some thoughts about whisky prices.

Ken writes:

After just over two months sitting on my hands after packing in the old job, I’m now gainfully employed again. Hip, hip… I’ve had a finger and a half of my special ‘getting a job’ Scotch which is about 30 years old and way out of my regular price range (but I won it as a scholarship gift). It’s truly a beautiful, beautiful drink, but I don’t think it’s so very much better than, say, a 15 year old whisky, or better enough to justify paying more than 50 to 60 quid. When it comes to pricing whisky (in this country at least) there’s a minimum floor created by the truly massive duty on alcohol which together with VAT amount to close to €14 per 700ml bottle. Then there is the fact that whisky is a very expensive commodity to produce, since it has to be warehoused for a minimum of three years in oak barrels before it counts as whisky (think how much vodka the distillery could have made in the meantime instead of making that bottle). So the manufacturer, distributor and retailer all have to make a profit out of the balance over €14. That covers production costs, wages, marketing, materials etc etc. A micro-sized distillery probably has to retail for €40 at a minimum to make any sort of return on investment. So basically €50 doesn’t buy you much of a premium in whisky. That’s just your average product. However, actual price is merely influenced by the fundamentals like duty and cost of goods to produce. it’s also affected by rarity and marketing. So the actual price can go way up. Obviously the older the whisky gets the rarer it is (because inevitably some whisky is sold young). The reason I say it’s not worth paying too much for whisky is that, in my opinion, the pleasure you get from whisky doesn’t increase in line with price. To a degree more mature whiskies taste better than younger whiskies, but only up to a point, and they don’t necessarily increase in proportion to the increase in cost. You’re not buying the sensation on your taste buds. You’re buying the right to have that sensation instead of someone else having it. The qualities of the sensation itself drop out of the picture. All this means: Don’t let the snobs fool you about whisky. Drink the stuff you like and the stuff you can afford and be happy with that. Sure, if someone gives you an expensive bottle, enjoy that too, but keep things in perspective.

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A day out in London

Ken writes:

I visited a friend in London yesterday and we did a nice tour of the microbreweries there taking in Camden Town brewery, Kernel, Brew by Numbers, Partizan, and the London Fields brewery. Actually, Kernel was closed (it was a Saturday) so we only saw the outside. These breweries all have tap rooms open at the weekend to sample the beer at the brewery. I don’t know if any of them brew at the weekend.

A great day out!

Fermenters outside Camden Town Brewery

Fermenters outside Camden Town Brewery

Camden Town brewery packaging room

Camden Town brewery packaging room

Kernel brewery

Kernel brewery

Brew by Numbers

Brew by Numbers

Fermenters at Brew by Numbers

Fermenters at Brew by Numbers

Brew by Numbers brewery under railway arch

Brew by Numbers brewery under railway arch

Loft space at Partizan brewery

Loft space at Partizan brewery

Dave Porter brew house in use at Partizan brewery

Dave Porter brew house in use at Partizan brewery

Fermenters at Partizan brewery

Fermenters at Partizan brewery

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Boys, blue skies

Dot writes: people who live in Ireland or Britain grimly expect rain in the holidays, or at least a mean stiff wind. However, this week we’ve had blue skies and some astonishing warmth. (Astonishing warmth = 18 degrees in Dublin. Woah.) I took Thursday off work (my mum is visiting, I’m allowed) and we had a family trip into Wicklow to climb Great Sugarloaf, eat a leisurely lunch at Mount Usher Gardens, and then tour the gardens. We’d worried it might be too early in the season for the plants, but there was a wonderful display of flowers – daffodils, bluebells and frittilaries on the ground, rhododendrons and magnolias in the trees.  Here are some pictures, mostly taken by my mum. DSC05269 DSC05283 DSC05292 DSC05295 DSC05311 DSC05317 DSC05318 DSC05336

Today I had a lot of baking to do. Mum took the boys to a playground while I shopped. Then Frank helped with the baking.

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Comparison

Portmarnock Beach, 9 July 2014

Portmarnock Beach, 9 July 2014

The same rocks, 7th April 2015

The same rocks, 7th April 2015. My mum in stripes.

Dot writes: It’s a little hard to be sure because the pictures are taken from different angles, but it certainly looked to me when we were there as though the winter storms must have dumped a load of extra sand on Portmarnock beach. That large rock in the foreground seems much more buried now.

My mum is visiting. The sun is shining. I worked in the morning and then we went to the beach. It’s suddenly warm enough for the boys to run around making sand-castles in their underpants. (That is, run around in their underpants making sand-castles.) I paddled in the sea and it was cold but exquisitely clear.

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Courtney Barnett at Whelan’s, 4th April

2223631_Courtney Barnett (22 of 23)

Picture stolen from gigwise.com

Dot writes: last night Ken and I went to see Courtney Barnett play at Whelan’s. This was special not just because she’s very good but because this was the first time we’d ever been to a gig together, even though we’ve been a couple for almost twelve years. (We’ve managed to attend some contemporary dance performances.) Anyway, she was my pick – I’d come across her in my erratic explorations of Australian music over the last year – and happily Ken liked her. Or, rather, liked them, since, although Courtney Barnett writes, gives interviews and is discussed as a solo artist, she plays with a band, currently a trio, and speaks in the first person plural, as in “Have you all bought our album?” (Big cry from the crowd of “Yes!”) There’s a nice chemistry between the band members and they look as though they could all be cousins, which is maybe something that happens when you spend a long time in a van with people.

We were going to the gig with friends and the arrangement was to meet them in a pub opposite the venue beforehand. However, the friends were running late and I wanted to make the most of this rare chance to hear live music, so we crossed the road in time to catch part of the support act, Fraser A. Gorman. At first we both regretted it, Ken because we’d left a craft beer pub for somewhere with a truly terrible selection (the day was saved when some bottled O’Hara’s was spotted behind the bar), and me because, well, I was initially unimpressed by Fraser. It was a solo performance with guitar and intermittent harmonica, and it’s quite hard to wow people who don’t know your songs with that slender equipment. But he had a humorous way with the crowd and after a bit he played a number I’d checked out earlier, and we decided we liked him after all. Here’s a nice video of him exploring a carpet.

Then there was the usual hiatus before the main act, during which our friends turned up and the crowd increased. The crowd was tall. Courtney Barnett is popular with tall people. I felt I was pretty lucky in my view of the stage, all things considered.

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A predictably terrible photo taken with my phone

So – it was a blistering set. I’ve read other reviews that say this: the sound is much heavier live and this band really rocks. They opened with “Elevator Operator”, which is also the first track on the recently released album. Courtney isn’t a loquacious front woman, saving her more expansive eloquence for her lyrics, and she has a dry way with transitions between songs: “Hello! That was the first song. This is the second song. We’ll say hello after that one too.” The second song was “Anatomy of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” and I don’t recall if she did say hello after it or not, but they went on pretty rapidly into “Lance Jr.”, a song from her first EP. The bass line and chord progression remind me of a Nirvana song I haven’t pinned down yet (“Lance Jr.” is the first song in this live performance – see what you think). Even though it was only the third song in the set Courtney and her bass player, Bones, flung themselves into a big instrumental rock-out before coming back to the verse.

Essentially they played most of the album, not in order, plus some key songs from the earlier EPs. A particular stand-out was “Depreston” (“this song has only two chords, which is…average”). It was maybe the quietest song in the set and the crowd’s voices (including mine) emerged surprisingly sweetly over the pared-down instrumental line to sing along with the chorus. Although Courtney Barnett incorporates a lot of specifically Australian details in her lyrics, this reflective song about viewing a house that’s simultaneously a property in a boom market and a place of human memories has an obvious resonance in an Irish context: “If you’ve got a spare half a million / you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” “Avant Gardener” also went down a storm, and I found I knew most of the words.

The gig was sold out and there was a happy energy in the enthusiastic crowd. “Did you see us last time?” Courtney asked. A small but appreciable portion of the audience shouted “Yes!” “Trick question! This is our first time here.” Clearly these people would have liked to have seen her before; maybe some of them had, somewhere else. She’s nice. She took big swigs of water between songs because “my mum told me to drink lots of water on tour.” I was trying to work out what was on her t-shirt; our friends pointed out it was Torvill and Dean!

The main set finished with the recent single, “Pedestrian at Best”; you could feel it coming for a while as it was the big song that had been missing earlier. For me this was the only slight disappointment of the evening, because although it’s another big rocker the best thing about it is the clever, ranty lyrics, and they were a bit hard to hear in the sheer mass of noise; the sound was up painfully loud at this point. But it was certainly a cathartically shouty closer. Then in accordance with convention the band returned for an encore (“actually we do know some more songs”): “Aqua Profunda” from the album, and what Courtney described as “a cover of a cover”, her version of the Divinyls covering the Easybeats’ “I’ll Make You Happy“. This was a really satisfying finish to the show, offering a slight change of style that still fit well with the rest of the set and showed off how she can sing. Singing your own songs is one thing, and she often goes for a trailing-off, half-spoken style that prioritises the words over the tune and has, also, a down-to-earth dryness about it, a possible suspicion of the emotionality and indulgence of full singing; but the fact is she has a strong voice, deep and throaty, and I probably like her cover of “I’ll Make You Happy” more than the Divinyls’ one.

In sum: we had a great time listening to Courtney Barnett. I’ll be buying the double EP “A Sea of Split Peas” to add to the album (I got “Avant Gardener” as a single). There’s a huge buzz around her at the moment and it’s thoroughly merited. She writes clever songs and performs them with passion, and she doesn’t feel the need to dance around in her bra, which is also good. Happy punters here.

Further terrible photo taken with my phone. The backdrop is lights projected onto a sheet.

Further terrible photo taken with my phone. The backdrop is lights projected onto a sheet.

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Musical twinning

Dot writes: this evening I felt a very strong urge to listen to Siegfried’s Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, which I succumbed to as loudly as I dared once the kids were in bed. It prompted me to reflect on how early exposure to Wagner probably helps to explain my love of melodic hard rock; I do like music that is passionate, overwhelming and vast, and I am not bothered by lack of irony. This in turn made me think whether one could have a twinning arrangement between classical and popular genres. Maybe electronica could come to an agreement with early Baroque. Performances of Mozart’s operas could have little signs in them mentioning their exchange programme with quirky female-fronted indie-pop groups. Folk and renaissance music have been mixing it up for years. Any further suggestions?

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The need for bad music

Thomas Webster, The Village Choir (c. 1847)

Thomas Webster, The Village Choir (c. 1847)

Dot writes: Recently I read How Music Works, by David Byrne (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012; pbk edn 2013). It’s an excellent and readable book, full of interesting ideas. I learnt a lot about the history of recorded music and the influence of technology upon creative decisions; about where the money goes when I buy a CD or download (this confirmed my preference for buying from Bandcamp where possible); and about David Byrne’s own varied career in Talking Heads and afterwards. I also wanted to talk back from time to time, always a good sign of a book that sets you thinking.

The chapter that got me feeling especially chatty was one entitled “Amateurs!” I’d like to argue with it mildly because it doesn’t say as much as I’d like about amateurs. Byrne argues that the advent of recorded music made people less likely to play music themselves: the focus in music education shifted from trying to play oneself to appreciating the great works of others. That wasn’t true of my experience of music classes at school, though education in listening did play a part – and I think learning to listen well is extremely valuable, a deeply rewarding skill. But I’m sure he’s right that easy exposure to ‘perfect’ performances makes people less motivated to produce their own imperfect ones. He makes the point that capitalism wants people to be consumers of music – buyers of a product – rather than producers of their own (he avoids sounding too radical by observing that industries benefit from people being creative). He is also critical of the way governments, specifically the US government, fund the arts.

Here he gets drawn into what I find a somewhat unhelpful opposition between expensive, prestigious ‘high’ art and popular art. Yes, orchestras are expensive and it would be good to offer support to a broad range of art forms, but I don’t find reverse snobbery any more enriching to the human spirit than ordinary snobbery. Not that David Byrne is any kind of snob. Actually he’s maddeningly reasonable. Most of the things I felt miffed about the first time I read the chapter he turns out, when I look again, to have carefully hedged (for example, he disowns any straightforward rejection of classical music, or an exclusive association of such music with elites or social climbing); but I do feel uneasy at his readiness to criticise, say, opera on the grounds it doesn’t have a mass market, and to complain about certain famous orchestras being stuck in the mud. Good art is worth keeping alive even if not many people appreciate it. Whether something is popular or not in terms of sheer numbers has more to do with how people are exposed to it and the identity politics it’s embedded in than in whether it is genuinely illuminating or beautiful. At the same time I agree that an exclusive focus on selected genres of art is unhelpful, that good music doesn’t have to mean classical music, and that there ought to be some way for people to earn a decent living making music without having to have a job with a symphony orchestra. (Actually I have a couple of friends who work for the RTE Symphony Orchestra and it hasn’t been a very happy place to be employed in recent years. But that’s by the by.)

But what I want to amplify is that there has to be a place for art that isn’t especially good. Byrne talks about the social benefits of making music and the advantages of music education. He mentions El Sistema in Venezuela and various projects bringing music to the favelas in Brazil. Of one of the latter he writes:

I visited José Junior’s center and, to be honest, the music I heard was not always among the best stuff I’ve ever heard in Brazil. That’s not the point, though…. Music as social glue, as a self-empowering change agent, is maybe more profound than how perfectly a specific song is composed or how immaculately tight a band is. (p. 314)

The benefits of learning to make music are most easily argued in relation to deprived neighbourhoods and people drawn out of crime, but frankly the comfortable inhabitants of middle-class neighbourhoods could also do with more opportunities to shake off inhibition and make a noise. If a thing is worth doing it’s worth doing badly; it needs to be easier for adults as well as children to find opportunities to explore and be creative in this way. I’m not saying quality doesn’t matter. One should try to do it well. But there are few feelings better than making music. My own avenues for this are the church choir, the Society of Recorder Players (I took up the recorder again about a year and nine months ago, before my great fit of album buying started), and latterly even my evening class in music technology – we were learning about overdubbing last week and I played and sang all the parts of The Coventry Carol, which was hugely satisfying even though it’s a simple little piece. I would love to get an opportunity to try folk music, as I’ve always been stuck in the classical box (admittedly choral music is what my voice is suited to). Anyway, I’m not disagreeing with David Byrne here so much as wanting him to shout a bit louder. Professional music is worth funding, but amateur music – good or bad – also needs to have its spaces, its teachers, its affordable instruments, for the simple reason that it makes people very happy.

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