Archive for September, 2009

Long weekends and Naughty G

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Great weekend. Friday I came back from Hong Kong at 3:10, Naoko and Zen came out to the airport to greet me and my boss, we all had lunch together. Took a cab back home, but had some bad luck – there was a bad accident on the highway that turned a 30-minute commute into a 90-minute slog. It would have taken just as long, or less, on public transit. Got home, unpacked, chilled out a bit, gave Zen his present (two Roald Dahl books: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator”… can’t wait to re-read them myself) and then collapsed – exhausted at 9:30. I slept until 9:30 the next day.

Saturday was a day of errands – a bit of this, a bit of that, taking Zen to art class, then to his Kumon math lesson at Beauty World nearby, then home for some lunch, some chilling out when Naoko and Zen went off to his Japanese lessons downtown. I left the home around 6:30 to meet some friends at the free concert of The Observatory, which was nice (see previous blog for a full description of the show, as well as the two CDs I bought there). Got home, did stuff until late at night, which mainly included uploading photos of Hong Kong onto the blog, listening to the new CDs, and also making friends with The Observatory through their MySpace pages.

Sunday was a chillout day – I just sat around the house reading. I also had my first swim in our pool, which was nice, and Zen and I practiced sitting on the bottom of the pool like little Buddhas. Mainly I was getting my peace of mind back. It was good. I did a bit of editing work late at night, and went to sleep at the not-unreasonable hour of 1:30 AM.

Monday I did a bit of work for the company in the morning – wrote a short article – and then at 12:30 we took the bus to Hillcrest Drive and Greenwood Lane (street names that would not have been out of place in Mississauga, Ontario, where I grew up… in fact, I think we had a Hillcrest and a Greenwood!) to the Cafe Iguana restaurant where we had made a 1:30 reservation to celebrate Naoko’s birthday. It was a quiet place with only a few diners, we enjoyed the lunch special of good Mexican food and cheap frozen margueritas, as well as good Brewerkz microbrewery beer. Check out the photos below. Lots of nice places nearby. After that, we went home, I did a bit more work, Zen and I went for a swim, then we hopped on our bikes to see the Malaysia train pass by Bukit Timah train station. It’s been ages and ages since we’ve done that! Got there at 6:15, then found out that the train was scheduled to pass through at 6:45 instead. Waited around for a bit, but then the sky started getting very dark with rainclouds, so we split and got home just in time to save ourselves from getting drenched in a tropical downpour. What an adventure!

My guitar setup in the new place. Cool elephant, huh?
Four guitars

Naoko’s belated birthday lunch.
Peter and Naoko at Cafe Iguana

Zen in Naoko’s shades.
Groovy Zen

A less attractive pose of Zen.
Goofy Zen and groovy Naoko

Does this guy look like me or what?
Pete and the Naughty G

Observing Leslie Low and The Observatory

Sunday, September 20th, 2009

I recently had the good fortune to be informed of a free concert by The Observatory, Singapore’s best-known art-pop band, headed by Leslie Low and his crew of merry soundsters.  The event was last night at the theatres of the National University of Singapore, making it my first reason to go to NUS since I’ve been to Singapore.  Nice place.  The evening concert was happening at the same time as a dance recital, and there were plenty of merry young men prancing about being happy.  I was there early, so I bought two CDs from the merchandise stand and then had a beer as I sampled my wares (figuratively speaking).  The evening started at 8:00 with the five-man math rock wonders M-Quartet (the band actually has six members – one of them was absent).  Nice guitar sounds, and a very intense lead singer.

There was a 30-minute intermission from 8:30 to 9:00, and then The Observatory came out.  My friend Flo was so excited, she identified all of the members in awe, and the band proceeded to play huddled and seated in a half-circle.  I’d never heard any of the full albums before, and I’d barely listened to their music at all, so it was all new. Leslie played an acoustic guitar, sometimes an electric, and sang.  Vivian Wang played a keyboard/organ and sang one number (and super subtle backups on others).  Evan Tan played a Powerbook, and occasionally also hit on a single drum when there was a bit of percussion.  Dharma played two electric guitars, sometimes planted on the stage and shaved with a violin bow.  Victor Low played a gigantic, gorgeous, phat stand-up double bass.  While some songs were angular and sparse, I was most intrigued when thick, heavy sounds came in, be they distorted cords or the result of twisting a knob on a guitar effects pedal. Not to discount the band’s original music, which I am now getting to know, but I really perked up when they played two brilliant covers – one was Nick Drake’s “The River Man” and Pink Floyd’s “Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun.” While both were faithful to the originals, I really felt that the Pink Floyd song was a stunner, adding stuff that wasn’t in the original, including guitar improvisations and some heavy intensity in the middle.  Good job, guys.  I went out, got autographs from the band when I found where they were hanging out, chatted with them for a while about bands we like such as a bunch on the Southern Lord label (Leslie was wearing a Burning Witch t-shirt), then took the last bus home. Of course, the first thing I did was find them on MySpace, add them as friends, and listen to their CDs all night, hearing things that reminded me of what I experienced onstage. Usually I will hear a band’s new album before I go see them, but this time it was interesting to do it the other way around, especially for a band that I admire and am growing to enjoy in a somewhat intimate way (through the ears).

Here is a very mellow version of what I saw:

CD reviews:

TODF
The Observatory, “Dark Folke” – A nearly drumless album of quirky post-rock songs sung with Leslie Low’s sombre Nick Drake-like voice and pleasant folk guitar fingerpickings, accompanied by odd keyboard sounds, the occasional Powerbook throb, drums in intense moments, female vocals, angular guitarism, and other arcane effects that mirror the dark pencil sketches of Justin Barlett – who has illustrated releases by Sunn 0))) and other Southern Lord bands – that fill the gorgeous hardcover booklet that the CD has been released in. The Observatory, Sonic Youth-like, has experimented with each album, seeking different sounds, and this one is possibly inspired by a closer alignment with experimental-minded musicians of a more international variety. Interesting, challenging music that deserves repeated playings. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a bit of Mark Hollis from Talk Talk’s more arcane moments, and maybe there’s a dash or two of Merzbow. The release starts off with the groovy cords of “Omicron” and some spooky sound effects, then some jazz guitar, before you hear a bit of spooky Richard Wright (“Echoes”) keyboards and some strange Indian sound effects and some Talk Talk-like standup double bass and creaky guitar sounds, as well as funky percussion. Strangely, although the booklet has lyrics to this song, none are heard throughout the track (there’s a note at the bottom that says “unspoken”). “A Shuffler in the Mud” has groovy Star Trek keyboards to accompany the sparse acoustic song with the multi-tracked vocals. Whistling, distorted guitars, e-bow sounds, and a peculiar catharsis. “Blood Rising” starts off with intense, angular guitar sounds (including bowed guitar), and then picks up into a crazy headbanging moment with carny-like keyboard moments. And yet, somehow, there’s something Sufjan Stevens about it all. “Ephemeron” starts off with Nick Drake-like fingerpicking and piano moments, then moves off in sweet ways that are floating, ghostly. One of the more beautiful moments is “Incastrate”, when keboardist Vivian Wang steps up for her turn at the mic; but, rather than repeating the half-hearted Bjorkisms of songs like “How’s Life” from the band’s upbeat 2004 debut “Time of Rebirth”, she goes for a bathos-drenched Kahimi Karie from her darkest Momus moments. The song is full of more of those weird carny keyboards and is drenched in angular guitars. “Invisible Room” starts off mellow, hippy, New Age, chanting, droning, before building up with the angular guitars, standup double bass, and a lot of “woo woo ooo.” “Lowdown” is the longest song on the CD, at 8:11, it starts off with burbles and noise and drones, building up into hippy vocals and then noisy droning with slashing cords and wicked bleeps and bloops and guitar sqruonk – this is as intense as The Observatory gets (when they’re not doing “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”, that is). “The Boring” starts out with flute-like keyboards, a bit of mellow guitar, then becomes a regular Leslie Low song. “Decarn” has strange angular guitar sounds and B-movie keyboards, as well as heavy riffs and UFO sounds, it is an intense bit of music. The progressions are almost Metallica-ish, with screams and groans, not to mention the heavenly angel interlude (according to the lyrics sheet, there are no lyrics – it’s an instrumental). “Mind Roots” is spacy and airy, with guitar and voice and some keyboards that swirly like heavenly angels, the song groans in and out. Watch out for this band and, if you’re lucky, try to catch one of their rare live performances.

LLW
Leslie Low, “Worm” – With a cover/artwork concept that seems to have been inspired by the Erik Karle “The Hungry Caterpillar” book (i.e. a hole bored through the many layers of the multi-folded cardboard stock cover goes through several of the gorgeous illustrations by Melvin Chee hidden within), the musical mind behind Singaporean art-pop band The Observatory Leslie Low releases his first solo work. The 11 songs on this 2006 release are largely soft folk songs that can most easily be compared to the sparsest of Nick Drakes songs, or perhaps a tinge of very early Nagisa Ni te when the production values were a bit more jaunty. “Little one” is an ode to childhood in the city, with lots of background vocals that can only come from Leslie Low himself. “Dull boy” is a sparse folk song – solo guitar and Low’s clear, bright vocals – as is “All things new”, and nearly every song on the release. “The worm” is even more Nick Drake-like, with the accompaniment of some droning keyboard. “The people” starts off with some impressive folk guitar fingerwork before moving off into a sombre meditation on social conditions. Low’s songs are as simple as The Observatory’s are complex, you can tell he has a lot of fun with them.

Goin’ September way…

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

Wow, long time no post!  So much has happened recently. I can’t believe that I haven’t posted since August 2nd. Why? Very busy at work, nothing to report, and general craziness. It all started around August 2nd, in fact…

I got a promotion at work, which is nice; so I’m now the managing editor of the publishing side of the business. Of course, this means more work for me, so I’ve been trying to keep it all together. And so, what happened was that in August I had to worry about getting three publications put together (two regular publications, one of which I had to write about 15 pages of stuff for, and a Chinese version of one of them that required coordinating with the graphic designer and the translator), as well as our video interview schedules, the regular nuts and bolts of my daily work, training new staff, getting ready to move house (packing boxes, coordinating with the moving company, etc.), putting up a new website, conducting job interviews, moving house, getting an iPhone, preparing for a major conference that was happening in mid-September that we were an official media partner for, and all sorts of other nutty stuff. I’m surely forgetting something. The bottom line is that I worked through the last two weekends of August and had 16-hour days and just got everything done. The last week of August was the most incredibly productive week of my life – no loose ends untied. The result is that I have a new website, new print publications in multiple languages, a new apartment, and a swanky phone. Cool!

I also had a major highlight of my life in Singapore – my friend from my college days Danella came out to visit me! And she had the most awesome timing – she chose to come out just between the business of my move and the business of my conference. Perfect! Her flight was landing just after midnight, so I worked late and then went out to the airport to meet her on the last train. We took a cab back to my place and hung out for a while drinking gin and tonics and chatting. Saturday Naoko and Zen woke up and saw Danella saw (it was Zen’s first time since he had been 8 months old) and we all had a big breakfast. Zen and Naoko did art and math and Japanese lessons and stuff, while I took Danella downtown to sample the Esplanade, Raffles Hotel, the Bugis area (including Bugis Street, which Leonard Cohen once sang about), and then to Little India where we had a beer at the Prince of Wales. Walked around there a bit, then took the bus back home to catch up with Naoko and Zen for some Indian food for dinner. Unfortunately, I picked a noisy table, so it wasn’t so great, but we all enjoyed the yummy food. Sunday we went to the botanical garden and just walked around looking at interesting plants. Went into the orchid garden, but they were doing construction on the old house in there that was pretty noisy. They were also setting up for a concert and had some second-rate Sarah MacLaughlin-like singer going through the sound system, which was pretty noisy and annoying. But the botanical garden is so great, and we had nice munchies at the main cafe while Danella updated her Facebook. Took great pictures of engorged banana flowers, inviting pitcher plants, bodacious orchids, and all sorts of other cool things. Went off to Bar Bar for burgers, something we’d been promising Zen for ages and ages, and we finally did it!

Monday, I was off to work. Zen had a week off school, so he and Naoko and Danella went off to the Singapore zoo. Seems like they all had an amazing time, so it was my turn to be jealous, of course. I got back not late, then we had a nice dinner together. Tuesday Danella met a friend, I didn’t see her, but Wednesday night I did. She left on Thursday, and I continued on with the week. Friday, Saturday, work work work to prepare for the banking convention, then Sunday I went to sleep at 1:30 AM and got up at 4:15 AM for my flight to Hong Kong. I slept most of the way but, lucky for me, it was a budget airline flight and they didn’t wake me up for one of their crappy meals.

A banking convention in nearby Hong Kong, what a relief – conference hours may be grueling, but not as grueling as a regular week at work. Sunday I checked into my ritzy hotel with a harbour view, then went to a bank lunch in a ritzy meeting room down by the water (great food), then an IT vendor gathering at a groovy old building (so-so food). We arrived just as a heavy downpour was ready to lash the island. Monday was the opener, I wandered around, checked out the booths, saw people from conferences past, made new friends, chilled out, had beers, ate, made things happen, took videos, and was just generally a happy camper. The interviews proceeded smoothly, I made friends, and when the day was over I went over to a bank party in a neighbouring building. Sure, there was a typhoon approaching, and maybe some of the other ritzy events were cancelled, but since the one I was going to was in the building just next to the convention centre and didn’t require any bussing or other sorts of transportation to get people there (a big consideration when insuring these sorts of gatherings), this event was not cancelled while all others were. We went to the party, we met the CEO of the bank, we hung out, we had great views of the city, the typhoon did us no harm (nor, in the end, did it affect Hong Kong much at all), we were served an unending supply of gin and tonics, and then we went home… by public transport. Ouch.

Tuesday morning I thought that we’d be typhoon-ed out of the conference (imagine being greeted by heavy sheets of rain drenching the city), but when we looked out of the window in the morning and saw people walking on the streets without being swept away – with out even carrying umbrellas – we knew we would not be able to use this excuse to miss any interviews. And so it was another regular day at the conference, except there was no party in the evening, so I had wonton soup for dinner in a local dive – lovely. Wednesday we took care of the show and did interviews, then in the evening there was a pleasant little dinner with one of the IT vendors. It was in a private room that was part of one of the harbourfront hotels, we ate and drank and enjoyed ourselves, then at 9:00 or so we got to see the laser light show that hits the Hong Kong skyline at nights. A very pleasant evening. Thursday, the last day of the event, we got going and did the interviews, I got to the closing plenary session, then had some tidbits and beers and conversation at the closing cocktail session, then a bus back to the hotel room, then I wrote an article, and headed off to a party on the rooftop of a 31-storey building. Not bad. Woke up early the next morning, packed, headed out to the airport with my boss and one of my colleagues, sat on the plane, slept…

Moving house!

Moving stuff!
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Posing Zen!
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Sunset from our new house’s living room.
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View of Singapore’s highest point, also from our living room.
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Take a tour of our place!

Showing Danella around Singapore!

Danellasplanade!
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Zenellaoko.
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Singapore skyline – with Merlion!
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Botanical Garden greens!

The flower of the fabulous cannonball tree
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The succulent banana tree flower.
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Pineapple flower anyone?
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Bloated coconut husk heads.
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Orchid paradise
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The Greenman.
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Orchid Number Nine.
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Orchid, orchid baby.
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Pitcher plant.
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Business trip to Hong Kong

Smoggy arrival in Hong Kong – a view from our hotel.  Note the barely-perceptible bridge at the right side.
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View from Central, 75th floor.
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View from my hotel room on a nice day.
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View of Hong Kong from the convention centre where our event was.
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View of the HSBC building.
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View from the 31st floor in party central, Lan Kwai Fong.
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Lots of available taxis.
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