topmost image:

It's bleak. But hang on, what's that:

Let's take a closer look:

Really, I'm disappointed. Humanity has a spotty record with the environment but this is just embarrassing. Did Google's man throw the bottle away? Or was it a tourist?

Whoever it was, you're lazy. I ask you, the Internet - next time you're visiting Nome, pick up that bottle and put it in the bin. Otherwise it will haunt me until the end of my days.

That's it, that's all I wanted to say. Carry on. No, there's something else. It's 2017 and I've just found a discarded Powerade bottle seven thousand miles away, next to a bridge in Nome, Alaska. I didn't have to leave the privacy of my own drinking-room. I was just sitting in front of my computer. Truly, we live in the future.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Olympus XA3

My only hope is that the nightmares will cease when I die. But what if they continue? What if, without the moderating influence of my conscious mind, the nightmares are set free? So I have resolved to reverse the wheel and ram the ship through Cthulhu. I will activate every neuron in my mind, generating a furnace of anti-death so potent that it burns the nightmares out. To this end I'm going to have a look at the Olympus XA3, a compact camera from 1985. In my hands it has looked upon all that the universe has to hold of horror and there is no escape.

For this post I decided to photograph blue things and red things.

I've written about the original Olympus XA before. It was a neat little micro-camera from 1979 with aperture-priority autoexposure and a proper split-image rangefinder housed in a tiny body, with a really good 35mm f/2.8 lens. The XA was sold alongside the budget-priced XA2, which had three-zone focusing and a 35mm f/3.5, and the confusingly-named XA1, which had a fixed-focus 35mm f/4 and a selenium light meter. The XA1 was a bit naff. They were all designed by Yoshihisa Maitani, who devised a string of classic cameras including the Pen F, the OM, the Trip 35 and the original Stylus, among others.

While you're reading this post please listen to OOIOO's "Umo", which came out a while back but didn't we all:

Writing in 1928, H P Lovecraft imagined a future in which the scientific method's piecing together of dissociated knowledge would open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. Imagine that!

All of the XA cameras were manual focus, which was anachronistic by the mid-1980s. Nonetheless they sold well, and Olympus launched a second wave in 1985. The XA3 was essentially an XA2 with DX film encoding and a special quick-loading system; the XA4 was similar but had a 28mm f/2.8 wideangle lens that could focus down to a foot, with a special lanyard that could be used as a measuring aid or makeshift garrote.

London is full of billboards like this, on construction sites, where investment vehicles are constructed for people who won't live there.

Alas the XA3 and XA4 were not enough, and Olympus discontinued the range a year or so later. Olympus' early autofocus compacts didn't have much of an impact, but the Olympus Stylus and particularly the Olympus Stylus Epic of the 1990s were very popular and still have a following today. Over the last decade Olympus has revived many of its old brands to good effect, and it will be interesting to see if they ever dig up the old XA.

Of the lot I haven't tried the XA1, XA4, or original Stylus; their dead bodies told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. Of the others I prefer the XA, if only because the viewfinder is huge and it has more controls.

I actually shot all these pictures last year, when I went to see Barry Lyndon. I was so busy writing about Barry Lyndon that I completely forgot about the XA3. When I am writing I forget about everything else, including food and sleep.

I don't know if it's the V500 scanner or slide film in general, but Ektachrome has a distinctive glow.

Compared to the XA the Stylus Epic has a slightly better lens - it vignettes much less - and used examples are much newer and less likely to go wrong. Furthermore the XA's soft-touch shutter button is an acquired taste.

The XA3 also has a soft-touch shutter button, but it has a bit of give so it's not too bad. As with the other XAs the shutter is really quiet - long exposures go snick (long pause) snick - but the thumbwheel winder is quite noisy, albeit that you can hide it in a jacket pocket while you advance the film, whereas with the later motorised cameras you have no choice.

My Kodak Ektachrome expired in 2007. Slide film tends to go purple as it ages, but the colours can be corrected with Photoshop. At the top, how it came out of the scanner (with the levels fixed); at the bottom, Photoshop.

Writing about the XA3 is difficult, firstly because it's basically the same as the XA2, secondly because I live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that I should voyage far.

The combination of 35mm and f/3.5 is more or less perfect, although f/2.8 would have been nicer; nonetheless it's wide enough, narrow enough, fast enough, and it's easy to hold the XA3 steady. Exposures are spot-on. It's compatible with the standard XA flashes, which I will probably never use unless someone invites me to a party, which is unlikely, especially after the last time. It shares with the XA2 a design issue whereby whenever you open the sliding cover the focus lever defaults to the mid-distance instead of the last position you selected. On a physical level the XA3 is slightly but noticeably larger than the XA. It's harder to come by on the used market, as it was only sold for a short period and was overshadowed by the XA2 (cheaper) and the XA4 (wider).

You can't override the DX setting, but if the film doesn't have a DX code there is however a full range of ISO settings (from ISO 25 to ISO 1600). It shares with the XA a +1.5 stop backlight correction setting, which is selected with a little self-timer/battery check/miniature tripod lever on the bottom of the camera, breathe out

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Blue Skied an' Clear: Slowdive

Let’s have a look at Morr Music's Blue Skied an’ Clear, a compilation album stroke label sampler from 2002. Disc one has covers of songs by top British shoegaze band Slowdive; disc two has original songs inspired by the band. So it was that in 2017 I was moved to write about an album of covers released in 2002 of a band that flourished and faded in the early 1990s, as if descending a staircase into the past. I gazed at translucent figures who could not see me; I studied their ways and surfaced gasping into the present. As I write these words I imagine invisible eyes from the future studying me.

Slowdive was a shoegaze band. What was shoegaze? In the gap between C86 and Britpop there emerged a generation of fey, pale teenagers whose guitars broadcast formless, distorted washes of sound to an audience that craved an aural comfort blanket. The genre had a good run but the leading lights split up or ran out of ideas or ground to a halt. Britpop bulldozed the traces away. Britpop was brash, populist, and highly commercial; shoegaze was none of those things. It had an air of passive self-absorption that was at odds with Britpop's extrovert nature.

Slowdive passed me by at the time. I was into electronic music, and in those days it was difficult to get familiar with a wide range of different bands. You either had to borrow lots of records or have a lot of money. There was no Youtube, and Slowdive was never played on the radio. I could only read about them in the music press, except that I continually got them mixed up with Swervedriver, another shoegaze band - Slowdive and Swervedriver are the same colour, both red - so I can't be sure if my memories of the band are correct. For me Slowdive and the shoegazing genre was a blip that came and went between Madchester, ambient house, and then Britpop and drum'n'bass. It was part of the now long-forgotten pre-Britpop era.

The only shoegaze band that approached a commercial breakthrough was Ride, who managed a couple of top ten albums and a top ten single, although nowadays they tend to be thought of as a pre-Britpop indie band that had a shoegazing phase rather than a fully-fledged shoegazing band a la Lush or Inspiral Carpets. My Bloody Valentine’s second album, Loveless, is generally regarded as the high point of the genre - the loudest, most formless, most diffident of all shoegaze records, the genre’s Kind of Blue. On a commercial level Slowdive never had a heyday, and fan favourite Souvlaki (1993) was a victim of unfortunate timing. By 1993 the music press had grown tired of shoegaze and was more interested in the likes of James, The Wonder Stuff, Suede and so forth, and of course a year later the one-two punch of Definitely Maybe and Parklife opened the floodgates that swept Slowdive and shoegaze away forever, or at least it seemed at the time. The band disappeared after a third album released to little fanfare in 1995.

For some reason – I know not why – Slowdive became internet-fashionable again in the 2000s. The group recently reformed and has released a new album. Surprisingly, it’s terrific; a moody, floaty ambient indie pop record that manages to be formless and tuneful at the same time. In a just world "Sugar for the Pill" would be a massive radio hit. Judging by Youtube views the band has gained a whole new following, including this blue-haired woman who was moved to tears by their cover of Syd Barrett’s "Golden Hair":

But what of Blue Skied an' Clear? The covers on Disc One are solid but sound thin, as if the bands were all pushed for time. The problem is that Slowdive's music was inseparable from the production, with the result that shorn of the band's wall of effects pedals the songs don't have the same impact. The exception is múm's cover of "Machine Gun". It has a killer melody but Slowdive's production was plodding and unimaginative; múm's take is subtler, and the sound would have fit perfectly on Finally We Are No One.

There's another problem, highlighted by Limp's take on "Souvlaki Space Station". The compilation was released in the wake of Warp Records' glitch-pop heyday and consequently several of the tracks have pointless sub-Squarepusher glitchy treatments that don't fit the material, "Space Station" among them. Disc two's "Fade Out Your Eyes" is a particular bad offender.

Ulrich Schnauss' "Crazy for You" is the second best cover, adding twangy guitars and a shuffling beat to the original, which sounded as if it had been recorded in a tunnel. A few years later Schnauss' version of the song was used in a Lucozade advert, sped-up:

I imagine Schnauss earned more from the advert than he did from Blue Skied an' Clear. During their career Slowdive tried to change their sound - they hired Brian Eno, although he didn't stick around for a whole album - but never really managed it. Their most recent album feels like the product of twenty years of gradual evolution rather than a sharp break, which is fine now but would have been disappointing if it was just Slowdive's hypothetical fifteenth studio album. It's fascinating to imagine what might have happened if Slowdive and Eno had hit it off; say what you like about U2, Achtung Baby was a major leap for the band and it did give them a second wind. Solvent's cover of "When the Sun Hits" reimagines Slowdive as Add N to X while Lali Puma's version of "40 Days" has something of Garbage about it but neither of them convincingly reinvent the band. Skanfrom's version of "Here She Comes" sounds like a Brian Eno solo track from one of his non-ambient vocal albums.

Disc two is a lot more variable. Disc One is listenable throughout but Disc Two has some complete stinkers, although it gets off to a great start with Manual's "Summer Haze" and Isan's "My Last Journey". "House Full of Time" and "Fade Our Your Eyes" aren't very good at all and Solvent's "Discontinued Parts" is godawful. Limp's "Silent Running" is nice - it sounds like an instrumental cover of "40 Days" - but again has tonnes of indifferently-executed, now-badly-dated glitches. I bought the album after hearing Icebreaker International and Manual's "Into Forever", and for me it's the standout track. Schnauss' "Wherever You Are" is the other standout. The rest are basically inoffensive filler. That's (counts) four excellent tracks, three bad tracks, seven okay tracks. I find it hard to criticise the bands involved. They probably had two weeks to throw something together for the compilation and no extra money, so I imagine disc two is stuffed with demos that they didn't want to put out as b-sides.

Morr Music still exists. Blue Skied an' Clear was released physically on compact disc and triple vinyl. The vinyl has a poster and some twee stickers that made me smile. It's still on sale today albeit only digitally. It's one really good album of mostly Slowdive covers with a handful of original tunes as a bonus, plus some rubbish that you can skip, the end.