We didn’t like anything in July 2010. OK, that’s not true. We just didn’t write about it.
Back from The Brink, by Peter Snowdon
Two things strike the reader of this pre-election tale of David Cameron’s modernisation of a bewildered Conservative party. The first is that, in its first half chronicle of the Tories’ hapless experience between 1997 and 2005, there are lessons for Labour now about the danger of complacency, the need quickly to accept the judgement of the electorate, and the inadvisability of dismissing the new governing party as a shallow flash in the pan; the second is how clearly the coalition plays into Cameron’s strategy of sidelining and silencing the Eurosceptic right-wing of his party. If Dave succeeds in constraining Eurosceptics and co-opting Liberal Democrats, Snowdon will have a whole new volume to write: Back To The Summit. Be afraid.
Beachcomber’s Windowsill, Stornoway
This record starts with conkers and the giddy enthusiasm of the fresher, and those twin loves – of nature and of learning – remain lyrical touchstones throughout. Musically, there are elements of King Creosote, Belle and Sebastian, Butcher Boy and other acts you might associate with Scotland. The band are actually from England, though, so if you threw in Noah and the Whale and Mumford and Sons, too, you’d not be wildly out of line. The joy of the record, though, is that it is very much a unique statement. Stand-outs like ‘We Are The Battery Human’ and ‘Here Comes The Blackout…!’ are among the most infectious songs of the year so far.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Andrew Dominik’s ruminative Western has been on Dan’s To Be Watched pile for ages, and he now feels pretty guilty for leaving it waiting so long. The viewer who approaches this film looking for clear narrative lines, or even full focus on its titular pathological outlaws, will be disappointed – this is a more diffuse affair than its title suggests, an examination of fame and envy, of celebrity and even of myth. It is also exquisitely shot. At times, it may be too beautiful, given the ugliness and dirt on show in most every scene. All the performances – even James Carville’s (yes, that James Carville) – are spot on, too. So is the score. Some have complained about the film’s 2h30m running time, but with so many elements working so well, that seems churlish. Don’t leave it waiting any longer.
Race of a Lifetime, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann
Very much enjoyed this one; it’s by no means a detailed, footnoted, verified affair like The End of the Party, but it is also something more than an exhaustive survey of a story we already broadly know. Halperin and Heilemann are also engaging – if occassionally over-dramatic – writers, and most of the time the book reads like a fast-paced novel. This might not inspire the greatest confidence in the book as a political tome, but no one has contradicted a word that is in this book, and some of them were pretty revelatory. That makes it entertaining and, as far as it goes, accurate; which is nice to know.
My Best Friend Is You, by Kate Nash
The second album from the flippant femme adds further layers – and extra substance – to her music. We both think it’s better than her debut, of which Anna in particular was a fan already, because Nash allows herself to explore more varied subject matter, develop her vocals, and expand her musical palette. A varied tracklisting with catchy hooks is a rarer thing than you might think, and here’s an CD which gives you both.
The Good Wife (2009-10)
The TV edition: The Good Wife continues to be, in the words of Iain Clark, ‘satisfying’ television. Satisfying because it is cleverly and tightly written, with a humane spirit and high production values. But also because it is not revelatory or transformative telly. Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles remains the show’s best assets, but Chris Noth continues to impress – and the introduction of Alan Cummings (chanelling Aiden Quinn as The Wire‘s Tommy Carcetti) has added extra chutzpah. And some people like Kalinda, apparently. Check it out.
The End of the Party, by Andrew Rawnsley
This is not, contrary to the headlines it generated, a scandal sheet – though it does feature big revelations, it is a more sober and comprehensive history than that. Rawnsley does have it in for Brown, it must be said – the word ‘demented’ is attached to him at least three times in no uncertain terms. Rawnsley argues that Blair’s great fault was an inability to sever himself from Brown; but that is surely a symptom of Blair’s inability to act, not its cause.
Map or Direction, by John Smith
Smith has been knocking around for a while without really exciting Dan, but when one of the songs from this record got picked to feature on 50 Miles of Elbow Room, he took a closer listen. The album benefits from an itinerant recording process, which saw each song recorded in a different location – very often outside, with all the extra ambience that suggests. The songs are strong enough to stand alone, but given this extra piquancy they make for an album with an awful lot of shades. Worth getting excited about.
An Education (2009)
Carey Mulligan thoroughly deserved her Best Actress BAFTA for her complex performance here, which holds together proceedings whilst also being brave enough to be at times unsympathetic. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent, too, but the whole cast – particularly the always superb Alfred Molina and a delicate Olivia Williams – provide expert support. As a coming of age drama, An Education doesn’t really question any of our assumptions about coming of age dramas; but as a character piece it is tender and humane. Involving, is the word.
Soul of the Age, by Jonathan Bate
An attempt at an ‘intellectual biography’ of Shakespeare, this has some nice little details, but the hoary ‘seven ages of man’ structure, and the wilful mushing together of plays written over quite a lengthy period of Shakespeare’s life, weaken its core arguments – which are at times opaque at best. Full of learning, but one where the (sadly unintegrated) footnotes are often more interesting than much of the body of the text. Hmm.
The Alphabet of Hurricanes, by Tom McRae
Live, McRae is sounding better than he ever has, and this album is an excellent testimony to his growth as an artist. As he will mention every now and then, that musical growth has not been matched by burgeoning audiences, but this remains deeply unfair: Tom’s voice is better than it has ever been, and his songwriting remains clear, crisp and evocative. There’s even woodwind on this one. How can you say no?
Alice in Wonderland (2010)
There’s no point pretending this is bravura filmmaking: it’s second half is overly portentous, its plot proceeds in fits and starts, and some of the performances feel flatter than others. This is a Disney film first and a Tim Burton picture a very poor second. But, especially seen in 3D, this still makes it a vibrant, attractive spectacle: not a wonderland per se, but a fine film not to think too much about. Enjoy with mini eggs/confectionary of your choice.
The Damned UTD, by David Peace
Exhilarating stuff from Peace, who takes a break from writing about criminal psychopaths in order to write about sporting sociopathy. The story of Brian Clough’s 40 days at Leeds United, his novel revolves around its protagonists point of view, shifting from first person to second person (in which we experience Clough’s glory days at Derby County). The central personality is brilliantly turned, and if it probably isn’t the real Clough – certainly there has been enough controversy about the novel to suggest that it isn’t the full picture – it is nevertheless a bravura fictional creation. Blisteringly good fun, with a healthy slice of disturbance.
Midnight At The Movies, by Justin Townes Earle
Steve’s boy comes good – an eclectic selection of American roots music, with rockabilly-ish stuff to go with Earle’s haircut, and Dixie jazz to go with his voice. Plus a song by Paul Westerberg and one that sounds like Whiskeytown. Not the grab-bag any of that makes it sound like, Midnight At The Movies is a thorough-going good time record with some very fine songwriting indeed.
Slowly we catch up on last year’s Oscar contenders, just in time for this year’s ceremony. You can tell at times that the film has been adapted from the stage, but the central performances of Streep, Hoffman, Adams and David bely the static cameras and dialogue-heavy script. A quick Google reveals that the role played by Hoffman was on stage filled by a younger actor, and this feels to us to have been the better choice; but otherwise a solid, impressive bit of film-making.
The World That Made New Orleans, by Ned Sublette
This is not a book really about music, but is profound on the subject of culture. If at times Sublette has to necessarily stretch his bridges a little too tightly between facts, that is the occupation of anyone undertaking this sort of work – an investigation into the ways in which African culture may have been transferred, via the unusual history of the Big Easy, into the present day. The book’s Coda, focussing on the first parade of Mardi Gras Indians following Katrina, is a wonderful bit of writing.
When The Devil’s Loose, by AA Bondy
A Christmas present to Dan from Anna’s brother, AA Bondy’s latest LP is a strong collection of rootsy Americana from a songwriter at home in the tradition. If at times Bondy tries a little too hard to earn his spurs, he is never less than exceedingly competent – and very often rather good. But it’s unfair to dismiss the record as the work of a mere craftsmen – there’s real imagination and dark originality at work here, and it’s well worth a listen or twenty.
The Reader (2008)
Not quite a Christmas film, but we watched it at Whinfell anyway! We’d been meaning to catch this film since it was released early in the year, and the wait didn’t leave us disappointed. Kate Winselt deserved her Golden Globe for her performance as Hannah Schmitz, but David Kross as the young man with whom she enters a relationship holds the film together. As the credits, rolled, we were mostly talking about the way the film refuses to tell you what you think – surely key for a piece like this. Thoughtful, and far from crass.
Leviathan Or, The Whale by Philip Hoare
Leviathan is a gorgeous essay on the whale, but more importantly man’s relationship with it. Naturally, this involves some wonderful stuff on Melville and Moby Dick, but particularly moving are Hoare’s passages on the total carnage of modern hunting. He doesn’t seek to pull the whale out of myth, however – indeed, he doesn’t think it can be. For Hoare, the whale is what we need it to be – monster, natural resource, beauty to be protected. He charts our relationship with nature through our relationship with the whale, and it is a beautifully written guide. Highly recommended.
Christmas In The Heart, Bob Dylan
It’s Christmas. It’s Bob. It’s for charity. Stop being such a cynic. Besides, have you seen this? Genius, surely.
Also possibly here.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Long one of Dan’s favourites, Anna sat down and watched this recently – and loved it, too. Hooray! One to go back to again and again.
That is all.
Except to say: Watch this. Go on.
Escaping The Delta, by Elijah Wald
We all know the cliches: Delta blues as the music of the downtrodden, a remnant of slave art, a holler-back to West African forms. Wald never pretends that he has not bought into, continues to buy into, the cult of the Delta bluesman, but shows they were in truth informed not by ancestral memory but by radio playlists. Robert Johnson in particular is assessed not as a unique genius but an accomplished magpie, able to assimilate the pop forms of the day – not just blues, but country and vaudeville – and regurgitate them anew. Escaping the Delta refashions the blues not as cultural fetish but as a particular product of its era and its people. Controversial among those who read books about acoustic blues, but a compelling and rewarding thesis.
Mumford and Sons – Sigh No More
Dan already wrote about this album here, but Anna’s been loving it, too! Like a happier and more stirring Noah and the Whale, Mumford & Sons have a great way with arrangement and melody which makes for a great listen from start to finish. There are highpoints which you’ll skip for, but the whole record hangs together perfectly. One of our favourites of the year!
Alice In The Cities (1974)
It helped that we watched this one together quietly on a calm, dark night. Wim Wenders’s careful film, shot beautifully in a grainy black and white, follows a journalist with writer’s block as he is left stranded in New York with a young girl, whom he must help find her grandparents back home in Germany. Nowhere close to a voyage of self-discovery, their journey instead feels like a walking round in a circle. Neither of the characters have a true sense of place in a globalising world, and with an inventive economy Wenders explores their resultant, reflective, wanderings.
Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold
Though its central story of Charlie Chaplin’s early years in Hollywood is brilliantly done and Chaplin himself terrifically drawn, Sunnyside wants to be More Important than that. It therefore splices on a lot of stuff about fantasy and movies, World War I and the nascent Russian Civil War, which hits its mark in so far as its mark is the unwieldy, but fails to engage the reader over its full length. There is some really very funny stuff here, but expect to do some skipping – as worth reading as it is for the best bits, this is a novel which just doesn’t quite hang together.
Truelove’s Gutter, by Richard Hawley
Dan’s followed Hawley since his first self-titled EP, and can’t shake the idea that it’s all been downhill since 2002’s Lowedges. Hawley doesn’t quite abandon his later period love for sentimentality and syrupy arrangements here, either, but it’s better than either Cole’s Corner or, especially, Lady’s Bridge. For the uninitiated, this is old school pop of the maudlin kind, the sort of thing Cousteau used to do very nicely.
The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño
Quite a novel. Bolaño doesn’t need any more hyping, so suffice to say that the manner in which he here maintains a tight focus across 600 densely populated and diffuse pages, whilst also never allowing his reader to fix upon his novel’s central characters and situations is quite stunning. This is a rich and intensely considered work which looks the spectre of futility square in the face and yet doesn’t blink. Brilliant.
Coco Avant Chanel (2009)
Not nearly as worthy as it might have been (and depending on your point of view, that could be a good or a bad thing!), Anne Fontaine’s biopic of Coco’s early years decides to be about two types of masculinity, represented by the louche French aristocrat Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde, who threatens to steal the movie) and the cold materialism of Brit Arthur Capel (Alessandro Nivola, who threatens a convincing English accent), and how Coco is able to negotiate her way around both. That she does this by adopting masculine forms of dress is a wink that the film is more consciously ambivalent than its reviews perhaps allowed.
Lungs, by Florence and the Machine
Florence and the Machine’s debut album is one of the best sounds of this year, we think! Quirky, angry and passionate songs soar into uplifting climaxes. A good angry or breakup album! Florence Welch has a clawing cat-cry of a voice, in a good way – if you like Björk! The visual imagery used in the album’s artwork and videos is very pre-Raphaelite and loaded with dark symbolism. Good all round! We hope she wins the Mercury.
December, by Elizabeth H Winthrop
Elizabeth H. Winthrop’s second novel ‘December’ is a brilliant read. The book provides an acutely observed portrayal of a family struggling to cope with the silence of their eleven-year-old daughter, Isabelle. Winthrop weaves a sympathetic and frustrating narrative, which explores the perceptions and miscommunications of each of the three family members. Winthrop’s skill lies in her close depiction of small and seemingly insignificant occurrences, which overwhelm the senses of eleven-year-old Isabelle, whose adolescent world seems to her both pointless and full of promise. Compelling and tragic and uplifting, Anna could not put this book down.
Live Forever (2003)
Having recently seen Blur’s gig at Hyde Park, we ordered a copy of the 2003 documentary ‘Live Forever’. Directed by John Dower, the film explores the ‘Britpop’ music trend in the mid to late nineties, and the desire of the young artists central to the scene to ‘live forever’. Having been fans of Blur, Pulp and Oasis (Dan liked Oasis, Anna preferred Blur!) in the nineties, we enjoyed the nostalgia trip.
The film recalls the feelings of euphoria harnessed in a musical energy created by youngsters who had grown up under conservative rule and economic crisis. It shows how powerfully music can combine with political change. This is quite sad to see in hindsight (will we need another Britpop generation in years to come?). “I used to feel like no one could touch me,” Damon Albarn recalls. “But now, I feel more vulnerable.” This is also, quite clearly, about young men growing up, and the realisation that nothing is ever as it seems.