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Favourite Music 2014: Part Three

Here’s the third and final part of my list of my favourite albums of 2014. You can also check out Part One and Part Two.

Angel Olsen, Burn Your Fire For No Witness
I haven’t heard Olsen’s debut album, Half Way Home, but if it’s half as good as Burn Your Fire For No Witness it must be pretty fantastic. Olsen has one of those very sixties voices that quaver with vulnerability, and there’s more than a little of the 1960s and 1970s in the songs on Burn Your Fire For No Witness, but there’s nothing derivative about their intensity and intelligence, the deft way she marries elements from the music of the 1940s to garage rock and even glam, or even the wit of her lyrics, which gesture, with delicious irony, toward the self-aware gloom of Leonard Cohen. The net effect is pretty damn special.

Spoon, They Want My Soul
They Want My Soul is classic Spoon: lean and muscular, spaciously produced and totally addictive. If you like Spoon you’ve probably already got it, if you don’t, do yourself a favour and grab a copy. I love all of it but the electric harp (at least I think it’s an electric harp) on ‘Inside Out’ gives me chills every time I hear it.

St Paul & the Broken Bones, Half the City
As the KEXP mini-concert below suggests, St Paul and the Broken Bones are probably one of those bands you really need to see live for the full experience, but all the same, their debut, Half the City is pretty bloody electrifying. Produced by Ben Tanner, of the Alabama Shakes (and just by the way, what is the story with the Shakes’ apparently-recorded-but-still-not-released follow-up album?), it shows off the band’s ferocious brass section and lead singer Paul Janeway’s blistering vocals to brilliant effect. It’s so good.

St Vincent, St Vincent
There’s a reason Annie Clark’s fourth album as St Vincent is at the top of most lists of the best music of 2014, and that’s because it’s seriously good. Smart, rhythmic, intellectual pop that’s both steely and tender, it’s filled with songs like ‘Digital Witness’ and the beautiful final track, ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ that snake your way into your brain and then sinuously unravel themselves. And she’s dead cool, which never hurts.

The War on Drugs, Lost in the Dream
I already owe The War on Drugs a favour  for propelling Kurt Vile into the solo career that produced one of my favourite albums of 2013, Wakin’ on a Sunny Daze, but now I love them twice over for creating the shimmering, propulsive Lost in the Dream, an album that manages the unusual trick of being both highly textured and soaringly emotional. It’s a fantastic record.

Lucinda Williams, Where the Spirit Meets the Bone
At 61 Lucinda Williams seems to just gets better and better with each album, and Where the Spirit Meets the Bone continues the trend. Featuring 19 tracks over two discs, and almost twice as long as her last album, 2011’s achingly beautiful Blessed, it’s yet another testament to Williams’ capacity to write wonderfully tender songs about damage and loss and love, and although I occasionally get a little frustrated with her strangled phrasing, it’s a wonderful showcase for her distinctive voice and the talents of her band. There are any number of highlights, but if you have a listen make sure you stick around for the final track, an almost ten minute cover of J.J. Cale’s ‘Magnolia’. You might also want to check out The Believer’s 2012 interview with Williams, in which she speaks candidly about her process and career.

Honourable Mentions
Damon Albarn’s post-Blur career has been interestingly schizophrenic, bouncing from projects like Gorillaz and the under-appreciated The Good, The Bad & The Queen to less commercial projects like his opera about Elizabethan alchemist Dr John Dee, but with Everyday Robots he seems to have decided to make a conventional solo album. Except, of course, being Albarn, it’s not particularly conventional: instead it’s a series of introspective songs about alienation and technology. It’s deliberately downbeat, but surprisingly absorbing and heartfelt, and it’s enlivened by a couple of fabulous tracks, most notably the delightful ‘Mr Tembo’.

With its layered vocals and interwoven rhythms and textures Alt-J’s follow-up to their Mercury Award-winning An Awesome Wave, This Is All Yours, shifts between delicately sinister tracks like ‘Hunger of the Pine’ and ‘Warm Foothills’, and the stomping electro-blues of ‘Left Hand Free’, but that variety is part of what makes this beautiful, various and complex album so rewarding. It’s great stuff.

Jeff Tweedy’s decision to record an album with his son, Spencer, could easily have been an act of ageing rock star indulgence, and while it suffers a bit from their decision to spread the results over two discs, there are enough gems on Sukeriae to justify Tweedy’s faith in the project. It’s not quite Wilco (who have also just released a very interesting looking box-set of nerd-bait rarities, Alpha Mike Foxtrot) but it’s still pretty terrific. And the film clip for ‘Low Key’ will have a horrible familiarity for an awful lot of writers and musicians.

Also a few I only came across very recently, but which I already adore. The first two are artists I discovered on Amanda Rose’s always incredibly interesting list of her favourites of 2014 over on Flop-Eared Mule (if you haven’t been, go immediately, it’s a veritable treasure trove of fabulous stuff). First up is Light in the Attic’s reissue of a 1969 album of gospel recordings of Dylan songs. The group behind it, the Brothers & Sisters, were put together by Lou Adler (the guy behind Sam Cooke (he co-wrote ‘What a Wonderful World’, The Mamas and the Papas and Carole King (inasmuch as anybody other than King was behind her success), and featured singers such as Gloria Jones and Merry Clayton (who turns up in 20 Feet From Stardom).

The second is French folk singer Alma Forrer, whose self-titled EP contains four stunning songs that showcase her liquidly beautiful voice.

I can also recommend Reigning Sound’s Shattered, a gem of an album which may wear its influences on its sleeve, but is direct and warm and filled with brilliant songs.

And finally a brilliant little punk pop record from UK act Martha. I’m a sucker for this particularly British brand of guitar pop, and Courting Strong is one of the best versions of it I’ve heard in ages.

And although it’s pushing it, a couple of things that date from 2013 and 2010 respectively, but which I only discovered this year.

The first is Memphis-based singer-songwriter Valerie June’s fantastic Pushin’ Against A Stone, an album that June has described as “organic moonshine roots music”, but which sounds both rooted in tradition and completely contemporary in its eclecticism and political instincts.

And the second is Zoe Muth and the Lost High Roller’s Starlight Hotel and her follow-up, World of Strangers. I didn’t know Muth before I heard Starlight Hotel and her follow-up, World of Strangers, but I was a paid-up fan by the time the first song had played.

Favourite Music 2014: Part Two

As promised on Monday in Part One, here’s the second instalment in my list of my favourite music of the past twelve months. Part Three will go up Friday.

Justin Townes Earle, Single Mothers
Earle has made it clear on several occasions that this album had a troubled birth, having been cut back from two discs to one (there’s now a companion album, Absent Fathers, due for release early next year). It’s difficult not to feel that troubled genesis is reflected on the album itself though, at least to some extent: certainly it’s the least immediately approachable of Earle’s past four albums, partly because the opening two tracks, ‘Worried About The Weather’ and ‘Single Mothers’ are so downbeat. But give it a few listens and the album unpacks itself, revealing gorgeous tracks such as ‘Time Shows Fools’ and ‘Today and a Lonely Night’. I’m not sure it’s Earle’s best – I think that crown still belongs to the brilliant Harlem River Blues – but Single Mothers is still a terrific album that shows Earle continuing to grow as a songwriter and lyricist.

Sharon Van Etten, Are We There
Sharon Van Etten’s last two albums, Tramp and Epic, demonstrated her capacity to write frighteningly intimate and jagged songs about fractured identity and resilience, but Are We There (the annoyingly absent question mark is her doing, not mine) sees Van Etten’s songwriting grow in both complexity and range. The undercurrent of emotional and physical violence that makes Epic so raw is still very present on Are We There, but there’s a new expansiveness to the production and arrangements, an expansiveness that’s anchored by the intensity and total commitment of the performance. It’s a raw, powerful and exhilarating combination.

Hurray for the Riff-Raff, Small Town Heroes
Small Town Heroes isn’t Hurray for the Riff-Raff’s debut but it’s the first of their albums to find real success. Based in New Orleans and led by singer and bassist Alynda Lee Segarra, the band combine traditional elements with contemporary subjects, as evidenced by songs like ‘The Body Electric’, which reworks the murder ballad to expose the violence against women that lies beneath it, but it’s Segarra’s songwriting, voice and charismatic performance that makes them really exciting. You can check out ‘I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)’ and ‘The Body Electric’ below, together with a scorching performance of one of my all-time favourite songs, The Velvet Underground’s ‘Rock and Roll’.

The Last Internationale, We Will Reign
I know the thumping blues-rock albums I was supposed to love this year were Royal Blood’s self-titled debut and Jack White’s Lazaretto, but I have to confess I was reasonably unmoved by both of them. Instead I found myself listening to New York act The Last Internationale’s passionate and polemical We Will Reign, an album that nails its political colours to the mast from the first song, the stomping ‘Life, Liberty and Indian Blood’.

Given the subject matter of the songs it’s an album that could be dour or humourless, but it’s not, even on songs like ‘Devil’s Dust’, which is a lament for miners poisoned by their work, something that’s got more than little to do with lead singer Delila Paz’s thrillingly unbridled yet gorgeous voice, something that’s showcased on the live acoustic version of ‘Wanted Man’ below.

Jenny Lewis, The Voyager
I’ve been a huge fan of Jenny Lewis for a long time, so despite being a little underwhelmed by her 2009 collaboration with Johnathan Rice, Jenny and Johnny, I was very excited to finally have a new solo album. And what an album it is: combining the 1970s soft rock of Fleetwood Mac with Lewis’ flair for unpacking her capacity for self-destruction, it manages to be funny, tender and sad all at once, a quality that’s even even more heft in the light of this excellent New Yorker profile of Lewis. It’s a wonderful, wonderful album, and although I can’t find a decent copy of my favourite track, ‘Late Bloomer’, online that doesn’t really matter, because there’s not a bad song on it.

Lydia Loveless, Somewhere Else
One part country, one part punk, Lydia Loveless’ sexually frank and emotionally intelligent songs of romantic disaster are wonderfully raw and funny (let’s face it, a song that begins “Well I was just thinking about you and how you got married last June/I wondered how that worked out for you, so I just thought I would call” is never going to work out well for anybody), and they’re played with fabulously dishevelled energy and directness by Loveless and her band. I love this album.

Favourite Music 2014: Part One

I’m planning to post something about my favourite books of 2014 next week, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a list of some of my favourite albums of the past year.

I’m not going to pretend what follows is comprehensive or make any claim to objectivity. Instead it’s a very personal list of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. That being the case I haven’t tried to rank them or pick out absolute favourites; instead I’ve listed them alphabetically, although because the full list is a bit unwieldy I’ve decided to spread it across three posts. This first one covers A to D, the second, which will be published on Wednesday, covers E to L, and the third, which will go up Friday, covers M to Z (together with a few honourable mentions).

Alvvays, Alvvays
Think Best Coast or a dreamy mash-up of Teenage Fanclub and The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Gorgeous hooks, fuzzy guitars, shimmering production and gorgeous echoes of the 1950s and the glassy cool of Blondie and New Wave. It could be from 1982 or 1990 or last week, but that nostalgic timelessness is part of what makes it so magical. And ‘Archie, Marry Me’ is worth the price of admission all on its own.

Rodrigo Amarante, Cavalo
I bought this one on a whim but I’m so glad I did. Although he’s recorded several albums with Brazilian band Los Hermanos, Amarante is probably best known in the Anglophone world for his work with Strokes drummer Fabrizio Moretti as part of the underrated Little Joy. Cavalo is his first album and it’s wonderful, featuring songs in French, Portuguese and English, and wending its way through delicately retro numbers like the opener, ‘Nada Em Vão’ and ‘Irene’ to sneaky dance tracks like ‘Hourglass’ and gorgeous, almost unclassifiable creations like ‘Mon Nom’.

Benjamin Booker, Benjamin Booker
I love, love, love this album. Right from the nod to Chuck Berry in the opening bars of the first track, ‘Violent Shiver’, it’s just electric, using Booker’s raspy vocals and the deliberately rough and ready production to anchor a series of tightly written yet loosely played songs that combine elements of blues, punk and the garage rock of Pavement and The Strokes. There’s not a bad song on it, but the one I come back to over and over again is the glorious, gospel-influenced ‘Slow Coming’, a song that seems to nod implicitly to Sam Cooke’s classic ‘A Change is Gonna Come’.

Leonard Cohen, Popular Problems
I have to confess I was a bit of a latecomer to Leonard Cohen, but over the past few years I’ve become more and more fascinated by him and his work. All the qualities that make Cohen so singular are on display on Popular Problems, which easily measures up to Cohen’s work in the late-1960s and early-1970s (and leaves his work in the early years of this century for dead), and shifts with startlingly ease from the sardonic wit of ‘Almost Like The Blues’ (“There’s torture and there’s killing/And there’s all my bad reviews/The war, the children missing/Lord, it’s almost like the blues”) to beautiful love songs like ‘Did I Ever Love You’ and the delicate restraint of ‘You Got Me Singing’. And the physical version of the album also includes a wonderfully designed fold-out booklet featuring a series of images of a half-dressed Cohen cleaning his shoes, offering a wonderfully restrained tribute to both Cohen’s fascination with Buddhism and the shadow of mortality that helps lend this slyly vital album its particular beauty.

(While you’re listening to the songs I suggest you take a few minutes to check out the photos of Cohen on Hydra in the 1960s that have surfaced in recent years, many of which also feature George Johnston and Charmian Clift, and this excellent piece about them by Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell).

The Delines, Colfax
I’m a huge fan of Willy Vlautin’s work, both as a member of Richmond Fontaine and as the author of novels such as Lean on Pete and The Free, so I was very excited when I heard he’d quietly assembled The Delines, a new group featuring Richmond Fontaine drummer Sean Oldham, Decemberists keyboardist Jenny Conlee and Damnations singer Amy Boone, and that excitement was absolutely borne out by their debut album, Colfax. I’ve written about Vlautin’s songwriting before, but the songs on Colfax show all the emotional intelligence and gift for compressed narrative that make his work with Richmond Fontaine so special, as songs like ‘The Oil Rigs At Night’ make eloquently clear.

Bob Dylan, The Complete Basement Tapes
I’ve never sought out any of the endless bootlegs of Dylan and the Band’s sessions at Big Pink in 1968, which means my exposure to the great white whale of modern music was restricted to the overproduced 1975 collection, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back to that now I’ve heard the real thing. I ponied up for the absurdly overpriced six CD complete version (which justifies its exorbitant price tag with two beautiful hardback books of photos, but lacks the extensive liner notes that helped make last year’s Another Self-Portrait so fascinating), and although the slightly less-obsessive fan might well do just as well with the two CD selection, it’s still a thrilling experience, filled with a sense of play and delight in the possibility of the music. I’ll leave it to others to unpick the importance and pleasures of this collection, all I have to say is whether you think you’re a Dylan fan or not, try and lay your hands on a copy: it’s wonderful.

Make You Better

Cannot. Wait.

The larger realities of Ursula Le Guin

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”

Some thoughts about Interstellar

Interstellar 1

I know I’m a little behind the curve on this one, but I finally caught a session of Interstellar last week, and before it gets away from me I thought I might jot down a few (slightly spoilery) thoughts about it.

For those who haven’t seen it, it’s Dark Knight and Inception director Christopher Nolan’s new magnum opus, a science fiction epic that marries contemporary anxieties about societal and environmental decline to a nostalgia for the vision of the future’s possibility that drove the space race (and, not coincidentally, also underpins Kubrick’s 2001, a film to which it owes a great deal). Set a generation or two from now, it centres upon Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former test pilot and trainee astronaut. Now widowed, Cooper is eking out a living as a farmer with his two children when a gravitational anomaly in his home leads him and his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), to what turns out to be a secret NASA installation.

Reunited with his former boss, Professor Brand (Michael Caine), Cooper discovers two things. The first is that the Earth is dying, and will soon be uninhabitable. But knowing that, Brand and his daughter, Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) have been  studying a wormhole that has appeared in orbit around Saturn, and which connects our solar system to another galaxy. Having sent several scientists through twelve years earlier, Brand is now planning one last mission aimed at establishing whether any of those scientists found planets capable of sustaining life, and, by extension, of saving the human race.

Persuaded to act as the mission’s pilot, Cooper travels through the wormhole on NASA’s last spaceship, the Endurance, with Brand and two other scientists. At least at first his focus is on completing the mission as quickly as possible so he can return to his family, but before long their hopes of returning to Earth begin to fade, as relativistic time dilation severs them from their families and various misadventures, including a run in with a dangerously unhinged survivor of the first mission, Wolf (Matt Damon), cripple the mission, until, in the film’s final reel, Cooper is offered a glimpse of the temporal paradox he inhabits.

Nolan is often described as a cerebral director, but the truth is he’s not, unless the handwaving of Inception is your idea of philosophy. What he does have is a brooding visual style (especially when teamed with cinematographer Wally Pfisterer), and a line in the sort of speechifying that sounds deep but doesn’t bear too much close examination (“the human race was born on Earth, it wasn’t meant to die here,” etc etc). Given all that (and the reviews) I went in expecting Interstellar to be titanically stupid, but in fact despite one truly risible speech by Brand (apparently love is a force, like gravity, that transcends time and space, which we’d all know if it weren’t for the fact scientists haven’t discovered it yet) there’s surprisingly little of the overtly stupid philosophising that mars films like Prometheus.

interstellar_a

Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway)

None of which is to say Interstellar is a smart film, or even a particularly slick one, but if you try not to think about it too hard it does have its own daft poetry. Some of that poetry is in the effects: the initial ride through the wormhole (and indeed the wormhole itself) is gorgeous, as are the waves on the first planet the crew visit, and there are any number of extraordinary vistas and images. But it’s also in its peculiar rhythms and weird, slightly dopey high-mindedness, even if it is marred by its absurdly intrusive soundtrack (which sounds like they commissioned the Abominable Dr Phibes to compose a series of variations on Philip Glass and then play them really, really loudly).

Of course you have to try pretty hard not to think about it too much, because as soon as you do the questions start multiplying like a game of whac-a-mole. Why does it take Endurance months to get to Mars yet once the ship is through the wormhole it suddenly becomes possible to fly between planets in no time at all? How come they need a multiple stage heavy lift rocket to get off Earth yet they’re then able to take off and land on other planets unassisted? And where is the sun in the system they visit? Surely it’s not the one that’s being consumed by the black hole? And (and I’m afraid this one’s a biggie) in what way is colonising a solar system with an enormous black hole in it a long term survival strategy? And that’s all before you begin wondering about things like how they could possibly not notice Wolf’s story about a surface with breathable air and organics is bunk (given they’ve seen the planet from orbit) or or how it is the spaceship technology hasn’t changed in a century despite the development of technology allowing us to construct vast space colonies. Or indeed why despite the dire warnings at the film’s beginning the threat of suffocation doesn’t seem to have transpired by the time Murphy figures out the riddle of gravity.

What’s interesting is that despite the film’s constant exhortations to go outwards and beyond, to remember a time when we invented things and embraced possibility, it’s not really about those things at all. Instead at some level its real preoccupation is loss and, more deeply, time.

In a way this isn’t surprising. Despite the glitter of the technology that surrounds us we live in a cultural moment in which we are beset by loss. A large part of that is environmental, something the film acknowledges in the opening sequences and the dust storms and blight that are slowly poisoning the Earth. But it’s also about a loss of faith in the future, a sense that we no longer know how to think about what comes next.

The factors behind this are complex. In part it’s a function of the failure of so many of the narratives of progress that have driven our cultures for so long. But it’s also at least partly a function of the triumph of capitalism and its capacity to crowd out the idea there might be alternative ways of structuring society. In this regard it was interesting to hear Ursula le Guin reversing the polarity of Frederic Jameson’s remark about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism when she said “we live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings” at the National Book Award ceremony last week.

INTERSTELLAR

Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Dr Brand (Anne Hathaway) and Romilly (David Gyasi)

But whatever its origins, this sense of grief pervades contemporary culture. You can see it in films like Interstellar, in TV shows like The Walking Dead, and in many, many novels.

What’s interesting to me is less the grief, which seems the only sane response to the conflagration surrounding us, but the fact trying to talk about it seems, almost inevitably, to lead us to a consideration of time. This is obviously the case in Interstellar, which plays overtly with the idea of time, relativity and the deep future, but it’s also also visible in a novel like David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (a book I think has been roundly misunderstood by most critics), which despite its cast of murderous immortals and journeys toward the land of the dead, is really attempting to find a way to talk about deep time and survival.

It’s possible I’m a bit obsessed on this last point – loss and time and how we think about them are written deep into the fabric of my new novel, Clade, which is out early next year – but I don’t think I am. Because finding the emotional and intellectual tools we need to think our way out of our current predicament clearly requires us to find new ways of thinking about the future and own relationship to it.

What’s surprising about Interstellar is that despite its desire to map out a space for this kind of thinking, its solutions are unreflectively technological and technocratic. This unreflectiveness is visible in NASA’s back-up plan in case the Endurance’s mission fails, plan that will see tens of thousands of human embryos hatched and then auto-raised by computers, allowing a new society to be built from nothing. As Abigail Nussbaum has noted in a slightly different context, it’s a plan that’s nothing short of grotesque, but it’s also of a piece with the film’s suggestion that the solution to Earth’s environmental problems will be to leave Earth and live in orbital colonies.

As Nussbaum points out, neither of these are plans that hold up to any real scrutiny. They’re also contradicted by the film’s unintentional subtext, which is that even allowing for the intervention of extra-dimensional beings with the power to control space and time, space doesn’t want us, meaning we really have no alternative but to find ways of living here on Earth that won’t ruin the planet.

In the end though, these science fictional elements are only really window dressing, because at its heart Interstellar’s real nostalgia is as much for another era of filmmaking as another era of human possibility. Its debt to 2001 is large and explicit, and many of its best bits (the ride through the wormhole, the long sequence in the infinite library, the talking computers) are borrowed from Kubrick’s masterpiece. Yet where 2001 deliberately denies the viewer the tools to interpret what they are seeing, forcing them to find their own meaning (in a very real sense the film of 2001 is the monolith, and it is our own reflection we see in it) Interstellar is a  more gimcrack creation, one part homage, one part digital masterpiece, one part awkward, almost naive high-mindedness, a combination that lends it moments of surprising beauty and even power, and which almost allows it to transcend its own absurdities.

That Glimpse Of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written

Glimpse of TruthI’m very excited to say my story, ‘Beauty’s Sister’, has been included in David Miller’s new anthology, That Glimpse of Truth: 100 Of The Finest Short Stories Ever Written, which was released last week. If you’ve seen the book you’ll know it’s just insanely gorgeous object (and with the Christmas season rapidly approaching would make a perfect gift, hint hint), but it’s also amazingly good, and features stories by Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes, Angela Carter, Anton Chekhov, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl, Penelope Fitzgerald, Gustave Flaubert, Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, Ian McEwan, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett, Thomas Pynchon, Muriel Spark and Colm Tóibín as well as me (and in case you’re wondering then yes, it is a little daunting to be in such company).

Obviously you can still buy ‘Beauty’s Sister’ as a Penguin Special in either electronic or print form, but I very much recommend taking the plunge and checking out That Glimpse of Truth. It’s available in bookstores in the UK and Australia, but if you can’t get to a bookstore you can compare prices on Booko (Australia, New Zealand, UK, US, Canada) or buy the ebook through all the usual channels.

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