August 2011 – July 2012

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.

What We Like

August 2010 – July 2011

August 2009 – July 2010

August 2008 – July 2009

July 2012

Words
River of Smoke, by Amitav Ghosh Ghosh might be the only author I know for whom ‘diffuse’ should be used as a word of praise: the discursive manner in which he wears his research clearly yet lightly reminds one of Patrick O’Brien, except allied with a quite extraordinary sympathy for the widest range of cultures, societies and languages. Although much of the action takes place in Canton, and focuses on three or four principal characters, there is such scope within this trading post for exploring the vast array of tongues all hammering away in conversation as the Opium War grinds closer that one almost doesn’t notice the narrower confines in which all this action happens. In many ways, an impossible feat: a rip-roaring read of 500+ pages. A pleasure.
Sounds
The Geometry of Dreams, Will Cookson A late discovery, this – it was released in October of last year – but it has trumped a number of other records I’ve bought this month (including from Sleep Party People, The Flaming Lips, and The Chieftans) simply for its frank luminosity. The songs are very purely played, and yet such is the depth of both musicianship and production that they sound quite beautiful. Just a bit special.

June 2012

Words
Capital, by John Lanchester In his non-fiction, Lanchester has written about the credit crunch and its ongoing consequences more accessibly than perhaps any other writer, but in this novel the themes – from the adventures in terrorism law experienced by the newsagent’s family, to the immigration hoop-la inflicted upon the African traffic warden – aim for state-of-the-nation breadth but at times risk apropos-of-nothing shallowness. There is an attempt to depict all levels of society – a traffic warden, a plumber, a newsagent, a retired octogenarian, a City high-flier – but some (the banker) are simply better realised than others (his wife, an awful cut-out-and-keep stereotype). Compared with similarly ambitious novels by Nicola Barker or Simon Ings, Lanchester’s book seems not quite to know what to do with its wealth of material. A soft ball game in the big stadium.
Sounds
Locked Down, by Dr John Of all the heritage artists to be ‘rejuvenated’ by a hip young producer in recent years, Dr John may have been least in need of a reboot – he has always produced virtuosic music of heft and swagger. But Dan Auerbach’s collaboration with the master of New Orleans has nevertheless produced a stand-out record in Dr J’s repertoire – thick and swampy, it has more dark funk than should probably be legal. This is as complex and clever a record as will be released in this slightly anaemic year – and yet it is also one of its most immediate. Kudos.

June 2012

Words
Bob Dylan in America, by Sean Wilentz. A series of essays which revolve less around Zimmy himself and more about his fluctuating place within American culture, you can dip in and out of this eloquent, wise volume for months on end and emerge each time with another wry anecdote, incisive side-ways glance, or tart bon mot. The most grandiloquent Dylan book since Christopher Ricks’s? Ho yus, but good fun because of it.
Sounds
Sonik Kicks, by Paul WellerI haven’t paid much attention to Weller – an artist who hangs heavy in my musical tutelage – since 2000’s Heliocentric, an album of diverse interests which felt like a shot of crisp elegance in that year of Steps and ‘N Sync. The records that followed it – particularly Illumination – were enough, however, to make those achievements a distant memory. There have been rumblings of a renaissance – 22 Dreams got great reviews – but only the sounds of Sonik Kickshave brought me back. Energetic, fierce and, best of all, creative, this sounds like a record from a much younger man. Weller has a lesson or two in him yet.

May 2012

Words
The Weird, eds. Ann and Jeff VanderMeerAn astounding work of collecting-as-art, this compendium of 800,000 weird words is easily one of the most consistent genre anthologies I have read. Heterodox yet focused, it is fated to be the canonical text of weird fiction studies for some time to come – and deservedly so. The first-rank stories here – and there are many, not a few – are not excellent weird fiction. They are simply some of the best 20th century writing available in any mode. Not without its faults – but that is, ahem, the nature of the beast. Essential.
Sounds
Sonik Kicks, by Paul WellerI haven’t paid much attention to Weller – an artist who hangs heavy in my musical tutelage – since 2000’s Heliocentric, an album of diverse interests which felt like a shot of crisp elegance in that year of Steps and ‘N Sync. The records that followed it – particularly Illumination – were enough, however, to make those achievements a distant memory. There have been rumblings of a renaissance – 22 Dreams got great reviews – but only the sounds of Sonik Kickshave brought me back. Energetic, fierce and, best of all, creative, this sounds like a record from a much younger man. Weller has a lesson or two in him yet.

April 2012

Words
I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive, by Steve EarleI love me some Steve Earle. I love him as a musician, a songwriter, event an actor. I do not love him as a writer. Overly reliant on dialogue, hackneyed in theme, and insufficiently bold in its central conceit, this is a book somehow slighter than its already pretty slight pagecount. A shame, and I’d like to read his short story collection to see if it’s just length he has difficulty with: this simply isn’t as interesting and rich a work as any one of his three-minute country songs.
Sounds
Barton Hollow, by The Civil WarsWell, look. There’s a lot of hype about this duo, and you may have seen them on Later … with Jools Hollandand liked them well enough, but not seen the cause for all the fuss. You might have thought their Grammy Award came from left-field. You might even be confused as to why Captain Jack Sparrow has started a band whilst wearing a bowtie. But, look. This record sounds simply gorgeous. Not only are the harmonies quite something else, and some of the songs destined to be standards; the production is subtle but special. If I were an old-fashioned curmudgeon, I’d say this is a proper album. Which is precisely what it is.

March 2012

Words
Mr Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi ended her last book, White is for Witching with disintegration – and Mr Fox begins with it. Ostensibly the story of a writer in 1930s New York who conjures in his head a femme fatale muse, and proceeds to cheat with her on his defeated and humiliated wife, this novel in fact begins bewilderingly and disconcertingly and stays that way. We are treated to refigurations of the bluebeard myth – the muse, Mary, accuses Mr Fox, the writer, of being a serial killer, since all his heroines wind up dead – but also recursive iterations of Mary and Fox themselves, who are locked in a self-imposed challenge to fashion their own narrative in such a way that it breaks free of the stultifying gender politics which conspire to ruin every relationship that is depicted. Oyeyemi is a fine writer, but this novel may suffer from diminishing returns: by the final few stories, which include the award-winning ‘My Daughter the Racist’, the reader could be forgiven for saying, “Yes, I get it.” For a fractal novel of often restorative subtelty, Mr Fox can also be weirdly one-note.
Sounds
Voyageur, by Kathleen Edwards: Aka ‘The One Where Kathleen got together with Bon Iver’. In truth, Justin Vernon’s influence on this record can be overstated: whilst it is far less rootsy than previous outings, this latest of Edwards’s LPs is of a piece with them, particularly when ‘Asking for Flowers’ is considered the bridging record. Alas, it retains the rather weaker songcraft of its predecessor, particularly lyrically: Edwards used to be a storyteller, but here she is in confessional mode, and she seems less suited to it. Her vocals, however, remain commanding and as always on her albums a few choice cuts – ‘House Full of Empty Rooms’, ‘For The Record’ – stand out.

February 2012

Words
The Gentry, by Adam Nicolson: The denizen of Sissignhurst Castle is probably better placed than most to write a potted history of the gentry, or rather a selection of gentry families, but what emerges from this books is – unusual for Nicolson’s supple, subtle style – a fairly uneven book. Some chapters – the story of the 15th century Plumptons, the 17th century Oxindens, or the Edwardian Liberal Aclands – are fascinating. Others – the Throckmortons, the Capels, the Hughses – are somehow less engaging. Worth dipping into, but somehow less than the sum of its parts. Read Arcadia instead.
Sounds
The Lion’s Roar, First Aid Kit: Anyone who remembers when Howling Bells were briefly interesting in 2006 will appreciate this record, which looks to establish firmer foundations for a fuller career. Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg offer very pretty folk harmonies with a lot of extra muscle, poppy melodies and an indie sensibility. The songwriting, arrangements and musicianship are all of a consistently high standard here, and The Lion’s Roar is a record to sink into, and is somehow more convincing than Juanita Stein.

January 2012

Words
Sea of Poppies, by Amitav GhoshWith quite the most arresting use of language I’ve read in any novel for some time, Ghosh tackless questions of identity, belonging and power by telling the disparate and barely-connected stories of a colourful cast of characters in the India of the late 1830s. The poppy features heavily, with the First Opium War looming in the background and shaping the smaller, more personal narratives, which form the book’s focus. This approach, of course, has the effect of reclaiming ordinary Indian life from the Imperial narratives it has often been consumed by in the official histories. Most potently, Ghosh draws on demotic dialects of every kind to play with the reader’s understandings and engagement, bewildering without ever losing our attention. A bravura literary performance which is also eminently – addictively – readable.
Sounds
Pint of Blood, Jolie Holland and The Grand ChandeliersHere’s a thing: a Jolie Holland album with actual electric guitar solos. Melodic, even poppy arrangements, enliven Holland’s always affecting vocal delivery, and not always as engaging songwriting, to produce what may be her best album to date. From the brute roots of Catalpa to the loose-limbed jazz of Springtime Can Kill You, Holland has never quite captured a song as she has here: still luminous, but also somehow properly, flatteringly framed. Use this as your introduction to a distinctive American voice.

November 2011

Words
The Last Hundred Days, by Patrick McGuinnessLike Snowdrops, AD Miller’s dangerously light novel of Moscow, this is a book about a slightly degenerate young Western man who finds himself in an odd Eastern European half-world. Unlike that Booker-shortlisted work, this merely long-listed novel is never explicit and rarely clumsy. McGuinness’s evocation of the last days of Ceausescu is eerily surreal, all empty streets and speeding motorcades, and black market jamborees in the basements of national museums; very little actually happens. It’s a novel about suppression and co-option, but also about doubling and the destruction of the past. Its circumlocutory approach can drag, but it is carefully and elliptically structured to emphasise the uncertainty of (semi-)autobiography, and as such has no place zipping along. This isn’t a warm book, but it is a wise one.
Sounds
Ashes & Fire, by Ryan AdamsHas any contemporary singer-songwriter been so consistently infuriating as alt.country’s poster boy, David Ryan Adams? Of course not. A purple patch in the early 2000s gave way to curate’s egg records such as Cold Roses and 29, plus best-unmentioned efforts like Cardinology and III & IV. This is Adams’s first solo LP, as distinct from the Cardinals, for some time – and recalls his earlier work better than anything since the records themselves. Strong melodies, supple lyrics and quite probably the finest vocal performances of his career make this album, even when it strays too far into the smoothness of Easy Tiger territory, that rarest of things truly to find rather than read about – a return to form. No, really.

October 2011

Words
Reprobates, by John StubbsA history of the cavalier poets of the mid-seventeenth century, Stubbs’s book is an odd one: it’s as much about political cavaliers as cultural ones (Clarendon features as heavily as Davenant), and its chronological approach seems to edge out much room for analysis. At the same time, it’s hardly a narrative of the period from the royalist perspective: though it sketches the vague details of the early Stuart period, it’s difficult to believe that someone without prior knowledge of the English Civil Wars could get full enjoyment from the volume. James Loxley’s <i>The Drawn Sword</i> seems an altogether better book on the period and this topic – if not quite so handsomely jacketed.
Sounds
A Creature I Don’t Know, by Laura MarlingLaura Marling’s growth as an artist has been remarkable. This third LP isn’t quite the huge leap on from I Speak Because I Can which that record was from her debut – but it isn’t far off. Lush and yet gritty, melodic yet substantial, it has a rootsy, almost countryish feel to it but its defining characteristic is Marling’s voice, which has deepened and rounded so that the famed disconnect between what she sings and how she sings is no longer quite so pronounced. No longer a wunderkind, with this record Marling surely becomes a canonical English songwriter.

September 2011

Words
The Psychopath Test, by Jon RonsonDan would read the phone book if it were written by Jon Ronson. Perhaps not quite so entertaining and surprising as Them or The Men Who Stare At Goats, and at times a little more potted than those books, this is also funny, thoughtful and quietly subverse in the ways we’ve come to expect from Ronson. In particular, his attempt to understand how we define madness – and whether that quest for definition is in itself mad – seems timely and well considered, although not precisely original to him. Still, this is a book by Jon Ronson and is therefore well worth sitting down with and gobbling up in one sitting. Do so.
Sounds
The Harrow and the Harvest, by Gillian WelchHaving lived with this record for a couple of months, it is clearly one of considerable depth: remarkably for an album featuring just two players, there was corners in each of these ten songs which reveal themselves differently on each listen, and the guitar and vocal work alike remains subtle, characterful and at times quite virtuosic. If the record doesn’t quite recreate the Welch sound in the way that some of her previous records do, the songs are deceptively sparse, with melodies and lyrics which settle into the mind like standards. Essential, as if there were ever any doubt.

August 2011

Words
Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion & Jewelry, by Leanne ShaptonEssentially a novel about a bad relationship, this is told through the auction descriptions of a series of objects of some relation to the romance: gifts and postcards, shared items of clothing or candid photographs. What could have been a very cheap gimmick is executed with such sensitivity and care that an auction catalogue winds up being a rather moving document. The characters somehow reveal themselves through their choices of possession. At the same time, there are significant lacunae – there’s no record of what first attracted the couple to each other, for instance. For a book of rather dull black and white photographs, this is an immensely rich book. It’s worth experiencing.
Sounds
Out On The Open West, by Frank FairfieldFrank Fairfield is fighting a one-man crusade against consumer culture: “companies realised it would be more cost-efficient to create a new culture that everyone can try and follow – so everyone ended up drinking Coca-Cola and listening to Frank Sinatra and real culture got cut down like the trees.” This record, then, sounds not just indebted to the 1920s a la Pokey LaFarge, but like it could have been made then: it is a record for people like Frank Fairfield. But it is also weirdly compelling, like an LP some of us have wanted to listen to for years but have been too busy with bubblegum. Raw, but also rather warm.

 

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