October 2000 and I’m a relatively regular reader of Uncut Magazine, scouring their Unconditionally Guaranteed CD each month for the one or two tracks that will make me sit up and pay attention as is usually the way with such free, on-the-cover comps. There’s only one track on this one, though but I fell in love with it and promptly ordered the album it was pulled from. It was Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom.
A three-piece from Boston, Buffalo Tom got going in the mid-eighties. Their first two albums were produced by (and featured the odd guitar line from)Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis. It’s safe to say they got a second-go-around following the surge in interest in ‘alt-rock’ in the early nineties and their third album Let Me Come Over not only marked an increase in popularity but a change in sound; less fuzz, sharper lyrics, a clearer sound and melodies you could hang your hat on. In the nineties they crafted hugely powerful, deftly-written songs, each subsequent album containing a strong blend of crunching rockers and delicate acoustics with soulful and intelligent lyrics sewn into songs that make you wonder how the hell they weren’t huge singles.
Taillights Fade is taken from that big-leap-forward third album.
From the sound of the hand slipping up the neck I was hooked. From a gentle strum behind the lead figure to a fuller throttle thump, this song builds and builds, adding more with every listen. It’s a lovelorn song with one hell of a tune. In fact everything about this song – from the music to the lyrics to the mix is spot-fucking-on.
Sister, can you hear me now
The ringing in your ears
I’m down on the ground
My luck’s been dry for years
I’m lost in the dark
And I feel like a dinosaur
Broken face and broken hands
I’m a broken man
I’ve hit the wall, I’m about to fall
But I’m closing in on it
I feel so weak on a losing streak
Watch my taillights fade to black
Sadly – at least for seven years until returning with Three Easy Pieces – by the time I got my ears wrapped around this, they were done as a band. Typical timing on my behalf but it meant I was able to go on and complete the back catalogue. While this song opened doors into their cannon for me, Asides From is almost certainly the most played album within my collection and one I whole heartedly recommend getting hold of as a starting point.
I’m always late with these things. It’s probably for two reasons – well three…. I see too many people giving their “Top Albums of the Year” lists when, really, who cares?…. I think the timing of too many of those lists means great albums released as the year draws to a close don’t get that little bit more exposure by inclusion and albums released in the early stages tend to be forgotten come December. Thirdly… well, life keeps me busy.
I listened to a lot in 2014 and plenty of new music within that lot. Pretty sure it was a good growth year for my vinyl collection too as I tried, for the most part, to stick with vinyl when it came to buying new music.
There were a couple of instances where I’m glad I didn’t shell out for the black circle though…
Two big names released new albums this year and, despite initial expectations, I was left a little disappointed by both. I’ve mumbled enough on the let down of Springsteen’s High Hopeshere. It still holds, I’ve not gone back and listened to it and discovered any hidden layers since. That it made Number 2 on Rolling Stones’ albums of the year list baffles me. Then again they gave U2 the Number 1 slot and I don’t think I’ve heard anything that bad that wasn’t coming from an adjoining cubicle in a public toilet.
The second disappointment was more of a shocker, though. It was a shock to hear that, after twenty years, Pink Floyd would be dropping an album. It was a bit of a surprise that it was to be ambient / song-free and I was even more surprised that my excitement didn’t continue after I’d heard it. Granted, I first heard The Endless River through headphones on Spotify (having been put off by the hefty price tag associated with vinyl pre-orders) and when I picked up the CD it did reveal more. It’s not a bad album but it’s not a great album, which their legacy deserves. It’s an album divided into four distinct parts and I think it’s fair to say I like 2/4 of it, love 1/4 and outright loath the other 1/4 – the first half is a decent lead in, the third quarter is abysmal and the final stretch from Talkin’ Hawkin’ is spot on. While Louder Than Words is a nice nod to and send off for Rick Wright, I still think High Hopes was the perfect way to say farewell to Floyd.
That’s the negative out of the way.
There was a lot of new music I loved in 2014. Mogwai got things going with the early release (and then forgotten about come those Best of lists) of Rave Tapes. A lot of spins on the record player and a lot of plays in the car – while not as adventurous or different in sound as the press would suggest, it marked a good step forward in their sound and did find them incorporating additional elements into the mix. Though am I alone as a Mogwai fan in not really enjoying it when they sing?
Speaking of which… Thee Silver Mt Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything was another stand out. I tend to view Silver Mt releases with mixed emotions; as much as I enjoy them I’d still rather Godspeed was the main going concern. Still, Fuck Off Get Free… is a solid addition to a very strong canon and sees Menuck really developing as a lyricist.
Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There found its way into my collection in October after reading positive review after positive review. It justifies those reviews. Loved it. Lot of pain and emotional fall out in the lyrics but such delivery and luscious song writing.
I was given Ryan Adams‘ self-titled new album this year too. I wasn’t hugely taken with his ‘comeback’ album Ashes & Fire (don’t get me wrong; it’s good, but…) but this one is a different kettle of fish altogether. Sounding much more vibrant, confident and sure of himself than perhaps ever, really. More direct and accessible than previous albums, hugely enjoyable and listen-able from start to finish.
I spoke of the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways – it’s still getting a lot of rotation (again, probably fuelled by the fact that my son enjoys it so much too) and more appreciation with each listen. Still can’t get over the cumbersome nature of Congregation as a lyric.
Also warranting a few rotations was the latest J Mascis solo trundle – Tied to a Star. While not as much as a revelation as his first ‘alone with an acoustic’ album Several Shades of Why, Tied to a Star is very enjoyable, adding a bit more of a backing band to flesh out the sound along with the odd burning guitar solo though never quite realising the highs of either the former album or his Dinosaur Jr work, of which I hope there’s more to come this year.
A couple of EPs – both the third in a series – bookended the year for me: Pixies EP3 (which also allows me to count Indie Cindy as one of this year’s most played) and EP3 from SQÜRL. Though vastly different in sound of course, both are cracking ends to a trilogy and contain some of each bands best work. Though the SQÜRL EP gets the win if only for the presentation and picture disc.
At the tail end of 2013 I started getting in the War on Drugs. Their new album Lost In The Dream made its way to the top of a lot of end of year / critics choice lists and it thoroughly deserved to. I loved it. It threw me at first – I thought there was something wrong with my record player thanks to the sound. It’s a beauty. It does recall a lot of those 80’s rock landmarks like Springsteen, Petty and the whole Den Henley Boys of Summer vibe (all of which get a tick from me) but they’re hinted at, alluded to rather than worn brazenly on a denim-clad sleeve, it’s very much a contemporary sound. One which is so easy to get lost in as you travel through the album – despite being great to spin on a Sunday afternoon, it’s very much an album for listening to on the move. Hazy, dream-like sounds danced all over by some sublime guitar lines.
In terms of Re-Issues… I only really got into two. Some Pixies magic (again) with the end-of-year release (so will ludicrously miss being included on all those lists when it deserves to sit atop them) of Doolittle 25 meant a triple album of greatness, with the original album remastered, demos, b-sides and Peel sessions all making a compelling release. The second was Led Zeppelin’s IV reissue – hugely superior sound quality and a second slab of vinyl containing alternate takes and mixes adding to an already faultless album.
The record that probably got the most spins this year? It’s a very tasty album indeed. It’s the Mondo Tees reissue of the Jurassic Park soundtrack. I love this for so many reasons. I was (very) lucky enough to be given this for my first Fathers Day by my wife after I’d hum this to get our son to sleep. I was also very (very) lucky enough to get one of the very rare Dilophosaurus version. Also, John Williams created another beautiful soundtrack for JP back in 1993 all summed up beautifully in Welcome to Jurassic Park:
I’m still playing catch-up with some of 2014’s releases – I’ve only just picked up Karen O’s Crush Songs and have yet to drop needle on it’s lovely blue vinyl, nor did I get around to hearing new albums from Jenny Lewis, Ben Frost, Spoon or even the terrifying good (based on the little I have heard) Swans albums dropped in 2014. What can I say; I’m a busy guy and who really cares what I think of them?
In my review of Juame Cabre’s outstanding Confessions, I mentioned that the novel gave me my first “book hangover.” I tried numerous times to start something fresh but could not get beyond a first paragraph.
So I turned to a book I’d been itching to read for some time from an author whose work I’d grown to love: The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov.
Kurkov is perhaps best known for his 2001 work Death and the Penguin and its follow up Penguin Lost (I read these both as one piece in the collected ‘Penguin Novels’). These books bought him attention and comparisons aplenty. From Murakami to a modern-day Bulgakov. Subsequent novels expanded the canvas and character range yet met with a more muted response. But, let’s be honest, they’re asking too much. Even Bulgakov didn’t always hit the marks he hit in his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. Such tags are akin to branding any musician who appears with an acoustic guitar and a wordy hit as “the new Dylan”.
It’s inevitable, then, that those same critics will find fault in his subsequent work.
There are traits that you’ll find in the works of both authors but then you’ll find them in the works of many others, too: there’s an abundance of dark humour, satire, surrealism and the occasional talking animal and each can have a distinctly Soviet reference point – writing of times and people bound by communism and, later, the Iron Curtain and it’s echoes. Both are very much a joy to read too. Kurkov’s works are lighter (this isn’t meant as a negative in any way) and hugely accessible.
Perhaps the difference is that Bulgakov wrote at a time when the new oppressive rule of Russia was relatively fresh. Memories of a time pre civil-war highlighted the hardships the population was under. Kurkov’s novels are set in a post Iron Curtain world where the inhabitants of his story are coming to terms with the echoes of that time against the inbound surge of capitalism
From my point of view, there’s nothing “patchy” about his work since the Penguin books. I’ll go so far as to say The President’s Last Love is not only his best work to date but will stand up in my own Top Ten – a hugely original story with remarkable pacing and narrative structure and its mix of humour, tragedy and sublime absurdity is akin to that of an Eastern European DeBernieres.
His previous novel, The Milkman In The Night, was another tightly bound fantastical work with a plot involving a sleepwalker, a sniffer-dog, theft, a woman selling her breast milk, psychotic cats and, of course, plenty of misunderstandings.
The Gardener from Ochakov is another equally cracking read. Just read the back jacket:
What’s contained within these pages is a light-hearted, time travelling adventure with Kurkov’s patent and potent mix of realism and fantasy (though no animals in this one), with thrilling drama mixing deftly with the mundane details of life.
There’s also a satirical nod to those that idealise the past under Communist, Soviet rule – those that will say, with a shrug, things like “ah yes but everybody had a job then”.