Turning Pages: 2022 thus far

A strange thing happened at the start of this year – after years of blazing through books at a tremendous lick, I found myself struggling to get into anything. Moving beyond the first few chapters was a challenge, let alone finishing anything.

Given the degree to which I love a good read, this was a concern. Had I burnt out on books? Was this a byproduct of wrestling with the black dog? Either, rather than persevere and force the issue I took a break, did the rare thing (for me) of indulging in episodic television. Then, when the itch to read began to build up to the point of being impossible to ignore again I picked up the first book on my ‘to read’ pile which happed to be Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor.

That did the job. Since then I’ve been pretty much back to business as usual so it feels as good a time as any to summarise the highlights of those collections of words I’ve been consuming over the last six months.

One of my growing joys when it comes to reading, and a mainstay even when I couldn’t get into anything for myself, has been the fact that my son is now of the age where we’ll sit and read through fuller stories and novels over bedtimes. This has meant that, alongside those Terry Pratchett collections like The Witches Vacuum Cleaner, I got to enjoy Journey to the Centre of the Earth again and marvel at the ageless wonder of Jules Verne’s writing. It’s one of those classics that’s been sat on my shelf waiting to be re-read since my days at uni and I couldn’t think of a better reason to have done so.

Rather than set an arbitrary number of books as a target for my reading lately I’ve instead made it a point to read one ‘big Russian classic’ a year. This year that happened to be Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s one of those books that I’d put off reading due to some misconception but am glad to have done so – it’s a joyous read (probably depending on your translation) that’s one to cherish – even if I found the the main plot (and character) of Anna herself bloody irritating. Much more the stories of Prince Stepan and Kostya for me.

Keeping on the classics theme momentarily, the Ernest Hemmingway section on my shelves has seen more than its fair share of action lately as I seek to consume more first-person narrative references. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises was the first to be torn through and (as it, too had been sitting awaiting re-read since uni) just how bloody strong a first novel it is. While his mother may have been disappointed that he should squander his gifts writing about a social set she considered ghastly and, like To Have and Have Not which I read shortly thereafter, there are a few racist comments that grate a touch in 2022, there’s a lot to enjoy here. To Have and Have Not was one I hadn’t read before and while it felt like a disjointed story of three different and gradually weaker parts the first part alone is worth the price of admission and it would be followed by one of his finest and I’m sure I’ll be going back that end of the ‘H’ section soon.

It’s not often that I tend to read multiple books by the same author in one year and yet, along with Hemmingway, I’ve double up on Amor Towles this year. Much has been said of A Gentleman In Moscow and it remains one of my favourite novels to date so I was happy to get hold of The Lincoln Highway at the end of last year though it remained unread for some time. Before I got around to it I went back, as it were, with Mr Towles’ first – The Rules of Civility. Set in New York during the ‘jazz age’ and telling the story, in retrospect, of an eventful 1938 this was such an absolute belter of a read that it was a) clear that Towles is one of those astoundingly talented writers b) an immediate push to pick up The Lincoln Highway again – which turned out to be pretty good timing as having the former fresh in my mind allowed me to really appreciate the connection between the two, making some elements all the more poignant. While it may not have been the most practical of books to take to the beach (the hardback pulls in just under 600 pages) it, too, is a masterpiece of both storytelling and narrative (of which there are several) and highly recommended.

Gunnar Staalesen, since my introduction via Orenda Books published We Shall Inherit The Wind back in 2015, has become one of my favourite authors and I’ve made a point of working my way through as many of his extensive older novels that have been published in English as possible while eagerly awaiting new instalments in the Varg Veum series. I was delighted, then, to find a couple of his books – one new, complete with my review, and one old, The Writing on the Wall – in a bookshop earlier this year. The Writing on the Wall was originally written in 1994 (the English translation arriving in 2004) and is easily a highlight of this year’s reading. I always liken to reading to Staalesen as enjoying a good mug of coffee – it’s to be savoured as is gently kicks in. Once again dealing with some particularly dark subject matter (teenage prostitution and addiction) with quiet power, this is a bloody strong entry in a series that doesn’t have a weak point.

I’d seen Danny Goldberg‘s Serving the Servant: Remembering Kurt Cobain about for some time but hadn’t felt compelled to get a hold of it before – was there anything more to be said about Kurt Cobain. Well, turns out there is / was, a few insights to be gained. Goldberg become Nirvana’s manager ahead of Smells Like Teen Spirit and here compiles a series of insights from his own memories and unique insider perspective as well as reaching out to others both in the industry and inner circle including Courtney Love and Krist Novoselic for clarification (though Dave Grohl seems notably absent in input) on a few details. Some of these insights are at times painful – particularly on Cobain’s mental health – some refreshingly human given how much Kurt has been turned into a myth, and others fascinating (the examination of the Vanity Fair article that essentially deprived Cobain and Love access to their child is a real eye-opener). All of which mean that this is actually pretty essential reading for a fuller picture into Nirvana’s rise and Kurt Cobain’s tragic end.

As has been the prevailing approach of recent months I’m currently steaming through two books: Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez – which is proving to be another beautiful novel I wish I’d read sooner – and, as I’ve recently been exploring more of Neil Young‘s music, Waging Heavy Peace is turning out to be a much better read and less about his model trains than I’d been given to believe.

One fluid gesture, like stepping back in time… Five from Placebo

The French love their language and have laws to protect it. The Toubon Law, from 1994, mandates its use not just in official government comms (which you’d kind of expect) but also in the likes of adverts – most of which seem stuck in the 1989/1990 vibe anyway – and other commercial communication.

This extends to radio, with an oft-rebelled against rule that 40% of the songs that are played must be performed in the French language. I guess the thinking is that if ‘the kids’ only hear Americans singing about California they’ll forget their own language. Now this isn’t always a bad thing as there’s plenty of good French music out there lately – see my last post for an example – but it also means that if, like I did and – signal permitting still do – listen to, say, RTL2 for any protracted period you’re likely to hear too much ‘chansons’ music.

So where am I going with this…. well, the French love a bit of Placebo as Belgian-born Brian Molko speaks the language fluently. It also means they can play Placebo’s ‘Protège-moi’ as part of the aforementioned quota while also playing a contemporary international band. Hearing this version of ‘Protect Me From What I Want’ along with cuts from their latest, Never Let Me Go, has given me the impetus to run up a few of that band’s best and revisit since shaming them some time back in a ‘Then and Now‘ post.

Placebo formed in London in 1994. They’re currently made up of just the two members – singer / guitarist Brian Molko and bassist / guitarist Stefan Olsdal and missing a drummer. It wasn’t always this way: their longest-serving drummer, with whom they recorded their better albums, left in 2007.

Teenage Angst

From Placebo’s self-titled debut 1996 album.

You Don’t Care About Us

Without You I’m Nothing, Placebo’s second album remains their crowning glory if you ask me. It’s damn-near faultless and remains on regular rotation nearly 25 years on.

Without You I’m Nothing feat. David Bowie

Their second album is so good I’m throwing in another cut, the title track, albeit with a version that differs from the album version as David Bowie approached them to collaborate after the thing was recorded and released. /p>

Meds

Skipping a couple of albums – Black Market Music and Sleeping With Ghosts – where they went off the boil a bit to 2006 and the title track from their last album with drummer Steve Hewitt in which they seemed to have rediscovered some drive and consistency. While not their strongest it was their best in eight years.

Try Better Next Time

Getting in the DeLorean for an even bigger jump this time to 2022 with a song title seemingly taken from my response to the albums they’ve dropped in the last sixteen years… Never Let Me Go oddly feels closer to Meds than anything between. It would seem that the six years they’ve had between albums has allowed them to rediscover a spark that was missing for quite a while now, the songs are leaner and pack more wallop and there’s not a lyric as disastrous as ‘my computer thinks I’m gay, I threw that threw that piece of junk away, on the Champs-Elysées’ to be found anywhere, thankfully.

Bonus tune…

Johnny and Mary

Yes I’m throwing in a cover. Back in the days when singles were something other than an individual stream, Placebo would add either a couple of cracking b-sides or covers. While their take of ‘Running Up That Hill’ gets the most plays we’ve probably all heard enough versions of that one lately so I’ve gone for their cover of Robert Palmer’s classic that accompanied ‘Taste in Men’, the lead single from their third album.

The telex machine is kept so clean and it types to a waiting world… Monday spins

Time slips away… this blog has been a little abandoned again of late though this time it was down to actually taking as much of summer off and away as possible and taking a little drive down to, and around, the South of France to soak up some sun and explore.

However, as term starts and the rain is slowly filling up the pond in my front garden that had been pretty much emptied by the summer’s draught, it feels like a good moment to take stock and shake off some dust with a quick punt out of those songs that I’ve been enjoying of late.

Bruce Springsteen – Hey Blue Eyes

As I pull together some pieces for another Bruce series I find myself listening to this more and more. American Beauty was an EP put out for RSD back in 2014 and this track – an off-cut from previous sessions with Brendan O’Brien is one of those nagging, seemingly-simple songs which highlights just how effective Bruce can be with something that he decides isn’t an ‘A’ tune and ends up being released, essentially, as a b-side (think ‘Shut Out The Light’ and goodness knows how many others).

Foo Fighters – Band on the Run

On the subject of RSD releases… The Foo Fighters put out Medium Rare – a thirteen song strong collection of covers – for Record Store Day back in 2011 and I’d been after a copy for a while. The Foos were always a delight when cutting loose on a cover, combining their increasingly tight chops with their tongue-in-cheek approach makes for a cracking listen. So I was pretty chuffed to find a mint copy in a record shop in Avignon which promptly left with me. Along with the likes of ‘Darling Nikki’ and ‘Baker Street’, this is a pretty strong example and seems fitting to slip on here after this weekend’s Taylor Hawkins tribute concert.

Adé – Tout Savoir

Driving around for two weeks listening to the same radio station means you’re gonna hear a few songs played a lot especially if they’re big. Along with Sting’s ‘Rushing Water’ and a few others, Adé’s ‘Tout Savoir’ has been firmly lodged in my ears but it’s one that I continue to enjoy, it’s pretty upbeat with a decent melody and offers more than your usual pop radio fodder.

Larkin Poe – Hard Time Killing Floor Blues

Every now and then the boy will request ‘Planet Rock’ on the car radio. Sometimes I’m not in the mood as there’s only so much leather waistcoat music I can take but his recent request caught something called something called ‘The Blues Power’ show and made for a pretty decent drive and this one ended up lodged in my head. I don’t know much about Larkin Poe other than it being fronted by two sisters but I’m enjoying this one plenty of late.

Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram – Long Distance Woman

Keeping that blues crunch vibe going, I caught this guy’s name being mentioned in high esteem in various print / online music chats and was pretty impressed when I checked out his stuff – this dude can play and he’s only in his early twenties (though he could probably benefit from a salad or two). This is form his second album 662 which I’ve been joyously powering through lately. He does a great take on ‘Hey Joe’ too that’s all over YouTube. 

Ryan Adams – Rollercoaster

While the music press and industry are still keeping Ryan Adams on the naughty step, he’s remained busy with some sell-out shows and a tour on the way as well as continually releasing albums and a prolific rate with three albums, two of which are doubles, in 2022 alone, that continue to mix his stark acoustic works with that golden late-80s vibe which he’d started to perfect with Prisoner. ‘Rollercoaster’ is taken from the middle of this year’s three albums, Romeo and Juliet

Pixies – Vault of Heaven

Hey! The Pixies have got a new album coming out soon that’ll mean they’ve released as many albums since reforming as their original run. While you can’t expect another Bossanova or Doolittle, they’re sounding increasingly comfortable and stretching out with increasingly strong and consistent albums. If this song, about the time Frank Black joined Mark Knopfler’s band I think, and previous ‘There’s a Moon Out’ is anything to go by, Doggerel is gonna be another belter.