Saturday, 29 May 2010

Yeasayer - Odd Blood

Before I begin, can I just say...I can't stop listening to this album! To the point where, from once being enjoyable, it has now become some kind of compulsion. So I'll issue this as a public health warning, some of these tracks are as catchy as...I don't know, some kind of itchy S.T.I. Just be careful, ok?!

So, warning over, I briefly mentioned these guys way back, after I saw them supporting for Bat For Lashes at The Roundhouse. Comprised of three main members, Chris Keating, Anand Wilder and Ira Wolf Tuton - the latter I believe must have the coolest name in the music business. Despite the artists' sounds being so different, they definitely got the crowd hyped up before Natasha Khan's appearance, and it was only fair that they tag along on the tour seeing as the Yeasayer boys part-produced Khan's album 'Two Suns'. Clearly they have many talents. I thought they rocked back then, and their album hasn't disappointed. Well, I say 'rock', instead they kind of 'roll-up-their-blazer-sleeves-and-point-in-time-with-the-music', but rock is a bit quicker to say.

The guys describe their sound as "Middle Eastern psych-snap-gospel", I don't really know what that means, and I'm guessing it's probably just something they made up, because really there is no definitive answer - they are experimental, and as such cannot stick to any one kind of 'sound'. This much is clear from comparing their two albums, 2007's 'All Hour Cymbals' is worlds away from this year's 'Odd Blood'. The songs that instantly caught my, er, ears, were those from 2 to 5, particularly 'Ambling Alp' and 'O.N.E', because they are just awesome dance-filled slices of 80s cake, with a little layer of modern synth and craziness that bring them up to date. There is also a sense of tenderness in 'I Remember', which laments lost love, in a psychadelic kind of way. For those who may have liked the first album, the popularity of this latest offering may be a turn off for fear that the band has sold out and gone mainstream , well, maybe they have a little. There is a lot on the latest album that will definitely be more accessible to more people, but there is no way they have lost their experimental edge - there is a lot of weirdness too! Just a quick listen to opening track 'Children' illustrates that, with a strange robotic voice throughout that sounds a little bit like a remix version of the guy in 'Saw'. No danger of that one ending up being played on Heartfm!

Thursday, 27 May 2010

TeenagersInTokyo - Sacrifice

It's not often I manage to get my mitts on shiny new music so soon after it's release date, but this time I managed it, 'Sacrifice' was released on Monday and has already wormed its way into my musical consciousness.

I had already heard a fair bit about TeenagersInTokyo as they have recently appeared at Brighton's Great Escape Festival, as well as supporting the likes of The Gossip and CSS on tour, and subsequently have been appearing in many a music-review magazine and blog. My interest was only really ignited after stumbling across the video for their single 'Peter Pan', which had a dark, sinister edge that really lent itself to the song - which is incredibly catchy in it's own right.

Comprised of Samantha Lim on vocals, whose voice really ties the whole album together and manages to bring a great sense of chaos whilst remaining sultry and vulnerable, Miska Mandic on keyboard, Linda Marigliano on bass, Sophie McGinn on guitar, and Rudy Udovich on drums, it's a predominantly girlie affair that brings a whole new meaning to the term 'girl power'. No, they don't have their own 'peace' finger signs, in fact from the sounds of it their finger signs would bring a somewhat different meaning, because the band have a really great dark, menacing thing going on that separates them from all of the other 80s revival bands, and female-fronted artists that have flooded the music scene recently.

I love the final track '3046' precisely for this sinister edge, it is quiet, slow, and acts as a perfect ending to the album. The rest of the tracks have a similar beat - which it might have done some good to vary a little - but when you've got the likes of 'Peter Pan' and 'End It Tonight' with an addictive beat that has already invited remixes from We Have Band and The Horrors, you're still going to enjoy having a listen. Generally a really promising album, but I reckon they're better live...

'Peter Pan' The Horrors Remix here

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Just a Quiet One In a Brighton Pub...

...Or perhaps a very loud one instead. The pub? The Pav Tav, Brighton. The loudness? An Alcopop! and BSM records free showcase as part of Brighton's immense Great Escape festival. This was my first face to face introduction to some of the great Big Scary Monster's family, which began with a brief meeting with 'The Daddy' of the family, Kevin Douche. This was down to the fact that my great journalisty friend had managed to secure an interview with him, and was kind enough to invite me to go and have a listen and a chat. What I learned was a brief history of BSM, which began with a 17 year old Kevin Douche deciding that saying 'Hey, I've got a record label' sounded pretty cool, so he started saying it, and only worked out what was involved when people believed him. Good job they did really, as now he has signed several fast rising bands from around the country, and is even spreading stateside with BSM USA - the label really is becoming a big, scary monster. It is important to note, though, that it is still very much a DIY, one man show - CD sleeves are printed and glued by hand, hundreds of emails are slogged through for hours - it isn't always a glamorous job. For the bands too, they have to juggle practice and touring with jobs, and sometimes university. After the showcase I witnessed, I think it should be said - thanks for the effort guys!

First on, around 4 in the afternoon, the first of the Alcopop! bands took to the 'stage', which was basically a cornered off bit of pub floor. Elephants gave a really confident opener taking a shine to one particular member of the audience, when front man Owen mused how 'there aren't enough Simons...' Perhaps not the next big philosophical brain, but we'll forgive him that much as the band continued to rock through their very catchy song collection. Stagecoach followed, they didn't have the easiest set as the pub's fire alarm tried to steal the limelight, but despite that they seem to be the band everyone's talking about since, with Radio 1's Huw Stephens tweeting 'Stagecoach was ace' - pretty good praise from someone who knows his music! I tend to agree, and especially liked the end-of-set-madness when various band members decided to ditch the stage in favour of climbing around on the bar - rock 'n' roll!

After a break for a couple of hours, it was BSM's turn, churning out the musical delights, getting progressively louder, with the sensitive acoustic set from Shoes&Socks Off, a beardy display from Men, crazy-guitar-weilding-with-some-unsuccessful-crowd-surfing from Hold Your Horse Is, an ear-drum testing set from Grown Ups, finally finishing off the evening with young Talons. After seeing the great set from the latter band, I couldn't help but wonder if, when sending their sons off to violin music lessons, their parents ever envisaged their sons would end up using their skills to produce killer post rock tunes?

I left the pub in a happy daze, which I'm sure wasn't just down to vodka, safe in the knowledge that I had just tapped a great new source of music, and excited to get my ears on some more. Every band played to such a high standard, and when they had finished they got right back to the front row to cheer on and heckle their musical peers. I have a feeling that in a short while, getting to the front at these guys' gigs won't be such an easy feat.

To read the full interview, and tonnes more reviews, take a look:
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Wednesday, 12 May 2010

The Mekong Delta

This part of the trip was the great unknown, and the part that I had been most anxious about. No more easy tour buses, no more catering for tourists wherever you go, no more assurance that most people you need to speak to will know English...We were going to 'Old School' Vietnam. And in my imagination I had convinced myself that this would consist of staying in some kind of mud hut and that I would intensely dislike the experience. I was wrong on both counts, and looking back, probably wouldn't have minded staying in a mud hut, might be fun! It turned out that the two weeks we spent travelling across the Mekong created more challenges, more stories, and more bizarre, funny, and breathtaking memories than what we found down the usual tourist route. So I'm glad I was (sort of) forced into it.

The initial challenge was how to get from HCMC to the delta - it's not far away, but it seems to be that the only way to get there is either by booking on an (expensive) organised tour, or by braving the local buses. Again, against my over-active imagination's judgement (which told me we would get lost and robbed and left in the middle of nowhere) we went for the local buses. This was pretty hilarious. Bar a couple of other stragglers, we were often the only westerners to be seen, looking very obviously lost, lugging our big rucksacks around, not knowing where to go or what bus we should be on. Most of the time we got laughed at by the locals, and after ineffectually trying to pronounce where we wanted to go, got bundled into a bus - tightly squeezed in amongst locals, bags of melons, building materials, and at one point a live goose - and usually found ourselves in vaguely the right place. If this wasn't quite the case, the only way to get a bit closer to the right town was by motorbike - I neglected to tell my mum this until I got back as she'd have a fit - but it was fantastic, though a bit difficult to balance when you're still wearing the rucksack!

Our route across the delta went from east to west, keeping in the northern half. From My Tho on the edge of the delta, we carried on to Ben Tre, Tra Vinh, Vinh Long, Can Tho, Chau Doc, Ha Tien, and finally we got a ferry across to Phu Quoc Island, back to tourist-land. I think, without a doubt, my highlights of this time were the boat tours we went on. The first was in My Tho, and could have been very hit-or-miss - we were approached by a guy whilst having a look around the small town. A lot of people try to speak to you, often trying to sell something, and more often than not we would just say no thank you and carry on walking. This guy was different, he was very laid back and firstly just offered to show us to a nearby cafe that was open as we were a bit desperate to find some food. He stayed to chat for a while and mentioned that he takes people on tours on his friend's boat, away from the tourist crowds, and early in the morning before it gets too hot. He said if we wanted to go we could meet him at the cafe at 5.30 the next morning and didn't have to pay until we had been on the tour - for someone to be so confident, and without putting any pressure on payment, was out of the ordinary, so we thought we'd give it a go. I'm so glad we did.

We left the hotel at 5am, with the poor guy at reception snoozing on a make-shift bed behind the desk, and walked to the cafe. It was still dark out, but already the streets were stirring; people opening up their shops, out on runs, on their way to work, we even saw a small group of women in the middle of an aerobics class. Our guy was waiting for us with a pot of Vietnamese coffee ready to wake us up - I'm not a huge coffee fan, but this was delicious, about the size of an espresso shot, but smooth and mixed with some form of chocolate, it definitely did the trick. We then followed on down to a rickety little wooden boat, with the driver already waiting, and set off into the morning darkness on the river. It didn't stay dark for long, just as we reached the middle of the large expanse of water, we stopped and watched the sun rise over the horizon. I'm not really eloquent enough to describe it, but I think at this point, more than any other, I sat thinking how lucky I was to be there, and how glad I was that I had said 'Sod it, why not' and left the cosy cushion of employment to go on the trip.

The advantages of going on an independent trip, rather than a tour by a large company - even though it may not be fully legal (I didn't ask!), is that your tour guide is likely to know people at the places you visit, knows where to get the best deals for any food and drink you might like during the day, can answer any questions you happen to think of as there isn't a large group to look after, and means you can totally go at your own pace. We saw the larger boats with big groups of tourists trudging around and I just don't think they got the same experience - a one to one tour is so much more personal. And I got made some jewellery weaved from a banana tree leaf, which I'm sure the others didn't get - and it was definitely a highlight!

The other great thing about the Mekong Delta region was how friendly the people were - although English was not as widely spoken, you are always greeted with a smile - and by the children, this is elevated into genuine excitement. Any children we walked past waved and shouted hello, and giggled when we replied. We were briefly shown a school by one of the locals, and all of the children came rushing to the window saying hello and trying to shake my hand - it completely disrupted the lesson, but was lovely and made me feel like a film star!

It struck me on leaving this amazing country, that although people didn't tend to have the luxuries that are considered common-place here, and they had to work so hard and such long hours just to scrape a living, life seemed simpler and they were happy. When you don't have to worry about getting the latest gadget, or this season's must-have item of clothing because it's not even an option, you can get on with, well, life.

I guess in future if someone asks me what the point of going to Vietnam was, and if I benefitted from it at all, I should just point them to this blog, because it seems there's quite a lot.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Ho Chi Minh City

It had been a long journey south, but we made it to the end of our open tour bus journey, arriving in the much-famed, huge, chaotic city, once known as Saigon. I thought it was a total faux-pas to still refer to it as such, but most people - including locals - still refer to the city as Saigon, maybe out of habit, maybe because it's less of a mouthful, I don't know. What was also instantly clear about this city was that it seemed so much more like a capital than Hanoi - it's size, the Reunification Palace, the wealth of high-end shops, everything. Hanoi has some catching up to do, there just aren't the hints of decadence in the north. HCMC has a great little 'tourist pocket', if you will, full of budget hotels, bars, souvenir shops, and a LOT of people roaming the streets trying to sell photocopied books, sunglasses and other cheap trinkets. It gets a little frustrating when you have several people approach you whilst you're trying to eat your dinner, but they are always friendly and I instantly felt bad watching them wander off in search of anyone who might pay a few pence for their wares.

We went on a walking tour of the city, which was rather challenging in the intense humidity, but definitely worth it. Having a look around the Fine Art Museum and the Museum of Ho Chi Minh City was interesting, as the war with America is such a huge focus, but also highlights how far Vietnam has come since then, being able to build up such a beautiful, clean city that is increasingly growing in popularity. This line of thought was compounded after a day trip to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels.

We had yet another amazing tour guide, 'Slim Jim', and he knew more cockney-rhyming slang than me! He alone had quite a fascinating story; he was an English teacher for twenty years in a small town in the Mekong Delta region, and had backed the South in the war. Later, he became a tour guide and has greatly improved his English, and wants to go back and teach again in another few years. No hint at retiring; the hard-work ethic is in the Vietnamese blood.

Slim Jim showed us this massive tunnel site, a couple of hours drive away from the city. The tunnels were barely big enough for the tiny-framed Vietnamese soldiers, and the ones that we got to go in had been made twice the size, 'for all the fat Westerners'. It was only a 100 metre stretch, and I'm annoyed at myself that I was only 5m from the end was claustrophobia made me escape from one of the early exits - if I'd realised how close I was, I think I could have made it! It goes to show how tough conditions were though. I found it a little odd how Slim Jim had chosen a job to tell everyone about the amazing feats of the VietCong when he had been opposed to them during the war, but there was no bitterness that his wishes hadn't been realised. In fact, no matter what 'side' anyone we spoke to had been on, there seemed to be no ill-feeling amongst the Vietnamese - any ill feeling was reserved for the Americans. I'm not saying I agree with Communism, but, for now, it seems to be working for the Vietnamese.

Friday, 7 May 2010

Da Lat

One word to sum up Da Lat - weird. I wasn't really sure what to make of it, not in a completely bad way, but more of a bemused way. The travel guides didn't paint an altogether exciting picture, but our bus ticket meant that we had to go there - at least for a night - so we made the best of it and went on a bit of an exploration. Attraction-wise, one place stood out for me (perhaps because there aren't many to choose from), 'The Crazy House'. The name kind of says it all. The construction is the brain-child of architect Ms Dang Viet Nga, and it's just bizarre; steps made to look like tree-stumps, and several themed hotel rooms including 'The Termite Room', 'The Bear Room', 'The Tiger Room', and a slightly terrifying 'Kangaroo Room' with glowing red eyes. I can't say I would want to stay in any of them, but it was fun to indulge in the eccentricity for a couple of hours.

We found on the map a massive lake just outside the main town area, and thought it would be a nice place to have a walk around on the way to some flower gardens (God, I sound like my mum), only to find that - just as in Hanoi - it had been filled in! Couldn't believe it, especially as the scenic lake-side restaurant was still open for business!

Unlike most other places we'd been to, Da Lat was set apart due to the fact that it is particularly hilly, making a five minute walk a bit of a workout, but in general - it is just a 'normal' town. The one event that injected a bit of excitement to our short visit came just as we were waiting to leave. Around 7.30 in the morning, waiting in the doorway of the hotel, peering bleary-eyed down the road, I almost failed to notice the fact that a Vietnamese man was walking down towards me. Oh, did I mention that he was totally naked, apart from sandals and some kind of walking stick? No? Well, he was, flopping around and everything. No one seemed overly phased, or did anything, so I thought maybe it was a normal occurrence, and he wandered further down the street until he was out of sight. But then there was a lot of beeping, and traffic started to back up down the road. The last I saw of Mr Naked Man, was him being bundled into a police van, having had his arms and legs tied together. It was pretty brutal. So, advice - when in Vietnam, don't go for any naked walks. You can probably apply that to most countries, in fact.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Nha Trang

I was so excited to get here - firstly because we had to endure another night bus journey, and secondly because it was hot and had a BEACH! And what a beach it is - six miles of gorgeous fine sand and glittering sea, most of which we walked across - surprisingly hard work! The main part of Nha Trang town itself doesn't have all that much to shout about, it is just a normal town. The Western hub of Nha Trang is concentrated just outside, where there are cheap hotels and guesthouses galore, restaurants, and bars...lots of bars...with cocktail buckets! There are also a lot of diving centres - you can probably get a dirt cheap deal, but you have to question what you're paying for as quite often, just because 'PADI' is advertised, it doesn't mean that's what you'll get.

As a non-diver myself I didn't really know what to look for, but luckily my travelling pal is very up on that sort of thing, so we went for a chat at the Rainbow Diver bar - the longest established diving company in Vietnam that is British-run. They don't have the cheapest prices in town, but they are safe, and - from what I experienced - very professional. To start off with, I went for a 'Try Dive', just to see what it was like. This involved getting to the bar for 7am, ready for a minibus to take everyone to the boat, which then took us to a dive site. All morning I was so scared, convinced that I would manage to drown, that I barely spoke, which was enjoyed a little too much for my liking. Luckily, though, I didn't drown, and I actually quite enjoyed the experience. For a Try Dive, basically all you have to do is breathe and have a look around, as an instructor does everything for you, and even holds you and swims you around underwater. So I decided, to hell with it, I'll do my Open Water PADI - where a bit more is involved! I can't recommend it enough though, it's the most amazing feeling floating around on your own, like flying. And Nha Trang offers some great dive sites, full of coral, clownfish, baby barracudas, and tiny little nudibranches that the instructors somehow manage to spot.

Learning to dive took up the majority of the time spent in Nha Trang, meaning we unfortunately missed out a visit to the Thap Ba Hot Springs, which offer a range of spa treatments, including a mud bath that I have been told is very good, and cheap! Maybe next time...

Hoi An

To continue harking back to Top Gear, this is the place where the trio of presenters bought their crazy tailored suits, and that is because this town is the tailoring capital of Vietnam. It is very much geared towards tourists; there are streets full of tailors, cafes, restaurants, and markets, with a noticeably high ratio of Westerners wandering around. It's a wonderful place though. What first struck me was the brightly coloured lanterns strung across the streets, which when coupled with the vibrant clothes stalls, the hustle and bustle of the market, and the scenic estuary of the Thu Bon river makes the place quaint and pretty.

I was all up for buying a whole rucksack full of new clothes, but due to the guaranteed tourist market, and the fierce competition, prices aren't dirt cheap - don't get me wrong, cheaper and better quality than what you would get here, but not cheap enough when you're on a shoestring budget! So, I settled for a pair of linen trousers. I have never had anything made to measure in my life, so was a little taken aback by the process - before the words 'I'd like that style please' had managed to escape my mouth, one of the women had whipped my T-shirt up into a knot, and started measuring my waist, hips and legs, while another woman was trying to sell me a deal so that I might buy another pair. I resisted! So, I left the little shop, and merely three hours later I was back to pick up my new trousers. They're a really good fit, and, well, they haven't come apart yet!

Enough about clothes, Hoi An has a lot more to offer besides miles of material. The town sells an ingenious tourist ticket, and for 90, 000 VND (about £4) you can choose five attractions to see - museums, temples,'s a great deal! One thing on the list caught our attention; 'The Museum of Trading Ceramics', I joked that it was a definite yes, but then curiosity to see if it could really be as boring as it sounds got the better of us, so we went and had a look. The bits of broken pots in the museum confirmed that it actually is as boring as it sounds! Oh well.

As well as everything within Hoi An, there are some interesting places to visit nearby. We went on a trip to the ancient Cham temple ruins of 'My Son'. Again, a lot of these have been bombed and destroyed, and - oddly - none of the statues have heads because the French cut them off to take back to their museums, but there is still a lot to see, and there is a lot of reconstruction under way too. So, what's the big deal about My Son? I wondered the same thing, but our enthusiastic tour guide definitely swayed me into believing that the answer is 'A lot!' Not only are the ruins believed to be even older than Cambodia's Angkor Wat, but they are also surrounded by a bit of mystery. Looking at the construction of the temples, no cement has been used to secure the bricks together, instead they are also fused, and completely unaffected by weathering. In fact, we were shown walls that were reconstructed about twenty years ago, and they were covered in moss and looking in a sorry state, whereas the original walls that had been there for thousands of years looked almost new. No one, not international experts, not those whose ancestors helped build the temples, knows how it was done. Pretty cool, huh?


After walking the empty streets of Hanoi in the aftermath of Tet, we eventually moved south to the small town of Hue via an overnight tour bus, with an estimated journey time of 12 hours. We tried to make this seem less horrific, convincing ourselves that we would sleep through most of it and be there before we knew it. This was not the case. The night bus consisted of 3 rows of 'bunkbeds', which didn't even have enough leg-room for me - and I don't even have a problem with leg-room on EasyJet flights! This was combined with the fact that it is impossible for the bus drivers to avoid the numerous potholes in the dodgy roads, and I had an extra special uncomfy factor... When you initially get aboard the bus, you are given a plastic bag to put your shoes into. Fine. I had watched several other people use the tiny toilet on the bus, I don't recall them putting their shoes back on, or any horrified faces when they re-emerged, so I thought it was safe. My soaked socks when I came out of the toilet suggested otherwise - and it wasn't even my wee they were covered in. Oh, and there was still another ten hours of the fun-filled journey to go. This was definitely a low point!

Urine-soaked socks aside, we arrived in Hue at 7am, determined to battle through the day despite a total sleep fail. Avoiding the crowd of taxi and motorbike drivers that surrounded the bus as soon as it stopped, we wandered to a hotel mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide - a cute little place at $5 each per night, sold! Then it was time for some culture, so we walked to The Citadel, a place famous for it's history, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for being ravaged by bombs in the war. It was quite a walk from the backpacker area, but a really great place to wander around for the afternoon. As everywhere else in Vietnam, it was grand, spotless, and beautifully decorated, right down to the immaculate flower displays everywhere, apart from a few buildings which had been damaged beyond repair - one had pretty much been flattened by B52 bombs, which is a shame. When it was in use, the heavily guarded Citadel held the Forbidden City, home to the most important members of society; emperors and concubines, where any trespassers were sentenced to death.

Unfortunately, Hue's weather left a little to be desired - it was a little bit too much like England; chilly with a side of constant drizzly rain (the annoying fine stuff that isn't even proper rain), which unfortunately made us less than enthusiastic about renting bikes to go visit some pagodas a few kilometers from the town. So we were lazy and hung about in the backpacker area - it wasn't a total loss, we found some very cool places; Cafe On Thu Wheels, which was covered ceiling to floor in messages and doodles from former travellers that had passed through. And it did an amazing hot chocolate. Then there was Missy Roo cafe, where we went for breakfast (we were only there for three mornings, but that warranted a place becoming our 'usual'), which had an added entertainment factor of westerners having booked a cooking experience, and watching them attempt to cook with chopsticks was always fun! Lastly, we came across The DMZ Bar, we were only going to go in there for a beer on the way back to the hotel, but ended up staying for long enough that getting up for the bus the next morning was a real struggle! This was due to the reasoning "We'll just see what the next song is, and if it's rubbish then we'll go", but it just didn't happen - the place was full of amazing rock and hip hop tunes from my teens, and the cheap Hanoi beers just kept coming. Awesome.

Hue; it's not the most exciting place on the usual tourist travel-plan, but it is a real town where you can see how 'normal' people live, there are some great places to check out, and it is an important part of Vietnamese culture. If you're only there for a couple of days, it's definitely worth a look.