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Posts tagged ‘WIlly Vlautin’

Adelaide Writers’ Week

I’m very excited to say I’ll be a guest at Adelaide Writers’ Week in March. The full list of guests, which includes the brilliant John Lanchester, Michel Faber, Joan London, Jenny Offil, John Darnielle, Ceridwen DoveyJane Gleeson-White and Willy Vlautin is available on the Writers’ Week website, where you can also check out events day by day or download a pdf of the full program, but you can catch me in conversation with Delia Falconer at 1:15pm on Sunday 1 March and talking about love and apocalypse with Michel Faber and Canadian poet Ken Babstock at 5:00pm on Monday 2 March. I’ll also be interviewing Mountain Goats frontman and novelist John Darnielle about his terrific new novel, Wolf in White Van,  at 5:00pm on Saturday 28 February (an event I’m really excited about).

If you’re going to be in Adelaide please come along; in the meantime here’s Writers’ Week Director Laura Kroetsch talking about Clade a couple of months ago.

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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.

New Richmond Fontaine!

The new Richmond Fontaine album, The High Country (which interestingly seems to be a single narrative, thus further closing the gap between Willy Vlautin’s songs and his fiction) is due out in September, but in the meantime, live versions of two of the tracks have popped up, together with the news Willy’s first novel, The Motel Life, has just been turned into a motion picture directed by the Polsky Brothers and starring Stephen Dorff, Dakota Fanning and Kris Kristofferson.

Thanks to Jane Palfreyman for the heads-up.

 

Best Books 2010

It’s the time of year when people start publishing their best of lists, so I thought it might be fun to kick off a bit of discussion here about what people have (and haven’t!) liked in 2010. Because I review so much this is usually a pretty easy process for me, but in many ways the last twelve months have been a bit of disaster for me reading-wise: as well as all the chaos of a new baby I’ve been trying to get an anthology tied down and finish a novel, both of which have stopped me reading quite as much as I normally would.

It’s also been a bit of an odd year book-wise. If 2009 was dominated by huge, unclassifiable books like 2666 (here, here and here)and The Kindly Ones, and unconventional and brilliant historical works such as The Children’s Book and Wolf Hall, 2010 has been marked by a series of interesting crossover titles like Justin Cronin’s The Passage.

It is however one of those years where I have no trouble picking a favourite, a privilege which goes to Lorrie Moore’s wonderful A Gate at the Stairs, a book which seems to me to cover much of the same territory as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom but with considerably more elegance, wit and brevity (interestingly it’s also playing with some of the same tropes of the nineteenth century social novel Franzen deploys, and perhaps not coincidentally these moments are also the weakest in the book (except for the wonderful final line)). If you haven’t read it all I can say is do, immediately: it’s one of those rare books that left such an impression I found it difficult to read anyting else for weeks afterwards.

Besides A Gate at the Stairs, I loved Willy Vlautin’s Lean on Pete, a book of deceptive simplicity and considerable emotional impact and Sam Lipsyte’s gloriously scabrous The Ask. I also enjoyed Alice Munro’s Too Much Happiness (though I do wonder whether it’s as strong as a collection as Runaway), and was very impressed by Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter, Karl Marlantes’ Vietnam epic, Matterhorn, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Graham Robb’s wonderfully chatty and intimate Parisians.

There’s also the elephant in the room of Freedom. I’ve wanted to write something for a while about the slightly hysterical desire to anoint Franzen some sort of literary demigod, a desire which seems to me misplaced: he’s a very good novelist but he’s no better than a number of others (Lorrie Moore, for instance, or Hilary Mantel). I now suspect that piece probably won’t get written, but I also think it’s difficult to talk about the novel without coming up against the sense this desire sets up an implicit demand one’s responses to the novel be strongly positive or strongly negative.

Mine are actually neither. I think parts of it are very good: unlike many people I particularly liked the excerpts from Patty’s memoir, and thought the sequence relating her parents’ response to her rape was a thing of genius: horrible and funny and appalling all at once. But I also felt the novel lost energy badly in the second half, a loss of energy that was reflected in an increasing slackness in the writing.

Part of the problem is that the sort of large social novel Franzen wants to write is very difficult to pull off these days without a pretty high degree of contrivance. But I was also struck by the fact that in many ways the bits of Freedom that don’t work are largely those where Franzen steps away from the sort of domestic comedy he excels at (interestingly I would have said almost the same thing about The Corrections).

Of course none of this is to say I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t think it was good: I did. It’s just that I don’t think it’s the work of luminous genius many others do (if you’d like to see what seems to me to be a very fair take on it I’d point you to Ron Charles’ hilarious video review for The Washington Post).

Closer to home my reading was distinguished more by what I didn’t read than what I did, but I was hugely impressed by both Brenda Walker’s Reading by Moonlight and Delia Falconer’s Sydney (just for the record Delia and Brenda are both friends, but I’d be praising the books whether that were the case or not) and I thought Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game was an impressive debut by a very interesting and highly engaged writer.

I also read a lot of SF, not all of which was new, out of which the real standouts were Paul McAuley’s Gardens of the Sun, his strangely beautiful hymn to the worlds orbiting Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space and Redemption Ark, a pair of books suffused by a sense of the inhuman immensity and hostility of space, and Margo Lanagan’s shimmeringly subversive fairy tale, Tender Morsels. On the graphic novel and comic front I finally got around to reading Warren Ellis’ entirely brilliant Planetary, a series that manages to reimagine the superhero comic from the ground up in much the way Watchmen did two and a half decades ago (though which, interestingly, is still rooted in the comics of yesteryear, suggesting the enervation Moore was responding to in Watchmen is no less real today.

There were also, of course, a number of books I violently didn’t like, or thought were wildly overrated, but rather than carp, I thought I’d throw it over to all of you and ask what your picks were, and why.

Willy Vlautin, Lean on Pete and the literary song

Some of you may remember me waxing lyrical about Willy Vlautin’s new novel, Lean on Pete, a few weeks back. At the time I was planning to write a rather longer post about it, and about Willy’s fiction more generally, but before that could happen I was asked to review it, which put paid to the post.

Anyway – the review was in this weekend’s Australian, and you can read it on their website, but if you want the potted version, the book’s an absolute gem: gentle, shocking, sad and hopeful all at once.

What’s particularly fascinating about the book to me is the fact that Vlautin’s skills as a songwriter so obviously underpin the success of the fiction. You often hear songwriters like Paul Kelly being celebrated as storytellers, but in fact the qualities that lend Kelly’s songs their particular magic are quite different to those that underpin fiction. Partly this is a question of scale: even relatively brief fictional forms such as the short story dwarf the lyrical component of most songs, allowing them a degree of complexity songs are denied. But it’s also about the relative simplicity of song lyrics: whereas fiction tends to use narrative as a thread to explore the interior lives of characters, and more particularly the tensions, contradictions and discontinuities, songs usually shy away from these qualities, preferring to communicate feeling in a more direct manner (if you’re interested, I talked a bit about more these questions last year, in my post about Don Walker’s memoir, Shots).

What’s interesting about Vlautin’s songs is that they are, in some deep sense, highly literary creations. Despite the relative simplicity of their lyrics, their effect is usually dependent upon the manner in which what is being said and what we understand are at odds with each other. In my review I mention ‘The Boyfriends’, from We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River, and its narrator’s anguished cry of ‘I ain’t like that’ upon realising the child of the woman he has picked up in a bar has been watching them having sex, but many of Vlautin’s songs rely upon this sort of irony. What makes songs like ‘The Boyfriends’ (or indeed songs such as ‘$87 And A Guilty Conscience That Gets Worse The Longer I Go’ or ‘I Fell Into Painting Houses In Phoenix, Arizona’) so powerful is the fragility of their narrators’ self belief, and Vlautin’s keen eye for the deceptions that sustain it, and more importantly, the moments at which that belief finally – and painfully – gives way.

Last time I looked, Vlautin was listed as one of the guests at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, where, amongst other things, he’s being interviewed by my old pal, Richard Fidler, but you can hear him reading from Lean on Pete in the video before (and yes, I know I’ve posted it before). And if you’re interested in the music, you’ll find a live version of ‘The Boyfriends’ beneath it, together with a video for ‘Capsized’, one of my favourite songs from my favourite Richmond Fontaine album, Thirteen Cities. Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

Lean on Pete

Is Richmond Fontaine frontman Willy Vlautin the greatest writer you’ve never heard of? Judging by what I’ve read of his forthcoming novel, Lean on Pete, the answer may well be yes. I’m planning a longer post about Willy and his books and music sometime soon, but in the meantime you might want to check out this lovely little video of him reading from Lean on Pete, with backing music by Richmond Fontaine. And if you like what you hear, I thoroughly recommend checking out his first two novels, The Motel Life and Northline at Amazon, Readings or Book Depository, or dropping past Richmond Fontaine’s Myspace page. Or you could just go the whole hog and and download a copy of Richmond Fontaine’s fantastic 2009 album, We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like a River via their Bandcamp page. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

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