Music Monday: Harris Tweed

December 1, 2008

My song for today is “better than this” by the South African band Harris Tweed (aka Dear Reader). The lyrics are not exceptional but their sound – the fresh, nuanced, raw, lyrical and polished musical effect of Cherilyn MacNeil and Darryl Torr – is what makes them my band-of-the moment.

Cherilyn is a Joburg girl who found the name Harris Tweed in a children’s encyclopedia. Her friends turned down the rather odd-sounding name “Ottoman And” so she and Darryl settled on the Scottish cloth instead. The Harris Tweed Authority (HTA) will tell you that Harris Tweed “is cloth that has been handwoven by the islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra in their homes, using pure virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides.” Right.

The Joburg-based band on the other hand are a folk-pop duo who blasted onto the SA music scene in 2006 with their debut CD “Harris Tweed: The Younger” and quickly built up a cult following. Cherilyn MacNeil is the musical force behind the band but Darryl Torr provides an excellent foil, allowing her to show off her considerable musical skills.

The HTA were originally fine about the band using the name but then decided to protect their brand. MacNeil and Torr considered anagrams of Harris Tweed such as Weird Haters, Dear Withers and Shade Writer before settling on Dear Reader. Which is rather bland but apparently uncontentious. As MacNeil rightly points out, it’s what you fill the name up with that counts.

Miles Keylock writes that their fan-base includes anyone who appreciates “well-drafted tales of love lost, dreams postponed, and hearts broken and made whole”. In case this sounds too Katie Melua-ish there are also “haunting minor key pop contusions and deceptively airy alternative folk architectures [which] actually sidestep both the strong ‘n sensitive and manic depressive female singer songwriter stereotypes.” Neither of those two are labels that you apparently want to get stuck with!

The music is powerful, honest and it connects with your feelings. Certainly works for me. But I suppose, after listening to the CD for about three days running to and from work, I guess I’m hoping their next album is a little edgier.

Pretty much all the tracks on The Younger are very good but if I had to choose three I’d go with better than this, Le Musketeer est Brave and Stuck on this Course (although Superfly, Ode to Confusion and Don’t Forget are pretty excellent too). What I got out of better than this is a sense of disappointment in growing up. All the anger and hope and confusion of being a child, and the sense of how things could have been better. Maybe a little too real and deep for a Monday morning but I love it anyway.

better than this (harris tweed)
anger builds
and this hardness holds
and it comes out in profanities unbecoming of a girl
what used to heal
and used to feel
like a remedy has eluded me
so i face it all alone

i wanted to be so much older
but i turned out colder than an iceberg in the sea
i used to burn like a fire
and it got me nowhere
but anything is better than this

turn this off
can you shut this thing off
oh i left my mind running
and i got myself lost

turning back
no there’s no turning back
all the old ways are a see-through
as a big pane of glass

i wanted to be so much older
but i’ve turned out colder than an iceberg in the arctic sea
i used to burn like a fire
and it got me nowhere
nowhere nowhere nowhere
i’m holding out for a new day
and i’m waiting for my local warming
there’s not much hope left
but there’s something deep inside me
that wants to believe like i did when i was four

i was four once

Music Monday: Hallelujah

November 10, 2008

The song for today’s Music Monday (thanks Emily) is Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (as performed by Rufus Wainwright). It’s a beautiful, haunting, sad and joyful song. I don’t know when I first heard this song but I rediscovered it of all places in the Shrek soundtrack. I’ll have to watch Shrek again sometime just to see how they work it in. There are a number of versions available on YouTube and there’s a good article on the song on Wikipedia. (The YouTube link here is to the version used in the final episode of the first series of the OC).

Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen, performed by Rufus Wainwright)


Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

It goes like this

The fourth, the fifth

The minor fall, the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you

She tied you

To a kitchen chair

She broke your throne, and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Baby I have been here before

I know this room, I’ve walked this floor

I used to live alone before I knew you.

I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch

Love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah


There was a time you let me know

What’s really going on below

But now you never show it to me, do you?

And remember when I moved in you

The holy dark was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah


Maybe there’s a God above

And all I ever learned from Love

Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you

And it’s not a cry you can hear at night

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.


Hallelujah, Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah 


I love the way the first verse describes what happens in the music: “the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”. The baffled composer is David but it’s also Cohen himself. Later on, two lines really stand out for me: “Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” My immediate association was with the Obama victory. I suppose all the excitement about Obama is starting to wane a little now and I see some anxiety creeping in. Will he disappoint like so many of our other heroes in the past? Dick Jones reminds us that we should be naturally suspicious of anyone who seeks power. One blogger that I saw even made a connection with Fascist leaders like Hitler and recalled how they were initially received with adulation. Obama seems so far removed from those leaders that I think the comparison is completely misplaced. (I would rather go with those who see a paradigm shift in politics.) But I think the point about being wary of those in authority is a good one.

And I think I’m being perverse in seeing the Obama victory slowly turning into a “cold and broken Hallelujah”. I mean, give the guy a chance! He’s not even in office yet.

I’d love to know other people’s reactions to this song. One powerful association, for Americans anyway, is with the 9/11 tribute documentaries. And which version do you prefer? I like Rufus Wainwright’s performance (although not the YouTube version) but I have to admit that KD Lang nails those Hallelujahs.

Handel and the blue TB light

May 28, 2008

A bit of lightness after the serious post on Coetzee.

Right now I’m listening to Keith Jarrett playing Handel’s “Suites for Keyboard”. It’s soothing music, not completely enhanced by the drone of a rather odd blue TB-light on the ceiling of my office at the military base. This TB light and I are not friends. It was introduced in order to kill the TB germs that some of our patients bring into our offices. Since I share a smallish out-building with two social workers, the main switch for the TB lights affects all of us. I can’t just switch it off, although I’ve negotiated an uneasy truce with the chief social worker whereby I can temporarily switch it off when I am consulting.

Now this is pretty trivial, this kvetching over a TB-light. But fights have broken out over lesser things. I once had a week-long standoff with a colleague because I politely (or so I thought) mentioned that I found it hard to concentrate in our office when she sang. She didn’t speak to me for three days and the awkward silence that reigned in our office was worse than her pleasant if somewhat distracting singing. She subsequently moved into broadcasting and I should really have made more of an effort to watch her show, even if just for the childish joy of pressing the mute button. Ridiculous I know, but there’s a saying about wars being fought over the smallest trifles. I seem to remember a murder case in which the accused (who was well in his eighties) said in his defence that one day he snapped at the breakfast table, he just couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t know what his wife’s “crime” was, perhaps she burnt the toast. It’s sad how tragic stories can be comic at the same time. As a mental health practitioner I should really point out something about the mental health of the elderly. Dementia affects executive functioning (and hence impulse control), which is possibly the explanation for outrageous acts committed by old people.

Returning to the TB-light, my colleague is convinced that this light is responsible for the ongoing wellbeing of his sinuses. So I will have to learn to live with background noise. Perhaps I will build up an aural immunity to it with the help of Friedrich Handel and Keith Jarrett.

In the meantime I’m rather cold and a bit grumpy. I have a PR story to finish and then some delightful reading to do on the Short Story as Case Study. It’s called “How People Change” by Bill Tucker, a professor of psychiatry in New York. A quick squizz at the index shows me that he uses stories by Joyce, Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Albert Camus and others to illustrate the processes by which people change. I really think that psychology and psychiatry without literature is just tinkering. Stories are what make us human.