What We Like

This here’s an archive of the stuff we decide to put in the monthly sidebars. We update the sidebars on the first of each month, or close to it, so what appears in December, we were actually into in November etc. etc.

August 2008 – July 2009

August 2009 – July 2010

August 2010 – July 2011

August 2011 – July 2012

August 2012 – July 2013

August 2013 – July 2014

May 2015

Tune In, by Mark Lewisohn
There is no doubt that this brick of a book – which had sat forbiddingly on my shelf for more than a year and only takes the Beatles story to the edge of their first flush of fame – is a huge achievement of research. It is quite incredible that Lewisohn has traced the Irish routes of John Lennon’s grandfather, or found a photo of the young Beatles standing on the very spot where Richard Starkey’s family first lived in Liverpool. But, at the same time, what does all this tell us about the important bit: the songs themselves? I’m not sure. Lewisohn mentions Penny Lane several times in the books opening pages, as if foreshadowing is his own answer to that question; but this ‘deep background’ is as much a cultural history of Liverpool, or of interwar Britain, as it is of The Beatles. No bad thing, but don’t expect to hum along.
Darling Aritmetic, Villagers
There is something about Conor O’Brien’s voice. Capable of simultaneous gentility and snarl, it it placed front and centre on this latest album, amidst newly subtle arrangements. Lead single ‘Courage’ drifts along prettily until you listen to the lyrics; ‘Hot Scary Summer’, meanwhile, is as needle-sharp a break-up song as you’ll hear all year, defined by O’Brien’s other-worldly keening. Let’s forgive him the beard.

April 2015

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy
This is not C: it is not freewheeling and compendious, or expansive and confusing. A satire of late capitalism, Satin Island is the store of an anthropologist working as a researcher for a variety of consumerist brands, and he is open from the first about his bull-shitting trade; as the novel proceeds, however, even those ideas and thoughts he believes to have substance are revealed to have little purchase on significance. Almost everyone in the novel, regardless of their employer, is at work on the same Big Data-ish project, though none understand it; almost everyone searches for meaning and then doesn’t find it; and the novel ends, Gatsby-like, with a character letting a boat flow ever onwards … not into an ineffably recursive future, but a dirty harbour. Did we need Satin Island to know that late capitalism is a morass of self-negating contradictions? I’m not sure.
Edge of the Sun, Calexico
In their twentieth year as a band, Calexico has no right to be producing work of this quality – but they are. This may be their best album since Feast of Wire, although it is a very different, more accessible, beast than that record. But ‘best Calexico album in a while’ is high praise – the band have never released a duff record, although perhaps some had fewer hummably joyous tunes on than this one. Edge of the Sun is in another way the quintessential Calexico record, too: it is absolutely focused, thoroughly polished, and yet entirely sincere and marked by unaffected passion.

March 2015

The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
This is a lot richer and wiser than many of the reviews have allowed. It is a curious book, both in and of itself and when taken as an Ishiguro novel. But it isn’t, I don’t think, the wild, unthinking mis-step should would have it to be: it is acutely aware of Tolkienian fantasy, of YA, of historical fiction and medieval poetry; it is far from the ham-fisted act of ventriloquism that many have argued it to be. Indeed, it is in subtle and fruitful dialogue with Tolkien, and has a very different vision of how the literature of the English might have revivified its medieval inheritance rather differently (and, perhaps, with rather more fidelity). All that would suggest, and I think fairly, that perhaps it is not a rip-roaring read … but who comes to Ishiguro for that?
Natalie Prass, Natalie Prass
There is a sense – in the skinny angles of current electronica, the ironic posing of the grizzled hangover of indie rock, or the heritage atmosphere of much current alt.country or anti-folk – that sentiment is no longer welcome in pop music. If that’s true, then Natalie Prass’s debut album – long-delayed following the unexpected success of label-mate Matthew E White took all of Spacebomb’s attention and resources – is a sort of New Sincerity manifesto for the 21st-century album. Drenched in brass and strings, keeningly hurting, and unafraid of the quiver of the torch-song, this is a tear-jerking, crafted, unabashed LP more Dusty Springfield than Lana Del Rey. Which, y’know. Is pretty fashionable after all.

February 2015

theilluminations The Illuminations, by Andrew O’Hagan
This is a beautifully, delicately, humanely written novel about the manner in which time passes, memories are made, and knowledge acquired. Its protagonists are an elderly woman who was once a famous photographer, now confined to sheltered housing, and her grandson, a solider just returned from a disastrous tour in Afghanistan which has robbed him of his idealism. O’Hagan – he is, despite it all, only human – struggles, perhaps, quite to make these two disparate strands appear to be part of the same novel, and his best writing does not occur in those moments when the two dovetail, but in the separate evocation of each milieu. If anything, his retirement home rings truer than his under-siege platoon, but that may only be because those scenes are quieter and contrast so clearly with the high drama of the action in Afghanistan. Does it all quite cohere? Perhaps not. Is it all wonderful to read? Very much.
absentfathers Absent Fathers, Justin Townes Earle
Where his own father this year releases a blue albums to go with his rock albums, bluegrass albums, political albums and bereavement albums, Justin Townes Earle here produces another angular, rockabilly-ish country record that revolves around questions of abandonment and features himself on the cover with his arm around the latest in a line of sadly nameless women. It’s not that Justin’s records offer diminishing returns – each has a character all its own (though this is a companion piece to last year’s Single Mothers -but it does feel that he hasn’t quite found the means of expressing his progress on record (live videos attest to a different story on stage). There are some fine songs here – ‘Call Ya Momma’ and ‘Day and Night’, for example – but whether this circling around is enough to power another album is anyone’s guess.

December 2014

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
It’s often difficult to come to lauded works of contemporary fiction when they’ve had chance to bed down, but not quite perhaps to have a ‘classics’ cover slapped on them. In the event, I admired this novel more than I loved it. It is gloriously written in almost balletic prose, and its structure is tricksy and expertly paced, even when it feels a little slow. The novel always reveals itself to you in time. On the other hand, it felt a little studied, and even – right down to that central incestuous relationship – a little pat, a little convenient. Perhaps that’s a function of Roy’s thematic reliance on coincidence, or perhaps it’s something else, something totalising about the text which may or may not be linked to Roy’s stubbornness over writing another novel in the years since. Hm.
Popular Problems, Leonard Cohen
You don’t have any right to expect an album this good to come out of an octogenarian only making music again because his manager stole all his money. Nevertheless, Popular Problems is that which modern Bob Dylan albums aren’t: a genuine entry in the story people tell about Cohen-the-songwriter. Where Dylan has transformed into something different-but-worthy, Cohen continues to write songs in the way, and of the quality, he always has: no craggy blues blow-outs here (instead, we have the incantatory ‘Almost Like The Blues’). Here’s the key question: is ‘Samson in New Orleans’ one of Cohen’s best songs, right here in 2014? Maybe. ‘Nuff said.


October 2014

Moriarty, by Anthony Horowitz
How to review this one? Set immediately post-Reichenbach, this novel follows the witless detective of <em>The Sign of Four</em>, Inspector Athleney Jones, and a Pinkerton detective known as Frederick Chase, who are investigating an attempt by an American gangster to fill the vacuum left by Holmes and his nemesis. It’s hard for the reader to understand the purpose of the novel – although cliffhangers, rather more violence than appeared in <em>The House of Silk</em>, and some Holmesian cameos (John Clay! Tobias Gregson!) keep you going … until things get interesting. It’s an odd experience. One wonders, ultimately, if Horowitz has a grand plan, or if he’s just having a ball.
Shovel & Rope, Swimmin’ Time
This record, more muscular and melodic than the band’s previous effort, O’ Be Joyful, also makes good on the duo’s now long-standing claim to be at the smart centre of the current new roots scene. This works both ways, of course, since it also means there remains something faintly generic about the album. Compare it with Samantha Crain’s Kidface – also an album featuring acoustic instruments and folk influences – and the lack of a defining quirk is plain. Nevertheless, quirkiness is over-valued, and these are songs solider than most you’ll hear this year.


August 2014

Lost for Words, by Edward St Aubyn
St Aubyn’s first novel since closing – for now – the Melrose sequence receive luke-warm reviews, most of which focused on its spite. Listening, in a vanishingly rare public appeartance at Cheltenham Literature Festival, to St Aubyn read from this wittily constructed comic novel did not make it sound bitter , however: droll, yes, but also affectionate and thoughtful. St Aubyn is sceptical of literary awards, and the deliberations of a fictional one form the plot of this Wodehouse-winning jeu d’esprit. It ends with the word ‘incomparably’, and if Lost For Words is St Aubyn’s ‘fun’ novel, it is not some form of tantrum that he has yet to win the Booker for one of his more serious: it is itself a whip-smart pastiche of literary flaps.
Ryan Adams, Ryan Adams
I write this capsule review perhaps more out of a sense of completeness than anything else. I’m a long-term follower of Adams, although my enthusiasm has been cool now for some time. Though 2011’s Ashes and Fire bore some promise, Adams hasn’t written at his best for many years. This record feels like an attempt to recapture past glories by rewriting them – Wrecking Ball as ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’ c. 2014, perhaps. This is an easy (tiger) record, but did we maybe want something more than that from our erstwhile enfant terrible? Maybe next time.


August 2014

The Incarnations, by Susan Barker
The story of a Beijing taxi driver plagued by letters from an unknown div who insists they have shared many past lives together, The Incarnations reads a little like China-for-Westerners, despite Barker’s own long-standing residence in the country – there’s kow-towing and Cultural Revolutions, bound feet and decadence. In this I found it a little less … unpredictable? … than I’d hoped. But it also sprints across milennia of Chinese history with an assured sense of pace and a very carefully-packaged plot. Satisfying twist aside, there’s a lot of violence and degradation in these colourful pasts,which give way to the dull safety of a grey and uneventful modern-day Beijing – leaving the reader wondering what The Incarnations wants for its characters. Nevertheless, episodes from this novel, if not its whole fabric, will stay with you.
Songs, John Fullbright
The unassuming simplicity of this album’s title is matched by the purity of its production. The sense of soil and snarl that adorned Fullbright’s arresting debut is gone here, replaced by winsomely magisterial pianos and stately tempos. The effect is pretty and often affecting, but doesn’t grab the listener by the shoulders and shake as before. What is wonderful, however, is the quiet evidence this second effort provides that Fullbright is a complete and changeable talent, one whose songs can and will mesmerise in different ways.



2 thoughts on “What We Like

  1. What an eclectic mix of thoughts. Very interesting. I wonder if you might like the harsh poetry of “Cold Fact” by Sixto Rodriguez?

    I don’t know if my work might tempt you but it will be easy enough for you to find out and decide for yourselves, simply visit http://cgayling.com/malmaxa/samples/ and start reading. A true description might be, “Philosophy couched as Fantasy”.

    If you’re tempted to review it drop me a line at CGAyling at gmail.com – I’d love to hear from you.

  2. I read the short story version of The Dig a while back and thought it was brilliant. Will have to check out the novel. Ditto on George Saunders’ 10th of December. Utterly transfixing.

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