Author Archive

Music of 2013

I never did finish this, supposedly my customary end of year round-up, but I’ve dug it out of my drafts folder and polished it up a little. Better late than never?

A year of disappointments, perhaps. Hem reappeared after many years away and phoned it in, Richard Thompson continues in the vein that has seen my interest in his new material wane for a decade now, and my favourite band Counting Crows put out comfortably the worst live album of their career to date (but they’re back in the studio and hope springs eternal, right?).

Two shining exceptions to this wave of mediocrity; Ruth Moody‘s These Wilder Things and Jason Isbell‘s Southeastern (which I wrote about for Ryan’s Smashing Life, click it and read). These Wilder Things features the genius of Adam Dobres and Adrian Dolan, and you should take any available opportunity to see Ruth and band live. It’s a second helping of the easy-on-the-ear Canadian folk-pop that made her debut so appealing, with added guest gloss from Mark Knopfler, Jerry Douglas, Mike McGoldrick, John McCusker amongst others. The title track is a song of staggering emotional potency and showcases a singer and writer of great poise.

Midlake also returned, sans Tim Smith, songwriter in chief. I saw them at the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds in August 2012, an improbable warmup to their semi-regular slot at End of the Road the following day. Still with Smith then, and with hindsight [perhaps raging against the restrictions of studio toil, they played an astonishing, vital, visceral set including some songs from the stillborn album we will now never hear. When Eric Pulido and Eric Nichelson appeared back at the Brudenell the following spring, I ought to have wondered if something wasn’t amiss. They made no mention of it, but the band had fractured, and were beginning the process of rebuilding that accompanied the writing of Antiphon.

It floats between the mellotron-and-flute floaty psychedelia of The Trials of Van Occupanther and the guitar-driven stylings of The Comfort of Others without being either, retaining the vocal signature even without Smith; sometimes unison or double-tracked, other times picking out the clever, unusual harmonies that betray their status as graduates of the University of North Texas jazz program.

 


Natalie Merchant – Natalie Merchant

I’ve been a fan of Natalie Merchant since hearing her pure, delicate vocals on Mermaid Avenue, the Billy Bragg/Wilco collaboration. The album was a mainstay of my student radio show back in the day, and I must have played this two or three times.

When I finally got round to listening to her solo albums, and then her band 10,000 Maniacs, I found a voice with a considerably greater dynamic and emotional range than that cameo betrays.

It’s been more than twelve years since her last album of original material, and time has weathered that voice a little more. Dropping the needle on Natalie Merchant is a less immediately dramatic experience than, say, Ophelia, her 1998 sophomore release, but the lyrical darkness remains, accompanied by a further drop in pitch and her customary gravity of delivery.

It’s no great sonic departure. Her band sound is still rooted in the 1980s, still laden with strings, but these aren’t necessarily bad things.  “The End” has some of the best strings on a pop record I’ve heard in ages. “It’s A-Coming”, however, slips a bit too close to jam band mediocrity, Hammond organ and “funky” electric guitar, and the pastiche of New Orleans jazz on “Lulu (Introduction)” seems needless, heavy-handed.

Reportedly drawn from 14 years of writing, some of the material has dated in the meantime. If “Texas” is about George W. Bush, “Go Down Moses” must be about Hurricane Katrina, and back-to-back it feels a bit too much like a time capsule from the last decade, its potency somewhat lost in the intervening decade.

At her best, and this approaches it, Merchant is one of the most affecting vocalists of her or any other generation. Her phrasing is astonishing, Joni Mitchell-like in its ability to smooth occasionally wordy, inelegant lyrics and make them sound purposeful, even beautiful. Highly recommended.

 


Band of Horses – Acoustic at the Ryman

And so hipster favourites-turned-How I Met Your Mother-soundtrack-providers Band of Horses roll up at the high temple of country music. I’ve always suspected that under the beards and flannel shirts lay a band who could really, really play, and so it turns out. They can sing, too; high, clear and gloriously in tune.

Stripped of their customary endless reverb and wall of distorted guitars, the songs are reinvented on piano, acoustic guitars and occasional double bass. It’s a brave move, for sure; their voices are exposed for all to hear, and in Nashville of all places. For the most part, both the songs and their voices stand up to this treatment. The set rests draws from all four of their albums to date, and the arrangements are simple but effective. The bowed double bass that now serves to open Detlef Schrempf is deft and satisfying, and by the time they arrive at Neighbor, they are in fine form.

If I have a complaint it is that the whole album runs to only 10 songs and 39 minutes; from two nights of recording, you’d imagine there was some gold left off this release.


Granary Wharf

One of the lovely things about being back in my adoptive hometown of Leeds is finding new places amongst the familiar. The pace of change in a city like this is rapid (and occasionally rapacious), and a couple of years away means whole swathes of waterfront are no longer a building site but a fully-formed, bright and shiny piece of regeneration, a poster child for the city’s renaissance and the newest, hippest place to eat tapas, drink cocktails and people-watch.

Granary Wharf is indeed very lovely. So far, it seems to be doing better than most at shaking off the inevitable feeling of artifice that comes with extensive regeneration and the endless canyons of plate-glass that tend to accompany it, perhaps because the wharf itself, the actual dock, has been left mostly untouched. The stonework is uneven, worn, and rather lovely in the evening sunlight. It stlil looks more like an architect’s drawing than anyone’s home, mind.

You can eat, drink and admire the view in the shadow of Bridgewater Place, better known to taxi drivers, locals and Whovians as The Dalek. I happen to rather like the Dalek. You can see it as you come into the city, rising into the sky like the funnel of a lost ocean liner with its colour-changing lights and saying “Look at me!” It makes for a skyline to be reckoned with.

As I wandered though, I worried. The legacy of Clarence Dock looms large over each new stretch of waterfront regeneration. Another ghost town in waiting? The slums of the future? I think of the city centre as pizza dough in mid-air (bear with me here, people!); you can only tug it so far in every direction before you either run out of dough or tear a hole in the middle. Clarence Dock is too far out, and the city centre can’t stretch that far without cheap, fast transport links that don’t currently exist. Trinity Leeds, on the other hand, will tear a hole somewhere else, because the city just can’t support that much square footage of retail space. Something has to give.

I’m not convinced by the housing either; yet more flats that aspire to be called apartments and will inevitably mean that the older, less attractive, less well-marketed blocks elsewhere will struggle for tenants. The services aren’t there; sure, I’d love to live there now, but at the first sign of a partner/child, I’d be off. I wonder how many people making the kind of money you need to live there actually want to live so close to the station you can hear the announcements, right on top of a tapas bar.

I’ve long thought that we’ve raised a generation to believe that everyone lives in New York. It’s worse than that; we’ve raised a generation that believes everyone lives on sets in the Hollywood hills that look a bit like New York but have six times the square footage and no fourth wall. Thanks a bunch, Friends.

Places are shaped by technology, and America looks the way it does because of the railroad and the car, New York because of the invention of steel-reinforced concrete. I can’t help but think that Leeds (and indeed Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff) are being shaped by TV and the internet, by the unbridled, self-aggrandising confidence of Generation Y and their desire to live like they are extras on How I Met Your Mother.


Jay McInerney – The Good Life

A note: Prompted by the time of year, I dug this out of my drafts folder and finished it. 90% of it was written a while ago, but I smoothed the rough edges and added a little perspective gained with the benefit of time to reflect further. Great book. If anyone has read Brightness Falls and not read The Good Life, they should do so. Read it anyway, even if you haven’t. Hell, read both!

SPOILERS: I’ve done my best to keep this spoiler-light and have deliberately avoided a detailed discussion of the ending for those who haven’t read The Good Life, in the hope that reading this might encourage exactly that. Nevertheless, I can’t guarantee that you won’t pick up some plot points that you would rather not have done.

I am a completist. I don’t deny it. It’s hard to do so to anyone who knows my bookshelves, CD racks or iPod, laden as they are with late-period mediocrities by once-great artists. I once owned every single recorded note Joni Mitchell ever produced, when anyone will tell you that you should stop at Hejira for your own good, thereby saving yourself the best part of a day of enduring her descent into jazzy irrelevance. I did the same thing with Springsteen, although that line is harder to draw, more of a rollercoaster than a one-way ticket. I do it with books, too, ploughing manfully on in the face of the critical gatekeeper’s unheeded cries. “Don’t bother!” they say. “He never bettered the one you’ve already read!” Fie, I say.

The latest beneficiary of this excess of faith in dwindling artistic output is Jay McInerney. McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis are, it seems, irrevocably tied together and, having now read Ellis’s entire oeuvre, it seemed only fair to move on to McInerney. Bonded by more than just the Literary Brat Pack label of the 1980s, the two are apparently good friends. However, whilst Ellis can still stop traffic with the launch of a new novel (I should know, I attended the London leg of the Imperial Bedrooms tour), McInerney seems to me to have drifted into relative obscurity (to the point where I was able to pick up more or less his entire published works for £2 or £3 a pop at my local FOPP) and a wine column for the WSJ. As you may have gathered from a previous entry, I struggle to grasp why McInerney is considered a middle-aged mediocrity whilst Ellis’s every tweet sets the twitterati a-flutter.

Like all New Yorkers, Ellis and McInerney were connected by the events of September 11th 2001. McInerney’s initial response to those events was published at the time by The Guardian, and makes fascinating reading. He visits his friend Bret and they try, and inevitably fail, to make sense of what is unfolding in front of them.

5 years later, McInerney produced a fictionalised response to 9/11 in the form of The Good Life. Nominally a sequel to Brightness Falls, it shares little except a core of characters, and even then there’s plenty of new ones added to the mix. (more…)


9.11.12

I was in the air when the towers came down
In a bar on the 84th floor
I bought Philippe Petit a round
And asked what his high wire was for
He said, “I put one foot on the wire,
One foot straight into heaven”
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.

I was in a bar when they rigged the towers
Trying to leave all my sins
The barmaid asked my order
And where my mind had been
I tried to recall the high wire
Philippe and his foot in heaven
As the prophets entered boldly into the bar
On the Boeing 737, Lord, on the Boeing 737
Hey little bird, would you be the one
To nest beneath my Gatling gun?
There’s nothing left I call my own
Come down and build me a home.

The Low Anthem’s last album, Smart Flesh, is well worth your attention. This track in particular is one of the most glorious, articulate, intelligent responses to the events of 11 years ago I have heard.

With each passing year, the memories fade a little. With each passing day, Freedom Tower rises a little further towards its eventual 1776 ft height. Each September 11th, we are all New Yorkers for a moment.

11.9.01
In Memoriam


Kentish Town

Well, I’m not making any progress with anything new, so here’s something old.

The escalator down to the platforms was deserted. Ascending on the other side, however, was a substantial crowd. The contrast between the rush of people coming up and his solitude made him self-conscious, standing still, leaning on the handrail, wanting to dash down the left hand side but having no-one to impress by doing so. He stood and tried to find somewhere to rest his eyes that wasn’t a poster for a West End show or the onrushing stream of humanity climbing upwards, out into the light.

Stepping off the escalator, he heard a train moving, felt the rush of diesel-stained air. He turned left and ran down the stairs two at a time, to discover that it was leaving. In the same moment, he saw a silhouette. Head cocked slightly in front of the map on the far wall of the tunnel, she seemed puzzled. There had been no-one in front of him on the escalator; she must have been there for at least a couple of minutes already.

He passed behind her and took up a place on the platform an appropriate distance away, just far enough to seem anonymous, yet just close enough that if, as he predicted, she sought advice, it would be his to give. (more…)