Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Wooden Finger Five - April 2015


5.First Light – Django Django

This song has been out for a few months now, but I’ve grown more attached to it over the past 30 days. Remember U2 singing in ‘Beautiful Day’ about seeing the oilfields at first light? Well replace that with the power lines you see on your street and stretch that feeling out over a whole song, and you get a sense of the mood this song brings out in me.

4.Lampshades On Fire – Modest Mouse

I featured a song from Modest Mouse’s new album last month (‘The Ground Walks, With Time In A Box’), but on further listens this has emerged as my favourite track, albeit a more conventional Modest Mouse one. The lyrics seem to have an environmental bent, suggesting that humans manage to ruin any habitat they are in. This being Modest Mouse some lines seem to veer off from the main message (‘Our ass looks great inside these jeans?’ …), still the music chugs along with enough momentum that even the most abstract lines manage to get me humming along.

3.Dancing In The Corner – Monarchy

Could there be a more typical example of gloomy, us-against-the-world, teenage angst than the lyrics to this track? ‘We’re not welcome anymore … They don’t want to set us free/Fuck it we don’t need them… They can’t see/Born with dulled out eyes/They don’t understand who we are …’ Billy Corgan would be proud. Nevertheless, this slice of synth-pop is still able to draw me in, staying just the right side of sounding like Hurts.

2.Should Have Known Better – Sufjan Stevens

Sufjan Stevens seems to re-enter the nostalgic territory of ‘Casamir Pulaski Day’ on this song, as he travels back to his childhood, and the time his mother left him in a video store as a young child. It’s a sombre, pretty song, the kind that Stevens’ has done many times more, but few times with as good a melody as this.

 
1.King Kunta – Kendrick Lamar

Some of favourite hip-hop/rap albums are those that get a bit creative/weird and sound a little less like hip-hop; for example Kanye West’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Family’, and Outkast’s ‘Speakerboxxx/The Love Below’. Kendrick Lamar’s latest album, ‘To Pimp A Butterfly’ fits that category I think, and I like it more than his previous one. Although I don’t like it quite as much as this reviewer. I don’t get Kendrick’s narratives as much as others seem to, so I couldn’t really tell you much about what ‘King Kunta’, my favourite track on his new album, is meant to be about. I gather than the reference to Kunta is meant to be a symbol for ‘black empowerment’. Regardless I love the beat, and the backing vocals (“what’s the yams?”), and so it’s been the track I’ve returned to the most over the past month. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Which Is Australia’s Best Cricket World Cup (Winning) Team?

Last Sunday Australia won its fifth Cricket World Cup final, having won the tournament previously in 1987, 1999, 2003, and 2007. This Australian team was clearly very good – losing only one match out of nine, and by a close margin. But is it the best of Australia’s cup winners? Let’s consider each winning eleven in turn.

1987

Record: 7 wins, 1 loss.

Team: David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones, Allan Border, Mike Veletta, Steve Waugh, Simon O’Donnell, Greg Dyer, Craig McDermott, Tim May, Bruce Reid.

Australia’s triumph in the 1987 World Cup was a bit unexpected, and so I was surprised to discover that their record for the tournament was seven wins and only one loss. However, several of those wins were very close results, including the final against England. Also, while several of these players were very good I would say better versions of them came along later – Boon and Marsh were eclipsed by Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, Border was eclipsed by Ricky Ponting, O’Donnell by Andrew Symonds, and McDermott by Glenn McGrath. In the end then, while this side took an important step for Australia on their way to becoming the world’s best one-day cricket side, I would rate it at the lower end of Australia’s World Cup champions.

1999

Record: 7 wins, 2 losses, 1 tie.

Team:  Adam Gilchrist, Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Darren Lehmann, Steve Waugh, Michael Bevan, Tom Moody, Shane Warne, Paul Reiffel, Damien Fleming, Glenn McGrath.

This team looks pretty strong, and is the only World Cup winning team to feature both Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Ultimately though, their record in the tournament, while still very good, is a step below other Australian squads. They lost a couple of early group matches, which resulted in them having to win – or not lose – seven matches in a row to lift the trophy (they won six, and their famous tie in the semi-final was enough to get them through). Also they could easily have lost either one of their two dramatic matches against South Africa and not reached the final at all. This squad is great on paper, but the hiccups along the way mean I cannot put them at the top.

2003

Record: 11 wins, 0 losses.

Team: Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Damien Martyn, Darren Lehmann, Michael Bevan, Andrew Symonds, Brad Hogg, Andy Bichel, Brett Lee, Glenn McGrath.

Now this team has a strong case to be considered the best. It won all eleven of its matches in the tournament, and barely looked in danger of losing. If you were to pick a best ever Australian one-day cricket side seven members of this team would be strong contenders for selection: Gilchrist, Hayden, Ponting, Bevan, Symonds, Lee, and McGrath. If Shane Warne had not famously had to withdraw after testing positive to a banned substance I think this team would be clearly the best (though Brad Hogg was a capable replacement). Any side that can make over 350 and dismiss Sachin Tendulkar for single figures in a World Cup final has to be pretty special.

2007

Record: 9 wins, 0 losses.

Team: Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Michael Hussey, Shane Watson, Brad Hogg, Nathan Bracken, Shaun Tait, Glenn McGrath.

There is not much difference between this and the 2003 side. Like the 2003 team it went through the tournament undefeated, and had some mammoth wins, including smashing the number one ranked team South Africa in the semi-final. The imposing top order was the same as the 2003 team, and the middle order had a comparable level of talent. McGrath, though at the end of his career, bagged a record 26 wickets for the tournament. But if I had to split hairs I would say the opening bowling partnership of McGrath and Lee in the 2003 team would be a more frightening prospect than the 2007 team’s combination of Bracken and Tait. (Did you remember they opened the bowling for Australia in this tournament? I didn't; I assumed it was McGrath and Lee.) It’s a close one though.

2015

Record: 7 wins, 1 loss, 1 no result.

Team: David Warner, Aaron Finch, Steve Smith, Michael Clarke, Shane Watson, Glenn Maxwell, James Faulkner, Brad Haddin, Mitchell Johnson, Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood.

The personnel in the 2015 team may be considerably different from the 2003 and 2007 teams, but the level of talent is pretty close. Starc bowled as well as McGrath ever did in a World Cup. Maxwell and Faulkner were not the stayers that Bevan or Lehmann were, but they made up for it in explosiveness. I think where it falls just short of the 2003 and 2007 squads is that the opening partnership of Warner and Finch are just a level below Gilchrist and Hayden, and the changes to the middle order during the tournament made it a bit less imposing than those other teams. Let’s put them in the middle then.

Final order: 2003, 2007, 2015, 1999, 1987.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Get Rid of ‘… a such-and-such … ’: Name Your Sportspeople!

Few people would hold sports up as a field that generally brings out the best in the English language, even if there are some very eloquent people within the industry. But one phrase that has really irked me over the years is the use of the phrase ‘… a such-and-such …’

I mean phrases like the following hypothetical example (which I have made up based on the Cricket World Cup being on at the moment):

‘… Australia needs someone like a Maxwell, or a Faulkner, or a Watson, to make some quick runs here …’

The example is hypothetical, but many sports followers have heard something like it before. Why use the ‘a’? Why not just say ‘Australia needs Maxwell, or Faulkner, or Watson, to make some quick runs here … ‘ I can think of two main reasons.

Not wanting to single someone out: This explanation seems more likely if the speaker is an actual sportsperson, given that the speaker may be reluctant to single out a player on his or her team. Still it’s almost always wrong. Sports figures: you generally don’t have more than one player with the same name on the team, and even if you do your comment probably only refers to one person. Show some ownership of your comments!

Verbal shorthand: What the speaker really means is people with ‘such-and-such’ general traits; in the example above ‘a’ is being used as shorthand for ‘powerful, middle-order batsman’. The usual problem with this though is that, in using the ‘a’ list, the speaker ends up naming all or almost all of the sportspeople that fit the criteria he or she is attempting to describe. So, again, why not just specifically name the people?

It irks me – maybe more than it should, but it does. Similarly I can’t stand it when sportspeople are referred to in the plural form, such as ‘the Maxwells, the Faulkners, and the Watsons’. For people who do this, you mean a particular person or persons: name them! 

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Finger Points Outwards - No. 101

Some links previewing the 2015 Australian Football League season, kicking off in a few weeks:

Top 10 AFL games to watch in 2015 by Michelangelo Rucci. Particularly if you barrack for Port Adelaide, Collingwood, Sydney, or Hawthorn.

The top 50 AFL players, as voted by the players themselves.

Which AFL teams will find it harder to overcome the difficulty of their fixture?

Each club’s expected best line-up as of the first round.

And another view of each club’s best line-up, as well as a prediction of where each club will finish.

Based on my ever-present power rankings, this is how I would rate each club’s chances. You may have had six months to think about it, but don’t overrate a team’s final performance or two in 2014.

Main contenders: Hawthorn, Sydney.
Good chance for finals: Port Adelaide, Adelaide, Fremantle, West Coast, North Melbourne.
Some chance for finals: Geelong, Richmond, Essendon.
More likely to miss finals: Carlton, Gold Coast, Collingwood.
Bottom teams: Western Bulldogs, Greater Western Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, St. Kilda.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Review: Girl In A Band – Kim Gordon


How much is the content and tone of an autobiography determined by when you write it? Kim Gordon’s autobiography, ‘Girl In A Band’ comes just a few years after she split from her long-time husband and Sonic Youth band member Thurston Moore. In the book Moore comes across as a somewhat distant figure, or more distant than I would expect for someone who the author had spent over three decades with. Is that because he was a naturally distant person? It seems that may be part of it, but I wonder if Moore would be so marginal to Gordon’s story if this book had been written, say, fifteen years ago?

On the other hand, while Gordon was certainly hurt by Moore’s betrayal (he was seeing another woman, his current partner, for several years behind Gordon’s back), she still takes space to talk about his qualities as a musician, a father, and a person. It would be fascinating to read Moore’s account of their last years together as well. Did he really start to feel like he was moving away from Gordon as early as she suspects in hindsight? Did he really intend to break it off with the other woman whenever Gordon caught him out, or was it just a delaying tactic before an inevitable end?

Gordon’s and Moore’s separation forms the beginning and end of the book, but she covers pretty much every major aspect of her life. Smartly reasoning that a lot has been written about Sonic Youth over the years, Gordon focuses on the tracks and moments that had the most meaning to her, hence providing an account of their career that only she can provide. Her family life will probably not be the part that most people are picking up this book for, but she provides just enough background to get a sense of where she came from and how early life affected her. Other musicians of the era are discussed – she thinks about Kurt Cobain a lot, does not hold Courtney Love is much esteem, and has a huge regard for Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.

Finally, perhaps in part because I am a new parent myself I found her accounts of raising a kid while remaining in a rock band interesting, although as she points out this is a far different prospect for a new mother than father. Gordon may not have the eloquence of other musicians whose autobiographies I have read in the past few years such as Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Morrissey, or even David Byrne, but those who love the ‘80s and ‘90s American alternative rock scene will likely enjoy what she has to observe and say.   

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Alan Moore v Grant Morrison


Alan Moore and Grant Morrison are for me, and many others, the two best comic book writers ever. They also have a long-running feud. Indeed, the distaste they seem to have for each other, particularly Moore of Morrison, is almost to the point where readers may feel they have to choose one writer’s work over the other.

I think it’s not unfair to say that for many years Moore was considered the better writer, and clearly so. His work in the mid-1980s, before Morrison gained much notice at all, seemed to establish him as the best comic book writer there had ever been, and would be for some time. At his peak from 1982 to 1987 Moore dropped on the world some of the greatest comic books there have even been, including Marvelman/Miracleman, Swamp Thing, V For Vendetta, Batman: The Killing Joke, Superman: Whatever Happened To The World of Tomorrow?, and the greatest comic series of them all, Watchmen.  Morrison, meanwhile, was just getting significant notice by the late ‘80s, first with Zenith in the UK, and then at DC Comics with Doom Patrol and Animal Man. Actually, if anyone was considered a writer to rival Moore during that era it was not Morrison but Batman, Daredevil and Sin City writer Frank Miller.

Morrison though may be said to have slowly clawed back the gap over the years. His Justice League of America books sold very well in the mid-‘90s, while Moore was ‘stuck’ trying to bring at least a slither of substance to Image Comics properties such as Supreme and WILDC.A.T.S (though he also produced the excellent From Hell during this period). Then at the turn of the century Moore was given free rein with the America’s Best Comics line, and came storming back with classic series such as Top 10, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Promethea, seemingly cementing his spot as the number one comics writer for good. Since then though he has been largely absent from comics, while Morrison has produced a steady stream of well-received work. With top artist Frank Quitely, Morrison had a fantastic run on X-Men, as well as creating We3, and possibly the greatest Superman story ever in All-Star Superman. He also released a bunch of good comic books with other artists, including an epic Batman run, The Filth, Seven Soldiers of Victory, and most recently The Multiversity.

Still even accounting for Morrison’s strong recent work, I think Moore outpoints Morrison as a writer, for what that is worth – his very best works are greater than Morrison’s best works. Not that it should really be a competition; to me both are great writers, and their works collectively form a large chunk of my graphic novel bookshelf.

However, as a person, I think I would enjoy Grant Morrison’s company more. Alan Moore seems to be bitter about almost every comic book relationship he has had, from his time at Marvel UK to his time at DC Comics. Granted, he probably had some good reasons, but other creators have run into problems at the two major companies as well and they haven’t vowed to damn the whole company regardless of who’s in them, nor the comics industry in general. I respect Moore for his principles, but he strikes me as if he would be a curmudgeonly person to spend time with.

When Moore decided to go postal on Grant Morrison a year back I thought Morrison handled it pretty well. His central point was a good one: why couldn’t Moore find something good to say about comics, and if he couldn’t find something good to say, why couldn’t he just shut up? With that reply, Morrison portrayed himself as someone who cared about, and thought positively about, both the comics industry and the creators in it, while Moore seemed to treat them like a turd he couldn’t wipe off completely from the bottom of his shoe.

Morrison has also taken the effort to engage with Moore’s work, while Moore has entirely dismissed Morrison’s. Moore of course is under no obligation to read or like Morrison’s work if he does not think it to be of merit or to his taste. But Moore’s criticisms of Morrison are more equivalent to what you would expect from an internet troll – albeit a highly witty one – than from one of comics’ most thoughtful and incisive creators. Morrison meanwhile has taken the effort to set out what he does and does not like in Moore’s work and the reasons why, even revising his opinion of some works such as Watchmen as he has considered them further. Again, Moore is under no obligation to engage with Morrison’s work, but that Morrison can at least talk about Moore’s without resorting to name-calling counts for him in my estimation.

Not that Morrison has always taken the high ground in this feud. In his book ‘Supergods’ Morrison admits that he played the part of the enfant terrible early in his career, and that reading interviews from that period – a period during which he dismissed works like Watchmen – now makes his ‘blood run cold’, though he seemed to me to still be somewhat proud of that early persona. But Morrison soon showed he was more than a ‘punk’ – his messages about animal rights on Animal Man for instance were, to me at least, more than just the work of a self-absorbed hipster.

So in summary, for me Alan Moore is the better writer, but Grant Morrison – of course keeping in mind that I have never met either man personally – comes across as the ‘better professional’. Not that Moore would give a toss. But against Moore’s wishes I’m going to continue to read and enjoy the work of both writers.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

It Is Not Unexpected That England – Or Some Team Like Them – Would Be Eliminated From The Cricket World Cup Early

England’s loss to Bangladesh in the Cricket World Cup yesterday means that they will not qualify for the quarter-finals. Given that, before the World Cup, there were only eight teams that were considered of ‘world-class’ standard – England, Australia, India, New Zealand, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and the West Indies – England’s early elimination is considered a ‘shock’.

However, there has been a bit of a history at the Cricket World Cup of at least one ‘established’ cricket nation being knocked out early. The above eight nations made it through to the 2011 World Cup quarter-finals. But India and Pakistan were eliminated in the group stages at the 2007 World Cup. Furthermore Kenya and Zimbabwe made it through to the next stage above more established nations at the 2003 World Cup (although Kenya made it through a walkover), and Zimbabwe beat out England into the next stage at the 1999 World Cup.

Why is England’s exit a ‘shock’ then? The reaction to England’s exit reminds me of the ‘birthday problem’. When asked how many people you need in a room for it to be more likely than not that two of them share the same birthday, most people dramatically overestimate the number. One explanation for this overestimation is that, because the chances that any two given people share the same birthday is small (1 in 365.25), people find it an amazing coincidence that any two people within the same room share the same birthday, even though the latter event is much more likely.

In the case of England’s elimination from the World Cup it was unlikely that England specifically would be eliminated from the World Cup in the group stages. But it was somewhat less unlikely that at least one of the established cricket nations would be eliminated early. As an Australian cricket supporter, I am just glad that it was the Poms this time and not us.