Current Spins

Oops, been a while, again.

There’s been a few slabs of wax that have slipped into the racks of late and have been in fairly regular rotation so, along with those, here’s a little gander at what’s going in the old earbuds of late…

Pearl Jam – Let’s Play Two

This one I’d forgotten pre-ordering so was quite surprised when it arrived.Let’s Play Two is the ‘soundtrack’ to the upcoming concert film / basebell love-in of the same name. I’m not one for sports in general and baseball is a uniquely American currency I think so I’m not too excited about the film. While neither the best soundtrack to a PJ film (that’d be Pearl Jam Twenty) or a great Pearl Jam live album, Let’s Play Two is still a worthy listen given that Pearl Jam are one of the best live acts still giving it their all and while the song selection is slight – the band played over thirty songs each night – and not in true concert order, you can’t argue with a great rendering of ‘Given To Fly’, ‘Release’ and one of my own favourites, ‘Inside Job’.

Various – Twin Peaks (Music from the Limited Event Series)

While I still don’t really know what to make of either the majority of the series or the finale to the revival of Twin Peaks – aside from it being Lynch’s take on not wanting things to get old / pass – the soundtrack is a great thing. This one – as opposed to the score – is made up from songs played at the Big Bang Bar at the end of the episode along with a couple of those that featured elsewhere including the stellar Live From Monterey Pop recording I’ve Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding. Of course, there’s a couple – particularly the ridiculous inclusion of ‘Just You’ – that aren’t what I’d call top drawer but with tracks like Eddie Vedder’s exclusive ‘Out of Sand’, Rebekah Del Rio’s outstanding ‘No Stars’ there’s a lot of strong songs on here that have ensured this has received a few rotations.

The Replacements – For Sale: Live At Maxwell’s 1986

“THE REPLACEMENTS TO RELEASE FIRST OFFICIAL LIVE ALBUM (RECORDED IN FRONT OF MORE THAN 30 PEOPLE)” said the sticker on the front of this one. This live recording – forgotten about / lost until earlier this year captured the band at a turning point; their first major label album just out, just ahead of the firing of original guitarist Bob Stinson. A 29 song setlist that captures, as one review puts is succinctly, the “moment when the tug-of-war between the Replacements’ split personalities—the perma-blotto garage band vs. the refined rock craftsmen—had escalated into a bloody battle.”

Tom Petty – You Wreck Me

For reasons sadly obvious

Blog Tour: The Man Who Died by Antti Tuomainen

From the PR: “A successful entrepreneur in the mushroom industry, Jaakko Kaunismaa is a man in his prime. At just 37 years of age, he is shocked when his doctor tells him that he’s dying. What is more, the cause is discovered to be prolonged exposure to toxins; in other words, someone has slowly but surely been poisoning him. Determined to find out who wants him dead, Jaakko embarks on a suspenseful rollercoaster journey full of unusual characters, bizarre situations and unexpected twists.

With a nod to Fargo and the best elements of the Scandinavian noir tradition, The Man Who Died is a page-turning thriller brimming with the blackest comedy surrounding life and death, and love and betrayal, marking a stunning new departure for the King of Helsinki Noir.”

I was not expecting this book to be the book it is, if that makes sense. See, last year I read The Mine – a complex and intelligent thriller that was at times very dark and dealt with some pretty heavy issues. As such I was kind of expecting a read of a similar nature, not that that would be a bad thing. That’s certainly not what The Man Who Died is. The best way to explain this is quote from the Acknowledgements: “After writing five very dark books… I started to feel that I needed to change things up a bit. More than a bit, to be honest. I told my agent this. I think I also told him I needed a laugh a bit.”

The Man Who Died reads like a Finnish Kurkov novel. It’s ridiculously good; brilliantly conceived and plotted, fantastically treads the line between laugh out loud and wickedly dark, surreal humour and has so much going that it’s pretty much impossible to put down. One of the best books I’ve read this year.

From the moment Jaakko receives his diagnosis and starts ‘waking up’ it’s an absolute ripper of a story as he discovers just how much has been going on around him while he’s been blissfully unaware. It would be impossible to point out exact specifics without giving away any plot – and I really don’t want to do that because I sincerely urge all to read this book – but there are so many moments that are so deliciously absurd that I found myself laughing aloud.

Every word in this book is vital and well placed, it takes real skill to get the pacing just right – especially when told first-person narrative – and Antti Tuomainen has it spades. It cracks along at a sizzling pace and it’s hard to believe that so much takes place in such a short space of time sorry wise yet there’s not a moment of bloat as the story builds to its er… explosive finale. A really gifted writer at work here.

The Man Who Died is easily one of my favourite reads of the year. A real treat and one can only hope Antti Tuomainen feels the need to laugh in his writing again.

My thanks again to Karen at Orenda for my copy and inviting me to review and take part in the blogtour.

Blog Tour: Maria in the Moon by Louise Beech

From the PR:‘Long ago my beloved Nanny Eve chose my name. Then one day she stopped calling me it. I try now to remember why, but I just can’t.’

Thirty-two-year-old Catherine Hope has a great memory. But she can’t remember everything. She can’t remember her ninth year. She can’t remember when her insomnia started. And she can’t remember why everyone stopped calling her Catherine-Maria.
With a promiscuous past, and licking her wounds after a painful breakup, Catherine wonders why she resists anything approaching real love. But when she loses her home to the devastating deluge of 2007 and volunteers at Flood Crisis, a devastating memory emerges … and changes everything.

Dark, poignant and deeply moving, Maria in the Moon is an examination of the nature of memory and truth, and the defences we build to protect ourselves, when we can no longer hide…”

Ok, I’m starting to think the best way to approach Louise Beech’s novels is with the same level of trepidation with which I watch a Pixar film; just when you’re settled in with the characters and plot she manages to completely sucker punch you emotionally. This is certainly true of last year’s The Mountain In My Shoe and it’s most definitely true of Maria In The Moon, Louise Beech’s latest novel and one which – on the strength of her previous two efforts (well, published efforts as this was written first) – I’d looked forward too with eager anticipation. Of course she managed to completely wreck me again.

Hang on, that sounds almost like a conclusion – let’s back up a bit. How does Louise Beech manage to leave me – and, from what I’ve seen of other reviews for this book – her readers feeling like they’ve been watching the opening ten minutes of Up? Well, first she creates characters that live and breath within the pages of her novels. This isn’t a crime thriller or one waiting to be turned into a Tom Cruise movie – Louise Beech deals in real people battling against circumstance and struggle that few should have to face (I say this because each of her three novels to date has done so so brilliantly). This means that Catherine Hope (great surname choice, considering) becomes an immediately relatable and human figure for whom we as readers almost immediately begin to feel empathy. She’s funny, kind and plagued with doubt and has a gaping hole in her life thanks to her father’s early death. Yeah, it’s impossible not to let your heart go out to Catherine – especially as a parent – when Louise so effectively portrays the grief and turmoil that entered Catherine’s life at a young age.

But Catherine has another gap in her life. There’s a vast period of her life that she can’t remember that becomes apparent – because how do you know you’ve forgotten something if you’ve forgotten it? – when she’s asked to recall what happened when she was nine. Of course, nobody puts up a mental block because something amazing happened and we need to forget just how happy we were so we know that there’s a trauma at the centre of Catherine’s memory block but, given that her father had died before that period, we too are at a loss for a) what it could be and b) just how bad it has to be that the death of her father remains in her memory but this doesn’t.

Of course, Louise Beech knows how to write a story so we’re not about to get the answer immediately – besides, suppressed memories don’t just return to you because you file a reveal request with yourself. Catherine’s journey to discovery takes us on one hell of a ride and by the time the reveal comes slamming home like a wrecking ball, I doubt any reader will not be desperate for both answers and for Catherine to catch a break.

And, yes, that reveal is a wrecking ball. It was hard to read and will alter your breathing, this isn’t a bad thing; I’ve said before that a writer that’s scared to challenge shouldn’t be writing and Louise Beech is not scared to do so. Yes, it’s something that’s been dealt with in fiction before and no doubt will gain but few writers manage to handle this subject and its impact as well as this. I’m not going to give a spoiler here but I will say that it did leave me feeling gutted and bare and that’s because of both the subject matter and Louise’s skill at both leading the way to the reveal and unfolding it at exactly the right moment – she doesn’t go overboard, there’s no hacky dramatics or cheap-movie moments, just genuine honest and true emotion and deftness of hand, allowing events and characters to play out. This – as I’ve said before – is where Louise Beech stands apart, writing with an emotional bravery and honesty that few others can or do and delivers something that, because you’re so caught up in the character and because it’s written so honestly, hits fucking hard.

Again; don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a book that’s all emotional wreckage. Maria In The Moon is also very funny, immensely charming, engrossing and bloody well written and will stay with you for some time. So, yes, in a way, my opening summary still holds and, in the same way I still check out a Pixar film I’ll do the same with the next novel to be penned by Louise Beech and recommend doing the same.

Thanks again to Karen and Orenda Books for my copy, no-thanks to “sorry not sorry” Louise Beech for wrecking me again and do check out the previous stops on the BlogTour.

Blog Tour: House of Spines by Michael J Malone

From the PR: “Ran McGhie’s world has been turned upside down. A young, lonely and frustrated writer, and suffering from mental-health problems, he
discovers that his long-dead mother was related to one of Glasgow’s oldest merchant families. Not only that, but Ran has inherited Newton Hall, a vast mansion that belonged to his great-uncle, who it seems has been watching from afar as his estranged great-nephew has grown up.

Entering his new-found home, it seems Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick has turned it into a temple to the written word – the perfect place for poet Ran. But everything is not as it seems. As he explores the Hall’s endless corridors, Ran’s grasp on reality appears to be loosening. And then he comes across an ancient lift; and in that lift a mirror. And in the mirror … the reflection of a woman…

A terrifying psychological thriller with more than a hint of the Gothic, House of Spines is a love letter to the power of books, and an exploration of how lust and betrayal can be deadly…”

So, here we are with the latest novel from Michael J Malone and, I’ll be honest, after getting into House of Spines I did have to double check that this is the same Michael J Malone who wrote last year’s A Suitable Lie for Malone – as one glance at the man’s ‘cv’ will attest – is a very talented chameleonic writer clearly with “over 200 published poems, two poetry collections, six novels, countless articles and one work of non-fiction” to his name.

Whereas A Suitable Lie was something of a domestic-noir thriller with a twist on spousal abuse, House of Spines is very much a psychological thriller with heavy horror overtones and mystery that brings to mind the likes of Rebecca. Its setting in an old, practically empty and isolated manor really upping the opportunity to give Ran and the reader a real sense of the willies with the jarring jolts between Ran’s seclusion in the house and visits back to the modern world in the local village lending a further sense of disconnect between the ‘real world’ and the events back at Newtown Hall.

It’s a brilliantly conceived and well played mystery by Malone too, so thoroughly absorbing that’s impossible not to get caught up in and it’s impossible to express how so without given away a tiny bit of the plot so I’m gonna have to say that the next paragraph contains a SPOILER ALERT.

They say that if you’re only exposed to one narrative for so long you’ll eventually try and find ways to identify with it and find a sort of kinship (a sort of literary Stockholm perhaps) and this is true of House of Spines and Ranald. You get completely caught up in his viewpoint (even though it’s not told first-person) and, thus, in his struggles between distinguishing reality from fantasy and feeling completely in the dark on so many key points. For in the same way that his cousin has lead him a merry dance and played on Ran’s mental state so, too, is the reader left uncertain as to what is reality and what is the effect of Ran’s own mental state with so many puzzle pieces kept from view or merely hinted at with other characters holding on to key facts or leaving me exasperatingly frustrated at their seeming vow of silence on them. I can’t tell you the number of times I wanted to take a character and shake em by the lapels and scream “just sodding well tell him what the hell you know!”

I didn’t seen the final reveal coming, any of them for this is a mystery of many facets, and that’s always a good thing and the final sentence – in true horror style, managed to give me a chill. But then there’s so much going on for such a relatively novel it’s a wonder that it does all get resolved. From Ran’s own parental background, Newtown Hall and his Great-Uncle Fitzpatrick’s history to the current cousin-related concerns and it’s to Malone’s credit that the novel never feels over-stretched and these story lines are not only given all the space and to breath and come to fruition but are so ably wrapped up within the novel’s pages without feeling in the least bit rushed.

House of Spines is a cracking read that combines a real mystery with a genuinely touching and emotionally affecting story that, at times, makes you really feel for Ranald (and others without wanting to give anything else away) and one that I thoroughly recommend.

My thanks again to Orenda Books for my copy and inviting me to take part in this blogtour.

 

 

 

First Impressions: Concrete and Gold – Foo Fighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

***Underrated.

Page Turning – Another Three

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

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

The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

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

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo

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

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

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

A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Currently Listening

Tuesdays after a Bank Holiday Weekend are the new Monday. Nobody likes them.

Outside of Pimsleur’s Basic Romanian, here’s the skinny on what’s going into my ears lately:

The War on Drugs – Up All Night

The new album A Deeper Understanding is the thing of beauty that expectations had it as. Adam Granduciel’s nasal voice is akin to a softer, more tuneful Dylan with tasteful restrain over bleating, the guitars shimmer and shred and the whole thing is polished off with a sun-kissed production right out the Tunnel of Love playbook. As one review states, it’s not just that it’s “one of the best rock albums in years, but that the music itself is so expansive and enveloping that it feels like it should be everywhere.” It’s bliss.

Rebekah Del Rio- No Stars

I can’t tell you anything about Rebekah Del Rio as I know nothing about her. All I know is that this song, well her voice and delivery more to the point, has held me hypnotised since I heard / saw it on an episode of the current revival of Twin Peaks.

Biffy Clyro- Living Is A Problem Because Everything Dies

Since they popped up in that Shuffle The Music thing I’ve been listening to this one a lot, partly also because my wife listens to it a fair bit too.

Death Cab For Cutie- We Looked Like Giants

Following another “Top Five” text convo I’ve been listening to Transatlicism in the car recently in between my Romanian lessons.

Hold Steady- The Swish

The Hold Steady are a new discovery for me having read about them everywhere else I took a while to tune in. I’m starting at the first album Almost Killed Me and like what I’m hearing thus far. I was finally swayed by the review for it that said “The Hold Steady are one of the most convincing rock bands to emerge in recent years, a can-crushing throwdown of unadulterated aggression and ear-splitting amps.”