From the PR: “Film star Amelie Hart is the darling of the silver screen, appearing on the front pages of every newspaper. But at the peak of her fame she throws it all away for a regular guy with an ordinary job. The gossip columns are aghast: what happened to the woman who turned heads wherever she went?
Any hope the furore will die down are crushed when Amelie’s boyfriend Dave is arrested on charges of child sexual abuse. Dave strongly asserts his innocence, and when Amelie refuses to denounce him, the press furore quickly turns into physical violence, and she has to flee the country.
While Dave is locked up with the most depraved men in the country and Amelie is hiding on the continent, Damaris, the victim at the centre of the story, is also isolated – a child trying to make sense of an adult world…
Breathtakingly brutal, dark and immensely moving, A Song of Isolation looks beneath the magpie glimmer of celebrity to uncover a sinister world dominated by greed and lies, and the unfathomable destruction of innocent lives… in an instant.”
Where to start with A Song of Isolation? Well, let’s start by saying ‘holy shit, this is a good book’. This Michael J Malone is a sneaky one… each of his previous four novels published by Orenda have managed to deliver a massively rewarding read that takes a detour from the expected and with A Song of Isolation Michael J Malone has once again managed to deliver a thriller that subverts the genre’s tropes – there’s no body in sight for one thing – with a plot and narrative that packs real power and surprise.
Forget mysterious bodies and murders, broody cops with an alcoholic tendency or ex-military bruisers: A Song of Isolation is a much more taught and intellectual thriller that gets its tensions from the pain of injustice and the constant shadow of threat and panic that hangs over its principal characters.
What’s really compelling is Malone’s portrayal of characters in crisis and under pressure in situations nobody would expect or ever want to encounter. How would any reader respond if they or their loved one were falsely accused and charged of this most heinous of crimes and nobody believed the truth? Remember that phrase about how a lie can travel around the world before truth is still getting its pants on? Here that lie relates to a crime that is an instant – and understandably – gut-reaction button for everyone. I think we’ve probably all read a story in the press where someone is accused of it and instantly wished them hell before any evidence is heard. But this time the lie is told so convincingly that telling the truth is like screaming in the wind and innocent lives are cracked, ruined and thrown upside down – it’s real page-turning stuff.
Malone tackles some massively difficult subjects in A Song of Isolation – there’s the fact that we have a young girl being coached in giving evidence in a sexual assault trial, the perversion of justice, the treatment of the wrongly accused (David’s journey through the system and how he is handled specifically), self-harm and some unpleasant stalker stuff too – and he does so with a style that’s at times intense and unflinching but without resorting to shock value for the sake of it. Meanwhile his handling of some of the more sensitive elements – such as Damaris’ internal dialogue – is deft and insightful.
I really dig Michale J Malone’s style; it’s concise yet powerful and he’s got a really crafty way of hooking you in deep so before you realise it you’ve burnt up half the night reading and you still don’t want to put the book down. It’s really bloody good stuff.
My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.
We were livin’ la vida loca as there seemed to be an explosion of polished pop taking over once again – Christina Aguilera wanted us to rub her up the right way (at least it wasn’t as fucking awful a message to be sending out to kids as WAP) and Britney Spears told us we were driving her crazy. Dr Dre was still D.R.E – has anyone checked what his doctorate is in? – and Blink 182 wanted to check their age, again. Apparently we stole Len’s sunshine but it didn’t matter because everybody was free to wear sunscreen while finding it impossible to escape from Rob Thomas crooning about how ‘Smooth’ it all is over Santana’s guitar toss-offs – that’s right: it’s 1999! Prepare to party as this series does what I’ve never managed to do: say goodbye to the 90s.
With the new Millennium (or Willenium – I see what you did there, Big Will) approaching, music was in a weeeiiiird place, man. It felt like there was a real rush to shrug off the sound that had been so prevalent in the decades early stages and embrace all things gloss and Y2K – I point the cannon of blame firmly at MTV’s TRL era. There’s only so much Backstreet Boys and Britney guff the world can take before it starts to seep out…
Mark Sandman – bass player and singer for the fantastic Morphine – collapsed on stage in Italy in July. He was pronounced dead shortly after – a heart attack likely due to heavy stress and the heat had killed him at age 46. Morphine disbanded.
Gary Cherone said farewell to the Van Halen brothers and The Artist Formerly Known As Prince (as he was then going by) filed a lawsuit against 9 websites for copyright and trademark infringement starting a pattern of strict and total control over the presence of his songs anywhere that would continue until his passing. Oh, and the music world said ‘alright, how’s it goin?’ to the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival when the first event was held on October 9th – Tool, Beck, The Chemical Brothers, The Racist Prick Formerly Known As Morrissey and Rage Against The Machine all featured on the lineup.
So – leaving aside the pop tarts of the era, was anything decent released in 1999? Well…. it’ wasn’t a huge year but The Black Crowes kicked things off with a pretty good stab at it with By Your Side, produced by Kevin Shirley and sounding much like the Crowes of old with plenty of biting riffs and soul. Blondie released their first album in 17 years – No Exit shifted pretty well on the back of their hit ‘Maria’ and everybody’s favourite Anal Cunt released that album that everyone owns at least two copies of – It Just Keeps Getting Worse.
Sparklehorse’s second album Good Morning Spider was a real slice of the good stuff and Jimmy Eat World achieved a great album with Clarity – I hate the ’emo’ tag – with songs like ‘Lucky Denver Mint’, ‘Table for Glasses’, ‘Goodbye Sky Harbour’ and ‘Believe In What You Want’ it’s a real solid slab of alt-gold.
Silverchair released their third album Neon Ballroom which is one my wife wanted to add to the record shelves not too long ago and the first I’d really heard by them, it’s not shabby at all though still feeling more like a callback to those bands from a certain Pacific North West area of America that they loved.
Wilco dropped their third album Summerteeth and received praised from pretty much every critical outlet and The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin – featuring ‘Race for the Prize’ and ‘Waitin’ for a Superman’ – met an equally ecstatic reaction. At some point I remember watching one of the music channels and catching a video for ‘The Dolphin’s Cry’ and was so taken with it that I went out and got hold of Live’s The Distance To Here, the band’s fourth album. It’s got a real strong and cool vibe that I dig a lot though it wasn’t as successful for them as previous efforts like Throwing Copper.
On the post-rock front there were another pair of stone-cold classics released in 1999 – three if you count Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot For Kanada EP – Mogwai released their fucking amazing second studio album Come On Die Young which featured a deliberately sparser sound to Young Team and still gets thrown into my cd player on a regular basis. Oh and a band from Iceland released their second album too: Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun proved to be both their breakthrough and a benchmark for both the genre and the band – it’s just a thing of beauty:
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released Echo their last with Rick Rubin and bass player Howie Epstein who was absent from both many a session and the cover photo shoot. A much more sombre collection of tunes, it’s Petty’s ‘divorce’ album and one the band didn’t touch much live but it’s very much worth a listen and songs like ‘Room At The Top’ and ‘Free Girl Now’ always a joy to hear. Another Tom – Tom Waits released his thirteenth album, Mule Variations which was his first in six years.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, now featuring the return of John Frusciante, released the album that threw them into the megasphere: Californication. A massive success and loaded with singles like ‘Otherside’, ‘Scar Tissue’ and the title track, it gave the band another lease of life and success and its songs are still played on radio, it’s pretty good too.
There was a trio of great third albums too in 1999 – Rage Against The Machine’s third and final album Battle of Los Angeles was another slab of their fiery great stuff (to be honest, they had a pretty perfect run in the studio album department so it’s not surprising they don’t want to taint it by pushing for more) and Dave Grohl and his mates figured There Was Nothing Left To Lose which went bonkers thanks to hits like ‘Learn to Fly’ and ‘ Generator’. It’s got a real different vibe to most everything else in their catalogue – a bit softer, almost Police-like at times – and is a real highlight. Oh and Counting Crows’ This Desert Life arrived just two years after their second. It’s another fine effort from the band though not as strong as Recovering The Satellites with songs like ‘Mrs Potter’s Lullaby’, ‘I Wish I Was A Girl’ and ‘Colorblind’ standing out for me.
For me, the album of 1999 goes to:
Built to Spill – Keep It Like A Secret
Built to Spill often feel like a secret in themselves, I honestly don’t think they get the audience they deserver (or that their major label Warner Bros would like) but they remain one of the finest purveyors of guitar-driven ‘alt’ out there and have a massively strong back catalogue of albums which include Keep It Like A Secret and its predecessor Perfect From Now On both of which are oft-heralded by those list-compilers as essential.
Perfect From Now On is was the band’s first on a major label and in a move that surprised everyone, and showed Warner’s faith in them, the shortest song on it was still over five minutes long – it’s a song of long, experimental tunes with philosophical lyrics all hinged on Doug Martsch’s guitar playing. No doubt knackered after crafting such an epic, Keep It Like A Secret is a deliberate direction, Martsch made a concerted effort to create shorter, more concise tunes – most of which were born during a week of jamming. Maybe they looked around, saw how quickly the majors could cast aside bands and decided to tighten things up.
Well – to an extent. What I love about this album is that, yes, it’s more concise and accessible but even here Built To Spill wouldn’t be constrained – the songs start out like streamlined, massively catchy indie tunes but then Martsch still manages to shake loose and throw in bundles of guitar histrionics, twists and turns while maintaining a tightness and directness that keep them rooted in tighter time frames – even with the glorious time signature changes.
The lyrics are more immediate and catchy too and I’ve got a real love for the humour on this album, perhaps most evident in the cliche-mocking ‘You Were Right’ which borrows lines from the ‘classic rock’ school that the indie-rock scene at the time was so keen to distances itself from and not even approach ironically: “You were right when you said all that glitters isn’t gold, You were right when you said all we are is dust in the wind, you were right when you said we are all just bricks in the wall.”
That’s the other thing I love about Built To Spill both in general and on this album – they manage to keep their music open and breathing as openly as bands like Pavement and other ‘indie rock’ bands that sites like Pitchfork used to fawn over. BUT they’re not afraid to simply fucking have it when it comes to amazing guitar solos and playing – classic rock elements and executions in an alt-rock sound. Doug Martsch clearly knows how to make people like me go “ooooohhhh BABY!” It’s the sort of stuff that I think Thurston Moore would love to do but doesn’t quite have Martsch’s guitar chops.
See: aside from how little an audience this band has compared to what they deserve – Doug Martsch is a massively underrated guitar player. Throughout Built To Spill’s career (I can no longer refer to them as BTS anymore as that throws up an all together different band on Google), which is still going and still on a major label, Martsch is not only the only mainstay of a band but the lineup and sound is built around his guitar playing in a way that makes me think of a less fuzz-buried J Mascis. Whereas it feels like J can just plug in and rip out a riff into a song and Martsch deliberates a lot more over structures (hence the increasing gap between studio albums), there’s plenty of similarities and I’d hold them both up as the genre’s greatest players.
I’d happily dig into any Built To Spill album and lose myself in it but Keep It Like A Secret is like the most perfect encapsulation of their sound and easily its classic lineup and manages to be what’s got to be the decade’s last great 90s album.
Unfortunately I guess Warner Bros. has a strange relationship with the streaming service beginning with an S and this is one of the band’s albums not available on it. However:
1998 was the year that we figured fuck it; if Bruce Willis can blow up an asteroid then Nic Cage can be an angel and Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bollocks can be witches. Oh, and cinema goers had to contend with Death having Brad Pitt’s looks and flicky hair. Thank fuck for the Coen Brothers and the mighty Big Lebowski – now there is a classic movie and great soundtrack.
On the subject of soundtracks – Aerosmith didn’t wanna miss a thing in ’98 and the Goo Goo Dolls would give up forever to hold us, isn’t that sweet? Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page wanted us to come with them as they married the riff from ‘Kashmir’ to some mutterings about a monster, elsewhere Lenny Kravitz wanted to ‘Fly Away’, Shania Twain was convinced we were still ‘the one’ – probably because, as Stardust pointed out, music sounds better with us – and 2Pac’s ‘Changes’ reminded us all what a great piano tune Bruce Hornsby and the Range had in ‘The Way It Is’ long before Pierce wrote it for Greendale Community College. Oh, and Metallica MURDERED Thin Lizzy’s ‘Whisky In The Jar’ for their own financial gain. Bastards.
At some point, Dave Navarro had apparently turned up to a Red Hot Chili Peppers practice off his tits on drugs. He was asked to leave the band in March. Flea – having convinced a near-death and poverty John Frusciante to entre rehab at the start of the year – asked him to rejoin in April ’98. Frusciante rejoined his bandmates and production on their next album soon got underway. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler took a tumble onstage and broke his leg causing delays to their Nine Lives Tour (to remind people why it would be worth waiting and to fulfil their Geffen contract they released the live album A Little South Of Sanity) and Pearl Jam’s first music video in six years premiered on MTV’s 120 Minutes:
On the subject of MTV – Total Request Live aired for the first time in ’98, just in time for Britney Spears’ god-awful arrival. On the plus side we said hello to bands including Aereogramme (massively missed), The Album Leaf, Metric, My Morning Jacket and Rilo Kiley who all formed in 1998.
‘Do The Evolution’ – which marked Pearl Jam’s first music video since ‘Oceans’ – wasn’t released as a single but was taken from the band’s 1998 album Yield. Seen by many as a ‘return to form’ because it was more accessible than No Code, Yield marked another great album from the band and one that I can listen to front-to-back repeatedly. ‘Given To Fly’, ‘Faithful’, ‘Lowlight’, ‘MFC’, ‘In Hiding’…. it’s just stuffed with some of the band’s greatest tunes and is a real ‘band’ album with just two ‘Vedder/Vedder’ songs.
Plus, to round off what was a great year for Pearl Jam they released their first live album Live On Two Legs at the tail end of ’98 too – it remains one of the best entry points to the band given how much of what they are as a band is thrown up there on the stage. Yet I’ve discussed both of these albums at length in previous posts here and here.
I’ve also spoken pretty deep on one of the year’s other bumper releases – Bruce Springsteen’s Tracks – which, for Springsteen fans, was like getting four new albums in one hit – at least three of which featured some of his finest work.
There was a weird… shift I think in the air at this point in the 90s. After the wave of ‘grunge’ had passed there was a rise in… I don’t think you’d call it ‘soft rock’ but it was a kind of ‘soft Alt.’ with bands like Matchbox 20 starting to cut through on the back of ‘3 a.m’ and ‘Real World’ and from their ’96 album while bands like Train released their self-titled debut and the Goo Goo Dolls’ Dizzy Up The Girl started churning out singles like ‘Black Balloon’ and ‘Slide’. Kind of Alt. with less bite… something to slot into TRL I suppose.
One band that may have inadvertently been lumped into that category but not quite fitting in is Semisonic – they’re second album Feeling Strangely Fine is a cracker of extremely well-crafted tunes that bely their radio-friendly first takes.
Van Halen spat out Van Halen III in 1998… and that’s all we’ll say about that.
Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland released his first solo album 12 Bar Blues and with Alice In Chains in a state of ‘what the fuck?’ with Staley’s addiction rendering any band work unlikely, Jerry Cantrell released his first one too with Boggy Depot. It’s pretty decent though not as good as his next would be and a little self-indulgent as is sometimes the way with these things.
One really good solo that arrived in 1998 was that of Neil Finn. Following the end of Crowded House – and not having put anything out in his own name before – Try Whistling This arrived in June. A fair bit of an experimental vibe compared to that of his former band (probably where the title came from), I’m fairly new to Mr Finn’s solo work but I really dig this one. I also really dig Colin Hay’s Transcendental Highway which was released in ’98 too.
Air released the brilliant Moon Safari in 1998 – seriously, these posts are making me feel old as balls because it’s insane to think that ‘All I Need’, ‘Sexy Boy’ and ‘Kelly Watch The Stars’ are now 22 years old:
As too, weirdly is Board of Canada’s awesome Music Has The Right To Children which is another of those classic albums that define a genre. Though given that they’ve only released four albums across the last 22 years it’s understandable to be surprised by its age.
Less surprising is Jimmy Page and Robert Plant Walking Into Clarksdalewhich also featured John Bonham’s son Jason on the skins. Oddly enough I bought this one new at the time, not sure how that happened but it’s not a bad effort from the fellas though obviously not enough to keep Plant tuned to the idea of more Zep stuff over the years.
Seattle’s Death Cab For Cutie released their debut in 1998, the much-loved Something About Airplanes while a newly reunited (minus Nate Mendel who stuck with Foo Fighters) put out their third album – the brilliant How It Feels To Be SomethingOn and Neutral Milk Hotel released their much-lauded In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.
All good albums as is Spoon’s A Series of Sneaks and Beck’s sixth (sixth!) album Mutations and The Afghan Whigs’ 1965. Taking a departure toward a darker, more eltronica vibe, the Smashing Pumpkins’ Adore hit shelves in June – still a really decent album with tunes like ‘Ava Adore’, ‘Perfect’ and ‘Once Upon A Time’ still doing the business for me. Still, Corgan knows his away around writing a tune and a half as evinced by Hole’s Celebrity Skin which had his name against writing credits for five of its twelve tracks – it still holds up today as a decent album.
Lenny Kravitz released his imaginatively titled fifth album 5 which felt pretty lacking compared to previous efforts and it wasn’t until the following year and the stapling on of his ‘American Woman’ cover that it really gained any momentum. I remember reading Q magazine one month in ’98 – they recently shuttered sadly – and their featured reviews were for Manic Street Preachers’ This Is My Truth Tell Me Yours and Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions. Pretty sure that, in the rush to ensure they didn’t apply the right level of praise to something that was gonna sell they gave 4 stars to the Manics and 3 to Shezza. Hindsight being what it is I think they should’ve both had the 3 This Is My Truth… is pretty overcooked whereas The Globe Sessions remains a solid listen that blends her first two albums with a slightly parred-back production but the songs aren’t quite as strong. On the other hand I thought that Alanis Morissette’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie was better than Jagged Little Pill if a little less immediate.
1998 was also the year The Offspring borrowed a “Gunter glieben glauten globen” from Def Leppard for ‘Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” from their massive-selling Americana. The Cardigans changed gear a little for their Gran Turismo album which spawned hits in ‘My Favourite Game’ and ‘Erase / Rewind’ and Buffalo Tom were Smitten with the last album of their original run.
Sonic Youth released a couple of strong ‘experimental’ efforts in SYR3 and Silver Session For Jason Knuth and dropped A Thousand Leaves on us in May. Recorded in their own studio it meant the band had more time for longer, improvised songs and turned in one of their strongest to date.
Eels’ strongest, in my opinion, Electro-Shock Blues was also released in 1998 as was Jeff Buckley’s Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk – made of polished studio tracks and demos from sessions for the album he was working on at the time of his death ‘My Sweetheart, The Drunk’. Even unfinished these songs are fantastic and show a real progression in his songwriting – ‘Nightmares By The Sea’, ‘The Sky Is A Landfill’, ‘Everybody Here Wants You’… there’s so much here that’s great that it just makes his passing all the more frustrating.
REM released their first album without Bill Berry. Up which, for some reason, was accompanied by the band using the phrase ‘a three-legged dog is still a dog’ in the press, was a bit of a departure and a push toward a more experimental vibe. It’s not bad – the only real stinker in their catalogue is Around The Sun – and has some great tunes on it like ‘Daysleeper’ and ‘At My Most Beautiful’ though wasn’t as consistently strong as previous efforts.
So, where does that leave us? Oh, yes:
Elliott Smith – XO
I wasn’t listening to Elliott Smith yet in 1998. Man, I was getting into Radiohead and delving back into their first couple of albums too. I passed my driving test in ’98 and was listening to a lot of stuff that I’d thrown onto compilation tapes which would have included those Aerosmith comps I’ve mentionedpreviously. I got into Elliott Smith big time a couple of years later on the back of Figure 8. I was into him enough for his passing to be a real ‘what the fuck?!’. When I did get into the dude from Omaha though mostly associated with Portland’s music it was XO that did it for me and still does.
I can also imagine that, on the back of Either / Or – released just a year previous – the idea of Elliott Smith being signed to a major label would’ve been pretty unexpected. His records had done pretty well with the critics and music community but they weren’t exactly about to pull a Smash. Yet here’s the thing – Gus Van Sant dug Elliott’s music and selected it to form part of the soundtrack to his ‘Good Will Hunting’ film. Suddenly cinema goers and the larger world were tuned in to some of Smith’s finest tunes like ‘Angeles’, ‘Between the Bars’ and ‘Miss Misery’ which kind of made up for it dumping Ben Affleck into the movie world like a turd in a swimming pool. ‘Miss Misery’ was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song – it lost out to Celine Dion which was probably a blessing for Smith. Elliott Smith performed at the ceremony too which must have been more of a surprise for his fans than his nomination was for everyone else but it turned out he did it only because when he wasn’t keen the producers told him it would be performed regardless – with or without him. Nor did they want him sitting in a chair. So he performed with the orchestra and wearing his white suit. When Madonna – who it turns out was a fan – announced Celine Dion as the winner she even gave a sarcastic ‘what a shocker!’. Thankfully the night before he’d performed a solo acoustic version for the world to see too on ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’.
I digress though – what all of the above meant longer term though is that major labels woke up. Elliott Smith signed to DreamWords Records. Unfortunately he also waged a real heavy war with depression even trying to kill himself by throwing himself off a cliff while heavily intoxicated – another battle he would fight constantly. A tree would save him by badly impaling him.
However, night after night through the winter of 1997/1998 Elliott would settle in at the Luna Lounge in Manhattan and write songs. This was a real prolific period for him and the songs he wrote during this time would feature on his next album: 1998’s XO.
XO is a much fuller-sounding record than Smith’s previous albums. The production and sound are practically Beatles-esque at times with baroque-pop arrangements and making use of every acre of the studio. He always had a knack for coming up with great melodies but here they’re thrown into greater relief with the richer accompaniments and detailed arrangements.
But don’t be fooled. As much as the sound and melodies proved that Elliott was making great leaps and strides as a songwriter and at creating the ‘perfect pop song’ as it were, the lyrics stuck true to his intense introspection and darker subject – like ‘Baby Britain’s tales of alcoholic binging set against one of his lighters and bounciest beats yet:
That’s what makes XO so good for me – you don’t catch the songs on the first take, it’s an album that not only holds up to repeated listens but reveals more. You get caught on the tune and sound then it’s “wait, what did he just sing?” and you realised that along with creating alluring and well-crafted arrangements he’s getting so much better at writing the kind of lyrics that make you stop and pay attention.
XO was met with well-deserved praise when it was released and still makes lists of the ‘best record of <insert decade / genre / subject here’ variety. It’s a real high-point in his catalogue – he’d only have one more studio album released in his lifetime – and a massive favourite of mine. As wonderfully created and light the arrangements are, there’s still something so very much of its time for me about the album, even its cover, in that tail-end of the decade and baring enough of a marking of that very-90’s alternative feel that so many would seem to be keen to wash away as the next decade dawned.
From the PR: “University professor Nina is at a turning point. Her work seems increasingly irrelevant, her doctor husband is never home, relations with her adult daughter Ingeborg are strained, and their beautiful house is scheduled for demolition.
When Ingeborg decides to move into another house they own, things take a very dark turn. The young woman who rents it disappears, leaving behind her son, the day after Nina and Ingeborg pay her a visit.
With few clues, the police enquiry soon grinds to a halt, but Nina has an inexplicable sense of guilt. Unable to rest, she begins her own investigation, but as she pulls on the threads of the case, it seems her discoveries may have very grave consequences for her and her family.”
Agnes Ravatn’s The Bird Tribunal was one of my favourite reads of 2016 so I’ve been very much looking forward to more from the author and The Seven Doors does not disappoint. No: what it does is captivate from the word go and hold you in its grip well after finishing.
First off this is not your standard mystery – it’s a real slow burning joy of a novel that rewards on many levels.
The plot is a quiet, tightly orchestrated masterpiece and when it all comes together so many little details that had been sewn into the narrative earlier are all bathed in a new light and there’s a real “ohhhh” moment. Not to mention the fact that when it does all click it’s a real ‘holy crap’ moment – I mean, I’ve read more thrillers and mysteries now than I can count but I don’t think I’ve read anything as intense and bitingly real as the final confrontation between Nina and the guilty party (I really really don’t want to give anything away).
Plus Nina makes for a really captivating protagonist, slowly unravelling a mystery while at the same time dealing with a major upheaval in her own life.
But, just like The Bird Tribunal, what makes The Seven Doors such a welcome addition to any bookshelf is Agnes Ravatn’s writing and style. Her style is deceptively unassuming yet completely mesmerising. There’s a real beauty in her prose and a wonderful ability to immerse the reader in the novel’s world. It’s there in both the setting of location and in the portrayal of her characters; a magical thread that seems to effortlessly (and making it seem easy is never easy) breathe a warmth and life into the pages.
Atmospheric, intricately plotted and brilliantly written, The Seven Doors is an easy entry onto the Best Books of 2020 list for me.
My thanks to Orenda Books for my copy of The Seven Doors and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.
From the PR: “Malcolm George Galbraith is a large, somewhat clumsy, Scotsman. He’s being forced to leave the woman he loves behind and needs to explain why.
So he leaves her a handwritten note on the kitchen table (well, more a 300-page letter than a note). In it, Malcolm decides to start from the beginning and tell the whole story of his long life, something he’s never dared do before.
Because Malcolm isn’t what he seems: he’s had other names and lived in other places. A lot of other places. As it gathers pace, Malcolm’s story combines tragedy, comedy, mystery, a touch of leprosy, several murders, a massacre, a ritual sacrifice, an insane tyrant, two great romances, a landslide, a fire, and a talking fish.”
Sometimes I’ll get an email about a book and I know straight off the bat I’m gonna enjoy it. This one was an immediate ‘yes’ for me just on the back of the author: Andy Hamilton has made me laugh on so many occasions over the years across TV and radio I knew this wouldn’t be an exception. A comedy writer, performer and director you may know him from his regular appearances on the BBC TV panel shows Have I Got News for You and on Radio 4’s News Quiz and I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. His television writing credits include Outnumbered, Drop the Dead Donkey, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Trevor’s World of Sport, Ballot Monkeys, Power Monkeys and many others. He also co-created the movie What We Did On Our Holiday. For twenty years he has played Satan in the Radio 4 comedy Old Harry’s Game, which he also writes.
So; who is Malcom? Well, as he puts it: “my name is Heracles and I think I may be immortal”. Yup, the Heracles – or Hercules as you may know him – sired by an hilariously bastard-like version of Zeus who discussed himself as Antiphon in order to have his way with Alcmene, Antiphon’s wife. The demi-god offspring manages to piss his ‘real Dad’ off no end by refusing to show Him the respect He feels is due . As a result, Heracles must spend his life – several hundred years and counting – never laying down roots because Zeus is bent on ensuring he’s never happy.
Having been settled for some twenty years with Bess in Scotland – though never ageing – Zeus has rocked up and, through a serious of stunning events laced in black humour, that it’s time to move on again, or else. Long Hand is written as Heracles’ explanation, confession and, at times, lament as he prepares once again to make a hasty exit.
I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much while reading, Long Hand is just deliciously and uproariously funny. An hilarious novel written by a genuine great of comedy writing – that he’s written this novel as a 300 page letter which never once loses momentum or interest and wrap it around a plot that combines classical mythology with modern life and style is testament to just how great a comedic writer Andy Hamilton is.
But Long Hand is also balanced with a real heart and poignancy (after all, those Greek myths are steeped in tragedy). This is a letter from a man on the run seemingly all his life and written against the clock.
I wouldn’t say I tore through this book, more that I devoured it hungrily, savouring every page of it. An absolute giddy joy of a read that I only wish had gone on for longer. Though given that Andy Hamilton wrote the novel by hand – over two years and 43 italic pens – I’m not sure whether it could be longer.
I can’t recommend this one enough. My thanks to Unbound for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to read and take part in this blog tour.
Well after five and a half months of not working I didn’t manage to make the dent in this project I’d hoped to. But here were are in 1997 with the lockdown having returned my hair to a length not unlike that of ’97 and with than two months until my self-imposed deadline I’d get a move on.
1997 is the year Billie Myers kissed the rain, the Backstreet Boys wanted to tell everybody they were back (alright!), R.Kelly emoted really heavily about Batman’s fictional home, Chumbawamba drank a whiskey drink, drank vodka drink, drank a lager drink, drank a cider drink and then sang the songs that remind them of the good times which was fitting as Bran Van 3000 were also getting wankered over in LA all the while Celine Dion’s heart was going on and on.
Townes Van Zandt passed away on 1st January 1997 aged 52 after what could probably be described as a lifetime’s battle with alcoholism and heroin abuse. It was the year that Notorious B.I.G was shot dead with Puff Daddy (gotta wonder about someone who calls themselves that) and Faith Evans going on to seemingly be played on loop lamenting his loss over samples of The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’. In May, Jef Buckley went for a swim, fully clothed, in Wolf River Harbour. He was last seen, by his roadie who stayed on shore, walking into the water singing the chorus of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. After moving a radio and guitar away from the water, the roadie turned back to the water and realised Jeff had vanished. Search and rescue efforts that night were fruitless, Jeff Buckley’s body was discovered June 4th. He was 30 years old.
David Bowie celebrated his 50th birthday in January with a celebration at Madison Square Garden with guests including Frank Black, The Foo Fighters, Sonic Youth, Lou Reed, Placebo, Billy Corgan and Robet Smith, as you do. I’m thinking of doing something similar for my 40th though not sure if it’ll be in New York. The Spice Girls managed to re-break Toni Braxton’s heart and secure the top spot on the US charts with ‘Wannabe’ in 1997, ensuring ‘Girl Power’ wasn’t restricted to this side of the Atlantic where they continued to dump the musical equivalent of human sewage coated in sugar into the airwaves with increasingly vomit-inducing videos from which escape was impossible thanks to their label boss’ fingers being in so many pies. Of course, if that wasn’t bad enough, 1997 was the year Hanson MMMBoped their way to number one in 27 different countries. FFS.
I’ve heard it said by one of the monstrously eyebrowed and overego’d Gallagher brothers that along with being so powerful in it, they also killed Britpop ‘the second Noel got off the helicopter’ in the ‘D’You Know What I Mean’ (the lead single from their self-indulgent album Be Here Now… but no: Britpop was already dying from the harpoon that Radiohead shot into it with the May release of ‘Paranoid Android’.
It ushered in a new era, thankfully, that led further from the turgidity that Britpop was falling into – even Blur had moved into a meatier terrain in ’97 with their self-titled album and singles like ‘Song 2’ and ‘Beetlebum’ sounding like the work of a different band to that which put out ‘Girls and Boys’. But with ‘Karma Police’ and ‘Lucky’ released as singles from 1997’s absurdly great OK Computer which became 1997’s biggest selling album in the UK (despite Capitol records having thought it would be ‘career suicide’) and the band’s powerful headline performance at a notoriously muddy Glastonbury Festival that year felt like it rightfully belonged to Thom Yorke and co.
So, yeah – Blur released their album Blur in 1997 and Oasis released Be Here Now. Neither of which feature high, or at all, in my own lists but I know plenty of people dig them both – oddly enough the park behind my house was home to a ‘social distancing’ festival this past weekend (concert goers sit in pods two metres apart from other pods and food etc is bought to them) made up of cover bands one of which was playing a combination of ‘Britpop classics’ and I managed to catch a brace of songs from both albums as we walked past.
Surging the wave of ‘TFI Friday’ (golden days, eh?) power, Reef’s Glow hit the top of the charts here in the UK and ‘Place Your Hands’ still enjoys a good play from time to time. Meanwhile the flow of strong non UK music continued with the likes of the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, the Stereophonics’ Word Gets Around and Texas enjoying a real-deserved change of fortune after years of diminishing returns following their first single ‘I Don’t Want A Lover’ with the chart-topping White On Blonde which was packed full of the good stuff. Oh and The Prodigy erupted into massive sales on the back of ‘Firestarter’ and ‘Breathe’ as The Fat Of The Land also hit the top spot en route to shifting ten million globally. Smack my bitch up indeed.
1997 was also the year Richard Ashcroft shrugged and stropped his way through some East End streets in ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and Urban Hymns also topping the charts and giving birth to big singles like oh-so-cheerful ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘Sonnet’. Unfortunately for The Verve, ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ borrowed some strings from The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ and the Stones’ former manager Allen Klein decided he wanted all the royalties… and thus began a series of disputes over the song’s royalties that wouldn’t wind down until Jagger and Richards signed over their publishing for the song in 2019. I guess if you’re going to life some strings from another song make sure it’s not a Rolling Stones one. Try something by Lennon / McCartney, they’re probably not litigious.
Speaking of The Rolling Stones, Mick and Keith took a break from running their corner shop to put together a new album: Bridges To Babylon. The album wasn’t really one to stand alongside their greatest but they were – and still are – at that point that as long as they don’t turn in an absolute howler they’ll still shift enough to keep em on the road, the tour behind the album would gross over $274 million. Probably more than enough to restock the shelves a few times:
Silverchair’s second and heavier album Freak Show continued to borrow heavily from their influences but did show a lot more originality and is still a pretty good listen today. Frontman Daniel Johns’ future wife Natalie Imbruglia was on her way to shifting 7 million copies of her debut album Left Of the Middle after ‘Torn’ dominated radio and MTV all over the shop. Continuing on the antipodean path, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released the amazing The Boatman’s Call in 1997 – a stately and poignant album dripping in gorgeous tunes.
It was a great year for post-rock; both Godspeed You Black Emperor! and Mogwai released their genre-benchmark debut albums, the faultless F♯A♯∞ and Young Team respectively. Mogwai also dropped Ten Rapid, a collection of earlier cuts that is often held up as one of their finest works even if it was never released as an album proper. All three get regular spins in my house – it’s rare if a week goes by without one of them being played. The same of which could be said for Elliott Smith’s fantastic Either / Or also released in 1997. Smith’s third solo album is another that’s often held up as his finest – it’s the one that got him a larger audience when three of its songs were featured in the ‘Good Will Hunting’ soundtrack and received universal critical acclaim, with due course: it was his finest collection of songs to date.
Also churning in one of his finest sets of songs for some time after getting pretty close to meeting Elvis, Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was released to surprise and acclaim in 1997 and started something of a late-career revival in terms of both quality and interest. ‘Love Sick’, ‘Cold Iron Bounds’, ‘Tryin’ To Get To Heaven’…. re-teaming with produce Daniel Lanois (behind the great Oh Mercy) did wonders for ol’ Bob.
Elsewhere Built To Spill’s Perfect From Now On was just that; perfect. Recorded three times and a MASSIVE move forward into something more experimental and intricate, Perfect From Now On is one of the indie-rock genre’s benchmarks and another that I regularly grab from the rack as I’m heading to the car.
1997 was really a strong year for the whole indie-rock genre. Along with Elliott Smith and Built To Spill handing in career highlights, Pavement released the brilliant Brighten The Corners – and then followed it quickly with extra love in the form of the Shady Lane EP. I don’t think Pavement ever made a bad album and I’ve got a lot of time for Brighten The Corners especially ‘Date with IKEA’. Oh and Dinosaur Jr released what, to my mind, is the finest of their major label efforts and the one that pretty much sank without a trace. It took me ages to get a copy of this one when I was filling out my Dinosaur Jr collection some twelve years or more ago now. It didn’t shift anywhere near the numbers of Where You Been or Without A Sound – not that they’re exactly multi-million sellers either mind – but it’s still my favourite of the band from that era and last year’s expanded re-release was a wonderful thing. Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Amen did the good stuff too with songs like ‘Brick’, ‘Smoke’, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ and ‘Song For The Dumped’ standing out for me and many others.
U2 dropped Pop like a half-baked turd and then hit the ‘MAX POWER’ button with the promotion and tour involving muscle-suits and a giant mirrorball lemon which made it clear they either hadn’t seen or grasped the point of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’. Still, some two decades on and Pop, on reflection, isn’t all too bad – it could have done with a bit more gestation time and I’ve heard it said they were pushed to release before they were happy with it but songs like ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ and ‘Gone’ are still decent enough but ‘Discothèque’ remains a howler.
Faith No More wanted to get a head start on the accolades for their album and named it Album Of The Year – it’s their most straight-forward which helped it shift well and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ is a great tune. Ry Cooder and some of his mates from Cuba got together to form the Buena Vista Social Club in ’96 and in 1997 released the cracking Buena Vista Social Club album which sent critics and music writers into a bit of a state in their efforts to find accolades to heap on it. Less so for Aerosmith though as critics weren’t so kind to Nine Lives despite the fact that, in my book, it’s one of their finest late-career efforts. A good, gritty kick in the balls to the over-production of Get A Grip thanks to Kevin Shirley it’s home to some great tunes like ‘Taste of India’, ‘Full Circle’, ‘Pink’, ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’…. I caught em on the tour for Nine Lives, albeit a few years later thanks to injures and delays that would become a staple for the group for the rest of their career, and I still reckon this is the last album to capture them at full flight.
Way out on a different side of the musical wave and even further geographically, Bjork released her brilliant Homogenic in 1997, ‘Jóga’ is one of my absolute favourite songs. Portishead released their second, self-titled, album which, though great as it remains, didn’t quite have the impact of Dummy, even if – to me – it’s a more rewarding listen. Everclear’s So Much for the Afterglow arrived in 1997 as did Green Day’s Nimrod and ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’.
With the surprised – to him – success of his Foo Fighters’ first album behind him, Dave Grohl set about to make a ‘band’ album. However, the intense sessions – under producer Gil Norton – proved taxing on all members and Grohl’s redoing of drum tracks led to Will Goldsmith quitting the band. For his part, Grohl has since said “I wish that I would have handled things differently”. Goldsmith would be replaced by Taylor Hawkins who had said “yeah; me” when Grohl asked if he knew of any drummers who’d want the gig. The Colour and the Shape is probably their finest album and – depending on whether I’ve listened to Wasting Light that day – contains some of their best and most-loved songs. But… I’ve already written on this one pretty heavily and rules are rules.
So, not that there was much doubt what this could have been:
Radiohead – OK Computer
At some point in early 1997 I was sat in my room one evening watching TV – one of those big tube fuckers as this was pre-slimline LCD stuff – and as I’d have been upstairs on my own TV I’d have been stuck with the standard four channels so that means it must have been ‘Top of the Pops’ or similar I was watching rather than MTV2…. but I was watching but not watching, you know how, through what was the usual dross on these shows predominantly focused on the pop stuff and then they played the new singled from a band called Radiohead, ‘Paranoid Android’ and a bomb went off in my head.
OK Computer is an amazing album that’s been pretty much universally lauded since it was released in May 1997 – though, coincidentally, the Gallagher brothers were instant critics but then I’d take that as a compliment – and was a near-instant game changer. I didn’t pick the album up straight away – this was ’97 and at 16 years old I would’ve been spending what wages I had on other music or gobbling up the Aerosmith back catalogue as this was the year I got into them. No I do remember having the cash for a new CD at some point early in ’98 though as I remember going down to get hold of Pearl Jam’s Yield after reading positive reviews only when I took it to the counter they didn’t have it – so I picked up OK Computer instead and that bomb went off all over again.
I mean there’s been so much written about this album – when you consider the impact it had and how it exploded the band it would be impossible for there not to be. Plenty of pages have been dedicated to its origins (‘Lucky’ was recorded for The Help Album in 1995) and the recording processes (80% of it was recorded live according to Ed O’Brien) and that, after the introspective soul-searching focus of The Bends, Thom Yorke took a new tact with his lyric writing…. it would be fruitless to do so here and I wouldn’t be able to do so in a way that did the album justice.
For me this is one of those albums that had a massive impact on my musical tastes.. I know a lot of comparisons were made between this and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of The Moon and I get that – there’s a sense of cohesion to it that works so beautifully as a whole, there’s almost a feel of concept about it in that way and there’s sense of intricacy almost akin to ‘prog’ but the prominence of guitars pushes it firmly into the more accessible and ‘this deserves to be played loud and live’ arena, just as DSTOM did – even though the band were very keen to shrug that off. But for me I stand it alongside Pink Floyd’s magnum opus in that it has had such an impact on a certain generation’s music taste and certainly on mine. It was that defining album and is held up in the same light as DSOTM was twenty years or so previous. Not to mention that just as there’s a “oh Meddle / Animals / Wish You Were Here is so much better” debate there’s a “but they really came into their own with Kid A / The Bends” argument too… but just as you can’t tell me ‘Time’ takes a back seat to ‘Fearless’, there’s no argument for ‘Treefingers is better than ‘Let Down’ (and I do really really dig Kid A).
It’s one of the few albums I own across multiple formats and I even had to replace that original CD as it ended up bouncing about in numerous cars over the years. It was like a reinvention of ‘guitar rock’ just as those genres that had defined the start of the decade were starting to wane. There was a creeping in of technological dread and wariness in there, a bite and snarl of sarcasm and angst, shimmering melodies, odd time signatures and a band tighter than a duck’s arse playing a fuckload of great songs that just get better and reveal more with repeated listening over the years.
There’s a reason OK Computer is so well regarded and it’s the same reason it’s featured here as my choice for 1997: it’s just perfect.