Monthly Archives: March 2012

>> IT’S ONLY LIFE (live)

I’m loving Port of Morrow, the new album by The Shins, and in particular It’s Only Life, probably the most personal of James Mercer’s songs, as he sings in the chorus:

I’ve been down the very road you’re walking now
It doesn’t have to be so dark and lonesome
Takes a while til we can figure this thing out
And turn it back around…

Youtube doesn’t have an album version for the song out there, but I prefer that to any of the live versions I can find. That said, this sorrowful rendition on Saturday Night Live gets pretty close:

Seriously, though, you should buy the album if you haven’t done already, as it’s magnificent.

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Posted by on 31/03/2012 in Music, Other



Pete Hughes, founder of KXC church in London – a church that sees itself as having a specific mandate to reach 20s and 30s, who are deserting the church in their droves – came to Oxford recently for the Next Generation conference over at St Aldates Church. His talks are online here, but I just wanted to flag up something he said in this conference.

Pete was talking about getting together with his friends in London to dream up what a redeemed London would look like. They did the same thing for Oxford too, and the result is an incredible, prophetic image of how things could be.

I know that we are unlikely to see all of this in our lifetime, and I believe that it’s going to take a miracle to see it whatever the case. Nonetheless – imagine if this were to happen.

* * *

It was 8 o’clock on a Monday morning and I was standing by Oxford station – and I saw a new Oxford coming down from the heavens.

I saw a teenager leap out of bed for sheer joy, laughing with the freshness of the morning. I saw elderly women skipping up the high street, and kids going to play at Meadow Lane. I saw a football match starting on Botley Park, and the teams were mixed races from every people group – asylum seekers and taxi drivers, policemen and prisoners, pensioners and politicians, people from every race and class were playing and laughing in the sun.

I saw a street party and a local festival, where people were eating and dancing as there was hope again. I looked across the whole of Oxford, and saw a community of hope, a community of grace, and a community of warmth. In the clearness of the morning I could see for miles.

And there was no more asthma. No more unwanted pregnancies. No more death, no more violence, no more overcrowding, and nobody was too busy. The River Thames was flowing with crystal clear water.

There were no more needles and condoms in the alleyways. No more family breakdown. No more hopelessness. No more discrimination. No more drunken clubbing, no more threats, or fears – no more need. No more sadness and tears, only joy and laughter. No more poverty, only real and useful employment.

The dividing walls were gone. Families and neighbours were restored.

There was no more rubbish.

No dealers, no guns, no knives, no dangerous dogs.

No racial tensions, just one harmonious mix in technicolour.

And I looked, and saw kids playing football in the street, and the neighbours cheered them on.

I saw homes without locks on their doors, where a welcome was always guaranteed.

I saw a playground with climbing frames that weren’t rusty, where children threw themselves in the air without fear of harm and teenagers helped little ones up to highest climbs.

I saw an Oxford where neighbours shared favours and returned them without pressure or obligations.

I saw an Oxford where hearts were unbroken, and partnerships were lasting, peaceful and happy.

I saw an Oxford where families ate and played together.

I saw an Oxford where tears were wiped away.

* * *

You can listen to the talk proper here. The section I’ve transcribed is from 25:00 to 27:20.

I hope I’m not violating copyright by reposting this – if so please contact me and I’ll take it down.

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Posted by on 15/03/2012 in God, Other


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Chicken Katsu does not protograph well.

Lately I’ve been existing mostly on Marks and Spencer Cheese and Onion Twists. Life got pretty busy and I’ve ended up spending a lot of time out of the house at meetings, and they’re cheap and relatively filling, so I don’t feel too terrible about it. Although admittedly, that much pastry can’t be a good thing in the long run.

All that said, though, when things calmed down a bit, the first thing that I wanted to do was cook something. More than anything else, I find that cooking calms my brain. It’s good for the soul.

My first attempt was to try and cook a soufflé out of Prue Leith’s cookery course.

It failed.

I’ll write it up in a week or so – again, when things get quieter. But you don’t want to know how not to make a soufflé, do you, so I might try and crack it before I do.

Anyway, though, tonight I made this – Chicken Katsu. I first had it at a branch of Wagamama a while back as a friend of mine swore it was delicious, and the menu at Wagamama is pretty daunting anyway so I took his word for it. He wasn’t wrong. (Although admittedly, I’ve not been back to Wagamama since, but if I did I’d order this again.)

This is a knock-off version, apparently from a book called Cook Yourself Thin, but I just found it on the Channel 4 website instead and cooked it tonight, and it was wonderful – rich, flavoursome sauce and crunchy chicken. I particularly liked breading my chicken with cornflakes, too, something I’d do again, as it gave a good crunch.

So all in all, it was pretty good for the soul, all things considered. Here’s how to do it.

This serves 4.

  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, peeled and chopped
  • 5 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2 carrots, peeled and chopped into thin slices
  • 2 tbsp plain flour
  • 1 tbsp medium curry powder
  • 600ml chicken stock
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 1 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 bay leaf (I didn’t bother, as I didn’t have any, and I survived)
  • ½ tsp garam masala
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 x 100g chicken breasts
  • 100g flour, seasoned with lots of salt and pepper
  • 1 free-range egg, beaten lightly
  • 120g cornflakes, bashed in a pestle and mortar
  • Olive oil
  • Rice

So.  Chop up your onion, garlic and carrots and then start off with the sauce – sauté your onion and garlic in a saucepan for 2 minutes, then add the carrot pieces and cook slowly for 10 minutes, with the lid on, giving the odd stir occasionally. Apparently you want to sweat the vegetables until softened and starting to caramelize, but I’d expect this to take way longer than 10 minutes – basically you just want some of the onion and garlic flavours really.

Next, stir in the flour and curry powder and cook them for a minute, and then slowly pour in the chicken stock bit by bit until combined (do it slowly to avoid getting lumps). Add the honey, soy and bay leaf then bring to the boil. Simmer for about 20 minutes. The sauce will have thickened and taken on all of the flavours, although you still need it to have a pouring consistency. Add the garam masala, salt and pepper, and then you could pass the sauce through a sieve if you want, though I preferred to keep the vegetables in.

Now get on with the chicken. Put your seasoned flour, egg and cornflakes on separate plates, and then coat the chicken breasts first in flour, then egg and finally cornflakes. Add a bit of olive oil then put in the hot oven for 12-15 minutes. Slice the chicken diagonally then serve it with rice. Happy days!

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Posted by on 13/03/2012 in Food, Other



The Shins, one of my favourite bands ever, are back later this month with a new album – and in preparation, here’s Simple Song, the first single off of it:

It’s actually a pretty sweet love song, with a brilliant (albeit completely unrelated) video. I’m excited for the album (entitled Point of Morrow) already. They’re also playing The Forum in London on March 23rd, and there’s still a few tickets available here. It should be ace.

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Posted by on 08/03/2012 in Music, Other



Two excellent, folk-accented releases in the past couple of weeks, the first from Bruce Springsteen and the second from Anaïs Mitchell; each touching on the reality of life in modern America, a nation that’s currently experiencing a crisis of introspection demonstrated in an overwhelming feeling of having lost its soul.

Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball is up there with his best albums, a soaring, searing blend of styles with lyrics that ring out like an Old Testament prophet and samples from Pentecostal preachers in the background. Opening with We Take Care of our Own – which, appropriating Bush-era rhetoric to make a powerfully ironic statement about a land where the Boss finds himself “stumbling on good hearts turned to stone | The road of good intentions… dry as a bone” to a musical backing that reminds you why Arcade Fire ripped him off, makes it clear that this is going to be an album that goes for the jugular. By the end of the song you’re left aware of the hollowness of those words as well as the brutal truth that they contain, although as some reviewers have pointed out, it’s could well be his most misunderstood song since Born in the USA.

Elsewhere, there’s more than a whiff of the folk tradition in the Celtic accents of Shackled and Drawn and Death to my Hometown, the jaunty Irish backing of the latter perfectly summing up the attitude of the people Springsteen is writing about – celebrating even while the world goes to hell. In fact, given the subject matter, the whole album is remarkably upbeat, but that’s what makes it one of Springsteen’s best – he always preferred to be on the side of the underdog anyway, railing against injustice. And what a rallying cry; when on the title track Bruce howls,

Raise up your glasses
Let me hear your voices come
Cos tonight all the dead are here
So bring on your wrecking ball

he once again sounds like the voice of a nation. Not defeated, but angry, and with good right to be, too.

But if anything, it’s the elegiac moments, those remembrances of the life that once was and now has been lost, which are the most powerful. The gospel-flavoured Rocky Ground is haunting; opening with a call to “rise up, shepherd, rise up | Your flock has roamed far from the hills” in a world where “the stars have faded, the sky is still | The angels are shouting ‘Glory Hallelujah!’” and breaking down in to a mournful rap about how,

Where you once had faith now there’s only doubt;
You pray for guidance, only silence now meets your prayer
The morning breaks, you awake but no-one’s there

to culminate in a cry of “oh, a new day’s come.” The Biblical rhetoric, alongside the patriotic echoes shot through the album, only serves to show how far the world has drifted from that original vision. The same can be said for Land of Hope and Dreams, an image of a faraway land where all things will be made right; as a result, the saxophone solo from the late, great Clarence Clemons, one his very last recordings, is spine-tinglingly perfect in its timing and placement.

It’s not a perfect album, and some of the slower moments drag a little. However, it’s the sound of Springsteen getting his voice back, in all of its power and passion and fury, and that can only be a good thing.

Less apocalyptic, but just as thoughtful, is Anaïs Mitchell’s Young Man in America, whose cover features her father, the ‘young man’ of the title. Mitchell’s voice is incredible, but it’s the lyrical content that really sets her apart here – again there are Biblical images of shepherds and references to the story of Abraham shot through the whole thing. “Your highways are a wilderland | Look upon your children, wandering in the woods!” she commands in the opening track Wilderland. Still better is the title track, which makes the mistake of being so good that it threatens to eclipse what’s on offer elsewhere. It’s the angriest that I’ve ever heard Mitchell, telling of how

My father was a lord of land
My daddy was a repo man
Put me out into the street
Did not care a damn about me, did not care a damn…

Only to end up finding herself asserting, “daddy, daddy, | Gonna wish you never had me”. By comparison, the rest of the album seems deceptively mellow. Shepherd has its images of a coming storm, but even so depicts a seemingly pastoral scene, casting Mitchell in the role of a poet-prophet. “We both have labouring to do”, her pregnant mother tells her father in the song, with a metaphorical significance about gender roles that Mitchell sensibly doesn’t pass a verdict on, but nonetheless the whole thing sounds like it’s come from another time and it’s a beautiful thing for that reason. Tailor is a song about changing for the one you love, apparently a simple thing but lifted by Mitchell’s treatment of it – she manages to sound both diffident and heartbroken at the same time. But it’s the close of it that really cuts, with Mitchell stating, “now that he’s gone away | There isn’t anyone to say if I’m a diamond, or a dime a dozen” and asking herself, “no-one taught me how to cry | Who am I? Who am I?”

The upbeat Venus sees the classical goddess “come down in a cloud machine”, a woman “who don’t need no-one, don’t need no-one to hold her hand” – a glorious inner monologue from a woman looking for love and the truth that’s concealed in poetry. Elsewhere, He Did is written from the perspective of a child sitting at her father’s feet and hearing stories of what preceded her birth. It’s another song about identity and trying to work out who you are in the context of family, nation and history, and the whole album is suffused with that sense of memory shared – shared collectively between herself and her parents, and owned by both. The implication behind that being that, of course, we too have to claim it. Musically it’s gorgeous, but it also takes some work to untangle, like all of the best folk albums, with its echoes of 70s artists (old-style Dylan, and even Carly Simon) slipping in alongside classical folk instruments – I swear there’s a lute in there somewhere.

That’s why when the album closes with Anaïs Mitchell “down on the docks… Watching you watching the ships coming into the harbour”, the image that she suggests is of a woman who’s now standing on her own two feet. It’s never quite clear if she’s imagining her parents meeting or if she’s talking about herself at this point, but that’s never really the issue anyway. The suggestion is that every generation has to do this, has to be able and willing to piece together an identity from the evidence that they’ve been given in order to work out their way in the world.

In her own way, then, it’s the sound of a women who is, even four albums in, just starting out on what’s going to be a thoroughly exciting career. I can’t help feeling that it’s an album that I’ll still be listening to (and trying to work out) a few years down the line, and I’m certainly not complaining about that either.

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Posted by on 07/03/2012 in Music, Uncategorized


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There’s a lot of noise around lately about Bruce Springsteen’s new album, out today, and called Wrecking Ball. It’s actually only £5 over at Amazon MP3 this week, so worth getting while it’s cheap.

All things considered, it’s actually pretty good. I’ve not been all that impressed by Springsteen’s recent output, but he’s rediscovered some of his youthful fury, and there are some moments that are breathtaking here. Like, for example, the conclusion to lead single We Take Care of Our Own:

Where are the eyes, the eyes with the will to see?
Where the hearts, that run over with mercy?
Where’s the love that has not forsaken me?
Where’s the work that set my hands, my soul free?
Where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me?
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?
Where’s the promise, from sea to shining sea?
Wherever this flag is flown…
We take care of our own

It’s good to see the Boss getting his voice back, particularly because America could use that kind of poet-prophet in these times of recession and disintegrating national identity. We Brits could learn a few lessons too.

Listen to We Take Care of Our Own below. Sounds a bit Arcade Fire to me. I’m a big fan of Wrecking Ball, This Depression and Shackled and Drawn so far too:

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Posted by on 05/03/2012 in Music, Other