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Born to Run

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen lately, and thinking about his body of work and my relationship with it. As you’d expect with an artist whose career spans more than 40 years there are highs and lows, but unusually for somebody who works in rock and roll and pop, there’s also a surprising degree of consistency, and there are albums he’s recorded in the past couple of decades (I’m thinking of Magic and The Rising in particular) which I listen to as often and enjoy just as much as the albums from the 1970s and 1980s.

But the album I love best and return to most often is Born to Run. I’ve been listening to it for 35 years and I still get chills every time. I love the scale of it, the Spectorish Wall of Sound grandeur of its production and the sense it’s in conversation with so many of his influences in 1960s pop and soul (“Roy Orbison sang ‘For the Lonely’ …”), the extraordinary sax and the way it underlines how essential Clemons was, the beautiful piano on ‘Backstreets’ and ‘Jungleland’, the deliberate yet unself-conscious sweep of the songs and the economy of the storytelling (‘Meeting Across The River’ or ‘Backstreets’, for instance). In his memoir Springsteen says “I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear… the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise … then the apocalypse. From Elvis came the record’s physical thrust; Dylan, of course, threaded through the imagery of not just writing about SOMETHING but writing about EVERYTHING.”, but although that urgency and desire for liberation through movement is what gives the record its extraordinary power, part of what I’ve always loved about it is the fact that even in its dark moments there’s a joyfulness to it that’s largely stripped away on Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska. Interestingly I also often end up listening to it back to back with Patti Smith’s Horses, which I don’t think is coincidental, not just because both albums were released in 1975 (or because Springsteen wrote ‘Because the Night’ for Smith, apparently singing it down the phone in the middle of the night as he went), but because when you listen to them side by side you hear how much both are about the striving for a sort of transcendence and purity of feeling, both qualities that have become unfashionable in recent years. It’s an astonishing record, and one that only seems to get more remarkable with the passage of time.

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The world has changed: on writing in the Anthropocene

Here’s me in conversation with the wonderful Iain McCalman (if you haven’t read his marvellous The Reef: A Passionate History it’s brilliant).

Midyear Music

Because it’s getting toward halfway through 2016 I thought I might share a few of the albums I’ve enjoyed so far this year.

Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
Underneath the ferociously political lyrics A Moon Shaped Pool is the poppiest Radiohead album in years and perhaps not coincidentally the first one that’s resonated with me for almost a decade. Although the video for ‘Burn the Witch’ is so brilliant it could probably carry the album on its own.

 

PJ Harvey, The Hope Six Demolition Project
Hope Six
isn’t as good as Let England Shake (although what is?), at least partly because Harvey is clearly hitting up against the limits of the popular song’s ability to communicate complex arguments, but it’s still genuinely thrilling a lot of the time, and Harvey’s passion and fury remain as exciting (and salutary) as ever.

 

Car Seat Headrest, Teens of Denial
Will Toledo has been recording albums alone for years, a process that led to the release of his excellent Teens of Style a couple of years ago, but his new album Teens of Denial is his first record with the backing of a proper band, and it’s incredible. They wear their influences on their sleeves, but every one of these mini-epics of suburban desire and despair is like a tiny novel, with all the variousness and passion that implies. I need a few more weeks to get to grips with it properly but it might just be my album of the year so far.

 

The Jayhawks, Paging Mr Proust
It’s been a while since I listened to Hollywood Town Hall and Rainy Day Music, and the first of the Jayhawks’ reunion records passed me by a couple of years ago, but their new one, Paging Mr Proust, is a bit of a gem. Lovely, literate folk rock that owes a little to the Byrds and a little to REM (no doubt at least partly because it was produced by Peter Buck) but never feels rooted in the past.

 

Parquet Courts, Human Performance
Parquet Courts have always been one of those bands I felt like I should love but never quite did. But their new album, Human Performance, is terrific, and filled with tight, driving songs.

 

Beverly, The Blue Swell
Because there can never be enough dreamy, blissed-out noise pop in the world.

 

Cate Le Bon, Crab Day
Imagine a fractured 2016 version of Nico and you’ve got the general idea. Easily as good as her last couple of albums. The film that accompanies it is also splendidly weird.

 

The Last Shadow Puppets, Everything You’ve Come to Expect
I think Alex Turner is one of the great contemporary songwriters, and although there’s something a little too considered and contrived about his work with Miles Kane (and some fairly icky lyrics) there’s still a lot to like about the baroque, Scott Walkerish Everything You’ve Come to Expect.

 

David Bowie, Blackstar
I wrote about Blackstar shortly after Bowie’s death. I haven’t changed my view: it’s a thrilling, mercurial album, his best since Scary Monsters, and a reminder of what his death robbed us of.

 

There are also a number of things coming out in the next little while I’m excited about (new Kills! new Band of Horses!) and more than a few things I need to listen to more carefully (the new Lucinda Williams for one) but for now they seem like enough.

Favourite Music 2015

I’m planing to get a post about my favourite books of the year up in the next week or so, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a quick post about some of the albums I’ve enjoyed this year. As I said when I did this last year, this makes no pretence that it’s comprehensive or objective, instead it’s a selection of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. Rather than try and make a definitive selection of my absolute favourites I’ve arranged them in (mostly) mostly alphabetical order. Hopefully I’ve also managed to remember enough to save myself from a supplemental post about all the ones I’ve forgotten.

And so, without further ado, here they are …

Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
One of my absolute favourite albums of 2015 was by Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan. I’d not heard of Avidan until I read a review of his latest album, Gold Shadow, but it’s a stunner, anchored by Avidan’s distinctive vocals and  a wonderfully retro yet oddly timeless feel that sounds as if it could have been recorded 50 years ago or last week.

 

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Closer to home I loved Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. People in Australia and the US have already written reams about Barnett and this record, suffice it to say I saw her live last year, and the record is as smart, funny and utterly self-possessed as she was on stage.

 

Blur, The Magic Whip
I also loved Blur’s comeback album, The Magic Whip. It’s not quite Parklike (although what is), but they sound as smart and sharp and tight as they always did, and when I saw them in Sydney earlier in the year they were totally amazing.

 

Leonard Cohen, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour
Leonard Cohen turned 80 last year, and celebrated by releasing the brilliant Popular Problems. this year he was back with Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, a collection of live versions of lesser-known tracks from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs, and while it’s not as coherent or focussed as Popular Problems, it’s still a pleasingly rich and occasionally unexpected record that more than holds its own in Cohen’s recent discography, and one I’ve come to like more and more with every new listen.

 

The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists’ What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a frontrunner for the title of my favourite album of the year, and certainly one of the ones I’ve listened to the most. I know some long-time fans are a bit dismayed by the more radio-friendly songwriting (as much as that term makes any sense these days) but I love almost every track on it (and who couldn’t love an album that contains the lyric “And me, seventeen and terminally fey”?). The Florasongs EP they released late in the year is great as well.

 

Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog
Blissed out Beach Boys and soul perfection from one half of Oxygen. Insanely enjoyable.

 

Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ve never quite connected with The New Pornographers’ albums, but I really enjoyed their front man,  Dan Bejar’s side project, Destroyer’s new one, Poison Season. I remember reading Bejar saying the album was a tribute to Hunky Dory, but to me it sounds like a brilliant art pop reworking of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen (most obviously on the second track, ‘Dream Lover’).

 

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge
What’s there to say? Different interpretations and working versions of many of the songs on three of my favourite albums of all time, many of which are as good or better as the originals. You don’t have to be the sort of Dylan obsessive who’s got the energy to listen to an entire album of outtakes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to love this collection, and tracks like the version of ‘Love Minus One’ are worth the price of admission all on their own. Weepingly brilliant.

 

Sharon van Etten, I Don’t Want To Let You Down
I adored van Etten’s last album, Are We There, and although these songs from the same sessions are basically an extension of that album that’s fine by me. Gorgeous, intense, visceral.

 

Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
On a first listen Colleen Green’s album sounds like a piece or perfectly pitched grungy guitar punk pop. But dig a little deeper and something darker and more complex begins to appear.

Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter’s previous albums were curious combinations of experimental soundscape and pop melodies, but on her new one she let her pop sensibility come to the fore, and created something really special. I’d be tempted to complain it’s occasionally a bit tasteful (a problem that afflicts a lot of contemporary indie pop IMHO) but on a more careful listen that impression is wiped away by the lyrics, the strength of the songwriting and the complexity of the arrangements. It’s a beautiful record.

 

Elle King, Love Stuff
Elle King’s debut album, Love Stuff, seemed to come out of nowhere when it turned up earlier in the year, but since it was released it’s picked up two Grammy nominations. Imagine a 26 year-old Wanda Jackson and you’ll be pretty much on the money.

 

Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s a clear line of influence flowing from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Newsom is a genuine original, with a fascinating and increasingly clear aesthetic that’s all her own.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
There’s been a lot of retro-soul and soul-inflected music around this year, perhaps most obviously Leon Bridges’ surprise hit debut, Coming Home. Although I’m always a little uneasy about music that so deliberately (and often slavishly) invokes the past, I liked Coming Home, and in particular the big single, ‘Better Man’, and I also liked Anderson East’s similarly pitch-perfect recreation of the sound of the late 1960s, Delilah. But much as I enjoyed both Bridges’ and East’s albums, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ excursion into the same territory in their self-titled debut outshone both in terms of energy and urgency.

 

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color/Thunderbitch, Thunderbitch
Meanwhile the band that probably did the most to initiate the whole new soul movement, the Alabama Shakes, finally released their much-delayed second album, Sound and Color, and used it to make it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed by those sorts of labels by delivering a record that pushed outward toward garage rock and funk and even punk. Sound and Color has a lot of great moments, and although Brittany Howard’s voice and charisma mostly overcomes the fact the songs on Sound and Color only occasionally reaches the same heights as those the Shakes’ 2012 album, Boys and Girls, you couldn’t say the same about Howard’s side-project, Thunderbitch, which was released with little fanfare later in the year, and packs more exultant energy and joy into its 33 minutes than the most bands  find in a lifetime (for reasons I don’t understand none of Thunderbitch’s videos seem to be available in Australia but you can listen to a few tracks on their website).

 

Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
I also loved Bill Ryder-Jones’ gorgeous, damaged West Kirby County Primary, an album that wears its debt to The Velvet Underground on its sleeve, but which also has a vulnerable beauty (and a host of scuzzy pop hooks) all of its own. Another contender for my favourite record of the year.

 

Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once and watch the documentary (which is terrific, and a reminder of how interesting Springsteen is about the craft of songwriting and painstaking way he imagines and creates his albums) but like Amanda Rose I’m going to dispense with the fantasy I might not love an album made up of a remastered version of one of my all-time Favourite Springsteen albums and 20-odd new tracks from the same sessions might not be one of the best things I’ll hear this year.

 

The Vaccines, English Graffiti
48 minutes of New Wave influenced punk pop perfection. I feel happy every time I hear it. What more is there to say?

 

Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
I quite enjoyed Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee, American Weekend, but her second, Ivy Tripp, is on a whole other level. Grungy, 1990s influenced guitars meet intimate lyrics and delicate melodies. It’s great stuff.

 

Matthew E. White, Fresh Blood
Matthew E. White’s new album is really just a second helping of the retro-soul-influenced rock and roll that made his first album, Big Inner, so much fun, although it’s richer and more accessible than Big Inner. But what it does have is one of my favourite songs of the year, the sneakily catchy ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’. Put memories of Warren Zevon out of your head, give it a whirl and enjoy.

 

The Beatles, 1+
And finally, I’m not sure whether they really count as an album, but it was difficult not to love the rerelease of the Beatles’ 1, if only for the two discs of beautifully restored videos that accompanied with it. I haven’t had a chance to listen closely to the Giles Martin remasters of the songs themselves (and I’m not sure I wholly approve of that particular exercise) but the videos are an absolute joy.

 

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.

The Inconvenient Dead

Sorry for the intermittent posting – I’ve been insanely busy. Hopefully I’ll get something proper up later this week or next but in the meantime I just wanted to alert you to the fact I’ve got a new story, ‘The Inconvenient Dead’, in the Autumn issue of Overland, which also has fiction by SJ Finn and Paul Dawson and poetry from Mark Mordue.

For the moment at least it’s not available online, so you’ll have to track down the issue to read it If you’d like to read it, it’s available for free on the very funky new Overland site (you can also buy copies or subscribe), but here’s how it begins:

“A week after he killed himself, Dane Johnson came to visit Toby at the service station. It was a Friday, which wasn’t usually one of Toby’s nights, but Toby was working anyway because one of the other guys had quit unexpectedly and the manager hadn’t had time to put a replacement through the two day unpaid customer service accreditation scheme new employees were required to complete before beginning their trial period.” Read more …

Bloodsucking Pumpkins and Vegetable Vampirism

Some of you may be aware of the whole vegetable vampirism thing via Terry Pratchett, others may have come across it in reviews of Matthew Beresford’s rather delightful cultural history of the vampire, From Demons to Dracula: The Creation of the Modern Vampire Myth, but if not, it’s one of those backwaters of folklore studies that demonstrate the many shapes beliefs about vampires and the undead can assume.

The story was first recorded by the Serbian ethnographer, Tatomir Vukanović, in an article published in The Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society in 1957. The relevant section of the article reads:

“The belief in vampires of plant origin occurs among Gs. [Gypsies] who belong to the Mosl[em]. faith in KM [Kosovo-Metohija]. According to them there are only two plants which are regarded as likely to turn into vampires: pumpkins of every kind and watermelons. And the change takes place when they are ‘fighting one another.’ In Podrima and Prizrenski Podgor they consider this transformation occurs if these ground fruit have been kept for more than ten days: then the gathered pumpkins stir all by themselves and make a sound like ‘brrrl, brrrl, brrrl!’ and begin to shake themselves. It is also believed that sometimes a trace of blood can be seen on the pumpkin, and the Gs. then say it has become a vampire. These pumpkins and melons go round the houses, stables, and rooms at night, all by themselves, and do harm to people. But it is thought that they cannot do great damage to folk, so people are not very afraid of this kind of vampire.

“Among the Mosl. Gs. in the village of Pirani (also in Podrima) it is believed that if pumpkins are kept after Christmas they turn into vampires, while the Lešani Gs. think that this phenomenon occurs if a pumpkin used as a syphon, when ripe and dry, stays unopened for three years.

“Vampires of ground fruit origin are believed to have the same shape and appearance as the original plant.

“…The Gs. in KM. destroy pumpkins and melons which have become vampires … by plunging them into a pot of boiling water, which is then poured away, the ground fruit being afterwards scrubbed by a broom and then thrown away, and the broom burned.”

If you’d like to read the article in full (together with some more delightful stories about vampiric farming implements) there are scans of the relevant pages herehere, here, and here. Or you can read a piece I wrote about vampires a while back.