Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, by The Low Anthem
Veering between gentle plucked folk and rollicking good-time honky rock, this record is sunk firmly in the roots idiom, but it spans a good many more moods than most similar records. Tender vocals, quietly clever lyrics and interesting arrangements make for a rewarding album which should be your favourite LP to be described by lazy music journalists as ‘whiskey-soaked’ this year.
Glister, by John Burnside
Glister is a remarkable novel, visionary and elusive. Where is this book set, and when? Is it a grand metaphor, or a literalist depiction? What happens, and what does it mean? Dan can’t quite capture the unusual quality of reading Glister, which he is taking to mean that if you read only one book he recommends in this sidebar all year, you should make it this one.
Don’t Hurry for Heaven, by Devon Sproule
Put out by Coventry’s Tin Angel Records, this very fine collection of songs is a perfect summer record for the melancholy, in that Devon Sproule’s conversational style is simultaneously regretful and wry, couching itself in terms delicate but droll. The light production and airy arrangements give proceedings a sunny feel without force, and the sense is ultimately one of fun. Relaxed but wise.
Dawn of the Dumb, by Charlie Brooker
For a balanced, informative and complete review of this towering work of unhinged misanthropy, see here.
This month, the CD to make it into Anna’s player is Ladyhawke’s debut album, ‘Ladyhawke’. Annie Mac and Jo Whiley started to play the track ‘Dusk Till Dawn’ a few months back, and she’d been meaning to buy the album for ages. Ladyhawke mixes Pet Shop Boys’ electro-dance, with Cyndi Lauper’s melodic vocal, and a bit of Garbage’s grunginess. Some critics are even using the word Bananarama. She wouldn’t go that far. The album is gritty, feminine and fresh. And oh so 80s! Bringing back memories of sequins, ‘Smash Hits’, disco dresses and crimped hair. Although Ladyhawke (aka Pip Brown) is more American Apparel slash Urban Outfitters than sequins. Good.
Dan guards against growing jaded through exposure to endless grassroots gigs, and every now and then a band come along who help him do just that. Rue Royale are currently touring Europe, and with shades of Iron & Wine, Azure Ray and others they’re well worth checking out: inventive, melodic and great harmonisers, they’re as yet unsigned … but surely, surely not for long.
Far North, by Marcel Theroux
Dan reviewed this for Strange Horizons: “If Theroux does not possess the poetic vision of McCarthy, he is still some way ahead of many other writers in crafting a novel which works its sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes competing threads lightly and decoratively.” Good, timely, robust stuff.
Hold Time – M Ward
High gloss production is something new for M Ward, who has spent a career finding virtue in the rough and ready. He is canny enough about songs and their traditions to know, though, that low-fi production is no signifier of authenticity, and his songs are here as grainy as ever. His voice is treated differently to the music – it still sounds like it’s growled through a yoghurt pot into a ten dollar microphone, adding just the right evocation of M Ward’s old time influences on this, a very accomplished contemporary record by a songwriter to whom it is worth paying attention.
The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love
Anna has been listening to this most, and detected something of the Fleetwood Mac to it. This is not to say that The Decemberists have gone AOR – althought at times this record is certainly less deliberately quirky than previous listens, finding less need to be ironic and clever-dick literate. But this prog-folk opera is in its form as daring as anything The Decemberists have done; it is quietly compelling, and very much worth giving a chance to educate you in how to listen to it.
Ten Storey Love Song, by Richard Milward
It’s always worth distrusting any writer who is hailed as an authentic working class voice. Many working people (quite rightly) couldn’t give a fig about the novel, and any one of them who does almost as an effect of that interest ceases a little to write ‘for’ them. But Ten Storey Love Song, Milward’s second novel, is certainly a very fine work of the workers, with its irreverent turn of phrase and wryly askance glances towards the literary form. This is a funny, clever and insightful book, and if at times it falls into cliche – in particular, Bobby the Artist’s reflections on London seem by-the-numbers – it never feels untrue, which is the only thing that matters. Read this.
Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
A low-key offering from the off-kilter singer-songwriter, this album at first feels like something of a disappointment: gone are the punchy melodies and arrangements of 2007’s ‘Armchair Apocrypha’. Still, give it time and there’s all the usual screwiness here, though perhaps not of quite as fine a vintage.
Lily Allen – It’s Not Me It’s You
Often maligned but rarely bettered on her own turf, Allen’s second record is both more mature and sonically more diverse. Anna wrote about it in more detail here.
The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson
Delicately written and beautifully wrought, this novel is easily one of the most captivating of the last 20 years. Careful without being hesitant, and thoughtful whilst remaining sensuous, we’ve both been spellbound by it. Winterson is not always known for taking a step back from her own narrative voice – she does here, and to sublime effect. This is a book so well expressed that it’s worth reading aloud – no, really. History, love and glamour – what more could you want from a book?
Royalism and Poetry in the English Civil Wars: The Drawn Sword, by James Loxley
More seventeenth-century literature for Dan. Loxley’s persuasively argued thesis is that ‘Cavalier’ poetry has been unfairly boxed in by critics, and rather than representing hermetic nostalgia, was in fact framed as, and carried out in the spirit of, active support of the King. From this perspective, the Civil War saw ‘Cavalier’ poets define the ‘good service’ expected of them by Charles as part of their artistic remit. They actively engaged with the world as it was, upheaval, opposition and all, upholding royalist sentiment in the face of challenges and reconstituting it in the teeth of defeat. Possibly overly reliant on crystal clear divisions, but very good stuff.
Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
Studiedly inaccessible, this sounds like the Flaming Lips collaborating with Panda Bear whilst wearing Kevin Barnes’s clothes. You have to let this one explain itself to you, and on first listen you’ll insist it’s talking rubbish. But give it chance, because once you’ve got the map there’s enough twists and turns on this one to keep you going all year.
Duffy – Rockferry
Anna’s Christmas stocking contained Adele’s opus and this one, making it a bit of a callow divas special. Rockferry’s weakness is that we’ve heard most of what it has to offer on the radio, and so it’s not been played as much as Adele’s album, which is both more interesting and more adventurous. But a singles album at least has a few killer tunes, and in the absence of much in the way of releases worth their salt this month, they’ve stayed on rotation.
Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link
Everyone in SF fandom has been insisting for years that this is clever stuff, with great conceits and a fine eye for life as it is lived (that is, too strangely for mimesis). I could have done without the sometimes overly cute tone (the title story is a particular offender in this regard), and, surprisingly so given her range of modes, Link sometimes risks writing about only a certain type of person. But it’s still indeed a collection of real meat and spry storytelling.
Five Quarters of the Orange, by Joanne Harris
The anti-Chocolat, this novel’s first person narration reveals its secrets only slowly, and with a fine ear for the sinister. The principle character is at first unsympathetic and distant, and Harris has her perceptions colour the narrative, leaving it to the reader to figure out what sits between the lines. At the heart of all this stingy repression is a story worth sticking around for, reading like Irène Némirovsky for the Year in Provence generation.
Get Well Soon – Rest Now, Weary Head! You Will Get Well Soon
If this album is at times a little clumsy (its first track consists of people singing its title), and it can wear its Arcade Fire influences on its sleeve, it still manages to settle somewhere inside you, a little darkly and a little sweetly. Songs like ‘Help To Prevent Forest Fires’ or ‘Witches! Witches! Rest Now In The Fire’ are eerie, warming things, like creepy fairy tales put to string sections.
Adele – 19
With Adele’s preternaturally mature voice at front and centre, this LP avoids MOR traditions with the aid of some off-kilter arrangements and unexpected production. If Adele is too stage school for some, she’s the kid at the back of the class writing poetry in her exercise books. Add some slightly stronger songwriting and her future looks decent.
Harry, Revised, by Mark Sarvas
Mark Sarvas’s debut novel is wise enough to choose a central character who obsesses about his own reactions to things. This gives the Jamesian approach to character development a hip spin: the novel is a form which assumes that everyone is self-reflective, and Harry Rent is self-reflective to the point of self-destruction. Sarvas explores the consequences of that tendency through flashback and comedic episode, and if his story is sometimes more didactic than it needs to be, Harry, Revised is still a funny, unexpectedly touching little novel.
Amsterdam Eyewitness Pocket Guide
We’re planning a trip, and the Eyewitness range is a firm favourite in these parts – this pocket guide squeezes a bunch of stuff into its pages, has a fantastic map with a great street index, and those DK trademark cutaways are surprisingly good at helping you find your way around a church.
Of Montreal – Skeletal Lamping
Kevin Barnes returns with the long playing equivalent of multiple personality disorder. If Barnes is trying to question our assumptions about song, he succeeds – at no point during this record does the listener feel safe – but if he sought to create a unified record he has failed. It is a brave failure, with a hook every two seconds to get you back in, but ultimately the concept breaks into these catchy constituent parts, giving out under its own cross-dressing, sex-changing weight.
Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
Anna has been listening a bit to this, a record Dan put away earlier in the year. It’s never quite as good as its lead singles, but by the same token those are rather nice. We’re not sure Vampire Weekend match the hype, but neither are we sure anyone could have.
Oedipus and the Devil, by Lyndal Roper
Dan read this after taking it from Anna’s shelves, and he probably read it completely differently. But Roper’s central thesis – that, by analysing gender in terms of cultural and literary discourse, historians have removed the body from conceptions of sexuality to an unhelpful degree – is persuasive and energetically drawn. Applied to Reformation Germany, Roper’s interest in how the body was seen in historical contexts reveals a whole range of surprising turnarounds in conventional thought. The titular article is worth the price of admission alone.
Eve Green, by Susan Fletcher
A subtly written, carefully paced fictional memoir, Eve Green starts in the heart of Birmingham – in hearing distance of the Snow Hill to Marylebone line – and fans out towards rural Wales. In an inversion of the usual journey, this migration from city to country is the spur for an increasingly darker tale which holds out for its close a vision of hope. Delicately and eloquently done.
Calexico – Carried to Dust
A no-brainer this month, given how much we enjoyed the band’s gig at the Forum. On first listen, Dan wasn’t wild about the CD. Anna knew better, though, and fortunately repeated listens saw them avert disagreement: ‘Carried to Dust’ is a great record, and while not as genre-bending as the band’s own ‘Feast of Wire’, covers more than enough ground to keep the listener interested. Great lyrics, too.
Okkervil River – The Stand Ins
Some fantastic tunes accompany these perfect little capsule stories. Tellingly, the lyrics booklet is printed as if in prose: this is a record which somehow turns blank verse into immediate melody. This makes it all sound rather worthy, but the band are obviously having a great deal of fun being melancholy, which makes for a simultaneously breezy but rewarding listen. A candidate for the year’s top 10.
A Little History of the World, by E.H. Gombrich
A civilised and civilising book of history for children, this is, in its refusal to patronise its young readers, also a quietly perspicacious essay on how we should live together – even when we rarely manage it well. Not only do its 40 concise chapters cover history from the dinosaurs to the Second World War; they do so with an almost faultless eye for what is essential and what is not. For all practical purposes, faultless. Buy it. A lot.
A Very Short Introduction: The Quakers, by Pink Dandelion
Yes, Pink Dandelion. Both of us have been reading an OUP VSI this month – this is Anna’s pick. Being both finite and erudite, VSIs achieve a very difficult balancing act, and do exactly what they say on the tin. Which is super, when you haven’t got time to read everything in their bibliographies.
The Last Shadow Puppets – The Age of the Understatement
A record we keep returning to throughout the year, this is one which will last. Not coincidentally, it wears its retro influences on its sleeve: Scott Walker and David Axelrod, with a bit of Bowie thrown in for good measure. It helps that Turner and Kane’s voices (in all senses of the word) mesh so seamlessly, but at the heart of this LP are some tip top arrangements of some fine songs. Old fashioned, no?
Noah and the Whale – Peaceful The World Lays Me Down
Sprightly folk pop revolving around a core of morose introspection, Noah and the Whale are exactly what you’d expect from some well brought up chaps who listen to a lot of anti-folk. They do what they do very well, though, and if this first LP is slickly produced, it retains the winsome charm it possesses outside of a recording studio.
The Behaviour of Moths, by Polly Adams
Set in a rambling old country house and featuring fusty old lepidopterists and a long lost sister’s return from London, this is in many ways an old-fashioned novel – there’s a mystery that keeps you turning the page, and characters that reveal secrets, and a bucolic setting which is nevertheless crumbling. It is not reinventing the wheel, but Adams constructs an unreliable narrator par excellence. A good story, then, very well told – something not to be sniffed at. Worth a day of anyone’s time.
The Dig, by John Preston
A laudably unpretentious comic novel taking place around and between the excavation of Sutton Hoo just prior to the Second World War. Sutton Hoo was an amazing find, the burial site of an Anglo-Saxon king containing treasures which forced experts to rethink the period. Preston performs some wonderful pen portraits whilst asking the obvious question: how long can anything last, and how does memory affect our day-to-day. Light without being llightweight.
Frightened Rabbit – The Midnight Organ Fight
A rather lovely album from Scots folkies with a knack for melody, arrangement and nice sounding guitars. Not one to cheer up to, but one that grows and grows on you. Like a mopey moss.
The Ting Tings – We Started Nothing
Perfectly executed europop which gets into your head and stays there, even when you pretend you’re being ironic. A work of possibly evil genius, although don’t tell the cool kids we said that.
Crusaders, by Richard T Kelly
A state of the nation novel without the po-faced worthiness, this has everything – gangsters, Parliament, Anglicanism and council estate soap opera. A formidable – and wryly written – treat.
Francesco’s Venice, by Francesco da Mosto
We just came back from Venice, and had a great time there. Francesco da Mosto, he of the amusing earnestness, is one of the best guides. We particularly approve of his house, which we sailed past on the Grand Canal.