Review: Hole In Your Pocket – The Panics

562871_5f525ddd5b5c43b78b6c255a2e7ab09bmv2_d_2000_2000_s_2I don’t know what it is specifically about WA-bred bands, but they know how to write some big songs.

As someone who rates The Triffids as one of the best bands to ever come out of Australia, I’m more than willing to put The Panics in that company. And they’ve produced enough great songs to give Born Sandy Devotional one hell of a run for its money. Yes that’s a big call but i stand by it.

Hole In Your Pocket is the fifth album from The Panics and it’d be unfair to say they’ve hit their stride as that arguably happened more than five years ago. This album is polished without sounding self-assured and passionate without being florid. Cinematic is a term often applied to this group and it’s for good reason – the scope of these songs vary but they all feel like significant events.

Highlights for me are Carparks of Greschen, Not Apart, Not Together and the first release from the album, Weatherman. That said, at nine songs the album has no flab anyway so it’s an academic exercise finding outright favourites.

If you’re after fist-pumping four to the floor rock then look elsewhere – although this outfit are no slouches in the live arena either from the couple of gigs I’ve seen. They’re about to hit the road in coming months in support of the album.

If you like some real meat on the bones of your rock music, then you may just want to check out Hole In Your Pocket and pretty much every other release from these guys.

Check out Weatherman right now:

Review: Diary of a Foreign Minister by Bob Carr

bob-carrEveryone has their mental picture of Bob Carr. For me he was the animated Premier with the great speaking voice (a strength Mr Carr acknowledges repeatedly throughout the book). For others he was the guy who looked like Ginger Meggs’ dad. For anyone, he should be at least acknowledged as one of the most significant ALP figures of the past forty years. And it’s from that perspective that Diary of a Foreign Minister is written.

This doesn’t mean it’s an egotistical perspective – although some in the mainstream media have painted it that way. It’s more that Mr Carr has a highly developed self-awareness of his place within the ALP and the then Government – and that he sees that place as involving a full and frank account of his time as Foreign Minister. That account covers a huge range of issues, which for sake of simplicity I’ll split it into three main areas: foreign affairs, domestic politics and personal observations.

Foreign Affairs

Even a more casual observer of politics tends to know Bob Carr had always had an ambition to be Foreign Minister, which he’d put aside when called to lead the ALP in Opposition in 1988. When he was parachuted into Mark Arbib’s casual Senate vacancy, the realisation of that ambition was understandably savoured by Carr. That said, his initial learning curve and fear of a misstep are documented clearly – again someone aware of their stature but not assuming that it’s enough to get through those first few months.

The starkest image to come out of this book is the relentless pace the role of Foreign Minister involves. It’s difficult to gauge if Carr was travelling at the level expected as Minister or whether he had stepped the pace up a notch given his awareness of how brief his role was likely to be given the ALP’s electoral fortunes. Either way, it’s revelatory as to how a person tries to perform optimally within some of the timetables discussed in the book. If he’s stayed honest as a diarist, it appears Carr does perform and covers the gamut of issues presented to the “Foreign Ministers Club” that he enjoyed being a member of so thoroughly. Whether it’s China – US relations, the emergence of Myanmar from an era of secrecy and sanctions, the relationship with Indonesia, or making progress in the Middle East, there’s detailed insights into current thinking internationally and a nuanced approach to each issue as it arises. There’s plenty of sources cited directly, which provides some further meat to the narrative.

For Carr, the variety of policy challenges to tackle is savoured, and he’s also surprised at what turns out to be one of his biggest foreign policy passions in the job – and it’s not any of the ones mentioned in this review. One of many interesting themes throughout is that of relationships and their importance. As you’d expect, the rapport built with Ministers from other countries, ambassadors, NGOs and key interest groups are critical to dealing with new challenges. Carr repeatedly illustrates how regular contact with his contemporaries on the foreign policy playing field delivered results. One specific point worth mentioning here: Carr’s mentions of the ‘Melbourne-based Israel lobby’ that received so much attention on the book’s release, are marginal and primarily used as a contrast on wider opinions about settlements and Palestinian status in the Middle East.

Domestic Politics

The book covers the last fourteen months of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and the dozen or so weeks of Kevin Rudd’s return. As you’d expect from a diary with a focus predominantly on the world stage, Carr paints a picture of himself as senior ALP statesmen floating above the majority of the leadership tensions and day-to-day grind of party machinations. There are regular interactions with Sam Dastyari from the party machine, and less frequent meetings with key Rudd agitators, but it’s all portrayed as a frustrating process taking away from precious time in achieving goals in the job itself.

What’s more interesting is Carr’s relationship with both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Nearly all the interactions mentioned are in context of foreign policy, and in the case of both Prime Ministers it appears Carr perceived a decent working relationship albeit with a number of respective frustrations. He’s measured in his criticisms of both individuals but they’re still forcefully put and you’d be a little naïve to think that there weren’t deeper concerns that haven’t made the book. There’s a handful of mentions of how better judgement calls may have been made by Carr if he’d been sitting in the PM’s chair. Given the history of the ALP over the past five years or so, it’s a claim that’d be hard to refute.

Carr’s relationship with the ALP is painted very much in context of the stump speaker still engaged with branches, with much more reluctant interactions with the ALP machine. There’s some understandable self-interest in that portrayal in a book designed for general consumption, as every politician lives or dies by the public’s judgement on their accessibility. I have some doubts that the ratio of local campaigning versus internal party discussions would be the same if it were a diary written for a select few. That said, it’s still one of the most forthright discussions on the internal workings of the ALP I’ve seen from a political diarist, particularly given the focus of the book is on the Foreign Minister role.

Personal Observations

Any diary or political memoir needs to illustrate the personality of the subject as much as the outcomes of their endeavours, and in this regard the book deserves acclaim. Sure, a non-smoking happily married man with an obsession about keeping healthy eliminates a lot of the awkward disclosures that other politicians might agonise over when debating what makes the cut or not. Even so, we get a well fleshed out view of Mr Carr’s passions for food, culture and friends.

The mentions of exercise routines and the seeking of ‘edible’ food are constant companions throughout, but not to the extent of being irritating. There’s certainly some scathing criticisms of the Australian Parliament House (its food, design, social amenity and location) and no shortage of biting comments on a range of accommodation, bureaucrats and functions. It’s done in a way that mostly avoids coming across as prepossessed and provides some humour as well.

The most interesting section of personal observations not surprisingly falls around friends and contemporaries. The relationship with the Kissingers in referred to repeatedly and appears a mutual source of enjoyment. There’s high regard for Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa and the US’ Hilary Clinton and John Kerry. With the focus of the book being so broad, there’s not a lot of insight into Carr’s close friends, although this could also have been a direct side effect of the constant travel. Even so, the level of personal observation of the role, life and politics is of a standard to keep the book fresh throughout.

I want to throw in two key quotes that I particularly enjoyed. The first occurs in the last days of the second Rudd Government, where Carr is representing the Prime Minister at the G20 in St Petersburg.  On looking around at those assembled, Carr has judged the contributions overall as pedestrian, and he makes some observations on getting to this level of influence:

The Australian Foreign Minister in his navy-blue tailored suit and his Hermès tie – he grew up in a fibro house on a sandhill where bare feet wore out old lino and fried eggs on fried bread would pass as Sunday-night dinner. The Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Commonwealth of Australia is like all his ilk: making it up as he goes along, improvising and thinking out loud and hoping it all hangs together.

The second quote is aimed at those seeking a career in politics. Carr has a pretty succinct message on how to do it well:

That’s all. Look them in the eye. Fling the words out in an energised voice. Make connection. Personalise. I know this community, I know this crowd; it’s confidence that lends resonance. Fling the ideas out like an athlete throwing a discus; don’t mumble apologetically.In the end, psychology shapes the message – do you like your audience, like your story, like yourself in the role? Sometimes the medium is the message.

Summary

Diary of a Foreign Minister is a readable, entertaining and substantive look at a fascinating period in Australian and international politics. Bob Carr as a diarist manages to tease out somewhat complex foreign policy issues in a way that makes them both digestible and interesting. Like any diary it provides as many questions as answers, but Mr Carr’s level of disclosure is enough to be able to finish the book satisfied that any omissions haven’t fundamentally undermined the intent of the book.

If you struggle with well developed egos, you may find the book a challenge, but a challenge worth taking all the same. Anyone looking for some useful insights on the foreign policy challenges facing Australia over the coming decades could do a lot worse than reading this book. I found it an absorbing read from an experienced diarist with little to gain from airbrushing key events, and that in the end is the sign of a good diary.

Mike Oldfield Man on the Rocks Review

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I’m so superficial: I love the blue vinyl

First a disclaimer: I’m an enormous Mike Oldfield fan, who in conjunction with my wife had an excerpt from Tattoo on Tubular Bells II as our bridal march.

Like the majority of Oldfield fans, I was drawn to him through his instrumental work. That said, I’ve always really liked his rock work – Discovery and Islands are two favourites. So it was with a fan-based, but open mind in regard to genre that I’ve come to review Man on the Rocks.

This is an album from a man who has nothing to prove artistically – his reputation has been established for decades and if you’ve listened to many interviews, Oldfield will regularly emphasise it’s about creating the music he feels he needs to. That’s exactly what he’s delivered here – eleven songs that are infused with his current living situation (The Bahamas) and his semi-recent personal life (divorce).

If you’ve heard or seen much about this album, it’s hard to escape the Bahamas imagery. Combined with Sailing as the opener, it creates the strong perception of a relaxed / AOR approach, and I think it does the album a disservice. There’s a range of themes on here, but it takes a couple of listens to put the whole album into context.

Sailing is the lead song of the album and its obvious why – it’s upbeat and has a hook that’s hard to move on from. Moonshine and title track Man on the Rocks build the momentum nicely. Castaway is a slow burner that delivers a punch in Oldfield’s guitar solo toward the end. Minutes is a four to the floor soft rock classic as good as anything Oldfield has delivered previously. Nuclear and Chariots are the two most introspective songs, and it only takes one listen to work out it’s not a happy look inwards – Chariots instrumentally seems to be one from the vault. Following the Angels made little impression on me, but Irene is a nice rocker with some brass swagger added. I Give Myself Away is the final track and the only one not penned by Oldfield. It’s a mellow finish to the album and one that sits nicely.

Is Man on the Rocks one of Mike Oldfield’s better albums? It’s too early to tell, but it certainly can sit proud amongst his other rock albums. As far as replayability goes, I can see Sailing, Minutes, Irene and Castaway being on regular rotation, with the others pleasant surprises as they come up on a playlist.

The best compliment I can give this album is that it’s honest – and that honesty delivers a number of high points that will keep me coming back for a long time to come.

Oh and Mike: please tour Australia sometime – we’re just like The Bahamas but with even more flora and fauna.

Book Review: Online a lot of the time

Online a lot of the time
Ritual, Fetish, Sign

Author: Ken Hillis
Publisher: Duke University Press

When my editor sent me this book to read and review, the title and intriguing cover image prepared me for an engaging and witty romp through online usage, telepresence, identity and more littered with illustrative reminiscences. Something to be read, savoured and enjoyed.

In that, I was initially somewhat disappointed. The book is truly dense, more reminiscent of a thesis (or several), backed with copious notes and bibliography. The dichotomy between title/cover and contents amusingly reminded me of the old maxim about judging a book by its cover. Nevertheless, I stalled on my first attempt to tackle the book; and then again on the second attempt.

The third time around I’d adjusted my expectations, and Hillis’ treatise does actually contain everything that I’d been looking for, and quite a bit more.

You might be fooled into thinking that the book is about the Web, virtual environments, online chatrooms and so forth. It isn’t, really – at least not solely. It’s about us … people, humanity, society, groups and individuals. It’s about our psychology, narratives, fetishes, quirks, rituals, expressions and signs.

It’s about the one thing that makes the virtual environments, the Web, and the Internet important: people.

Are networked individuals always running after the truth that passes them by even as it remains right behind and within them, a part of it lingering, like a cosmetic, on the surface of their “soul”? Does ‘here” for them always already mean “everywhere else”? These are the questions that, ironically, tend to get dismissed as (implicitly the “wrong kind” of) metaphysics by those who argue for the experiential reality of digital telepresence. – From “The Political Trace”, Chapter 3: SIGNS

You might find the prose and style to be fearfully dense, with paragraphs often running for more than a page. This is no ‘For Dummies’ book. This is one for the serious thinker who wants to be treated like an adult, and not coddled or talked down to.

Words and images, operating within specific sociopolitical circumstances, differently represent the possibility and potential of experience without a subject. However, particularly given the digitization’s opening of typography to new forms of visual design, there are increasingly meaningful overlaps in the ongoing expectations we bring to typographic and image forms, even as they each help organize in different ways what we find meaningful and how we do so. Theorizing the increasingly leaky experiential boundary between words and images has important implications for how subjectivity is organized if we are at the historical conjunction where the Web must be taken seriously as not only beginning to renovate some of literature’s forms but also forms of social relations. – From “Graphical Chat’s Debt to Free Indirect Discourse”, Chapter 4: AVATARS BECOME /ME

While I may not ordinarily be able to compose a higher praise for a book than that it makes you think good and hard about its foundation and topics, perhaps there’s something to be said for at least some accessibility.

Whether the text contains any truly revolutionary thought on the subjects of virtual environments, avatars, identities and telepresence is a bit harder to say. It has given me so much to think on that it could be quite some time before I can reasonably answer that question.

Nevertheless, if you’re an avid, virtual-worlds thinker with a mature attitude and able to keep your head above water in the deepest portions of the English language vocabulary, this book is definitely for you.

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