Monday, 30 January 2012

Book review: LIFE OF PI by Yann Martel

Yann Martel’s breakthrough novel from 2001 received much praise in its day, and it is not hard to see why. While first and foremost appealing to the average reader, the book has the power to woo critics with its trendy magical realism and heavy reliance on allegories. However, I beg to differ, my main complaint (other than that the allegories are actually pretty bland) being that I didn’t really feel anything as I closed the book. There was nothing, and the single powerful snap the novel had (I’ll get to it later) only confirmed my conviction that Life Of Pi is like a mediocre song by a very strong, very capable songwriter: somewhat exciting while it’s on, somewhat middling when it’s over.  

Life Of Pi is, in a nutshell, a fairy-tale dressed in a real story (or vice versa). A young man named Piscine Molitar Patel (constantly under the gunpoint of embarrassment and humiliation, he is soon forced to change it into just Pi Patel) living in Canada recounts his childhood years in India and his two objects of fascination: animals and religion. His father owns a zoo in Pondicherry, so Pi gets to see it all from the inside: brutal tigers; sheepish guinea pigs; sly, disgusting hyenas. Also (and these are by far the worst, most painful pages in the book), at some stage Pi gets acquainted with three religions: Buddhism, Islam and Christianity. A small boy wishing to love God, Pi is of course welcomed by every church, and the scenes are so saccharine and cheaply pious you wince and cringe in inevitable sacrilegious agony.

The novel really picks up around the time Pi’s family decides to emigrate to Canada and suffers a terrible shipwreck in The Pacific Ocean that kills everyone except Pi and and several zoo animals. In the end, the boy is left alone in the middle of the ocean – together with a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker occupying the lifeboat. The boy builds himself a raft, finds food supplies, and from now on we embark on a survival story as engaging as it is obvious and predictable. (As it happens, Martel was later accused of plagiarizing a little known book of Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar; the 1981 novella tells a story of a man stuck in The Atlantic Ocean with a jaguar.)  

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the book comes at the very end – when the lifeboat reaches Mexico, Richard Parker runs into the jungle, and Pi is interrogated by two Japanese officials. Pi tells them the whole story as it happened: a zebra and an orangutan got eaten by a hyena; the hyena got eaten by a tiger; he and the tiger survived all this time (227 days) together. The officials don’t believe him, so Pi tells them a different story. This time it comes off even more brutal, since Pi turns all the animals into real human beings. Then Pi asks the two officials which story they were more likely to believe, and after a pause they choose… Well, what do you think? Yann Martel makes a good point there, but it doesn’t quite justify the shallow pleasures that came before.

Yann Martel’s prose is good: it’s simple, but muscular and effective. Still, enjoyable though the actual plot may be, in the end Life Of Pi reads like a compromised and (I really have to say this) slightly dumbed down version of Salman Rushdie. And not merely for geographical reasons. It has that scope, that slightly quizzical, fairy-tale like feel to it. But, fatally, Rushdie’s wit is countered by dull religiosity, and edge is replaced by sappiness and lack of charisma. Magical realism? Well, Life Of Pi doesn’t feel like a very realistic story. Interestingly, though, for all its whim and delusion, the book badly lacks magic.


Sunday, 29 January 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #45: Peter Sellers - "A Hard Day's Night"

When I first heard this one (about ten years ago), I had no idea who Peter Sellers was. So I guess I was expecting (this being a 1965 single) a more or less faithful rendition of the Beatles classic. However, the person who played it for me did say this before pressing 'play': "Believe me, whatever you're expecting, this is not it".
Needless to say, he was right.

Friday, 27 January 2012

Album review: MIREL WAGNER - Mirel Wagner

Highlights: The Well, No Death, No Hands, Despair

Sung in English by a young Ethiopian lady from Finland, this 2011 album was no straightforward release. The music, though, is fairly simple: Mirel Wagner composes stark  folk songs that evoke the spirit of people like Nick Drake and PJ Harvey. Gorgeous acoustic music with a certain dark twist. Gothic folk, but a lot deeper than you could expect.

The thing has an absolutely classic sound: haunting, plaintive melodies beautifully strummed on the acoustic guitar – some of them so good you could think they’ve existed for ages. Take a song as beautiful as “No Death”, for instance, that combines a timeless tune with grim (if not flat-out bizarre) lyrics. Then there is another evocative ballad, “No Death”, which retains that same darkness. This time, though, it comes with a certain childishness – both vocal and lyrical. Truly it’s a thing of contrasts. Mirel’s voice is not a voice of maturity, and has some Mo Tucker-ish aspect to it. The only song that deviates a little from the rest is the sparse, unsettling piece called “Dream” that sounds like an obscure swampy, bluesy number from the first half of the previous century.

Edgy and Nick Cave-like in its atmosphere, this 30-minute album is both touching and disturbing. And it’s usually good art that can give you both of those. Mirel Wagner is the sound of a dusty, long-lost classic.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Album review: HOODED FANG - Tosta Mista

Highlights: Clap, Brahma, Tosta Mista, Jubb

The only thing wrong with Hooded Fang’s second album (released in 2011) is its length. A little more than 20 minutes, it makes a mockery of the CD age (not that we are still living in that one, of course).  But I can’t really take that against them: the record is totally devoid of filler; which, coupled with some of the year’s smartest and catchiest hooks, makes for a worthy and highly entertaining listen.

Hooded Fang is a little known Toronto-based band, and Tosta Mista is their UK debut. Carrying on with this brevity issue, the record features just 7 seven songs (plus a short instrumental theme running through the whole length of the album). They are all groovy little things augmented by beautiful vocal harmonies and the band’s brilliant chemistry. The album’s omniscient guitar lines are tasteful, memorable, diverse and to the point. Same could be said about the actual songs: the unforgettable “Brahma” and the 60’s send-up “Clap” are the standouts, but the title track and the closing ballad “Den Of Love” are almost as good. Just over 20 minutes, I swear you’ll be begging for more.

Hooded Fang’s real full-length debut from 2010 was often compared to The Strokes, but bits and pieces aside, this is an altogether different proposition. I’d say the cover is godawful, but may it not distract you from the contents: Tosta Mista is an indie rock gem.


Sunday, 22 January 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #44: Golden Smog - "Listen Joe"

I love Golden Smog. A supergroup comprised of members of The Jayhawks, The Replacements, Wilco (and a few others) that meet once in a while to record another batch of jangly/power pop/ songs. So far they've managed four; and from The Byrds to Big Star - it's all there. 
For me, the greatest thing about the band is this certain freewheeling spirit hovering around their sound and songwriting. Gary Lourson is reliably terrific, but I would argue that it's for Golden Smog (and not for Wilco or Uncle Tupelo) that Jeff Tweedy (actually no longer with GS) came up with his greatest songs. 'Silly' stuff like "He's A Dick" hits me a lot harder than anything off his recent releases. And his anguished acoustic ballad "Listen Joe" (from 2006's excellent Another Fine Day) is such a timeless classic.  

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Album review: DARREN HAYMAN - January Songs

Highlights: Old Man Hands, I Know I Fucked Up, You Can’t Tell Her Anything, My Bedroom, I Want To Be A Volunteer

After taking this thing in over three straight evenings, I’m afraid I have to say this: Darren Hayman, as a songwriter, just doesn’t have ‘it’. His songs are uniformly lovely, charming and have good, articulate melodies, but way too often they seem totally devoid of a killer hook or one truly ecstatic moment. That said, January Songs (self-released by Hayman in the January of 2011) is still a delightful little achievement.

January Songs is a concept album akin to The Magnetic Fields’ classic 69 Love Songs. It is made up of 31 songs (and proper songs, too – bar one jazzy spoken word piece), each representing one day of the month in question. Well, the concept pretty much ends there. Forget about it and get straight to the point: the songs. None of Stephin Merritt’s half-baked tomfoolery (which I actually love): like I say, proper songs. January Songs is a fairly diverse collection, but you won’t notice that. An occasional reggae-ish rhythm or a Bo Diddley beat won’t distract you from the fact that what we have here are 31 exponents of largely very British songwriting imbued with it all: Britpop, Belle & Sebastian, Pete Astor (who is one of the numerous guests on this album)… The whole thing rolls on nicely, and deep inside this record’s charming, seemingly endless and moderately catchy pop rock haze you start picking out tunes that speak to you. The brittle, slow burning ballad “I Want To Be A Volunteer” might be my favourite – but for no particular reason.

In the end, January Songs is some musical journey. Long and slightly monotonous, but too cozy, pleasant and consistent to truly exhaust you. Well worth taking, then. However, I’d argue that Hayman’s Essex Arms from 2011 was a stronger set. Plus, the running time so treacherously discloses a lack of charisma – that is a lot more important than consistency.


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Album review: MAISON NEUVE - Joan

Highlights: The Wrong Class, Under Skies Of Fire, Jojo, Humble Hearts

Joan is one of those immaculate pop records only France can produce. It’s indie as composed by a refined classicist: delicate melodies, tasteful guitar tones, fear of an overstatement. Sound-wise, the closest analogy I can think of would be another contemporary French band, 1973 (who released one of my favourite 2010 albums, Bye Bye Cellphone ).

Joan is made up of 11 perfect dreamy pop compositions that on first listen might come off too self-consciously stylish and pretty to contain a truly substantial hook. But the hooks are there, and given a little time they will inevitably start seeping through the album’s impeccable production. It’s all drenched in the loveliest indie guitar sound imaginable: lush, jangly, slightly drone-like. But it’s the dazzling vocal melodies (and vocal harmonies) that do it for me. The lead singer (two side closers aside, the thing is sung in English) sounds a little like Nico, only his vocal tone is warmer, more heartfelt. It matches the gorgeous, Velvet Underground-inspired (think their third album) background just fine. And while I wouldn’t call any these tunes unforgettable, there’s no denying the sheer aural pleasure these melodies provide.

Joan is a painstakingly crafted creation, and I believe there should be more indie music of this brainy, exquisite kind. Maison Neuve gives you what might be called an understated catharsis. I would cautiously wish the songs were a little edgier, but on second thoughts, well, that might be akin to telling an abstract sculptor to be a little more down-to-earth.


Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Book review: THE BODY by Stephen King

The Body, or Fall From Innocence (published in Stephen King’s 1982 collection Different Seasons) is rightfully considered one of the greatest teenage stories ever written. It probably helps that there is nothing supernatural about this novella; just a story, and a very detailed, very evocative exploration of that most vulnerable period of our lives. Written in the form of a writer’s memoir, King created a universal story, and one that will haunt you a lot longer than any number of demons and ghosts.

As ever, you can count on King for telling a gripping story. A writer named Gordie Lachance looks back on his childhood days and remembers an episode that had the biggest bearing on his subsequent life. It’s a small American town and a rather uneventful summer; four friends learn about the death of a boy named Ray Brower and embark on a two-day journey to see the dead body. They tell their parents they will go camping, they take all the money they have and set off. The plot is simple enough, and it is made up of a number of fairly simple episodes that disclose something about each of the boys, their families and their characters. Lachance’s account is honest, and you can feel the intensity piling up – slowly, behind the scenes. The boys’ initial defiance gives way to fear and insecurity.

They have to get through lots of perils as well as bouts of true friendship, heroism and betrayal, and each episode (swimming in a pond, running from a train, sleeping in the wood, encounter with older boys) is more than it seems. It’s the kind of fateful experience that puts the price on them and is bound to live in their heads long after it’s over – whether the effect is noticeable or not. Chris and Gordie feel they’ve matured, while Vern and Teddy stay the same. But it’s not just about feeling older or doing mature things – it’s also about waking up in the middle of the night for reasons you can’t explain. The body is found, of course, but imagining beats reality.

From start to finish, it’s masterful storytelling (although I don’t believe that the inclusion of the whole short story Gordie Lachance would go on to write was all that necessary) filled with King’s trademark love for a lush detail and haunting imagery. There’s lots of simple, evocative symbolism throughout, and The Body is a good testament to King’s practical yet imaginative command of language (when King compares a ball of lightning travelling across the sky with a scalded cat – it’s just beautiful writing). I wouldn’t say the book has ten thrills a page, but it certainly manages to stay thrilling in an understated, lurking-nearby sort of way.

With The Body Stephen King tells a story we can all relate to. The boys’ adventure is that sacred passage from boyhood to adolescence we all experience at some point. Maybe there was no heavy beating afterwards. Maybe there were no spooky noises in the wood. Maybe there were no bloodsuckers hanging on to your testicles. And maybe there was no body. But then…  that’s what literature’s for.


Sunday, 15 January 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK # 43: Notsensibles - "(I'm In Love With) Margaret Thatcher"

This classic 1979 single by a band who only managed one (decent) album and a bunch of (decent) singles, is essential listening for anyone interested in British punk music. Notsensibles' defining moment, and a real beauty of a tune. An artistic statement if there ever was one. Well, what's there to add?..

Friday, 13 January 2012

Album review: GUIDED BY VOICES - Let's Go Eat The Factory

Highlights: Laundry And Lasers, Doughnut For A Snowman, Spiderfighter… and an odd track here and there

Guided By Voices’ latest is in no way an exceptional record. Robert Pollard has mentioned somewhere that Let’s Go Eat The Factory is the band coming back to the style of its most acclaimed works, Alien Lanes and Bee Thousand, but you have to take that with a grain of salt. Whatever monikers the man has used over the years, it’s been largely the same thing: intriguing lo-fi pop music for those suffering from A.D.D.

Pollard has probably recorded more songs than anyone in the history of indie pop. This new album features 21 tracks of various moods and lengths. As expected, some of these are half-finished ideas, but most of those ideas are good, and God knows I wish delightfully melodic beauties like “Chocolate Boy” or “Doughnut For A Snowman” ran for an additional minute or two. It’s always an uneven experience with Guided By Voices, but apart from “The Big Hat And Toy Show” (Hendrix-styled guitar is okay, but so what) and a couple of blatantly unsubstantial snippets, every track (be it a noisy and intense rocker like “Waves” or something as gorgeous and soothing as the second part of “Spiderfighter”) includes at least one terrific hook. And the songwriting is actually pretty diverse: power pop, 60’s styled garage rock, psychedelic pop, lovely acoustic strummers, etc.

This one’s for the fans, of course, but even if you aren’t: Let’s Go Eat The Factory has way too many great tunes to be ignored. I’m giving it a low eight because I love the style, however clumsy, messy and frustratingly inconsistent it might seem. The fact that your average indie band could come up with an idea this good, polish it and then milk it for over 4 minutes, just doesn’t make Pollard a lesser songwriter. By turns brilliant and throwaway-like, this is a great return to form.


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Album review: HECTIC ZENITHS - Hectic Zeniths

Highlights: Then And Now, I Might Drown, Zeitschtichen, An Empty Shell (Outro)

Perhaps the first thing you notice while listening to Hectic Zeniths’ eponymous album (the project of a bedroom producer and multi-instrumentalist Adam Morgan Prince) is how intense it all sounds. Beautiful classical piano patters are intertwined with violins, samples, electronic beats, occasional flutes, guitar solos, etc. – all layered so thoughtfully and meticulously that the experience will just keep paying back with time.

Hectic Zeniths sounds a lot like a particularly complicated, self-consciously gorgeous soundtrack to a dramatic film of some considerable intensity. Not least because the album is mostly instrumental – with subtle, poignant vocals serving largely instrumental, embellishing purposes. There’s probably not much point in getting into too many details, since the album sounds so much like a multi-part suite, but I’d just note that “Zeitschtichen” with its high-pitched singing, horns, flutes and unforgettable piano lines seems to be particularly impressive. Also, “Know My List” could well be mistaken for a Sigur Ros track off Takk… Certainly no bad thing.

My usual complaint when it comes to this kind of production-centred music is that too often it lacks emotional substance. But while that may indeed be the case on Hectic Zeniths, underneath the technical brilliance of the whole thing (which took 3 years to make – and it shows) there’s some unmistakable feeling and intimacy that will keep revealing itself with further listens. Ditto for the whole record. A rewarding experience, and one well worthy of your time.


Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Book review: HITCH 22 by Christopher Hitchens

Whenever I asked myself what living person (because what would you want to learn from those who know nothing of the Internet or Osama Bin Laden – even if their names happen to be Nietzsche or Hegel?..)  I would like to interview most, the answer was always Christopher Hitchens. Whenever I thought of others, I started making up questions, like what’s the point of that character; what did you want to achieve with that film; anything good about being born to an artistic family; why the bitterness, Luke?.. With Hitchens, the only thing you would wish to know is what he thinks of this. Of this. And of this. It would only be about his opinion. Because want it or not, Hitchens could always state his view in a way that would make it sound like it is the only one that counts. And for a writer, for a public speaker, for a philosopher – this is where it’s at.

Hitch 22 (an obvious allusion to his friend’s Joseph Heller’s classic novel) is of course a thinker’s memoir. It’s Hitchens’ life interlaced with a great deal of insight, references and quotations. The book was published in June 2010, the same month that Hitchens announced in Vanity Fair that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The fact that the disease proved to be fatal this December makes all those death ruminations in the opening chapter of the memoir all the more timely and haunting.

What makes Hitch 22 an even greater read, is that Christopher Hitchens was never known for doing things by halves. From his early Trotskyism to his trips to Cuba, Poland, Argentina, etc. to his stance on religion or the war in Iraq to that self-induced ‘waterboarding’ experiment, he led the fullest of lives. And you do get the most electrifying details, like his Buenos Aires meeting with Borges, him bringing several pairs of jeans to the isolated communist Poland, him being ashamed of breaking so quickly and thus asking the people who ‘waterboarded’ him to repeat the experiment. You might have seen the YouTube video or read God Is Not Great, but it’s the autobiography mode that gives you an opportunity to get quite close to the agenda and anxieties driving that brain of a hurricane (a cliché that is completely justified in this case).

So what about his brain? Well, the reason why Hitchens has always been so attractive is that irony, that wit, that certain playfulness of his style. Naom Chomsky (his long standing opponent) he was not – more of a Stephen Fry (his long standing friend). Chomsky has several times admitted that he is indeed a terrible bore, hinting that it is forgivable for a philosopher. Christopher Hitchens had it differently. Yvonne, his mother (a great influence early on; she gets quite a few pages throughout the book), taught him that the greatest sin is to be boring. He never was; here was a man, remember, who got tired of London and immigrated to America. Add to this his enormous, insatiable love of literature and his highly entertaining, loose, full-blown lifestyle.

But that lifestyle went so well with the depth and subtlety of his writing and thinking. The diagnosis and feeble chances of survival (he only gave himself about 5%) made him slow down slightly – but even as death was cornering him, his brain remained strong and sharp. Just check out his articles and interviews from the period. That triumphant religious debate with Tony Blair, for instance.

While expectedly short on his private life, Hitch 22 leaves little ground uncovered: his childhood and his parents, his impressionable college years (with a great deal of quite Joycean experience) and his University years, his early London career in journalism, his life in the States, his intense, expansive travelling to the least safe spots of the world – including a near-fatal experience in Northern Ireland.

But however thrilling all that may be, perhaps the best chapters of the book are reserved for his friends. People like Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan… Hitchens’ friendship was solid, consummate. The way he helped and supported Rushdie all through the latter’s post-fatwa period was anything but commonplace. Then there are these entertaining little stories about bawdy dinner games as well as numerous amusing episodes involving Martin Amis. There’s lots of Kingsley Amis (never a bad thing) and there’s even Hitchens’ account of that meeting with Saul Bellow (so well described by Amis in his brilliant memoir Experience). In fact, they were so close, younger Amis and him, that Hitchens even facetiously admits to being physically attracted to his friend. But there’s some brutal honesty, too, like that depressing  90’s meeting with Kingsley in London. When the age and the booze got the better of the author of The Old Devils and Girl, 20 and he suddenly came off shallow, primitive, dull. 

And again and again, the memoir’s every reminiscence and insight testifies to the power of that unshakable, uncompromising spirit – raised on Thomas Paine and George Orwell. Again and again, it makes you think of a room you’ve seen so many times: a room where Christopher Hitchens expresses his viewpoint and everyone else gets humbled. So inevitably, so mercilessly. Even if that viewpoint happens to be as controversial as his relentless advocacy of the war in Iraq. Antagonizing lots of his numerous admirers, he could nonetheless be trusted even on that. He saw the tapes. He saw the video of Saddam Hussein executing his ministers, one by one, as they grovel and beg for mercy. Christopher Hitchens had the experience and, what is more important, he had the knowledge. So even though his book on Mother Theresa may indeed lack references, that booming, inspirational, convincing tone of knowledge and experience could always be trusted.

Christopher Hitchens was a person you are more than likely to fancy. Compared to him people like Bill Maher or Michael Moore are just amateurish populists. At best. At worst – wankers. There’s a brilliant scene in one of the final chapters of Martin Amis’s masterful and often overlooked 90’s novel The Information where one of its two central characters, Gwyn Barry, who ends up on top, with all the fame and love, is described as ‘cynically and even satanically handsome’. In every possible way – that is Christopher Hitchens.


Sunday, 8 January 2012

SONG OF THE WEEK #42: Luke Haines - "Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop"

Luke Haines' 2006 album Off My Rocker At The Art School Bop went practically unnoticed, but that can only mean that it was a perfectly fine Luke Haines album. Freddie Mills, Gary Glitter, Kendo Nagasaki... these are just some of the characters featuring on that album.
The title track (which also gives this blog its name) is a classic piece of disco and glam rock packed with brilliant melodies and Haines' characteristically smart/pretentious lyrics. As witty and clever as pop music gets.