Monday, 30 September 2013

Book review: GEORGE SAUNDERS - Tenth Of December: Stories (2013)

Quite simply, this is the greatest collection of fucked-up short stories I’ve read since Will Self’s Grey Area. The latter is a book of way-out plots presented in a relatively straightforward manner (plus, the language is beautiful and almost conventional – by Self’s standards). By contrast, Tenth Of December is made up of way-out plots weirded out even further by broken, bizarre presentation. In fact, your appreciation of these stories will very much depend on your acceptance of George Saunders’ style. Which comes off as deliberately careless and unintentionally clever.  

My reaction after reading each one of these stories was more or less the same: well, this is weird – but it’s really good, too. The book contains freak diaries, interior monologues, multiple narrators speaking in tongues (I may be exaggerating here); you won’t be just enjoying these stories, the enjoyment can hardly be guaranteed, you will also have to make sure you know what is actually going on. It can be argued that the whole point and appeal of a story like “Exhortation” is that the reader has to find out/guess the job of the narrator. It’s not a tiresome post-modernist puzzle, but it’s certainly a great example of art that is well-crafted and understated.

When you get inside the world created here (and it is a world, Saunders’ style beautifully ties together all these ten stories into an odd little universe of mostly amiable freaks and losers), you will see that it’s really quite simple. Take David Lynch’s Eraserhead as an example. Behind the grotesque make-up and the disturbing visuals, you actually get a very familiar portrait of young family life. Much here is just as recognizable: a soldier coming home from war, an employee seeing his boss having sex with another employee, a small guy burnt by jealousy and his own smallness. It’s never too simple, however, and there’s no shortage of the author’s wild imagination messing with your head. “Escape From Spiderland”, a futuristic tale of sex/love experiments, is particularly good in that respect.

Also, barring some eccentrics (see “Sticks”, which is a perfect one-page story), there are lots of seemingly straightforward characters here. But only seemingly so, ‘seemingly’ the result of odd circumstances and their often unexpected heroic (or ‘heroic’) actions. See “My Chivalric Fiasco”, see “Victory Lap” (my favourite), see the aforementioned “Escape From Spiderland”.

Perhaps the best thing about Tenth Of December is that these are all memorable stories, which is probably the combination of 'huh?' moments (how about the weird, harrowing perversion in “Puppy”?), George Saunders’ great sense of humour and, obviously, the style. I’d very much recommend staying with that style, trying to immerse yourself into that deceptively perfunctory, elliptical English. It’s not perfect (this sort of writing is bound to lose you on occasion), and I’d say the collection is a little front-loaded, but as far as truly great literary experiences go, believe me – this is the real deal.


Friday, 27 September 2013

Album review: CocoRosie - Tales Of A GrassWidow

Highlights: After The Afterlife, Child Bride, End Of Time

 “After The Afterlife” is a great opening song, but what a perfect title. Tales Of A GrassWidow does indeed sound like pop music as heard after the afterlife. Which in a way is as good a description of CocoRosie as you are ever going to get. Other than that album cover.

They say it’s this band’s most accessible album, which probably doesn’t say much. The whole thing reminded me of Mary Hampton’s weird folk. If Mary was in a band, embraced modern sounds and, crucially, was even weirder... Tales Of A GrassWidow does make for an unsettling listen, but only initially and if you had previously spent too much time playing your favourite records on repeat. It’s intriguing, challenging, inventive music that has enough vocal and instrumental hooks to keep you engaged. These are all very out-there hooks, granted, but since when is that a bad thing? The Fall’s “Jetplane” is still my favourite 2013 song.   

The combination of male and female vocals is a major asset here. The girl’s classic freak-folk voice is interesting in a good way, but it might become grating over a whole album. Most of the songs are based on electronic pop/trip hop beats, and on top of that you hear twisted folk songs that can be both soulful (“Tears For Animals”) and really catchy (“End Of Time”). Lots of beautiful and intricate things going on here, like the classic piano of “Harmless Monster” or the uplifting flute of “Roots Of My Hair”. Some of it tries too hard and ends up somewhat uneventful, but overall the album is still a huge resounding yes.

Very artsy, but this is that rare case when artsiness is justified by substance. Also, many of us get stuck in our element for way too long, and that’s another reason to listen to CocoRosie: they challenge senses ignored by most other artists. They have songs, too.


Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Album review: OKKERVIL RIVER - The Silver Gymnasium

Highlights: It Was My Season, Down Down The Deep River, Pink-Slips, Where The Spirit Left Us

Last time I reviewed these guys (how the time passes, etc.), I said something to the extent that Okkervil River are capable of recording a truly classic album but always choose not to. Well, maybe not a matter of choice, but The Silver Gymnasium is yet another one that misses the mark ever so narrowly. The question is, what could possibly be wrong with such an overblown, fully-realised collection of songs?

Note, please, that I say ‘overblown’ affectionately. ‘Overblown’ is what this band is about. Copious instrumentation spilling all over the place; Will Shelf’s dramatic vocal delivery; oversized, often anthemic melodies. If you can’t accept any or, preferably, all of that, this is simply not your band.

Speaking of Will Shelf, I rate the guy. The only problem with his songwriting is that on occasion he seems to compensate a lesser tune with overabundance of passion. That said, he is doing quite well here. But my heart is so easily led. When I hear the ecstatic melody of “Pink-Slips” or the clever wording of “Down Down The Deep River”, my expectations spin out of control and I want the whole album to be as brilliant as that. Which simply doesn’t happen. Even if I’ll be hard pressed to name one underwhelming track here. Yes, parts of “Lido Pier Suicide Car” drift by like random autumn leaves, but those ‘aaahs’ towards the end of the song are a mark of genius.

It’s consistency, I guess. Maybe if a song like “John Allyn Smith Sails” (or, indeed, “Pink-Slips”) has never been recorded, my expectations would mean nothing and I would not hesitate and call this album the band’s absolute peak… But if we cut the drama here for a second, we'll just say that The Silver Gymnasium is yet another great collection of songs from Will Shelf’s ever-going, ever-reliable band.

Well, and then again: maybe next time.


Monday, 23 September 2013

Book review: GILLIAN FLYNN - Gone Girl (2012)

Gillian Flynn? You don’t say. I swear there were moments when I thought I had it all worked out: Gone Girl, last year’s bestselling sensation, was - whisper it - written by a computer. A computer a great deal smarter and more sophisticated than Roald Dahl’s Great Automatic Grammatizator, but a computer nonetheless. What I mean by that is that not even the most devout Dostoyevsky fan would be able to think himself into anything here.

Gripping wouldn’t begin to describe it, and however much I tried to resist the hype, by page 30 I was a convert waving my huge white flag. It’s that good. For a novel that begs to be liked.

And it's traps all around. The bloody thing is so immaculately intricate, so cleverly conceived, so painstakingly plotted, that it’s nearly impossible to describe it without accidentally stepping onto a mean spoiler. I'll give away the premise: a young family moves from New York City to Mississippi (in itself a conflict). There might, just might, be something wrong with that family. One day Amy (the girl) is gone. Nick (the boy) is looking for her. Rest is like a minefield. There are pages in the novel where you will think you know where this is going, but in actual fact you probably don’t. You always get two sides of the story, one coming from Nick and the other coming from Amy, and it might take some time before you will settle for the obvious fact that the narrator is almost always unreliable. Especially if you have two of them.

Unabashedly mainstream. For all the cleverness, the book has undeniable mass appeal. Its wit is so easily grapsable. However, mass appeal shouldn’t in any way overshadow Gillian Flynn’s convincing, supercharged writing. It’s the sort of prose that wants to have sex with you – on every page and with every line. Flynn’s observations are usually impressive. The way Nick dismisses teenagers as ‘bored but busy’. The way sleep is compared to a cat (‘only comes to you when it is ignored’). Like every superior mainstream novel, Gone Girl will probably leave you sated rather than satisfied, but equally you don’t have to compromise to enjoy it. Even, yes, even if you are the sort of Dostoyevsky fan I alluded to earlier. You will know you are being played with, and there’s a great chance you will know the rules of the game. But what does it matter.

There’s going to be a David Fincher-directed film in 2015. Fincher seems to be the go-to director for doing this sort of ‘big book, great expectations’ thing. For the record, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the film was perfectly serviceable, but it also exposed all the shallowness of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the book. Let's wait and see what happens here, but I won't hold my breath.

Speaking of 2012, Gone Girl was the perfect antidote to Will Self’s impenetrable Umbrella. Appealing, entertaining, easy on the eye. And for the record – Umbrella was my favourite novel from 2012.


Sunday, 22 September 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #116: The Homosexuals - "Vociferous Slam"

Obscure, but certainly worth anybody's while. Might sound tricky, but The Homosexuals' Record should be in every household. Lots of spasmatic glam/lo-fi gems here, not least the one-and-a-half-minute classic "Vociferous Slam" with an ecstatic vocal melody and a middle eight that exposes the dodgy sound quality. In a word, essential. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

Album review: NEKO CASE - The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You

Highlights: Man, I’m From Nowhere, Bracing For Sunday, City Swan, Ragtime

Talking about now. If there’s a musical record I’m anticipating more than Reflektor (if such an arrangement is even possible), it has to be The New Pornographers’ new album. I honestly can’t think of another band that would have three (!) songwriters whose solo careers excite me quite as much. 2011 was the year of Dan Bejar. 2012 was the year of A.C. Newman. 2013 seems to be the year of Neko Case. Incidentally, The Worse Things Get… happens to be the strongest of the three.

As ever with Neko Case, first listen leaves you intrigued rather than content. You notice multiple flashes of brilliant. You notice the masculine adrenaline rush of the single “Man”. You notice the unlikely, inexplicable spoken-word triumph called “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”. Then you go back to it, this time knowing full well this is going to blow you away like nothing else this year. Like of course it does.

Yes, she is a great songwriter. Anyone who can come up with the dark turnaround that is the second part of “Wild Creatures” is a great songwriter in my book. But it’s more than the melodies. More than the rich sound, her undeniable country roots or even that powerful voice (which is sensual in a most cool and detached way). It’s about the whole package: quite simply, the lady is overwhelming. Her personality is. I mean, who else could pull off something like the aforementioned “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu”? At first I thought what the hell, she’s pulling my leg. She just had a bet she could sing a clumsy, confessional piece in prose and record it for her new album, stuff it between the proper songs. But then you realise she is actually serious. She means it. There’s a rhythm behind it, there’s music. And I swear it works, in the most bizarre way possible. Coming out of anyone else’s mouth, this would be a bad joke. Not here.

“Man” is of course the highlight. It’s this album’s “Hold On, Hold On”. And I don’t find one weak idea on the album. In fact, much of it brings back fond memories of Fox Confessor. The vocal hooks of songs like “Bracing For Sunday” and “Local Girl” are immense. When she sounds vulnerable (“Afraid”), it’s heartbreaking. When she chooses to be tough (“Man”), she’s tough. When she does a rocker (“City Swan”), it rocks. When she does something more understated and experimental (“Where Did I Leave That Fire?”), she makes it challenging in a beautiful, clever way.

I don’t know whether this is better than Fox Confessor, but as of now, this is my album of the year. And my gushing doesn’t stop there. I will also say this: in the absence of Kate Bush’s albums, I’m more than happy to have Neko Case. Because regardless of your opinion, the lady is awesome. No other word for that.


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Album review: ARCTIC MONKEYS - AM

Highlights: Do I Wanna Know?, No. 1 Party Anthem, Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?, I Wanna Be Yours

Just because it’s so hilariously entertaining, you absolutely have to read this (if you haven’t done that yet, of course). God knows why they didn’t mention that AM is the best album since Definitely Maybe. Since Revolver. Since ever.  

But for once – I understand the hype. I didn’t understand it in 2006 or in 2007. And I thought Humbug was melodically pretty much inept. Then, all of a sudden, when all hope was abandoned, Arctic Monkeys released the poppier and a little underappreciated Suck It And See that finally exposed Alex Turner's songwriting. Which was great songwriting. Now AM; not exactly an improvement – but certainly another convincing step in the right direction, even if a decidedly different one.

While the first two songs don’t betray too many changes (still, both were singles for a reason), the shameless falsetto opening “One For The Road” is where you know you are into something new. The R’n’B influences are all around, and they merge rather effortlessly with the album’s seductive, pleasantly narcotic sound. Another big asset is Alex’s voice that oozes lushness, sensual energy and snide confidence. Plus, whether it’s a huge ballad like “No. 1 Party Anthem” or a catchy 3-minute pop groove like “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?” (what’s with these question marks anyway?), the songwriting is consistently strong. Somewhat ironic, then, that the album’s best song happens to be based on a poem by John Cooper Clarke. “I Wanna Be Yours” is transformed into an immaculate and cleverly understated ode to sexual yearning and desire.  

I loved the songs and I loved the production. However, I’m giving it what I’m giving it – because “R U Mine?” does sound like a faster rewrite of “Do I Wanna Know?”, because rockers like “I Want It All” don’t really convince me and because I still can’t decide whether the chorus of “Knee Socks” is infectious in a brilliant or annoying way. But a great album all the same – from a band you can no longer deny.  


Monday, 16 September 2013

Book review: HERMAN KOCH - The Dinner (2009)

You have to wonder sometimes: what is better, a good book written badly or a bad book written well? That is a basic question, one, however, you won’t be able to answer without making a complete fool of yourself.

Admittedly, the first few pages of Herman Koch’s celebrated novel The Dinner felt rather awkward and made D.H. Lawrence come off like Marcel Proust. I’m ready to put part of the blame on the translator (the book was originally written in Dutch), but if we are completely honest here, and I’m speaking from some experience, this is the sort of unsubtle, crude style no translator would be able to refurbish or deconstruct. It just feels bumpy, even if that may actually reflect the psychiatric issue underneath this undeniably brilliant novel.

In a way, this is a book that thrives on one gimmick. But what a gimmick. Martin Amis has once said that there are two kinds of titles: those that are stated directly in the text and those that are all over the book without making any physical appearance on any of the pages. In a way, Herman Koch’s novel is pretty much its title. The title doesn’t even leave these pages; just have a look at the names of the chapters: “Aperitif”, “Main Course”, “Dessert”, etc. Basically, we have two couples coming to a restaurant to have dinner. The novel starts right before the arrival of the menus and ends soon after the tip is given. You have to admit that’s rather intriguing.

Certainly it’s not that simple. I’ve mentioned a psychiatric issue and that is only a part of it. Obviously the dinner is only a pretext, a social thing. The couples come to the restaurant to discuss a problem of such hair-raising complexity that the setting, the actual meal, seems grotesque and almost farcical. The sections of the novel that take place at or around the dinner table are actually written with a great sense of irony; these are the catchy parts of the book. However, it’s all only a mere façade: the real things are happening (or have already happened) outside the restaurant. The narrator’s flashbacks, creeping through rose wine and cottage cheese, make up the actual plot. It’s an intense and gripping story about what you are prepared to do for the person you love.

The book certainly resembles Yasmina Reza’s great play God Of Carnage (I also very much recommend Polanski’s recent adaptation of it, simply called Carnage), only whereas the play was two couples fighting bloody wars over a broken nose, The Dinner sees two unlikely brothers and their wives dealing with a much graver issue. I have to say that the way Herman Koch resolves the conflict is both disturbing and hilarious – certainly a very European ending. Make your own judgement there.

So the book titled The Dinner turns out to be quite controversial in the end. Eisenstein would have called it a perfect juxtaposition. I would call it a terrific book that deserved to be even better.


Sunday, 15 September 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #115: John Callahan - "Portland Girl"

John Callahan's Purple Winos In The Rain is one of the greatest, most intimate albums I know. And nobody has even heard of it. This is dark, beautiful piano and acoustic guitar stuff, the Portland man's cartoons wrapped in a truly impressive set of timeless melodies. The album was released (if that's the right word) in 2006, 4 years before John's death.  

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Album review: THE BAPTIST GENERALS - Jackleg Devotional To The Heart

Highlights: Machine En Prolepsis, Dog That Bit You, Broken Glass, My O My

The Baptist Generals are a Sub Pop band. Let me explain here. These days being signed to Sub Pop does not automatically mean that you are a Sub Pop band. In many cases it just means you have a record deal. The Baptist Generals, however, do sound like they belong to the legendary label. In fact, I would very much appreciate seeing a song like “Dog That Bit You” on a maybe-some-day-to-be-released Sub Pop 400 compilation.

Not really experimental and yet not really pop either. There are elements of both here, but I would just like to stress that essentially this music is rather lovely and accessible (the three minute epic “Broken Glass” is fucking gorgeous). If this is pop, it’s pop the way people like Frank Black understand it. Chord progressions slightly challenging, vocals not too presentable. While the actual melodies are mostly strong, Jackleg Devotional To The Heart is heavily packed with numerous interesting details – like the unnerving rhythm of “3 Bromides” or the beautiful strings of “My O My”. It might take some time to take in all the little twists and turns of this extremely intricate and inventive record, but now that I’ve given it a few good listens – the whole thing sounds both consistent and elaborate. From the Feelies-like opening instrumental to the grand orchestrated finale.

Interestingly, the band’s previous album was released ten ago – which makes Jackleg Devotional To The Heart something of a comeback. The album certainly seems like they had a lot to say, which is always important for a comeback. A bit grungy, a bit folky, a bit whatever – and mostly Sub Pop. Subversive and quite sweet, too.


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Album review: THE DUCKWORTH LEWIS METHOD - Sticky Wickets

Highlights: Boom Boom Afridi, The Umpire, Third Man, Judd’s Paradox

A whole album dedicated to cricket is excessive. An idea of one whole band building all their songs around that particular subject is almost maddening. However, as Steve Wynn has proved with his unlikely Baseball supergroup, even the most ridiculous concepts can work – as long as your passion for the sport is backed by a few great tunes.

Another thing that The Baseball Project (the comparisons are inevitable) showed was that the joke can wear dangerously thin after the first album. And given that this is The Duckworth Lewis Method’s second album (their 2009 debut is a gem), they could do much, much worse than this. As it turns out, Neil Hannon and Thomas Walsh (from The Divine Comedy and Pugwash respectively) are still doing fine.

It’s that same mixture of melodic baroque pop with the quirkiness of the subject matter, and although blandness sets in on occasion (surely Hannon didn’t have much to do with “Out In The Middle”) and the title track is one big 4-minute cliché, most of the other songs range from really good to almost-brilliant. Standouts include “Boom Boom Afridi”, a slightly eccentric take on The Divine Comedy (complete with a brief sitar break); “Judd’s Paradox”, a pretty ballad lifted by its great narrative sections; and of course “The Umpire”. Speaking of which, screw that ‘almost’ bit. “The Umpire” is brilliant. Even tear-jerking if you are in that sort of absurd mood. And if you care to pay attention to the song’s last words, you will understand the level of perfection they were aiming at. Umpires don’t cry… Hilarious.

Unlikely band, unlikely band name, unlikely concept, but Sticky Wickets still works. I’m not sure I will be bothered third time around (will they?), but for now the songwriting is still good enough.


Monday, 9 September 2013

Book review: ALISSA NUTTING - Tampa (2013)

Well, I dare say.

Perhaps it’s not the best way to start this review, but there’s something about the book’s title that is not quite right. It is beautifully concise and it does have some titillating vagueness and I’m sure Alissa Nutting put much thought into it, but all I could think of were travel guides and lots of various reasons for hating that American town. Tampa. I remain in two minds about it. Even despite the fact that yes indeed – both stories, real and fictional, took place in that particular area in the state of Florida.

Lots of things have been said about this book, but two ideas seemed especially eye-catching and ubiquitous. One: it is the most scandalous/controversial novel of the summer. Perhaps of the whole year. Two: it is a modern update of Lolita. Now I’m not going to argue with the first point – perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t. What’s controversial these days anyway? Though I will concede that it will take one hell of a book to beat Tampa in that department. As for Lolita, I really don’t know how to put it without coming off as a snob, so I’ll just say that Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert and Nutting’s Celeste Price are both infatuated with a person younger than 15. Similarities end there. Having said that, those who mention Tampa in the same breath with 50 Shades Of Grey are equally mad. Gratuitous sex, female author and popularity (a lot more modest in this case) make for a rather shaky analogy.

The novel itself. Interestingly for a book tackling paedophilia, it never felt like this was Alissa Nutting’s subject matter. Rather, it read like a story of one particular pervert: Celeste Price, a 26-year old schoolteacher who is erotically driven (I don’t consider myself a prude, but Jesus Christ those details) to vulnerable boys at the age of 14. Not the ones who want sex, but the ones who don’t know or are too scared to show how much they want sex. Celeste has a husband and is relatively well off. She is attractive to boys and men (even after all the sordid details, you would still want her) and seems to be quite successful on her job. The problem is, the only reason why she took up that job in the first place was the chance to meet that one boy she will fuck. To give you an idea of who we are dealing with here, Celeste’s way of soothing a 14-year old boy who’s suffering from a terrible shock is to fellate him. There’s no question that pathology is extremely well conveyed here. As well as the troubled, furtive mind of a sick woman.  

There’s one particular boy: Jack Patrick. Needless to say, most of the book is an eyeball-piercing account of Celeste’s secret sex life (or not that secret; sometimes she has to do it with her husband – basically, ‘shut up and stick it in’). Blowjobs, handjobs, rim jobs, there’s very little that isn’t there. Which is not to say that Tampa is not a well written book. There’s an odd balance issue: the novel does seem tame when the raunchy parts aren’t there and it comes off excessive when they are. Still, I’d argue that there’s a lot of fine writing in there, with the similes rather effectively ranging from somewhat romantic (the colour of Jack’s eyes is ‘virginal brown’) to quirky but intriguing (sex is ‘seafood with the shortest imaginable shelf life’) to inevitably gross (semen’s taste is described as ‘metallic salt’, no less). It works. Besides, some scenes are truly powerful. There’s no denying the parts where Jack tells Celeste about his love and wants to hear the same from her. Something she absolutely can’t do. Can’t, shouldn’t, unable to. Or the way she describes the effects she had on Jack’s physical development. Or that crazy dream of hers where boys are dancing around her husband’s corpse. In other words, Tampa is the sort of book that will get stuck in your brain for a long long time.

If there’s a book I will compare this to, it’s Zoe Heller’s Notes On A Scandal. It is obvious that Heller’s book had much more finesse and restraint about it – but then again, Tampa deals with pathology. And shock element or not, it does the job well. Is it a disturbing read? It is, by all means. Any sane person will encounter enough wince and cringe inducing moments before reaching the novel's end. However, what you might find particularly disturbing are not even sex scenes in school rooms or toilets for the disabled, but the fact that some crimes seem not just unpunished. They seem unpunishable.


Sunday, 8 September 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #114: Kristin Hersh - "Me And My Charms"

Throwing Muses' eponymous debut remains my favourite record from Kristin Hersh, but her first solo LP, Hips And Makers (1994), is almost as good. Kristin has an intriguing personality, and she also happens to be a great songwriter on top of that. "Me And My Charms" will show exactly what I'm talking about. 

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Album review: BABYSHAMBLES - Sequel To The Prequel

Highlights: Fireman, Nothing Comes To Nothing, Maybeline, Picture Me In A Hospital, Minefield

Maybe not something you should say in polite company, but I admire Pete Doherty. No, not the image of him walking the short way from prison to rehab. Not his awful acting. And certainly not the rather drawn-out and misguided attempt at wasting himself. In fact, I couldn’t care less about any of that. I admire the blind, sloppy, instinctive force that is Doherty’s musical talent. Which, for me, peaked with the much maligned Down In Albion, Babyshambles’ 2005 debut. That glorious mess. That ridiculous onslaught of melodies and charisma. That stream of rock-n-roll consciousness. The true naughties classic. Sorry if you missed it.

Shotter’s Nation lost some of Doherty’s trademark spontaneity, but the songs were good. Then there was a low-key solo album that worked (“Broken Love Song” is brilliant), but barely. Sequel To The Prequel (which is the sort of title that should have probably been invented sooner) has Pete’s best songs since Down In Albion. However hard you try, you just don’t waste your talent completely. 

“Fireman” is a raw, punkish, catchy outburst in the vein of “Arbeit Macht Frei”. “Nothing Comes To Nothing” is the album’s single, and it’s everything a great Doherty single should be: it’s tuneful, it’s instantly memorable and it has that irresistible anthemic quality to it. A dream start. “Farmer’s Daughter” has a big sweeping chorus that you might have heard before. “Fall From Grace” is catchy and bouncy. “Maybeline” with its “Fuck Forever”-like guitar rhythm would have been rightfully considered a Libertines classic were it written ten years before. Now it’s a Babyshambles classic. The title track is an entertaining old-fashioned number. “Penguins” changes the mood halfway through in that sloppy and charming Pete Doherty way. “Picture Me In Hospital”, with its swinging violin line, is beautiful and slightly deranged. Finally, the closing 5-minute “Minefield” brings the whole thing to a glorious close – with a wailing guitar and one hell of an epic tune.  You will sing along during the very first listening.  

The Deluxe Edition doesn’t add much of note. The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours” sounds exactly the way you would expect it to sound if it were covered by Babyshambles and sung by Pete Doherty. Decent stuff, but these bonus tracks are bonus tracks for a reason. So overall, this is more like a high 8. But the guy has an edge. He is a bit like indie rock’s Brendan Behan. He might be a shit actor, but he is definitely a brilliant songwriter. Plus, he didn’t die at 27, which seems good enough at this point. A 9.


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Album review: FRANZ FERDINAND - Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action

Highlights: Evil Eye, Love Illumination, Fresh Strawberries, Goodbye Lovers & Friends

To quote "Treason! Animals.", this album’s grooviest song, ‘Something has really, really gone wrong’. Perhaps it’s rather too easy to be cynical when talking about Alex Kapranos. But while I’m all for being cynical when cynicism is justified, I can’t quite bring myself to it in this case. Too sad. I mean, two irresistible dance/punk albums in rapid succession: 2004 and 2005. Then a patchy foray into electronic sounds in 2009. Mind the gap! And now (2013, no less) a timid, brief reminder of those glorious beginnings. Four years, and this is not exactly a French revolution. It’s a half-hour indie rock album, for Christ’s sake.   

I’m not being cynical. It’s way too fucking sad and depressing to be cynical.

However, creative and artistic stagnation can be disregarded for 35 minutes; Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action (you really hate long titles, don’t you?) is a good album. Possibly the best they could do at this point. The relative brevity is in fact a good sign: it shows they strived for consistency. Right Thoughts is essentially a tight collection of infectious punk songs that will make Ivy Leaguers dance and rock critics cry the bittersweet tears of premature nostalgia. All good, whichever way you look at it – physical or intellectual. Not that I will get fooled: place any of these songs alongside stuff like “Walk Away”, “This Fire” or even “Ulysses” and you will see exactly where we are at this point.

And yet rubbishing a song like “Evil Eye” and then blasting “Take Me Out” at full volume wouldn’t make too much sense either. Because Alex Kapranos can still pen a big catchy tune. Because Alex Kapranos still has it. This ‘it’ is not that impressive anymore, but he held on to this ‘it’ and reminded us why they have once been such a sensation. I almost wanted to give this one a high 7, but then “Goodbye Lovers & Friends” started playing and… I don’t know. Maybe this really is the end. And maybe Alex does hate pop music so damn much.


Monday, 2 September 2013

Book review: STEPHEN KING - Joyland (2013)

The first book I ever got as a present was a novel by Stephen King. I was 13. Having heard so much about the man and being secretly (13 was that sort of age) afraid of the dark, I let fear run ahead of me and apprehended every page with heavy, half-excited trepidation. As King himself puts it in this new book, “wanting it to happen, hoping it wouldn’t”. And it didn’t. Well, technically it did, but I wasn’t moved. By page 30, I was bored. By page 50, I stopped reading altogether. Could be the intriguing vagueness of my expectations, of course, but in the end what made the book’s horror so bland and ineffective was its overstated physical nature. Like those badly dated Elm Street films, it left little room for imagination.

Which is not to say that I underestimate Stephen King in any way. Since that initial letdown, he has equally shocked, terrified and amazed me – with the playful precision of his style, with that eye for a detail, with his unending supply of plot twists and horror tricks, with his uncanny ability to create atmosphere with minimal space and means. However, I’ve been most impressed by books such as The Body – where he didn’t show you much and all that he did do, all that suspense and trickery, was a mere façade for a much bigger story.

Joyland is an amusement park in North Carolina where a 21-year-old Devin Jones will work for the summer of 1973. He lands a job as a carny and gets himself into a whole new world with its new people, language and, yes, ghosts. One in particular – that of a young girl murdered several years ago in the park’s horror house. Devin doesn’t take the job for the money; what he really needs is to get away and over a certain girl.     
Few can beat Stephen King in setting the scene and creating a world that, despite being so sinister and full of suspense, feels somewhat wickedly attractive and almost warm. What does Devin Jones see? There’s a lonely beach with a woman, a dog and a boy in a wheelchair. There’s wind. There’s Howie the dog, the furry symbol of Joyland that every carny has to impersonate. There are swarms of small kids with hot dogs. There are sweet and friendly people like his landlady and his two new friends, and then there are bastards and eccentrics, both amusing and not so much. There’s a girl in red. There’s an old mystery that some discuss in hushed tones and some dismiss as complete bullshit. It’s a beautiful, beautifully written book that knows what it’s doing and does it expertly. The vibe is terrific. I could envision a great film.

Despite a few brushes with the supernatural, Joyland reads like a murder mystery and even an old-fashioned detective story. What it really is, though, is a coming-of-age tale that doesn’t so much tell you things as lets you into that world. The transition is not smooth (is it ever?), and Devin Jones actually shares the experience with you. It is totally worth it. Joyland is not quite a classic, but what a gripping, elegant little powerhouse of a novel.


Sunday, 1 September 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #113: Rowland S. Howard - "Dead Radio"

If there's a line that separates a great work of art from a masterpiece, then Rowland S. Howard definitely crosses it with "Dead Radio". One of the most astonishing and powerful songs I've ever heard, it opens 1999's masterful Teenage Snuff Film, an album that is easily up there with Nick Cave's best work. What a classic. And what a great, great man.