August 2013 – July 2014

July 2014

Dust, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
This is a state-of-the-nation novel about Kenya, taking in the fall of Empire, the corruption of the state, and the multi-cultural enmities of the people. Much of the emotional power of the novel is sited in a homestead in the countryside, which has changed hands in time with the fortunes of its nation; the connections between a disparate cast of characters are slowly drawn, and the horror at the heart of the story – this book will not act as an argument against the claim that winners of the Caine Prize dwell on the degradations of Africa over-much – rests in the extent to which each of the characters can and will inflict evil on the others. Harrowing but also – and genuinely – haunting.
Sam Lewis, Sam Lewis
Full disclosure: Dan recently supported Sam, and a generous and super chap he was, too. What most strikes about this LP, though, is how little it sounds like Sam’s live solo acoustic set: perhaps the long touring of these songs has altered them, or perhaps the full-band set-up here makes demands of Lewis’s voice and songs alike that take them away from the Johns-Prine-and-Denver feel of the songs in performance. Either way, both versions of each of these songs demonstrates them to be supple, witty slices of country soul, both self-aware and sincere. You will hum this record.

June 2014

A Death In The Family, by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Autobiographical novel in six volumes, yadda, Hitler, yadda, controversy, yadda, authorly suicide, yadda. This first volume in the series, though, lived up to the hype, if you expect from the hype a novel sometimes naively written but always focused. That naivety, of course, is part of the pose: a character called Karl Ove Knausgaard narrates his life from childhood to present day as a displacement exercise in writing a new novel; in so doing, he discovers his new novel, and possibly kills the medium at the same time, tracking the mimetic impulse with such vigour that he describes eating cornflakes with the same level of detail that he discusses his father’s corpse. Is it reality TV for readers of literature? Maybe. But there’s nothing like this, for good or ill.
Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, by Sturgill Simpson
For a metamodern record, the ghost of Waylon Jennings looms large here. But on tracks like ‘Turtles All The Way Down’, Simpson emphasises his philosophical interests and allows country lyrics to break out of their often inventive – but nevertheless often restricted – vernacular. I’m not sure Simpson will ‘save country music’ if by ‘save’ we mean ‘convert newcomers’; but this record of impeccable country music – you cannot, as with the work of Ryan Adams, Chris Thile or Gillian Welch, dispute its heritage – may yet shake up those who are already paid-up members of the club.

May 2014

Tenth of December, by George Saunders
Is there anyone left that needs to be told about this book? The winner of the inaugural Folio prize, Tenth of December is a triumphant collection, each of its ten short stories a mini-marvel, full of more nourishment than many a lesser novel. I’ve been working my way slowly through this – savouring the writing rather than gulping it down – and have yet to finish it. Despite that, I can already say here is one volume that has earned its place on your bookshelf. Go.
A Dotted Line, Nickel Creek
When is a band on indefinite hiatus not a band on indefinite hiatus? When it releases an album to celebrate twenty-five years together. Nickel Creek’s fourth full-length release comes nearly ten years after their last, and to be honest doesn’t quite justify the weight: Why Should The Fire Die sounded like a band about to do something very special, but instead each member went off and did it elsewhere – most obviously in Chris Thile’s Punch Brothers. A Dotted Line sounds more like three friends enjoying being together again; no bad thing, and often wonderful fun, but not a sign, I think, that the hiatus is over for good.

April 2014

In The Wolf’s Mouth, by Adam Foulds
In a novel which never quite recaptures the magic of Foulds’s Booker-shortlisted The Quickening Maze, Foulds attempts to knit together three stories of the Second World War: of a Sicilian shepherd, an American GI, and a British officer. After devoting two-thirds of the novel to the preamble, all three men wind up in the same Sicilian village, in which the fascists (who displaced the aristocracy) are being displaced by the Mafia. All three still run their lives in parallel, each adding occasionally over-familiar grace notes to the other … and yet the novel never seems to resolve into a chord.
Let’s Wrestle, Let’s Wrestle
Is it good thing to write of a record that it confounds the comparators you instantly recall when listening to it? On playing Let’s Wrestle for the first time, I first thought they might be a Webb Brothers tribute band; then they recalled The Kinks; then Yo La Tengo. They have, it must be said, listened to your guitar bands record collection and distilled the whole lot. In the process, they’ve created something their own: there’s a bit of everything here, but a quirky energy and a super lyrical voice gives it a soupçon of self-assertion. A formidable indie pop gem.

March 2014

Thirty Girls, by Susan MinotMinot’s other job as a poet is in prominent evidence here, in a novel about the Lord’s Resistance Army and how we receive the much-publicised miseries of central Africa (yes, Kony makes an appearance). A twin narrative alternately follows the story of a young girl taken from her convent school to serve the needs of the men of the LRA (she is one of the thirty girls of the title, left behind when 109 of their compatriots are allowed to return to the convent with the sister who chases after the LRA contingent which kidnapped them, to beg for their freedom), and an American journalist sent to cover the confused and confusing story of the LRA, but who is in fact more interested with who is sleeping with whom in the ex-pat community. Minot’s protagonists only briefly glance off each other’s stories … and yet they do so beautifully and with real resonance.
Lousy with Sylvianbriar, Of MontrealI confess to have fallen off the Of Montreal train some time after False Priest, when it felt to me that the band were travelling in the same circle – and, most honestly, when their release schedule came to be so idiosyncratic as to defy my ability to keep up. This release, however, feels like a gentle step-change: it’s still identifiably Barnesian, and yet makes a break with the scuzzy disco that Kevin has been playing with since the second half of Hissing Fauna. It might not quite reinvent its particular wheel in the way that LP did, but it makes a very refreshing fist of it.

February 2014

One More Night: Bob Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour, by Andrew Muir
This self-published trawl through the long march of Dylan’s 25-year tour can be gruelling: Muir spends a lot of time reflecting on his personal love for Bob, and how excited he got that time in Hammersmith. But it’s also occasionally far more insightful and ecumenical on the subject of Bob than some works by more ‘official’ critics (for instance, his Dude-like position on the endless ‘Bob sells out’ furores were particularly apposite at the time of reading). It also reminded me very much of the work of many science fiction fans: detailed, yes, but rarely impartial, and yet because of that love both compelling and often rather truthful. Put it this way: Greil Marcus’s book is still on my shelf, half-read, after a year. This one is done, dusted and annotated. Fair play.
Brothers and Sisters, by Damien Jurado
There’s something magical and uncanny about this one. Not only the date of release, a mere few weeks after friends gifted me Jurado’s previous release, Maraqopa; no, the act of listening to this luminous record casts a very particular spell. It feels classic and yet ineffable, recognisable yet labyrinthine. Perhaps it’s Jurado’s voice, enigmatic and comforting; or the sinuous arrangements, somehow robust and yet sinuous. Whatever the alchemy, this is an early contender for album of the year. Special.

January 2014

The Dig, by Cynan Jones
This slim little novel packs an awful lot into its careful, pregnant pages. The story first of a farmer and second of a badger baiter, there are two overwhelming motifs: entrapment and violence, both imposed and self-inflicted. At times this leads to some over-neat analogues, but more often it leads to prose of remarkable pared-down power. Jones writes only short novels, and this seems on one hand a shame – there’s clearly a lot of story in this short space, and one might pine for a little more time to understand and unfurl it. By the same token, The Dig reveals a writer able to encapsulate and distil a lifetime’s incident into the vision of a washed-up coffee cup. Very much worth a read.
Strong Feelings, by Doug Paisley
Beginning with a piano run from none other than Garth Hudson sets a record in good stead, and here is a preternaturally warm offering from the syrup-voiced Canadian. It’s unashamedly singer-songwriterly, and makes no apologies for sounding like it’s from the 1970s; but there’s also something simultaneously self-aware and unassuming about what amount to ten beautifully written songs, and this gives the whole album a real charisma.

December 2013

Flappers: Women of a Dangerous Generation, by Judith Mackrell
Not a historian’s history book, this: there are plenty of examples of Mackrell simply making stuff up rather than sticking closely to her sources, imagining how a First World War nurse’s gown might have moved on a particular morning, or how a Parisian jazz venue smelled during a specific performance. That makes Flappers something closer to a collection of short stories – its chapters, Cloud Atlas-like, split the lives of six women of the jazz generation into two chunks across the book’s length –  and read in this way Flappers is decent fun. Possibly pitched and published to cash in on Luhrmann’s Gatsby, and possibly slightly better in the form it might have taken without that promotional hook, this is still a great synthesis of the work done on the period in which these five quite different, and disparately diverting, women lived.
The Silver Gymnasium, by Okkervil River
I didn’t really get Okkervil River’s last record. This one, however, hit me from the off, and – surprisingly rare in albums, this – left some of its best moments until its closing tracks, compelling at every turn. Set in the hometown of Will Sheff, the band’s frontman and guiding intelligence, the events of The Silver Gymnasium take place in 1986, and manage to evoke that period’s pop without resorting to pastiche. Evocative at every level, and ambitious and eclectic in instrumentation and execution alike, this is a really impressive entry in one of the strongest discographies of the past ten years.

November 2013

A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride
This is every bit as startling as you’ve heard. At first entirely alienating, then utterly engrossing, its experimentalism is that rarest of all kinds: the sort that makes internal sense. This is the story of a young Irish girl which in other hands would be an identikit misery memoir – indeed, in many ways McBride is deliberately confronting, estranging and refreshing the clichés of that form, and of its particularly Irish variants. This is worthy work, and achieves its effect by inspiring real sympathy for a character unique and alien, fully formed (despite the title) and therefore defiantly other. But to attempt to describe this book is rather to rob it of its strangeness, its potency and its excitement, like pinning a butterfly to a board. A really special novel that reminds you what the form is for. Buy it for yourself – it’s Christmas.
Untamed Beast, by Sallie Ford & The Sound Outside
Here’s a funny one. The only coy thing about this unashamedly hipsterishly old-fashioned country-garage record is the slipcase which neatly covers the modest of the naked model on its real cover, who proudly sports the skull of a steer. Like a dirty Alabama Shakes, Ford and her band ply a scuzzy kind of heritage rock. Unlike the band in whose steps they are fated to tread, there is perhaps something rawer to their short, sharp – and often rather bitter – songcraft. Worth a punt.

October 2013

Inferno, by Dan Brown
Illness meant I wasn’t much up to more than this predictably bonkers caper through Florence, Venice and Istanbul in search of super-villain who thoroughly endangers his ingenious scheme by planning it all on the basis of an unlikely partiality for the work of Dante Allighieri. On the other hand, Inferno wants to be better than The Da Vinci Code, and if it is still full of leaden prose and simple factual idiocies – one character played at the Globe Theatre, first opened in 1997, twenty-five years ago – it also has a little courage about its convictions, and strives for something approaching contemporary relevancy (even if in this respect its grasp on demographics is uncomfortable). Look, justread this Clive James review. It’s ace.
No Way There From Here, by Laura Cantrell
There are plenty of Cantrell fans who loved her previous records, Kitty Wells Dresses and Humming By The Flowered Vine; but I felt that they lacked the bell-like clarity of her first two records. Here, that sharp sweetness is back, with glorious melodies and an unpretentious approach which belies both the songs’ lyrical content and gently tricksy arrangements. When I first put this on, I was in the car and outside it was raining; by the time I got to my destination, the sun had come out. That wasn’t a metaphor. Laura Cantrell controls the skies.

September 2013

All The Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
A perfectly formed novel, this: two parallel narratives, one set on a remote Scottish island, the other in rural Australia; one proceeding forward in time, as a reclusive shepherdess named Jake deals with the mutilation of her herd, the other falling backwards from Jake’s time in a macho sheering community to her difficult childhood. Jake’s past feels horrific without being sensationalist, her time in Scotland difficult without being hopeless. If there’s a flaw, it’s in that perfection – <em>All the Birds, Singing</em>, for all its success in depicting an ugly natural world of obstruction and obstacle, can at times read very neatly. But in the face of such control and talent that’s probably just griping.
Modern Vampires of the City, by Vampire Weekend
Oh, Vampire Weekend. How much we want to believe, given the obvious quality of your work, that all those brickbats cast your way about privilege and detached cool are unfair and over-played. How hard you make it for us in interviews and public appearances. But how easy you’ve made it with a record which, unlike Contra, steps far more clearly away from the Ivy League World Music with which you made your names. This is a quieter, less eager-to-please LP before, and, however hard it is ever to love Vampire Weekend, it makes it much harder to dismiss them.

September 2013

We didn’t like anything in September. It was all rubbish. Well, OK. We were just busy.

August 2013

Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
Hyped to the skies as the next big thing, there’s no doubt Selasi can write: at essay length, she’s both evocative and intelligent in a very rare way. Here, though, she dresses up a fairly slight family gathering plot – father dies, diasporic ‘Afropolitan’ family reunite to fight over old truths – in what is at times quite unforgivably over-written passages. The prose here isn’t so much purple as lost in a field of lavendar: soft-focus poetry unites with oddly telegraphed brutality to cobble together a novel of scenes and segments. But this is still a debut novel from a writer of considerably – if here over-used – gifts. Exciting even when disappointing.
Slave Shouts from the Coast of Georgia, by the Mcintosh County Shouters
Far from a new disc – this was first released in 1984 – here, nevertheless, is a definition of the word ‘timeless’. The Hartland Seniors recently returned from a trip to south Georgia with this in their bag as a gift, and it’s one that will keep on giving: Mcintosh County is home to the Gullah, descendants of African slaves who have preserved their heritage with more success than many of their fellows, possessing both a creole language – and an almost unique musical idiom. This CD documents one part of that heritage, and for anyone with an interest in American folk musics it is essential … and for anyone who isn’t, it’s still electrifying.



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