Out of Europe: A Romanian Top Five

Here we are, over a year from that colossal outpouring of Stupid that was the Leave vote and with all the idiocy that has fallen out of the government in its tailspin and while all the polls and surveys now indicate that the general consensus amongst us Brits is “holy shit that was a big fucking mistake, STOP STOP STOP” the stupidity continues.

So as we look to be the first country since Greenland to shoot itself in the face in the name of political turpitude, I thought it was as good a time as any to shift the focus of this series to one of the EU’s most recent members, a country to whom I owe so much and have a huge amount of love for despite its contradictions, my second-home in Europe as it were; Romania.

I can’t include one of the precious few songs sung in Romanian I know for even though Zdob și Zdub sing in the language, they’re from the neighbouring Moldova. So ‘Everybody in the Casa Mare‘ will have to remain a ‘linked-to’. I’m also anxious to use this one to show that the Romanian scene is far more than the ‘traditional folk‘ music associated with the country.

This post has been a little longer in gestation than many. My wife, having left the country a fair old amount of time ago, hasn’t kept up with its music and so we reached out to a friend who runs a concert promotion company out of Bucharest and a couple on here are her recommendations. OneDay is a self-financed, independent effort aimed at promoting Romanian new music and introducing emerging international bands to the local concert scene. Pretty cool, right? She’s been involved in getting some pretty big names to the country and is always championing new Romanian music.

As such this post has been something of a voyage of discovery for me, opening my ears to a huge and varied music scene in the country – I’m next heading over in September and am hoping to hit up a few record shops as well as getting back into the mountains.

But I’ll start this list with the first bit of ‘alt/rock’ in Romanian I heard, via my wife….

Omul Cu Şobolani – Depresia toamna-iarna ’06-’07

So, I have no idea whether Omul Cu Şobolani  (I believe they were formed in București) are ‘cool’ back in Romania anymore of it’d get me ‘ugh’ looks in a record shop but this group keep it simple – one guitar, bass, drums and vocals. It was the first bit of rock I heard from the country and I still enjoy it.

Greetings Sugar – Drunken revelations (with Bogdan Serban)

This one came via the recommendations list. These guys also hail from and describe themselves as a “dark hearted band from Eastern Europe”. There’s something of The National / Interpol to the vocals on this, their second single. ‘Drunken Revelations’ is the follow up / over half to their début single – Greener – also worth checking out.

Fine, It’s Pink – Waiting for You

Fine, It’s Pink (another from the list) hail from  Iași and categorise themselves with phrases like “electronic bluesy dream pop” and  “electronica post indie”…  I love the mix of different elements in this one topped off by those vocals.

Fluturi Pe Asfalt – Nu crezi că pot?

Now we come to the discoveries… That ‘Related Videos’ feature on YouTube can also be a blessing for it’s where I found Fluturi Pe Asfalt. This four-piece from Cluj-Napoca (Romania’s second biggest city) tick off so many things I love in music: soaring guitars, mood, thumping drums, post-rock elements, a BIG sound… I’ve been rinsing their bandcamp page for listens (not everything is on YouTube and Spotify isn’t as international as it would like to think) and once I’ve finally worked out how to shift my iTunes over to the new Mac at home I’ll be hitting the purchase button.

We’ve also switched back to Romanian too. The language (I hang my head at my limitations with it) suits the genre, I think and, for those who’s Romanian is as bad as mine – “Nu crezi că pot?”means “Don’t You Think I Can?”

Pinholes – Poza

These guys describe themselves as “alternative rock band with influences that vary from post/art-rock to shoegaze and post-punk.” Again – I’m really getting into this and there’s something about the dark, brooding tone to this, the thumping drums  that I love and, again, tick so many boxes for me. Oh, Poza = Picture.

 

Love is a tower: Pearl Jam’s “Lost Years” 2000-2005 (Part Two)

A little over month on from the tragedy at the 2000 Roskilde Festival, Pearl Jam returned to the stage as the North American leg of their Binaural tour got under way. In a hotel room ahead of the first post-Roskilde show in Virginia, Vedder wrote a song  called ‘I Am Mine’ to “reassure myself that this is going to be all right”.

It’s a Pearl Jam playing to its strengths song – strong hook and melody with affirming lyrics. As Mike McCready says: “It’s kind of a positive affirmation of what to do with one’s life. I’m born and I die, but in between that, I can do whatever I want or have a strong opinion about someting.”

The tour – which would include a Tenth Anniversary show in Las Vegas featuring the debut of Vedder’s take on Mother Love Bone’s ‘Crown of Thorns’ – would wind down back in Seattle in November. The Binauarl tour also saw the commencement of Pearl Jam’s on-going Bootleg series – every show (with the exception of Roskilde) would be recorded and released as “official bootlegs” in a move designed to prevent fans being fleeced for inferior recordings of their shows. It’s move that’s since been taken up my many an artist. Instead of going back to work on a new album, Pearl Jam took a year off.

2001 saw Vedder join a list of musicians in playing five shows with Neil Finn (later captured on the worth-checking-out Seven Worlds Collide), Matt Cameron’s Wellwater Conspiracy release its third album and  Stone Gossard break cover as the first member of Pearl Jam to put out a solo album under their own name. Bayleaf was released on September 11th, Gossard was in New York doing press for it when to hikacked airliners were crashed into the World Trade Center.

When Pearl Jam returned to action in 2002 the world had changed both internally and externally. The band wanted to address these themes in their music even if “Universal themes aren’t easy to come up with when you’re just a guy and a typewriter and a guitar.”  In the aptly named Riot Act they would do their damndest and created a record full of great tunes that received barely any attention even amongst Pearl Jam fans. I know many a fan who can cite every lyric on Vitalogy but wouldn’t know a word of ‘Green Disease’ and it’s a real shame as there’s a direct line between the two.

Riot Act is an album that clearly benefits from having five songwriters with strong contributions from all. Vedder had returned from his place in Hawaii with both a mohawk (which worked perfectly for his induciton of the Ramones into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame*) and a new band member – Boom Gasper – with whom, on their first night of playing together he had written ‘Love Boat Captain’.

For my money the Adam Kasper produced Riot Act is a stronger album than Binaural. It’s tougher, it’s heavier with hook and Vedder is clearly pissed off. Take ‘Green Disease’ – a propulsive, guitar driven rocker that would’nt have been out of place on Vitalogy that tackles the culture of greed. Or ‘Can’t Keep’ – a tune that Vedder bought in as a ukelele demo that became a multi-layered slow burner with buzzing guitars that brings back memories of No Code while the punk-edged ‘Save You’ is thrashed along on a Mike McCready riff while  Eddie Vedder sings of the anger felt watching a loved one losing themselves to addiction.

For me other highlights are ‘Bu$hleaguer’,  ‘You Are’ and Vedder’s ‘Thumbing My Way’. It’s a clear signpost to where Ed was heading as a songwriter and mark the acoustic-driven direction that would come to fruition on the Into The Wild soundtrack and songs on Backspacer and Lightning Bolt that would allow the songwriter the confidence to be direct and open in his lyrics. Stone Gossard feels the song is his bandmate “getting into an acoustic singer-songwriter thing in a way that you always knew that he could. ”

You Are‘ is one of the strangest sounding songs Pearl Jam have put to tape. A really different vibe that was born out of expirmenting with a new drum machine that Matt Cameron had gotten hold of, it’s another great example of the band taking one member’s ideas and creating something memorable.**

The reception to Riot Act wasn’t that positive when it dropped in November 2002. Press was less than luke-warm and sales weren’t strong. Without a radio-friendly ‘hit’ airplay for those songs released as singles was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it. Nonetheless, in 2003 the band headed out onto the road for the first time in close to three years.  With setlists that changed nightly and made use of their extensive back catalogue and covers repetoire, the tour was a success by any measure but, for the first time, saw the band court contreversy and receive more than a few boos thanks to the inclusion of ‘Bu$hleageur’. I’ve covered this before but it’s a noteable – this dark, weaving satirical swipe at George W Bush drew negative reponses and walkouts through the tour (seriousy – did you think Pearl Jam were fucking Republicans who like blind marching to war?) but it reached a head at the Nassau Coliseaum in Uniondale:

Jeff Ament: “I was totally fine with it. I was ready to go out and open up with that fucking song every night I wasn’t going to be a part of something and then take it back. We recorded the song and put it on a record, and that’s how we felt.”

Riot Act was Pearl Jam’s last studio album for Epic Records. They rounded out 2003 with the release of Lost Dogs – a compilation of b-sides that featured many fan favourites and strong songs from the era covered in these posts such as ‘Down‘ and ‘Otherside’ – as part of their contractual obligations.

In 2004 Pearl Jam joined the VoteFor Change Tour in support of John Kerry. Live At Benoraya Hall, a mainly acoustic (thankfully McCready doesn’t seem to have gotten that memo and bought his full arsenal) set recorded the previous year was released in July and features songs from Binaural and Riot Act sitting alongside deeper cuts and ‘hits’. In this setting these songs shine and their place in Pearl Jam’s back catalogue feel established rather than those of albums that are outliers in the discorapthy as they’re so often regarded.

The final release of this period for Pearl Jam was, fittingly, a summary; the obligatory (again likely contractual) Greatest Hits. A neat little package that rounded up the rockers and the ballads in an Up disc and a Down disc with some tasty remastering of Ten tracks by Brendan O’Brien. It’s a solid compilation and I’ll still drop it in the car fairly regularly – but started a trend that continues to this day much to the chagrin of many a fan; the cropping of images to remove Dave Abbruzzesse from the picture.

2005 saw the band break the album-tour-album-tour cycle and head out for a tour without new music to promote. Just getting out and playing to audiences for the fun of it. It was a master stroke. While work was underway on the album that would become 2006’s Pearl Jam (then the longest period between albums), Pearl Jam are one of the greatest live bands still actively playing and while radio interest and sales may never recover from the 2000-2005 lull and changing mainstream, as long as they continue to put out albums of strong songs that delight live they’ll be relevent to a very sizeable audience.

I’ll finish here with the ‘new’ song on Benoroya and Greatest Hits. Written for Tim Burton’s ‘Big Fish’ it was a pretty moving song in its orginal context but after personal events last year I can’t listen to it without getting a little moist in the eye.  That’s got to be the sign of a good song if it’s that affecting and from 2000 – 2005 Pearl Jam wrote a shit load of good songs.

 

*Vedder, clearly drunk, doesn’t give a fuck. In a speech that’s just brilliant he rags on Disney and tells the crowd to fuck themselves. I can’t recall where but someone said when Jann Wenner dies his afterlife will consist of being stuck in the audience for eternity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Oi-SKOqVHA 

** ‘The Fixer’, Pearl Jam’s most instantly accessible and lyrically direct song from Backspacer is another example of a Matt Cameron riff becomming something else in the band’s hands.

 

And wherever we might go: Pearl Jam’s ‘Lost Years’ 2000-2005 (Part One)

In February 1998 Pearl Jam released Yield. It marked something of a comeback for them; it was more straight-ahead than the wilfully restrained No Code, saw the band release their first music video since 1992 and, with the Ticket Master battle lost, marked a return to full-scale touring (documented on Live On Two Legs, released that November). At one sound check that autumn they recorded a song for that year’s fan club Christmas single*. When it began picking up airplay on radio the following year Pearl Jam’s cover of ‘Last Kiss’ soon went into heavy rotation and ended up hitting No. 2 on the charts, giving them their biggest hit to date.

They ‘d be entitled to take a break at this point, to catch their breath and attend to life off the road but then at this point they hadn’t quite learnt how to do that** and they carried on into the new millennium and a period which would see acclaim and sales diminish further than they had with the release of No Code and events that nearly marked the end of the band.

As companies the world over and religious sects and cults realised that the ticking of the clock into a new millennium meant neither massive technological meltdowns, raptures or Armageddons weren’t happening, all was not well in the Pearl Jam camp. The band’s not-so-secret weapon Mike McCready was battling addiction to painkillers and sessions for Binaural were marked by his absence as well as Eddie Vedder – who, though intensely guarded about his personal life, was experiencing both the worst case of writer’s block he’d encountered and divorce. As such, Vedder has since referred to the recording of Binaural as being “a construction job”.

Perhaps they should have taken that break. I mean, after all, Binaural shifted less than Yield and has still to make the million mark and Riot Act has still moved less than half of what Vs shifted in its first five days alone. Are they that bad? No, in short, they’re not. In fact I’m here to argue that for both the uninitiated and the initiated (I still know Pearl Jam fans that haven’t listened to Riot Act), there’s some real gems to be found in this era.

I’ll hold up Binaural‘s first single ‘Nothing As It Seems’ as an example. Written by  bass player Jeff Ament, it started as a very dry, basic demo. He took it to McCready and told him that for the song to happen, the guitarist would need to go to town on it. He did.

Now perhaps I am a little biased in my views as Binaural was the first ‘new’ Pearl Jam release since I’d gotten into the band but I do love this song and while it’s most definitely a headphone album (thanks to the binaural recording technique you’ll need both buds in), live this one, like so many others, comes into its own and McCready’s work on it is guaranteed a rapturous response.

For my money – and I remember the surprised face on the tube on the way to see the band at Wembley when I voiced this opinion to those I was travelling with – Binaural is very much a second-half album. The faster songs that open it don’t quite suit the recording technique even with Brendan O’Brien’s mixing efforts but the second half, from ‘Light Years’ (itself a lovely song and one I’m always surprised by when it comes up on playlists – ‘how could I forget this one?’) on contains some of the juiciest things the band have put to tape.

Insignificance‘ is up there with ‘Corduroy’ as one of the band’s best mid-tempo rockers and I remember it ripping the roof off Wembley Arena. ‘Soon Forget’ marked the introduction of Vedder’s ukulele and cleared his writer’s block, ‘Of The Girl‘ – which started out as a bluesy riff from Stone – is the best use of the binaural recording technique on the album and ‘Sleight of Hand’, a mediation on being stuck in a routine and dissatisfied with one’s life,  is the realisation of the band’s most art-rock aspirations with its effects and wall-of-sound blasts in the chorus:

In hindsight the band have come to regard Binaural as an album marked by distractions and missed opportunities, a lack of focus that meant the album lacked the power it could have had. Gossard, for his part, feels that they should’ve gotten more out of new drummer Matt Cameron – “It should have devastated in a way that Temple of the Dog devastated”. They just weren’t writing with him in mind. Jeff Ament goes further, believing that in cutting songs like ‘Sad’ and ‘Education’ “we look back and think we didn’t put some of the best songs on it.”

Indeed – released later on Lost Dogs – songs from the sessions like ‘Fatal‘, ‘Education’ ‘Sad’ would certainly have added a different angle to the album than, say, ‘God’s Dice’.

Upon release  Binaural was received pretty favourably by the press and while the sales weren’t what they were used to be and radio had already shifted what little focus it had given the band to acts incorporating the scratch of turntables into rock, Pearl Jam did what they’ve always done – headed out onto the road. A tour of North America was lined up but, first, they’d venture to Europe to play a series of arena shows – I caught them when they played Wembley in May –  and festivals including Pinkpop in the Netherlands and to Denmark to play the Roskilde festival.

During ‘Daughter’ the 50,000 strong crowd continued to surge forward. The band had made many a plea for the crowd to take a step back and, realising something was wrong, stopped playing. “It was chaos,” Vedder has said. “Some people were yelling ‘thank you.’ Others, who weren’t in bad shape, were running up and saying ‘hi.’ Then someone was pulled over, laid out and they were blue. We knew immediately it had gone on to that other level.”

Eight young men aged between 17 and 25 had been killed in the crush and bodies were being passed over the barricades as the band and fans stood and watched in horror. A ninth man would die in hospital five days later.

The remainder of the European tour was cancelled and, not knowing how to move forward, the members of Pearl Jam considered retiring. 

 

*Since 1991 the band have released a fan-club-only single every holiday season (with the exception of 1994)

**When Jack Irons joined the band he was both impressed and surprised by their work ethic. Work on No Code had kicked off during a heat wave and immediately after a massive show. Iron’s was understandably knackered and, frankly, fancied a rest. The band didn’t yet know the importance of doing so and were too keen to keep pushing forward with the momentum and energy of the tour.

Page Turning – Three More

According to Goodreads I’m pretty much on track for my 40 books challenge this year – two days into July I finished reading the 21st book I’d started in 2017.

So with a longer review for one of those four cleared since I last dropped any summary, here are those other three rounding out the list of those completed.

Night School by Lee Child

The most recent in the Jack Reacher series and one which – perhaps as Child didn’t know where to take his one man army immediately  after Make Me – hurtles us back in time to the mid-90’s (I wouldn’t mind getting on that time machine) to a time when Reacher was still actively serving in the army.

I’m now up to nine of the twenty-one Reacher novels and I’m beginning to be able to form an impression as to which ones are strong and which ones are merely ok. For my money this one sits in the latter category.  Make Me was a real strong entry after the relative water tread of Personal and took Reacher in a direction that showed growth and potential. By heading back into the past Child removes any real sense of jeopardy and it becomes more of a “Reacher gets into fights in Germany” read than anything else. The closeness of events to those of Killing Floor mean there’s nothing revelatory about Reacher’s past offered up and Child’s method of writing without knowing where events are going is too often on display when it comes to the ‘mystery’ at the centre of events.

Let’s hope The Midnight Line is another step forward rather than more standing still. Not bad but I’d be disappointed if I’d paid anything more than the £2 this one cost me.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (some spoiler)

This one had been sat on the Want-To and then the TBR list and pile for a while now. My wife got to it first and praised it and there’s no denying the regard it’s held in. I’d be gobsmacked if somebody hadn’t heard of it; its infamy probably known more than its contents.

So… do I rave about this book? Well, nobody can write like Nabokov, that’s for sure. I’d not read a line by him before now but even the first sentence is pure brilliance: “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

The dark comedy is sublime, the character of Humbert is one for the archives and so brilliantly painted and there are times when one can’t help but feel for him and, yes, so much of this misperceived (by those who haven’t read it) novel is less about Humbert’s pursuit of his nymphet as it is about Lolita’s absolute playing and exploitation of his sickness.

BUT, here’s what stops me wanting to read this again and again in the same way I do about a book like The Master and Margarita* and maybe I am a prude, or over-thinking this but a large part of this novel is essentially Humbert on a cross-country tour of America having sex with a very under-age girl. It makes for a very uncomfortable read – especially when he points out her crying herself to sleep every night – and, yes, this is intended, yes Lo is “seduces” him and yes his revelling in such activities makes the downfall so much more dramatic  but the lengthy segues that detail the realisation of Humbert’s desires (no matter their forming and Lo’s scheming) are still just too visceral to make an enjoyable read for my tastes.

But – while I won’t necessarily read this one again – it is a hugely well written and brilliantly told story that underlines Nabokov’s importance in the literary cannon and should be read at least once but any such student of the form.

 

Pyramids by Terry Pratchett

Pretty much impossible to review any of Sir Pterry’s novels in anything other than adoration. I’ve mentioned before both that it would be tricky to overestimate the  importance of Terry Pratchett in my library and literary explorations  and my desire to gradually re-read the Discworld series.

I think Pyramids often slips through the cracks when people talk about Discworld novels, I might be wrong. It’s not one that features any of the recurring characters – there’s no Rincewind or Nanny Ogg, for example – but it’s an important one. Sitting seventh in the published order it marked Terry’s first move away from the Wizzards and Witches that had dominated thus far. Prior to re-reading this one I’d done the same with Sourcery and couldn’t help feeling that perhaps even the writer was getting a little tired of the theme. Pyramids was one of the first in what’s now called the ‘cultures’ series as well as the exploration of belief on the Discworld.

Like many of those pre, say, Men At Arms, I had only vague recollections of Pyramids having read it originally some two decades ago and not since. Of course I remembered Pteppic and You Bastard, the Disc’s greatest living mathematician and – as with all of those I’ve revisited in the last couple of years – reading this one again was a real joy. Preatchett really was in a league of his own and to sit there chuckling away at this one served just to remind how much of a loss it is to no longer receive the joy of a new Discworld novel every year or so.

 

 

 

*I cannot recommend this one enough, just make sure you get a good translation as I’ve seen far too many bland ones on the shelf that seem to suck the passion and charm out of the prose.