Friday, 29 November 2013

Album review: MAZZY STAR - Seasons Of Your Day

Highlights: In The Kingdom, Lay Myself Down, Flying Low

And the good taste prevails.

When people say ‘seasons’, they often mean a change of some kind. Generally that would be a logical assumption to make – one, however, that would mean fuck-all when dealing with a band like Mazzy Star. Because Mazzy Star doesn’t change. It’s like a line in that old Woody Allen play – “It’s my style. I show up in a place, and I stay”. They showed up in late 80’s, and here they are still doing the same old mellow, dreamy, pleasantly psychedelic thing.

And doing very well indeed. David Roback’s masterful guitar seduces you with understated intensity (the man’s a terrific mood-guitarist) and Kendra Smith’s soothingly powerful voice (which hasn’t change one tiny bit) pulls all those nocturnal strings of your heart. The combination still works like magic, and why wouldn’t it. The style, the production, the instrumentation, the taste – all impeccable. The question of melody remains an elusive one, mainly because you get lost in the bluesy licks and lovely autumnal mood and care very little about all secondary issues. What matters (seemingly so) is the timeless organ in the opening “In The Kingdom” or the wistful harmonica in the solipsistic (did I just say that?) “Common Burn” or the chugging groove of “Flying Low”. It’s only when the album is over and you realise that you don’t really remember any of the actual tunes that you think: “Ah well, nice, but just how good was it?..”

The answer is – very good. Brilliant and soul-melting while it’s on, Seasons Of Your Day is everything you could wish from Mazzy Star. In the past, today or at any point in the future.


Thursday, 28 November 2013

Album review: HOWE GELB - The Coincidentalist

Highlights: Left Of Center, The 3 Deaths Of Lucky, Unforgivable, Picacho Peak

First of all, I love the title. The Coincidentalist is concise, inventive and it pleasantly reminds me of Robert Forster’s The Evangelist (side note: it’s been five years, Robert, five bloody years). Two: I find the cover very tasteful, and it perfectly captures the record’s vibe: slightly dark yet not menacing. But most importantly, the music is genuinely good. Listening to The Coincidentalist is like drinking warm tea with milk on a nasty November day.

Howe Gelb (also of Giant Sand – which is good but one of many) sings in a misty baritone and comes across like a young, more playful Leonard Cohen. This can’t be a bad thing. The mood set with “Vortexas” is sustained all the way through, right until the closing jazzy instrumental "Instigated Chimes” that sounds as if it was written at least half a century ago. While the whole thing is really consistent, The Coincidentalist is many things. It is jazzy, bluesy, country-ish (no wonder, considering Gelb’s roots), and it has enough room for creativity. The tea has an inventive twist to it, which comes through diverse instrumentation (you even get to hear chiming bells in the title track), effective backing vocals (that weird scream in “Triangulate” is especially wonderful) and a glorious duet with KT Tunstall (“The 3 Deaths Of Lucky”).

The Coincidentalist does its job in clever and swift 37 minutes. It doesn’t set the world on fire, nor has any intention of doing anything like that, but its sounds are physically pleasing. This album envelopes you in a truly profound way. Also, I’d just like to note that I’d give a lot to hear Tom Waits cover “Picacho Peak” – surely one of the most beautiful, timeless and downright best songs of 2013. All that and more makes The Coincidentalist a low-key triumph.


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Album review: COLIN GILMORE - The Wild And Hollow

Highlights: Into My Future, Wake Me In The Night, Raging Eyes

Being a musician and having ‘Gilmore’ as a last name is not such a good idea. Having a musician-father, however, is a downright bad one, particularly if you are going to follow in his footsteps. Art does on occasion allow for such things to happen (‘Wainwright’, if you are looking at good examples in music business), but that is more like a crude, glaring exception. Usually, it’s either bad or nothing. So considering all that, Colin (son of country musician Jimmie Dale Gilmore; also of The Flatlands, also Smokey (‘OVER THE LINE!!!”) in the Coen brothers’ classic) is doing all right. In fact, I’d place him just a little bellow Teddy Thompson, Richard’s stylish if unspectacular son.

Whatever I might say below, it will not be as good a description of Colin’s music as this album’s cover. I swear when I first saw it, I knew exactly what The Wild And Hollow would sound like. The glasses told me Roy Orbison, the tasteful colours alluded to Marshall Crenshaw. Which is what the record is, and I can’t but welcome the arrangement: in the world where the word ‘derivative’ can hardly be used in a pejorative sense, ripping off Orbison is not a crime.

The perky 60’s styled bass guitar opening this album is nostalgia at its loveliest. Obviously there’s not a note of originality here, but the abundance of taste, masterful playing (musicians include Joe Ely and Colin’s father) and arrangements, as well as generally strong melodies almost make up for that. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I enjoy “Wake Me In The Night” (great tune, but a borrowed one), but then there’s nothing shameful in loving the gorgeously articulate violin of “Warm Days Love” or the chiming gem that is the closing “Raging Eyes” (could easily rival some of Crenshaw’s best songs).

The Wild And Hollow is inessential and will soon disappear without traces, so all the more reasons to enjoy it while it lasts. Stylish and unpretentious, Colin Gilmore makes so much more sense to me than Jake Bugg.   


Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Album review: THROWING MUSES - Purgatory/Paradise

Highlights: too many to list

You are unlikely to hear this anywhere else, but Kristin Hersh is one of the world’s greatest songwriters. Kristin has it all: taste, substance, charisma; she has a way with melodies and she has a way with words. So admittedly the prospect of having a new Throwing Muses album with 32 songs on it seemed both enticing and a little overwhelming. Insane, too. And it’s the whole package this time: a book with Kristin’s short stories, the actual LP, links to various album-related downloads. For instance, there’s a totally instrumental version of Purgatory/Paradise, which, contrary to what common sense might tell you, is not expendable: the chemistry of the band is amazing, and you’ll get an even better chance to hear how beautiful and crisp it all sounds.

Worth saying it again: 32 songs. They float and bump into each other, they spring up and die down and they are occasionally reprised. Oddly, this kaleidoscopic album of old-school indie-pop (not to be confused with shit), never sounds like a wholesome musical journey. Rather, Purgatory/Paradise sounds like a work of a terrific and obsessive songwriter courageously going through an attention-deficit phase. It’s nothing to fear though: even the 1-minute songs are hook-filled and well-written.

Not that we don’t have a range of full-length classics here: “Lazy Eye”, “Slippershell” (lyrically, this one is untouchable; the moment when Kristin sings “hard to say it’s hard luck – when we had it coming” is blissful), “Milan”, “Morning Birds 1” all qualify. As for the shorter ones, some just had to become full-fledged classics: the piano-based, deranged waltz called “Triangle Quantico” lasts 1:15, and that is just awfully unfair. But that doesn’t even come off as legitimate criticism, because it was meant to be that way: Purgatory/Paradise is a nervy flow of brilliant ideas, moods and impeccable taste. And, again, the sound of this thing. Whichever guitar tone they choose, however gentle (“Smoky Hands”) or crude (“Sleepwalking 1”), it all works, and then they might also add a few gorgeous piano lines (“Bluff”) or violin (“Terra Nova”) on top of all that chemistry and Kristin’s winningly coarse vocals.

To be completely honest here, had Kevin Barnes not released his most sizzling songs earlier this year, I wouldn’t hesitate and say Purgatory/Paradise is the album of the year. Hands down, period, etc. But even as it is, it’s fucking brilliant. Not quite their eponymous debut from 1986, but oh so close.


Monday, 18 November 2013

Book review: MORRISSEY - Autobiography (2013)

While any sane person would be advised not to spend too much time trawling through the back doors of his favourite artists (a personality not seen in a work of art is a personality not worth seeing), autobiographies are different. Yes, they often end up pulpy melodramas or boring self-serving homilies that will on occasion (god no) alter your perception of an artist in question, but once in a while you might also stumble upon a literary masterpiece that will leave you awe-struck and dumbfounded. And I was expecting a classic from Morrissey – I just couldn’t expect it would be quite this good.

Forget about the Penguin Classics imprint (if you don’t have the guts, then at least find the courage to applaud him for the cheek) and forget about Morrissey having favorite artists (as opposed to ‘favourite’ artists) – what you are looking at here is a monumental piece of non-fiction done by a man who was very much aware right from the start that ‘monumental’ was the only thing worth going for.

The evil question here would be why Morrissey bothered in the first place. To settle scores? To satisfy a narcissistic whim? To remind us of his existence? But evil questions are better left unanswered, so let’s just consider the words (words, words, words: 457 pages of words) and the gamble on posterity so explicitly seen in the memoir’s title. Fuck your clever suggestions torn out of the Smiths’ lyrics – Autobiography is maddeningly perfect.

Speaking of lyrics, Morrissey loves them so much they are spread all over this book in lovely cursives, which only accentuates what we’ve suspected all along; yes, of course it has all been true: all that misery, all that bitterness and all that loneliness. From “Reel Around The Fountain” to “I’m OK By Myself” – every word rings with experience and inner feeling. Don’t doubt Morrissey’s integrity. Honestly, the best thing he can say about the human race is hidden somewhere in the middle of this memoir: “People are certainly oddities”.

In a book so richly textured and so beautifully written (often florid, but always articulate), everyone is bound to have his own favourite pages and lines. Myself, I felt enchanted right from the very beginning: the lush, poetic way with which Morrissey describes his childhood, his teachers, endless odd jobs, the drab city that, yes, has so much to answer for. (See? Morrissey’s integrity is precisely the reason why you want to support each Morrissey’s sentence with Morrissey’s lyric.) The unspoken truth soon to be revealed to our young man is this: “Effeminate men are very witty, whereas macho men are duller than death”. Girls love him; fast-forward 30 years later: girls still love him – with the possible exception of Siouxsie Sioux.

The Smiths’ years, and this has puzzled and riled up a lot of people, are quickly dispensed with. The Smiths’ years are just years, you see, Morrissey’s years piling on top of each other to make up his life and this autobiography. Yes, he loves the music and for a few years Marr is a true soul mate; yes, he doesn’t like the production on the debut album and Strangeways, Here We Come is The Smiths’ masterpiece (no argument here), but he is just as interested in persistently slagging off Rough Trade Records and decrying dodgy record deals. His family, his apartment, his love of animals and his growing inner frustration are just as essential to the story as who wrote this or who came up with that. It’s simple: what you want to hear is not necessarily what Morrissey is interested in saying.

Besides, “nothing that isn’t my own seems to work for me”. So understandably much of Morrissey’s interest is invested in his solo years. Deliriously successful American tours (marred by madness and slander), meticulous descriptions of chart successes (and failures – those record labels), a passionate love affair (ah yes) and, of course, the unfortunate centrepiece: the lawsuit filed by the Smiths’ drummer Mark Joyce, the ensuing trial (John Weeks, “may you turn in your urn”) and the inevitable defeat are described through pain and with a great deal of spiteful and bitter detail. Will you take Morrissey’s side? Of course you will. And then later, much quieter years, that nonetheless bring out one incredible, dramatically understated moment: Morrissey comes to Denmark and finally feels at home. The world fainted, my eyes got watery. Now you see?

There’s certainly much bitterness in the book. While Marr is more or less spared, Joyce, Rourke, Geoff Travis, John Peel, NME and countless others are all dismissed with various degree of care and vitriol. Morrissey has every right to be bitter; close people dying around him, people he thought were close leaving and betraying him – these are just a few recurrent motifs in the book that constantly strives for pattern and consistency. But it’s not just bitterness and it’s never quite despair. There’s droll humour (pages describing the Smiths’ one-time rhythm guitarist are hilarious), there’s love (the way Morrissey speaks about Bowie and Auden and the New York Dolls is both beautiful and accurate) and, towards the end, there’s that light that never goes out. Because it’s been a life well spent, as told by a talented and fulfilled man who has never once compromised his vision, taste or integrity. The book may be drenched in Morrissey’s ego, but it’s not like he hasn’t earned it. Yet. Baby.

And for God’s sake, forget about vegetarianism and sexuality. Because if you don’t, this book will find you wanting. Because this is an Artist’s book, through and through. Because before you know it, a line like “most people keep their brains between their legs” will come up and Morrissey will be done with you.

‘Accomplished’ is an understatement.


Sunday, 17 November 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #124: The Magick Heads - "Standing At The Edge"

Jangle pop is what New Zealand could always do so well. The Magick Heads, third most famous band formed by Robert Scott (the other two being The Clean and The Bats, of course), are case in point. "Standing At The Edge", which opens their debut album (Before We Go Under, 1995), is one of the most perfect pop songs of the 90's. The combination of the violin and twee vocals is just so lovely.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Album review: LAURA VEIRS - Warp & Weft

Highlights: Sun Song, America, Shape Shifter, That Alice

There is one particular moment on Laura Veirs’s new album that makes you realise you’re in the right place. It comes at the beginning of “That Alice”, after the classy initial blast of tastefully distorted guitars: Laura sings “Born in Detroit…”, and all the flaws and shortcomings can easily be forgotten. From start to finish, the song (a tribute to Alice Coltrane, jazz pianist and John Coltrane's second wife) is power-pop heaven at its most memorable and anthemic.  

While Laura Veirs is all charms (she sounds that and she looks that), there is undeniable gutsiness, drive to her songs. Laura's songwriting is countrified, has some folk music influences, as well as a great deal of power pop sweetness. What’s lacking is some sort of mystery (read 'personality') that Neko Case (a good reference point; she also guests as a backing vocalist on a few of these songs) has in spades. And that is the reason why The Worse Things Get… is a triumph, and Warp & Weft is merely a very good album.

But very good is nothing to be ashamed of – especially when you open your album with a beautiful and wistful track like “Sun Song” and proceed with a lovely, unpretentious anthem called “America” (no less). There’s not an ounce of originality here, and I’m sure I’ve heard that particular female voice a million times already, but the thoughtfully lush production and genuinely good songs (some of which are more immediate, some are less – but all are winners) is what counts.  

Well, if you are going to listen to albums that aren’t and will never be classics – it’d better be albums like Warp & Weft.


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Album review: ED ASKEW - For The World

Highlights: Roadio Rose, Blue Eyed Baby, Maple Street, For The World

If you happen to know a few things about Ed Askew prior to listening to this album, you must have spent some time scraping the bottom of the 60’s barrel. Back in 1968, when everybody had a record out, Ed had one of his own. It was called Ask The Unicorn and it slipped through the memory holes and the holes of history like an obscure and not particularly brilliant acid folk record from 1968 should. Now this man is back.

A has-been who semi-successfully (I’m being generous) resurrected his career in the new millennium and then suddenly, in 2013, recorded one of the most beautiful albums of the year. Everything about For The World is just so tasteful and nice: the cover painting showing the man himself, a song called “Gertrude Stein” (which sounds like an accomplished sketch) and, most importantly, the actual music.

Which is folk music – impressionistic, poetic, timeless-sounding. When you begin a 2013 album with an epic ballad that lasts seven and a half minutes – you either know you are really good or you simply don’t give a damn. Must be a combination of both for Ed Askew. At first it sounded too fragile and free-floating, but then you get entangled into this thing, which is basically just an acoustic guitar, a piano, occasional harmonica and Ed’s frail yet affecting voice. There’s nothing especially catchy or hard-hitting about these melodies, but in some strange way they are so bloody good they don’t even need you saying so (if that makes sense). “Maple Street” breaks my heart and then the ukulele-based title track (with, inexplicably, Sharon Van Etten) offers a bit of half-upbeat, unassuming optimism.

We do of course realise that the album is for the world that wouldn’t care. Or notice. But this is highly recommended to anyone who practices musical taste. And don’t we all love great albums nobody knows about?..


Monday, 11 November 2013

Book review: MARTIN AMIS - Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012)

Martin Amis’s writing has always been vicious. It doesn’t matter if it’s been a gruesome book on Holocaust or a comical short story about sex addiction, Amis’s wit is essentially brutal. A quick glance at the cover art of Lionel Asbo will no doubt tell you that the book is as well versed in violence as his breakthrough novel Money, a reference point not entirely random.

Indeed: Lionel Asbo: State Of England is Amis at his most ruthless. It’s him delving his teeth into the modern England, exposing its vices and then pissing all over them with his trademark style. The prospect, you have to admit, is irresistible.

Amis had a short story titled “State Of England” back in the 80’s, so you would think he’d been coming round to Lionel Asbo for quite some time. However, the end result feels almost effortless: of all well-established writers who came to prominence 30 or even 40 years ago (it’s exactly 40 years since the publication of The Rachel Papers), Martin Amis is the one you would entrust with the heartless task of tackling the modern times. Or, to be more precise, State Of England.

Which is a pretty sorry state to say the least.

The setting is contemporary London, specifically a God-forsaken borough called Diston Town, and Lionel Asbo is a 20-something thug who, if struck with the choice whom to strangle, you or one of his two dogs, would unblinkingly pick you. He also happens to be the uncle of Dennis Pepperdine, a 15-year old teenager who is rather sensitive and of mixed race. The two live together, and while the narrative is exhilarating from page one (Dennis’s confessional letter is pure comical genius), it is all just a clever setup for the moment Lionel wins an absolutely outrageous sum of money on the National Lottery. Initially it’s lush and disfigured, then it predictably hits the inevitable tits-up stride: Amis in full swing. The swing including violence (“the muscular violence that lies coiled in clouds”), sex (“straightforward copulation: this is what happens when a zoo rapes an aquarium”), money (but of course) and all those things he’s been writing about all along. Amis's comfort zone is a scary place.

As for the style, it’s nothing new: Martin Amis always writes like Martin Amis. It is mostly punishing hardcore this time, but he does it with witty and intelligent aplomb only he can muster. He is full of unexpected similes and singular metaphors, and he also has an almost sloppy way with that erudite brand of the English language – yet he is always convincing and never fails to entertain. You feel he actually enjoys writing about it all, that raunchy and gruesome world where cruelty is a pastime, and the inimitable way in which he can take this world apart and then assemble into an art form. All elements are in place, including that big dramatic moment towards the end, where Amis gives it away – about the Lionels and the rest, in the way of Dennis’s biggest life lesson: “They can’t love – hell, they can’t even be loved”.

Make nะพ mistake: Lionel Asbo is nothing more than a Martin Amis novel. And, crucially, nothing less. So if, like me, you think Amis is the sort of writer who gives postmodernism a good name, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t consider his latest a modern classic. It has drive and urgency to it, and, for once, its comical brutality rings disgustingly true. Vicious and viciously good.


And to further emphasise how highly I rate Lionel Asbo, this is the full list of Amis’s novels marked Vonnegut style:

The Rachel Papers (1973)    B-plus

Dead Babies (1975)    B-plus

Success (1978)    B

Other People (1981)     A-minus

Money (1984)    A-plus

London Fields (1989)    A-plus

Time’s Arrow (1991)    A

The Information (1995)     A-plus

Night Train (1997)    A-minus

Yellow Dog (2003)     D

House Of Meetings (2006)    B-plus

The Pregnant Widow (2010)    A

Lionel Asbo (2012)    A

Sunday, 10 November 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #123: Procol Harum - "As Strong As Samson"

There was a time when I thought if I could lock certain people in one room with "A Whiter Shade Of Pale" or any of Procol Harum's first seven studio albums playing on repeat, it would drastically improve those 'certain people'. I was 16, of course, but it's not like I have ever been proven wrong. "As Strong As Samson" from 1974's Exotic Birds And Fruit is one of the band's most perfect creations. From the lyrics to the steel guitar, the song's monumental

Friday, 8 November 2013

Album review: PINS - Girls Like Us

Highlights: Girls Like Us, Get With Me, Howlin’, Lost Lost Lost

I will probably act all boring and puerile, but I honestly don’t want to hear these flatulent one-minute intros anymore. Open with a bang, for Christ’s sake. You are not doing an opera, you are a few-frills, all-girls, post-punk revivalist band that wants (I can only presume) to leave some sort of mark in the year that has already seen credible rock critics salivating all over Savages’ first album. Which was an all right album – one, however, that took itself way, way too seriously.

And it's quite simple really: PINS have better songs.

In fact, the only thing missing on Girls Like Us is one mind-blowing, walls-shattering, no-questions-asked classic. Admittedly, some songs do get very close, like the title track, which is the sort of opening statement that has it all. It starts with an ominous sounding bass guitar, then explodes into a simple, mildly anthemic verse melody propelled by an absolutely timeless, shrilling guitar line, and then climaxes with the memorable and inevitable “girls like us” chant. Not a second wasted. What follows is a thrilling outburst of consistency and modest creativity. “Mad For You” has an amazing bass-based groove. “Get With Me” has a chorus to kill for. And on and on like this. The welcome  detours are the spoken-word “Velvet Morning” that manages to be both pleasantly noisy and mesmerising and the closing “The Darkest Day”, which masterfully conveys its title: all doom and gloom, but the taste it leaves is in fact extremely satisfying.

In short, brief (34 minutes) and compelling. Solid-good without being particularly overwhelming. And then there’s of course the linguistic trick that is this album’s title. However, all I can say about it is that I’m not a girl yet I do like them. Unlike that album by Mamas & Papas, which was awful. So well played, PINS.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Album review: MARK KOZELEK & DESERTSHORE - Self-Titled

Highlights: Mariette, Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here, Tavoris Cloud, Sometimes I Can’t Stop

This is getting ridiculous. Judging by this year’s stupefying productivity (as well as last year’s very decent Sun Kil Moon album), Mark Kozelek is the new Robert Pollard. While a weird e-mail exchange with a former GBV drummer shows the latter acting like a complete cunt (with all due respect), Mark Kozelek has quietly released three albums in one brief and miserable 2013. And – okay, Like Rats is little more than a competent collection of covers (still highly recommended for Mark’s fans – middle-aged men in tennis shoes?), but the brilliant Jimmy LaValle collaboration Perils From The Sea and this new album, with a mysterious appendage named Desertshore, are both bound to wind up on any decent best-of-year list.

The man is so clearly on a songwriting roll, it’s almost scary. May he not come off it for another year or two – longer would raise suspicions. Whereas Perils From The Sea was a gorgeous and lethargic affair, Mark Kozelek & Desertshore is slightly more varied. With songs like the lyrically edgy “Hey You Bastards I’m Still Here” (classic!), the ragged “Livingstone Bramble” (effective guitar playing and no less effective name-dropping) and particularly the painfully personal and obscenely catchy “Tavoris Cloud” (one of this year’s best choruses, easily) go for something else: they have Mark’s trademark mumbling, but they are also rocking, energetic, upbeat. Things calm down towards the end, with a few lengthy songs trying gentler guitars and, in the heartbreaking "Brothers", piano. It’s that familiar world-weary vibe that is only briefly broken with the fluid, faux-country charms of “Don’t Ask About My Husband”.

Arguably Perils From The Sea was the more impressive album of the two, but that’s immaterial: the truly amazing creative streak is what counts here. Mark Kozelek, a man who looks and sounds like such an awkward and unlikely botherer of music industry (he isn’t, sales-wise), just keeps releasing his unassuming and underappreciated albums full of intelligent pop music. This new one is consistent, slightly depressing (hasn’t he always been) and really well-written.


Monday, 4 November 2013

Book review: WILL SELF - Umbrella (2012)

If you have ever wondered whether a book can hate you, Will Self’s Umbrella will bless you with a densely voiced, slightly illegible but resounding yes. This novel hates you on every page, unconditionally and with a passion. It hates your cute haircut and the soft expression in your eyes. It hates the immature cuticles on your fingers. It hates the way you read, the way you try to skip the thorniest passages and get to the meatiest parts – those that would be ‘interesting’ or even ‘understandable’. Primarily, it hates your guts. To the extent that the way with Umbrella is to try and win its trust and maybe even affection – by tightly gripping the book, by holding on and believing in that big, old-fashioned sacrifice for the sake of art. Because this really is your only chance.

Take almost any contemporary writer of note and a few Bookers (well, maybe of shortlisted fame – like Mr. Self himself), and you will see that underneath all that ‘higher voice’ and artistic integrity, there’s a great desire to be loved. It’s give or take with ‘understood’, but to be liked is a must. The plots and the prose are there spreading their legs for you or at least smirking adorably for some kind of love and enjoyment. With Will Self, there’s just no such thing. Here is a man who simply doesn’t care. Which isn’t really so hard to do when you are a young artist who is really more young than an artist. But when you are someone as established as Will Self is, when you write 1000 published words every day (this is according to a recent interview with the man), that’s a completely different story. It means shortlisted is as far as you are ever going to get. It means University and college courses will faithfully snub your works. It means people will either love or hate you.

It’s more like love for me, but by no means has it been a perfect record. While I consider myself a huge fan of Will Self’s writing (and that includes his fiction as well as his journalism), I do admit that The Book Of Dave is there lying somewhere eyeing me with disdain. I still believe that novel needs a rope, a gun and a machete. Well, perhaps one day.

This time, however, I was quickly and ruthlessly won over by the single and singular metaphor that so expertly and so poetically ties the whole book together. First you read it as the novel’s title on the cover or elsewhere. Then you have a passing crush on it when you see it in the epigraph. (James Joyce’s timeless quote: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella”.) Then you see it under various guises throughout the book: it could be a syringe and it could be a penis. It could be many things, and if you are more intrigued than enlightened, that’s not such a bad thing either.

And then there’s of course the actual novel. It’s never too easy, is it, and I can still hear my mind noisily resisting the humourlessly lush prose huge on words (in all their endless manifestations), lacking in paragraphs and threaded with merciless cursives that on occasion appear so sudden and so random. Except they aren’t, so do try to hang on to these three interwoven narratives, time periods and characters. The 1918 story of Audrey Death, a munitions worker and a feminist, who falls victim to a severe epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, can so easily ooze into an interior monologue of Dr. Zack Busner, a retired psychiatrist who in 2010 looks back on his work (namely 1971) in Friern Mental Hospital where a strong drug helped him awake his post-encephalitic patients – including Audrey Death. It’s one hell of a read, one that is fascinating rather than engaging. It’s a bit like David Lynch’s Inland Empire without any visual aids or depictions of immaculate female breasts to help you weather the storm. You don’t see anything but the language – but the language is good. Illegible not by accident but by design, Will Self’s writing is a congested jungle of words that barely give you a chance to let a page slip by, take a break or even breathe. Still, as long as you can run into jewel observations like “old age is a form of institulisation” or “it’s a matter of time – how you understand time”, you should be doing okay. It’s basically your stamina, your attention, your intuition and your love of art. Speaking of which, Umbrella is so offensively, so deliberately pretentious that it slaps you with that word (a-r-t) as tirelessly and consistently as a gloved hand of an erudite boxer.

However, it would be a sign of bad taste to decry pretentiousness in such a daring novel. Interestingly, excluding a boy with an iPad and a few other details, Umbrella could have been written back in the 1920s by an especially snotty and edgy Modernist inspired by nothing else but determination and self-belief. Which means, I guess, that Will Self achieved whatever he had set out to achieve. I mean, how many writers these days are prepared to go this far? Martin Amis tried and failed with Yellow Dog. Kazuo Ishiguro did well with a much more modest The Unconsoled. But it’s Will Self that had the guts to take the top prize. Even if, technically, he was stalled at the shortlist stage.

Maybe it’s way too easy forget these days that art can, and perhaps should, be challenging. Hell, even difficult. Will Self himself has admitted that it’s a difficult book. One, however, I will give any number of literary awards to (not that he will need them). And before I sign off and urge you to read the damned thing, as insistently as I only could, I would like to stress yet again that this novel is not entertainment. Nor needs to be. But do believe me: bruised and beaten, you will somehow find solace in that.


Sunday, 3 November 2013

SONG OF THE WEEK #122: Francoise Hardy - "Tous les Garcons et les Filles"

Francoise Hardy's 1962 single and one of the loveliest songs I know. The first time I heard Francoise's record (a compilation of some kind) I had a long conversation about how hard it is not to have a passing crush on her. Even all these years later. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Album review: ARCADE FIRE - Reflektor

Highlights: Reflektor, Here Comes The Night Time, Normal Person, Joan Of Arc, Afterlife

If there is an art-related release in the whole of 2013 that’s been more wildly anticipated than Morrissey’s autobiography, look no further than Arcade Fire’s new album. Christ people went mad over this one. I don’t even know what part of the demographic was more annoying; those who were so determined to hate it, those who were bursting with premature love (best since Funeral, etc.), or those who kept repeating how disinterested they were in the whole thing. I’d argue that the last group seemed particularly exasperating: if you are so disinterested, get off of it already.

And besides, I think Arcade Fire have generated enough excitement over the years to justify some kind of interest on the part of music-listening world. At the very least they don’t just write songs. There’s artistic growth. There’s development. There’s a song called “Porno”. There’s James Murphy. And there’s of course that album cover.

Speaking of which, that’s as far as I will go with it. Let’s just assume we can all see it and that no one is ever going to beat it by placing Mona Lisa or Venus de Milo on the front sleeve. So, after the fact, was it worth it, the hype, the anti-hype and all that other cheap nonsense that doesn’t have anything to do with the actual music? It is a hands-down yes for me, Reflektor indeed being Arcade Fire’s big, initially misunderstood Kid A moment. Because at first there’s going to be confusion. Rolling Stone will give it the perfect rating. Others will give it a cautious grade of seven or seven-and-a-half. The Guardian will let it share the same measly 3 stars (!) with Katy Perry’s (!) latest. Etc., etc. And presently I feel like I’m standing ten inches from an elephant while trying to figure out what it is that I’m seeing.

It takes an effort. Because at this point it’s hard to say whether these songs are better than the ones that made up The Suburbs. I’m guessing not. If you strip a track as brilliant as the title track of its dense sound, of its groovy instrumental section towards the end (possibly my favourite thing about the song), you won’t be looking at much really. The melody is nice, but “Rococo”? “Modern Man”? “Suburban War”? And yet such is the nature of music (music as an art form) that goes beyond elements and details. The plot is undercooked, the actors are a little all over the place and the locations feel wrong – but the film is just so damn overwhelming. At first you try to make sense of all that mess that seems so intriguing, intricate, inventive. Reflektor sounds like some kind of a patchy kitchen-sink drama created by a truly intelligent mind. There’s just so much going on here; with James Murphy as an unlikely supervisor, it’s dancey and funky and groovy and never lightweight. And thankfully – regardless of sound changes, it still sounds like Arcade Fire: driving and grandiose. Lengthy, too, but when “Normal Person” (lyrically this one overdoes the pretentious element ever so slightly) rocks so much, “Here Comes The Night Time” offers so much blood-pumping variation and the heartbreaking and anthemic “Afterlife” sounds so affecting – I’m ready to take it all in. It’s intense and wonderful, even if by the end of it I might still (sigh) prefer the more concise and, when you come to think of it, no less impressive Funeral

When you review stuff on a regular basis, you sometimes have to leave the reading, listening (hell, on occasion even watching) part of it for the streets and the underground. I know it worked so well back when The Suburbs was released and I just kept it on repeat. But here’s the odd thing: I never, ever get the urge to listen to Reflektor the moment I leave my house. There is something to it I guess, and I refuse to see it as a problem. Because every time I found I had some time to spare, sat in a chair, put my headphones on and pressed play – Reflektor sounded fantastic.