Fallen Angels by Gunnar Staalesen

From the PR: “When Bergen PI Varg Veum finds himself at the funeral of a former classmate on a sleet-grey December afternoon, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his old friend Jakob – guitarist of the once-famous 1960s rock band The Harpers – and his estranged wife, Rebecca, Veum’s first love.

Their rekindled friendship is thrown into jeopardy by the discovery of a horrific murder, and Veum is forced to dig deep into his own adolescence and his darkest memories, to find a motive … and a killer.

Tense, vivid and deeply unsettling, Fallen Angels is the spellbinding, award-winning thriller that secured Gunnar Staalesen’s reputation as one of the world’s foremost crime writers.”

Okay, no preamble here let’s get straight to to the facts: Gunnar Staalesen is on a different level, an all-time great of of Nordic Noir and Fallen Angels is an astonishingly good novel that’s a shoe-in for the best read of 2020.

This is the seventh Staalesen novel I’ve read though is, in fact, the eighth Varg Veum book, originally published in Norway in 1989. Published now in English for the first time by the powerhouse and champion of great literature, Orenda Books, Fallen Angels won multiple awards upon release and was the novel that gave Staalesen his reputation as the father of the genre. Before there was Harry Hole or Kurt Wallander, before Inspector Van Veeteren or Mikael Blomkvis, Varg Veum was cracking complex and disturbing cases and Gunnar Staalesen was perfecting a style that’s about as good as it gets in literature.

Fallen Angels is a vital component to the Varg Veum series,  both revealing a great deal about the Bergen investigator’s past while unravelling a chain of deception that will leave its mark on him for years to come.  It’s as hard-hitting and powerful as they get when it comes to the key to the killings and there’s nobody who can wind up to a gut-punch that leaves you on your knees like Staalesen. This one hits harder than any I’ve read for some time.

The denouements in Gunnar Staalesen’s novels have never been anything less than knockout , you’re in the hands of a real master of the form here; every strand of the novel tying together and leading you through a beautifully crafted and increasingly intricate plot that doesn’t feel the need to rush or throw in the kitchen sink before delivering that final piece.

Reading a Varg Veum novel is always a real joy that I genuinely look forward to. Staalesen’s writing style and Varg’s methods are worth savouring every word, not a single on of which  ever wasted. There’s a preciseness to his writing that’s deceptive because it takes a real skill to deliver something as rich and involved with an economy of words and Staalesen is just so incredibly talented it makes anyone who wrestles with the written word on the daily envious.

Varg Veum is one of those rare protagonists that I can’t get enough of. He’s an honest, yet flawed character with a moral compass that points true north and is driven by the right motivations, even when he’s not on the clock. There’s a real charm to Veum as a lead in a mystery, his is  technique and style that’s compelling and his propensity for getting into more than his share of scapes in his determination to pick at threads people would rather leave buried makes for great reading. Combine that with a cast of equally compelling characters, a hugely complex plot, a good mix of humour, plenty of music references and plain brilliant prose and you’ve got a great book in your hands.

Fallen Angels is a slow-burning delight that packs an almighty punch. Expertly written and massively addictive. I cannot praise it enough. My thanks to Orenda for keeping my Guunar Staalesen addiction fed and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in its blog tour.

 

 

 

Out by the gas fires of the refinery – The ‘Other’ Born In The USAs, Part One

In January 1982, just a few months after the final show of  The River Tour, recording sessions for Bruce Springsteen’s next album got under way.

These sessions fell right in the midst of Bruce’s most creative and prolific period. Just look at the sheer bounty of songs that were recorded and cut from Darkness… and The River. Each of those albums has received the lavish archival treatment with a load of previously unreleased gems seeing daylight for the first time – on top of those already released on Tracks!

Born In The U.S.A was no exception – according to Max Weinberg nearly 80 songs were recorded over the course of the entire. Springsteen and co-producer Chuck Plotkin have cited 70 but it’s likely that the Mighty Max Weinberg is counting those ten songs which made up Nebraska – as it’s almost impossible to separate the writing periods for the songs that made up the two albums’ sessions.

Yet while there’s a clamouring for it, it’s unlikely that Born In The USA will ever receive the same treatment as its predecessors. Springsteen has, with the distance of time, grown less effusive in his praise for it – “‘Born in the U.S.A’ more or less stood by itself. The rest of the album contains a group of songs about which I’ve always had some ambivalence” – and Tunnel of Love was a determined move away from the sound and scope of Born In The USA with subsequent albums shying further away from it’s naked, world-conquering ambition.

Either way you look at it, there were several versions of ‘an album’ that were ready to go before we got the Born In The USA we know today. So let’s take a look at ’em.

The story of how Nebraska, Springsteen’s out-of-left-field lofi masterpiece came to be has, by now, been well told. But let’s recap. Tired of spending time and money working songs up on the studio, Bruce got his hands on a 4-track recorder. How much money? Well, in the promotion for Letter To You he pointed out that “learning how to record, we spent all the money we had. At the end of The River album I had $20,000 in the bank.” Well known dodgy deals with former managers aside, considering the success of Born To Run, The Darkness and its tours…. something needed to change. Avoiding studio costs, he laid down some tunes on 3rd January 1982 and then took them to the E Street Band to get loud / flesh out / give some soul. Yet something wasn’t right. The songs didn’t suit the band sound. As Bruce states in ‘Songs’: “I went into the studio, brought in the band, rerecorded, remixed, and succeeded in making the whole thing worse.”

So, after walking around with it in his back pocket (so the story goes), Steven Van Zandt gave The Boss the nudge he needed and those songs were released as they were, mastered from the cassette to vinyl, as Nebraska.

The decision to release ten songs from his January tape was made in May 1982. Nebraska features ten songs. The January tape had – depending on whose account you take as gospel – 15 or 17 songs on it. Not all of the ‘Electric Nebraska’ sessions made things ‘worse’. For of those initial January 1982 tape, songs including ‘Born In The USA’, ‘Working On The Highway’ ‘Downbound Train’, ‘Pink Cadillac’ and a song then called ‘Down, Down, Down’ (to become ‘I’m Goin’ Down’) came about.

It will come as little surprise to realise that between January and May of 1982, Bruce had managed to put together two albums worth of material. He toyed with putting them both out as a double album – the acoustic Nebraska songs would make up one half, with the other ‘electric’ side made up of both reworked songs from the January tape and newer songs written since:

Side One Side Two
BORN IN THE U.S.A. WORKING ON THE HIGHWAY
MURDER INCORPORATED DARLINGTON COUNTY
DOWNBOUND TRAIN FRANKIE
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN (a.k.a. I’m Goin’ Down) I’M ON FIRE
GLORY DAYS THIS HARD LAND
MY LOVE WILL NOT LET YOU DOWN

Just look at that track list. As early as May 1982 Springsteen was ready to go with two albums. This first ‘what could have been’ Born In The USA already has seven of the twelve songs that would make the final album. But look at those others…. ‘This Hard Land’ is a stone-cold Springsteen classic, Max Wienberg’s favourite from the sessions and one that wouldn’t see the light until it was re-recorded 1995’s Greatest Hits. The original ’82 version is just as fine.

‘Murder Incorporated’ would have to wait with ‘This Hard Land’ until 1995’s Greatest Hits with ‘Frankie’ and ‘My Love Will Not Let You Down’ – both of which are absolute gems – a little longer for 1998’s Tracks for their day in the sun. Until then they were assigned to the vault as Springsteen continued working on the album, which wasn’t immediate.

Instead, the decision to release Nebraska ‘as is’ in 1982 effectively put a hold on recording sessions. Recording would have to wait as Springsteen oversaw the final preparations for Nebraska and would spend the summer on his ‘1982 Jersey Shore Bar Tour’ – making guest appearances throughout New Jersey. Given that Nebraska featured very little fanfare and wasn’t accompanied by a tour, the break in writing and recording may have been down to another factor: Steve Van Zandt was no longer a member of The E Street Band.

Springsteen would resume work on his next album in April 1983 but there would be a few more versions of Born In The U.S.A to go through before he was done.

Blog Tour – The Coral Bride by Roxanne Bouchard

From the PR: “In this beautiful, lyrical sequel to the critically acclaimed We Were the Salt of the Sea, Detective Moralès finds that a seemingly straightforward search for a missing fisherwoman off Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula is anything but.

When an abandoned lobster trawler is found adrift off the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, DS Joaquin Moralès begins a straightforward search for the boat ’s missing captain, Angel Roberts – a woman in a male-dominated world. But Moralès finds himself blocked at every turn – by his police colleagues, by fisheries bureaucrats, and by his grown-up son, who has turned up at his door with a host of his own personal problems.

When Angel’s body is finally discovered, it ’s clear something very sinister is afoot, and Moralès and son are pulled into murky, dangerous waters, where old resentments run deep…

An exquisitely written, evocative and poetic thriller, The Coral Bride powerfully conjures the might of the sea and the communities who depend on it, the never-ending struggle between the generations, and an extraordinary mystery at the heart of both”

You know, there’s a time and a place for airport thrillers and, sure, I’ve read a fair few. But if we’re talking ‘thrillers’ and ‘mystery’, what I really enjoy is a good slow-burner of a novel, one with a bit weight and heft. Is The Coral Bride just such a good slow-burner? No: it’s a bloody great slow burner of a novel, one that’s rich in detail, great characters, intrigue and top-class writing.

This isn’t an action, bare-knuckle ride of a story. The plot is a deep, complex web that lures you in until you’re hooked on the line and find yourself a couple of hundred pages in and deep into the novel – fully committed to both the story and the world it inhabits.

The storyline… trying to establish who killed Angel Roberts (and why)… is wonderfully told and lifts the lid on so many family secrets and ‘what the hell?’s that there’s more than enough intrigue and side plots for two novels here. Every time I thought I had an idea of what had lead to Angel’s murder I was thrown off by another gentle revelation that not only serves as ‘twist’ but also unveiled another depth to explore. 

Couple that to the drama that Moralès and his son are facing in their personal lives and you’ve got a real belter of a read. Thing is, and this is an important thing, you never feel that there’s so much going on you can’t keep up… Bouchard writes with an almost poetically deft hand that allows the story to flow like a gentle rolling tide rather than a full on assault. Detail building upon detail as a rich and impressively crafted story unfolds. It’s a genuine pleasure to read.

Roxanne Bouchard is a massively talented writer with a real gift for setting a scene and capturing an environment that immerses the reader deep into the heart of The Coral Bride‘s setting. She writes of Gaspé Peninsula, its people and environs with a real warmth and detail that’s evocative and captivating. This is really is a novel to soak in and savour. 

I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend The Coral Bride. My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

Albums of my years – 2002

It’s time for a little less conversation, a little more action, please. Steak knife! We were makin’ our way downtown, walkin’ fast, faces pass and we’re homebound, boot cut!, while Las Ketchup treated us to the Ketchup Song and Eminem asked us what we’d do if we had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything we ever wanted. Dope dick! Avril Lavigne tried to reinvent how to wear ties AND the way we write ‘sk8er’ and ‘boi’ (the latter, oddly, seems to have stuck), pawn shop!, and Enrique Iglesias wanted to be our hero, baby. Con job! That’s right; it’s 2002! Oh, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers tried to say they’d be there, waiting for…

It was a strange year. I think that that the events and aftermath of 9/11 still cast a shadow. I dunno, it feels like it was a subdued year looking back at the music world. Plenty still happened – I mean, Nickleback left the stage at a festival in Portugal midway after their second song as a unimpressed audience sent a few rocks their way, Graham Coxon left Blur, Paul McCartney married his second wife Heather Mills (that would work out well – met her once, can’t say she was even slightly pleasant, in contrast to the ever-charming Paul), and Coachella returned to its two-day format. Normally not noteworthy in itself but 2002’s is: Dave Grohl played both days, the second with his Foo Fighters having already played the first with Queens of the Stone Age having drummed on their 2002 release Songs for the Deaf and toured behind the album. However, there was a lot of animosity amongst the Foos and the band were on the verge of splitting up (One by One languishing in an unfinished / unreleasable state and Dave enjoying being a drummer not a front-man again) – however, the band felt suitably delighted and bolstered by their Coachella set and decided to give both band and the album another go.

There were some pretty heavy farewells in 2002.  Feeder’s drummer Jon Lee committed suicide, Dudley Moore died after years with a debilitatingly degenerative brain disorder, Dee Dee Ramon died from a heroin overdose, Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes was killed in a car accident, The Who’s John Entwistle died after a heart attack and, December 22nd, Joe Strummer suddenly died due to an an undiagnosed congenital heart defect. He was 50. 

On April 19th, after years of drug addiction and seemingly deliberate chasing to its logical conclusion, Layne Staley was found dead in his apartment. He weighed just 39kg and his partially decomposed body required identification by dental records. He’d kept away from people gradually isolating himself from everyone he knew over a period of years, emaciated, lost most of his teeth and several fingers. He’d died on April 5th – the same days Kurt Cobain 8 years previous – aged just 34.

It’s hard to think of music from the year that stands out. My obvious first ‘go to’ is Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising which was both a comeback of great proportions and Springsteen’s response to 9/11. I’ve covered it before as part of my Least to Most on the Boss but it’s still worth highlighting as one of the best of 2002’s albums. 

Damien Rice’s O was released in 2002 as was Regina Spektor’s Songs and Alanis Moriessette’s Under Rug Swept – none of which were too shabby at all really. Paul Westerberg – free of major label input and big-name producers – turned in one of his strongest solo albums to date, Stereo (and released a counterpart Mono as his Grandpaboy alias which was just as bloody good). 

Wilco released their epic Yankee Hotel Foxtrot on Nonesuch after Warner Bros. had refused to release it. It would be widely acclaimed and cited as one of the decade’s finest. Up yours Warner Bros., I guess. Following the enthusiastic reception to 2001’s ‘Green’ album, Weezer released Maladroit – the first to feature Scott Shriner on bass – a harder edged and absolutely belting album. Jerry Cantrell released his second solo album Degradation Trip, Sonic Youth the brilliant Murray Street which harkened back to longer, more experimental songs while feeling tighter and more structured, Red Hot Chili Peppers released By The Way and The Flaming Lips dropped Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.  

Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground arrived from Bright Eyes in August and Interpol released their debut Turn On The Bright Lights. There was also new albums from Nada Surf with Let Go and Iron & Wine with the sublime The Creek Drank the Cradle. Foo Fighters’ One by One arrived via the thumping lead single ‘All My Life’ in October and the Queens of the Stone Age’s Songs for the Deaf was released in August. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers released the lacklustre The Last DJ and Audioslave – which featured Chris Cornell members of Rage Against the Machine – released their powerful selt-titled debut Audioslave.

Godspeed You! Black Emperor released another genre-classic with Yanqui U.X.O. which did away with the field recordings and replaced them with pure, raw-sounding angry and epic post-rock. They’d go on hiatus shortly after its release and wouldn’t release another album for ten years.

Not calling it a day after taking a year-long break following the events of Roskilde and touring in support of Binaural, Pearl Jam returned in 2002 with Riot Act – an all-too-often overlooked album which gets stronger with each repeated listen. But, I’ve covered both that album and Pearl Jam’s ‘lost’ period pretty extensively already on this blog.

So… a bit of a quiet year on the release front from my wheelhouse but there’s one from 2002 that I continually put on and lose myself in: 

Sigur Rós – ()

How to talk about an album like ()… an album with no real title other than ‘brackets’ and with no official track titles? 

Sigur Rós’ third album was a real surprise for many who were probably expecting a direct continuation of the work on Ágætis byrjun. In a way, it is. But it’s also perhaps the most left-field in their main catalogue. Now, of course, some seven years down the road from their last proper studio album as they busy themselves with releases of projects built around loops and programmed fractions of music it doesn’t seem so.

However, the reason I love () so much is the feel of this album. Back in 2002 I’d just caught on to the band on the strength of their previous album and remember getting hold of this new, I loved everything about it from it’s wonderfully minimal packaging and artwork to the click of distortion that opens and ends the album.

It’s split into two distinct halves – the first four tracks more ‘light and optimistic’ and I still get a sense of ‘aaahhh’ when ‘Untitled 1’ – or ‘Vaka’ as it would become known – kicks in all these years later. 

Sigur Rós didn’t make any massive changes to their sound for () – those more dramatic shifts would come later – but the subtle adjustments, the gentle smoothing and make it seem like a more ethereal (and I hate using that word especially as so many use it when describing this band) sound than previously achieved or since as Takk would feel like it was a more logical follow up to Ágætis byrjun in a way. The success of that album, driven thanks to the success of ‘Hoppípolla’ means that () is often forgotten.

I kind of see Sigur Rós work like that of Pink Floyd’s – you know it was made by a group of people using traditional instruments and yet, somehow, it seems untouchable and slightly removed from the ordinary and it’s never been more apparent than on ().

Albums of my years – 2001

Now that we’re back in the atmosphere with drops of Jupiter in our hair we can reflect on the year in which Travis wanted us to ‘sing, sing sing sing sing sing sing’, we got our freak on with Missy Elliott, Pink got the party started while Lifehouse were hanging by a moment (whatever the hell that means), we discovered that heaven is a halfpipe and Nelly wanted us to ride wit him. Yup; it’s 2001.

It’s that year the world got knocked off its axis in September and we’re still dealing with the fall out, the “War on Terror” began, an earthquake of massive proportions in India killed 20,000 people and Apple released iTunes. 

At the Drive-In, Cast, Catatonia, L7, Elastica, Ride, Sunny Day Real Estate (again),  and Anal Cunt all called it quits in 2001. Arcade Fire, Audioslave, The Dresden Dolls, Fall Out Boy, The Fire Theft, Jet, My Chemical Romance, M83, The Mars Volta and The Postal Service were amongst those bands forming this year. We also said goodbye to George Harrison in 2001. After fighting lung cancer, which had spread to his brain, George Harrison died at Paul McCartney’s house in LA on 29 November 2001. His ashes were scattered in the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in keeping with Hindu tradition. A concert – the Concert for George – would be held on the one year anniversary of his death as a celebration as his life and work.

So who released what? Any good albums arriving in 2001? Well, this was the year Jack Johnson released his first album, Brushfire Fairytales, John Frusciante revealed what it’s like To Record Only Water for 10 Days, Spoon released Girls Can Tell and Aerosmith released a bit of a stinker in Just Push Play

Semisonic released their brilliant third, Dashboard Confessional pushed emo twee to new lengths with The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (and, currently, final) album All About Chemisty, Ben Harper and Bruce Springsteen both released decent live albums (which don’t count on this list), Red House Painters released their last album Old Ramon and Neil Finn released his second solo album One Nil.

Colin Hay released his sixth solo album, Going Somewhere, Mogwai released the brilliant (there’s not a Mogwai album I don’t like) Rock Action and, sticking with post-rock, Explosions In The Sky released their second album Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever. Released on September 4th the album’s artwork became a bit of an issue very quickly and picked up media attention as the liner notes of contain a picture of an airplane and the text “This Plane Will Crash Tomorrow”. Oh, and The Silver Mt Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-la-la Band may not have settled on the wording of their band’s name yet but released their second: Born into Trouble as the Sparks Fly Upward.

Mercury Rev released the superb All Is Dream, Bob Dylan continued his late-career comeback with Love and Theft, Ben Folds’s first solo album Rockin’ The Suberbs arrived in 2001 as did Tori Amos’ concept album Strange Little Girls, Eels’ Souljacker, Radiohead gave us the amazing Amnesiac, My Morning Jacket’s second At Dawn, Death Cab for Cutie’s The Photo Album, Bush’s lacklustre The Golden State and Incubus’ Morning View which contains the great lyric “the garbage truck beeps as it backs up and I start my day thinking about what I’ve thrown away”. 

The Shins released Oh, Inverted World, The White Stripes kicked into a new gear with White Blood Cells and Tool gave us the beast that is Laterlus. We got a couple of slabs of the good ‘pop-rock’ from Weezer with their green Weezer and Jimmy Eat World’s Bleed American (which would soon be retitled).REM’s Reveal, the first point at which I went ‘meh’ with their studio albums, arrived in 2001 and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds gave us the gorgeious No More Shall We Part and Sparklehorse the wonderful It’s a Wonderful Life.

When it comes to the albums released in 2001 that sit on my shelves, the one that’s probably been played the most and I think of as being of that year, it’s:

Ryan Adams – Gold

I know, I know; it’s both a pretty obvious choice and his name is somewhat… contentious these days, but Gold was an album that instantly made good on the promise of Heartbreaker and took him up a gear. It also contains a huge amount of cracking tunes. 

The thing about Gold… I wouldn’t even say it’s Adams’ finest but it’s easily his most unabashedly open and accessible (and best selling) set of tunes that just goes down so easy but there’s so much more at work behind what initially sound like a simple set of tunes: take ‘New York, New York’ (the timing of its release and video was pretty fateful) with it’s gorgeous organ fills and horn section that kicks in at the end:

It’s such a warm and lush sounding album, the production perfectly suiting Adams’ then writing style that moves away from the stripped back sound of his solo debut Heartbreaker and makes use of major-label clout and carte blanche to make an album rich in arrangements that nods to some of those most hallowed of his influences, predominantly of the 70’s rock variety, while remaining distinctly contemporary and keeping such flourishes in-check so they don’t over-power. I listen to ‘Rescue Blues’ (which was featured, oddly, in the Owen Wilson film ‘Behind Enemy Lines’) and hear those gorgeous ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ background singers:

Then there’s great songs like ‘La Cienega Just Smile’ which I’ve already highlighed, or ‘Firecracker’ or ‘Stars Go Blue’… it’s chock full of them.

There’s an argument that it suffers from CD bloat at 16 tracks but that in itself is down to the start of what would be a long, drawn-out bone of contention between Adams and his new label Lost Highway: Gold was envisioned as a double but the label weren’t having that. For all the freedom they allowed him in making the album and its sound that was too much for them. They took some of the tracks intended for ‘LP2’ and made a single disc, with the remainder put on a limited ‘bonus disc’ edition. A move Ryan would describe as “Fucking my fans over and making them pay extra for a record I wanted to be a double album. They counted that as one record.”

It was the start of a strange relationship – when they heard his intended follow up Love Is Hell they rejected it as being too uncommercial. The result was that Adams would record Rock ‘n’ Roll in two weeks (it showed) and Love Is Hell would be split into two separate EPs. When these proved successful, Lost Highway stuck em back together into a single album. When his deal with Lost Highway was complete – no doubt sped up by Ryan Adams releasing three albums within a seven-month period in 2005 – he’d form his own and point out that despite an already heavy back catalogue, there were more still that the label had said no to releasing. 

However, all that (and a whole lot more) lay ahead. In 2001 Gold was the album that propelled Ryan Adams forward in his craft and into a lot more peoples’ record collection. It’s a great bunch of tunes that I still slip into the CD player nearly 20 years later and while its production soaks up cues from influences of decades prior and its lyrics remain universal, it has a very distinct 2001 feel to me.

Albums of my years – 2000

See the tuna fleets clearing the sea out? Yeah, great. See the Bedouin fires at night? You do, cool. Now look at the stars, see how they shine for you? It’s 2000; the year that was for the ones who stood their ground, for Tommy and Gina who never backed down. It was the year LeAnn Rimes couldn’t fight the moonlight, Linkin Park were one step closer to the shape of the Backstreet Boys’ heart, Limp Bizkit wanted us to take a look around – probably because someone let the dogs out (though Shaggy assured us it wasn’t him) – and Eminem wrote us even if we still ain’t callin.

Lesson one of 2000: there was no millennium bug.

So, 2000: Prince saw in the new year by playing what he promised would be the last performance of ‘1999’ and Sharon Osborne promptly quit after three months as the Smashing Pumpkins’ manager “for medical reasons: Billy Corgan was making me sick.” Nice. It was also the year that CD sales reached their peak, apparently, with sales declining yearly ever since. In an effort to stop the rise of the alternative – downloads and mp3s – Metallica decided to sue Napster.

Rage Against The Machine were petering out – bass player Tim Commerford was arrested for climbing onstage at the MTV VMAs when their ‘Sleep Now In The Fire’ video lost out to Limp Bizkit. Apparently he was ‘just bored’ of the show. Not to worry though – NSYNC performed ‘Bye Bye Bye’.  A month or so later Zach De La Rocha left RATM, he said the band’s “decision making process” had completely failed. They’d be back but they got out just in time – their bastard spawn genre ‘nu metal’ was making bands like Limp Bizkit, Papa Roach and Mudvayne monstrously dominant.

Ben Folds Five, Candlebox, Sceaming Trees and Smashing Pumpkins all joined Rage Against The Machine in calling it a day in 2000.

I think I did my bit for CD sales in 2000 – I was at university and doing the sensible and responsible thing of spending big chunks of my student loan instalments at the multitude of music shops in Canterbury at the time. So what’s worth grabbing from the stack from the start of the new millennium?

It was double-bubble from at least two bands in 2000. The Smashing Pumpkins graced us with two instalments of their ‘Machina’ albums: Machina / The Machines of God and Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music with the first released traditionally and the latter – a double album packaged with 3 eps full of b-sides and alternative versions – released online only after plans for a physical release got buggered by legal wranglings. Both are better in retrospect than I remember but Machina / The Machines of God was definitely the strongest and stronger than Adore for my money.

The other double came from Everclear who released their two-parts of the same concept Songs From An American Movie Vol One:  Learning How To Smile and Songs from an American Movie Vol. Two: Good Time for a Bad Attitude some four months or so apart. Another lesson in how one good album was sacrificed for the sake of two ‘ok’ albums it also pretty much killed off the original run of the band thanks to the fact that the band and label were still promoting Vol One when the second was released and songs from Vol Two were used in films so were then added back as bonus tracks to Vol One… it was a mess that meant both albums stalled and the band kinda stalled with em.

Lesson two of 2000: no two album concept releases. 

Then again… one of two albums recorded at the same time, Radiohead’s Kid A was released in 2000. Wisely decided the material would be too dense if served up as a double, the sound of Kid A were a massive leap in a ‘definitely not OK Computer Part 2 direction. More samples, more loops, more processed guitars and disjointed lyrics. Having nearly been broken by the strain of touring and promoting OK Computer (see ‘Meeting People Is Easy’), Radiohead took a leaf out of Pearl Jam’s book and said ‘no’ a lot more: no singles, no videos, minimal promotion and photos. Garnering a massively mixed reception at the time, if you ask me: Kid A is a fucking triumph:

The Go-Betweens released their first album in 12 years, The Friends of Rachel Worth and Cat Power’s The Covers Record gave Chan Marshall a reprieve from the pressure of following up Moon Pix as she added her unique take on a series of classics from the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and more.

2000 was another great year for the growing post-rock genre with the debut from Explosions In The Sky How Strange Innocence arriving – one of last year’s finest re-releases – along with Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s astonishing masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven. Not content with releasing one of the genre’s finest albums to this day, some of Godpseed’s members kickstarted a new band, A Silver Mt Zion (now having swapped ‘A’ for ‘Thee’) with the release of another great album; He Has Left Us Alone but Shafts of Light Sometimes Grace the Corner of Our Rooms…

Things were happening out in Nebraska – Omaha based label Wichita was at the forefront of another ‘scene’ with releases in 2000 including Cursive’s Domestica and Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors. I listened to both again recently and it’s now Cursive’s that holds up stronger. 

Warren Zevon figured Life’ll Kill Ya in 2000 – a return to new music and form – released just a couple of years before Zevon was diagnosed with mesothelioma. Aimee Mann released Bachelor No 2 and PJ Harvey gave us Stories From The City, Stories From the Sea One that I found via ‘The Sopranos’ from 2000 and still enjoy is Kasey Chambers’ The Captain.

The Cure’s Bloodflowers was a real strong effort as was Eel’s Daisies of the Galaxy and Death Cab For Cutie’s We Have The Facts and We’re Voting Yes.  Elliott released their album False Cathedrals in 2000. A band born of Slowdive, Mojave 3 released Excuses For Travellers and one of the most famous duos in music, The White Stripes dropped their second effort De Stijl. There were great albums to be found at the heavier end of the shelves with A Perfect Circle’s Mer De Noms, Queens of the Stone Age’s Rated R with its famous shopping list of drugs and the phenomenal Relationship of Command by At The Drive-In.

Two big guns in my collection released strong efforts in 2000: Pearl Jam released their much-overlooked Binaural, their first effort with a new producer after an amazing four-album run with Brendan O’Brien. But I’ve already covered that a couple of times. Sonic Youth released a similarly much-overlooked album: NYC Ghosts and Flowers. In 1999 a huge amount of the band’s gear – including guitars and effects pedals – was stolen in the middle of the night while they were on tour in California. Pretty much having to start from scratch after years of building up effects and tunings, NYC Ghosts and Flowers is a much more experimental album than expected and has aged really well. Oddly enough they’d join Pearl Jam for the start of the Binaural tour in 2000. By 2012 they’d managed to recover 8 of the guitars which were stolen. 

Modest Mouse released an absolute classic with The Moon & Antartica, Coldplay arrived with Parachutes, Placebo began the climb down after two amazing albums with the ‘it’s ok’ Black Market Music and Jets to Brazil released another brilliant album with Four Cornered Night.

It’s interesting just how big a sway less than amazing feedback can have on artists used to being covered in praise. Take the reaction to Lucky Town and Human Touch – it pushed Springsteen’s confidence back so much he barely released anything else for the decade despite working a couple of albums’ worth of material in that time. On the plus side it drove him back to the E Street Band and the reunion tour that was still underway in 2000. Then there’s U2 – the response to Pop was such that the band pulled back on the experimentation and released a ‘Best Of’ of their first decade then chose 2000 for a ‘comeback’ with All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Songs like ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Stuck In A Moment That You Can’t Get Out Of’ helped it leap up to monster figures and drive them back to the adulation they’d grown accustomed to but listening back to it, it’s not aged as well and now as then I find it more ‘twee’ and too singular in its approach, like they were scared to give anything any of that bite they’d discovered in time for the 90s. They’d find it again by the next album though. 

Speaking of comebacks, after a four year break taken up with soundtrack work, Mark Knopfler released Sailing to Philadelphia in 2000. Managing to both break away from yoke of Dire Straits while also recall some of its finer moments, Sailing to Philadelphia was probably the last time MK”s solo work received such attention, while Golden Heart found him wavering in direction, as if he was expecting to find the same level of success,  this one sounds a lot more relaxed and confident in its boots and managed to set the template for what his solo work would be for a while to come and it’s a bloody solid album too. 

So if it’s not Radiohead, Sonic Youth or Pearl Jam, what’s my pick for 2000?

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

You know, I listened to this again in its entirety yesterday. And probably a week or so before that too and goodness knows how many times since Elliott Smith released what would be his final album in April 2000. Listening to it now is not only a reminder of what a joyously great album it is but also a kick in the balls as it’s such a crying fucking shame that he’s no longer with us.

But back to the album. Between XO and Figure 8 Elliott Smith had moved from Brooklyn to LA where he’d play regular intimate and acoustic shows in bars around the Silver Lake area. You’d be forgiven then for thinking his next album would be a return to his former hushed sounds but then there’s a cover of the Beatles’  ‘Because’ that appeared on the ‘American Beauty’ (can anyone watch Kevin Spacey in that now?) soundtrack that was a better indication – Figure 8 is Smith’s lushest, most fully-fleshed sounding record with a big ‘Fab Four’ influence in its arrangements, instruments and textures while unmistakably Elliott Smith.

There’s something so much more…. positive and upbeat to Figure 8. It’s not as strong as XO but it’s a definite progression in sound and Smith’s writing was going from strength to strength. Listening to it I get the feeling he was really having fun in the studio and being able to build up his songs into these great arrangements, I’m sure that upset people who only wanted their Elliott Smith records to feature an acoustic guitar, but there’s so much to love about the sound of Figure 8.

It got in early but Figure 8 is one of the best albums of the 2000s, it’s both enjoyable and accessible while rewarding on multiple listens with so many little hidden elements that can be missed at first.

Blog Tour – A Song of Isolation by Michael J Malone

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.

Albums of my years – 1999

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:

 

Albums of my years – 1998

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 CodeYield 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 Clarksdale which 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 Something On 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 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 mentioned previously. 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.

Which means we have another 21 of these to go….

 

 

 

Blog Tour – The Seven Rooms by Agnes Ravatn

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.