Away Message – Currently Listening

Believe it or not Tony isn’t at home, please leave a message at the beep….

I’m on holiday at the moment but here’s a little of what’s been spinning in my ears of late…

Am fost la munte și mi-a plăcut – Unde Erai In 1995?

Appropriate on two levels as a) I’m in Romania right now and b) I did just go to the mountains and liked it a lot (am fost la munte și mi-a plăcut) but I discovered this post-rock band from București a little before I left. Their album S-A Rezolvat. Nu Se Poate – released this year – is great. There’s something of The Wall era Floyd about that opening guitar line – and other parts of the album – that I love.

Lost in Kiev – Insomnia 

In “it’s a small world”… I saw a picture of this French group’s album Nuit Noir along with the description ‘dark, looming epic post-rockintertwined with a spoken word narrative’ and new it was for me. I’ve barely stopped listening since. Oddly enough only as I put it here do I also hear some Pink Floyd element in the keyboards too.

Stevie Ray Vaughan – Empty Arms

You know when you don’t listen to something for ages and then you hear it and kick yourself for having omitted it from your playlist for so long? This came on in a GBK while we having a burger a while back and, yup, I kicked myself and went home and put SRV back into rotation.

The Hold Steady – Stuck Between Stations

So I’m now up to The Hold Steady’s third and – I think – breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America and it’s fucking awesome. At once it’s a case of kicking myself for not having heard it sooner and feeling like it’s so familiar.

First Impressions: Concrete and Gold – Foo Fighters

This bloke from the Foo Fighters looks a bit like the drummer from that band Nirvana, doesn’t he?

Despite the PR, expecting the Foo Fighters to break new ground in 2017, some two decades plus into a career that has seen the band grow from a one-man project to stadium-filling rock heavyweights, would be optimistic to say the least. Since In Your Honour Dave Grohl, however, seems determined to try so we fans have been offered our Foo in separate acoustic and electric discs, a ‘serious musicians’ flavour, with ‘raw analogue’ toppings* and with added documentary options on the side. It’s still been Foo, though, no matter how much Mr Grohl has tried to spice it up. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind, but, after There Is Nothing Left To Lose, there’s nothing that really sets aside, say, ‘The Pretender’, ‘All My Life’ or even ‘Rope’ as having been on different albums no matter the supposed narrative rules that rock’s smiliest ambassador has sought to apply to them.

Take Sonic Highways as an example – despite the concept and execution, there was nothing, really, to show in terms of sound or execution that differentiated its nine songs from any of the bands other mediocre cuts**. It’s as though there’s no concept or production technique that could change the established loud-quiet-loud-louder and colossal thump of the Foo Fighters at this stage of their career.

I found the concept behind Sonic Highways increasingly odd given how much time and effort the band had put into building their own studio (Studio 606 West) and HQ less than a decade before and seemingly abandoned after two albums – Wasting Light was recorded in Grohl’s garage. In fact, when Grohl declared that he already knew how the next Foo Fighters album would be recorded and that it was something so exciting that no band had ever done before…. I groaned a little inside. Why couldn’t they just get in their studio – or any studio – and apply themselves to the songs not to achieving some wacky concept?

Thanks to PJ Harvey, it seems, I’ve got my wish. Turns out that Dave Grohl’s ‘big idea’ for Foo Fighters Album 9 was to set up a studio on stage at the Hollywood Bowl and record it live in front of a 20,000 strong crowd. Shame, then, that discovering that PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project had been recorded in the same manner (albeit a far more English approach via an art installation in Somerset House) took the shine off the idea for him.

Instead Dave did what he describes as the most unexpected thing for his band to do and took the Foo Fighters into a big studio – EastWest Studios – and hired a producer to oversee their next album, gimmick-free. Well, I say that… this wouldn’t be a Foo Fighters album in the 21st Century if there wasn’t some form of ‘gimmick’ involved, would it? This time it’s the involvement of producer Greg Kurstin. Picked by Grohl for his work with his own band The Bird and the Bee, Kurstin is perhaps better known for his work with acts like Kelly Clarkson, Sia, Lily Allen, Ellie Goulding, Pink and that moaning banshee’s god-awful radio-melter ‘Hello’. Given the combination of a pop and rock heavyweight’s, the ‘gimmick’ of Concrete and Gold is that it’s being pitched as sounding like “Motörhead’s version of Sgt. Pepper.”

So…. does it? Of course it fucking doesn’t. Don’t be daft. But….. it takes a very very good stab at doing so and feels pretty much unlike anything else Dave and his merry men have done before. Yes, the sound is unmistakeably Foo but this time around the band are stretching out in ways they haven’t before and deliver plenty of unexpected and, frankly, great twists to deliver an album that offers  psychedelic, prog-metal, abstract, heavy and, yes, Beatles-esque shades against a Foo Fighters sound that is, for the first time in a long time, suitably balanced and mixed by a producer.

Kicking off with a short throwaway ripped apart by a heavy rocker will inevitably draw comparisons to The Colour and the Shape but ‘T-Shirt’, for all it’s brevity, is a superior song to ‘Doll’ and pushes Concrete and Gold‘s confidence and palette front and centre and – even after maybe a hundred listens at my son’s request – ‘Run’ is an out and out fucking BEAST that ranks as one of the Foos’ best:

‘Make It Right’ offers more than the straight-ahead rocker it initially suggests itself to be, there’s a funk of a groove behind it, unexpected chord changes and a surprising slab of background harmonies that when combined bring, to my mind that is, Aerosmith’s Draw The Line*** album. Initially I’d been slightly less impressed by ‘The Sky Is A Neighbourhood’ when catching the videos of its live reveals but the album version, along with many of the tracks here, shows that – despite their straight ahead live mode – on Concrete and Gold the Foos have actually become a studio band with plenty of unusual-for-Foo song structures and production choices that blend so well. Take the strings that slip so unobtrusively into ‘The Sky…’ as to change a song type they’ve churned out many a time before into something that genuinely lifts skywards.

‘La Dee Da’ falls into the same category for me – I wasn’t impressed by it’s live rendering but, away from the bludgeoning and sonic flattening of radio too, on Concrete and Gold I ‘get it’. If it’s Fab Four you’re after, there’s one of em on ‘Sunday Rain’ – as Taylor Hawkins is too busy singing this spacey (seriously, check out his ‘Range Rover Bitch‘) rocker, Sir Paul McCartney plonked down the drums. Sequentially it’s a good fit because, to my ears, the preceding ‘Happy Ever After’ makes me think of ‘Blackbird’ or one of Macca’s early solo melodies.

‘Dirty Water’ is an early favourite for me; it brings forth sounds of both early Foo Fighters, a playful lightness and airy feel (and, again, some real Beatles tinges) but is bolstered by something sharper and more focused that comes from both a more practised song craft and production that, despite its length, it remains on track and charm. In that respect it serves as a strong summary of the album as a whole.

Concrete and Gold doesn’t quite achieve the premise of its PR but show me an album that does. It does, however, stand apart in the Foo Fighters cannon and is the sound of the band playing to those highs and strengths its achieved during its ascent to stadium rock act while also stretching out enough sonically to both refresh its sound and offer a welcome hand to those fans like me that had begun to wonder if Dave Grohl had anything interesting left up his sleeves. Turns out he does.

I hadn’t pre-ordered this one but I’m already on my third listen of Concrete and Gold and haven’t skipped a track left. For all his efforts to make a ‘concept’ of an album, Dave Grohl has, when he wasn’t even trying to, created a fucking belter of a Foo Fighters album that works not just track-by-track but as an album in itself. Well worth a listen or three.

 

*I’ll put this out there: Wasting Light is the best Foo Fighters album to date.

**Concept over substance unfortunately applies to the album and I wouldn’t slip any of its tracks onto a ‘Best of’ comp.

***Underrated.

Just for Laughs

I saw this recently and still can’t help but chuckle.

Whether I tolerate an Oasis song all the way through tends to depend on the day etc. I’d take em over Blur any day. Not so long ago I was driving with my son (3) in the car when Liam’s new song came on and he asked what it’s called. When I told him I didn’t know he said, matter of factly, “It’s called bollocks, that’s what it’s called.” He was spot on but this still makes me laugh, I don’t think anybody gives an interview as good as Liam.

 

Page Turning – Another Three

Crikey, here we are already with September under way and autumn barrelling down on us with the onset of cold mornings and the tug of breezes forgotten.

I’m currently 26 books down on my 40 Books challenge for 2017 and the 27th underway. As has become the norm, here’s a few of those that have been read of late – a couple of which took a little longer than the usual week / week and a half that I can usually pace for reasons that will be discussed.

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

There is no way of reading Ellroy without fully immersing yourself in his rich, enveloping and truly unique prose. I finally discovered the wonder of Ellroy’s writing in 2015 with Perfidia and it formed part of the first of these Turning Pages posts. Knowing that Perfidia was a prequel of sorts to Ellroy’s ‘LA Quartet’ I was keen to read more but read them in order and The Black Dahlia did not disappoint. As CB over at Cincinnati Babyhead points out; Ellroy “nails the whole under belly L.A. thing” and there’s nothing like wallowing in his world. My habit of sticking my nose in charity bookshops has borne fruit and I now have a copy of The Big Nowhere sat on the TBR list so I can continue walking those mean LA streets.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

A Christmas or two ago my wife gave me Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman to feed my growing appetite for Nordic Noir. I found it insanely addictive and chilling (I have zero faith the upcoming film will do it any justice) and have sought out other Harry Hole (pronounced: HOO-LEH so not quite one letter away from a real cultural hiccup) novels since though – as I was going back in the timeline and Nesbø’s career I didn’t find them quite as rewarding.

So I was happy to grab a copy of The Leopard at good second-hand price as it’s the next instalment in the series. I get the impression that it’s around this time in his writing career that Nesbø perfected his style. The earlier novels are bloody good, mind, but all the elements really seem to have come together; the writing is tight and focused, the plot is intricate and well weaved and the suspense and mystery are genuinely gripping.

The back-story of police corruption that was found in novels leading up to Nemesis has faded more into the background and the focus – aside from the murders – is firmly on Harry as he tries to overcome his own scars and wounds from the events of both a long and hard career and those of The Snowman – in this instance I’d say that readers would be at a loss if they hadn’t read that novel first. With both Phantom and Police sitting on my TBR pile I very much look forward to reading more of Harry Hole’s adventures.

A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

For all the hype that surrounds it I found, in my first year of membership, Amazon’s PrimeDay to be something of a disappointment. While my son occasionally (as is the whim of toddlers) takes delight in his LED flashing shoes, precious little else interested me. With the exception, that is, of the cover of A Gentleman in Moscow. I mean, I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by such things but… it’s a hell of a great looking book jacket. Not only that but the description:

“On 21 June 1922 Count Alexander Rostov – recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt – is escorted out of the Kremlin, across Red Square and through the elegant revolving doors of the Hotel Metropol.

But instead of being taken to his usual suite, he is led to an attic room with a window the size of a chessboard. Deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the Count has been sentenced to house arrest indefinitely.

While Russia undergoes decades of tumultuous upheaval, the Count, stripped of the trappings that defined his life, is forced to question what makes us who we are. And with the assistance of a glamorous actress, a cantankerous chef and a very serious child, Rostov unexpectedly discovers a new understanding of both pleasure and purpose.”

It was practically begging me to read it! Well, turns out it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year. Ridiculously well written, every single page was a delight to read and a lesson in craft and style. Rostov is a character for real literature lovers and the level of storytelling and sub plots are surprisingly complex given the initial premise and form a deliciously rich and vital background, giving real weight, humanity and warmth to a novel that could so easily have been the slightest of things.

A Gentleman in Moscow works as both a fantastic novel full of humour, charm and heart as well as a deviously funny allegorical take on Russia’s not too distant past. Reading this novel I had to keep reminding myself that it was published just this year – with its classic style, insightful observations and supporting cast of characters and the impact of historical occurrence, it genuinely felt at times as though discovering a well-loved classic and the ending…. is just sublime. Much in the same vein as Antony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (another novel I picked up based on the cover and hook of the blurb), A Gentleman in Moscow is easily one of the best novels published in recent years and much deserving of a place on a discerning bookshelf.