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Just over twenty years ago, on the 24th September 1991, one of the most significant albums in music history emerged from the underground rock scene to become a record destined to be more than just a cult classic. In fact, 'Nevermind' is still celebrated today as one of the most important albums of all time: it infested in the ears of mainstream music lovers and garnered the American trio, singer, song-writer and guitarist Kurt Cobain, bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl, much unexpected commercial success. Nirvana's first album 'Bleach' failed to make quite the same impact upon its release in 1989 and Cobain in particular wanted to ensure that the group's second album was one created because of their influences instead of succumbing to the pressures of the grunge scene. The grunge sound, a genre famed for its distorted guitar arrangements and punk/metal aspirations, is still a notable facet of 'Nevermind's' appeal but Cobain wanted to craft melodies comparable to his idols, The Pixies and R.E.M.
'Nevermind' is an album which I've had in my record collection for many years but it's not one that I listen to very often; at first, I thought that the twelve songs were too similar and not as imaginative or as intriguing as those from the group's next release, 'In Utero'. Yet it's undeniable that 'Nevermind' illustrates an unmistakable, brooding sound which manages to be bold and insecure all at once. 'Nevermind' will for many people be Nirvana's signature record, their 'Sgt. Pepper' or 'Ziggy Stardust', but does that mean you should rush out and buy it if it's not already in your CD collection?
'I FEEL STUPID, AND CONTAGIOUS' (Lyrics from 'Smells Like Teen Spirit')
The solitary scratches of the electric guitar opens the record on a much quieter note than some would expect until the bass and drums intrude to create one of the most distinctive song introductions of all time. 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' was a song born out of Cobain's desire to make the definitive pop record a la The Pixies but has become an anthem in the truest sense of the word: the song fluctuates seamlessly between anarchic and quieter moments as the narrator stares directly into the eyes of puberty before melting into a puddle of anxiety. The album's opener is very much a self-destructive voyage back into the world of youth where everyone - and everything - is scary and all you can do is try and lose yourself in a carefully crafted, self-assured alter ego. There are many reasons as to why this song has become an anthem over the past two decades and I think that's primarily because everybody, at least in my generation and a little before that, can identify with the narrator as they battle to try and fit in amongst other teenagers who feel just as self-conscious as they do. Cobain's voice is at its jagged best throughout track number one and, in my opinion, helps make 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' such a raucous, disgruntled song with unparalleled energy.
The album's second song 'In Bloom' is an address to the critics who fail to understand Nirvana for their musical direction and lyrics; arguably, this is a song that was written a little before its time and before the aftermath and impact of 'Nevermind's' release, but that doesn't stop track number two from being every bit as impressive as its predecessor. What I think really stands out about 'In Bloom' is the fact that the chorus lasts longer than the verses; it seems as if Cobain is trying to draw attention to his 'pretty songs' and dismiss the everyday occurrences the verses discuss, such as the way the weather changes and fruit bruises. There is a double entendre with such lyrics: a sexual undercurrent that's as powerful as the slick guitar work and fuzzy bass line which is signified in the promotional video as the band, dressed in restrictive suits reminiscent to those worn by 1960s group The Beach Boys, plays to crowds of pre-pubescent, screaming girls. 'In Bloom' is a little similar to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' in its musical arrangement too, with the way the chorus is more vibrant and shouty than the verses, but the tone and message of the song is different enough for both tracks to be distinguishable in their own right.
'Come As You Are', another infamous singles release from 'Nevermind', is a marked change to the two tracks beforehand: 'Come As You Are' is not overwhelmed by its instruments at any point, making it easier to hear the many clichés Cobain has crammed into the song's three and a half minutes. The clichés, I feel, are sardonic, as if the narrator is noting how most decisions and actions in life are far from being our own but it's Kurt's voice that is really allowed to shine throughout 'Come As You Are': he sounds apathetic, almost dazed, which works well alongside the more insipid guitar melody. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy 'Come As You Are' and it's well placed on the album as it offers the listener a change to the chaotic first two tracks, but it's a song which stays on one level throughout and lacks that moment that lifts it away from its indifferent tone.
Track number four is an entirely different 'Breed' altogether with a scorching, incessant riff and quick fire drum roll. What I think stands out the most about 'Breed' is the fact that the tune is deafeningly loud yet Cobain's vocals almost reach the same level of noise. The scratchier quality of his voice, which was dulled a little during 'Come As Your Are', re-emerges again and helps to ensure that 'Breed' is a song with its roots firmly planted in the punk genre. The lyrics are about a couple's desire to settle down and to start a conventional family life together, even though the rebellious melody contradicts the lyrics throughout the song. I personally like this contrast as it suggests that love and the desire for a family life is an aspiration for many people, whoever they are and however they were raised. To me, 'Breed' stands out for its confident combination of such a harsh melody and grounded lyrics.
'LIGHT MY CANDLES IN A DAZE COZ I FOUND GOD' (Lyrics from 'Lithium')
'Lithium', the album's fifth track, was another song released for public consumption and another song which utilises the band's desire to create records with contrasting instrumental moments, from the quiet to loud. Although that musical pattern is not yet tedious, for most people I imagine 'Lithium' would sound quite similar to 'In Bloom' and a little like 'Come As You Are' but it's one of the songs on 'Nevermind' which boasts a succinct story, about how one person finds God and desperately needs to preserve their new religion. I enjoy 'Lithium's' narrative but the tune is a little lifeless; even during the rockier moments, it seems stunted somehow and lacks the genuine madness of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' and 'Breed'. However, 'Lithium' is a notable song as it demonstrates a more restraint vocal effort from Cobain, one that suits the tone of the song greatly.
Song six is a remarkable change to anything else on the album: 'Polly' is 'Nevermind's' only acoustic song and it relies heavily on the softer tones of Cobain's vocals and the folk-like guitar is the only instrument present besides the slight cymbal clashes. 'Polly' is a true story of how a fourteen year old was kidnapped after a punk rock show and was tortured by her capturer for several days until she charmed him into releasing her. 'Polly's' lyrics are amongst the seediest and most insightful on the album and I think Cobain does a really good job of letting the hostage-taker's thoughts emerge gradually throughout the song's mere three minutes. The fact that the girl was christened Polly was also a smart move as it's a name traditionally associated with parrots and acts as a metaphor for how the young girl was trapped against her will, forced into behaving however her capturer wanted her to. I'm also glad that the band decided against trying to make this song an up-tempo number because the simpler speed allows the story to unravel alongside an uncomplicated backdrop.
'Territorial P***ings' allows the album to return to its high-energy vibe but begins with the cult-like claims that everyone should love one another unconditionally at all times. The squeaky voice is directly juxtaposed to Cobain's gruff yells as the song repeatedly urges the listener to find another way of living, away from paranoia and isolation. What is most striking about 'Territorial P***ings' is the way that when Cobain talks from one person's perspective, the music is calm and allows his voice to shine but when he's talking about the collective force of a cult, his voice becomes almost unrecognisable as his screeches merge into the music. At less than two and a half minutes in length, 'Territorial P***ings' is not one of 'Nevermind's' essential songs and appears weak in comparison to the subtle presentation of 'Polly' but I bet it would be a hell of a live track for its speed alone.
The first time I heard 'Drain You', I instantly thought of 'Bruise Pristine', a Placebo song which features a middle-eight of a similar quality with tinny chimes which break away from the full force of a rock track into something more placid. 'Drain You' is a song about how a couple eventually becomes a shameless parody of another: how in the beginning it's all about love yet the relationship disintegrates over time because of how the two lovers become too reliant upon one another. 'Drain You' has some of the most memorable lyrics from the entire album and Cobain sings this one in a way which allows you to smirk at the words without becoming totally sidetracked by the rhythm. It took me a couple of listens to really like it but 'Drain You' is one of the finest songs not to be released from 'Nevermind' as it showcases Cobain's more observational, sarcastic song writing style.
'I CAN'T LET YOU SMOTHER ME' (Lyrics from 'Lounge Act')
With a bubbling bass line introduction, 'Lounge Act' starts in a different way to the majority of the album but then succumbs to Nirvana's knack for creating louder and quieter moments throughout their songs. For the most part though, the music itself is not responsible for such a contrast: it's mainly Cobain's voice which controls the dynamic and 'Lounge Act' is one of the few songs on 'Nevermind' which really displays all sides of his voice, from the less angsty, more melodic tones to the ruthless rasps. Track number nine seems to be a narrative about one girl going from one man to another with the friendship of the two men being highlighted as a point of friction. 'Longue Act' is comparable to the general sound of the Gin Blossom's from the more restraint tone of Kurt's voice to the bouncy guitar work which loses its optimism because of the vocal effort. I really enjoy 'Longue Act' for its concise storytelling and I feel it's one of the best songs on the latter stage of the album for that reason.
'Stay Away' picks up the pace a little more as it bounds into action with the booming drums before resulting into one of the rockiest songs on the second half of the album. I like the way that the guitar twitches throughout the song: it seems as if Cobain has almost lost control of his instrument which is highlighted as the tune flickers to a conclusion. The lyrics contrast two scenarios but there does not seem to be a deeper meaning to this track: instead, it's one of the rawest, most incomplete songs on the album, both in musical style and lyrical presentation. I enjoy the tense musical aspect of 'Stay Away' but it's not one of 'Nevermind's' defining songs.
'On A Plain' boasts a similar musical pattern but lyrically, it's much more memorable and laconic, discussing the way the narrator loves themselves more than anybody else around them because love has never been reciprocated before. One of the best things about 'On A Plain' is the way that Nirvana have utilised harmonies to emphasise the narrator's love for themselves: the echoing vocals really highlight the point which brings a different flavour to a song that otherwise would have sounded too similar to its predecessor. The song's guitar introduction was ripped from the Leo Sayer song 'Long Tall Glasses' and some of the track's lyrics are revived from the demo recording of 'Verse Chorus Verse', a song Nirvana recorded at the time of the 'Nevermind' sessions. 'On A Plain' stands out to me as it shows a different side to the production values of 'Nevermind' because of the harmonising.
The album's final song begins in a mellower manner with just the lone strums of a guitar before Cobain's melancholic voice lurks over the tune. 'Something In The Way' has been recorded to emphasise the chorus more than the verses but this is more dramatic than the contrast between those two extremes on other songs and I personally like that; in my opinion, the band never truly got to grips with such instrumentation until 'Heart-Shaped Box' from 'In Utero' but 'Something In The Way' is the purest, least complicated example of such a vision from 'Nervemind'. Whilst the juxtaposition of the musical presentation is at the forefront of the song, I do feel that track number twelve leads the album to a somewhat dreary conclusion; lyrically, it's a haunting song which discusses how one individual only has animals for company and such eeriness is emphasised by Cobain's vocals. Yet, the song seems to melt away without a real killer moment which lessens its impact in general.
OVERALL: WHY SMELLING LIKE TEEN SPIRIT AIN'T A BAD THING...SOMETIMES
Whilst I do enjoy all of the songs from this album to different degrees, and I enjoy listening to the album as a whole from time to time, I still stand by my original sentiment that the album is a little samey in places: to the untrained ear, and by that I mean those who're not fans of rock music, I think they would find this album a little overwhelming because of there being very little variation, with the exception of 'Polly'. To somebody that does listen to a lot of rock music, I can understand why this album is so readily celebrated: the lyrics are not so much poetic but rather raw, words spoken through the eyes of a soul who dislikes many but is desperately seeking security and salvation. As I said, I don't think Nirvana fully got to grips with their desired melody construction until their following album but I think that's an essential part of 'Nevermind's' appeal: it sounds like a record made on impulse rather than one which had been rewritten and re-recorded several times over.
Some may feel that 'Nevermind' is over-hyped but to me it really tells the story of a generation who attempt to pass from their teenage years into the adult world seamlessly whilst contending with pressures from all around. What's even more frightening is the fact that such an attitude is echoed around the world today. Ultimately, that was the band's greatest achievement: to create such an honest, unintentionally thought-provoking record at a time when they were abandoning their previous identity. Yes I do recommend 'Nevermind' but I feel that you'd have to be a part of the younger generation from the past twenty or so years for it to be a record that really resonates with you; it's not as friendly or as colourful as other iconic albums from the last century, such as 'Sgt. Pepper', but 'Nevermind' is a record which is loud, unapologetic and oddly addictive due to the layers of sounds throughout each song and its attention to the change in adolescent identities.
Length: 42.39 minutes approx.
Genre: Alternative rock with grunge influences
(Please note: review may appear elsewhere under the same username.)
When it was time to graduate, my parents agreed that to celebrate we should visit my favourite restaurant in Norwich after the big event. Artorio's Mediterranean Taverna is located on the outskirts of the city centre and has been a delightful restaurant to visit time and time again over the past three years. This review will not just focus upon one specific visit but rather serve as an account of many.
DECOR, STYLE AND SET UP
Artorio's is situated at the heart of the Riverside complex on the fringes of Norwich, across the road from the train station and within walking distance of the Premier Inn on Prince of Wales Road. The independent eatery sits amongst many chain restaurants, including Chiquito's and Pizza Hut, and is about a minute away from bars, clubs, a cinema and a bowling alley. There's even a multi-storey car park adjacent to Riverside and if you exit the parking lot via the pay stations, you will see Artorio's straight across the street.
The restaurant is simply decorated; the one-off, show-stopping chandelier hangs above the bar but otherwise, the area is minimally decorated with wooden furniture and a selection of brightly coloured paintings. The relaxing environment is aided by the background music which is essentially harmless but I doubt that acoustic cover versions of 'Tainted Love' and 'I'll Be Watching You' will be to everyone's liking...and rightly so! The male and female toilets are located up the stairs and the disabled toilets are on the ground floor. The bar is positioned alongside the patisserie on the right as you enter the eatery and the open kitchen is on the left where you can sit and watch the food being prepared.
The floor space has been utilised wisely by the owners of Artorio's; whilst all of the seating is on the ground floor, we have never had a problem getting a table. In fact, on every occasion, we've been shown to our table promptly before being asked what we would like to drink. Whilst Artorio's have managed to squeeze a lot of tables into a reasonably sized dining area, it might be wise to book if you intend visiting the restaurant during the evening; on the two occasions when I've dined there on a Tuesday night, the place has been very nearly full. Otherwise, we've mainly visited Artorio's on a Sunday lunch time when we've been one of only two or three tables within the place.
Starters at Artorio's range from mixed nuts for £1.75 and garlic mozzarella flat bread topped with caramelised onions for £4.95. A selection of drinks, from soft to alcoholic, are severed with prices on the alcohol front varying from £3.40 for a bottle of Peroni, £3.65 for a 175ml glass of sauvignon blanc and £4.45 for a pina colada. Bottles of wine start at £13.95 for Ropiteau L'Emage sauvignon blanc and Merlot.
The main menu offers what I consider to be good, varied selection; if you have somebody in your group who's not keen on trying the dishes inspired by Greek or Spanish cooking then there's a variety of Italian inspired dishes that would suit most tastes. Pizzas start at £6.25 for a humble Margherita and the most expensive is the Sicilian, a mixture of spicy meatballs, peppers and parmesan cheese for £9.45. Pasta dishes, such as Lasagne, are also on the menu with prices starting at £7.90 for Spaghetti Carbonara. The pizzas and pastas are competitively priced in comparison to some other eateries close to the Riverside complex, such as Prezzo's who charge £6.95 for a Margherita and £8.95 for Carbonara pasta.
For carnivores and pescatarians, there is a reasonable assortment of dishes under the Grill and Classic Meat & Fish subsections. Some of the more unusual dishes are grilled chicken with red pesto, chorizo sausage and mozzarella for £11.50, Lamb Moussaka for £10.45 and salmon served with spinach in a creamy white wine sauce for the same price. Most of these dishes are served with vegetables or salad and either fries or rosemary roasted potatoes. For vegetarians, the choice is more limited although Artorio's do several pizzas with vegetable toppings and some pastas minus meat or fish. From past experience, it is always worth enquiring as to whether it would be possible to change a dish slightly: say you wanted to try the Reine pizza without the prosciutto ham, I'm sure the folks at Artorio's would be more than happy to oblige.
However, the choice for vegetarians is certainly not limited when it comes to the Meze. For those of you who're unsure, Meze is simply a series of mini dishes which you can pick and choose to create a main course to be shared between two or more people. Personally, I love this approach to dining; being a Libran, I'm not that fab at decision making so being able to pick and choose different dishes is a refreshing change and good for people who like to try new things. On the Meze menu, prices start at £2.75 for the vegetarian Dolmades, vine leaves stuffed with seasoned rice, and conclude at £5.25 for octopus cooked in red wine. Dips are sometimes served with individual Meze dishes, such as the Lamb Kofte which comes with a minty yogurt, but others, such as hummus, can be purchased for £2.65 or a selection of three costs £6.45 including pita breads. In itself, and as you'll gather by the end of this review, the Meze menu is a little on the pricey side; many of the dishes are ideally just for two people. Yet I do believe that it's a matter of quality over quantity at Artorio's and that's something I would never want them to compromise on or change.
OUR DINING EXPERIENCES
There has only been one occasion when I've not eaten the Meze as a main course; I tried one of the three Peinirli's costing £8.65, a Grecian pizza where the dough has been twisted into a boat shape and then stuffed with various cheeses and smoked ham. The Peinirli was ridiculously moreish; the dough was squidgy on the inside yet crisp on the outside and was coated abundantly in a rich tomato puree, just the way I like my pizzas. The smoked ham was mainly hidden beneath the layers of stringy cheese but some pieces had gone crispy like bacon upon being cooked. If it wasn't for the fact that I love the Meze so much, I would have definitely eaten the Peinirli again because it was a beautiful yet indulgent take on a pizza.
My Brother only sampled the Meze on one occasion; I don't think he particularly appreciated my folk 'accidentally' catching the back of his hand whilst he was reaching over for the Kofte kebab but none-the-less, he has always been keen to sample some of the other main courses at Artorio's. One time, he opted for the Piri Piri Chicken served with fries and salad (£10.45) and I can report from firsthand experience that the chips are wonderful: skinny but with a lush, light yellow colour and a slight crispiness. Whilst the meat was plentiful, it's worth noting that the Piri Piri sauce will not be to everyone's liking; the harsh, oily sauce was to my Brother's taste but for me, it was too peppery, upstaging the mild flavour of the chicken rather than enhancing it. On Graduation night, my Brother chose the Chicken Americana Hot pizza (£9.25), minus the green chillies, which was a meaty mixture of pepperoni, seasoned chicken and mushrooms. Whilst he was not asked if he would like another ingredient in place of the chillies, the toppings were not in short supply and he stated that the chicken was well seasoned, not too dry, and that the pepperoni was mildly spiced. The base was thin and crispy and he had no problem finishing off every last crumb so he could give us a hand with our Meze!
When it comes to the Meze, Artorio's advise that six to eight dishes are sufficient for two people as a main course whereas one or two dishes would be ample for a starter. In line with the restaurant's advice, my parents and I typically ordered ten dishes between the three of us as a main course, including the meat Meze set menu. Although the set menus have altered slightly since we first visited Artorio's, the meat version now consists of a Spanish omelette with potatoes and onions, fried potatoes with a thick tomato sauce, chorizo sausage and cannellini beans, lamb Kofte kebabs, Piri Piri chicken wings, pork and beef meatballs and slabs of pita bread for £20.95. Artorio's also offer two other set menus, one mainly consisting of fishy small plates for the same price, and the other a mixture of vegetarian, fish and meat dishes for £25.95.
The meat Meze set menu has always been a winner with us; the Kofte kebab, at a first glance, looks a little dry and anaemic. However, I've always found that the kebab has been of the right, solid consistency in light of what a Kofte normally is and the meat has always been seasoned with a delicate yet delicious mint flavour. I've never had any rough meat in that dish at all which is always a positive sign. The Tortilla Espanola has been a surprise favourite of mine; normally, I avoid dishes made prominently with eggs but the tortilla is scrumptious; the potatoes have the fresh taste and aroma of new potatoes whilst the onions offer a slight tang without being too overbearing. Sadly, you only ever get served two slices of the tortilla but it is enough to divide and share between three people at a push.
The fried potatoes, the Patatas Bravaz, have always been an essential part of the Meze for me; the crispy potatoes are a bit like chips but segmented into chunks with a soft, fluffy centre and crisp outer layer. They're at their yummiest when dipped into the thick tomato sauce and whilst there doesn't appear to be a lot of sauce on the potatoes, it is more than enough to go around as too much would make the potatoes soggy. The Meat Meze set menu is rather keen on tomato-based sauces, including the cannellini beans and chorizo which my Dad always calls posh baked beans! Truthfully, that's all they are but the creamy, herby tomato sauce works well with the smoky, muscular chorizo and doesn't allow the Spanish sausage to overpower the other, more subtle, flavours.
The other dish to be served in a tomato sauce is the meatballs. Before Artorio's, I'd never been a big fan because whenever I've eaten them elsewhere, mainly at the local Prezzos's, they've always seemed a bit chewy and gristly. The ones at Artorio's couldn't be more different and are very juicy, complemented exceptionally well by the slightly spicy tomato sauce which is my favourite out of the three as it's the thickest and comes with warm chunks of ripe tomato and onions which give the meatballs a little more flavour too. None of the tomato sauces are identical within the set menu and they all work well with the flavours in their individual dishes.
The Piri Piri chicken wings are essentially the same as the meal my Brother ate and they too provide a reasonable amount of meat. The one I sampled did not have a really crispy skin to it which was a pity and as a result, the tart sauce was just sat on the top of the wings. In recent months, the chicken wings have replaced the Champignons on the set menu, a dish of button mushrooms sautéed in garlic and red pesto (£4.15). On the one occasion when we did not order the mushrooms, I have to say that I really missed them; the mushrooms have always been tender and the sauce is a light flavour that offers them the pizzazz they need. The red pesto does not overpower the garlic but this dish is a good take on the tried and tested garlic mushrooms. The Champignons come in a small bowl and whilst there could be more, there has always been plenty to go around.
The spinach and feta cheese wrapped in filo pastry, the Spanakopitas (£4.15), is another dish which makes a great addition to the Meze meal; whilst the Spanakopitas are not that flavoursome due to the restrained taste of feta and rather bitty spinach, the filo pastry allows a different texture to be included in the meal which makes a pleasant change to the sauce-based dishes. The mini bruschettas (£4.15) also provide this contrast and I love the fact that the toasted pieces of baguette are always very well done underneath; some people would argue that the chef wasn't keeping an eye on what he was doing but that's how I like my bread anyway! The topping on the bruschettas is lovely; the tomato puree is rich and dried onto the bread like a pizza but the spinach and feta flavours really come through, making the overall taste a little creamier. You get three Spankopitas and three bruschettas per plate which is perfect for us.
You also get three of the Halloumi Lounza (£4.45), a salty dish comprised of halloumi cheese laid across thick, grilled ham. Regrettably, we only tried this dish the last time we visited Artorio's but it's a definite favourite of mine; whilst I'm not normally one for salty foods, the chewy cheese and thick gammon-like ham worked well together, offering variance to the tomato flavours. My Mum always orders a small Greek salad (£5.15) to go with the meal and the dish is obviously a fresh array of brightly coloured vegetables, fruits and feta. She said that the salad is always crisp and delicious yet something that is nice to have 'on the side' with the Meze meal to break it up a little and offer a little more diversity with a pleasant, light vinaigrette dressing.
Whilst I have adored many of the dishes we've sampled at Artorio's, there have been a few that I would not recommend, including the skewers of pork and chicken (both £3.60) which were dry and pretty flavourless. My Mum is a big fan of the Dolmades but I personally couldn't stand them; for me, they were too mushy and the vine leaves too overpowering in flavour so I couldn't tell if I liked the seasoned rice inside or not.
ERM...ROOM FOR A PUDDING?
Honestly, nine times out of ten when we've visited Artorio's, I haven't needed a dessert; my Mum, however, has always blackmailed me into having one so she doesn't look like a porker...her words, not mine! Since she has managed to twist my arm on every visit, I've tried a few of the restaurant's puds including an ice-cream trio of vanilla, chocolate and Cyprus Rose flavours (£3.75). I wish I'd chosen another type in place of the rose; whilst the vanilla was creamy and the chocolate velvety but not sickly, the Cyprus Rose flavour smelt, and possibly tasted, like toilet cleaner! Needless to say, I didn't have that ever again but I've adored the Chocolate Indulgence Cake (£4.65) every time I've had it. You would assume that the sinful layers of white chocolate truffle, milk chocolate truffle and amareti truffle, dusted with cocoa powder, would be too abundant but truthfully, it has to be classified as the lightest chocolate pudding I've ever tasted; each bite slides effortlessly off the spoon and each flavour is prominent which is quite a shock considering that white chocolate normally has such a faint flavour. The portion size with the chocolate cake is good but because of its lightness, I would happily have two slices instead of just the one!
Now who's being the porker?!
My Mum has always ordered the Baklava, a sweet mixture of nuts, cinnamon and honey wrapped in filo pastry; individually, this costs £4.45 but on some occasions, we've had the Greek Pastry selection which comes with a piece of Baklava, a slab of warm Shamali and a portion of Kataifi with vanilla ice cream for £9.45. Obviously, this is enough for three people but my Mum and I have sometimes finished it off between us. I can't vouch for the quality of the Baklava, mainly because Mother won't let me near it, but I've always enjoyed the Kataifi, a very similar concoction with nuts and honey bound together in shredded pastry. The Shamali is not too sweet and has a slightly chewy consistency which is enjoyable but the Kataifi is my favourite out of the two as it's a semolina cake with almonds on top and a runny, honey sauce. There's a real taste of coconut to the dish and the cake itself is bitty texture-wise but the flavour is lovely: very syrupy and easy on the palate. The Baklava is apparently as good as the ones you get in Cyprus which is, I'm sure you'll agree, quite a compliment.
SERVICE AND OTHER DETAILS
Overall, I think that the service at Artorio's is very good: the staff have always been friendly and attentive and they really listen to their customers. For example, my Mum always asks if they can leave out the peppers with the Greek salad and it's always been served without them and one waitress seemed genuinely interested when we commented that the piri piri wings were a poor replacement for the mushrooms on the meat set menu. With the good points highlighted, I do need to point out that on more than one occasion, our food has been waiting on the pass for several minutes before it has arrived at our table. Sometimes, Artorio's have seemed short staffed but on other occasions, the waiters and waitresses have been a little too engrossed in their conversations...
The cutlery, plates and cups have always been clean upon arrival but I do have a couple of issues with the way the Meze is served. At Artorio's, I feel that serving spoons for each individual dish would be an advantage as otherwise you have to use your own knife and folk to dig food out of the rather miniscule bowls. Something else that I've found to be an issue is that there is no way to keep the Meze food warm; the bowls merely sit in wooden containers. Especially in the case of the dishes that are served with sauces, I think a method to keep the food hotter would be advantageous as the mushrooms per say go cool rather quickly.
The toilets at Artorio's have always been clean and well stocked with loo roll. Some of the soap dispensers have not worked in ages but the two that do are always filled with soap.
OVERALL: WHY I'D HAPPILY DO A 140 MILE ROUND TRIP TO GET TO ARTORIO'S AND BACK
Now that I'm no longer at Uni, I doubt that we'll be visiting Artorio's very often. This makes me very sad; it's one of the few restaurants that I've visited repeatedly where I've enjoyed every meal I've had. I feel that the menu offers a good selection, including the drinks list which ranges from fizzy drinks to juices to beers and wine, and that the food is of a very high standard. As you can gather, at least where the Meze is concerned, the portion sizes are sometimes not overly abundant and the prices can be regarded as rather steep in light of that. For the pizza my Brother ate, the meat set menu as well as several other Meze dishes, two desserts, three soft drinks, a beer and a bottle of crisp, cold Alexander the Great Sauvignon Blanc set us back over £80 during our last visit, and that was with a 25% off two main courses voucher! Frankly, it is a lot of money for how much you get with each separate Meze dish and perhaps I should be giving Artorio's four instead of five stars because of that. Yet, I can't deny that I love Artorio's; the warm atmosphere and delicious food is wonderfully satisfying and I've always left with a smile on my face.
Recommended in almost every way.
Address: Unit 3C, Wherry Road, Riverside, Norwich, Norfolk, NR1 1WX
Phone number: 01603 666165
Opening times: 12 noon - 11pm daily
Payment?: Cash or card
Family friendly? Yes - a kids menu is available and costs £4.95 for a main course, dessert and soft drink.
(Please note: review previously posted on Ciao.co.uk)
For a long time, I've enjoyed visiting museums based upon the not-so-distant past; attractions such as Yesterday's World in Great Yarmouth and the Black Country Museum in Dudley have always fascinated me for their examination of Victorian England. Although my last visited to Dudley over two years ago was somewhat of a disappointment, I was still eager to visit Blists Hill, a similar tourist attraction situated close to Ironbridge in Shropshire. Apparently, I've been to the Victorian Town before but I can't remember the occasion so this review will definitely be focused upon Blists Hill as it is today.
OK SO IT'S A VICTORIAN TOWN IN IRONBRIDGE. WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO KNOW ABOUT BLISTS HILL?
Blists Hill is an open-air museum which was built upon the grounds of an old industrial complex in the 1970s. The museum is essentially a collection of working shops, industrial workplaces and houses that people living in the 19th century would have used on a daily basis. The buildings themselves were either already present on the original site, such as the blast furnace; have been based upon several shops from the era, such as the locksmith; or have incorporated original fixtures and fittings from other places across England, such as the New Inn which used to stand in Walsall. Blists Hill is set across fifty acres of woodland but to me it didn't seem as if we'd walked that much or that far by the end of the day: the different buildings were separated across the area but not in a way that was unmanageable.
As a tourist attraction, Blists Hill is host to several different displays, some of which are 'manned' on some days so that visitors (in theory) can listen to stories about certain trades and how shops used to produce their goods. Other areas are merely there for historical interest and viewing purposes, such as the remains of the blast furnace. Although there is a fair amount to see and do, Blists Hill has a very relaxed pace to it; you can spend as much or as little time looking around every nook and cranny as you please but the organisers recommend that you set aside at least three hours for your visit which is a good estimate. Obviously, this time will increase or decrease depending upon when you visit as the weekends and bank holiday periods tend to include special events.
One thing that really, really irks me about any tourist attraction is when you have to pay for the privilege of using their car park. True, Blists Hill is situated a short distance away from the heart of Ironbridge but I think you'd have to be a fairly avid walker to park up at Blists Hill and stroll all of the way to the town centre as it is still quite a distance. After the jobsworth tells you where to park, collecting your £1.50 as you pass go, it's a relatively short distance to the entrance where you purchase your tickets. If, like us, you have not got an Ironbridge passport, a one off payment of £22.50 for adults which allows you to visit all of the area's ten museums, you can expect to pay the following per ticket at Blists Hill:
Adults ~ £14.95
Adults over the age of sixty ~ £11.95
Child/student ~ £9.95
The lady on the desk was pleasant but the place was heaving with people; we had decided, perhaps unwisely, to visit Blists Hill last Bank Holiday Monday and by the time we'd paid and returned to our car for a bit of lunch at 12.30pm, the car park was full. I would be lying if I said that the amount of people in attendance that day didn't make things troublesome; although Blists Hill covers a vast area of land, the key points of the attraction were filled to the brim, making it hard to really have a proper look around. Therefore, if you can, it's my recommendation to visit the museum when it's not the height of summer or at any other point during the school holidays. The Victorian Town's opening times can be found at the bottom of this review but the above prices are fixed until March 2012.
JUST WHAT IS THERE TO DO AT BLISTS HILL?
I'm not going to go through each and every building, you'll be pleased to read; instead, I'm going to select a few that struck me as the most interesting and those that I found to be a little disappointing so that you know what to expect overall.
As you enter the visitor centre, the first port of call after purchasing your tickets, you're invited to watch a five or so minute long video which is a mixture of modern day recreations and photographs taken during the Victorian era. The footage is projected in sections across the tall walls and at times, not all of the footage is the same so you have the choice to look at different visuals of the same topic. Personally, I felt that the video package was one of the most informative parts of Blists Hill; without the need for many words, instead combining music with the sound of machinery, the videos depicted the sometimes tragic life of those living in Victorian England. There was nothing gruesome or sensationalist about it; even the montage of clips showing coal miners being taken to their final resting place was tastefully done with just a solemnly-sung hymn in the background. The video was certainly not all doom and gloom as it managed to capture what an exciting, experimental time Victorian Britain was, particularly with regards to industrial growth which Ironbridge is renowned for.
Once you arrive at the top floor of the visitor centre, you exit to the outside and I have to say that I liked the way the town itself had been organised at the point of construction: the area towards the visitor centre creates a high street where you get to see some traditional Victorian shops, such as the grocers, before venturing out to the industrial area and homes. As I enjoy looking at fashion from years gone by, I was instantly drawn to the outfitters on the left side street; it had a lovely array of feathered hats, nightwear, corsets and ribbons and I found the note on the door to be very amusing - something along the lines of 'if you're a peasant, keep out until after closing time when I may be able to cobble you an outfit together out of odds and ends'. Charming!
Another part of the attraction which I really enjoyed looking around was the Doctor's surgery, a quaint little cottage with fire engine red window panes, located towards the bottom end of the town. Whilst it was a joy to look around at the house's decor, particularly the row upon row of leather bounded books, I really enjoyed looking through the Doctor's notes about the patients he diagnosed on a daily basis. I found the various treatment methods for illnesses such as indigestion to be particularly amusing and it really makes you appreciate how much medical science has advanced over the past hundred to hundred-and-fifty years. The gardens at the back of the house are particularly tranquil and allow you to take a moment away from the very busy street life elsewhere at Blists Hill.
There was a particularly striking juxtaposition between the types of houses people used to live in, from the moderately well off to those living on the breadline. The squatter cottage close to the mine was a very humble display, adorned with ragged patchwork quilts and the most basic of kitchen utensils. One of the most discreet exhibits on display in the squatter's cottage was the crucifixes hanging both in the bedroom and the sitting area. It was a subtle display but enough to give you a bit of an insight into the beliefs of those living at the time.
However, by far the most absorbing exhibit was the candle makers, situated at the heart of Blists Hill. By the time we'd arrived, quite a crowd had entered the little brick building and the gentleman behind the railings, who was making candles for sale and display purposes, began a wonderful prose about what life was truly like for candle makers at the time. His speech was engaging, with pauses in-between which invited questions from the visitors, and full of interesting historical details including what candle makers and miners used to do with the leftover candles at the end of the day. The facts were quite unusual and I genuinely felt as if I'd learnt something valuable by the end of his talk.
Sadly, the amount of information across the board at Blists Hill was rather scarce; besides the postal museum archives, blast furnace and mine experience centre, there was very little written information available. Many of the members of staff at the attraction failed to engage visitors in the same way that the candle maker did; some may say that visitors should start the conversations first but I believe that many people would not think to ask the question that the candle maker answered, without the workers starting the discussion. Whilst the dress maker was happy to natter away to a couple of tourists, when my Brother asked a question in the chemists, the lady simply didn't know the answer so Mum answered it for her! To the chemist lady's defence, she didn't normally 'work' in there: she was covering another staff member's absence. Yet it just epitomises to me how Blists Hill should produce a little more written information just to offer some basic statements about the displays.
Having said that, at times, the workers were rather a hindrance: in the squatter cottage it was impossible to take a good look at the fireplace because two of them were sat in rocking chairs right in front of it!
Another thing that really bugged me about Blists Hill was the fact that it felt more like a shopping centre than a museum. True, there is a recession on and places of historical interest need to do all they can to raise funds in order to keep going. However, whilst in some shops it was a pleasant touch for them to sell products made on site, such as the pork scratchings costing a pound a bag at the butchers and four candles for a pound at the candle makers, in other places, it felt unnecessary; in the dress makers, there was the chance to purchase a cardboard doll and 'dress' her in the supplied paper clothes. Now, I know for a fact that when I was younger, I would have begged my Mum to buy me one and she probably would have obliged. But when you take into consideration that there's a gift shop at the exit, a sweet shop, a fish and chip shop, a photographers, a chemists that sells smelly soaps and then several vintage fairground rides that you have to pay to go on, it can soon turn into an expensive day. Also, places such as the butchers and bakers seemed to be open purely for the purpose of selling food so were not exactly much of a historical display in comparison to the cottages, printers or candle makers.
Speaking of expense, I think it's quite cheeky that Blists Hill wants its customers to spend an additional £2 a head to watch a six minute video about mining which also includes a two minute trip there and back on a train. As the coal mining centre was one of the few places on the site which has been jam-packed full of information, I do have to question whether the further two pounds is worth the extra money. Instead, we decided to take a short trip on the steady incline lift, which is already included in the price of the tickets, so we could see Blists Hill in its entirety from a distance.
Considering we were visiting on a Bank holiday weekend, I found it disappointing that places such as the church and the school were out of bounds to the general public: the most you could do was go and have a quick peek through the glass doors at both. The church does not necessarily need to be 'manned' any day of the week but the school hosts a mock lesson every Sunday. Considering how many children were loitering around Blists Hill on the day we visited, it's arguable that there's a demand for an old-fashioned school lesson at least once or twice a day during peak times. Personally, I found it a bit odd that Blists Hill did not have anything such as that arranged for visitors that Monday as there were several people in the queue to get tickets who were really looking forward to going inside the school itself.
BESIDES THE SCHOOL, HOW CHILD FRIENDLY IS BLISTS HILL?
I would say that Blists Hill is very child friendly place; besides the fairground rides, which are understandably only open during the spring and summer months, there are different events to educate and entertain children which occur throughout the year. On the day we visited, there was a tie-dye candle dipping class which did cost a little extra per child's participation. Sadly, by the time we were heading for the exit at about 3.30pm, the tent had already closed because they had run out of candles so if you do have little ones who enjoy arts and crafts, I'd recommend doing anything like that as and when you see it.
Another really sweet touch is the fact that the bank allows you to swap present-day money for old currency so that you can 'buy' gifts and food on the premises with Victorian-era coins. At first I was a bit cynical about that; to me, the bank was pretty pointless unless you actually wanted to exchange your money for old-fashioned coinage because it just had queues upon queues of people waiting to do just that. But then I thought it was a nice touch for children as they would get to learn about the currency from the day. If you don't fancy standing in line and waiting to exchange money, you can buy everything on site with today's money which does make the exercise seem somewhat pointless but the children doing so seemed to be having a good time.
That bank holiday weekend, Blists Hill also promoted a number of displays based upon the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Although we didn't watch any of them (I have a phobia of furries) we did catch the cast roaming around the streets and they actively got the children involved by goading them into watching the play later that afternoon. Based on that little snippet, I imagine that for children it would have been a fun, pantomime-like demonstration and, of course, a good way for the book to be brought to life.
ACCESSIBILITY AND OTHER INFO
Whilst there are ways for people in wheelchairs to get about the Victorian Town, I will say that many of the paths are very uneven in places. Lifts are a feature of many of the newer buildings and, from what I can recall, there was no need to go upstairs in any of the older buildings so people with limited mobility would not be missing out in any way. There are also several disabled toilets on site. The female loos close to the cafe area were in a good condition although the lock on one of the doors could do with being changed.
Visitors are allowed to take dogs onto the site if they're on a lead. There are however many lovely animals throughout Blists Hill which is why doggies must be contained; I would hate to think that the cockerels and black piglets would be in danger! There is the option to have a ride on a horse-drawn carriage too so you might have to play a game of turd dodging as you're walking around the grounds as nobody working at Blists Hill seemed to be the designated poop-picker-upper...
We didn't purchase any food from Blists Hill: frankly, I got bored of waiting in line for the sweet shop and we would have probably been waiting for a further half an hour before getting in there, with no exaggeration. We did however get some drinks from the cafe next to the visitor centre and the price for two coffees, an organic apple juice and a bottle of Curiosity Cola, basically an indulgently sugary, old-fashioned soft drink, cost somewhere in the region of six to seven pounds. The cafe was not too busy by about half past three in the afternoon but it is rather limited in terms of seating. There are other places to eat and drink on site, including the New Inn pub and the Forest Glen Refreshment Pavilion, and opening times vary but at the pub, there was a large blackboard which stated when food would be served throughout the day.
The shop towards the exit sells a range of gifts for the young and old alike using materials sourced locally. I purchased an adorable elephant necklace on a black cord chain for £1 which was made in Ironbridge and I would say that overall, the gift shop is pretty reasonably priced; old-fashioned sweets cost £2.50 for a smallish jar and a miniature but cute mouse doorstop cost just a pound more.
OVERALL: WOULD I RETURN TO BLISTS HILL?
Perhaps if I had children, I would go back: there is a lot for them to do in terms of the extras on site, like the Alice's Adventures in Wonderland display and the candle dipping. But for adults, I think the Blists Hill experience is a lot more limited due to the fact that there was such an inadequate amount of information available. To me, Blists Hill's worth as a historical attraction would increase no end if there was more written information across the grounds as I felt that it was very much a place for looking at and admiring rather than finding out about the past in a profound way. Don't get me wrong, the buildings looked authentic and aesthetically pleasing but that's about all.
It's difficult to get past the fact that Blists Hill felt more like a collection of shops rather than a museum with the added bonus of being able to purchase prezzies made on site, particularly when it comes to areas like the butchers and bakers being included for that purpose alone. I also think that Blists Hill's staff should make a concerted effort to talk to visitors and to ask them if they have any questions or, like the candle-maker, to start talking about the trade when a significant amount of people are around. The chemist's is one area that particularly stands out in that respect as lacking: there were a lot of people who were just wandering about glancing at the 'stock' before leaving again. There was a dentist's booth adjacent to that building and I felt that it would be a key area to have a member of staff pretending to be a dentist from the era and talking about what a trip to the dentist's office would have been like back then and the same goes for the doctor's.
In terms of how it compares to similar attractions, then I think Blists Hill is a little weaker than the Black Country Museum: the Black Country Museum had more places to look around, such as the observatory and buildings for entertainment purposes like the cinema, and was more atmospheric yet some of the staff were a little on the rude side; the people who were working at Blists Hill seemed agreeable enough overall and some were very, very knowledgeable. The Black Country Museum is marginally cheaper and does offer more for car enthusiasts as there's a big display of old fashioned motors. But back to Blists Hill and overall, it's an attraction which offers visitors a pleasant day out: it's not too taxing and in the warmer weather, it's a sweet place to take a stroll around. However, it would be a good idea for them to develop the site a little more in the future as there's certainly the space to add displays of pertinent cultural value, like a cinema, if Blists Hill wanted to present a fuller picture of life in the Victorian era.
Address: Legges Way, Madeley, Ironbridge, TF7 5DU
Phone number: 01952 884391
Opening times: All day, every day, Monday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Presumably, Christmas Day is out-of-bounds.
How long does it take to complete?: Three to four hours.
Transportation: Between Easter and October, a bus service which is free to Ironbridge passport holders, operates Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. Telford train station is five miles away.
(Please note: review previously posted 'on the other side' under the same user name.)
Unable to use the CD player by himself at nearly 60 years of age, last year my Dad gave me the latest Crowded House album and told me to play it as soon as possible. It was meant to be a Christmas prezzie for my Mum and he has this rather weird complex that every album he buys is going to be faulty. So here I am reviewing another Crowded House album, this time 2010's 'Intriguer', the band's second release since the death of original drummer Paul Hester. Truth to be told, I do quite like a lot of Crowded House's music: it's melodic and well written but usually quite mellow. Lead singer and songwriter Neil Finn has spoken before about his fondness of The Beatles and some of this album is very Fab Fourish in nature. The group has been on the go since the mid-1980s and has seen many changes to its line up but Neil has been the front man throughout the many alterations.
In fact, 'Intriguer' is a record that follows in the same vein as many of Crowded House's other efforts but with one major difference: many tracks attempt to sound current by today's musical standards. That doesn't mean that the band have lost their love of deep lyrics or have reverted into gangstas; what it does mean, however, is that 'Intriguer' is quite dissimilar to the music Crowded House are known for. This album becomes a collection of diverse musical textures but, in my opinion, it's an album that takes several listens to appreciate and even then, it's still a bit hit and miss...
'VISIONS OF THE UNDERWORLD' (Lyrics from 'Saturday Sun')
'Intriguer's' first track, 'Saturday Sun' was the first single released from the sixth studio album and it's pretty easy to understand why; the droning, buzzing guitar has a very Muse-esque vibe to it and the echoing of Neil's vocals offer the opening song a really unusual, not typically Crowded House sound. The aggression in Finn's vocals combines well with the multitude of hypnotic, heavy guitars. Judging by the lyrics, I'd say 'Saturday Sun' is a track that still mourns the loss of Hester: the words seem to portray the idea of wishing that a certain someone could clear their mind of all negative thoughts and move on to a more peaceful, positive place within their life. It's with Hester in mind that I think it's only right that the drum kicks in a nanosecond before the guitars on this track, rather than the other way round.
'Saturday Sun' is a real grower: it merges from a Muse tribute song into something typically George Harrison with the underpinning of a sweet, sheer ukulele before drifting into Crowded House at their rockiest. 'Saturday Sun' is a great way to get the album started especially for the fact that it takes you through so many phases of music within its three and a half minutes. Although some would say that the feedback from the guitar is a little too over the top and detracts from the lyrics too much, I personally like this about 'Saturday Sun' because it's so different to anything I've heard by Crowded House before.
The first time I heard 'Archer's Arrows', I was slightly alarmed by the carnival-like rapid drum roll that reminded me of the title track from the dismal Killers album 'Sam's Town'! Thankfully, 'Archer's Arrow' is a lot better than that but is unexpectedly slower than 'Saturday Sun': I was expecting the album to maintain a slightly quicker pace for a couple of tracks before cooling down a little but that's not a criticism of 'Archer's Arrows', just an observation of my own expectations! Track number two reminds me a little of 'Private Universe', a song from Crowded House's past, as the violin swoons beneath the guitars that enhance Neil's perfect and timely falsetto vocals. Although I really like the way this one has been sung, 'Archer's Arrow' lacks a defining moment musically as the instruments pretty much stay on the same level throughout the song's four minutes.
However, the story of the archer is easily one of the album's most intriguing as the lyrics seems to be a metaphor for the way that one life ends as another begins. Like the previous track, some may feel that the instruments are a little messy, particularly at the chorus, but I think that the unsettled guitar and percussion sounds enhance the soft effervesce of the constant keyboard a little more. I do find myself thinking of the song 'Comfort In Sound' whenever I hear track number two though; Neil's vocals are comparable to Feeder's Grant Nicholas for their pureness and both songs share the topic of loss. None-the-less, 'Archer's Arrow' is a good song to follow up an interesting first track and is again a very atypical Crowded House track.
The almost fantastical, dream-like quality of the instrumentation is emphasised to an even greater extent on 'Amsterdam', a track which I originally deemed as the least likeable thus far on this album. For a couple of listens, 'Amsterdam' is a little too similar to 'Archer's Arrow' and the band has used a mish-mash of echoes in the background to try and create a spooky side to the song that I don't think was ever really achievable. The guitar riff after the first verse is a little too akin to that on 'Saturday Sun' but a real positive of this song is the fact that all of the instruments are light enough so that you can hear the story succinctly. Here, it seems as if the city of Amsterdam is used as a symbol for the decay within life and how it's up to man to escape his own selfish temptations. I really like the imagery of the song, such as 'Hear the sound of Cathedral bells/Cash ringing at the gates of hell' and I think the story Neil is trying to put across actually saves the song from becoming too similar to the album's first two tracks. Neil's vocals have quite a Lennon-like nasal quality to them and remind me of John's solo song '#9 Dream' but that is a very faint comparison. I do think that 'Amstersam' picks up greatly before the end and is host to a very memorable chorus but it's definitely one of the songs on the album where it takes you more than just a couple of listens to like and appreciate it. Now, mainly down to the lyrics, I think this is one of the most thoughtful pieces of song writing on the album.
'WHEN YOU'RE IN LOVE/THE WORLD MOVES WITH YOU' (Lyrics from 'Either Side of the World')
'Either Side of the World' doesn't begin in a particularly endearing way unless you're a big fan of Christmas type jingle bells! The light, essentially apathetic quality of the melody works well in conjunction with the lyrics which talk about the conquering of angry emotions in favour of a more upbeat attitude. In spite of that lovely, lovely idea, I actually find 'Either Side of the World' to be a really bland and boring effort: it's too airy, lacking in substance and is very slow moving. Ok, so the album couldn't be full of heavy, melancholic numbers but I really do find track number four to sound most amateurish in comparison to the three tracks that have just been described. It's good that the artists are trying to create an optimistic song, especially amongst some other very dark tracks, but it just doesn't fit somehow and sounds like a very half hearted filler. If I'm being really blunt, the melody sounds like a ringtone from the 1990s and Neil's vocals should have been a little harsher to give the song a little more depth and interest. The worst thing about 'Either Side of the World' is the fact that the music festers to nothing before re-emerging once again after the middle eight! As a result, the song's four minutes thirty-five seconds feels more like ten minutes thirty-five seconds...
'Falling Dove' thankfully has the gift of good song writing on its side and it's very easy to categorise this song as one that openly grieves for Paul. The lyrics themselves chronicle the life of someone who was unstable at best: just one word of criticism and they fly off the handle and just one word of kindness sends a dozen muffin basket to your door. I don't think it's just the lyrics that deserve praise on this one though: the bass line, provided by Nick Seymour, is suitably impressive and strengthens Neil's reflective and stunted vocals perfectly: he really sounds choked to the point of tears in the earlier stages. I think that the build up of the instruments is worth some praise: although the deep, beautiful and brutally honest lyrics are the song's main focus, it seems as if the instruments have been nurtured into something soothing as if all past sins have been forgotten. 'Falling Dove' is a well crafted, competent piece of music that reminds me of 'Blackbird' from the Beatles' 'White Album' for the acoustic guitar and gentle vocal effort which mirrors Paul McCartney's rawer tones in places.
The only problem is that the next mid-paced song seems to pale in comparison. 'Isolation' can be regarded as the second part of the previous track and although I like the blended backing harmonies and additional lullaby of the female vocalist, said to be Neil's wife, the song just doesn't progress much; when it descends into a couple of screams and a generic guitar riff, it becomes a predictable, non-entity of a track. The yelling is ill-fitting over the fairly placid musical arrangement and I'm half debating whether to call Axl Rose and ask him if he wants his voice back! The piano and hushed lyrics throughout the first portion of the song remind me a little of the Lightening Seeds and the final track from their 1994 album 'Jollification' called 'Telling Tales' but I don't really mean that as a compliment as that too is a bland song. Overall, 'Isolation' proves to be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth; all band members had some input into this track and I think it's obvious that 'Isolation' lacks a clear identity.
'YOU THINK REALITY'S SHUT YOU DOWN' (Lyrics from 'Twice If You're Lucky')
I love the unfussy beginning to 'Twice If You're Lucky' where the piano draws you in before the drums take over. In fact, the whole presentation of track number seven is very reminiscent to some of Paul McCartney's later work: the vocals flow well and the tone builds and builds but, most importantly, everything seems polished and considered rather than falsely chaotic like the previous song. Unfortunately, whilst the tune has been given a lot of thought, so that the guitar sound is apparent at some moments but not others, the lyrics seem to be a little rushed. I think that track number seven if about the resurrection of love during tough times but the words seem very random and inconsequential so it's hard to determine if there is a deeper meaning behind 'Twice If You're Lucky' or not.
Unfortunately, this does seem to be the case throughout 'Intriguer': if the tune is good, the lyrics are bad and if the melody is lacklustre, the words are stunning. 'Twice If You're Lucky' seems to be very much the epitome of that trend.
'Inside Out's opening guitar riff reminds me of a cross between 'Think For Yourself', a George Harrison track from the Beatles record 'Rubber Soul', and 'Now Mary' from the White Stripes album 'White Blood Cells': it's a blazing, bumbled monster of a riff that overrides every other noise on the track until the very end. Lyrically, the song is quite aggressive, about removing an imposter from society and replacing him with a monkey as nobody would be able to tell the difference! The lyrics make me think that this song was politically charged upon its composition, the musical equivalent of 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', but most of the song's story is lost because of the guitars being so abundant. Whilst the riff is enjoyable, it completely overpowers every other element of the song until it staggers to a conclusion. 'Inside Out' would have been a much better track if Crowded House had let the lyrics do the talking and let the guitar appear intermittently to add a little drama to the song. If that had been the case, track number eight would have easily been the album's most impressive song but instead, 'Inside Out' comes across as very sophomoric effort, as if the band are twenty years younger and playing at rock stars.
'SWEET DREAMS, MAKE WAVES, FIND BLISS' (Lyrics from 'Elephant')
The first few moments of 'Even If' sound promising; the two tones of a much softer piano, the fluttering cymbal clashes and Neil's gentle vocals sound like the Crowded House of old. 'Even If' seems to be a song about how everybody, at least once in their life, will suffer from poor judgement and how there's no point in harbouring regret or else you'll become bitter. For the most part, 'Even If' is a well put together track; the harmonies have been well organised to emphasise key phrases and Neil's singing is sublime. Yet the build up of string instruments in the later stages of the song fail to offer 'Even If' the defining moment it so desperately needs; at four minutes in length, the song is like a loop which lacks a magical moment to transform it from merely a good song into a fantastic track. The lyrics and harmonies do make 'Even If' more memorable than most tracks on 'Intriguer' but otherwise, it's a song which lacks the necessary momentum.
The final song on the album also begins with a piano tune before the percussion rises to support it. 'Elephant' is comparable to its predecessor in terms of musical presentation and the way Neil sings it; there's a slight rasp in his voice but it's not enough to offer the song an additional energy. The song appears to be about the closing time at a pub in which one man, who finds solace in alcohol, is about to leave and venture off back into the cold, wide world. I have to say that as the grand finale, 'Elephant' is certainly lacking; it just sounds like the second half of 'Even If'. Whilst the song did need something to make it stand out a little more, the moment the piano is played out of time with the rest of the instruments just sounds like a mistake rather than an integral part of the song. 'Intriguer', therefore, concludes in an insipid, uninspired way.
OVERALL: WHY CROWDED HOUSE FANS MAY - OR MAY NOT - LIKE THIS ALBUM
To classify 'Intriguer' as a bad album would be wrong; it is far from a bad album. However, I do feel that for the most part it lacks balance: it becomes distinctly clear after one listen that the band couldn't decide if they wanted to make a rock album or stick with the ballad-like formulas they know and love. That is partly 'Intriguer's' biggest failure: as a listener, with regards to the first couple of tracks, you think that you're uncovering a completely new and interesting facet to Crowded House. But then, when you're listening to the latter part of the album, you get a sense that Crowded House are almost on the verge of repeating their previous work but with less vigour. The album could have been a lot better if the rockier tracks had been mixed with the softer songs a little more; as it stands, the record sounds like two halves which don't make a whole.
'Intriguer' seems like an album made as a way to find new fans and to keep the old ones satisfied. As a younger listener, I perhaps appreciated the hints of the alternative genre more than most but I know for a fact that my parents are disappointed with this record; they've listened to it all of the way through a couple of times but they just don't find it to be an album that they would want to listen to very often. From a marketing perspective, that is 'Intriguer's' predicament: it's difficult to determine whether younger fans, who are not familiar with their work, would pick this one up and I'm not entirely convinced that older listeners, who dip in and out of the band's back catalogue, would enjoy this one. It's obvious in places that the band has tried to make the record a little unrefined, as if they're rehearsing the tracks rather than recording them. Yet even then this is not a trend that is apparent throughout all ten tracks and I'm left feeling confused by the direction of this album. Neil's vocals are, for the most part, well calculated but that's about it; the instrumentation is either too polished, seemingly lacking in passion or the best of two hasty demo recordings.
Overall, 'Intriguer' is not so much an intriguing album but something quite underwhelming: only a few tracks, namely 'Saturday Sun', 'Archer's Arrows', 'Amsterdam' and 'Falling Dove', stand out for the right reasons and considering the album only hosts six other tracks, that's not too good. Even then, those four songs are not the heartfelt anthems one would expect from Crowded House and simply don't compare to the likes of 'Four Seasons' or 'Fall At Your Feet'. 'Intriguer' is perhaps worth a listen if you own all of Crowded House's other albums and want to hear something new by them but otherwise, I find it hard to fully recommend this album.
Length: 40.17 mins
Genre: Soft Rock/Pop with hints of alternative rock
Buy at: Amazon.co.uk for £5.02
(Please note: my review has previously been seen on Ciao under the same user name. Thanks!)
About three years ago, I branded Chantal Kreviazuk's album 'What If It All Means Something' as a record which offered listeners both outstanding and abysmal tracks in equal measure; the Canadian-born, classically trained pianist's third album lacked an identity, meaning that she did not stand out as a pop artist.
However, by the time of 2006's 'Ghost Stories', it was apparent that Chantal had really developed her own sound, veering towards the adult market rather than the generalised pop audience of her 2002 release. 'Ghost Stories', as you will learn, is a theatrical yet accomplished album; the twelve new tracks on the special edition version I own dip between melodrama and euphoria with wonderful ease and precision. As you will also discover, there are many aspects of the album that should not have worked: my previous reviews suggest that gospel choirs just aren't to my taste. Yet Chantal and her producer husband, Our Lady Peace's Raine Maida, managed to create an album which is nothing short of a sophisticated, modern classic and a record that I just can't stop listening to.
'WE WERE PLANNING OUR ESCAPE' (Lyrics from 'Ghosts of You')
The stressed, sober string instruments lure the listener into the album's opener, 'Ghosts of You', the very epitome of a heart wrenching ballad. The song was written about two significant figures from Chantal's past whom she wished she could backtrack time and spend just one more moment with. Kreviazuk's weapon of choice, the piano, and the percussion instruments march along in perfect harmony as her vocals become an amalgamation of emotions from soft and retrospective to raspy and regretful. In fact, it's the first time that the huskier depths of Chantal's voice have been revealed on one of her album recordings to my knowledge and I love the way her singing clashes with the very polished orchestral arrangement. Although it's not the jolliest of album openers, 'Ghosts of You' offers a simple story with elegant music and emotive vocals which makes for an ideal introduction.
The album's second track is the first of Chantal's songs I ever heard; as the album's first single 'All I Can Do' is a lot more uplifting than 'Ghosts of You' but still manages to portray a great message about not abandoning a loved one when they're in the middle of a crisis. The tune is mainly controlled by the mellower notes of the piano and gentler bells whilst the string instruments remain rather passive until the 2.45 minute mark. Although 'All I Can Do' is one of the breeziest songs on the album, the pedant in me would have liked the orchestral sections to be a little more prominent during the chorus; the mini-second between the third and fourth lines would have been the ideal opportunity for a moment of allegro but otherwise, the song's instruments are very well balanced and allow the words to shine effortlessly.
'Spoke In Tongues' is said to be a playful dig at Canada's resident 'punk rocker' Avril Lavigne who Chantal worked with in-between the release of 'What If It All Means Something' and 'Ghost Stories'. Apparently, the two ended their song-writing partnership on bad terms when Kreviazuk hinted that Avril wasn't really an accomplished songwriter in her own right and relied heavily on the ideas of others to help make her tracks listenable. What is really noticeable about track number three is the lyrics; they're feistier than anything Chantal has written before and the line 'you became such an opportunist/somewhat dim it's a bad combination' is one of the album's absolute best because of its hard-hitting, sarcastic uniqueness. The piano bubbles in the final chorus, after many occasions throughout the song, but explodes with the percussion as the track ends abruptly with just Chantal's voice. I love 'Spoke In Tongues', not only for the unexpected, quirky ending, but for the tune and the way the lyrics manage to suggest so many things about another person without coming across as overtly bitter.
'THE MIND IS POWERFUL, IT LOVES TO PLAY GAMES' (Lyrics from Mad About You)
The graceful string and bass guitar introduction of track number four always makes me think of the great romance novels by Austen and the Bronte's; the instrumentation during 'Mad About You' becomes the musical personification of the moments during those novels when two lovers encircle one another for the first time but are fearful of giving into temptation too soon. 'Mad About You' is a charming song about falling in love unexpectedly and Chantal's raspy vocals are magnificent as she contemplates the word love repeatedly as if she too is trying to determine exactly what it means to be in love. Besides the vocals, the pebbles plunging into water sound makes for a very striking tune but upon the first couple of listens, I was taken aback by the random bicycle bell during the concluding chorus; the bell sounded a little out of place and silly but the more I listen to the song, the more it seems to work, somehow. 'Mad About You' grows in confidence throughout its 3.46 minutes and is a refreshing, different direction after three very strong tracks.
'So Cold' opens with a dreary, domineering, organ-like keyboard before the murmuring guitar and Gospel Choir emerge with Chantal's light voice. 'So Cold's biggest accomplishment is easily the atmospheric formation of the melody which works well alongside the rather dark lyrics about how others in third world countries die needlessly every day. It didn't surprise me that 'Ghost Stories' contained a track chronicling such an eventuality; Our Lady Peace's album 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' was written and recorded about the same time and included a song called 'Leave The Light On'. In 2005, both Mr and Mrs Maida had ventured off to war-torn countries and became actively involved in charities for such causes. Throughout 'So Cold', Chantal's voice supports the groans of the bass guitar, setting the album's darkest tone so far before she steps in with the gospel choir at a different, more hopeful pitch. 'So Cold' is the album's shortest track but ideally so as it creates a precise ambiance within those two minutes and twenty seconds and as a listener, I got the impression that Chantal was putting her memories from those countries into musical form.
The album's seventh track begins with a strong piano sound, quiet bells and the drum's kick pedal as the lyrics discuss a person's need to find happiness and security within their everyday life. Although there are a few lyrical clichés within 'Waiting For The Sun', such as dark clouds having silver linings, somehow they don't leap out as being incredibly hackneyed and I think that's mainly down to the strong, chanting chorus Chantal has crafted about how even though the world is mad, it's important for a person to just live their life. The tune itself is more organic than anything else on the album thus far, sticking predominantly with drums, guitar and of course the piano, but it all works well together and results in an optimistic yet calming song. 'Waiting For The Sun' is one that I remembered the lyrics to very quickly and for that reason, it would have made an ideal single.
'You Blame Yourself' is of great contrast to its predecessor and the general tone of the song is a lot more pessimistic; Chantal dips into the deeper depths of her vocal range during the verses before offering a higher more operatic set of notes at the chorus which makes for a great juxtaposition. As well as this album being the one that most openly displays the raspier quality of her vocals, this is also the first time I've heard Chantal's voice hit such high notes and I think that in itself makes 'You Blame Yourself' a more notable track, particularly towards the end as the string instruments mount and mount with her vocals. Track number seven, like number five, is more of an atmospheric piece rather than one of the songs from this album that you would sing along to but is again a well put together, balanced piece that fits in well with the rest of the album.
'BUT YELLOW COVERS YOUR PHOTOGRAPH' (Lyrics from 'Grow Up So Fast')
Chantal stated during the making of this album that becoming a mother had greatly influenced her writing and this notion is very apparent throughout track number eight. Seemingly written from a child's perspective, 'Grow Up So Fast' delves into the thoughts of a child who's dumbfounded by age and their mother's fortieth birthday celebrations. What I truly love about 'Grow Up So Fast' is the way the main body of the song is centred around the piano, lyrics and Chantal's voice; whilst the other tracks display a confident blend of complex orchestral sounds, it was a pleasure to hear everything stripped back a little until the bridge during this song. 'Grow Up So Fast' is one of my favourites on the album because of the ambiguity of the lyrics too; although on the surface it seems like a loving address from child to mother, some of the lyrics suggest a strained relationship and I think the marriage of the two scenarios makes for a well put together, layered song which invites the listener to draw their own conclusions.
Another triumph of a track is 'Wonderful', the album's second single. Like the song beforehand, it's a pure master class in song writing; Chantal's narrator confesses during the verses to having many failings in life, such as the inability to fit into old jeans and tremulous mood swings. However, by the chorus, we learn that the narrator is someone who's capable of offering a partner unconditional love no matter what life happens to throw their way. Track number nine seems like a logical single; the piano is palatable but bold and makes for a soothing introduction and end to the song. 'Wonderful' is one of the songs that jumps out at you after only a few listens to the album and is a sweet track to just hum along to.
'Asylum', the album's original penultimate track, opens in a more sorrowful way with the piano in solitude and a rather sedate vocal performance by Chantal. Track number ten seems to be about the isolation of life: how as humans everything around us is so abundant and, as a result, becomes so tiresome. The instrumentation on this track seems to be lacking a monumental moment in spite of the twirling orchestral instruments at the bridge but this acts as a metaphor for the way life can invariable be tedious. 'Asylum' is perhaps the album's weakest offering as a result but by no means is it a bad song; to me, it does just lack the uniqueness that so many of the tracks on this album possess.
'TAKE ME TO YOUR WENDY HOUSE TO PLAY' (Lyrics from 'Wendy House')
The piano melody for 'Wendy House' seems a little too similar to that of 'Asylum' but the one key difference during the opening moments of the song is the way Chantal sings; her vocals seem exhausted which ties in well with the lyrics which discuss the way a life begins the second a child is born. I like the narrative of the song which discusses the way a grownup has to enter into a child's world in order to fully understand them. The music to 'Wendy House' is exquisite; the way the piano ruptures and re-gathers itself at the bridge before merging with the drums reminds me of the Dresden Dolls and a track from their self-titled debut called 'Gravity'; as a result, track number eleven sounds a lot more destructive than any of the other tracks on this album but in the most positive of ways.
Songs twelve and thirteen on 'Ghost Stories' are bonus tracks featuring on the special edition CD I own. The first of these 'Time' is a song from Chantal's previous album which has become one of her flagship tracks; it has featured in a couple of movies since 2002, including 'Uptown Girls'. In some ways, 'Time' seemed a perfect fit as a bonus single on this album because of its beautiful piano melody and dramatic orchestral moments but for somebody that already owns the song, it seems pointless to have it included again here. Lyrically, it's a song about contemplating whether a lover is worth taking the risk on and I think the pureness of her vocals suits the mood of the song well. However, to me, perhaps the most remarkable thing about 'Time' is the fact that it does fit in so effortlessly with the rest of 'Ghost Stories'; in hindsight, it's easy to detect the direction that Chantal's song writing was heading in prior to this record.
Concluding the album is 'I Do Believe' which is a blend of drums, keys and a synthesiser sound which reminds me of some of the lesser tracks from 'What If It All Means Something'. For some reason, Chantal adopts a brattish, nasal tone to her vocals for the first third of the song, as if she is reverting back to High School and, as a result, her singing only mildly fits the song's topic of maintaining faith during a challenging time. Lyrically, 'I Do Believe' is a strong song but the arrangement of the music just doesn't fit in with the rest of the album; up until now, the instrumentation had been very consistent and it's worth noting that this is the only track on the album not to be produced by Raine Maida but instead by a chap called Brian West. I do wonder if West truly understood the dynamic of the album Chantal and her husband created but then again, it could be Kreviazuk's fault for including this track on the special edition disk when it is so clearly different to everything else on the record. None-the-less, 'I Do Believe', as a song, seems as if it's just been tacked on the end of the album, which makes its conclusion a lot weaker than it would have been if the album had simply faded out with 'Wendy House'.
OVERALL: IT IS STILL EASY TO FALL IN LOVE WITH 'GHOST STORIES' BECAUSE...
In spite of my negativity towards the inclusion of 'Time' and 'I Do Believe', I want to just take a moment to concentrate on the non-bonus tracks on this album; songs one to eleven are incredibly thorough, consistent and in-keeping with one another. The album flows in a remarkable way and is a joy to listen to time and time again. I really adore the way Chantal tells each and every story; some of the topics she explores are tried and tested but others, such as going into a child's 'Wendy House' of imagination, are very distinctive. It's as if she's a character writing a memoir from childhood, resonating with old memories and reflecting on how she felt during some of the most testing moments of her life.
I would undoubtedly view the addition of 'Time' more favourably too if I didn't already own it; I know that for some people, 'Ghost Stories' will be the first of Kreviazuk's albums they own. Yet, tagging 'Time' in there seems to be a bit of a cop out and I would have much rather had a completely new song instead. Having said that, I'm not convinced that 'I Do Believe' deserved a spot on the album; it seems to be a song which Chantal has very much outgrown in comparison to the very mature and insightful tracks on this record. It's certainly not a bad song and I do enjoy listening to it from time to time, but it's a very poptastic number which just doesn't suit the rest of this album. Undoubtedly, if the song had appeared on 'What If It All Means Something', I would have perhaps viewed it in a more favourable light because of how it seems to fit in much better with many of the songs on there.
Chantal seems to have comfortably left behind the over-used synthesiser sounds of the early noughties which is why I said from the start that this album would perhaps appeal to an older market; I'm sure that everybody can identify with the themes and stories of the songs but whether some people would actually like the orchestral sounds is questionable. There is however a lot of variety throughout the album; although many tracks focus upon the orchestral instruments, some do not. Besides 'Asylum' and 'Wendy House', I really don't think that any two tracks sound the same on this album; that in itself is quite an accomplishment because the record is so consistent yet all of its tracks are so different.
I am not known for my extensive love of female vocalists or female-led bands. Yet, what has always struck me about Chantal is her ability to connect herself to a certain scenario or feeling and to really dig deep to uncover the truth and innermost delicate thoughts. 'Ghost Stories' is the strongest of her albums so far in my view for the pure fact that everything 'fits' together and sounds so remarkably polished. To compare her loosely to other female artists, the only two that really spring to mind are fellow Canadian Alanis Morissette for her vocal range and Annie Lennox for her ability to write about love and other topics which such meticulousness and perspective. Those are, frankly, only general associations but I hope they will give you a slight indication of Chantal's talents and convince you otherwise to give this album a listen.
Tracks: 13 (on the US Bonus Album)
Length: 50ish minutes
Genre: contemporary adult listening with influences from pop and rock.
Buy: amazon.co.uk for £11.46
Find out more about Chantal: www.chantalkreviazuk.com
(Please note: review previously posted on 'the other side' under the same user name).
On the rare occasion when I choose to write about a recent dining experience, I only tend to put finger to keyboard after visiting an unsatisfactory eatery: after many years, I'm still yet to reveal just how many portions of sticky toffee pudding I could devour in one sitting at Prezzos or praise my village's local pub, The Merry Monk. But after evenings like the one we had in Spalding a few weeks ago, it seems crystal clear as to why I feel the need to name and shame substandard restaurants...
One Sunday afternoon, we were going to stop at the tried and tested Hungry Horse in Spalding on the way home from Peterborough. Sadly, the many vehicles on the car park deterred us so we travelled on until we reached Bootleggers, a recently opened Steak House, Grill and Carvery located in the heart of the town. Bootleggers is situated above a Chinese buffet and was an Indian restaurant beforehand. When we arrived at half past five, it wasn't very busy and we thought that was something to do with the time. However, it seems that the good people of Spalding were avoiding Bootleggers for many other reasons...
FIRST IMPRESSIONS AND AMBIANCE
I'll point out from the start that it's like an Olympic event to reach Bootleggers; the many, many steps leading up to the establishment may be a tad difficult for small children to negotiate or indeed the elderly who are unsteady on their feet. I could be wrong but we did not see a lift for wheelchair users either near the entrance or in the back so if you or anybody else in your party requires some assistance, give Bootleggers a call - they might even be happy to help.
Admittedly, the 'might' in that last statement should have its own flashing neon light. As we arrived at Bootleggers, my Dad asked for a table for four and the grimacing woman (who appeared to be the manageress) asked us if we'd booked. Um, pardon me for being pedantic, but surely we would have said 'we've got a table booked under the name of' so-and-so if that was the case? Instead, we were shown to our table next to the window (to prove to the entirety of Spalding that Bootleggers IS the place to be on a Sunday night) and left to our own devices to scan the menu.
The decor of the restaurant resembled that of a fancy, American steak house with thick, heavy leather chairs galore and pictures scattered across the walls of American sweethearts from years gone by, including the ever fashionable Audrey Hepburn. The huge fish tank near the entrance was a nice retro touch and the wooden tables were wide and spacious enough for our needs. The rest of the room, on the whole, was well furnished.
I have three minor complaints regarding the overall 'feel' and appearance of the restaurant and the first of these is the lighting; although it wasn't dark outside on the occasion we visited, in the restaurant itself the lighting was non-existent and made everywhere look, and feel, very dull. Perhaps they sat us by the window to do their bit for saving electricity but still, a low wattage light would have cheered the place up no end. Another point regarding the restaurant's interior was the fact that signs directing customers to the toilets and whatnot were typed and printed from a computer. If Bootleggers wants to establish itself as a cut above other eateries of a similar nature in the local vicinity, it needs to make sure that the signposts are in keeping with the fancy decor in the restaurant itself. I appreciate that the restaurant has only recently opened but the paper signs are cheap and make the place look very unfinished. The large menu printed at the bottom of the stairs might seem like a good idea but in actuality contradicts the lavishly furnished insides; the billboard would be more suited to a seaside caff with garden furniture rather than an eatery with leather chairs and a borderline ostentatious fish tank.
Finally, the ambiance of the restaurant wasn't aided by the rather depressing music playing in the background. Now, I like a bit of 'Let It Be' as much as the next Beatles fan but I would sooner have a mix tape of relaxing, soothing songs rather than tearjerkers such as 'There You'll Be' by Faith Hill. Sadly, the music was a lot jollier than the food...
Bootleggers offer an array of spiced meats, pastas and burgers. When I first glanced over the menu, it reminded me of two restaurants, one situated in Norwich and the other Great Yarmouth, called Fatsos because of its emphasis on spicy, Mexican-influenced meals. It is kind of puzzling that Bootleggers don't refer to the Mexican inspired cooking under its heading of steak house, grill and carvery and this may cause some confusion for people who arrive on a whim and who aren't as fond of fiery foods.
At Bootleggers, the starters vary in price from £3.75 for unspecified homemade soups to Acapulco prawns, grilled in fresh lime and garlic, for £5.95. The other appetisers on the menu include regular favourites a la Frankie and Benny's, such as calamari (curiously called Texas Toothpicks for the paprika flavouring, presumably) and garlic bread. Other dishes seem unique to Bootleggers, including lamb halo skewers with haloumi cheese and spices.
The main courses offer a fairly varied choice as long as you are both a meat eater and not afraid of spices in most cases. Prices here range from £5.95 for a plain or vegetarian burger and increase to £19.95 for an Al Copone, a 20oz rump steak infused with brandy, sautéed onions and wild mushrooms, served with a mustard sauce. The main course menu is divided into six sections: ciabatta burgers, pasta, signature steaks, junior steaks, house specialities and flaming fajitas. Most of the prices on all six sections of the menu seem pretty reasonable, particularly the 'jumbo' fish and chips for £7.95, but others seemed a little steep, including the prawn fajitas, served with onions, mixed peppers and dips, for £13.95.
For reasons I'll address later, we didn't stay at Bootleggers long enough to order desserts. However, according to the Sunday carvery menu, puddings such as apple crumble, banana split, cheesecakes, gateau's and bog standard ice cream flavours are available. The carvery menu is well priced at £6.98 per head with a choice of an unspecified vegetarian choice, beef, honey & mustard glazed gammon, pork or turkey. For an extra £1.50, you can add either a pud or a starter. Bootleggers also promote a T-Bone steak night for £10.95 (normally priced at £16.95) on a Tuesday as well as two meals from a selection of ten on a lunchtime for £8.00.
OUR DINING EXPERIENCE
Currently, Bootleggers offers a fairly mediocre range of alcoholic drinks; white wine was limited to chardonnay (the Devil's pee) and I couldn't see any cider on the menu either. I settled for a diet Pepsi, which tasted more like the sweeter, full-calorie version when it arrived and was borderline flat. My Dad chose half a pint of John Smiths, my Mum had half a larger and my Brother settled with a pineapple juice costing £1.50.
As we were visiting on a Sunday, my Dad and I decided to try the BBQ rib special which is for two to share costing £10.95. The two half rack of ribs come with wedges, onion rings and garlic bread and is available from 4pm. Ribs can be a funny thing to order in restaurants: sometimes, they are dry and elsewhere, they're severely lacking in meat. Although those trepidations did cross my mind, we decided to try the ribs anyway, the logic being that if this is a genuine steak house and grill then the quality of the meat is the key to its success.
After twenty or so minutes, my Mum and Brother received their main courses. After another minute, the waitress returned with a plate (presumably to place bones on) and a bowl of cool water with a slice of lemon on top for washing our fingers between picking at the ribs. Five minutes later, the ribs finally arrived and I felt like saying to the waitress 'is that it?'. Perhaps I was expecting too much for £11 but the portion size - for two people - was very meagre; there were two, admittedly, very large onion rings between us, four spoonfuls of wedges, a ridiculously small, semi-burnt, three slice portion of garlic bread and a limp iceberg lettuce salad with a couple of slices of tomato and cucumber and minuscule squares of onion and pepper.
Truthfully, it was possibly the worse meal out I've had in years (yes, even worse than the Wild Man!). I could barely eat the wedges or my onion ring because they had this awful, jalapeno-like flavour to them which wasn't specified on the menu. In fact, I'd go as far to say that the wedges were purchased from Iceland at a quid for a fifteen-stone bag. It also wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that my Dad and I must have shared about two ounces of meat between us; most of the ribs I had were very fatty and very sparse on the meat front. The BBQ sauce actually had a nice smoky flavour to it but that just didn't make up for the poor - well, non-existent - meat.
Although the wedges were piping hot, the rest of the meal was luke warm which is probably as a result of standing on a hot plate for many minutes longer than expected. Both my Brother and Mum's meals arrived visibly hot and both portions seemed plentiful, or at least more plentiful than the meal Dad and I shared.
My Mum opted for the Milano Mushroom pasta (£7.95), one of the five vegetarian dishes on the main course menu. Mum isn't a big fan of spicy foods and she did struggle to find something she would happily eat although, for keen carnivores, many of the steaks do not come with hot flavourings. The Milano pasta was meant to be served with a garlic and mushroom cream sauce which, in actuality, turned out to be very bland, very boring, and very lacking in garlic and mushrooms (Mum thinks she had a grand total of four pieces of mushroom in the entire bowl). The tagliatelle underneath the sauce was cooked well and had that roughness in texture that you expect from the pasta which was a good addition to the rather thick sauce . Like our rib meal, the garlic bread was apparently the best bit although Mum got the same amount as we did all to herself! Lucky so-and-so.
My Brother decided to have the Classic Sirloin Steak which was 8oz of meat served with peas, mushrooms and chips for £10.95. He requested that it was cooked medium although it was a little undercooked in the centre. The steak itself looked lovely and a good quality piece of meat but he says it was a bit tasteless, presenting the flavour of mint at some points. The eight to ten non-crispy chips were stacked on his plate as if Bootleggers were the makers of Jenga which might look pretty but is essentially pointless.
In fact, 'essentially pointless' seems to be the perfect slogan for Bootleggers. Deciding not to try a dessert, we headed off home, stopping at the local Chinese on the way. That is honestly the first - and hopefully last - time I shall ever be forced to get a takeaway after dining out anywhere!
SERVICE, TOILETS AND OTHER POINTS
I have to say that the service at Bootleggers was a little hit and miss; one waitress seemed to think it would be a good idea to come and take the drinks order when some of us were at the loo. Yet it was good to see that the staff were efficient when it came to dropping off the condiments before the meal arrived which is always a pet hate of mine when you have hot food and have to wait for vinegar or sauces. The cutlery on the table was heavy but noticeably new and clean.
One thing that did strike me as odd was the fact that the kitchen staff did not cut the ribs in half: as the meal is advertised as two half a racks of ribs for two people, it would have perhaps been best if the ribs had been divided before being served. Instead, my Dad fought to cut into them as the ribs were plonked in the middle of a very small plate with wedges and salad either side with onion rings and garlic bread on top. The waitress seemed a little miffed when it was pointed out to her that it would have been better if the ribs had been cut in half before serving and didn't offer to help or take it back to the kitchen to be dealt with.
One thing I did find amusing was the moment the waitress told the manageress (Mrs. Smiley who 'greeted us' on the way in) that we weren't enjoying our food. Neither she nor the waitresses confronted the situation, instead asking us at the end if we'd 'enjoyed the meal'. Urm, why ask if you already know the answer? Better still, if you'd suspected that we were unsatisfied as we were eating, why not come and ask if there was anything else we wanted instead of or in addition to? I may have left Bootleggers feeling a little more positive if someone had come and attempted to correct the issues we were having but that didn't happen.
The female toilets were fine; there was plenty of soap in the one dispenser and plenty of toilet roll but the hand dryer was positioned in a tiny space next to one of the cubicles. You wouldn't have to be very big to squeeze in the gap and I did find it off-putting to discover some printed signs above the basins discussing inappropriate behaviour that was not acceptable in the restaurant. Perhaps Bootleggers should add 'serving rubbish food' to that list...The men's toilets were apparently of a similar nature but with another printed out sign saying the urinals were not working. Some people would say that's taking the pis-
OVERALL: WHY WE WON'T BE RUNNING BACK TO BOOTLEGGERS
Although the bill, including drinks, came to a very reasonable £39, the quality of the food puts me off revisiting Bootleggers for the duration. I'm willing to accept the fact that the establishment hasn't been open for that long and that it could have just been a bad night for the chefs. However, if Bootleggers is to continue advertising itself as a grill, they need to reconsider the purchasing of their meat when it comes to the ribs: on the ordinary main menu, they are advertised as costing £13.95 for a rack. If they are the same as the ones my Dad and I ate, well, it's fair to say that you'd be wasting £14 by ordering them.
It perplexes me as to why Bootleggers advertise a night dedicated to such a poor quality meal. Sundays are notoriously quite slow in many restaurants (apart from Spalding's Hungry Horse, seemingly) and many eateries need to generate a level of interest to keep customers coming back. The rib night is a good idea in theory, just not practise. It's obvious that if the owners of Bootleggers want to create an honest, decent business for themselves than they need to reconsider the purchasing of some of their meat or else they will close within the next year.
We were not the only ones to be disappointed by the quality of the food and friendliness of the staff at Bootleggers; two reviews posted on qype.co.uk confirm that others in the Spalding area feel disappointed by a restaurant which offered so much promise on paper. Although there are a few pubs in the area which offer similar dishes like pasta and steaks, it would have been good for Spalding to offer something different to the slew of chain restaurants, very much like the Hungry Horse and Frankie and Benny's. Alas, Bootleggers seems to me to be a poorly advertised, poorly executed and badly run establishment that just doesn't make me want to visit again, not even to see if they can prove me wrong and make me like some of their food.
Address: 12 Sheep Market, Spalding, PE11 1BE
Phone number: 01775 714269
Parking?: Across the street; some is pay and display.
Website?: Currently, Bootleggers don't have their own site. Me thinks they will have closed down way before then anyway...
(Please note: review previously displayed on the other side under my same user name. Thanks!)
When my Uni buddies and I first visited the seaside town of Great Yarmouth back in the February of 2010, we decided to visit Yesterday's World, a museum dedicated to the past and specifically the Victorian era. For some reason we've been captivated by the place ever since and vowed to go back. So what better time to revisit Yesterday's World than at the start of October during my Birthday weekend? Well perhaps during the summer when it was warm and sunny, yes, but otherwise, the start of October seemed like a good idea!
FINDING YESTERDAY'S WORLD...
...Is surprisingly easy as long as you know how to make it to the seafront. If you're taking your own transport to the town, you'll need to follow the signs to the beach from the A12/A47. Yesterday's World does not have its own car park so you'll need to find somewhere to leave your vehicle and walk to the attraction; the nearest car park seems to be at the train station which is roughly a fifteen to twenty minute walk away. The number 3 First bus is in operation during the summer months although I didn't see one running at all throughout our day in Great Yarmouth which was unusual for a Saturday, regardless of the time of year.
We decided to be eco-friendly (and cheap) and walk from the train station towards the centre. From there, as long as you see the Marina Centre along the Golden Mile, you should be able to spot Yesterday's World across the road. I have to say that even from the first time we visited, I thought that the outside of the building wasn't as distinctive as it could have been: the signs for Yesterday's World seemed to blend in with the string of amusement arcades along that stretch of road and it wasn't until we entered the place that we really got a sense of Victoriana...apart from the statue of a period dressed paper boy outside the museum. He was a talking statue when we first visited Yesterday's World but standing out in the cold must have meant that he got laryngitis or something as he just stood with his mouth agape the last time we visited...
ENTERING AND PAYING UP
Although on both occasions we decided to wander around the gift shops before going inside the museum (girls and their shopping, huh?) I'll resist the urge to talk about their Christmas display for the moment and concentrate on the actual attraction. Upon arriving at Yesterday's World, on your left you'll see both the tea room and the first gift shop and on the right you'll spot the paying desk and temporary Christmas gift shop (if you're visiting during the Autumn months, of course). I liked the fact that straight away all of the members of staff were dressed in pinafores and smart suits; the outfits alone set the tone for the attraction.
On both occasions, I was impressed by the warmth and politeness of the lady on the admission desk: the first time we visited, as we'd never been to Yesterday's World before, we were given a couple of maps and a verbal set of directions as to how to get to each section of the museum. Although the signs dotted around the museum are perhaps a little vague, it's not like it would be impossible for you to find your way around the attraction, even for somebody as directionally challenged as me! It was good that the lady on the desk the second tine round also asked whether we'd visited the museum before so that question seems to be standard practise at Yesterday's World.
At the train station that morning, my buddy found some vouchers for Yesterday's World in which two adults would get in for the price of one. Brilliant as from experience, I do think that the attraction is a little expensive considering what's actually on offer and how long it takes to complete. If you do decide to visit Yesterday's World anytime soon, you can expect to pay the following prices:
Adult ~ £6.50
Child ~ £5
Under 4's ~ free
Special Needs ~ £5
Senior citizens ~ £5.50
Family ticket (two adults and two children) ~ £21 (plus £3.50 for each extra child).
Whilst the gift shops and tea rooms are free to enter, meaning that even non-visiting customers can go in for something to eat or browse for souvenirs, there was opportunity to purchase an annual season ticket. I know we didn't visit during peak times but very little had changed by the looks of things between the February and October of last year and I would speculate that the attraction wasn't host to anything wildly different during the busy summer months either.
Since my last visit in October, it seems as if the standard prices have decreased by 50p and Yesterday's World has stopped producing season tickets. In light of how little had changed in the months between our visits, the season ticket always seemed a bit of a flawed idea to me anyway so I'm not surprised that they have scraped them, at least for the time being.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO AT YESTERDAY'S WORLD?
Upon entering the double doors, you're greeted by a rather eclectic mix of Victorian mementos including a picture of Queen Victoria herself and a taxidermied brown bear! There wasn't any information explaining the rather odd mix of themes but as you head up the stairs, you're greeted by a multitude of rather cheap looking replicas of the Royal Family's prized jewels. Yesterday's World does seem to be rather Royalist in its approach; later on in the museum, there's the opportunity to browse many artefacts from the current Queen's long reign and also to stand alongside cardboard cut outs of Queenie, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and the Queen Mother to see how tall you are in comparison! The latter sight was in a rather odd place within the museum, namely a corridor, but it was another harmless piece of fun that the museum is proud to exhibit.
However, the first real attraction at Yesterday's World is a smartly decorated film room with CGI Queen Victoria! I think this was the part of the museum we wanted to go back for: Queen Vicky's face on the computer screen is mentally leathery and her commentary on all things Victoriana, such as her family's history and important inventions from the time, quite comical. I don't think any of it was meant to be that humorous (and indeed nobody else on either visit found it altogether funny) but I do applaud Yesterday's World for daring to make the once Queen of England so stroppy! We were amused.
Another thing that Yesterday's World deserves credit for is coming up with an interactive display for all age groups to enjoy; kids will enjoy watching CGI Queen Vicky (and pressing the screen selection buttons no doubt!) whilst parents will be able to sit back on the rather uncomfortable wooden benches for story time. The four different movie segments last roughly five to ten minutes each and although they displayed some very handy postcard pictures from the years gone by, they did get a little monotonous in places to the point where we decided on both occasions to go and explore elsewhere. I would say that the films are aimed at the primary school age group and Queen Victoria doesn't use language that even younger children wouldn't be able to understand. The displays surrounding the benches in the movie room were pretty neat though and you felt as if you were in good 'company' with a selection of dummies resembling Royal Family members from the past. Each Royal had a short biography beside them and whilst grownups may think the information was a bit sparse, it would just about be the right amount for youngsters to grasp and possibly remember.
Out of the door and past the next royal display we came to three scenes from classic books of the past: 'Frankenstein' by Mary Shelley, 'The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' by Robert Lewis Stevenson and 'The Time Machine' by H. G Wells. Besides the beloved CGI Queen Vicky, the three novel scenes were my favourite part of Yesterday's World; there is something really corny about them (I think they're all meant to be intimidating rather than hysterical) but I think the museum did a great job with making the displays look relatively good and involving both the written word, lighting and sound effects to create a very different kind of display. Perhaps the reason why I personally remembered that part distinctly was because of how it stood out against some of the less original parts of the attraction: although there's a Victorian theme running throughout the museum, you do sometimes get the feeling that different displays have been thrown together a bit but the novel scenes - although short - were some of the finest the attraction had to offer.
The Victorian street is the part which I'd deem as the most uninventive portion of the museum. Although I am a great fan of those sorts of displays, it's not like it hasn't been done before elsewhere or on a grander scale, such as at the Black Country Museum in Dudley. However, I have to say that Yesterday's World is host to one of the best Victorian street scenes I've ever had the pleasure of visiting; there is a fair amount to see and do, with my personal favourite being the chance to walk onto the platform and browse around the train station. There are plenty of shops to step inside, such as a coffin makers and pharmacist, and such displays combine a short piece of literature with a video display. All of the videos are presented by the illegitimate lovechild of Rasputin and a rat who dons the appropriate attire for each shop. I have to say that the guy who presented the videos spoilt the shop scenes for me: he came across as quite creepy and his voice was quite irritating so he didn't sustain our attention for very long on either visit. I'm sure what he had to say was very interesting but we just read the info available and left.
Visitors also have the choice of using some Victorian inspired machines, such as the types for buying mints and sweeties, but the only one I've ever used is the fortune teller stand. Basically, if you give this creepy looking gypsy doll 20p, she'll magically print you a card that reads your palm...without ever having looked at your hand! It's silly fun like that I enjoy most of all and one of Yesterday's World's crowning glories would be described as good fun too: the carousel!
Included in the price of your admissions fee is the chance to ride on the Victorian fairground ride. If you visit and decide you'd like more than just the one go, expect to pay a further pound for the privilege. I think that the carousel is a great and unique feature of Yesterday's World: although not all of the horses are presumably in working order now as a lot of the steps to get on and off have been removed, many of them are still ok. We didn't have to wait to go on the ride at all on either visit: on both occasions, the dude at the next stop came out and he is mainly there to supervise, making sure that the carousel is working correctly and to make sure that all of the visitors are safe. If you have small children or have visions of falling off one of the horses yourself, there are separate carriages on the ride and I think it's great that Yesterday's World offers that choice for both more mobile visitors and those that unfortunately aren't.
However, even better than the carousel ride has to be the sweet shop straight opposite! In spite of traditional sweet shops coming back into fashion just recently, it's nice to browse Yesterday World's store as they sell their own branded sweets, gingerbread and fudge to name but a few items. Of the 100 foodstuffs available, I don't think any of them are made on the premises but I'd fully recommend giving the mint chocolate fudge a try as well as the chocolate raisins and coconut macaroons but beware of the candy sticks! I bought a bag for a £1 and they aren't that nice or certainly not how I remember them as a child. In fact, they are festering on my desk as you read (unless you're reading in October 2011 and in which case I might have thrown them away by then).
After the sweet shop, you've pretty much concluded the museum part of Yesterday's World. Overall, I'd say it takes about an hour and a half to complete, especially if you stop and watch all of the Queen Vicky vids and read every patch of info on offer. I remember thinking the first time we visited that the museum could do with more written information in some parts, particularly along the Victorian street itself, away from the shops. On a second visit however, I enjoyed the relaxed pace of the museum and enjoyed absorbing the many visual displays on offer and didn't feel that the attraction needed more literature.
ONTO THE TEA ROOM AND GIFT SHOPS!
After the glory of the sweet shop, it's time to walk back through the gift shop for some more nostalgic fun! I was quite shocked to see a million Gollywogs items; I thought they'd been banned a couple of years ago but apparently not. I think gift shop one is a brilliant place to buy prezzies; on both occasions I have found suitable gifts and I think they're all very reasonably priced. I paid 79p each for a couple of pretty postcards and £7.99 for some poppy tablemats for my Mum. If you don't fancy going inside the museum but do fancy trying some of Yesterday World's sweeties, there are many varieties available in the gift shop, including the regular pear drops and liquorish.
The second gift shop either offers much the same as the first or a Christmas display. Although some of the Christmas decorations weren't that competitively priced or original, there's still a lot of different things on offer. I was almost tempted to buy a £40 USB powered juke box from this shop - which the lady assured me would have been a very popular thing to buy - but after a lot of internet searching, the same thing can be purchased on Amazon for about a tenner less. I suppose the juke box wasn't ever so expensive considering the type of shop I would have been purchasing it from but at the same time, it's important to be aware of just how much Yesterday's World may overcharge on items such as that.
Before I made the decision not to buy, my friend and I were talking to the sales assistant about the juke box such as whether the USB stick was included and whether you could shuffle the tracks or not. I wasn't expecting her to be a technology genius but she really didn't have that much of a clue about the product at all which wasn't very helpful for me, a potential buyer. Of course, many of the gifts you can buy at Yesterday's World aren't dependant on technology but if the museum is going to sell items such as the jukebox, it would be nice if the staff could be a little more knowledgeable. From what was said, the second shop had been selling the juke box for two years so you would hope that somebody would know a little more about it...
Although we've never stopped at the tea room, I have to say that the many cakes on offer looked lovely. If you're thinking of stopping for a bite to eat at Yesterday's World, there are many different bakery products to choose from, including pre-packed muffins and biscuits and homemade type millionaire's shortbread. Apparently, Yesterday's World is famous for its cream teas but I can't vouch for that as I don't like hot drinks or scones. The cafe wasn't very busy either time we visited so if you wanted a seat and a drink somewhere, I'd recommend trying there. Regrettably, I'm not too aware of prices but I can't help but feel that it may be a tad more expensive than your average cafe in accordance to the rest of the attraction's prices.
DISABILITY ACCESS AND OTHER FACILITIES
Throughout Yesterday's World, there seemed to be very good access for anybody in a wheelchair. There's a new and sturdy looking lift which will take you up to the top floor and back down again as well as ramps throughout the attraction to make getting about a little bit easier. To get a disability discount, make sure you take with you your orange or blue badges, Certificate of Entitlement for Disability Allowance, Attendance Allowance or Mobility Allowance, Exemption from liability to pay vehicle excise duty form or your proof of War Pensioner's mobility supplement.
The only three sets of toilets for males, females and disabled people in Yesterday's World are located on the ground floor. With their Victorian theme still intact, I'm pleased to say that the lady's were clean on both visits and it was nice to have a look at the old fashioned posters whilst I was washing my hands.
OVERALL: WOULD I GO BACK TO YESTERDAY'S WORLD ANYTIME SOON?
In spite of the fact that I visited Yesterday's World twice within seven months, I do think that in the future I'd like to return, especially if they add to the displays. So it's a little bit on the expensive side for essentially an hour's entertainment (not including the shops which we spent aggggges in) but I think the museum did a great job of capturing a sense of Victoriana. A lot of the mannequins on display are hardly convincing but they're not bad enough to put the former wax museum in Great Yarmouth to shame and all of the figures are at least a bit recognisable. Yesterday's World is the kind of place you go once, enjoy and want to go back to just for a bit of fun: it's not an overtly serious historical place to visit but Yesterday's World does include some wonderful, traditional displays which are always a joy to see. I get the feeling that it's more of a place for the young and those with kids though unless you're from the Victorian era yourself and are fed up with spending Saturday afternoons trying to decipher what the pudding a Sky remote is!
Overall, I would go back to Yesterday's World, even if it is for one more laugh at CGI Queen Vicky and to hear the extraordinary sounds of 'Frankenstein' himself once again.
Address: 34 Marine Parade, Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, NR30 2EN
Telephone number: 01493 3311 48
Fax: 01493 330700
Opening times (2011s for the sake of estimation):
19th March - 31st March ~ 10am - 4pm
1st April - 31st August ~ 10am - 5pm
1st September - 31st October ~ 10 am - 4pm
(Please note: review previously posted 'on the other side' by myself, MizzMolko. Thanks!)
(Please note: Dooyoo did not want to add a separate category for the non-special edition of this album for the same reasons expressed in my Our Lady Peace review. For that reason, this is a review of just one CD and nine songs and not the special edition set. Thank you.)
It had been a while since I'd listened to HIM prior to going to see the Finnish five piece in concert for the second time; I had occasionally listened to the band's greatest hits album but had yet to buy their 2007 offering, Venus Doom. A chance visit to HMV changed that and I was soon appreciating the voyage into a darker territory of music.
His Infernal Majesty, to give HIM their unabridged name, can be a little tiresome; their songs rarely deviate from rather samey laments of love and death. Their influences include classic rock icons such as Iggy Pop and Black Sabbath whose styles have greatly impacted the instrumentation on many of HIM's finest songs. But the lyrics sometimes clash with such hardcore mosh sounds; for lead singer Ville Valo, HIM is all about expressing his deepest sentiments whilst desperately seeking solace from failed relationships. The period leading up to 'Venus Doom's release had included some of the most challenging years of Valo's life; between coming to terms with the death of a close friend and battling personal demons, his alcohol addiction took hold and forced him into rehabilitation. Thankfully, Valo is still alive and possibly well but 'Venus Doom' was an album written in the shadow of death.
However, in spite of this, HIM's sixth studio album actually turns out to be one of the band's greatest to date.
'LEAVE ALL BEHIND NOW TO WATCH HER CRAWL' (Lyrics from 'Venus Doom')
Starting off the album with the rev of an engine and the sigh of a lead singer, the album's title track promises to be every bit the epitome of a hardcore rock song, just like 2003's 'Love Metal' opener, 'Buried Alive By Love'. And indeed, 'Venus Doom' starts off well with a good, steady drum beat which supports Ville's melancholic purrs. 'Venus Doom' seems to be a song about lovers who are losing their way in life and can only find some form of comfort and security in one another, even if it is a self-destructive love affair at best. However, I find 'Venus Doom' to be a convincing opener in some respects - for example, it hosts an ever catchy hook at the chorus which is down to Ville's vocals above all else - but it falls rather flat somewhere along the line; the guitar solo in the middle, although good, makes it seem as if the band are a tribute act rather than artists trying to establish their own sound. It's all a little predictable until chimes break up the monotony and progress the song into a truly twisted lullaby.
'Love In Cold Blood' doesn't seek to pick up the pace too dramatically and you'd be forgiven for thinking that you're still listening to 'Venus Doom'. Whereas the lyrics concentrate on Ville's favourite topics in life, love and death, some of the sound effects used throughout the track add a little spark to the song and lift it from being an averagely thought out rock track to something a little better. Valo's vocals on this one are more adventurous and are multi-tracked to make it seem like there is an argument going on within his mind of which direction his life should head in. Lead guitarist Linde's riff on this song seems a lot more passionate too and the drums from Gas Lipstick (yep, that is his stage name) makes the song seem a lot more menacing. One of my favourite things about 'Love In Cold Blood' is the last minute or so of music where everything descends in a similar way to the opening of the White Stripes' song 'Icky Thump' where the instruments seem to be a lot more layered and unintentional. Like 'Venus Doom' beforehand, it took a good couple of listens to really fall in love with 'Love In Cold Blood' away from the sing-along chorus.
The third song, 'Passion's Killing Floor' begins once again with the forcefulness of the guitar which dips between keys to create a fairly intimidating and darker sound and this sets the tone for some pretty bizarre sound effects later on. The band's keyboardist Burton adds a bit of a different sound to this one with a nice instrumental during the chorus but it would have been altogether more effective if the keyboard had been put at the forefront of this song; already, after three tracks, the guitars are sounding a little too similar. I am unsure as to whether I like the Grim Reaper-esque gongs after the second chorus either; the sound supports the idea that Ville's heart is merely a graveyard of lost love and broken promises but at the same time, it felt a bit gimmicky and unnecessary, as if the sound effect had been added just to break up the onslaught of guitars. Whereas I am normally in favour of Ville's lyrics because he has written some of the most sensitive and beautiful rock love songs of all time, 'Passion's Killing Floor' didn't strike me as being a song that was mulled over for very long; the analogy of a heart being a graveyard and lovers being entombed seemed a little unoriginal, making the third track the weakest of the opening three on this record.
'I'M REACHING FOR YOUR SHADOW DROWNING IN/THE KISS OF DAWN' (Lyrics from 'The Kiss of Dawn')
With the slap of the drums and a slightly different combination of guitars, 'The Kiss of Dawn' would perhaps have been a more suitable opener to this album than 'Venus Doom'; it seems to introduce the notion of dealing with the consequences of death a lot more fluidly and seems to be a song that is a lot more familiar and typically HIM than anything else on the album. 'The Kiss of Dawn' isn't overly complicated lyrically; it was said to be the song dedicated to the memory of the band's dead friend and I think the simplicity and repetition of the lyrics is a wonderful yet indirect metaphor for the confusion that comes with the territory of a loved one committing suicide. In spite of the song's rather gloomy topic, I think this is masked somehow by Ville's vocals at the chorus; it's definitely one of the records most 'sing-a-long' friendly songs as the vocals don't dip too far down the scale into baritone territory, as opposed to 'Venus Doom'. I also liked the backing howls on this one, provided by bassist Migé, as the additional vocals seem to make the song even more unsettling.
The guitars are the instrument that makes 'The Kiss of Dawn' stand out a little more than some of the others because there are a few moments that remind me of 'Stairway to Heaven' by Led Zep; whether that was intentional or just coincidental I'm not sure but Linde's playing boosts the track a little bit and makes it seem a little more focus and complicated than many of the songs on the album. Although 'The Kiss of Dawn', as the album's first single, didn't originally grab my attention enough to make me want to purchase this record, after seeing HIM live I've developed a flavour for this track. Now, 'The Kiss of Dawn' is without a doubt one of my favourites on this record.
'I UNLIT THE LIGHT TO EMBRACE THE DARK' (Lyrics from 'Sleepwalking Past Hope')
'Sleepwalking Past Hope' has the privilege of not only being the longest track on this album but the longest of HIM's career so far. Clocking in at just over ten minutes, it's easy to assume that this one will have many different sounds meshed together to create a broodier 'A Day In The Life' or a more sorrowful 'Bohemian Rhapsody' which is certainly the case, even if the different 'parts' of the song don't necessarily spring to life upon the first couple of listens.
'Sleepwalking Past Hope' begins with a characteristically solid performance by pianist Burton but somehow seems spoilt by the addition of guitars; it's as if Linde comes in too soon on this song - I would have loved to just hear the soft melancholy of the piano for a couple more seconds before everyone began rocking out. However, I will forgive HIM for that as I actually think track number five is one of the strongest on the entire album. First of all, the different sections of the song run sinuously together and I enjoy the addition of crows squawking a la 'Tomorrow Never Knows' by the Fab Four, a sound effect which did not come across as gimmicky. Secondly, whereas some of the lyrics on this album so far have been borderline emotastic (look up the genre of 'emo' if you're unsure) I think Valo manages to capture his thoughts well without everything seeming a bit teenage angstish. Odes to Placebo with the downgrading of guitar scratches also brought a smile to my face and I can safely say that the more I listen to 'Sleepwalking Past Hope', the more I enjoy it; everything progresses logically and I just wish that more of the songs on this album could have been written as well.
Unfortunately, I can't say that track number six manages to stay on such favourable ground; 'Dead Lover's Lane' seems a bit too similar lyrically to 'Passion's Killing Floor' and is a song about taking a trip in your memory to see where past love has failed so miserably. On a more positive note, whilst it might not be the most musically adventurous of all tracks on 'Venus Doom' because you can foresee exactly where guitar solos are set to take place, I like the fact that the song has a lighter feel to it by Ville's singing drifting further away from the darkness of the baritone. I thoroughly enjoyed the screams at the end too which proves Valo to be a capable metal singer whilst remaining in his comfort zone of death laced lyrics.
Although the ending to 'Dead Lover's Lane' was a bit too similar to my Chemical Romance's 'Helena', 'Song or Suicide' seems to rescue the latter part of the album in an oddly ominous way; whereas the album is host to the bands longest track to date, 'Song or Suicide' is the bands shortest and is one of the less instrumentally overwhelming. Valo's vocals work incredibly well with just the strums of an acoustic guitar for comfort. In a way, 'Song or Suicide' reminds me of the song 'Gone With The Sin', one of HIM's single releases from their second album 'Razorblade Romance'; I'm not entirely sure why I feel this way because the songs do sound very different but there is a certain mystery to 'Song or Suicide' that just made me think if 'Gone With The Sin'. 'Song or Suicide' seems a lot less banal and more sincere than the majority of the songs on this album, and I do think that has a lot to do with the song's length.
'YOU HAD DEMONS TO KILL WITHIN YOUR SCREAMING' (Lyrics from 'Bleed Well')
Although the opening is dominated by an overtly familiar guitar riff reminiscent to that on 'The Kiss of Dawn', 'Bleed Well' is a well paced track that manages to let the drums and guitar do battle subtly underneath Valo's calmer and more soothing singing. 'Bleed Well' once again lurks in the love and death lyric territory but sounds a little more off the cuff than all of that; it's not the most original track on the entire album and Linde's guitar work is a little too recognisable to some of Metallica's beforehand but at least the song allows for Ville to get in a high note or two towards the end and some Alter Bridge-esque screams. I can't understand why 'Bleed Well' was the band's second single from this album; it's an underwhelming choice if ever there was one considering the title track and 'Love In Cold Blood' are not only a lot catchier but a lot more formidable. 'Bleed Well' reminds me of one of the band's previous efforts called 'Poison Girl', not because of the musical arrangement or even the lyrics, but because it seems too familiar and a little bit bland without being altogether dislikeable.
'Bleed Well' would have just been better off as an album filler rather than a single in my opinion as I don't think it shows the album off in its best (or even darkest) light. The only thing I sort of remember about it is Ville's whining of 'baby, we're bleeding well' which isn't the deepest lyric he's ever written, surprise, surprise...
By track number nine, we're already bidding farewell to the album but its last song, 'Cyanide Sun' sees Valo's words at their most mournful. Whereas a lot of the songs on this album have been mid-tempo, 'Cyanide Sun' seems a lot more like a funeral procession; the drums have overtaken the guitar as the most dominating instrument on the song to the point where it's possible to hear some piano work too. Having said that, I like the way that the song lets the gentle acoustic guitar control the ending; it makes the song seem so much more remorseful and contemplative rather than being a scream of instruments marking its demise. It might not be one of the most memorable or excitable tracks on the album but to me, 'Cyanide Sun' is one of the best executed for its ability to take a slower pace and make all of the instruments have a moment to shine in some way or another, creating a suitable ending to the album. Plus, I have to praise Ville's almost Darren Hayes like falsetto notes in there; I've never heard Valo's voice get to such a pitch before and that in itself makes 'Cyanide Sun' a little different to the other eight songs on this album.
OVERALL: COULD I RECOMMEND 'VENUS DOOM'?
For me personally, I have to say that when HIM are good, they're exceptional and when they're bad, they're quite dull. 'Venus Doom' exhibits both flipsides of that coin; there are some brilliant moments on there - namely 'The Kiss of Dawn' and 'Sleepwalking Past Hope' - but at the same time, there are some songs I could happily skip every time I listen to this album.
If you're not a fan of lots of loud guitar work, I'd urge you not to bother with 'Venus Doom'; it's an album that puts a great emphasis on all of that without really considering the lighter side of rock. On the album 'Love Metal', two of the single releases 'The Funeral of Hearts' and 'The Sacrament' seem to offer the listener more of a shadow and light feel to the band and I think that's explored reasonably well on the fifth album 'Dark Light'. But on 'Venus Doom', lurking beneath the surface, there is a sense that the band wanted one last chance to rock out in a sophomoric way before the wrath of middle age for rock stars (i.e. the early thirties) grasps hold of them too tightly. However, the sometimes cringe-worthy, death addled lyrics worked against this whole idea of rocking out to me as Valo was trying his hardest to exhibit pain beyond his years; it seemed that his lyrics were bundled together by clichés void of real feelings on a couple of the tracks and that lets the album down considerably. In some ways, however, it did work for the band and it was a joy to hear some of their influences, like Metallica and Led Zeppelin, in there. On the downside, it feels like an album that was thrown together very hastily and doesn't try to come up with something a little more original on some tracks, such as 'Bleed Well' and 'Passion's Killing Floor'.
Overall, 'Venus Doom' is an album I think I will listen to over and over again for a little while, forget about when I'm in a happier mood before rediscovering it when I've had a bit of a crap day. It's an album that is too dark to be considered as having a lot of variety (well, as much variety as a band like HIM can offer) but by the same token, I wish that the instruments had been a bit more varied rather than being an overabundant mixture of guitar solos and drum beats. It's plain to see that Ville wasn't in the best of conditions whilst writing this album so he wasn't his normal, poetic self but I quite like how raw this album seems to be; Valo clearly did his darnedest to 'Bleed Well' for his fans and let them know that the life of a Rock God ain't all it's cracked up to be.
Length: 48.12 mins approximately
Genre: metal with classic rock influences
Buy at: Amazon.co.uk for £3.99
(Please note: this review was previously posted on Ciao under the same user-name.)
[Please note: this is a review of the dual disk version of 'Healthy in Paranoid Times'. I did request for Dooyoo to add the dual disk version onto the database but they declined and encouraged me to post the review here instead. The CD plays as normal on a CD player but on the reverse side is a DVD which you, obviously, play on a DVD player. Dual disks are not that common in the UK but can be obtainable from places like the Amazon marketplace.]
After 1165 days in the recording studio, Canada's answer to the Stereophonics returned with their sixth studio album. 'Healthy in Paranoid Times' materialised in 2005, over three years since Our Lady Peace's last creation divided fans. For some, 2002's 'Gravity' was an album of evolution as the band distanced themselves from the screeching guitars and pulsating drums of earlier records. For others, like yours truly, 'Gravity' will forever remain a better coaster than a CD: to me, it was a record that could have been released by a completely different band. Instead of the quirky lyrics of old (a personal, laugh out loud favourite being 'talking is just masturbating without the mess' from 1999's 'Happiness Is Not A Fish' album), eardrums were assaulted with naff affirmations of innocent youth falling into the trappings of celebrity. The guitars and drumbeats sounded comatosed and lyricist Raine Maida's typically psychotic falsetto vocals had seemingly been suppressed with Prozac, resulting in a record that was bland, confused and pretentious at best.
'Healthy In Paranoid Times', therefore, had two directions: it could have been an album that further established the band as a middle of the road act, competing on a smaller scale in this country alongside Keane and Coldplay. Or, Our Lady Peace could have re-emerged as a contemporary, alternative rock band, reprogramming their music to sound as chaotic and as instrument driven as possible.
But was 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' destined to be a record on life support?
'OVER YOUR SHOULDER YOU HAD TO WATCH/HEAVEN FALL INTO HELL' (Lyrics from Angels/Losing/Sleep)
The album's second single, Angels/Losing/Sleep, seems to be the perfect opener for this album: Raine's vocals recapture their past manic sound, wavering effortlessly between lower and higher notes, as the softer tone of guitars balances out the hefty cymbal clashes. The tune reminds me of U2 for its gentleness which simmers and reboils after the middle eight, supporting the deeper tones of Maida's vocals perfectly. Lyrically, track number one is perhaps the album's strongest example of storytelling, all about a misguided soul who feels repelled by religion and abandoned by spirituality because of the current political climate. Yet, what I really love about Angels/Losing/Sleep is its almost timeless ambiance it emits: although the topic of losing religion has been explored elsewhere by bands like REM, it feels as if Raine has reconnected worn imagery like sinking ships to frustrated emotions, creating a very different song which is topped off by his outstanding vocal effort.
The lyrics to 'Will The Future Blame Us' concur with the angsty guitar melody which overrides most of the song's other sounds. The questioning of humanity and their treatment of the world is a topic explored repeatedly on this album but on this track, it's from the perspective of somebody who can't be bothered to question politician's logic anymore. The unyielding force of the tune veils some of the most hostile lyrics in OLP's history which is quite tragic: although most of the ideas are a little generic, they are invaluable in creating what can only be thought of as a nation of figures who have collectively decided to abandon hope for the future. However, the melting of the instruments in the middle is one of the track's few triumphs, allowing the drum-led interlude to bring the lyrics to the forefront a little more, which question why soldiers are still risking their lives in warzones. For me, the biggest downside to 'Will The Future Blame Us' is the lack of resolution; although that acts as a nice metaphor for the conflicting opinions of those who think they know how the world should be run, the tune, vocals and words themselves trail off, leaving the listener with a fairly forgetful song.
'Picture' is the album's third track and one that reminds me of a mixture between two songs from OLP's past; one from 1999 called 'Waiting' and another from the album 'Gravity' named 'Bring Back The Sun'. The latter is a song I cannot stand because of its dullness but 'Picture' seems to be an even drearier tribute to the two tracks because of its slow, melancholic pace and pleading lyrics. Raine's voice - which has been on better form up until now on this album - takes a nosedive and fails to add any colour or interest to this song. As a result, 'Picture' is one I tend to skip on this album although the build up at the middle eight is good but is too similar in nature to 'Will The Future Blame Us'.
'YOU GOT STYLE BUT AIN'T GOT SOUL' (Lyrics from 'Where Are You')
'Where Are You' seemed to be an obvious choice for the album's primary single: the guitars, although heavy in comparison to the song's other instruments, have a certain, contemporary 'freshness' to them, being fast-paced and controlled by higher notes. However, this track, like 'Picture', is distinctly unmemorable. Raine's vocals roar underneath a melody which snaps after the second chorus, revealing a pitiful rock gospel choir even my friend would be embarrassed to perform with (and she has no shame). Lyrically, the song revisits the notion of religion, war and poverty but for the first time on this record, all of those themes come together and contribute some sort of optimism to the song. However, sadly, 'Where Are You' just sounds like a contrived Good Charlotte or Lost Prophets song, making track number four seem frightfully out of place on an OLP album.
Thankfully, the next song couldn't be more different. 'Wipe That Smile Off Your Face', although downcast in presentation, until the concluding moments when Raine's vocals rip through the sound barrier and offer a spine-chilling falsetto note, is an impressive, belligerent song that the OLP of old would have recorded in a heartbeat. The song is about the corruption of politician's, specifically George W, and begins with the echoes of a church organ which not only makes a change from the guitar-driven intros but also makes it sound as if the politician's should be forced into a Confession booth to repent. Something else that is really striking instrumentally is the noticeable drumbeat; so far on this record, guitar riffs have reigned supreme yet here, the drums seem to heighten the narrator's sense of disgust. My one slight gripe with this song is that live versions offer a more raucous sound which connects to the heart of the lyrics more spectacularly: Raine seems more inclined in concert to spit out the lyrics which he almost forgets to do on the album.
Although a technically sound song, 'Love And Trust' is another track that does not stand out in the pool of mid-tempo numbers on this record. The basic rock instruments of guitars, both bass and electric here, and the drums seem unrewarding, producing a sound that rests somewhere between the lacklustre tunes of 'Picture' and 'Will The Future Blame Us'. 'Love And Trust' suffers because the band tried to create a bitter backdrop to the lyrics which discuss the narrator's hatred towards the Government. However the track's saving grace is the way lyrically it addresses different family members, inspiring listeners to question every crumb of corruption they see around them.
'AND IT'S TIME THAT WE BLEED' (Lyrics from 'Boy')
'It's time for forgiveness' Raine tells us as track number seven begins with a bubbly guitar before progressing into a story where the character seeks belief and contentment. 'Boy' is a clash against many of the album's musings thus far: although it's not a song that is dramatically different, it seems to be the only track on the album that essentially tries to reassure the listener that the future will work itself out. By the third minute, however, I'm fed up of Maida's Bono impersonation: his vocals are far too placid in places, as if the song's main purpose in life was to become a rehash of 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For'. 'Boy', as a result, becomes a track which leaves you feeling distinctly underwhelmed.
'Apology' reminds me a lot of 'Picture' as it's a song where the pace is measured yet very boring. At first, I enjoyed the acoustic guitars' sedated strums but it soon becomes a little repetitive, a tune not aided by Raine's mumbled vocals and the very distant drumbeat. Lyrically, I think it's an address from one person to another, urging someone not to leave because they need their calming influence. Yet, because Raine's vocals are so tepid, it's very hard to picture this being a song from one lover to another because it's sung in a way which is void of emotion.
The opening chords to 'The World on a String' could be the proverbial antidote to the dry, boring patch of the album: they're vivacious and more palatable than the riffs of its predecessor. However, the second Maida opens his mouth, the song degenerates into a track as embarrassing as 'Ob La Di, Ob La Da' about seeing the world from a place of happiness (like a beach) or some other destination which promotes contrived twaddle. I really, really struggle to listen this his song: it's not the longest track the album has to offer, lasting a mere 3.25 minutes, but it feels like a song that drags on for a lot longer than necessary without the stimulation of progression, either lyrically or instrumentally.
'I SWEAR THIS IS GOODBYE' (Lyrics from 'Don't Stop')
Track number ten is about as hardcore as the entire album gets musically: 'Don't Stop' breaks the mould of traditional pop/rock songs and peers over the abyss into a sound reminiscent to something from the metal genre with bulldozing drums that switch between the cymbals and kick pedal. The middle eight reminds me of a Crowded House song called 'Pineapple Head' with its repressed, recurring riff. Sadly, that's the only brush of greatness the song attains as the repetition of 'I swear this is goodbye' is irksome alongside the rest of the lyrics which do nothing to inspire a different outlook on the altering of one persons state of mind. Maida's vocals try to lift the song a little by the end of the last chorus but it does feel like too little, too late.
The album's penultimate track, 'Walking In Circles', inhibits a grungy sound but comes across as a more polished version of the band's earlier work from the days of their first album 'Naveed'. The lyrics, although not desirable because of their petty, rhyming phrases, discuss how a person's dreams are never recognised and how notions of what could have been are left to mull over forever. Raine's singing is very nasal, which is an obvious change, but it's not enough to stop 'Walking In Circles' sounding like 'Love And Trust's' fraternal twin because of the instrumentation and sputtering vocals.
Acoustic harmonies make 'Healthy In Paranoid Time's final track 'Al Genina (Leave The Light On)' the gem of this album; soft, precise and with a great ambiance, optimism is restored in a profound and thoughtful way. Discussing the idea of visiting a poorer nation whilst staying with a poverty-stricken family is an interesting idea for a story and it's one of the few songs on this album where the words are explicit enough for the listener to understand the meaning but supple enough to portray that tale in a manner that's not giving too much away. The final track also realises its boundaries; in order for the song to maintain the idea of humility, it needed to be significantly shorter than the rest. But, because the band recognised this, 'Leave The Light On' became a gorgeous track and the rightful conclusion to this album. The best was definitely saved until last and Raine's vocals on this song are stunning; so placid to the point of tearfulness as if he couldn't even begin to understand the idea that people live in such meagre conditions.
Having received this CD a couple of years ago as a gift, my lovely Mum and Dad decided to get me the dual disk version of 'Healthy In Paranoid Times'. What is the dual disk I hear you cry? Well, basically, on one side there are the songs on CD and if you flip it over like a vinyl record, you'll find a DVD. Simples. Included on the DVD is an interview with the band about the making of 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' as well as all of the songs from the album. The DVD menu itself is simply decorated with a picture of the album cover and is easy to navigate.
As I've already talked about the music, which sounded just the same on the DVD side as it does on the reverse (unfortunately) I shall just discuss the documentary in which the band try to justify their actions. The foursome, Raine, lead guitarist Steve, Duncan the bassist and Jeremy on drums without so much as a hello break into a nonsensical blurb about the heartache they endured whilst creating the album and making it faultless. Me thinks they still didn't get there...They all came across as pretty moody with little passion for their craft at all: Raine's excuse for his mood seemed to be that he'd witnessed world famine first hand which, ok, would be upsetting. Yet, instead of really discussing his experiences abroad, the interview came across as a vehicle for the band to play demos and gloat about how the tracks had been improved. In the case of 'Picture', I daresay the original version was a lot better and exhibited a lot more soul.
Jeremy though was hilarious; looking like Hugh Fearnly-Whittingstall's younger brother can't be an easy task for anyone but he seems to pull it off with such amazing dignity. He at one point however made the outrageous comment that one of the tracks in its demo form sounded 'too much like a rock song'. Pardon me for being pedantic but weren't Our Lady Peace originally a rock band?! Rock bands tend to make rock music! Overall though, other than hearing part-demos of some of the album's songs, I can't really say that the dual disk is worth the extra money: it's a well put together DVD but the documentary itself is a bit worthless and does nothing to make you understand or appreciate the album more. The interview with the band lasts a little over twenty minutes and because the DVD's other purpose in life is to merely replicate the songs from the CD so they can be played on a DVD player, the dual disk is a bit redundant especially when the album itself isn't that fab.
OVERALL: A SO-SO RECOMMENDATION AND COMPARISONS TO PREVIOUS EFFORTS
Although my review has been pretty scathing, there is no doubt in my mind that 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' is a much better album than 'Gravity'. Although not consistent in terms of the tracks and their quality, the record can be regarded as consistent because the tracks stick to a few key themes, namely politics, religion and humanity. Maida's vocals seem to be reconnecting with the fluid falsetto vocals of old but do not always dominate the album as - most of the time - he lets the lyrics do the talking.
Instrumentally, I do feel that this is a frustrating album; for the most part, the mid-tempo tunes are reminiscent to those found on their fourth album 'Spiritual Machines'. Yet, even on the songs which can be determined as bouncy or optimistic, jubilation and uniqueness seem to be kept at bay on this record. Don't get me wrong, I would hate for the band to repeatedly release material of the same maturity and, combined with the topics they chose to wrote about, 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' does come across as a more mature record. But it fatefully lacks the OLP spark that once made them one of my favourite bands: an aggressive fever that made you believe in what they were singing about.
Besides 'Angels/Losing/Sleep', 'Wipe That Smile Off Your Face' and 'Leave The Light On', the rest of the tracks seem lost in a stream of melancholy which doesn't suit the band. In the past, even when dealing with depressing themes such as brain tumours within the song 'Thief', there has always been hope. On this album, optimism was ousted altogether.
I can't truthfully recommend 'Healthy In Paranoid Times' to alternative rock fans: if you want an OLP that mauls you like a rabid dog, look to 'Happiness Is Not A Fish...' as it's far superior. For fans that like pop infused rock, try 'Spiritual Machines' as it's an interesting, vibrant record that may just tickle your fancy. And finally, for OLP fans, by all means if you haven't already, buy 'Healthy In Paranoid Times'. But don't come crying to me when you too realise what a contrived, lifeless album it actually is. The dual disk DVD, I have to confess, is played even less than the CD which is really, really saying something.
Length: 45.21 minutes (approx)
Genre: misguided, alternative rock which is predominantly mature pop
Buy: Can be found on eBay and other marketplace outlets for roughly £9.99
Note: do not play the dual disk in a computer disk drive as some copies include potentially harmful rootkit software.
(Please note: review previously posted on Ciao.co.uk under the same username. Thanks!)
The recession continues to take its toll on many small businesses: figures indicate that somewhere in the region of forty pubs are closing each and every week in the UK. Although that's a slight improvement on the sums from 2009, 2010 was still a very fragile time for pubs up and down the country. It's with that sentiment in mind that I write this review somewhat regretfully - I love the traditional Englishness of pubs. Yet, in some cases, I wonder whether the recession is entirely to blame for the shutting of some pub's doors...
When we arrived at our lovely holiday cottage in Suffolk in the August of last year, we asked the owners whether any pubs within walking distance served food on a Saturday evening. The hosts didn't seem to rate the pub in the local vicinity very highly but did recommend The Wild Man Carvery in the next village of Sproughton. Without a second thought, we unpacked our suitcases and jumped back into the car, travelling for just five minutes until we reached the cream coloured building.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS: CAN THEY BE WRONG?
With one look at the run down Wld Man sign that hung like a black cloud over the pub's entrance, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the Wild Man was one of the latest victims of the recession. That is until we came across a gaggle of giggling men and their three legged dog in the outside seating area, an outside seating area that consisted of one picnic table and one umbrella. From the moment we found the back door, I got the distinct impression that this was very much a 'locals' kind of pub and that perhaps tourists - or 'outsiders' - weren't very welcome.
Still undeterred, and with the host's encouragement ringing in our ears, we made our way into the bar which looked uncannily like a workers club from the 1970s. Not that I've ever been in a workers club, least of all one from four decades ago, but the dimness of the room just made me think of the Railway Arms from Life on Mars. A dart board was the pride of one end of the room, along with a pool table, and the miniscule bar stood at the opposite end. The lady behind the bar was professional: not warm or overly friendly but obliging enough.
From what I can remember, drinks were reasonably priced and there was plenty of choice. Most of the beer was on draft, including Kronenbourg, but I was more interested in the local cider, Aspall. Although a bottle of White Lightning is a Chav's ideal sofa buddy, Aspall's is delicious and I was delighted to see it served in the Wild Man. It was perhaps the only redeeming feature of the place: all of the beverages that we ordered were served at their correct temperature. We paid somewhere in the region of £8 for three halves of alcoholic beverages and one fruit juice which isn't bad at all.
Food service begins at 6 o'clock on a Saturday so we made our way over to the restaurant area at the same time as another couple who'd reserved a table. The eating area was in a much better condition than the bar and at least looked fairly clean. The Wild Man is supposedly a grade two listed building and I loved the ceiling's wooden beams. The restaurant itself was well set out and the carvery corner was only a short distance away from the tables and chairs. This was very handy as my Dad opted to try the carvery and the rest of us sampled main courses from the A La Carte menu. I should probably point out that accessibility for wheelchair users would be possible in the Wild Man: there was a ramp from the outside area which leads into both the bar and the restaurant area and plenty of space between each table for mobility needs.
THE MENU, SERVICE AND THE FOOD: ONLY ONE OF THESE RESEMBLED A WORK OF ART, NOT A NASTY PIECE OF WORK....
The menu itself for the Wild Man was actually pretty varied and the prices respectable. In our usual fashion, we skipped the starters menu and looked straight at the mains but for those of you that do like your appetisers, the Wild Man offers a choice of pub regulars including soup and prawn cocktail. Starters range from £2.95 to £3.95 but the selection isn't as vast as the main courses: vegetarians could choose between a sweet potato and parsnip nut roast or a cheese salad whilst pescatarians could enjoy a selection of fish dishes, like breaded scampi and a fish pie. I think I'm right in saying that vegans are not catered for in this particular establishment (which isn't a great disappointment for any vegans) but there is a rather infinite list of food for meat eaters, including Cumberland sausages, a curry and chicken tagliatelli.
The A La Carte menu is pretty reasonable in price, starting from £6.95 for the pub's 'special' cheese burger and £12.95 for an 8oz fillet steak or a 16oz T-Bone steak. Whilst I didn't see a children's menu on the table or any 'light bite' choices for anybody with a smaller appetite, that's not to say that the Wild Man doesn't or couldn't cater for such people. However I'd strongly recommend wearing a string of garlic around your neck and sprinkling some Holy water over yourself before you ask any members of staff...
I had a difficult time choosing exactly what I wanted to eat but the specials board caught my eye, particularly the words 'sweet' and 'sour'. My Dad, being the only member of the family with the ability to read, pointed out that specials were not to be served on a Saturday evening. A bit strange if you ask me but my mind was finally made up after I saw a teeny menu on the table with 'speciality' meats listed including ostrich, kangaroo and zebra. I tried ostrich meat many years ago and liked it a lot so I opted for that, as did my Mum. My Brother chose for gammon with pineapple and all of the pubs non-carvery meals come with peas, onion rings, grilled tomato and grilled mushroom with a choice of either chips, boiled potatoes or twister fries.
We were seated for roughly ten minutes before the waitress came over to take our order and I have to say that her demeanour didn't impress me from the start: she bossed guests about as if she was a P.E teacher in an all girls school (well, she reminded me of an old sports teachers anyway) and thus she wasn't altogether that friendly. My Mum and I had to choose between a couple of sauces with our main course and she didn't like having to explain what one of the sauces was. In fact, I'd go as far to say that she didn't really know what it was: she said 'oh it's like a cream' but it in fact it had a mushroom taste to it! It's a good job that I like mushrooms as I know many that certainly don't...
Over the next forty minutes, we watched both a table that ordered before us and a table of two that ordered after us receive their food. It bugs me in restaurants when that happens and to be honest, it wasn't as if the chef should have been that put out by our main courses: we'd only ordered steaks and my Dad was going to have the carvery which was already on the hot plates. Realistically, it shouldn't have taken much more than twenty-five minutes to cook and plate our food. Alas, there were more problems when the three dishes did arrive: the waitress was meant to come and tell my Dad when our food was about ready so he could go and get his carvery. This didn't happen and that episode was, unfortunately, one in a series of poor regards for customer care which typified our dining experience at the Wild Man.
My Mum and I had both ordered our steaks medium so the ostrich would be served with a lovely pink colour in the middle whilst maintaining its slightly delicate beefy flavour. Alas, mine looked like it had been almost cremated on the outside and, once I'd finally managed to cut into the steak, it was clear that the chef had cooked it well instead of medium. Already exasperated as to how long it took for us to get our food, I didn't ask for the steak to be sent back or I'd probably still be in Suffolk waiting for it to return!
Don't get me wrong, medium was only my cooking preference. Yet in light of the chef's other actions, I have to say that I wish I had sent the ostrich back on principal. My Brother's gammon came with a choice of pineapple or egg. Neither him nor I can stand eggs and he emphasised when he was ordering his food that under no circumstances did he want egg on the plate. Now, you probably think you know which direction this story is heading in: my Brother's dish arrived with a fried egg sprawled on top with the yolk streaming out over everything else. Wrong. You see, the chef is apparently a bit of a practical joker and thought it would be funny to put a WHOLE egg onto my Brother's plate. Yep, you just read this right: the so-called chef that can't cook a steak to order placed an egg, still in its shell, onto my Brother's gammon!
When the second waitress, who had obviously gone to the first waitress's school of etiquette, said about the chef being a bit of a comedian, my response was along the lines of 'well that's hilarious' (that's version that doesn't include curse words anyway). I don't think she appreciated that in the slightest so she sheepishly took the egg and made her way back into the kitchen. In hindsight, I wish I'd 'accidentally' dropped the egg onto the floor whilst passing it to her. Perhaps the chef wouldn't have found it quite so amusing if one of his serving staff had to spend time during dinner service mopping egg shell off the floor...
Oh and how did the food taste I hear you cry? Bland. The ostrich steaks were, as I said, overcooked, meagre and tasted a bit like a George Foreman grill that hadn't been cleaned for the best part of twenty years. The mediocre cubes of mushrooms tasted exactly the same and I just didn't bother with the tomatoes as A) I don't like tomatoes unless they're warm and B) they barely looked grilled. The onion rings, which I only ate because I was hungry, had no flavour to them what-so-ever and, along with the chips, were soggy and clearly not homemade. Many of the dishes were advertised on the menu as being homemade and I was expecting the chips to be so too. Sadly they were more like French fries you'd get from a Burger King with a water leak: pale and without a delicious crispy coating. My Brother's gammon lacked any crisp fat or indeed grilling marks and was apparently flavourless. Whether that's an improvement on an unwashed grill pan taste is for you to decide...
In fact, I'd go as far to say that the creamy/mushroom/whatever flavoured sauce that came with the ostrich steaks was the nicest part of the meal: it was thick enough to be used purely for dipping purposes and acted as a good disguise for the flavour of overdone ostrich. The only issue with the sauce was that it should have been a tad warmer and this is something I found to be the case with most of the food on our plates.
The only real success food-wise at the Wild Man was my Dad's carvery whose meal was quote 'alright'. Now, my Dad's not one for compliments (as my Mum is fully aware of) and he either categories food as 'ok' or 'not bad' so 'alright' must be fairly positive! At the carvery counter, there was a selection of six vegetables, including the usual peas and carrots, as well as roast or boiled potatoes and Yorkshire puddings. My Dad chose to have a selection of the three meats available and whilst the beef and pork slices were tender and tasty, the turkey was apparently a bit insipid and boarded the bland train along with our ostrich steaks and the gammon. Everything on the carvery was very hot, which it really ought to have been considering the restaurant had only opened for service within the past hour. The carvery seemed to be very popular with other guests - and it smelt delicious and very homely - so perhaps they knew something my Mum, Brother and I didn't...
'HELL'S KITCHEN? WELL F*** ME!'
On a completely bizarre note, my Dad did notice something rather interesting: behind the cavery hotplates was a photograph of the chef grinning like a school boy who'd just discovered what his pencil is used for with Gordon Ramsay! Where and when this picture was taken is anybody's guess but it was rather misleading. Upon seeing the cook canoodling with the Simon Cowell of the culinary world, you would hope that the food at the Wild Man would be exceptionally good, albeit unsophisticated pub grub. Alas, that wasn't the case and I have to say that the chef should feel somewhat ashamed having that photograph on the wall for the whole of Suffolk to see when he can't cook a steak as requested.
We knew that the bloke in the photograph was the chef as he was the dude that sauntered out every so often to serve the carvery. My Dad was stood at the desk for roughly five minutes before the chef came to serve him which, considering we were all battling with our food in the mean time, wasn't ideal. Whether this is regular practise at the Wild Man or whether they were under staffed on that particular evening is something I don't know. Whilst this does provide a logical explanation as to why the ostrich steaks were overcooked, it doesn't explain how the idiot managed to find time to play stupid pranks elsewhere.
Although I wasn't particularly full after my main course (like I said, the ostrich steak wasn't overly big and resembled that of a shrivelled up piece of cardboard) none of us plumped for a pudding. Before we'd seen the 'delights' of our main courses, I was tempted to order a piece of Belgium chocolate fudge cake for afters but fearing that the puds would be out of date contributions from the cash and carry, declined the stern Sport's teachers offer upon her return to the table. Desserts start at £2.95 for the rather imaginative flavoured ice creams of vanilla, chocolate or strawberry and you can add another pound to the price of other sweets, including 70s dinner party favourite black forest gateau and Granny's beloved fruit flavoured sponges and crumbles. As my Grandad would say, 'Not for me Mill, thank you!'
The toilets were another aspect of the Wild Man that resembled a 70s workers club and probably hadn't been decorated since that decade either. Thankfully, there was plenty of soap available in the loos and the cutlery, plates and whatnot in the restaurant appeared to be clean but the chip on the sauce jug shows that perhaps attention to detail isn't the Wild Man's strong point. The same can be said for courtesy: without being asked whether we'd enjoyed our food or not, either during or after our meal, my Dad went and paid. The final food bill came to about £40 so with the addition of the drinks already stated and a glass of red wine for Mum, we left with Dad's pocket fifty quid lighter and our stomachs not half as full as we'd hoped.
OTHER INFO THAT MIGHT BE OF USE TO SOME PEOPLE...
If you're over 60, the folks at the Wild Man establishment are being extremely kind to you (and perhaps doing their darndest to stop the aging population). If you sign up to the pub's 'Over 60s' Club, and whenever you visit the dump besides Saturday night or all day Sunday, you can get two courses of the carvery for the astonishing price of £6.95! Yep, you read that right: the Wild Man wants you to eat double the amount of their crappy food so they won't get into trouble with the health and safety people. In all fairness, the Over 60s Club is a good offer, but if pensioners in Suffolk are anything like some of my elderly relatives, it's possible that they wouldn't be able to manage one course, let alone two.
OVERALL: WHY I WON'T BE EATING THERE WHEN I'M 64!
Believe it or not, I hate being this negative throughout a review: I always try to find something positive to say about any product or establishment. Alas, with the Wild Man, there is very little to celebrate which is a shame: if we'd enjoyed our meals, and the service was pleasant, we may have gone back on more than one occasion throughout the week.
Perhaps if we'd all had the carvery, my review might have been more optimistic. Yet, the curtness of the waitresses was something I doubt would have changed no matter what we'd ordered. To say that it was nearly half past seven at night, and half way through dinner service, when we left and the restaurant and it wasn't even a quarter full, I think that perhaps says more than it needs to about the state of the Wild Man. Perhaps it's a nice place for locals to go and sit and have a drink but in terms of food, perhaps locals had cottoned on long ago that unless you were to have the carvery, it's simply not worth dining there. The food wasn't badly priced but the quality certainly wasn't there.
On a pub finder website, I did read a rather disturbing entry from somebody else who'd dined at the Wild Man: apparently, the chef doesn't take food hygiene too seriously at all and was once seen wiping the carvery hotplates with the SAME broom he'd just swept the floor with! Obviously, after the egg debacle, I'm not surprised but it certainly doesn't make me want to return to the Wild Man, even if I was in that part of Suffolk in ten years time.
Overall, a very, very disappointing and disheartening experience: if there's one thing I cannot stand in restaurants, its rude and unhygienic people. If you are ever in the Bramford area and want a pleasant welcome and good food, try the Bramford Cock or head into nearby Ipswich where there are lots of agreeable chain restaurants. And yes, I do hate recommending chain restaurants over struggling pubs but sometimes, you do wonder whether your custom would be appreciated in such places anyway. Where the Wild Man is concerned, the custom of some, from my experience, wasn't valued one bit.
CONTACT DETAILS (FOR ANYBODY WILLING TO TAKE THE RISK!)
Address: Bramford Road, Sproughton, IP8 3DA
Telephone number: 01473 742102
Opening times (for food):
Monday to Thursday: 12pm - 2pm and 5.30pm - 8.30pm
Friday: 12pm - 2pm and 5.30pm - 9pm
Saturday: 12 - 2pm and 6pm - 9pm
Sunday: 12pm - 7pm
(Please note: this review was previously posted on Ciao under the same username.)
(Please note: this is a film only review. Thanks!)
Eve Simon is your average, 21st Century career woman: she has a fantastic job but there's something missing in her life. After her affair with a married Father at Christmas time, Eve finds herself getting slightly merry but a chance encounter with a homeless man provokes her to wish upon a star in order to determine exactly where her life went so wrong. After all, in Christmas 1996 she was just days away from marrying her college sweetheart. But Eve begins to question her own sense of loneliness, wondering why she followed her career dreams in the 'Big Apple' rather than marrying the man of her dreams.
It sounds like a very simple premise for a film and indeed it is. But where director Timothy Bond has been extremely clever is in the fact that he didn't make 'Eve's Christmas' a series of flashbacks. Instead, what we have with this film is awfully reminiscent to 'A Christmas Carol' ; a person goes on an incredible journey at the most spectacular time of the year to try and understand why past events are still affecting them to the present day. Whilst that does sound slightly more intriguing than your average Crimbo flick, the danger was that 'Eve's Christmas' would turn into a corny state of affairs that lacked soul and depth; the basic plot might sound interesting but if the film didn't have a quirky and likeable lead female character, it could easily have fallen flat very early on.
THE CAST AND CHARACTERS OF 'EVE'S CHRISTMAS'
However, I am delighted to report that the film's lead actress did a stellar job in her role as the lovelorn career lady. It took me a few moments to recognise Elisa Donovan when I first started watching the film but it eventually clicked that she played the fashion obsessed, pretty redhead from the later seasons of 'Sabrina The Teenage Witch' when Sabrina went off to college. I doubt that either role would ever be deemed as challenging by the cynics amongst you; they're basic comedy roles that required Elisa to have good timing and a clear delivery. Yet, what surprised me most about Elisa in her role as Eve was how fluid she made everything look from her hand gestures, which were not too over the top but still confident, to the tone of her voice which seemed surprised and suspenseful when need be. Donovan managed to pull off both sides of the coin in her role as Eve as both the managing director at her corporation to the sensitive in love yet confused young woman she used to be. What was particularly remarkable about her acting was the fact that she didn't portray Eve to be so cynical and so obnoxiously in charge that it was impossible to recognise her in a completely different situation, as she was many years ago. Plus, the juxtaposition between Eve as a younger woman and at the time when the film began wasn't so great that it made me think 'hang on, is this actually the same woman?' Instead, Elisa managed to keep Eve a cool and natural character and she was, in my opinion, a very good choice for the role.
Erin Karpluk took on the role as Eve's nerdy best mate, Mandy, and she was an essential part of the plot; like Eve, she was shown at the beginning of the film as having deep regrets with regards to her past love life so the two characters had two very similar stories running throughout the film. What I liked about Erin's acting was the fact that she didn't overdo the 'geek' factor; she liked Bruce Springsteen and wore glasses, too factors which were enough in terms of American stereotypes to make Mandy a little gawky without going overboard. As she, like Eve, was shown in both the past and present during the film, it was also a joy to watch how Mandy had always been uncomfortable around the opposite sex and how her experiences as a youngster has seriously impacted her later relationships and romantic decisions.
But of course, Erin's love life was only in passing in comparison to Eve's sometimes turbulent relationships. Sebastian Spence played Eve's first love, Scott, and did a respectable job of being the all American romantic. He's a cute and charming sort of chap and by appearance alone it would be easy to understand why Eve fell for him. Spence's acting was of a good standard; he was very sweet and loving without being too perfect to be unbelievable and he brought a lot of emotion to the screen when need-be. He and Elisa worked well together and there seemed to be a very natural chemistry between the two; it was so easy to believe that they were a man and a woman who were so in love with each other and looking forward to beginning their life together as a married couple.
In a direct contrast to the apparently loving relationship between Scott and Eve was Neil, Eve's boss and flame at the start of the film. It has to be said here that the writers could have really gone to town here and made Neil so detestable that it would be impossible for viewers not to like Scott even more, in spite of the latter lacking a personality at times. Neil and Eve's relationship is neither straightforward or that rewarding for Eve which is where a lot of the film's tension and plot originates form. Neil breaks Eve's heart again and Eve begins to understand that she is only used as the trophy girlfriend, not as a serious lover. Kavan Smith plays Neil with conviction but in quite a boring fashion; I think he was meant to be the baddy of the piece but I just didn't find myself disliking him that much. This could've been down to the fact that he was only in three scenes throughout the course of the film, so it just wasn't enough time for me as a viewer to take a strong disliking for him. Neil was mentioned on and off by Eve but I felt that his addition in the film was immaterial; basically, he was only mentioned in contrast to Scott. However, because Eve and Scott's relationship was shown to be fairly sickly sweet anyway, it can be argued that Smith's appearance in the film was simply irrelevant and that the writers didn't do enough with him to make sure that the audience recognised Scott as being her true love as opposed to Neil.
But of course, it wouldn't be a Christmas movie without all of the family getting involved! You have the insufferable brother (James Kirk) as well as the caring parents (Winston Rekert and Cheryl Ladd) who were used effectively in order to show how Eve's life had changed over the course of ten years. I liked the relationship between both Eve and her parents and I thought it was a good move for there to be separate conversations between them all, to help Eve to make some pretty tough decisions.
As you'll learn, although the homeless man wasn't on screen for long periods of time throughout the film, Peter William's character played a vital role throughout the film. Sadly, his acting didn't really epitomize the seriousness of the role; Williams looked like he'd had fifty rounds of botox before going onto the set and this compromised the heart-to-heart scenes he shared with Donovan dramatically which was a shame as they were meant to be some of the most momentous of the film. Thankfully, Elisa managed to save the scenes that weren't aided by Peter's lacklustre acting although such awkward moments didn't detract away from the movie which in general was really well acted by all involved.
THE NARRATIVE, CHARACTERISATION AND SIMILARITIES TO ANOTHER FESTIVE FILM
The Christmas setting for the film aided the whole notion of love and family coming first. In fact, 'Eve's Christmas' can be deemed a modern, makeshift version of 'A Christmas Carol' in a lot of its presentation. First of all, you have the career obsessed central character that should be happy because of having quite a lot of money. Secondly, you have the character who implores the protagonist to look at life from a different angle and make a change. Finally, you have the time travel and spiritual elements just like the ones Scrooge experienced during the Victorian era with the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come. The homeless man acts as the character who implores Eve to be grateful for what she has in life in comparison to others, just like the charity workers did with Scrooge, and he's also the character who has a spiritual impact upon Eve. It needs to be pointed out that 'Eve's Christmas' isn't an interpretation of the Christmas Carol but it's impossible not to make those parallels, particularly when it comes to the homeless man's random appearances throughout the film and the time travel elements; it can be argued that 'Eve's Christmas' is a bit of a soppy teen version of 'A Christmas Carol' when you're at the stage in your life when it's not cool to sit and watch a kiddie Christmas movie with your folks.
I think it was a smart move for the writers to make 'Eve's Christmas' reminiscent to 'A Christmas Carol'; although the overall plot of a young, headstrong woman trying to work out where things went wrong with her true love perhaps don't match Scrooge's story to a 'T', the similarities made the film feel familiar and like there was a moral to learn as a result. Of course, the fact that 'Eve's Christmas' can be seen as remarkably like 'A Christmas Carol' in places can hinder your viewing pleasure; it's difficult to say how much of the story's predictability is down to the script's romantic comedy elements and how much is down to its connection with the Dickens' classic.
Sadly, the predictability can be deemed as a result of the somewhat stagnant characterisation of certain characters. Although Eve had a fairly strong personality in this movie, largely as a result of her career position, I felt that her boyfriend Scott could be seen as slightly less intriguing and definitely a lot less interesting. Due to the plot which allows Eve to go back in time to re-examine her past as she lived it, rather than mull it over in her mind in contemporary times, I wanted the film to perhaps delve a little deeper so that Eve could understand Scott's faults with comparison to her own. Alas, I don't think the writers did really endeavour to make Scott at fault other than his desire to stay in the rural area that he and Eve grew up in, rather than make a move to the Big Apple for his fiancé's benefit. To me, it was all very one-sided in that respect; Eve didn't appear to have a good reason to leave Scott other than for the fact he was a homeboy at heart. Granted, Eve probably wouldn't have regretting not marrying Scott nearly a decade in the future if he was imperfect but by making him seem so perfect it kind of made the film too unbelievable in places.
However, in spite of the dodgy acting with the homeless man, I actually found his appearances to be quite poignant. Like the Ghosts in 'A Christmas Carol', he was there to make Eve decide on a better future for herself and one without loneliness. Such scenes didn't make up the bulk of the film and instead, they were just passing moments which lasted a couple of minutes at the most. It can be argued that the scenes weren't that spiritual because of how short they were but I was glad that the homeless spirit guide only turned up a couple of times throughout the film; if he and Eve had shared scenes that lasted for as long as Scrooges had with each of the Ghosts, it would have been tiresome and too much like an imitation.
Moving away from the Scrooge references, I want to say that the film moved at a good pace. Nothing about 'Eve's Christmas' seemed to last for too long and nothing about the film seemed to develop too quickly. As far as rom-coms go, I'd say this one was perfectly paced; as a viewer, it was easy to understand Eve's dilemma and also understand her love for Scott (even if his characterisation was a bit 'off' in places). It was also good that we didn't have to witness Eve in the workplace for too long; as a viewer, we were given a little taster of the woman she'd become and her reasons for being far from content without such notions lasting for ages. If we had seen Eve in the office for too long, I fear that she wouldn't have been anywhere near as likeable as she was throughout the film that became the final product; her vulnerability was evident after the first twenty or so minutes but Eve wasn't portrayed as being too desperate or needy so there was a lot of room for the character to grow throughout the movie.
With this being a romantic comedy, of course you'd expect this film to be somewhat funny. However, I would only ever describe 'Eve's Christmas' as being somewhat humorous at best; I enjoyed the moments when Eve was in the past and trying to convince her wedding dress maker that she didn't want her big day to be ruined by garish outfits and it was intriguing how the director chose to show the juxtaposition between modern health foods such as tofu versus 1990s stodge, much to the chagrin of Eve's Brother. But in general, 'Eve's Christmas' wasn't a laugh a minute; there were a few chuckles along the way but nothing belly achingly funny. To me, the drama of Eve's life and her decisions overruled everything else and I can't say this was a bad thing, not by any stretch of the imagination.
BUT I JUST WISH THAT THE FILM HAD BEEN A BIT MORE...
...Christmassy. Now, I am perhaps being a bit critical here when I say that the producers didn't overtly show Christmas to be Eve's favourite time of the year; we were shown clips of her making Christmas cookies (biscuits to me and you) and how she liked to do nothing more than decorate the tree with her old man which is all fine and dandy. Yet it didn't really click with me that Christmas was Eve's favourite time of the year until her best friend, Mandy, made this apparent during a speech towards the end of the film.
But to be frank about it, you must be pretty fanatical about the festive season to want to get married at that time of year, regardless of whether Eve did tie the knot in the film or not. For as much as I love all things leading up to the 25th of December, I could never imagine getting married on that day because I'd want it to be completely reserved for Christmas. However, Eve was meant to be very obsessive with Christmas but it just never really became all that apparent to me: scenes of wrapping gifts and walking in the snow showed the general connotations of Christmas time but in some ways, the directors could have shot 'Eve's Christmas' at any time of the year to a certain extent. Besides the fact that Christmas is the time for giving and also the name of the film, I felt that the Christmas theme was a bit flimsy in places although I do want to once again credit Donovan's acting for being every bit as excitable as I'd expect her to be at her favourite time of the year.
OVERALL: WHY 'EVE'S CHRISTMAS' WAS ALMOST AS GOOD AS CHRISTMAS EVE
In spite of a few little niggles, I genuinely enjoyed 'Eve's Christmas'; it was a light-hearted, pleasant viewing experience that relied very much on strong characterisations rather than epic graphics to make it a capable movie. Although Scott could have been a little more animated and Neil should have been in a few more scenes, I can't take away from the fact that Donovan's acting was superb and held the film together at all times. Elisa was in just about every scene which is challenging for any actor but I think she did a wonderful job in her role as Eve.
Even though the film wasn't overwhelmingly Christmassy in places, the morals of loving while you have the chance to were all in there and made the film very uplifting. 'Eve's Christmas' won't appeal to everyone and in fact I'm surprised that it appealed to me; you girls who love your chick flicks will undoubtedly enjoy this film because it's a sweet little tale. But I really doubt that you macho men out there will enjoy this one; there is no Ranger Rick roaring on the screen or indeed that much of a masculine figure at all. 'Eve's Christmas' is simply a film that serves its purpose but could never be described as a classic. It's quite an ordinary story with a solid twist that makes it a little less ordinary and something that would be enjoyable to watch a couple of times over, in spite of its predictability.
Although 'Eve's Christmas' is rated a PG, I can't think that this movie would appeal to your eight year old very much; from what I can remember, there wasn't a plethora or curse words and there wasn't any violence in the film. But because of the fact that the movie didn't rely upon lots of computer graphics or silly characters, I don't necessarily think that your child would want to sit and watch this movie solidly for over an hour and a half. Sure, the film didn't drag but it did require a bit of persistence because of the fact that it wasn't an action packed, adrenaline extravaganza.
Overall, 'Eve's Christmas' is the perfect movie for those winter days when you don't want to watch anything too taxing: curling up in front of the fire with a tin of Cadbury's Roses fits the scene, and mood, perfectly.
Length: 96 minutes
Genre: Romantic comedy with Christmas elements
Watch: Sky Channels 327 or 328 throughout December - check listings for specific times.
(Please note: Review previously displayed on Ciao under the same username.)
Standing on stage in front of a crowd of people, most 17 year olds would crumble at the thought of being called 'the singing version of Marmite' by the so-called nastiest man in pop, Simon Cowell. Yet Diana Vickers seemed to wear the remark as a badge of honour when she appeared on the X Factor two years ago, advancing to the semi-finals where she unfortunately got knocked out (not literally) at the final stage.
But why was she described as the singing version of Marmite, I hear all of you Cowell cynics cry? Vickers has a very distinctive voice: not distinctive in a Bjork kind of way (although her vocals can be compared to the Icelandic ones) but rather in a husky, screechy kind of way; one false note in any song could have been the breaking point between a good and a bad performance. But that's why I personally liked Diana's vocals as she was a hell of a lot more original than the Leona Lewis' and Alexandra Burke's of the show.
Since stumbling at the final hurdle in 2008, Vickers has been a very busy young lady: she's appeared alongside Mark Warren in the play 'The Rise and Fall of Little Voice' which earned her the Theatregoers' Choice of The Year Award for Best Newcomer and released her debut album, 'Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree'. Released in the May of this year, the album peaked at number one in the UK charts and also spawned a number one single. On that reckoning, you'd think that 'Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree' let go of some of Diana's quirkier habits if it can reach the dizzying heights of the charts during such a multi-genre time. To a certain extent, this album is a brave departure from the atypical girl on the X Factor but not necessarily in a good way...
'WHAT IS LOVE ANYWAY?' (Lyrics from 'Once')
Kicking off the album the vague blurs of a beeping heart monitor, 'Once' managed to get to number one in the UK singles charts back in the April of this year. It's not difficult to see the appeal of 'Once'; Diana's voice is at its husky best but her vocals never venture too far away from the middle timbre, meaning that the sometimes questionable screeching doesn't overshadow what is essentially a very good song. 'Once' is all about a person whose heart has been broken before but upon meeting someone new, they're determined not to let their heart get shattered again, even though they can foresee it happening. The lyrics to track number one are actually quite bleak but the producer has been very clever by making the tune bouncy, fun and not in the slightest melancholic: the keyboard in the background is simple and fades at the right moments to let Diana's gorgeous vocal texture shine.
Don't get me wrong, 'Once' won't be to everybody's taste: although it's basically a cutesy little pop jingle with darker undertones, it can be argued that it's a song that lacks a defining moment where anything really outstanding happens, either in the form of a guitar riff or a drastic change of vocal pitch. Yet 'Once' is catchy and a nice sing-along tune and the perfect way to draw any listener into the album.
Track number two is far more striking that its predecessor and exactly the kind of song I was hoping for when I first heard Diana sing a couple of years ago; 'Remake Me and You' is electronic, bubbly and very eccentric and is driven by the drum machine in the background before a multitude of synthesiser loops take over. 'Remake Me and You' is all about the battle a couple faces in trying to maintain their fleeting relationship however, it seems as if the desire to cling onto the relationship is a very one-sided affair: the other person keeps running away from any long term commitment. Structurally, 'Remake Me and You' is very similar to 'Once'; both tracks have the same fading of instruments after the second chorus and both boast fairly desperate lyrics. I prefer this song simply for the reason that Diana's vocals are sublime: her voice dares to go a little higher than normal and the hoarse tone is allowed to be a little exaggerated from time to time but in a way that is fitting to the song and doesn't necessarily sound false. The double-tracking of her vocals during the chorus really works and lifts the song besides the addition of a star-struck, synth-pop jangle.
'YOU'RE A MIDAS IN REVERSE' (Lyrics from 'The Boy Who Murdered Love')
Yet I have to say that from 'Remake Me and You', the quality and consistency of the album takes a bit of a nosedive. Second single 'The Boy Who Murdered Love' is a track I can quite easily skip whenever listening to this album: it's certainly not the worse 'Songs From The Cherry Tree' has to offer but it's quite a bland, forced number especially in contrast to the previous track. Diana's voice has become something of a shameless parody of itself to the point where you can barely understand what she's singing because of any traces of diction struggling against her overtly throaty voice. Why she felt the need to exaggerate the natural tone of her voice to such a great extent is beyond me and it's a great shame - some of the lyrics to 'The Boy Who Murdered Love' are surprisingly profound and gritty, particularly the idea of stars turning into fire as if her fate is burning as her love life crumbles. Again, the Eurythmic-esque backing beats mask the tortured array of words within this song but in doing so, the listener essentially loses the most charismatic thing about the entire song: its story.
However, the introduction to 'Four Leaf Clover' is a lot more promising: rather than overloading the lyrics with layer upon layer of generic pop loops, the lyrics are supported quite fittingly with the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar. The song itself is about someone who loses who they think to be the love of their life and it's the first time on the album when I think the words compliment Diana's age group: she sings about several lucky charms and the innocence and softness of her vocals seems to make 'Four Leaf Clover' seem like it's a song well and truly about a teenagers first love. The only downside really to the track is that it gets a little lost amongst the electronic sounds of the rest of the album. Theoretically, it should stand out as it's so different but for some reason, 'Four Leaf Clover' just isn't one of those songs that stays stuck in your head. I have to say that I enjoy its gentle, subdued pace every time I listen to it, even if the final minute out of four seems to be a bit empty and redundant.
Whereas track number four recognised the limitations of Diana's voice, track number five seemingly tries to push her too hard and make her voice into something it simply isn't. 'Put It Back Together Again' sees Diana reach the highest notes in her vocal range whilst treading familiar (and old) ground about a couple who're experiencing problems that they may - or may not - come back from. Although I'm happy that 'Put It Back Together Again' tries to remain organic and relies mainly upon the piano, acoustic guitar and drums, there is something really unbearable about track number five: from the progression of the instruments to the mopey lyrics, 'Put It Back Together Again' takes itself way too seriously, especially in comparison to many of the other songs on the album. Whilst it can't all be puppies and lollipops, even in the Land of Vickers, the lyrics are amongst the weakest the album has to offer and it's puzzling as to why the producers felt it was the song on the album that should be stripped to the rawest sound possible. 'Put It Back Together Again' makes me think of Coldplay: Chris Martin's voice isn't the strongest out there either yet for some reason, the band likes to push his voice to its absolute limits too, even when it makes the song change from a misguided epic into something very weak.
However, the real shame with 'Put It Back Together Again' is the fact that the lyrics make no sense what-so-ever. What the heck does it mean, in the context of the rest of the lyrics, to put a relationship back together again? It's hardly an ornament that's been smashed, is it?
'NO SIGN OF SMILES' (Lyrics from 'You'll Never Get To Heaven')
The next song is a departure from the forlorn love songs of the album but unfortunately there's just something really unlikeable about 'You'll Never Get To Heaven'. Diana is critiquing the 'wasted rich kids' who won't let loose and party in a nightclub. To be honest, it's a good job you can barely distinguish what she's singing on this one because it's an incredibly irritating set of lyrics. Where Diana and co have really messed up on this one is the fact that the tune is completely stupid, just impossibly naff: it's once again a collection of confusing, common loops that you probably would find in many club songs but as somebody who can't stand dance music, I can't stand this song! Furthermore, it seems as if the song moves Diana even further away from the indie artist many always thought she was by mimicking other yawn-worthy pop songs about dancing and clubbing (I'm looking at you Rihanna and Sugababes!)
'Me and You' thankfully returns to the simple blend of pianos and maracas and by doing so, Diana's voice is allowed to remain pure and unaffected by the indulgent sounds of loops that she has to overemphasise her voice over in order to be heard. 'Me and You' is a cute ballad about young love and the prospect of spending eternity with another. What I like about 'Me and You' is the pureness of the song: it's unfussy and the kind of sweet song I was expecting from Diana. It's a bit Damien Rice in nature, a dude who's one of Diana's biggest influences, and her vocals seem to mimic his almost by depicting a wonderfully, earthy tone. Track number six is one of the few songs on the album that I could listen to over and over again without finding it at all annoying: it's gentle and shows off the softer side of Diana's vocal range triumphantly.
Unfortunately, I cannot be as optimistic in my appraisal of 'My Hip', the album's unlikely tribute to Richard O'Brien's album, 'Absolute O'Brien'. With a crazily strange trumpet introduction, the song soon merges the usually jazzy instrument with a collection of boring drum fills and naff lyrics about someone wanting another to grope them indecently whilst singing them a song. Awww young love. Whilst I like the fact that 'My Hip' dares to experiment a little more in terms of instrumentation, unfortunately, the inclusion of the trumpet just doesn't work: instead of making the song sound fresh, it sounds incredibly dated, out-of-place and forced without being powerful enough to make it seem worthwhile. The words can't save 'My Hip' either from the tune's cesspit of blandness and I'm afraid track number seven is positively one of the most tedious songs the album has to offer. Period.
'ELEVATE ME, I'M DROWNING, I'M DROWNING/OH GOD, I'M NUMB TO LIFE' (Lyrics from N.U.M.B)
Just when I thought the album couldn't get any worse, 'N.U.M.B' comes along, a song in which Diana succumbs to how generic her album is turning out to be. Although her vocals suitably compliment the desperation of the words, seemingly about someone whose life is on an impossible, downward spiral, the song is otherwise an indulgent disaster. There are no points in the song where it sounds anything other than an amateurish interpretation of suicide and depression. Although the piano should be the saving grace with 'N.U.M.B', it's overshadowed by some form of string instrumentation that just seems to make the morose state of the narrator seem even faker. At nearly four minutes in length, I know what Diana means when she says 'it's the opposite of light'...
However, 'Hit' comes across as the most genuinely fun and likeable of all of the electronic type disco tracks this album has to offer. Opening with the jarred rumblings of a motorbike engine, 'Hit' is accompanied by lots of synthesiser mastery which twirl and seem like a credible fanfare of loops. The tune, although apparently an 80s music lover's fantasy, doesn't sound dated at all and I think that's in part down to Diana's oddly innocent vocals. When I first heard 'Hit' I thought 'oh no, she IS trying to impersonate Bjork' which is probably because 'Hit' was originally a song Bjork performed with her band, Sugarcube. However, those sentiments soon fade as Diana's singing relaxes into the groove the music itself and she makes this track totally her own (wow, with language like that, I could replace Louis Walsh on the judging panel!). Lyrically, the song tales off a bit but I think that's actually a nice little touch: the listener doesn't know where the story ends, a tale in which a female has been seduced by the charms of another without the desire to fall in love. At just over three minutes in length, 'Hit' is a dazzling, energetic track and one of the most genuinely enjoyable of the entire album. In comparison to the original, it seems as if the producers have upped the tempo and tune as a way to make 'Hit' more in keeping with some of the albums funkier tracks and it's one of the few electronic triumphs on the album as it doesn't become overtly repetitive, unlike Bjork's version.
'DO YOU KNOW ME AT ALL?' (Lyrics from 'Notice')
Track number eleven is a good juxtaposition to its predecessor with another acoustic lament, 'Notice', in which the narrator only wishes to be appreciated by that one special person in her life. What I think really shines about this track is Diana's vocals: they are arguably at their softest and most fragile on 'Notice' and thankfully, she doesn't over exaggerate her vocals to try and make it a more powerful display. Instead, the instrumentation evolves into something more spectacular from just the guitar whilst giving the track a little electronic spark any listener would have come to expect. In all honesty, the song is a little lacking lyrically and technically, the stuff Diana's singing about here has already been explored elsewhere on this album. Yet her harmonies on this track are amazing and she deserves credit for providing the listener with a genuinely dainty love song. Regrettably, there are too many comparisons I could make between this one and 'Four Leaf Clover' but I enjoy both of those tracks individually so it's forgivable...just.
With the splash of water, the album's penultimate track, 'Jumping Into Rivers', revisits the more optimistic, happy-go-lucky side to Vickers' repertoire, all about the carefree attitude of falling in love for the first time. 'Jumping Into Rivers' is a pretty little song: I'm glad that the producers decided to keep things very minimalist and allow for Diana to sing to her heart contents (without the need for over-exaggerating the natural tone of her voice, that is) as bongo drums beat in the background. There are a few sound effects during some of the breaks within the track but they are hardly memorable: instead, it's very easy to be swept away by the cheeriness of 'Jumping Into Rivers' and it makes for an easy listening, summer anthem of sorts, even if I am reviewing this album in November!
Sadly, the album drags on for one track too many with 'Chasing You', a song that might have been enjoyable if it wasn't for the silly overproduction of the tune which reminds me a lot of those moments in songs from decades ago which try to be grand but fail miserably because the tune is so dismally repetitive and monotonous. 'Chasing You' is about chasing a potential lover until you sing to them, make them tone deaf and force them into marrying you because they can't hear the vicar when he asks if anybody objects. Truthfully, Diana's singing isn't so bad on this one (it's been tackily over-produced elsewhere on the album, but not quite on the final track) but it is slightly annoying that she seems to be unable to pronounce 'anywhere' correctly. The inclusion of the string instruments on the chorus was a good idea: they complimented the sound of the soft synths and made the track a little more original. Sadly, 'Chasing You' is quite a dull way to close the album but certainly not the absolute worst 'Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree' has to offer.
OVERALL: WHY I'M IN TWO MINDS OVER RECOMMENDING 'SONGS FROM THE TAINTED CHERRY TREE'
I think it's pretty obvious that I can't collectively recommend this album: it has some good tracks, it has some poor tracks. Yet, whilst I wasn't expecting an album made up entirely of songs like 'Four Leaf Clover' and 'Notice', I was quite shocked as to how poppy the record sounded, even from the first listen: 'Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree' is a big, big departure from the 'Little Hippie' who stood on the stage during the first week of the X Factor live shows and sang a spine tingling rendition of U2's 'With Or Without You'.
Part of the problem with the album is that the record company have clearly tried to make Vickers 'fit' in a certain box; for this album, she got to work with the likes of Ellie Goulding and Nerina Pallot. Goulding was by far one of the most prolific contributors to the album as she helped nurture 'Remake Me and You' as well as 'Notice'. But I can't help but feel a little cheated by looking through the list of how many people wrote song with Diana throughout this album; you would have hoped that with so many collaborators, this album would be bustling with variation and texture. Sadly, that just isn't the case as for the most part, the album recreates the same messages time and time again, either about the beauty of a teenage crush or the heartache of falling out of love. The regurgitated sentiments aren't aided by Diana's somewhat over produced vocal performances either and some of the songs become almost unbearable to listen to for that reason alone.
Whilst it's not an awful album that I'll never listen to again, I really do think that 'Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree' is a very disappointing effort from Diana Vickers: there was so much promise for this girl, away from the glitz and glamour of pop stardom. Alas whilst Diana's appearance has been transformed to make her look even more generic and pop-star like, so has her sound. And that, my friends, takes away everything that was initially good and intriguing about this ex-Factor contestant. Perhaps I wasn't prepared for the sharp shift in styling: I am naturally an indie/rock music lover so perhaps the genre of pop passes me by a bit. Yet I can't help but feel that if you switched this album off and then put the radio on, you'd find a million-and-one other girls singing very similar songs. Perhaps not in Vickers' unique way but the lyrics and tunes on this album are quite insipid and samey.
Overall, I'd recommend giving this album a go if you're a fan of female led pop music. If you're not, go and look 'Four Leaf Clover' and 'Notice' up on Youtube and then 'Once' and 'Remake Me And You' before you decide whether or not to take the plunge and buy the album. Arguably, those are the four strongest tracks and the ones that not only show Diana's vocal ability off at its very best but also host musical tunes that make sense.
Length: 47.10 mins
Buy: Play.com for £7.99 (plus free delivery!)
(Please note: review previously displayed under the same username on Ciao - all my own work!)
When my Brother had to return to University for the afternoon over the summer, we elected to stay somewhere in the Wolverhampton area over night: his Uni is a three hour drive away from our house so it seemed like the most logical thing to do. Having previously stayed at the Innkeeper's Lodge in nearby Dudley, we had no reservations about booking with them again: their accommodation is basic but perfect for what we wanted for that night.
PRICES, BOOKING, LOCATION AND SIGNING IN
Prices at this particular Innkeeper's Lodge begin at £56 per room, per night from Friday to Saturday and a pound less between Sunday and Thursday. We stayed overnight on a Wednesday and we decided to use the company's Advance Saver offer: the rate per room was reduced to just £29.95 but the only snag was that we'd have to pay a small fee if we wished to cancel our bookings. This didn't matter of course and we knew exactly when we'd be going to the Black Country so we went ahead and booked online. You can book over the phone if you so wish but I'd fully recommend booking online any day: the website is easy to navigate and you can find your desired destination either on a map or a dropdown list on the homepage. The website is also very handy for booking - once you've selected the number of rooms you want and the date, those rooms are reserved for you automatically for ten minutes whilst you fill out your details. If you so wish, it's a few extra minutes for you to have a cheeky look elsewhere to see if you can find a better deal. At £59.90 for two twin rooms for one night, I have to say I doubt you'd find anything cheaper elsewhere...
After you have entered all of your relevant details, you should receive an email in your inbox confirming the dates you wish to stay at the hotel and the rooms that you have reserved. There's a choice of double, single, disabled or family of the twenty-two rooms at the Dudley Kingswinford Lodge and you can also ask for a cot in case you have any little ones with you.
The Lodge itself is located a short distance away from Summerhill and you have to pass a number of roundabouts in order to find the hotel. If you don't have a Sat Nav (ours sent us the wrong way at first anyway), it's a good idea to follow the signs towards Dudley and then go onto the A4101. Once you arrive, you'll perhaps see the sign for the Inn's Harvester restaurant before the Innkeepers Lodge sign itself. It's at this stage I'd also like to point out that the hotel's parking facilities are very sparse: we didn't have any issues finding a parking space in the afternoon but in the evening we did. The Harvester is very popular with the locals (which you would think is a good sign but a review at a later date will tell you otherwise) so if you are staying at the hotel, I'd recommend getting back to the lodge as early as possible to make sure you secure somewhere to park, especially if you cannot get about very well. I think the hotel should look into some form of separate car park for paying guests but I doubt whether this will happen anytime soon.
To get your keys at this particular Innkeeper's, you need to go to the bar at the Harvester restaurant. That's where the hotel's actual reception is and I do think that the hotel would benefit greatly from having a separate registration point: the bar can get very busy in the evenings and if you get to Dudley later on in the day, it might be difficult to get everything sorted out efficiently. Still that's just a minor consideration and the dude on reception was very friendly and it wasn't very long until we were sent packing to our rooms...or should that have been unpacking?
THE ROOM, BATHROOM AND FACILITIES
Our first hiccup was the fact that our rooms were on different floors. We found out the next morning that the Lodge was full the night before so that might explain why our rooms were located away from each other but it would have been nice if they'd been a little closer together for convenience sake: as we were only staying for one night, our stay didn't facilitate more than one suitcase so it made packing and unpacking a little inconvenient, but nothing we couldn't live with. I also want to point out at this point that if you do struggle with stairs than it's important to book yourself a disabled room as the Lodge does not have an elevator.
My Mum and I decided to stay on the ground floor in a room right next to the entrance. This might sound like a bit of the risk in terms of noise level throughout the night but we both found that not to be much of an issue at all throughout our stay. Every time somebody left the lodge, we could hear the click of the switch allowing the door to open which was a tad annoying but again, it's not a major complaint.
The room itself was very grand looking and something you certainly wouldn't get with many other hotel chains. You see, the Innkeepers Lodge at Kingswinford was originally a manor house and to commemorate the Lodge's extravagant tales, a brief information sheet was placed on the wall in both of the rooms we stayed in. Whilst the other room told a tale of Glam Rock (my Brother was particularly vague about this but it could have been about Slade whose front man Noddy Holder was born in the Black Country) our room had information about Guy Fawkes' cronies who'd broken into the house and remained there before a battle with the authorities. I liked the addition of the historical notes: the information sheet complimented the appearance of the hotel and made it feel very significant and personal to the building.
Our room, I have to say, was in pretty good condition and is one of the most decorative we've stayed in with the Innkeeper's Lodges. The ceiling fascinated me: beautiful, flower-like circles and engravings added to the special feel of the lodge and definitely made it seem like it was not purpose built for guest trafficking. In addition to the ceiling's patterns, a large fireplace was situated very close to the entrance and its engravings featured a proud-looking Roman lady of high status. Although the fireplace is no longer host to an operational fire, in its place stands a bunch of artificial white flowers which complements the rest of the room's pale features perfectly.
I'd like to stress that the standard and opulence of this room is not a theme that runs throughout the entire hotel, sadly. Of the other rooms we have stayed in before at Dudley Kingswinford, they've always been plainly decoration with white and cream furnishings to give the appearance of a clean environment. I also want to emphasise that the room I stayed in on this visit to the lodge was supremely bigger than many of the average twin rooms on offer throughout the building, probably in order to maintain the original features. The room was lovely and cool on the day we stopped the night which was a blessing but I can imagine that it would be very difficult to heat during the winter as there's only a small radiator. In all honesty, I think it's too small a heater to really warm the room through so if you do happen to stay at this Innkeeper's during the winter months, just pray that you're not staying in that particular room! My Brother and Dad stayed in that room in the middle of January once and apparently, it was freezing!
However, in spite of the white and cream decorating, was the room clean? Yes, I'd say it was. I have to admit, the floor needed hovering as I found a biscuit wrapper on the floor, one that we certainly hadn't brought in ourselves but that was it as far as sanitation concerns went. I am a bit of a freak when it comes to hygiene (well, not just hygiene) and I'm delighted to report that all of the sheets were crisp and white and didn't have a mark or stain on them what-so-ever! Better than the Hilton at Coventry anyway...
The facilities within the rooms themselves are quite basic, as you'd expect from a hotel offering you a stay for as little as thirty quid a night.
In the room, you get the basics of a desk, a desk chair, a comfy chair, a bedside table in between the twin beds with a lamp and a couple of decent length mirrors. Tea and coffee making facilities are available and are plentiful with the cups and spoons being stain-free. There are a couple of features within the room that I think are worth a mention, starting with the telephone. Now, it's unlikely that many folks these days don't have themselves a mobile phone (queue annoying Southern drawl) but in case you've been silly and left your charger at home when the battery's about to go flat, there's the opportunity to call both people within the hotel and other landline phones on the set in the bedroom. As we all had our mobiles with us we didn't use the phones to call the outside world. However, we did take advantage of using the phone to call the other room as that feature is free of charge. I'm not quite sure of the cost for calling a phone outside of the hotel but there are instructions on the telephone itself to help you. It's important to remember that you will require a credit or debit card in order to process your telephone transaction.
The phone itself, at least for dialling numbers inside of the hotel, was ok but definitely doesn't host excellent sound quality: it's quite crackly but served its purpose of waking the boys up in time for breakfast!
If you're on a business trip or have separation anxiety when it comes to your laptop, you can purchase Wi-Fi air time from as little as £2.99 for thirty minutes to £11.99 for a stay of seven days either online at the hotel's website once you get to the place or by SMS. I have to say that the Wi-Fi prices are fairly reasonable although I cannot comment on how good the quality is because I A) didn't take my laptop and B) was too preoccupied with trying to get the blasted telly to work! Normally, I just go to my Grandad's house if I want to play the Krypton Factor but the Innkeeper's Lodge at Kingswinford provided me with minutes of entertainment, such as 'which station am I on?' and - perhaps more importantly - 'where's the Freeview channels the hotel boasts about?'. In all fairness, it wasn't that much of a nuisance that I couldn't watch TV the following morning but if you ever go here with the expectation of watching some Freeview channels be prepared to be disappointed as within certain rooms, the signal is very poor and you may find yourself wasting a lot of energy and patience trying to figure it all out.
Onto the bathroom and I'm very pleased to say that it was in a very good condition. Again, I'm quite fussy when it comes to cleanliness and I liked the fact that both guests staying in the room were offered an ordinary bath towel and hand towel as well as one that served as a mat when we got in or out of the shower. The towels also appeared to be very new which was a big plus too. In spite of the bathroom not being overtly big, I have to say that the shower was more than a respectable size. If you are so inclined, you could probably fit four obese people in there if you tried! Well, perhaps not quite four, more like three...There was always lots of hot water and the addition of a combined shower gel, shampoo and soap liquid made showering unfussy although, the fact the dispensers were stuck on the wall may disappoint those of you that like your hotel 'freebies'!
The only real downside to the actual shower unit was that there were no handles, just in case you are a bit unsteady underfoot and do like to have some safety rails as a means of support. Having said that, the floor of the shower cubical itself was not at all slippery and it was also a relief that the water stayed at a constant temperature once it got going. There was no danger of the water overflowing out of the shower cubical as there was a small step to get into and out of the shower which is something to keep in mind again if you do have mobility issues.
However, most importantly, was the Innkeeper's Lodge at Dudley a good location for a quiet night's sleep? Actually, yes: although the hotel is situated quite near to a round-about, I doubt whether the noise would disturb you all that much. The beds themselves were firm yet comfortable and for the money, I have to say that this aspect of the stay was a triumph...
BREAKFAST AND CHECKING OUT
One of the main selling points of the Innkeeper's Lodge for many people is undeniably the fact that you get a complimentary continental breakfast included in the price of your stay. Since our visit in the summer, the hotel has changed how they serve breakfast and instead of going down to the hotel's restaurant between 7am to 9.30am during the week like we did and between 8am and 10am over the weekend, you go to reception to get a free breakfast bag. I cannot comment on the quality of the breakfast bag but I hope the information on the breakfast food in general will be helpful for anybody considering staying at any Innkeeper's Lodges in the future.
In the past, we've always found Innkeeper's breakfasts to be fine: basic but fine and with lots of choice. However, this has always been a weak point for this particular Lodge; on one occasion when we stopped there, breakfast wasn't served at all due to one reason or another. Again, although the breakfast is free of charge, it is one of the hotel's additional aspects that they pride themselves on and something they're keen to advertise both in separate leaflets and on their website.
Although breakfast was served during our last stay there, I wish it hadn't been. Considering the Inn was full the night before, I thought the Lodge made a very poor effort in terms of variety: besides tea and coffee, only orange juice was available, (there's normally a choice of at least two fruit juices and a jug of iced water is normally on the table too) a few rather odd flavours of yogurt (who wants rhubarb for breakfast?) and a few apples, bananas and pineapple segments that looked to be deteriorating rapidly. There was plenty of bread which you could toast ('could' being the operative word: the toaster was painfully slow!) and a selection of butter, cheese and condiments like packets of Philadelphia, Nutella and Marmite. Normally, the Innkeeper's have a selection of pastries out too and whereas there were a few croissants and pain au chocolat, they looked very dry and weren't covered over, much to the delight of the flies...
The staff members present were a world away from the friendly guy that we'd checked it with. I commented to my Brother that none of the spoons were very clean (yuk!) and one of them did wonder off rather begrudgingly to get some more. Fair enough, I hadn't asked him to yet but he just seemed very irritated at the prospect of having to do something. He and the lady on duty kept clearing off outside for a chat and as a result, no one was available to ask for any water and it gave off a very apathetic vibe. Again, I can live with the fact that the variety of food on offer wasn't overly special as it was free. However, the staff member's general attitude towards the customers just wasn't very favourable and didn't exactly make for a very pleasant start to the day.
When it comes to checking out of the hotel, you can either leave your key in your room for the cleaners to collect on their rounds or take it back to the bar where you originally got it from. After the warm and friendly welcome we got at breakfast time, we decided to leave the keys in the room: we couldn't have handled all of the pleasantries that were bound to greet us upon returning to the bar as breakfast was still being served...
OVERALL: THE GOOD AND THE BAD OF THE INNKEEPER'S LODGE AT DUDLEY KINGSWINFORD
For the price, I definitely think I can recommend the Innkeeper's Lodge at Dudley Kingswinford: in spite of the facilities themselves being very basic, it honestly didn't matter as we were only staying for one night. Although some may miss the added features of gyms and spas like you can get with the more upmarket chains of Hilton and Ramada, I don't think that for £60 for two rooms for one night we can really complain too much about anything. Everything in the room was nice and clean and there was lots of space in the wardrobe and cabinets in which to store our belongings.
The real downsides of the stay were undeniably the parking issue and the poor breakfast. I could have lived with the cutlery being dirty if the staff had apologised for it being grubby. Alas they didn't and the two people 'working' that morning could have frankly cared less about the concerns of the customers. This of course wasn't the general attitude of all of the staff members at this particular Innkeeper's Lodge: the other room we booked had a rather tricky lock and the guy on reception at the time we booked in was more than helpful when it came to sorting that issue out. It's just a shame that the two members of staff in the breakfast room that morning couldn't have followed his example and been a little politer towards the paying guests. After all, manners really don't cast anything.
Would I encourage you to stay in the Dudley Kingswinford Innkeeper's Lodge if you're in that area and looking for somewhere to crash for the night? Why yes I would, especially if you can get your room on the advanced saver offer. Since our visit, many of the Innkeeper's Lodges have been taken over by Travelodge and whilst Dudley isn't one of them, it does bring into question just how long the the Lodge will maintain its pretty, offbeat features in many of its rooms. It would be a shame if that particular hotel was altered so dramatically for the sake of having more than twenty-two rooms but perhaps the Travelodge's take over will give some of the staff at this Innkeeper's the kick up the bum they most certainly need!
Book over the phone: 0870 243 0500
Address: Swindon Road, Kingswinford, West Midlands, DY6 9XA
Please note: Review previously displayed on Ciao under my username, MizzMolko.
'Hot Fuss' was a fantastic debut from The Killers and it seemed as if the Vegas four piece had crafted an album way beyond their years. With an inviting and grand mixture of electronic wizardry - provided on the synthesiser by eccentric lead singer Brandon Flowers - and some alternative rock masterpieces about bleeding hearts and broken teenage dreams, Dave Keuning on the six strings, Mark Stoermer on the bass and Ronnie Vannucci on percussion all contributed to an album of colour and texture with a good dose of 80s dance enthused tunes to make even the most heated of songs seem like anthems for the optimistic.
Fast forward a couple of years to 2006 and fans were graced with the sounds of 'Sam's Town' an album which, according to Flowers and perhaps Flowers alone, would keep contemporary rock music afloat during such multi genre times. So confident was Flowers in his new baby that he also promised 'Sam's Town' to be one of the very best albums of the past two decades. Now, considering he'd made those comments when the twelve tracks were only unleashed onto the band themselves and recording studio executives is a serious case of blowing your own trumpet if ever there was one. Both statements were undeniably bold but if you were partial to the group's ballsy first album, you'd be entitled to believe Flowers. Well, until you heard what 'Sam's Town' actually sounds like that is. Pulling together The Killers biggest influences from my beloved Fab Four to U2 and Oasis, on paper, it sounds like an album that was incomparable to anything else the rock bands of 2006 had to offer. Alas, having gotten it for Christmas that same year, I listened to 'Sam's Town' once before reducing it to the ranks of my forgotten CD box. It didn't see the light of day for nearly four years and here's why.
'WHY DO YOU WASTE MY TIME?' (Lyrics from 'Sam's Town')
Kicking off the album with a fanfare of noise, and with a noticeably heavier drum beat for The Killers, the album's title track seeks to sound like a fun fair and for the first couple of seconds, 'Sam's Town' succeeds in being a jovial, bouncy number. From the rolling drums and screeching guitars reminiscent of Placebo, everything works coherently together and you'd instantly think this is a competent yet ambitious starting point for the album. However, I do think that 'Sam's Town' peaks too early; there's a strange break in the middle just at the point when I'm really beginning to enjoy the flow and melody of this song. Although the break makes 'Sam's Town' a little different and unpredictable - and certainly sets it apart from 'Hot Fuss' - by messing with the structure too much, it makes me unsure as to whether I like the record's title track or not. Flowers' singing has a lot to be desired too; his vocals are flat for most part and to me he doesn't necessary try and lure the listener into this carnival like world the tune itself presents for the first minute and a bit. 'Sam's Town' is rather regretfully a stadium type anthem of the most indulgent kind: Brandon's line of 'I'm so sick of all my judges/they're so scared of letting me shine' perhaps says more than it needs to about this album from the start...
And it has to be said that the above sentiment is reaffirmed in the second 'track' a forty-odd second 'Enterlude' which seeps pretentiousness with each note Flowers mulls over on the piano. From the first time I listened to this album, I couldn't believe that the band had the audacity to welcome people in such a patronising way to their record. Ok, The Beatles did open 'Sgt. Pepper's' as if it was the opening song to a majestic, spectacular concert but that was a GOOD record, full of colour and charm and it marked a dramatic change of direction for the Fab Four after six already impressive records (besides 'With The Beatles'). 'Sam's Town' thus far seems to be an album of cockiness and little substance from a band that think they've sold as many records as The Beatles with just their first effort...
'YOU SIT THERE IN YOUR HEARTACHE/WAITING ON SOME BEAUTIFUL BOY' (Lyrics from 'When You Were Young')
Track number three 'When You Were Young' was the bands pilot single from this album and for good reason: it's one of the only bearable tracks on here! With a striking parade of over-the-top guitars and drums, I love how the instruments all clash together and it helps to reinforce the song's general message. 'When You Were Young' is a story about a girl who has grown up and met somebody even though he's not the Prince Charming she dreamed about. You can brand 'When You Were Young' as a sort of social commentary in some ways: many people seem to be so desperate to fall in love that they do so with any old tramp, even if it's somebody they don't have genuine feelings for. It's not the best song the band have ever recorded but in many ways it's a track that really does epitomise the album: 'Sam's Town' has a harder, more serious tone to it and leaves behind a lot of the funky tunes and overtly anecdotal words of 'Hot Fuss' and I have to give all four of the male band members credit for writing a song with the female's feelings in mind.
Sadly, the album goes rapidly downhill with track number four. 'Bling (Confession of a King)' starts off with a jangling, star struck jingle that's reminiscent to 'Time of My Life' before leaping into an imposing bass line, possibly the only feature of the song that's worth celebrating. Brandon takes his vocals to a whole new level of extravagance by shouting most of the track which descends into a sort of U2 tribute song very quickly with lots of Bono-esque chanting. Fascinating. 'Bling' is one of those tracks that I just find difficult to like: everything about the tune is too squished together and, away from the bass line, it makes it difficult to appreciate the song in lots of ways. There's an undercurrent of darkness to 'Bling' which should have been brought to the centre a bit more and, because of such a flaw, the melody just doesn't work cohesively with the lyrics to make this song a good one.
'For Reasons Unknown' starts with a much deeper sound with a similarly daunting bass line to its predecessor but I just don't understand why the band decided to double track the first verse's vocals: Flowers is singing in his normal pitch which was ok but, for some reason, his vocals have been underpinned by a really bizarre, sordid baritone. 'For Reasons Unknown' seems to be a song discussing the hazards of aging and maturing: you start to grow older, colder and altogether a little more cynical and although the murky tone of the tune emphasises such an idea, one of my key issues with this track is the fact that there's no resolution to it. 'For Reasons Unknown' just stays on the same level and becomes quite a dull one to listen to as neither the instruments involved or Brandon's voice tries to lift the song away from its original source of melancholy. In fact, on occasion, he sounds embarrassingly off-key and the repetition of many of the lines only makes the track more monotonous. Alas, as tedious as I find 'For Reasons Unknown' to be, it's certainly not the worst song that 'Sam's Town' has to offer...
And neither is 'Read My Mind' another of the singles from 'Sam's Town'. Starting with a slow synthesiser before Ronnie storms in with the kick pedal, track number six has a great concoction of common instruments, especially the band's trademark synthesiser and some impressive but short lived, soaring guitar riffs. 'Read My Mind' is one of the few songs on the album where everything comes together wonderfully and makes a fluid story which fully represents the idea of growth and the notion of being comfortable around someone. I think the songs slower, more considered pace takes into account the story Flowers is trying to tell perfectly and it's undeniably one of the albums few triumphs, least of all for Brandon's singing. His voice trembles as if he's trying to imitate Elvis in the album's first honest a tribute to any recording artist and his vocals are incredibly pure and thoughtful; Flowers adds a slightly higher pitch into the mix at absolutely the right moments, especially before the song's bridge, and it helps give the song texture. The band have confessed on many occasions that they find 'Read My Mind' to be one of their best songs to date and I have to agree: it's addictive and doesn't do anything over-the-top or extraverted that seeks to exploit either the lyrics or tune too much. 'Read My Mind' just captures your imagination because it's a genuinely good song with an obvious amount of heart to it, something that's certainly a rarity on 'Sam's Town'.
'MY APPETITE AIN'T GOT NO HEART' (Lyrics from 'Uncle Johnny')
You'd be forgiven for thinking that you'd stumbled upon a mislaid B-Side from an Oasis single at this moment in time, judging by the blazing guitar intro on track number seven. 'Uncle Johnny' tells the story of someone whose life is becoming so full of excesses that the subject's brain is really beginning to believe that they're a superhero of some kind, or at least invincible to the pitfalls of such overindulgences *coughFlowerscough*. Although the guitars are literally the only thing that you can concentrate on throughout this song, I do like the way in which the melody is sometimes assisted by a slightly sharper tune from the synthesiser; without the use of the synthesiser, 'Uncle Johnny' would be severely lacking in both intensity and variety. 'Uncle Johnny' merges into an ending that's reminiscent to the far superior Placebo track 'Without You I'm Nothing': the guitars here come to a grinding, sorrowful halt that seems as if they're stuttering or reeling from the effects of a power cut. Yet I'm afraid 'Uncle Johnny' will never become a memorable track in my mind or as favourable as 'Without You I'm Nothing': it's too full on without seemingly telling its story very well; the guitars just gobble every other component of this song up, besides the synthesiser on some occasions. It could be a satirical song in which Flowers questions his own morality a little but that humour is of course lost behind the smoke screen of bellowing guitars.
Going back into the 80's new wave territory that many would recognise as a favourable characteristic from 'Hot Fuss', song number eight is one of the most grating, ostentatious songs of the entire album, if not all time. You simply sing along with 'Bones' as a way to mock it and if you display the same, sociopathic feelings as I do whilst listening to this song there's plenty to mock here: from the insincere addition of the out of place trumpets to bad apocalyptic chanting in the background, it seems as if even Flowers is overwhelmed by this one: he has to shout over so many layers of bawdy instruments to make himself heard and 'Bones' to me is perhaps the most awkward track on the album...which is really saying something! The way everything simmers in the middle of the song before being reduced to the synthesiser tries to give this one an epic kind of feel. Instead, 'Bones' comes across as a song that tries too hard to be heard. In fact, what makes it even more shameful is the reality of the band releasing this one as a single...
From the first time I ever heard 'Bones' I hated it and I have to say that listening to the song again for the purpose of this review is like some odd form of torture. Seriously. I don't care that Flowers wants someone to grope him underneath all of those layers of skin and muscle and I certainly wish he would have stuck the trumpet up a very delicate place rather than adding it to this abomination of a song. As you can tell, 'Bones' is NOT a song I ever want to hear again. Ever.
Thankfully, 'My List' seemingly grinds the album to a halt and fades in with the claps of slovenly drum sticks. This song is the closest thing the band have every really done to a full on ballad which celebrates real love rather than comments on its passing, like 'Mr. Brightside'. 'My List' is a slower paced song and is remarkably charming in many ways which is a good job as it's an address from Flowers to his wife, Tana. I think this one would have been a suitable closer for the album: all of the instruments mount confidently and I love the whirring, unsteady synth that drops out and leaves the drums to shine on in its place. 'My List' isn't the stereotypical, slushy ballad, at least if the term ballad is coined by the lyrical sentiments of McCartney and Darren Hayes. Yet, there's something beautifully haunting about 'My List' from the fade in of the tune to Brandon's almost tearful vocals and it's undeniably one of the albums only indisputable achievements. 'My List' grows on you with each and every listen: the first time I heard it, I thought the band hadn't done enough to really capture a mawkish mood but the understated approach really is a real winner in the long run and this is one of the few tracks on the album that can't be characterised as overbearing.
'THIS TOWN WAS MEANT FOR PASSING THROUGH/BUT AIN'T NOTHING NEW' (Lyrics from 'This River Is Wild')
In a stark juxtaposition to 'My List' is 'This River Is Wild' a song that carries on with such a synthesiser sound before once again overdosing on guitar riffs. Like 'Uncle Johnny', Brandon's vocals struggle to contend with the background music and I think listeners are missing out on a really good story with this one: someone is trying to break away from other people's expectations and carve out their own destiny for themselves. I hate the way this song tumbles into Flowers drawling over a soft piano at the demise of the rest of the instruments: that and the annoying, quasi-female backing vocals early on in the song don't do such a tale any justice. Throughout 'Sam's Town', you get a strong feeling that the band are trying to compete with songs or jingles of a more memorable nature and it just doesn't work, least of all on 'This River Is Wild'.
'Why Do I Keep Counting?' is the album's penultimate track and I was hoping for something as special as 'Read My Mind' or as heartfelt as 'My List' at this point. Sadly, with contrived, lullaby like chimes, 'Why Do I Keep Counting?' starts off very badly and although there's a glimmer of hope after the first chorus with a steady build up of guitars and drums, it soon becomes a very tepid track indeed. Flowers seems to impersonate Bowie somewhere in the second verse with some off kilter falsetto notes and a sniping sheet of synth but unfortunately, that's the only brush with greatness a song like this seems to reach. It seems to be a song about trying to search for the deeper meaning in life whilst trying to step away from the edge of a pessimistic eternity but there is just something really tacky and copycat about this one and I find it impossible to try and appreciate that meaning with so many dodgy sound interludes going on. The chimes at the beginning were bad enough but the female sort of backing vocals are back with a vengeance, cooing over the word children, and 'Why Do I Keep Counting?' soon becomes unbearable for me.
Sadly, things don't get much better with the album's final track 'Exitlude' which is basically a repetition of the 'Interlude'. Flowers' vocals are slow, the words indulgent and sometimes appalling and the progression of instruments from just the piano to an apathetic acoustic guitar and drums does nothing to make this song better or less condescending than the album's 'Interlude'. However, the 'Exitlude' does have one advantage to it: it means that the album is nearly over! Yay!
'MY BABY IS GONE, YOU MIGHT HAVE A CHANCE' (Lyrics from 'Where The White Boys Dance')
One of the best things about 'Sam's Town' is positively the UK bonus track 'Where The White Boys Dance' and in many ways, it seems like a tragedy that this is only a bonus track rather than one of the album's proud additions. The bass line takes centre stage once again and creates a really good funk-fused dance number which battles against thundering drums throughout. For the most part though the song's instruments are subdued enough so you can hear the full throttle of the lyrics, apparently about a guy and a girl trying to figure out where their boundaries lie with one another. I have to say that the only thing that would make 'Where The White Boys Dance' better is the presence of a (professional) female vocalist on the chorus to give the song a sharper, more sensual tone to play with. I can imagine Karen O from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs really doing this song justice and giving the track a kinky lift so it becomes even funkier and dirtier. As it stands, Flowers sings most of the song as if he's the dude from Spandau Ballet and I think his voice could have been a tad gravellier in places to suit the tone of the melody a little bit more but overall, it's one of the most memorable tracks on the entire album and for all of the right reasons.
OVERALL: DO I REALLY WANT TO TAKE ANOTHER TRIP TO 'SAM'S TOWN'?
No, I don't think I'll be revisiting 'Sam's Town' anytime soon. It's obvious from the other reviews that I'm very much in the minority and perhaps the whole 'Interlude' and 'Exitlude' thing rubbed me up the wrong way from the very start. Yet, even four years on since the first time I listened to this album, I still find it to be a disappointing, lacklustre effort from a band that I thought had potential to become one of the most celebrated rock bands of all time. To me, 'Sam's Town' just doesn't exhibit the same kind of magic as 'Hot Fuss', a stunning debut with lots of vibrancy and great variation. Instead, 'Sam's Town' is an album that tries too hard to recreate the sounds of other bands and sadly, The Killers lost many of their trademark sounds and standards along the way.
Alas, 'Sam's Town' proves in my opinion that The Killers aren't invincible. Don't get me wrong, there were a few stellar tracks on this album but sadly not even the delights of 'When You Were Young', 'Read My Mind', 'My List' and 'Where The White Boys Dance' can save this album from its pretentiousness. For now I shall stick with 'Hot Fuss' and Flower's solo album, records with just about enough charm and appeal to make me forget about the boredom of 'Sam's Town' and the utter rubbish that was 'Bones'. 2006's saviour of rock will be reduced once again to the dark corner of my room and shall not see the light of day again...at least not for a very, very long time.
Tracks: 13 (Limited Edition set)
Length: 47.40 mins (approx)
Genre: Alternative rock with some new wave influences
Buy: For £8.00 from Amazon.co.uk and its Marketplace.
(Please note: this review was previously displayed on Ciao under my username, MizzMolko. Thanks!)
After the death of my beloved MP3 player, the time had come for me to put many of my favourite CDs onto my new IPod. Although it's a pretty boring task, it does have one benefit: I'm rediscovering many of my favourite albums from years ago. The White Stripes' third release 'White Blood Cells' is just one of those records that I've enjoyed listening to recently.
Released in 2001 and then again the following year after changing record labels, lead singer and guitarist Jack White and his percussionist sister/wife/any other female relative Meg White managed to craft an album that in my mind is the precursor to their hit record 'Elephant' : anybody that has ever dared listen to the two back to back will find that the structure of manic rock songs dissolving into acoustic treats is a prominent feature of both albums. Although not flawless, I do think 'White Blood Cells' is an album that fully encapsulates everything that the Detroit Duo is about: it's an album which dares to mix classic rock and roll with blues and country styles and the results are sometimes prolific, sometimes sterile.
'SOFT HAIR AND A VELVET TONGUE' (Lyrics from 'Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground')
Drawing the listening into the album with the slight shuffling of drums sticks, 'Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground' is the archetypal White Stripes song: Jack's voice whines and drawls as if his heart is in his mouth - he's missing his lady and his vocals compliment the screeching, uneasy guitar riff perfectly. However, track number uno isn't bland and it certainly doesn't stay on one level throughout its three minutes: although the intro is distinctly Led Zep in nature - loud and ferocious - things soon calm down a little and the song offers a more straightforward melody. The bursts of anger throughout compliment the argumentative story and 'Dead Leaves' soon becomes a song that you don't just love because of its harsher, rockier moments: you love it because of the pace changes throughout too. It's a master class of a fantastic rock single which offers thoughtful lyrics and a raucous tune within a very short space of time.
'Hotel Yorba' is one of the album's acoustic jingles that has grown on me a lot over the years, partly because of Jack's deliciously raspy vocals. The tune, which boasts a very country, upbeat feel to the song, is host to a very nice breakdown of sorts in the middle that allows for Jack's vocals to shine generously. In fact, the whole package reminds me of The Beatles' 'I've Just Seen A Face' mainly for the lyrics, recounting a man and a woman's hasty relationship and equally as speedy nuptials. The jolly story is a great contrast to the lonesome narrator of the album's first track and although 'Hotel Yorba' can never be regarded as The White Stripes at their finest, it's a song that you enjoy with the general flow of the album and never contemplate skipping because of its two minute vivacity.
'I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman' sees the band venture into the bluesier side of their repertoire with the sorrowful, deep growls of the opening guitar. Track number three revisits the aggression of relationship troubles and openly discusses how difficult it is for a guy to be a true gent when woman just expect blokes to hold doors open for them or carry them across muddy paths. Perhaps Jack it's because women aren't accustomed to be carried about so much but back to the song and I like the inclusion of the piano during the chorus: the softer keys sound fresh as the piano pokes between the strong, unnerving guitars. My only slight criticism of 'I'm Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman' is the fact that it lacks a real defining moment: the lyrics become very monotonous very quickly and it's perhaps only the tune that keeps this song afloat for nearly three minutes. I do enjoy this one but it's just not a stand out, memorable song from an album that began with two very defining and different tracks.
'SOMETIMES THESE FEELINGS CAN BE SO MISLEADING' (Lyrics from 'Fell In Love With A Girl')
Long before Joss Stone turned it into a sexy soul track of sorts, 'Fell In Love With A Girl' was a favourite Stripes song of mine. I love the fast paced style of this one which demonstrates the whole notion of 'love at first sight' in its manic, thrashing manner. Throughout its mere two minutes, track number four dominates your ear drums: it's loud, in your face and frenzied, something that the Arctic Monkeys would be pleased to put on their record. Although the guitar is the main driving force behind this song's catchiness, White's nasal vocals rip through the whole sound during some moments and fights against the overwhelming, beguiling riffs. 'Fell In Love With A Girl' will never win the title for deepest song ever written but it's undoubtedly a delightful few minutes of intense rock and roll.
'Expecting' offers fans, for the first time on this record, an equal split between the drums, guitars and vocals. The patchiness of the first thirty seconds makes this one sound like a demo: Jack and Meg seem to be fumbling about, trying to figure out how to blend their sounds into something that can stand tall next to the previous, well oiled song. 'Expecting' was a bit misplaced on the album: it's not acoustic, doesn't have any real story to it and is not as loud as 'Fell In Love With a Girl' thus making it sound weak and - dare I say? - amateurish in presentation. The saving grace of all saving graces is the fact that it only just surpasses the two minute mark and the band didn't try and turn this into a misguided epic of some kind.
The same can be said for 'Little Room', one of the few songs on the album that lets Meg lash away on the drums to her heart's content without being overshadowed by Jack's bellowing guitar. 'Little Room' provides yodelling of some poor description and a story of needing a 'bigger room' which you can use to, uh, build bigger things in. At only fifty seconds in length, I have to say that was enough for me or I may have been sent to a smaller room with padded walls...
'The Union Forever' starts slowly with what can only be described as a bass-like depth to Jack's guitar. His vocals are oddly reminiscent in places to Nirvana front man's Kurt Cobain both in his best baritone and when he dares to strike a higher note. Track number seven seems to be a protest song of some sorts: Jack proclaims there is 'no true love' as the guitar literally knocks you off guard before the whole track simmers down to just the drums and vocals. The narrator says he has no interest in high priced political possessions, such as mines and oil wells, and White's vocals seem to represent a man who has lost everything in his life and simply doesn't care anymore. 'The Union Forever' is one of the longest songs on the album at nearly three and a half minutes but it's sadly not one of the most memorable. Having said that, I do enjoy this song every time I hear it and I'd put money on 'The Union Forever' being a fantastically intense live song!
'WELL I GUESS I HAVEN'T GROWN' (Lyrics from 'The Same Boy You've Always Known')
A lowly, country-blues guitar draws the listener into 'The Same Boy You've Always Known', a lament of lost love and lost hope. Although there's a slight echo and a few racier moments, I think the best thing about this song is the way that Jack's vocals and the lyrics do all of the talking. For the first time on this album, Jack's voice becomes softer, almost heartbroken and it works well with the more relaxed pace of the guitar and drums. I think the band could have made this one even more heartbreaking though: perhaps stripping everything down to just the acoustic guitar and having Jack sing it with a slower, more considered pace would have made it more emotional but it's easy to recognise 'The Same Boy You've Always Known's' sad story because of the lighter organisation of the instruments.
'We're Going To Be Friends' does exactly what I hoped the previous track would: there's a simple percussion thud in the background which is overtaken by the acoustic guitar and Jack's soft vocals and he proves with this track that he's actually a very good songwriter. 'We're Going To Be Friends' simply tells the story of a boy and a girl who become friends at school and I think the acoustic style compliments and captures the innocence that the song presents. Track number nine perhaps isn't what you'd expect from the band that released 'Seven Nation Army' a couple of years later but it's certainly a nice excursion from some of the dirty rock songs on here. Some may not like 'We're Going To Be Friends' because it is such a gentle track but I like its genuine sweetness and mellowness.
Track ten, very much like 'The Union Forever', has a nice break of guitars and a change of texture, allowing Jack's vocals to come to the forefront of the song instead. However I actually find 'Offend In Every Way' to be very dull in comparison. Telling the story of someone who never feels good enough should present the picture of somebody who's very angry but 'Offend In Every Way' just doesn't do that. It could have been a more memorable song if Jack had really gone to town on the guitar work, perhaps adding a slider in there to give this one a grittier, more irritated sound to flatter the words. Alas, the guitars broke away to let the drums do a little bit of the chatting for a short while and that was as far as the riffs went. All in all, 'Offend In Every Way' really is just one of the most forgettable songs on this album which does everything many tracks do on this album but in a less convincing way.
'ALL YOU LITTLE KIDS SEEM TO THINK YOU KNOW JUST WHERE IT'S AT' (Lyrics from 'I Think I Smell A Rat')
'I Think I Smell A Rat' couldn't be more different to 'Offend In Every Way' and is a snarling, blazing song all about treating others with the respect that they deserve. Track number eleven sounds disgusted by what the narrator sees: Jack spits the lyrics as if he's a rapper, the guitars are ear piercingly sharp and the drums combust underneath the other components dramatically well. 'I Think I Smell A Rat' is an edgy, short number that just tips the two minute mark but the wonderful guitar work by Jack makes it seem like a much longer gem on the album.
Track number twelve begins with what can only be described as a pixie with laryngitis gargling incessantly before transforming into an elephant whose trunk has become lodged full of peanuts. That really is the only way I can explain the heavy rock outbursts of 'Aluminum', a song that seems better suited to a wrestling ring than a rock band's album in some ways...
'I Can't Wait' teeters somewhere between anger and passiveness as Jack tells the tale of a guy and a girl's relationship which is being put on the backburner for a while at the bloke's request. It's not that I particularly dislike the progression of guitars and drums on this one: everything builds and breaks down at the verses to allow the lyrics to be at the forefront of the song. Yet it's all a bit shoddily done: to me, the guitars are not wistful enough and the lazy, repetitive strum makes this track tired and lifeless. For the first time in their careers, The White Stripes impersonate Oasis in the form of Jack's hardcore Mancunian wannabe vocals and it just doesn't work, especially not for me as I can't stand Oasis!
Just when you think that the album's taking a bit of a nosedive, 'Now Mary' bites back with vengeance and turns out to be one of the best songs on the latter half of the album. Beginning with an acoustic guitar normally means with the Stripes that the song will continue in that way but the electric guitar intrudes after just a few seconds and is a welcome contrast to this typical notion. Jack seems to be singing once again about relationships: he knows the breakup is going to be difficult for him but the young lady he used to date, Mary, will be just fine. At 1.47 minutes in length, 'Now Mary' is the second shortest songs on the album and is the right length for such an anecdote we have technically heard elsewhere on the album. None-the-less, 'Now Mary' is a song where all of the instruments fuse together well, proving to be one of the most melodic songs on the entire album.
'I DON'T KNOW ANY LULLABYS' (Lyrics from 'I Can Learn')
The penultimate song on 'White Blood Cells' is actually the longest the album has to offer and 'I Can Learn' is quite a raunchy, bluesy number from the very start. Jack's voice is at its rawest and tells of a painful transition within a forlorn relationship. Unlike 'I Can't Wait' where the stalling of the instruments simply didn't work, I think the electric outbursts of this track just makes it sound like a very mature track that's a world away from the jovial number of 'Hotel Yorba'. I wish 'I Can Learn' had a great guitar solo in the middle: it would have stormed through the repetitive, recurring riffs and just made this track sublime, possibly the best on the album. Having said that, track number fifteen is still one of the hardest hitting songs on the record but it definitely could have done with just an unexpected strike of pizzazz somewhere in there to ensure that it stays memorable.
The piano intro was an unexpected surprise for the album's final track. 'This Protector' is a song about the mindset of someone who lives as a recluse in West Virginia. At least, that's what I can gather from the rather sparse lyrics. Although I am a fan of Jack White's singing voice, I really don't think Meg should be let loose anywhere near a microphone and whilst - thankfully - 'This Protector' is not a solo vocal performance by her but a duet with her brother/husband/other male relative, it all sounds very recreational and certainly not a song that should conclude a rock album. I'd recommend just listening up to track number fifteen and treating 'I Can Learn' as the album's finale because 'This Protector' really is just worthless, bland and a bit gimmicky to be frank.
OVERALL: IS 'WHITE BLOOD CELLS' A WINNER?
To say that they normally work with just a guitar and drum kit to hand, The White Stripes have created a surprisingly versatile album with 'White Blood Cells'. Some of the tracks are guilty of being quite similar to others, some are a tad indulgent, but on the whole many of the songs stand alone and are very enjoyable.
The band's next release 'Elephant' is one of those records which possesses many brilliant, stand alone songs but 'White Blood Cells' is certainly one of those albums which benefits from being listened to all of the way through time and time again so you can jog your memory a little. On one hand this is a bad thing: besides the opener, 'White Blood Cells' lacks many really impressive, defining tracks that you remember without having to listen to the album ever again. On the plus side, this album is one that you enjoy listening to every time feel compelled to do so, because memories of many of the songs are quite sketchy somehow.
Rather than being a deadly mix of genres, 'White Blood Cells' proves in many ways to be a joyous blend of infectious rock songs with the best tracks immunising you from some of the anaemic tracks that this record presents along the way. Recommended.
Length: 40.25 minutes
Peak album position in the UK charts: 55th
Buy from: Play.com for £5.99 (and free delivery!)
(Please note: previously displayed on Ciao under my same username.)