Monday, April 17, 2017

Patmos 1981

Psili Amos, Patmos. (Image courtesy of
Many years ago in pre-Internet days a friend (Peter) and I spent a week or two on the Greek Island of Patmos. Peter recently wrote up his diary entries of the time, and it inspired me to finally record a song I wrote as I left the island by ferry on a wet and windy night. It's called Lights Across the Water. The lyrics are printed below. I may elaborate on the background to the song at some later date. But for now, here it is.


I'm on a late night journey across the sea

Wind and rain callin' out to me

Lights across the water

Callin'  out to me

Golden man smiles through his beard

Lady on his arm is cryin' tears of fear

He doesn't even hear her - her screaming agony

And the wind across the water 

Brings sweet misery

The lights across the water 

Are callin' out to me

It's time to leave this island home

Time to break this island's hold on me

And sail across the water

To another land

The wind across the water

Is callin' out to me

Copyright Michael Coghlan 1981

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Talking to the Other Side

It has been measured and noted recently that the impasse between left and right, liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican in the Disunited States is greater and more bitter than ever before. Obama referred to this in his parting speech. Though not as extreme as the DS, there’s probably something similar occurring in Australia.
Since the shock of the Trump election there has been a realisation that democracy needs meaningful conversations to take place across this political divide. America, and democracies in general, need healing, and need to find a way to talk to each other across the chasm to aid this healing.

Robb Willer, psychologist, in his TED Talk about how to have better political conversations reveals that the political divide in the DS is underpinned by a moral divide. Each side of that divide has its own set of values. In broad brush they look like this:  

And in essence, as long as the values of each side remain steadfast and refuse to accommodate the point of view of the other, no one is ever going to change their mind. He argues that if a liberal thinker wants to change the mind on some issue of a conservative thinker then you have to do it by appealing to values that the conservative relates to – patriotism for example. Or respect for authority. And vice versa of course.
Now it turns out that someone else using a different set of data – a study comparing what parts of the brain are used predominantly by liberal and conservative thinkers – came to the same conclusion. That we need to use the language and perspective and values of the other side if our appeals to them to see an issue differently are to get any traction. What this study found is that liberals and conservatives use different parts of their brain to process information. Not exclusively, but they each have a tendency to use a part of the brain more than others.
  • Liberalism was associated with the grey matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex
  • Conservatism was associated with an increased right amygdala size
Amygdala – seat of fear
Cortex – logic, rational argument, ideas,
  • Conservative brains are more active in declarative and episodic fact-based memory and negative emotions like fear.
  • Liberal brains are more active in terms of emotional awareness and empathy.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

CD Review - Trout and Toolbox

Ray Smith
Some musicians seem able to move happily between different musical worlds. I first became aware of Adelaide based musician, Ray Smith, when he was playing in loud, experimental rock bands like the Sympathy Orchestra. Sometime later I heard him accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and was immediately struck by the depth and resonance of his voice. Those deep and resonant vocals are front and centre on Trout and Toolbox.
Trout and Toolbox is a collection of folk songs with very strong connections back to Ray’s native Cumbria in the north of England. All but one of the tunes are original, and there are telling turns of melody that derive from the mournful, haunting sounds of traditional English folk music. And so too does much of the subject matter – mills closing down, life as a weaver, and a song of praise to northern landscapes. It’s almost as if Ray is unveiling his past while he tries to reconcile his origins with the person who chose to migrate to Australia, and in that sense it’s quite a personal collection of songs.
Trout and Toolbox is book-ended with an unnamed instrumental piece that features some rich and melodic acoustic guitar tones that aptly signal what’s to come, and neatly wraps up the package after the final song.
Billy is a tale of war beautifully arranged for guitar, flute and violin. A Sense of Place is an endearing tale of a couple who have spent most of their life together and learnt to appreciate that a sense of place can be as simple as ‘the smile on your face’. There’s some lovely lyrical images here – ‘he will wash and she’ll carefully dry the plates’; ‘he always checks his tie’s straight in the mirror in the hallway.’ A curious feature of this album is the fact that Ray Smith’s vocals still sound like he’s living in Cumbria, and it’s quite pronounced on this song. It’s often hard to tell where people come from once they start singing, but not so in Ray’s case. It adds a layer of authenticity that appropriately gives greater weight to the idea of place. There’s a sting in the tail here as the final verse addresses Australia’s Stolen Generation being robbed of their sense of place – ‘a national disgrace’.
Using the metaphor of migrating birds, Migration focuses on the tension between staying and leaving. Punchy guitar underpins a melodic air that feels quite ancient. A mini jig/reel on accordion mid-song and again at the end briefly lightens the mood, but the prevailing feeling is one of a difficult reconciliation between the state of migration and the desire to stay home.
The Weaver Is much very rooted in the context of industrial England. Another strong vocal features curious phrases like ’watch your shuttle”. The cornet part by Kerryn Schofield lends an anthemic feel and in what feels like an intentional romanticising of the passing craft of weaving, breaks into a last post type coda to conclude what is quite a lovely song.
The Mill continues with a similar theme. “There’s no need to hurry now; soon we’ll be leaving the town.” There’s no more work because the mill is closing. It reminds me of Eric Bogle’s lament about the disappearing Australian farmer, and the emotion etched into this story is exquisitely wrought on violin by Emma Woolcock. The warmth and resonance of her playing is just delicious.
Tallahassee takes us to the other side of the Atlantic searching for a past lover. Curiously the narrator learns that his old Tallahassee flame no longer lives there and had also migrated to a land far away. This song feels and sounds quite different to the other songs on this CD and is steered along by fiddle that sounds more American than English, with acoustic bass from Tamas Smith.
Planxty Isaac is an instrumental track with acoustic guitars dancing in a bright and chirpy tune in a style similar to that of Canadian guitar virtuoso, Leo Kottke. Guitars here cross the oceans with influences from both sides of the Atlantic.
In Now, written by Nic Jones, the migrant pleads the case for the present moment in an attempt perhaps to convince himself that he made the right choice to leave all those years ago. “The now is here; so simple and clear; the past is gone.” Cornet provides an anthemic backdrop again, and the tone of the guitar picking is warm and resonant.

And then, and it feels like the whole album has been leading up to this point, the migrant returns home. To see ‘that broad fen again, feel the wind blowing cold from the glen; to hear the curlew call and the ocean roar’ and where ‘he’ll be home again once more’. Cue Cumbrian pipes! Home Again is another haunting and captivating melody with tentacles stretching back to Cumbria. There is a plaintive sadness here.  Australia has been good for Ray Smith. But there’s clearly part of his soul that will always be in Cumbria. I hope he continues to bring that part of his musical soul back to our shores because it has a wistful depth and wisdom that reconciles past and present, and delivers perspectives in songs that are rich in melody, warm in feeling, and resonant with meaning.

(This review also on The Clothesline.)


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