A musical Damascus moment

As I hope this blog makes abundantly clear, music is – to quote Frank Zappa – ‘the best’.

Consequently, I type this surrounded by my guitars, recording equipment, amps and shelves and shelves full of recorded music.

Several years ago – when I had hundreds of cassettes and vinyl LPs (remember those?)  – I once worked out that I could play my collection for several weeks and not hear the same track twice.

Now, it’s several months at least…there’s music on MP3 CDs, MP3 DVDs and hard disc drives.

We’re not talking mere gigabytes here – it’s terabytes of the stuff…

So, there’s a shitload of music here – and of all kinds, from classical to avant-garde jazz.

Indeed, to coin a phrase, from Abba to Zappa.

My current tastes have been steadily with me for a few years now. I find myself listening to a lot of blues, some country and a hell of a lot of jazz.

Heh…I suppose I’m in a bit of a rut – albeit a very, very pleasant one.

However, I’ve just had my musical world totally fucking rocked by what’s probably the most refreshing and involving album I’ve heard in years.

It’s giving me major goosebumps right now listening to it, and I think I could quite happily get marooned on a desert island with nothing but this beautiful music to keep me company.

Basically, it’s an album of Steely Dan songs sung by two Swedish women with minimal accompaniment – mostly piano.

It’s this:

fire-in-the-hole

It’s called ‘Fire in the Hole’ and it’s by Sara Isaksson and Rebecka Törnqvist – although they don’t look like the cover seems to suggest they do.

Here they are:

 

rebecka-sara

 

That’s better, isn’t it?

Here’s the Dan songs they cover:

  • Rose Darling
  • Barrytown
  • Gaucho
  • Green Earrings
  • Your Gold Teeth
  • Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)
  • Don’t Take Me Alive
  • Josie
  • Do It Again
  • Fire In The Hole
  • Pearl Of The Quarter
  • Midnite Cruiser

What surprised me was that if someone asked me to list a dozen Dan songs I’d like to hear covers of, very few of the above would have made it to my list.

However, Isaksson and Törnqvist make the songs their own, and, with minimal accompaniment, the songs are stripped down to the essentials – melody, harmonies and chord changes – and then sung in such a way that each one becomes a small jewel of dazzlingly radiant beauty.

They’ve made me aware of subtleties in songs that I very often skip through when listening to the original albums on which the tunes appeared. I just know that I’ll revisit the Dan versions with fresh ears now.

Their voices are simultaneously plaintive, vulnerable and sensuous but with an inner strength that supports a format of basically two female voices and an acoustic piano.

Yes, there are other instruments – occasionally you’ll hear a mandolin, a sax, a clarinet, an acoustic guitar, a synth, an electric piano or a kick drum – but it’s basically kept very simple and these other instruments just used for texture and seasoning.

Even the voices reinforce this simplicity, with solo and unison singing used when appropriate, and so the glorious harmony sections are made to really stand out .

Some of the instrumental lines – such as the guitar figure in ‘Brooklyn (Owes The Charmer Under Me)’ – get sung in a vaguely ‘scat’ way, although what could have been a ‘jazz’ album gets elevated to a sort of a melodic purity by dint of the clarity of the singing and an overriding urge to display the inner lyricism of the tunes.

It’s an absolutely fantastic piece of work.

Fortunately, I can share it (sort of) with you on here.

YouTube has a couple of live versions which are almost as good as on the album.

Here they are:

 

The album’s not a work of genius – it’s something a bit more unique than that.

Just as the planets will occasionally align, the sun will be eclipsed and you get a phone call from someone you were thinking about a minute before the phone rang, it just happened – because it did.

The two voices came together on a few pieces of music and something just happened – something so unique that it became more than just a series of circumstances or a fortunate situation.

Call it serendipity or coincidence, but whatever it was, it all gave rise to some of the most beautiful music I‘ve ever heard…

PS I’ve just read this on a blog regarding this musical gem and I agree 100%:

The fact that it even exists gives me hope for the future of humanity.

 

 

9 other things to do with a guitar

It’s all very well being able to play a guitar, but what else can you do with one?

1. You can spin around with it or even just spin it around:

 

2. You can perform acrobatics with it:

 

3. You can twat somebody with it:

 

4. You can take a chainsaw to it:

 

5. You can just smash it up:

 

6. You can blow it up:

 

7. You can use it for background music whilst you juggle:

 

8. You can make a bike ride more entertaining:

 

9. You can attach an outboard motor to a 20 foot long guitar (if you have one handy) and go for a cruise on the river:

 

Lunch in Tahiti

A good morning’s digging has restored me to a far less jaded state than I’ve been in since yesterday.

The cause of this was yesterday’s visit to this area’s best-kept secret when it comes to restaurants – the ‘Tahiti’ at Renazé.

 

tahiti

 

It’s an unpreposessing place from the outside but it’s surprisingly pleasant and comfortable inside – which is what counts.

Diners can be directed to any of three dining areas, depending on how busy the Tahiti is or how many people are in your party. The big room is my favourite with its display of Mexican sombreros – supposedly fitting in with the South Sea Islands theme in some bizarre way (!) but I’ve never asked.

Yesterday, the five of us in our party were shown to a table in the front dining room near the bar so it was easy to see the customers arriving. Most were people taking their works lunch break and the mass of white vans outside attested to this. It filled up rapidly and – as you often read in guide books – the sign of a good restaurant is one that is very busy and full of locals. This is certainly the case all year round at the Tahiti.

The lunch time menu is a mere €10.70 per person, with 4 courses – buffet of hors d’oeuvres, main, cheese and dessert, with as much local cider, red or rosé wine as you like.

Fantastic value, bearing in mind the totally home-cooked and generous nature of the food and the drinks are included.

The service is excellent too – polite, prompt and friendly – which can make a good meal into a very good one, which the Tahiti does time after time.

The first buffet course meant that you could help yourself to terrine, various cooked meats, hard boiled eggs, diced beetroot, rice salad, pasta salad and green salad. If you’re not careful, you can spoil the rest of the meal if you go too mad…

The main course yesterday – it changes radically from day to day – offered several choices:

  • hake
  • roast pork
  • turkey milanese
  • black pudding
  • sausage
  • beef tongue
  • tête de veau (a sort of brawn using meat from the head of a veal calf)

This was the most ‘French’ menu I’d seen at the Tahiti, and as I usually avoid eating bits of animals that I’d normally see on an abbatoir floor, I opted for the pork – as did two more in our party, the remaining two having the hake. To accompany the meat or fish, you had a choice of creole rice, pasta, green beans or chips.

The chips at the Tahiti are one of the best things about the menu – hand-cut and then fried in some sort of fat as opposed to oil – they taste like real chips should and are a far cry from the anaemic frozen French fries that you often get.

The pork – two thick slices – was tender and subtly seasoned and, with my chips, made a simple but very satisfying main course.

I then followed with cheese – Camembert, Port Salut and Emmenthal – and some bread. I was too full to manage dessert, but I could have had ice cream, fresh fruit or a choice of whipped desserts; creamy or fruity.

Throughout the meal, I washed the food down with cider – a medium one made some 15 km north of where we were eating – and then rosé, a Loire one which was very smooth indeed.

I was very glad that Mrs Shark had agreed to drive us home…

I’m sure that some of the main courses I balked at were very good. It’s a slight problem I have, in that I was brought up in a home where my mother disliked the cheaper cuts of meat, even though I now realise that she didn’t have that much money to spend sometimes. Consequently, I dislike meat with bones in, and although I’ll quite happily eat liver and kidney, I avoid anything that might be brains, bollocks or other bits of an animal like that.

Anyway…the Tahiti.

Good surroundings, great service, unlimited cider or wine, copious amounts of good, fresh, home-style food and all for €10.70 a head. They don’t rush you, either, so the five of us spent a very pleasant couple of hours indeed.

I wholeheartedly recommend it – and don’t forget to leave a tip; the waitresses are worth it.

As for the digging, a couple of hours with the fork brought on a good sweat in the autumn sunshine and finally got yesterday’s lunch digested – as well as another vegetable patch ready for planting.

House update – 18 months in…

Well, we’re 18 months into ex-pat life here in France so, how’s it gone, Monsieur-dame?

Here’s a rough (very rough) timeline:

  • March 1st 2010 – we arrived in France to look for a house whilst renting. We were after a small house without any major work needing to be done
  • April – we found the house we wanted, (a large house with lots and lots of renovation needed!) put a silly offer in which was accepted and then signed the compromis (a legally binding contract of our intention to buy and the vendors to sell) with a view to completion on 31st July
  • July 31st – completion wasn’t happening due to one of the vendors being a total arsehole
  • November – we eventually completed and the house was ours. We set about clearing the house as lots of ‘stuff’ was left. Work on renovation started
  • February 28th 2011 – we moved into the house whilst work continued. We existed mainly in one room with a bed, a sofa and lots of boxes of our possessions
  • August 30th – today! – the inside is finished apart from a few odd bits (snagging as a builder would term it) and the outside is virtually done, with the drainage being sorted as I type this

So, what have we ended up with?

We now have a fully-renovated longere with two reception rooms, downstairs bathroom, massive kitchen diner, a studio/office and a utility room, two huge bedrooms upstairs and a large shower room leading off a large landing. The house stands in about a quarter of an acre of garden with orchard, and there’s a separate parcel of land of about the same area, with a barn, directly across from the house.

Here’s what the front of the house looked like in April 2010. It’s not the same camera angle and view and in the following ‘after’ picture, but it should serve to give some idea of what it was like. The roof wasn’t too clever, the render was crumbling and vines and creepers were all over the place.

 

P1010036

 

Here’s the house today:

 

P1020200

 

The exterior painting needs finishing and the large shutters still have to be put on, but the new roof is in place and it’s all looking much, much better.

The builders are away next week, but work won’t stop. We have the exterior woodwork – door and window frames – to buzz down and then lasure so that they’re all a uniform light oak colour.

Anyway, it’s been a very busy and sometimes strange 18 months, but we’ve ended up with a house that we absolutely love, in a setting that couldn’t be more perfect. It’s quiet, rural and private.

To come – some before and after photos of the interior…

Sunny and Kir

There are some great summer time drinks, with my favourites amongst them being – in no particular order:

  • Ice-cold lager-type beer (biere blonde)
  • Chilled rose
  • Pimms and lemonade
  • Mojito
  • Amaretto and orange juice over crushed ice
  • Pastis

However, since moving to France, another drink has entered this pantheon – kir.

rec2478.123757.kir-royal-liqueur-de-bleuet320x240

Now, I’ve been aware of kir for quite a few years now, but I’ve only recently started to really get into it as a summer aperitif.

But – as I’ve recently discovered – there’s more to kir than white wine and a dash of cassis.

Yes, I’ve known about Kir Petillant (cassis and sparkling white) and Kir Royal (cassis and champagne) for a while, but what about Kir Breton?

That’s cassis and cider!

Here are a few more variations – courtesy of Wikipedia:

  • Communard/Cardinal – made with red wine instead of white
  • Kir Imperial – made with raspberry liqueur instead of cassis, and Champagne
  • Cidre Royal – made with cider instead of wine, with a measure of calvados added.
  • Hibiscus Royal – made with sparkling wine, peach liqueur, raspberry liqueur, and an edible hibiscus flower. Also found with sparkling wine and pear schnapps.
  • Kir Peche – made with peach liqueur.
  • Pamplemousse – made with red grapefruit liqueur and sparkling white wine, which gives a slightly tart alternative.
  • Tarantino – made with lager or light ale (“kir-beer”).
  • the Pink Russian – made with milk instead of wine.

It’s also a remarkably economical drink.

With cheap sparkling wine available at just over a euro a bottle and cassis about €5 a bottle, a Kir Petillant costs around 30 centimes to make a large glass, which makes it as cheap as buying a bottle of biere blonde – and that’s cheap enough.

OK, the cheap sparkling is pretty manky on its own, but a splash of fruit liqueur makes it perfectly drinkable and also ups the alcohol content from a measly 10.5%, in the case of Comte de Talmon vin mousseux.

You don’t even need much cassis – a mix of 6 parts wine to 1 part cassis is perfectly OK and it can even be a higher ratio without detriment to the taste.

Just make sure the wine is very well-chilled.

Then you will be too.

Cheers!

WHOA!

A mere 6 minutes after my ‘lizard’ post davidb comes up with a correct answer to the little teaser I set:

Comment:
Oh, she’s a lounge lizard
Coming on strong
Who you fooling
It’s me you’re with
Lounge lizard

‘Lounge Lizard’ was, if I’m not mistaken, one of the last songs Mott ever recorded and dates from when the fabulous late Mick Ronson was with the band.

What’s more, davidb’s provided a correct answer that I hadn’t even thought of!
So, there’s actually another chance for someone to have their 15 nanoseconds of fame here.

Meanwhile, kudos to daveb!

Where am I?

Well, here’s a map of France, with the Pays de la Loire region marked on it:

The region comprises 4 departements – rather similar to UK counties – and we live in #53 which is called La Mayenne. Geographically speaking, it’s south of Normandy and east of Brittany.

We live in the far south-western corner of La Mayenne near to where it says Renaze on this map of La Mayenne:

In fact, we live pretty close to an axis of departmental boundaries meaning that a few minutes’ drive will take us into 3 other departments – Ille-et-Vilaine, Maine-et-Loire and Loire-Atlantique.

Culturally La Mayenne is a cross between Normandy and Brittany and gastronomically speaking, it has to be said, lacking any distinctive style although cider, apples, pork and cream figure largely.

Maurice, our nearest neighbour, laughed when I asked him what the local culinary specialities were…

The departement is largely rural and sparsely populated – which are two of the reasons we decided to go for a move here:

Not one of France’s more mountainous areas – it’s rather flat in fact – the countryside is very unspoilt and verdant and with very few real tourist attractions there are few tourists, which is yet another reason we decided to relocate here:

The hamlet or ‘lieu dit’ in which we live lies just outside a small village which has a church, a mairie, a village hall and…well, that’s it. The nearest shops are about 4km away in Pouance which is where we go for fresh bread, cigarettes and other essentials. In brief, if it’s outside shopping hours and you want something – tough shit.

We’re not the only ex-pats in the area.

With low property prices – another very good reason we moved – the departement attracts quite a few Dutch and British either as second home buyers or retirees. It’s possible to meet up with your compatriots on a very regular basis should you so desire, but we prefer to mix with the French as much as possible. All our neighbours seem really friendly and we reckon that they’re really glad that we’re here renovating a house that was in danger of lapsing into decay and becoming a real eyesore.

Immediately, we’re a bit south of our evening meal which will be pave de rumsteack, potatoes au gratin – made with some 6 month aged Comte – and green beans, all washed down with some rose from a box – 5 litres for 9 euros and quite, quite quaffable.

I’m in a good place!