Monday, December 23, 2013

the politics of Christmas

We were celebrating the beginnings of the gospel last night, Christmas, the start of God's recreation of the world, the making of all things new.. It's a story about God sending a king who will lift up the poor and needy, turn the elite out of their palaces and bring justice for those at the bottom of the pile (Luke 1, Isaiah 9, 11, Jeremiah 23, etc, etc..) 

So when Tory MP Mark Pritchard tweets (as he did  last night): ‘If some parts of the Church of England preached a little more gospel and a little less politics – perhaps [the] Church would be in a better place,’ I wonder if he understands either the gospel or politics! When government ministers refuse to meet the Trussell Trust and claim that they are meddling in politics by linking rising demand for foodbanks with benefit changes, I wonder if they understand either the gospel or politics.

Jesus was born in the midst of political struggle as part of that struggle. The maccabean flavoured magificat, a song of liberation and social upheaval, which many churches sing on a regular basis, is at the heart of the gospel. Jesus came to proclaim a kingdom (a political idea if ever there was one) that questions the claims of every other kingdom.

Politicians who claim that the church should stick to the gospel and not talk about the poor or the injustice of systems that keep people poor, clearly have no idea what the gospel is about. As we celebrate the most political festival in the Christian calendar (apart from all the others!), it is the perfect moment for Christians to be talking about the things that matter to God - justice, equality, being practical good news to the poor, and challenging elites and the wealthy to use the resources under their command to work for God's agenda in the world.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Just when you thought everything was expensive...

Joseph Arthur is a somewhat underrated singer on this side of the pond. If you don't know his work, then those lovely people at noisetrade have put his whole 2012 album Redemption City on their site which you can grab for nothing or a tip of your choice.

It's a rambling, half-spoken, self-released electronica-washed, guitar driven 24 song cycle that's little short of magnificent. Well worth checking out. You'll find it here.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

More great music for free

So, just when you think all the new music worth shouting about has been captured in my top ten, along come the wonderful people at noisetrade and offer for nothing at all, free, gratis and without shelling out any pennies at all, a stunning album from a band new to me called duologue.

Song & Dance was released back in February but didn't cross my radar until the email from noisetrade arrived this morning. That's why the site is essential.

Washes of guitar, violin and keyboards over broken electronic beats, vocals just the compelling side of whiney, they sound a bit like Radiohead a la In Rainbows, but they are definitely their own people, cooking up a warm and edgy concoction.

And it's free here at noisetrade. Of course, you might decide to leave them a tip for their efforts (which would be the Christmassy thing to do!)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Giving our legislators something to fill their days

Had some interesting conversations at the Lords last night over a glass or two of houses of Parliament wine. Two Tories tried to persuade me that I had nothing to worry about from the gagging bill - we'll see! I suspect the government will come back with significant amendments to section two so that it's not a gag on civil society. Let's hope so...

Another MP opened by apologising that fewer members would be around this evening because the House rose early due to lack of business. Indeed, she suggested that there was a strange feeling about the house at the moment as if we were on the verge of an election. The government seems to have very little legislation in the pipeline. And yet the election is 18 months away under the new fixed term rules passed at the beginning of this parliament.

So, this begs two questions. Firstly, what are MPs going to be doing for their increased salaries (something that I'm not really opposed to)? And secondly, why not use the acres of free time to pass new house building legislation, freeing resources (borrowed if necessary) and compelling local authorities to build a range of homes - social, low cost, shared ownership as well as for outright purchase - between now and the next election. It would also be good to enact a clause within that legislation that compelled developers and others sitting on land to use it or lose it.

Imagine spending the £2bn that is currently being paid in benefits to unemployed construction workers in the South East of England on building homes that would get these guys back to work. Win win win....

Well, It's Christmas we're allowed to dream of a new world coming - that's what the angels said would happen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A good time of year to think about housing

Off to the House of Lords later to mark the end of the If campaign. I was going to lobby my MP this afternoon over the gagging bill but he is not available (apparently). Hopefully enough people will be getting message across to enough MPs so that this pernicious bill will be killed off (for reasons read the two excellent reports from the civil society commission which are here).

The other major issue needing solid and sensible engagement is the mounting housing crisis. Jules Birch charts the depth of the hole we find ourselves in (here). In particular, he highlights the Janus-like approach of our government which on the one hand is stoking the housing market through help to buy, while on the other trying to get local authorities to build more houses to choke off house price inflation. Guess which of those is winning.

House prices are predicted to rise by a third between now and 2020 and rents by almost 40%. Given that for millions of people housing is already unaffordable, these numbers are frightening.

Merely encouraging local authorities to build is hardly tackling the issue. Where I live, the local authority is doing OK but prices are still rising despite what they able to add to the stock. We need something in the spirit of the Attlee and Macmillan governments which at a time of huge deficits, borrowed to build millions of homes (including new towns and cities such as Milton Keynes).

Given that 1% of the British Isles has housing built on it (and a further 2-3% has buildings for other uses), there is space for a new town or two. So now would be the time to stop pandering to the 'we can't concrete over the whole land' argument.

The question is where are the politicians who are moving this issue to the top of an agenda for government? I don't hear them.

It's a good time of year to think about housing, of course. Many churches are opening night shelters to offer a warm meal and dry bed to those without accommodation; and those same churches are about the celebrate the arrival in the world of a baby who was quickly a homeless refugee. That baby grew to be a carpenter preacher who told his followers that he had nowhere to lay his head (of course, any UK local authority would have washed their hands of him, saying he was intentionally homeless!). His message was that in his Kingdom there would be a place for everyone - that should motivate his followers to ensure that everyone has a decent place to live.

A year of listening pleasure

It's that time of year when everyone sharing their best listens of 2013. So here are mine in no particular order. At the end I'll suggest the album that I think is the best of the year - but they're all pretty marvellous.

Prefab Sprout - Crimson/Red: late in the year, back from the dead came Paddy McAloon with a near perfect collection of velvety lush melodies with barbed, witty lyrics reflecting on life as a writer and performer. In particular The Songs of Danny Gallway and the Old Magician stand out from a very strong field.

The National - Trouble will find me: building on the success of High Violet, Cincinatti's finest produce their best work to date; tricky rhythms, elipical lyrics delivered in a lush baritone and fabulous washes of guitars and keyboards make for a heady brew.

David Bowie - the Next Day: who'd have thought that thirty years after Scary Monsters, the dame would come roaring back with his best album since the Berlin golden phase? Droll cover art that recalls Heroes and 14 tracks that stand alongside the best of his canon. Should we want a follow up or hope that this is a legend bowing out on a high?

Daft Punk - Random Access Memory: witty, imaginative, informed, awash with the history of dance and funk, the French duo make an album of joy and fun. Dig below the surface and there's nothing there but that's not the point - it's music to play loud when you need a lift!

Depeche Mode - Delta Machine: the Essex boys continue to explore their spiritual lives to choppy rhythms and swirling electronica. Angel and Heaven stand out but there's just one good song after another here - just what an album should be!

Eels - Wonderful Glorious: Mark Everett seems incapable of writing a dull note. This is a collection of droll observations set to catchy hooks. In many ways it's more of the same, though there seems to be a maturity of tone (both musically and lyrically) to these songs, a sign that E's growing old gracefully but losing nothing of his edge.

Bill Mallonee - Dolorosa: Album 51 (number 50 was an album of the year last year!) and the man gets better and better. This is the best work he's produced (eclipsing even last year's wonderful Amber Waves), a collection of wry reflections on life and faith from a songwriter hitting the peak of his powers - long may he continue mature.

Arcade Fire - Reflektor: It was always going to be difficult to top the Suburbs and Arcade Fire seem to have been bowed by the weight of it. People talk about this as a come-back album for reasons that mystify me and while it's not as fresh and original as its predecessor, it's still a pretty cool collection. Helped to achieve a new sound by LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy (a marriage that doesn't always work), the album is full of Haitian rhythms, dance beats and soul-searching lyrics that suggest Win Butler isn't deliriously comfortable with his super star band leader label

Gungor - I am Mountain: Michael Gungor started life as a worship leader and has morphed into a highly original song writer exploring the terrain of faith with some glorious music. Gungor's usual lush harmonies are all present and correct here but the lyrics drive the music to some difficult and demanding places - on God and Country over driving country-esque riffs, he seems to be likening  US forces in the middle east to the beast rising from the sea in Revelation (that must have gone down a bomb in the mid-west!). On other tracks he reflects on the myth of Orpheus (a popular theme for musicians over recent years), the struggles of faith and looks forward to the resurrection on the exhilarating Finally. Heady stuff.

Nick Cave - Push the Sky away: The year belongs to Nick Cave.As winter gripped, the first single, We now who UR, heralded that Push the Sky Away was going to be a work to be reckoned with. And the year ended with Cave releasing a live set featuring a number of tracks form the album performed in front of a tiny audience at an LA radio station. Called Live from KCRW, it boasts a wonderful reworking of The Mercy Seat that makes it worth the price of admission in itself. Push the Sky Away is an epic of restraint. With Warren Ellis providing most of the other sounds apart from Cave's vocal and piano, the album teeters on the brink of erupting but saves its punch for the lyrics where Cave has given full rein to his reflective imagination. He muses on life, love, growing old (the blisteringly moving title track that closes the album), faith in a world of science and celebrity (Higgs Boson Blues) and life in Brighton. Not a note or word is out of place on this musical tour de force. It's definitely my record of the year.