Hard News by Russell Brown

52

The greening of the Red Zone

The houses of Christchurch's residential red zone have been raptured up, leaving behind only a few lonely sinners.

In August 2013, when I captured a photo essay of the city's condemned residential streets – and even on a visit since – it seemed that it would be years before they could revert as planned. The sheer scale of the job of removing thousands of houses would surely mean a long, slow exit for the trappings of people.

But it's done, largely. Avonside's streets have taken on the odd appearance of country roads and the sections belong to the trees, the birds and CERA. It's as if the trees have seized their moment, like caged animals turned loose on a free range.

A few houses, presumably those posing health and safety probems for demolition crews, remain. But only a few.

The withdrawal of the buildings has a very different emotional effect to the demolitions in Christchurch's CBD red zone. In the city, especially south of Cathedral Square, there's still something disorienting and disturbing about the absences. It's only emphasised by the big blocks that do remain and seem to stare mournfully down at the rubble, still waiting their turn for release. It was a shock again to be reminded that my mental map of the area was drawn many years ago, long before the earthquakes.

By contrast, the absences in the residental red zone seem to have brought peace; even a kind of resolution. Even the Avon, which for years looked sick and cloudy, looks now to be running clean and deep. While the centre of the city still has the feel of a place waiting for things to happen, the ruined area along the river is getting on with its life, trying to forget what it used to be.

26

Friday Music: It's good to let music make you cry

If you haven't watched John Campbell having a moment when Sharon van Etten plays a song just for him on a surprise live cross to the Keng's Arms, you might want to take a moment and do so.

On one hand, it's a testament to the culture of Campbell Live that they'd do this as a treat for their host – a passionate van Etten fan who couldn't make her first New Zealand show because he was hosting an event last night – even to the extent of switching his autocue script at the last moment. Nice one, team. And on the other, it's a lovely, honest acknowledgement of the role music can play in our lives.

As it becomes clear to him what's happening, John has to wipe away tears. "Music keeps you afloat sometimes," he observes to himself as much as his audience.

Yeah. I cry a lot more than when I was 25. I think it's a matter both of having more to cry about – a richer stock of memories to touch in the moment – and of understanding that there is generally no reason not to cry.

And I cry sometimes at gigs. The first time I saw Lucinda Williams play, she and her band completely undid me with 'Right In Time'. When Lawrence Arabia and his band last year wound up one of his "plays the albums" shows with a version of the Velvet Underground's 'I Found a Reason', I wept out of surprise and recognition and because it was so damn beautiful. In both cases, I spent the next week playing the songs over and again. They had been enriched for me by the human experience of hearing them performed and being moved.

Shedding a tear isn't the only human response to music, of course. It's just as good to be happy and to dance if the music moves you. And John Campbell has form here too: readers and viewers may recall him whooping like a loon off-camera when another of his favourites, The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, played at Laneway. For me, there's not much that can touch the sheer joy of a good dancefloor, where the dull cares have melted away and the music is all that matters.

Having started this thought, I'm not quite sure how to finish it. So I'm going to hand over to Bob Marley right here ...

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It was clear to me on Wednesday night that my talk for the Christchurch Art Gallery on Christchurch Music in the 1980s, part of a series the gallery has been running on that decade, also stirred some emotions. Although by no means everyone in the room had been at the pubs and dances I talked about, quite a few had, and it was nice to know that fitting my feelings about the time into the intellectual structure of the talk was the right thing to do.

A number of people have already asked about whether the talk could be shared. Happily, yes. I'll work out with the gallery whether it make more sense for them or me to publish the text and its accompanying images and let you know when it's done.

There is, of course, music still being made in Christchurch and I'll look more closely at some of that in the next week or two. But for now, out this week, a stripped-down new EP from Blair Parkes and Hayden Sharp as Range. In my talk, I noted the importance of old, informal spaces. This is made with one microphone in a shed and it's quite lovely:

There's also a re-release of Range's 1999 bNet-nominated album All the Way to Lunch.

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While Shayne Carter was in Dunedin to play his part in the Southern Sinfonia spectacle, he also did a solo gig at Taste Merchants. Ans this mroning, the Flying Nun Vault posted a recording of the version he played of 'Randolph's Going Home'.

The best response seems to be to link to the story I wrote from the last time I interviewed Wayne – the last time anyone did – which concluded with Wayne saying the following. I think it's relevant to what I wrote at the top of this post:

“There have been Doublehappys gigs that have just been absolutely magic. Where there’s been this feeling – it sounds like a load of shit – times when I’ve stopped playing and I’ve thought ‘That was magic, that was wonderful.’ That’s the sort of thing that makes me want to waste my time getting up on stage with a band and playing guitar. It really is really good. It’s not a pose, it’s not fucking anything – it’s a really good wonderful feeling.”

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Meanwhile, Wellington's Riot Radio blog has this ironic but oddly useful guide to making a playlist, which ends thus:

In any fair society, people are judged on what they listen to.  It also isn’t as simple as ‘Bad people listen to Slipknot and good people listen to Pharoahe Monch’ because, while this is certainly true, there are nuances to it. You can send messages about yourself or what you wish to say by the choices you make and then play to your public.

You may want to impress upon people that you’ve ‘been raving for years mate’ by stacking your playlist with lots of early nineties breakbeat hardcore. You may want to impress upon people that you really aren’t a racist, so you add lots of Black Milk or Public Enemy tunes. You may wish impress upon people that you are a boring dickhead and thus you add several Mumford & Sons songs.

Music is a tool of communication and not solely one that’s wielded by its creator alone; it can also be wielded by the selector. Or ‘selectah’ if its ska.

And that’s what its all really about isn’t it. Communicating with our friends. Sharing.

Give me a hug.

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We'd best get to the tunes, because the day is rushing past.

I know I seem to be pushing a new Janine and the Mixtape tune at you every week lately, but this one is really new. It's the first glimpse of her next recording project:

Aucklands Coco Solid features on this remake of the Detroit techno classic 'Transition' for International Women's Day. It's a free download, it features vocals in English, Portuguese, Spanish and Maori and it's a fucking banger:

The brilliant RocknRolla Soundsystem have gone deep with their latest rework, fishing up the groove in Van Morrison's psyechedlic epic 'TB Sheets'. Free download:

A finally, nice edit of Bobby Womack's version of 'California Dreaming', also, you guessed it, a free DL:

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience

24

Rugby has a problem

Man, did you see the end of the Breakers game yesterday? I flicked over from watching the Black Caps' serviceable win over Afghanistan – hey, Vettori passed 300 wickets and Ross Taylor finished not-out – to witness the kind of thrilling, literal last-second win that brings back fans for the next season.

Thereafter, there was a prety good duel between Australia and Sri Lanka on the TV, following the previous day's magnificent upset of the Proteas by Pakistan at Eden Park.

Saturday also saw the Warriors flatter to deceive in the opening round of the NRL; unleashing some young firecrackers but running out of puff as they always seem to early in the season.

And then, also on Saturday, there was the Blues against the Lions at Albania Stadum. To be honest, I've barely watched a minute of this year's rugby Super 15. It's kind of hard to care about rugby in February while there's a Cricket World Cup on.

But my team, the Blues was back from the road in South Africa to play yet another South African team who they really ought to beat. That, I thought, ought to be worth a look before I went out to to my friend's birthday party. Well, they didn't – and it's really, really wasn't.

The Blues' cluster of All Blacks hurled themselves at a team of doughty no-names, dominated possession and territory – and somehow contrived to lose in a particularly dispiriting fashion.

It was dull. Really dull. A suffocating modern rugby defence just swallowed up every bit of enterprise a poorly-acquainted Blues backline could come up with. Scrums collapsed and reset and collapsed over whole, static minutes. And somehow (I went out before the match ended and I still haven't had the heart to find out), the also-rans won.

I think there are several components here. One is clearly the Blues, who are like some sort of experiment in making the least of talent. The second is the nature of the Super Rugby competition, which next year will incorporate even more teams into its confusing conference format. The lure of bigger money overseas has stripped out a tier of skilled players from the New Zealand game. And I'm beginning to think think that All Black coach Steve Hansen is right to fret that the game itself has a problem. As Paul Lewis put it in a column about Hansen's remarks, "rugby is boring. It's more boring than a boring borer beetle in Boreham."

To be fair, international rugby is fine. When you watch the All Blacks, you're watching the best team in the world, and that doesn't get old. But I'm not sure I'll bother going to a rugby game this year – and this is the game I've followed nearly all my life.

Lewis and Hansen both seem to suggest further rule changes, as if we haven't enough of those in the past decade and a half. Perhaps that's the only way forward. But you'd hope that whatever change is deemed necessary next, it won't just make things worse in a new way.

28

Talking to the United Nations about drugs

For more than half a century, the drug policies of nearly every nation in the world have been shaped by their commitment to the three United Nations drug conventions – despite those conventions having long come under fire as outdated and counterproductive.

Together, three the drug control conventions provide the legal structure for a global system of drug control by defining control measures to be maintained and prescribing rules to be obeyed by the parties in their relations with each other. What's happening this week in Vienna will help determine whether the UN's hard line on drugs will change next year.

This week's annual meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs will largely be devoted to what happens at the big kahuna: The Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on The World Drug Problem, in New York in April 2016.

The last such session was in 2009 and the next had not been scheduled until 2019, but in 2012, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico led a move to bring the meeting forward. All three countries have agitated for reform of the conventions' prohibitionist language as a means of addressing their own critical problems with the drug war.

Our own government has not really sent a team commensurate with the importance of this year's meeting, but in a few hours' time, we are – along with the governments of Switzerland, the Netherlands and Guatemala, and the Global Commission on Drug Policy – hosting a side meeting in Vienna. This puts us on the side of real debate on the conventions and Minister Peter Dunne deserves credit for being there.

Since the three Latin American countries won their case to bring the UNGASS forward, something else has happened: the federal government of the United States of America, the progenitor, champion and enforcer of the conventions, acknowledged that it would not move to overrule the US states whose citizens voted to legalise and regulate cannabis.

You might think that the US, in so doing, surrendered its moral right to police other countries' adherence to the conventions, which it now appears to be flouting. But the US has contrived an interesting new stance on global drug law.

Last October, William Brownfield (US ambassador to various South American countries at different times) proposed that there might be some wriggle room in the existing treaties.

In a statement in New York, the ambassador outlined four “pillars” of a revised US position.

Pillar one is to respect the integrity of the existing UN drug control conventions. The second: accept “flexible interpretation” of the conventions. Third: tolerate different national drug policies, from the strict and punitive to the liberal. Fourth: combat and resist criminal organisations rather than punish individuals who use drugs.

Responses to what quickly became known as the Brownfield Doctrine have been polarised – which is perilous, given that any hope of reform in New York next year will rely on unity of purpose in the drug reform community.

I have followed the arguments, both public and private, of many of those in the international drug policy community and they broadly fall into two camps: Embrace the Brownfield Doctrine as an incremental win – or reject it as the wrong kind of reform. I've summarised the arguments here ...

Embrace Brownfield

  • It’s a tipping point – a significant step in incremental change. And incremental change is probably the only real change possible. Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of ‘good’. Political change will, and must, precede legal change, and that’s what we’re seeing here. Only when legal tensions increase to an intolerable point will there be enough pressure to engage in the huge challenge of treaty reform. And we’re not there yet.
  • It’s the only game in town. However necessary real reform of the conventions might be, it is currently not feasible. There is no real route to reforming the conventions at the UN or in the US legislature – and pursuing reform in the short term would be a waste of energy and even counterproductive. If Brownfield fails because reform is being assailed from all sides, it’s an own goal for reformers.
  • It’s the best the US can realistically do. For all the attention on cannabis legalisation in Colorado and Washington State, the votes behind the successful propositions represent a little over 1 percent of the country’s voting-age population. It’s far from demonstrated that there is a mandate for national legalisation or reform of the treaties – the latter isn’t even on the radar. A similar political reality applies in the international community: the leaders of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, the three countries that got the UNGASS scheduled, aren’t exactly clamouring to offer leadership now.
  • This is a constitutional system without a court. The International Narcotics Control Board and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime may express disagreement with the positions of the US and Uruguay, but they cannot enforce their opinions and they certainly are not constitutional courts. Nation states are free to adapt and evolve within such frameworks.
  • Whatever happens, treaty breaches are unavoidable in the short term. The US and Uruguay are both in breach of the conventions – are we really to take the position that these two countries and others should be condemned for actions that breach the letter of the treaties, until the treaties change? If so, we might be waiting a while. Worse, we might provide a rationale for a US federal backlash, reversing the law changes in Colorado and Washington State and blocking reforms in California and elsewhere.
  • We may have to take this path in the end anyway. If we discover in three or four years that reform of the conventions is not possible, we’ll only have to recreate Brownfield. So why not embrace this interim measure and keep moving forward?
  • This is a meaningful signal to other countries contemplating the scope of reform possible within the conventions. The US could simply have continued to please itself, but making flexibility explicit will strengthen the positions of a number of countries that would otherwise have hesitated. By the same token, a strategy of ‘calling out’ the US on Brownfield’s shortcomings would probably create domestic obstacles to reform in those same countries. Governments need to be aware of how this may appear to the public, and if reform within the conventions exposes them to the accusation that they’re international lawbreakers, that’s a bad, bad look.
  • The loosening up embodied in Brownfield cannot be compared with weakening the likes of the UN Convention Against Torture, if only because it has the opposite effect. In this case, flexibility enhances human rights, security and public health, rather than harming them.
  • The idea of flexibility within the conventions isn’t actually new. Reformers have long argued that decriminalisation of possession, purchase and cultivation for personal use fits comfortably within the text of the conventions. Brownfield acknowledges that position.

Reject Brownfield

  • It’s just theatre. This is simply a way for the US to square its own circle. It’s a way of bowing to domestic political reality by not overruling cannabis legalisation in Colorado and elsewhere, while preserving a system that continues to afford it considerable foreign power. The aim here is not to begin the path to reform but to find a way for the US to permit reforms at state level without the reputational cost of being accused of a treaty breach. In signalling space for reform around cannabis, the US is essentially offering other countries a bribe to maintain its own contradictory position.
  • It unquestionably shelves the law reform discussion. And with 2016’s UNGASS offering a once-in-ageneration chance to genuinely address the issue of global drug law, that’s a bad move. No one is pretending that the 2016 UNGASS will be a meeting of countries to negotiate new treaties, but actually taking real treaty reform off the agenda would be disastrous. That’s what Brownfield does – and is arguably what his ‘doctrine’ is designed to do.
  • That horse has bolted. The moral rationale for the US bullying neighbours like Jamaica on cannabis reform is already gone. It went along with the Holder memo confirming that the US Federal Government would not intervene in state legalisation. That was the real signal for flexibility. Brownfield is just the damage control.
  • It’s limited and self-serving. In tying its new doctrine to state-level cannabis legalisation, the US is really saying that other nations can only break the rules in the same way it is breaking the rules. Brownfield has relatively little sympathy for the other areas where the US had strongly opposed the flexibility it now embraces – general decriminalisation, harm reduction, the legal status of coca.
  • Flexibility cuts both ways. If the conventions’ guiding principles are deemed meaningless, won’t regimes like Russia be able to regress even further? Indeed, Brownfield made this explicit in the third pillar’s promise to “tolerate different national drug policies, to accept the fact that some countries will have very strict drug approaches”.
  • So the pillars are morally irreconcilable. Can the harm reduction community really declare, “We support the efforts of countries like Uruguay to curb the harms of prohibition – and simultaneously acknowledge that other regimes will continue to apply severe and damaging anti-drug laws and even carry out capital punishment and other human rights violations in enforcing them”?
  • What are the broader implications of redefining major United Nations conventions as merely optional? Do we want the same “tolerance” extended to key UN positions on torture and human rights? Remember that the Bush Administration did actually attempt to argue that waterboarding was not a breach of the UN Convention Against Torture and that detainees taken and held in the name of the War on Terror were not covered by the Geneva conventions. Should we really open the door for this?
  • The US may be comfortable with a loose interpretation of the conventions, but countries like Germany and the Netherlands take international treaty obligations more seriously. They will be constrained from serious reform until the treaties themselves are reformed.
  • The conventions are intrinsically prohibitionist and always have been. It’s wrong to pretend that a shift in interpretation – to the point of interpreting the conventions to say the exact opposite of what they actually say – will change that. The 1961 convention clearly and undoubtedly prohibits regulated markets in cannabis. We would not assume that New Zealand could make significant reforms without touching the Misuse of Drugs Act 1975 – why pretend otherwise at the international level?
  • It’s only about demand, not supply. The more flexible interpretation proposed by the US on the demand side is not offered for the more critical area of supply – which is where much of the harm happens. Moreover, the US clearly intends for its new doctrine of flexibility to apply only to cannabis.

This post is an adapted version of my article in in the latest issue of the New Zealand Drug Foundation magazine Matters of Substance. The other contents of the magazine can be read online here.

4

Friday Music: A Movement

Over the past decade and a half, Ian "Blink" Jorgensen has been an artist manager, tour manager, festival promoter, record label owner, publisher, musician and music provocateur. But before all that, and through all that, he was a photographer. And it's to that legacy he reaches for his latest project.

A Movement is a series of 10 themed art books collecting his music photography from 2000 to 2015. The work will be released at retail and via a book club: you sign up here (and you only have till Monday to do so) to receive a new book in the post each week.

I was offered the loan of the full set, and it's a remarkable work. We have discovered on Audioculture that the most compelling record of a musical heritage is often the photographs taken at the time, and the same is very true here.

Most of of the pictures capture the sweat, blood and snot of live performances by artists from Dimmer to the Phoenix Foundation, Lawrence Arabia, Shihad and Disasteradio, along with some bands famous largely amongst their friends, but there are also the moments of on-road ennui and horsing around that characterise band life. (Check out the picture of the Mint Chicks' Kody and Ruban Nielson at the 00:17 mark in the lovely promotional video below.) Still others catch the joy and madness of the crowds. 

During my brief time as an independent book publisher, I discovered that the book trade's idea of of promotion is generally very limited. But Ian is bringing to this project indie music's understanding of the importance of taking the object to the people. From next week, the release tour stretches from Dunedin to Auckland, with eight shows in six days in Wellington alone. In most cases, the release gigs are at unlicensed venues and people are encouraged to bring their own food and drink -- and take away their own refuse afterwards.

There are also a few screenings of an accompanying film, Movement:

The story in A Movement is told almost entirely in pictures and captions, But I'm pleased to say that Ian has curated a selection of his favourite images from the book and written several thousands of words about what they mean to him for Public Address, to appear next week. Despite our common interests, Ian and I have pursued separate paths over the last 15 years (his music camp almost inevitably clashed with my geek camp) so I'm very pleased to be able to cooperate with him on this thing.

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In her NPR Tiny Desk Concert last year, Courtney Barnett premiered a funny, sad song called 'Depreston', the first new tune she had unveiled since the indie rock world had fallen in love with her two EPs. It stood out because it was new, it was different and it was good.

This week, 'Depreston' was released as another taster for her forthcoming album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (out on the 23rd) along with a video that couldn't be more different to the madcap clip for the first single, 'Pedestrian at Best'. It's all empty suburban streets and mournful, mundane beauty:

Also this week, another peek at another keenly-anticipated album, SJD's Saint John Divine: 'Little Pieces', a song about everyone's foibles, with Julia Deans guesting. It's the first video Sean James Donnelly has made for himself, and as my frend Gemma Gracewood noted, it has something of the playfulness of Chris Knox or Len Lye.

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You know what's a lovely idea? Wellington's Old Hall Gigs, a series of music-and-arts events in nice old halls. The 2015 season opens with a show featuring a performance by Sheep, Dog and Wolf, at Charles Plimmer Hall in the wonderfully-named Innermost Community Gardens.

Jackson P kindly gave me his spare ticket for Neneh Cherry's show in the Spiegeltent on Wednesday night. The scene around the tent in Aotea Square was very pleasant, but the Spiegeltent wasn't really the right venue for a performance of her noisy new material with the duo Rocketnumbernine. Inside, it was all-seated, very hot and the stage lights mostly pointed outward, dazzling the first five rows. Some of the baby-boomers who came expecting some nice jazz-funk looked quite uncomfortable.

It was a lot better when we could get up to dance and Neneh herself was on fire, but I wasn't completely won over by the material, which got a bit synth-rock for me at times. Peter McLennan begs to differ in his review for the 13th Floor.

You'd have to pay me to see most of the acts at Westfest, but I'm glad it seems to have gone well at Mt Smart this week. The hard rock and metal audience deserves a festival, and being able to hang a local fest off Soundwave in Australia is a great opportunity.

Anthonie Tonnon begins a national tour in support of his album Successor tonight at Space Monster in Whanganui, a place where many national tours seem to begin. The album itself is officially released tomorrow, but you can hear it as Soundcloud playlist here:

I think you're going to hear plenty more about this record. I've had it for a couple of days and it feels like a real step up for him.

 Meanwhile, a week from today, there's this:

I think I'll go party with the kids.

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Over at TheAudience, Dead Beat Boys channel the spirit of The Datsuns. They've got their song '2' on the new NZ On Air Kiwi Hit Disc and they're about to play a string of shows, starting at New Lynn's UFO tomorrow night.

Boy Wulf has been blowing up on bFM lately – and he has a new track exclusively on TheAudience this week:

Another remix for Janine and the Mixtape's 'Hold Me' this one with a house groove and a guest rap from Tunji Ige. It's pretty sweet:

And finally, an absolute must for party-conscious digital DJs: The Reflex has done his trademark stems-only remix job on 'Groove is in the Heart'. Contains additional Bootsy and added Q-Tip. And it's a free WAV download:

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The Hard News Music Post is sponsored by:

theaudience