Hello Sunshine

Well, it happened. I thought it wasn’t going to, certainly not so soon after his ‘Vegas residency’ period but I woke this morning to the news that Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars will drop in June.

Given that I was reading the news while dropping the kids off at the pool* it meant I’d pre-ordered before I stood up.

Recorded predominantly at his home studio in New Jersey, this – the first album of new material in five years (seven if you don’t count those heated up left overs of High Hopes), Western Stars, to cite Springsteen’s website: takes his music to a new place, drawing inspiration in part from the Southern California pop records of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

“This record is a return to my solo recordings featuring character driven songs and sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements,” says Springsteen. “It’s a jewel box of a record.”

Cover art (the first not to feature Bruce’s mug on it since The Ghost of Tom Joad) and track listing have dropped and the first ‘single’ has also been released (not that these things really exist anymore, do they?) too:

Good things:

It’s a return to story-telling Bruce
Album themes encompass a “sweeping range of American themes, of highways and desert spaces, of isolation and community and the permanence of home and hope”
David Sancious
No Tom Morello
It’s been a long time coming – this could go either way: Human Touch was laboured but rushed-releases could use better quality control
The song title ‘Chasin’ Wild Horses’ seems promising on its own to me
“Sweeping, cinematic orchestral arrangements”

 

Bad things:

Ron Aniello
No E Street Band

So… Am I excited? Fuck yeah, I’ve just finished another Bruce series that’s reminded me that there’s always a reason to tune in, even if there are warning signs production-wise.

*curious to see if that reference is known across the various blog-oceans

And in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment… Springsteen’s Lyrics (Part 3)

Right, finally – Part Trois.

What started off as a two-part look at my favourite Springsteen’s lyrics grew into an easy three-parter as every time I worked on the list it grew when I remembered another lyric. I could have stretched this to four but this Springsteen Series is already long and it’s time to wrap it up. I reckon I’ve still got at least a couple of these BIG BRUCE BLOGS in the works though, so let’s move forward and get into the final part of this one, complete with playlist.

Seeds

“Well I swear if I could spare the spit, I’d lay one on your shiny chrome, and send you on your way back home”

When Bruce started expanding his lyrical framework beyond his immediate locales, his social and political consciousness began growing too. In place of songs about Jersey boardwalks and fortune tellers came lyrics about real people and their struggles in failing economies where ‘lately there ain’t been much work’. ‘Seeds’ is one of these early tunes to plow this awareness into his songwriting.  Oft-overlooked as it never made it to a studio album (it joins the list of those culled form Born In The USA*) and was only officially released on Live 1975-85 it would feature in Springsteen’s sets for a reason – it was a mainstay during the Reagan years and it would slip back into Springsteen’s set lists in 2009, when America’s economy started to circle the u-bend.

You can feel the anger in this one, another story of how betting everything on following the American dream (chasing the oil boom just after it went bust) fucked someone over, scathing lyrics set against a thumping E Street rhythm and heavy chords.

Human Touch, Better Days & Living Proof

“You can’t shut off the risk and the pain, without losing the love that remains”

“But it’s a sad man, my friend, who’s livin’ in his own skin, and can’t stand the company”

“Life is just a house of cards, as fragile as each and every breath as this boy sleepin’ in our bed”

It’s not cheating – to me these are both three great individual songs but their lyrics and arc belong in the same write-up.

They complete a story arc that’s clearly autobiographical and highlight one of those elements that – even when a large part of the album’s they’re on are tosh – makes Springsteen a great writer is that he’s able to take that look into himself,  and what’s in all of us, and carve it into something that you actually want to listen to.

At the end of the 80’s Springsteen’s first marriage was over and he’d already been fighting depression. The arc represented by these songs shows characters who – in ‘Human Touch’ – have been bruised by former experiences (‘so you’ve been broken and you’ve been hurt, show me somebody who aint’) but are still willing to lay it on the line for a second chance – but , as Springsteen put it: “to receive what love delivers, they have to surrender themselves to each other and accept fate.”

In Better Days those “characters return from broken love affairs and self-doubt and find the tempered optimism to take another shot,” – Bruce pointed out in ‘Songs’ – having “taken a piss, at fortune’s sweet kiss”, realised what passes by while you sit “listening to the hours and minutes tickin’ away” and find the redemption that’s out there.

There’s an undeniable sense of promise and positivity to the song and it doesn’t hurt that the lyrics are strapped to one of the better tunes in terms of production on the two albums.

Despite being the song that kicked off writing for Lucky Town, ‘Living Proof’ serves as the final chapter in a way as Bruce reflects on fatherhood and the joy and sense of completion that delivers – children being the living proof that “love is real. They are faith and hope transformed into flesh and blood.”

The song has meant more to me withe each passing year since my own son arrived “like the missing words to some prayer that I could never make” and will remain a lyrical favourite for just that reason. Springsteen obviously felt pretty similarly about it as it’s the sole song from Human Touch and Lucky Town to have been selected for the ‘autobiographical’ collection Chapter and Verse.

I think any of us that have every fought that black dog can recognise and appreciate Springsteen’s lyrics across these three tunes – that there is a light there if you’re willing to give it a shot but you gotta be willing to the chance – nor deny his right to apply this more personal light to his lyrics (even if the overall albums and production fall flat).

Last to Die

“Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake, whose blood will spill, whose heart will break”

Magic is one of Springsteen’s finest collections of songs and easily the strongest of his post-reunion albums. It’s certainly his angriest, with Springsteen’s rage against Bush and the cost of war on people – I think it was Bono who said that all of America is Springsteen’s hometown now – burning beneath the surface of so many of it’s tunes. ‘Gypsy Biker’ updates his ‘Nam song ‘Shut Out The Light’ with harsher consequence and ‘Last to Die’ takes takes it’s lyrics directly from John Kerry’s testimony on Vietnam – “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

It’s packed with scathing, bitingly angry lines like ‘We don’t measure the blood we’ve drawn anymore, we just stack the bodies outside the door’ and ‘The wise men were all fools’ and strapped to the blazing sound of the E Street Band in its final peak.

Youngstown

“We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam
Now we’re wondering what they were dyin’ for”

A stand-out story on an album resplendent with story songs and precise lyrics. ‘Youngstown’ tells the story of that Ohio town from the discovery of the ore that was “linin’ Yellow Creek” in 1803, through wars Civil, First, Second, Vietnam and Korean to the city’s decline as the arse fell out of the steel industry – “the yard’s just scrap and rubble .” The ‘Jenny’ in the chorus is also the nickname for the Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company’s Jeanette Blast Furnace – which shut down in ’77 (ta, Wikipedia).

There’s a real poetry to Springsteen’s telling of this potted history and the lyrics work both against the minimal backdrop of The Ghost of Tom Joad and when set alight by Nils Lofgren live:

 

Hey Blue Eyes

“In this house there’s just the dust of bones, the basement’s filled with liars
In this house our sons and daughters are spilled like wine.”

Technically the last ‘new’ Springsteen tune released and testament to the fact that he can still punch above the pack with this lyrics even when not amazing with anything musically, ‘Hey Blue Eyes’ is taken from the American Beauty EP that was released in 2014.

Springsteen has described the track and its allegorical lyrics as “one of my darkest political songs. Written during the Bush years, it’s a metaphor for the house of horrors our government’s actions created in the years following the invasion of Iraq. At its center is the repressed sexuality and abuse of power that characterized Abu Ghraib prison. I feel this is a shadow we as a country have yet to emerge from.”

The Last Carnival

“Moon rise, moon rise, the light that was in your eyes is gone away.
Daybreak, daybreak, the thing in you that made me ache has gone to stay ”

Danny ‘The Phantom’ Federici, founding member of the E Street Band, died April 17, 2008 after a three year fight with melanoma. Working On A Dream, Springsteen’s 2009 album, is dedicated to Federici and ‘The Last Carnival’ is both a reference to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ and a touching tribute to the first of the E-Street Band to slip this mortal coil.

“It started out as a way of making sense of his passing. He was a part of that sound of the boardwalk the band grew up with and that’s something that’s going to be missing now.”

Brothers Under The Bridge

“One minute you’re right there, and something slips”

A tune cut around The Ghost of Tom Joad though left off and included on Tracks – ‘Brothers Under The Bridge’ is a story about a homeless Vietnam veteran living beneath a bridge, with other homeless veterans, “who has a grown daughter that he’s never seen, and she grows up, and she comes looking for her dad. And what he tells her.”  At a time when Springsteen was like a factory churning out great short-story like songs against hushed backgrounds that wouldn’t hide bad lyrics, this is a stand out and one that sits with his finest ‘Nam songs –  with lines like ‘You were just a beautiful light, in your mama’s dark eyes of blue’ and that final line ‘something slips’.

Jungleland

“Beneath the city two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender”

Of-fucking-course it was gonna be on here. How can Springsteen’s most epic and well-loved ‘story’ song not be? I’ve been using its lyrics for the blog titles after all. There’s nothing that can be said about this one that hasn’t been said by better critics than I – all I’ll say is that you can pick any lyric on here and it’ll not only be gold but will be sung along to passionately by the entire crowed at any given Springsteen show it’s played at.

And….. playlist:

 

*One of those three posts in the pipeline

Albums of my Years – 1980

What’s this then?

Well: this year will feature my last birthday with a 3 at the start. So, I figured that, given my average posting frequency and to allow a post every week or so, I’d pick an album from each of the years I’ve been on this ride in the theory that this would leave me enough time to complete a 40 post series just as I hit 40.

I’ll be picking one album from each year that’s either a favourite, one that means something to me and has not been covered in these ‘pages’ thus far.

Sound alright? I am, of course, always happy to get feedback or recommendations for anything that I may have missed along the way – especially in those years when I hadn’t yet mastered walking.

So, let’s start from the top…

1980 saw a fair bit going on in the music world:

Paul McCartney kicked off his 1980 in jail in Japan when he was caught with some marijuana on him – they’d kick him out of the country two weeks later.

Don Henley also got in a bit of bother with the rozzers and drugs, albeit some harder substances when police hit the motherload in his house after a naked 16-year-old prostitute(!) had drug-related seizures and they found another 15-year-old girl(!!) tripping balls. He ended up with all kinds of charges which, oddly enough, didn’t end up as lyrical fodder for ‘Boys of Summer’…. ‘you got ya hair combed back and those quaaludes are kickin in, baby.’

Led Zepplin’s powerhouse drummer John Bonham’s wholehearted embrace of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of excess reached its inevitable conclusion and he was found dead by bandmate John Paul Jones – the drummer having choked on his own vomit after downing several pubs worth of vodka. The band would disband a month or two later.

Back to Fab – John Lennon and Yoko Ono got busy recording Double Fantasy which dropped in November. But, just one month later, Lennon was entering the Dakota building when he noticed Mark Chapman standing nearby and nodded at him – presumably recognising him after Chapman had requested Lennon’s autograph earlier in the day. Moments later Chapman fired five shots at John Lennon’s back, from about ten feet away and 1980 drew to a close with 100,000 mourners holding a public vigil in Central Park for the murdered John Lennon.

Bit of an odd one to be born into, really. In terms of album’s released in 1980, it’s slim pickings from my wheelhouse.

Split Enz released the phenomenal True Colours (home to ‘I Got You’ and ‘Nobody Takes Me Seriously’ and a buttload of other crackers)…. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta dropped in October and it, too, is stuffed with corkers.

The Joe Perry Project released their first album Let the Music Do the Talking which included the stonking title track and a good dose of riff-heavy tunes and some fella from New Jersey released an ep called The River... and a group of young lads from Ireland dropped their debut Boy and promptly vanished into obscurity.

BUT: I can’t choose The River as the ‘1980’ album. As much as it’s my favourite release of the year I’ve already talked about it at length and I don’t want to repeat myself. So.. what does that leave? Scary Monsters? Meh. Sandinista! ? Nah… though ‘Police On My Back’ is a fucking belter!

How about:

Dire Straits –Making Movies

Knopfler and co’s third album, Making Movies dropped on October 17th 1980. The same day as Bruce Springsteen’s The River and just 11 days before I did.

Dire Straits actually ‘borrowed’ both Roy Bittan and Jimmy Iovine from Springsteen for Making Movies. Knoplfer had wanted Iovine as producer after hearing Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ and Iovine helped get The Professor involved. Probably helped that they were pretty much next door – Making Movies was recorded at New York’s The Power Station at the same time as work on The River was wrapping up. – I’ve pondered before if the seeds for, or at least the title of, the Boss’ Tunnel of Love song were planted here, there’s no way he’d not listen to what his producer and piano player had been moonlighting on.. or even listened through the wall with a wine glass?

That oft-maligned trade rag Rolling Stone has this to say of Making Movies: 

“Making Movies is the record on which Mark Knopfler comes out from behind his influences and Dire Straits come out from behind Mark Knopfler. The combination of the star’s lyrical script, his intense vocal performances and the band’s cutting-edge rock & roll soundtrack is breathtaking—everything the first two albums should have been but weren’t. If Making Movies really were a film, it might win a flock of Academy Awards.”

To say I grew up with Dire Straits and Making Movies on in the background would be an understatement. Their love of the band was something that bonded my father and his best friend (my ‘Dutch uncle’) and it was continually played to the point that now, thirty some years later I still know every word on the majority of this album and still enjoy spinning it.

It’s the album that helped the band break out to a wider audience with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ did the business on radio. On yet another Springsteen connection (I know, I know) that beautiful guitar arpeggio? Go listen then go listen to ‘Jungleland‘ and the piano in the first verse. It wasn’t deliberate, Knopfler hit on it by pure chance while trying out a tuning with his National:

There’s nothing wrong with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ but my personal favourite is still the first tune on the album, the Tunnel of Love / Carousel Waltz combo. When you combine it with ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘Skateaway’ I think you’ve got a pretty damn fine Side A there.

Side B isn’t too shabby. Granted ‘Les Boys’ wouldn’t be released today with it’s “Les Boys do cabaret, Les Boys are glad to be gay” lyrics but Knopfler’s guitar work is on form throughout, as with the tres-80s titled ‘Expresso Love’ and the charming ‘Hand in Hand’ which, for my money, points at sounds that would surface more on their next album Love Over Gold:

Still, what saves the album isn’t just what’s on it but what isn’t: ‘Twisting by the Pool’ was recorded during these sessions but was, thankfully, left off.

 

 

 

50 Great Films to Mumble About

Ok, so back at the end of 2018 I put together a list of 50 Great Reads having been inspired by A Thousand Mistakes’ own list. I also pointed out that I doubted I’d be able to put together a list of 50 Great Films as he had done.

Turns out I could. Once again; this isn’t my saying ‘these are the best’ – it’s more ‘these are my favourites’ and ‘I could watch these time and time again’.  Looking at it laid out after compiling I’m not-really surprised by how many De Niro outings there are on here. There was a time he was untouchable. A couple of directors that don’t have MS as their initials get a few multiple listings but I reckon it’s a fairly rounded list that crosses genres and spans 70 years from 1946 – 2016.

So, in no order, except alphabetical:

Almost Famous (2000) Director: Cameron Crowe Starring: Kate Hudson, Patrick Fugit, Billy Crudup
Amelie (2001) Director: Jean-Pierre Jeunet Starring: Audrey Tautou, Matthieu Kassovitz, Jamel Debbouze
Back to the Future (1985) Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
The Big Lebowski(1998) Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi
Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (2008) Director: Danny Boon Starring: Danny Boon, Kad Merad
Black Cat, White Cat (1998) Director: Emir Kusturica Starring: Bajram Severdzan, Srdjan ‘Zika’ Todorovic, Branka Katic
Blade Runner (1982) Director: Ridley Scott Starring: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) Director: George Roy Hill Starring: Paul Newman, Robert Redford
Casino (1995) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, Joe Pesci
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Melinda Dillon
Cool Hand Luke (1967) Director: Stuart Rosenberg Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin
The Darjeeling Limited (2007) Director: Wes Anderson Starring: Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, Jason Schwartzman
Das Boot (1981) Director: Wolfgang Peterson Starring,Jürgen Prochnow, Herbert Grönemeyer
The Deer Hunter(1978) Director: Michael Cimino Starring: Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, Meryl Streep
Dr Strangelove (1964) Director: Stanley Kubrick Starring: Peter Sellers, George C Scott
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) Director: Michel Gondry Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Carey
For A Few Dollars More (1965) Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef
Forest Gump (1994) Director: Robert Zemeckis Starring: Tom Hanks, Robin Wright, Gary Sinise
Ghost In The Shell (1995) Director: Mamoru Oshii Starring (Voice Cast): Atsuko Tanaka,
Akio Ōtsuka
The Godfather Pt 2 (1974) Director: Francis Ford Coppola Starring: Al Pacino, Robert De Niro
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1965) Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Eli Wallach
Goodfellas (1990) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci
The Great Beauty (2013) Director: Paolo Sorrentino Starring: Toni Servillo, Sabrina Ferilli
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Director: Wes Anderson Starring: Ralph Fiennes, F. Murray Abraham
Groundhog Day (1993) Director: Harold Ramis Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell
High Fidelity (2000) Director: Stephen Frears Starring: John Cussack, Iben Hjejle, Jack Black
Hot Fuzz (2007) Director: Edgar Wright Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
How to Steal a Million (1966) Director: William Wyler Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Peter O’Toole
The Intouchables (2011) Directors: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano Starring: François Cluzet
Omar Sy
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) Director: Frank Capra Starring: James Steward, Donna Reed
LA Confidential (1997) Director: Curtis Hanson Starring: Guy Pearce, Russell Crowe, Kevin Spacey, Kim Basinger
The Last Emperor (1987) Director: Bernardo Bertolucci Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O’Toole
Life is a Miracle (2004) Director:Emir Kusturica Starring: Slavko Štimac, Nataša Šolak
Life of Brian (1979) Director: Terry Jones Starring: John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Gillam, Michael Palin, Terry Jones
The Long Good Friday (1981) Director: John Mackenzie Starring: Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren,
Miller’s Crossing (1990) Directors: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
Mona Lisa (1986) Director: Neil Jordan Starring: Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane
Once Upon a Time in America (1984) Director: Sergio Leone Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci
The Pianist (2002) Director: Roman Polanski Starring: Adrian Brody
Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987) Director: John Hughes Starring: John Candy, Steve Martin
Ponyo (2008) Director: Hayao Miyazaki Starring (Voice Cast): Yuria Nara, Hiroki Doi
Raging Bull (1981) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci
Rain Man (1988) Director: Barry Levinson Starring: Tom Cruise, Dustin Hoffman, Valeria Golino
Saving Private Ryan (1998) Director: Steven Spielberg Starring: Tom Hanks, Edward Burns, Tom Sizemore, Matt Damon
Shaun of the Dead (2004) Director: Edgar Wright Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost
Subway (1985) Director: Luc Besson Starring: Christopher Lambert, Isabelle Adjani
Tales from the Golden Age (2009) Directors: Cristian Mungiu, Ioana Uricaru, Hanno Höfer, Constantin Popescu Starring: Diana Cavallioti, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean
Taxi Driver (1976) Director: Martin Scorsese Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Cybil Shephard, Harvey Keitel
Torn Curtain (1966) Director: Alfred Hitchcock Starring: Paul Newman, Julie Andrews
Your Name  (2016) Director: Makoto Shinkai Starring (Voice Cast): Ryunosuke Kamiki
Mone Kamishiraishi, Ryo Narita, Aoi Yūki

Blog Tour: Welcome to The Heady Heights by David F. Ross

From the PR: “It ’s the year punk rock was born, Concorde entered commercial service and a tiny Romanian gymnast changed the sport forever…

Archie Blunt is a man with big ideas. He just needs a break for them to be realised. In a bizarre brush with the light entertainment business, Archie unwittingly saves the life of the UK’s top showbiz star, Hank ‘Heady’ Hendricks, and immediately seizes the opportunity to aim for the big time. With dreams of becoming a musical impresario, he creates a new singing group called The High Five with five unruly working-class kids from Glasgow’s East End. The plan? Make it to the final of Heady’s Saturday night talent show, where fame and fortune awaits…

But there’s a complication. Archie’s made a fairly major misstep in his pursuit of fame and fortune, and now a trail of irate Glaswegian bookies, corrupt politicians and a determined Scottish WPC are all on his tail…

A hilarious, poignant nod to the elusiveness of stardom, in an age when ‘making it’ was ‘having it all’, Welcome to the Heady Heights is also a dark, laugh-out-loud comedy, a poignant tribute to a bygone age and a delicious drama about desperate men, connected by secrets and lies, by accidents of time and, most of all, the city they live in.”

Four novels in and news of a new David F Ross book is guaranteed to be “yes please!” from me.  Why? Well, first off: he’s bloody funny. Many is the time I’ve had to stifle a laugh while reading one of his previous novels while others either sleep or for fear of being looked at as if I’ve farted in church. Welcome to The Heady Heights is one of the funniest books I’ve read this year, a natural and effortless humour that balances a warm, tender humour with some wickedly dark laughs and is stuffed with some real cracking lines (“Heady Hendricks sucked ma boaby!” had me laughing for a long time). The humour in Welcome to The Heady Heights serves as both pure comedy and relief at some of the novel’s bleaker moments – it’s like a literary “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life”, singing ‘life’s a piece of shit’ as fate kicks you in the scrot’.

Which brings me on to the ‘secondly’ – Mr Ross has a real talent for portraying the bittersweet of life’s underdogs. Those characters like Archie Blunt who know their own limitations, have calmly accepted the blows life has dealt them, but still aims to try and make a break for a better life. It makes reading the Welcome to The Heady Heights a real pleasure and if you’re not rooting for Archie then there’s something wrong with you. David F. Ross peoples his novel with characters that live and breath so vividly within its pages that it makes  Welcome to The Heady Heights a thoroughly engaging and compelling read.

Of course, given that my own record collection (which includes a 45 from the Miraculous Vespas) is once again challenging the confines of practical storage, it would be remiss of me not to point out that one of the delights of reading Ross’ work is the way in which he blends music into his stories. Like Scorsese using soundtracks to place and pace his movies, David F. Ross uses music in his novels to wonderful effect and I’ll admit openly that for the last three of his novels I’ve headed first to the playlist at the back of each to see what’s going to get a spin during the narrative. Ross’ record collection is one I’d like to flick through for sure.

Now, all of these factors alone would make Welcome to The Heady Heights worth reading. What makes it an absolute belter of a book is that David F. Ross takes these elements and marries them to a fucking brilliant story line – the depths and scope of Welcome to The Heady Heights is phenomenal. From the aspirations of Archie Blunt to a ‘holy crap’ plot that takes in a secretive, dark and disturbing society, murder, extortion and crooks both small time and big, Ross spins a story with so many different facets and so many well realised and engrossing narratives that his place as a master storyteller can never be doubted.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blogtour- reading Welcome to The Heady Heights is well recommended. If I were in the habit of dropping stars there’d be five right here.

Then and Now: Placebo

A new feature wherin I pull up a band / artist’s early material alongside their latest to ponder either ‘where did it all go wrong?’ or ‘how the hell do they keep getting better?’

Then: Nancy Boy

Placebo arrived on the ‘scene’ way back in 1996 with their self-title debut  – I think I swapped a copy of Nevermind with someone to get a copy at the time (I must have had more than one as I’ve never been without Nirvana’s sophomore) – and their ‘Bruise Pristine’ single.

Placebo and the band’s second album Without You I’m Nothing rank among the best alternative records of the 20th Century.

Brian Molko’s deliberate androgyny, the buzzsaw guitars and almost nasal-whine vocals with lyrics about bisexuality, drugs and casual sex (“Eyeholes in a paper bag/greatest lay I ever had”) propelled ‘Nancy Boy’  and Placebo into the mainstream. Continual rotation on MTV2 when it launched and music videos were still played and heavy radio play meant ‘Nancy Boy’ and Placebo – with their basic guitar / bass/ drums setup – provided a breath of welcome fresh attitude and air to the increasingly stale Britpop and ‘lounge-act indie’ that was chocking the ‘alternative scene’.

Several albums and drummer rotations later….

Now: Too Many Friends

Save for a one-off single in 2016, Placebo haven’t released a new album since 2013’s Loud Like Love. I haven’t listened to that album, I’d tuned out since Meds (solid, slight return-to-form fifth album) and the departure of drummer Steve Hewitt but when I heard ‘Too Many Friends’ on the radio… I knew it wasn’t worth hearing more. It’s a slip into the hammy self parody lane with catchy and original lyrics replaced with forced rhymes – I only needed to hear the first opening lines to know something was wrong:

“My computer thinks I’m gay
I threw that piece of junk away
On the Champs-Élysées
As I was walking home”

Aside from shoehorning in a Paris avenue for a rhyme… really, Brian? You were walking home with your computer out when it – somehow – decided you were a crafty butcher? What happened to making snide jokes about sexual hangups? In the same verse, ‘gay’ is also rhymed with ‘communique’ and ‘superhighway’. Oh, and ‘say’.

I don’t know where it all went wrong. Perhaps the band should’ve called it a day a few albums back and pursued over avenues… either way, there’s only so many times you can plumb the same vein and it seems Placebo reached the bottom of that barrel. A shame, really.

Blog Tour: Inborn by Thomas Enger

From the PR: “When a teenager is accused of a high-school murder, he finds himself subject to trial by social media … and in the dock. A taut, moving and chilling thriller by one of Nordic Noir’s finest writers.

When the high school in the small Norwegian village of Fredheim becomes a murder scene, the finger is soon pointed at seventeen-year-old Even. As the investigation closes in, social media is ablaze with accusations, rumours and even threats, and Even finds himself the subject of an online trial as well as being in the dock … for murder?

Even pores over his memories of the months leading up to the crime, and it becomes clear that more than one villager was acting suspiciously … and secrets are simmering beneath the calm surface of this close-knit community. As events from the past play tag with the present, he’s forced to question everything he thought he knew. Was the death of his father in a car crash a decade earlier really accidental? Has his relationship stirred up something that someone is prepared to kill to protect?

It seems that there may be no one that Even can trust.

But can we trust him?

A taut, moving and chilling thriller, Inborn examines the very nature of evil, and asks the questions: How well do we really know our families? How well do we know ourselves?”

CAUTION: A tiny whiff of a spoiler is contained within..

Thomas Enger’s Inborn has a fantastic opening. By this I really don’t mean the rest of it isn’t worth the trees it’s printed on, far from it.. but that opening murder, bloody hell. Johannes Eklund is a teenager with a bright future who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His attempt to flee and his final moments make for as powerful an opener as I’ve read this year: a vividly brutal murder where you feel the fear and panic as it consumes Johannes, made all the more powerful as, beyond being a particularly violent end, it’s happening to a kid in his teens.

After the initial hook and shock Inborn is a real slow burner at first as Enger lines up all the pieces – aided by nicely employing different narratives- and then there’s a moment about a third of the way in where it caught me and I wasn’t able to put it down until the early hours of the morning when I’d finished the whole thing with each of my “ah so he/she’s the killer” assumptions blown apart as soon as they’d formed.

Thomas Enger, as anyone who’s read his Henning Juul books will agree, has a real knack for writing parents dealing with the murder of their child in a way that’ll punch you right in the guts and those scenes in Inborn – parents rendered numb and desperate with grief – are particularly affecting.

Much as with his Henning Juul series, Inborn slowly but surely unravels a compelling and intricate web of lies that have been lurking beneath the surface of this small town. I was thoroughly gripped as the reason Mari Lindgren ended her relationship with Even was revealed – even if (here’s that SPOILER), in the end, it had nothing to do with her murder after all.

The characters that populate Inborn are richly detailed and the fact that they made me feel old shows how well written the teen characters are. The gits. As great as the Even narrative and character is, the stand out for me is Yngve Mork. The local policeman, barely coming to terms with the recent death of his wife is a beautifully written character that I could happily go through a series of novels.

Inborn is a thoroughly engrossing and rewarding read with plenty of sharp turns and surprises to ensure you stay hooked to the end. Exceedingly well written, brilliantly plotted and wholeheartedly recommended.

My thanks, always, to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.