Facets of Death by Michael Stanley

From the PR: “Recruited straight from university to Botswana’s CID, David ‘Kubu’
Bengu has raised his colleagues’ suspicions with his meteoric rise within the department, and he has a lot to prove.

When the richest diamond mine in the world is robbed of 100,000 carats worth of gems, and the thieves are found, executed, Kubu leaps at the chance to prove himself. First he must find the diamonds – and it seems that a witch doctor and his son have a part to play.

Does this young detective have the skill and integrity to engineer an international trap? Or could it cost him everything?”

It feels like it’s been way too long since a new Detective Kubu novel arrived on my shelves. Whenever one does I know for a fact that I’m going to love every second of it and Facets of Death delighted on every page.

Reading the work of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip (writing as Michael Stanley) is always a genuine delight and, as much as I enjoyed Dead of the Night, Detective Kubu is one of my favourite characters – I’m sure I’ve said it before but in David ‘Kubu’ Bengu, Sears and Trollip have created a character I could read all day every day and never get bored.

Facets of Death takes us back in time to 1998 and Kubu’s first week on the job, it’s a strange sensation – seeing our old friend starting out, finding his way and putting his foot in it. We know where Kubu will end up down the road but it’s great fun watching him get started – whether it’s learning the kind of questions to ask, the importance of biting your tongue or forming new relationships.

Thankfully there’s none of that dreaded false jeopardy that often plague ‘prequel’ novels as, for one thing, this seems more about showing the experiences that informed the detective Kubu would become rather than using a younger model to punch in a more lively manner and, for another, Messrs Sears and Trollip are too busy laying out a ridiculously good plot and mystery.

Facets of Death kicks off with a taught and gripping heist then gradually unfolds into a brilliantly crafted and complex mystery that left me guessing to the end. From the initial heist, violent murders, setups and, of course, the influence of witch doctors, there are so many facets to the story that it’s a real joy as all the elements are expertly lined up and pieced together.

Once again populated with convincing characters, evocatively detailed and deliciously rooted in Botswana and its traditions, Facets of Death is a joyously rewarding read and another rich addition to Detective Kubu series.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Facets of Death and to Anne Cater for inviting me to join the blog tour.

Bound by Vanda Symon

From the PR: “The passionate, young police officer Sam Shephard returns in a taut, atmospheric and compelling police procedural, which sees her take matters into her own hands when the official investigation into the murder of a local businessman fails to add up…

The New Zealand city of Dunedin is rocked when a wealthy and apparently respectable businessman is murdered in his luxurious home while his wife is bound and gagged, and forced to watch. But when Detective Sam Shephard and her team start investigating the case, they discover that the victim had links with some dubious characters. The case seems cut and dried, but Sam has other ideas.

Weighed down by her dad’s terminal cancer diagnosis, and by complications in her relationship with Paul, she needs a distraction, and launches her own investigation. And when another murder throws the official case into chaos, it ’s up to Sam to prove that the killer is someone no one could ever suspect.”

It’s hard to start a review of a Vanda Symon book chiefly because her cold openers are so astoundingly good – I can’t think of many authors that have such an ability with those immediate hooks. Not just that but the rest of Bound is also bloody good too, delivering on that opening with an addictive and brilliantly written story.

It’s one of those where ‘just one more chapter’ is impossible. It’s no mean feat – to deliver such a powerful opening scene and keep the reader consistently hooked throughout yet Bound does just that.

This is a wonderfully plotted novel with characters that live, breath and walk off the pages so well portrayed are they. There’s a lot going on within Bound‘s 260 or so pages – a brutal execution, drug trafficking and organised crime, a policeman hell bent on revenge and Sam’s own personal and professional turmoil – yet at no point does it feel like there’s too much; Vanda Symon’s prose style one of calm and gentle build that pulls you in deep.

Bound isn’t a “rip along at 100mph and kick down every door to find the truth, damn it” novel (though there is a cracking car chase scene), it’s a more intelligent and slow burn of a plot with a whopper of a reveal that’ll leave you thinking for some time after finishing. Just what would you do in the name of ‘love’? There seems to be a lot of extreme answers in this one. A compelling and hugely satisfying read.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of Bound and to Anne Cater for inviting me take part in the blog tour for this cracking book.

Currently spinning: the new, the coming and the anticipated

It’s been a minute since I dropped a ‘here’s what I’m hearing’ post but there’s no time like the present so, in the immortal words of Marvin Gaye: let’s get it on.

Mogwai – To The Bin My Friend, Tonight We Vacate The Earth

New albums from Mogwai are always gonna be warmly received by me – be it soundtrack or studio – but this year’s As the Love Continues is one of their finest in years. Its’ so fucking good. In fact this, the first track on the album, is good it got my normally ‘post-rock ambivalent’ wife into the album. Just a stunning effort from the band, no doubt helped by the lack of distractions being in lockdown gave them and an easy Best Album of 2021 contender already.

Dinosaur Jr – I Ran Away

Well – another probable contender for that title is already on the way! Dinosaur Jr recently announced their new album Sweep It Into Space is en route (and pre-ordered by me of course). A new slab of Dinosaur Jr is plenty of reason to pay attention (see this post for more proof) but the new one is produced with Kurt Vile and features him on 12-string apparently. It’s the band’s first since 2016.  Can’t wait!

Ben Howard – What A Day

Well, here we are with another hotly-anticipated (by me) album. Ben Howard has been a real mainstay on my stereo for years, there’s something about the vibe he taps into that’s just right up my street. His new album – Collections From the Whiteout –  is produced with The National’s Aaron Dessner – and songs dropped so far feel like a lighter, though no-less adventurous sound than his last album

Jaguar Sun – The Heart

You know Spotify certainly has its drawbacks but it can also lead to great discoveries too. I stumbled by pure chance – having been listening to that fucking great Bleachers tune ‘chinatown’ which features Bruce Springsteen – a few weeks back into a playlist it was recommending me called ‘Dream Pop’ – a genre I hadn’t really paid attention to. What a fucking muppet. There’s so much gold in there that hits so may buttons for me that I’ve spent a long time immersed in it every evening and just drifting off like I’m wrapped in shimmering clouds, man. This Jaguar Sun dude has some great stuff but ‘The Heart’ is the one that I keep finding myself humming.

Philip Sayce – Black Roller Coming

Oh dude – getting back to the grittier guitars and electric blues crunch just in case you worried. I caught a Philip Sayce last year and his album Spirit Rising got a load of plays last year and into this. Loads of that sweet guitar tone and rip for when it needs turning up load.

R.E.M – So Fast So Numb

Even if they’re no longer active as a band in the traditional sense, R.E.M have been outstanding in celebrating the anniversaries of their albums with beefed up takes on all bang on their 25th Anniversary with notable beefed-up editions of their Warner Bros albums especially. This year marks 25 years since the release of my favourite R.E.M album New Adventures in Hi-Fi and I’m eagerly anticipating news of a similar treatment  for it, especially as getting the original on vinyl is pretty priced way out of likelihood.

Pixies – Alec Eiffel

As much as I love new Pixies music arriving, they’re another band that are aware of their legacy and the value it has to fans and have treated us to similar revisiting of their albums, albeit on their 30th anniversary. Expanded takes on Dolittle and Come on Pilgrim… It’s Surfer Rosa were treasure troves of additional material while last year’s Bossanova was a great pressing of a classic. This year marks 30 (shocking) years since the last album in their initial run – Trompe Le Monde and another I’m in eager anticipation for.

 

Side note: while we’re talking new music and spins… I heard the new Foo Fighters album and fell asleep. I’ll leave it at that.

Hotel Cartagena by Simone Bucholz

From the PR: “Twenty floors above the shimmering lights of the Hamburg docks, Public Prosecutor Chastity Riley is celebrating a birthday with friends in a hotel bar when twelve heavily armed men pull out guns, and take everyone hostage.

Among the hostages is Konrad Hoogsmart, the hotel owner, who is being targeted by a young man whose life – and family – have been destroyed by Hoogsmart’s actions.

With the police looking on from outside – their colleagues’ lives at stake – and Chastity on the inside, increasingly ill from an unexpected case of sepsis, the stage is set for a dramatic confrontation … and a devastating outcome for the team … all live streamed in a terrifying bid for revenge.

Crackling with energy and populated by a cast of unforgettable characters, Hotel Cartagena is a searing, stunning thriller that will leave you breathless.”

Here we are with Hotel Cartagena and while I’m only a few novels deep into Simone Buchholz’ Chastity Riley series by now I’m gonna kick this review off by saying this is the best one yet!

There’s nothing on my shelves that really compares – or competes – with Buchholz’ narrative prowess. It at once recalls Ellroy’s telegraph style and grit while bringing it up to date with a proverbial kick up the arse in terms of sentiment and pace. Buchholz has a fantastic ability to convey a massive swathe of emotion and personality with the minimum of keyboard strokes and reading her work is always an absolute blast of joy – it’s one of those novels where you’re marvelling at both technique and plot and relishing every second.

Oh yeah, plot: this one’s an absolute belter. I won’t give too many details here so as not to spoil but as both the blurb and cover point out – the bar takeover and hostage situation is driven by a bid for revenge and the story leading up to it.. holy shit what a story! ‘Riveted’ isn’t the word, doesn’t do it justice – once that story line hooked me I couldn’t put it down.

There’s the joyously addictive, slow burning Henning story, the drama as the hostage situation and Chastity’s unravelling as her sepsis sneaks in, and then Ivo stuck outside the hotel and unravelling almost as fast… there’s a lot of great stuff to get your teeth into in this sharp and powerful thriller. Oh, and a climax that’ll leave your gob open.

Hotel Cartagena is another brilliantly written and plotted slab of the great stuff by Simone Buchholz and I heartily recommend getting stuck in at your soonest opportunity.

My thanks as always to Karen at Orenda Books for my copy (and consistently publishing such cracking work) and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in this blog tour.

A Long Way from Douala by Max Lobe

From the PR: “On the trail of Roger, a brother who has gone north in search of football fame in Europe, Choupi, the narrator, takes with him the older Simon, a neighbourhood friend. The bus trip north nearly ends in disaster when, at a pit stop, Simon goes wandering in search of grilled caterpillars. At the police station in Yaoundé, the local cop tells them that a feckless ‘boza’ – a loser who wants to go to Europe is not worth police effort and their mother should go and pleasure the police chief if she wants help!

Through a series of joyful sparky vignettes, Cameroon life is revealed in all its ups and downs. Issues of life and death are raised but the tone remains light and edgy. Important issues of violence, terrorism, homosexuality and migration feature in A Long Way from Douala.”

I’m delighted to not only be taking part in the blog tour for A Long Way From Douala but to also be the first port of call. So let’s start off with a quick statement: this is a hell of a good book. In fact it’s bloody brilliant.

I went into A Long Way From Douala with no expectations and a whole lot of curiosity, never having read a novel by an author from or set in Cameroon. I was blown away by this deceptively slim book and loved every second of it.

Through a series of vignettes and flashbacks that are at times both brilliantly funny and immensely touching and evocative, A Long Way From Douala is a richly detailed story that delivers a real insight into life in Cameroon.

There are so many little details and moments in Choupi and Simon’s journey that left me agog that I know I’ll be going back to this one for another read. Whether it’s the dealings with local police, unexplained train stops punctuated by the sound of gunshots in the dark of night, or even the local ‘red light district’ there’s so many of these nuggets of Cameroonian life that it really immerses the reader in its world.

Max Lobe describes both the boys’ journey, his characters and their environs with a genuine warmth and lightness of tone that makes sure the narrative moves along at a brilliant pace that manages to bound along while never feeling rushed – even if the boys are trying to catch Roger.

Beyond the humour and warmth in the narrative though, A Long Way From Douala touches on many serious and issues that face Cameroonians on a daily basis from corruption and violence to the threat of increasing Boko Harum raids from across the border and, of course, the danger so many face in their pursuit of a better life by leaving Cameroon as they – like Roger – seek ‘Boza’; an expression used by central and West African migrants attempting to reach Europe when the cross the border. A genuinely eye-opening read.

This is a brilliant little novel full of life, humour and heart and, like all great small novels, I really wish there was more of it.

My thanks to Hope Road Publishing for my copy of A Long Way From Douala and to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part in this blog tour.

With all the clarity of dream – revisiting On Every Street

“Success I adore. It means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles. But I detest fame. It interferes with what you do and has no redeeming features at all.”

Background:

As has been pointed out many a time before and no doubt will be whenever they are written about or discussed, Dire Straits were a great band at the wrong time. A four-piece routed in the classic-rock style emerging from London’s pub-rock scene at a time when punk was holding sway here in the UK, epitomised by John Lydon’s ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt.

Yet one of the reasons Dire Straits are still written about and no doubt will be for some time to come was that they did find success thanks to Mark Knopfler’s fluid, finger-picking guitar style and ability to come up with something as catchy as ‘Sultans of Swing’ on their first outing. ‘Sultans of Swing’ managed to break the top ten on both sides of the Atlantic and their first album, Dire Straits – produced by Steve Winwood’s older brother Muff and released in 1978 – was a similar success.

Less than ten years later, in September 1988 with five albums behind them and after an 18-month tour of 247 sold-out stadium and arena shows, Knopfler – who had taken control of the band completely by the time of 1980’s Making Movies (a move helped along byJimmy Iovine taking him to watch a Springsteen session where everybody called Bruce ‘Boss’) in a move which had seen the departure of his brother David and original drummer Pick Withers – dissolved the band.

All the numbers and constant attention had lost meaning for the band, especially Knopfler who would tell Rolling Stone “”A lot of press reports were saying we were the biggest band in the world. There’s not an accent then on the music, there’s an accent on popularity. I needed a rest.”‘

It was, in hindsight, a pretty appropriate place to call it a day – having risen from an unlikely breakthrough to the millions of sales achieved by Brothers In Arms. Those first five albums are stuffed with great tunes and I’ll happily put any one of them at any time – especially Love Over Gold which is by far and away their finest work even if Brothers In Arms became the monster in terms of sales. And yet they had one more in them..

On Every Street

After Dire Straits we dissolved in ’88,  Mark Knopfler recorded a soundtrack for Last Exit To Brooklyn and formed The Notting Hillbillies, a country-leaning group who released Missing… Presumed Having a Good Time in 1990. It felt like, free of the expectation and incumbent attention given to anything Dire Straits, Knopfler was having, well a good time.

Then, in early 1991, the band – well, bass plater John Illsley, Knopfler and manager Ed Bicknell – met for lunch and decided to reconvene Dire Straits. Just like that, apparently. Personally, I can’t help but feel there was a little more to it than that because the resultant On Every Streets now – having spent more time of it late than I have for years after picking up a copy on cassette for a quid – feels like an album of two halves, a split-personality of an album that not only suffers from the CD bloat that was rife during that era (especially ironic given Brothers In Arms the first album to sell a million copies on that format was a much more concise effort) but also feels like it suffers from a lack of interest  from Knopfler himself across several tracks.

The time of release for On Every Street was as inauspicious as their debut only this time even the band members would admit that, following the album’s tour, “whatever the zeitgeist was that we had been part of, it had passed.” 1991 was also the year of ALT ROCK in deserved big letters – Nevermind, Ten, Badmotorfinger were breaking grunge out of Seattle and U2 had discovered irony and wrap around sunglasses in time for Achtung Baby! It didn’t feel like the time for a new Dire Straits record (any more than, really, 1994 would feel like time for a new Pink Floyd album) but, now, free of the judgement of the time, On Every Street has a lot of good stuff on it. It’s just that, sandwiched between are some real duff moments.

If you look at it almost as an ‘every-other-track’ album, On Every Street carries its weight. I’m starting to wonder if the conversation at that lunch in 1991 was more along of the lines of a record label pointing out that one more album was due and that if Knopfler wanted to keep major-label backing for his solo work, these new songs needed to go out under the Dire Straits name one last time. Or perhaps I’m being cynical – there’s no such statement or quote to attest to this but I can’t shake the feeling that those tracks which feel like Knopfler isn’t giving it his most on are the most ‘Twisting By The Pool’ / ‘Walk of Life’ style blatant attempts at appeasing the expectation of a ‘Dire Straits hit song’. The guiltiest? ‘Heavy Fuel’ and ‘My Parties’. I mean, take just those two off and you’re down to a stronger album already, right?

But, back to the every-other-track / cd bloat theory that’s hiding a stronger album theory.

‘Calling Elvis’ isn’t a bad song, it’s pretty good and Knopfler’s guitar work is understated but lets loose in a way that’s still delicious all these years later. The album’s title track follows and ‘On Every Street’ is a gorgeous tune – subject matter that calls back to ‘Private Investigations’ and a guitar solo that takes over three minutes in that I can listen to daily and still love.

Not only that but ‘Fade to Black’ has a lovely hushed, noir-like low-key vibe with Knoplfer dropping licks aplenty and an organ part that recalls Making Movies in a way. But to get to it you have to skip ‘When It Comes To You’ – a song that’s not the worst on the album but doesn’t really offer much and jars when listened to in flow. Skip over ‘The Bug’ (you only need to hear it once) and you’re back to the gold (as in Love Over) territory again with another stately, brooding and gorgeously played ‘You and Your Friend’. To me it plays like a wonderful hybrid of ‘The Man’s Too Strong’ and ‘Brothers in Arms’ in style and it’s easily a highpoint:

Skip the next track – the easy, low-hanging fruit lyrics of ‘Heavy Fuel’ (“When my ugly big car won’t a-climb this hill, I’ll write a suicide note on a hundred dollar bill”), and move straight on to ‘Iron Hand’, easily one of Knopfler’s finest. From this point, save for ‘My Parties’ which feels like b-side ‘Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts’, the album remains pretty decent.

That’s the thing that links all the ‘meh’ tracks here whether it’s ‘The Bug’, ‘Heavy Fuel’ or ‘My Parties’ – they all feel like the actual b-sides that were released with the album’s singles. When they were recently made available on Spotify I  was keen to hear but then ‘Kingdom Come’ and ‘Millionaire Blues’ are actually pretty interchangeable with ‘The Bug’ and ‘Heavy Fuel’, even Knopfler’s vocals sound as uncommitted. Which makes me think not only are these tunes that MK could toss off in his sleep but that were it not for CD runtimes and presumed label pressure, they too would’ve been trimmed off.

Back to the good stuff – ‘Ticket To Heaven’ has a much lighter, folkier and almost Celtic touch with a few strings added on and Knopfler’s in great voice (it’s a good signpost for his solo work on The Ragpicker’s Dream). ‘Planet of New Orleans’ is back to the noir-vibe of ‘Fade To Black’ but with extra guitar atmosphere and sax while ‘How Long’ is as obvious a light-hearted and folk-leaning Mark Knopfler solo song as it’s possible to be and serves as a fitting sign-off on the last Dire Straits album while remaining optimistic and hinting at what was to come.

You see, that’s the thing – where it’s really good On Every Street works brilliantly. For a long time Dire Straits had ceased to be the ‘band’ it started out as and had become a vehicle for Knopfler’s song writing with John Illsley along to pluck the bass. At this point Knopfer was leaning to a much different style to that which had proven the biggest ‘hits’ for Dire Straits but there was – and still is – a huge amount of great tunes to be found. Who knows – had On Every Street been allowed to focus on that element, without the filler and the negative reviews it drew as a result, maybe he’d still be releasing albums under the band name rather than his own.

As it was, the album drew lukewarm reviews at best though through a heavy tour schedule (300 shows in two years which were documented on the patch OnThe Night live album) and promotion still shifted 10 million. Knopfler’s second marriage fell apart, the tour was stressful and overblown and reminded all of what caused the first end back in ’88. Thus it was that, in 1992, Knopfler said ‘goodnight’ to 40,000 people in Spain for the last time as Dire Strait’s frontman and stepped into a solo career that has been producing solid solo albums and soundtracks since  ’96. The band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 – there was no reunion and Knopfler didn’t attend, with John Illsley stating “I’ll assure you it’s a personal thing. Let’s just leave it at that.”

Oh, here’s On Every Street, don’t forget to skip a few:

 

 

 

I been starin’, I been starin’ into space.. Five from Dinosaur Jr

Formed in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1984, Dinosaur Jr are one of my favourite bands. Originally setting out to create ‘ear-bleeding country’ music, the band, propelled by J Mascis’ guitar playing, went from being one early proponents of fuzz-laden noise rock to being a massive influence on alt. rock, grunge and countless other players and bands going from indie labels to major and back again via line-up changes and reunions.

It’d be an unenviable task to try and pin point their sound – they’ve shifted quite far from their raucous debut Dinousaur (the band would add the ‘Jr’ shortly after to avoid litigation from) especially as bass player Lou Barlow initially handled most of the vocals – but one thing that’s been consistent across their work is the guitar playing of J Mascis who’s up there in my list of top ten guitar players.

With that in mind, here are five great Dinosaur Jr songs – not ‘the best of’ or even ‘essential’, just five cracking Dinosaur Jr tunes to get your teeth into on a Sunday evening.

Freak Scene

Their first ‘hit’ in the UK when released on Blast First in ’88 and a great example of the early sound of the original trio of Mascis, Barlow and drummer Murph.

Out There

Mascis signed to Sire records in 1989 but Barlow was out of the band by the time of their major label debut Green Mind. ‘Out There’ comes from Where You Been and was a pretty good hit (by Dino standards).

Nothin’s Goin On

Come Hand It Over, Dinosaur Jr’s final of four major-label albums, J Mascis was the only ‘original’ member left. The label, realising by now the band was never going to be another Nirvana, barely even promoted or distributed the album which is a shame because of the band’s ’90’s majors era’ Hand It Over is my favourite.  After the album’s release and tour, Mascis would retire the band’s name and release a couple of solo albums under the J Mascis & The Fog moniker.

All I Came To Do

In 2005 the original lineup of Dinosaur Jr reformed for a series of live shows and, in 2007, a new album Beyond appeared. A powerful album filled to the brim of great tunes and Mascis’ dazzling guitar work.

Said The People

Oddly, the reunion has held. The lineup has now produced more albums than during their first tenure with another expected this year. Their second back-together album Farm was even stronger and highlighted J’s slower-burners more prominently, ‘Said The People’ is a real favourite of mine.

Red Corona by Tim Glister

From the PR: “British secret agent Richard Knox has been hung out to dry by someone in MI5, and while his former boss lies in a coma, he needs to find the traitor in their midst.

In Russia, top scientist Irina Valera discovers the secret to sending messages through space, a technology that could change the world. But a terrible accident forces her to flee.

Desperate for a way back into MI5, Knox makes an unlikely ally in Abey Bennett, one of the CIA’s only female recruits, realising that Valera’s technology in the hands of the KGB could be catastrophic for the West.

As the age of global surveillance dawns, all three have something to prove.

Set against a backdrop of true events during the Cold War, RED CORONA is a smart, fast-paced spy thriller from a talented new crime writer.”

Sometimes a title is accidentally relevant. In this instance there’s no virus – the corona in question is the satellite reconnaissance programme the US ran from 1959 and into the early 70s – using satellites to produce aerial photographs of the USSR (and China). That’s right; we’re in glorious Cold War spy thriller territory here, a genre I’ve been immersing myself ever deeper in over the last few years so this one is right up my alley.

We’ve got disgraced agents, double agents, explosions – planned and accidental, chases and kidnappings, twists, turns, double crosses, executions and a great reveal. Oh, and the space race. All the elements are brilliantly set in place in amongst an intriguing and well realised plot that’s all the more noteworthy considering this is Tim Glister’s first novel.

Red Corona is a well-researched and vividly described novel with a pretty technical subject matter at its centre but Glister has clearly done his homework on it and possess the skill to convey the complexity and mechanics of it in a manner that’s both thorough and retains the pacing of the novel, vital in this genre and seamless here. Glister paints a detailed and lifelike picture of both 60’s London and the USSR and populates his novel with a great set of characters.

The three main narrative threads – those of Knox, Irina Valera and Abey Bennet – are all compelling and watching as they overlap and come together, revealing different facets of the story makes for a gripping read. Of the bunch I found Irina Valera’s exceptionally captivating, not only because Glister is tapping into an area for which I have a real interest but because it’s also very convincing in its detail and carries a real emotional wallop that you wouldn’t necessarily expect in a spy thriller. Very much well worth a read.

My thanks to Point Blank / One World and  Anne Cater for my copy of Red Corona and asking me to join the Blog Tour.

Albums of my years – 2020

First off – yes, I’m jumping ahead by a fair leap from the last of this series. Why? Well, the original premise was to go through each of those years leading up to my 40th. Problem is I didn’t account for my own lapse in prompt posting, the restraints such an ambitious series has on getting out other posts (I’ve still a couple more Bruce posts in the tank and countless others that were in the works) and that target drifted past last October. 2020 was a bloody weird one for me, for all of us I’m sure, and while I had more time on my hands as a result of spending the majority of it on furlough (and a small part job hunting) and coming to terms with release from a toxic work environment for some years and its impact, I simply wasn’t in the mental state needed to keep a schedule and get that target home. Plus – given that it’s now still just about January – it feels more fitting now to blast out a 2020 wrap up and fill in the gaps on an ad-hoc basis.

2020 was, understandably, a real weird one in music from February onwards. Most music news focused on the cancellation of tours, delays in releases and – most sadly – those who had died after contracting Covid-19. As we got used to the new state of things artists both decided to release albums anyway or, often, had so much time off-cycle that they were able to turn around entire albums in the lockdowns that most of the world were under (and still are, here, as I type). Music news and the presentation of new music shifted into a different phase as ‘guest spots’ on TV shows came via webcams and concerts were streamed from artists’ homes and rehearsal spaces right into those of the audience. While this served a welcome relief and distraction for music lovers including myself, I cannot overstate how damaging an impact this pandemic has had and is having on the events industry.

With the news cycle this year being one of the strangest, it’s easy to forget some of the events that took place in 2020. Hell, March 2020 seems like a decade ago so the fact that, say, Pearl Jam released their first album in seven years is almost forgotten. That they too had the anticipated rollout and tour cancelled no doubt threw a spanner in the works. While we’re still on the subject of the news cycle I think we can, all of us around the right-thinking world that is, agree that the best news to come out of 2020 was the defeat of that contemptible sack of shit and a potential end to the plain insanity and ‘alternative-fact’ delirium. Well done America and thanks.

The start of the year saw reunions and reunion tours announced for bands like Genesis and Rage Against the Machine only for them to be promptly postponed, leaving them in the odd position of being together again but not really. It would be hard for a band to be together long enough to decide to break up in 2020 – a few did but nobody that you’d call any great shakes with the exception, for me, of Milk Teeth – but we lost a lot of great musicians in 2020. Thanks to Coronavirus we said goodbye to John Prine and Fountains of Wayne’s Adam Schlesinger. Country singer and fried chicken connoisseur Kenny Rogers died at age 81 as did Bill Withers and Spencer Davis. Neil Peart, long held in high regard as one of the greatest drummers to sit on the stool, died in January, Little Richard passed away in May. We also said farewell to Peter Green, blues guitarist of choice and founder of Fleetwood Mac, Justin Townes Earle and Ennio Morricone – one of the most emotive film composers to score a film – left us in July at the ripe old age of 91. And perhaps most surprisingly, after increasing rumours of ill health, Eddie Van Halen lost his battle with cancer in October. A guitar player like no other, he was a real ‘light the fuse and watch the fireworks’ player who seemed unable to pick up an instrument without riffs and melodies falling out of him.

So what albums made it through? It was a great year for post-rock releases. Caspian’s In Circles, Toundra’s Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (a re-imagined soundtrack for a silent German horror film), Audiolepsia’s Waves & Particles and I Hear Sirens’ Stella Mori all got a lot of ear time in 2020.

Stone Temple Pilots released their second album with singer Jeff Gutt (I always have to double check that’s actually his name) – Perdida is ‘ok’ but it’s a long way from Core. Nada Surf’s Never Not Together is pleasant enough but nothing to really stick in the mind like Lucky and Bob Dylan emerged from years of cover albums to release his first album of original songs in eight years: Rough and Rowdy Ways. If not being able to tour is affecting anyone it’s gotta be bothering Bob – not that he’s likely to be at a loss having sold the rights to his entire back catalogue to Universal for a rumoured $350 million. I don’t think I’ve listened to the album more than once though. One I have listened to a lot and took almost as long to release is My Morning Jacket’s The Waterfall II. Back in 2015 when The Waterfall was let loose on us, the band said they’d recorded two album’s worth of material and the second would soon follow…. since then nothing. Until Jim James took a walk during lockdown with his iPod and heard the songs again, prompting its release shortly after. It was worth the wait but I’m itching for some ‘new’ MMJ…

I started getting into Courtney Marie Matthews in 2019 and was pretty chuffed when she released Old Flowers in 2020 – a gorgeous album with lots of brooding and burning guitar leads buried in a lush atmosphere supporting her great vocals. ‘If I Told’, in particular received many a repeated listen:

In a ‘back from the past’ file you’ll find Bush – known for finding more success in the States on the back of the post-Grunge boom than in the UK – but they’ve been back together for a while and putting out music that’s pretty bloody strong considering, their 2020 album The Kingdom got a good few streams my end as did Alanis Morissette’s Such Pretty Forks which is a surprisingly strong and consistently good album given I’d almost completely tuned out of new music from Alanis for over a decade. Somewhere in there I also discovered the music of Rose City Band in 2020 – via a real vibe of an album Summerlong that you could just put on loop and drift away to somewhere else in your mind.

Milk Teeth released their second album, following a series of EPs,  a self-titled effort brimming with their mix of 90’s inspired punk and rock before calling it a day. Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was found Bright Eyes returning nine years after their last effort with a much strong effort that I was expecting though I’ve yet to part with coin for it. One I happily did part with coin for was Thurston Moore’s By The Fire – a great album that’s probably the strongest of his post-Sonic Youth and, with Steve Shelley handling a lot of the drum duty, is as close to that band’s sound as you’re gonna find on a new release. Big Thief were a big discovery for me in 2019, in the space of a year I went from not having heard of them to grabbing each of their four albums (two of which were released in 2019 alone) and getting very quickly addicted. For some reason I was a little late, then, in listening to Adrianne Lenker’s 2020 release Songs and Instrumentals but I’m glad I did – it’s my favourite of her solo work to date and very much worth a listen.

Billy Corgan decided to stop being a moaning dickhead long enough to make another Smashing Pumpkins album – Cyr is a double album in which I doubt there’s even a single good album. Someone really, really needs to tell him ‘nah’ more often.

For all that, when it comes to new music (as opposed to the discovery of new-to-me bands and older music that seemed to dominate 2020 for me listening wise), there were two albums that got the most ear time with me and it’s unlikely to be any surprise which. Both had been the subject of rumours swirling ahead of their actual drop and both proved a very welcome relief in terms of both quality and distraction from the world’s troubles.

So let’s do this:

Bruce Springsteen’s 2019 album Western Stars, his first since his residency on Braodway, was a a real outlier in his catalogue. A ‘solo’ album in the sense that it wasn’t an E Street Band affair but nonetheless bathed in sound. There was to be no tour. A ‘live’ film and soundtrack quickly followed and then the rumours started as Bruce mentioned he’d started writing for ‘the band’. And then, when we needed it most after half a year thwarted by lockdowns and pandemic, the announcement came: the new Bruce Springsteen album, backed by the E Street Band, Letter To You was coming. Not only that, but it was recorded in a matter of days, live in the studio, minimal overdubs! Could it be? Could the sound of the E Street Band in its prime – Bruce hadn’t recorded live with the band without at least demoing the material since the early 80s – without the interference of extra layers and gimmicks that had afflicted his last three albums (even Western Stars couldn’t escape it) all produced by Ron Aniello? The answer was very much ‘yes, yes and YES!’

Letter To You is Springsteen’s finest album since Magic and the sound of the E Street Band (with the Charles Giordano and Jake Clemons filling in for the faithful departed) at its glorious best in a way it hasn’t been captured on ‘tape’ in a long-ass time. The album moves with a confidence and power that I honestly didn’t expect was there anymore. There’s something both comforting and exciting about hearing that sound on new songs that just makes you want to head straight back to the start after finishing the album.

It’s a joy to hear those older (‘Janey Needs a Shooter’, ‘If I Was The Priest’ and ‘Song for Orphans’ date back to ’72) songs songs dusted off and, at last, given life. The newer songs – which all came quickly to Bruce once he started playing a guitar given to him by a fan – sit amongst his best. There’s at once a sense of ‘this is who were then and this is who we are now’ as there’s no getting around the fact that time marches on (hell, it’s there in his voice) while at the same time letting you know that there’s still gas in the tank to go.

While Western Stars was an album that wouldn’t really transfer to the world’s stadiums and arenas, Letter To You brims with songs that need to be heard live – let’s hope that tour can happen soon.

And that just leaves…

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

Once upon a time you could set your clock by Pearl Jam releases. Every 18 months or so you’d get another slab of the great stuff. But that schedule, sadly, is close to 20 years ago… gaps between albums started to get longer: nearly four years separated Riot Act and Pearl Jam, another three until Backspacer, then four again before we got Lightning Bolt and then…. the longest wait to date came to end this year with Gigaton, their first album in seven long years and their first since 2006 with a new producer; sessions and work with Brendan O’Brien not hitting the mark for the band (or fans, see ‘Can’t Deny Me’).

As a long time fan, I was growing tired of the rumours – the fake supposed track lists and titles (some better than others, most featuring ‘Of The Earth’ and ‘Can’t Deny Me’ as attempts at validity), the ‘massive tour featuring both small venues and stadiums in each city’ and claims of ‘two new albums and an Ed solo’. It would come when it would come. And then, early in 2020, there were some very real hints, snippets of a strange new sound doing the rounds, an app and map to hunt down images around the world, an album cover and, finally, the email from Ten Club arrived ‘Dance of the Clairvoyants’ – it was time!

Now, I’ll be honest, at first I was a little ‘do what?’ But by the end I was hooked and going back for another spin – a lot more than can be said for ‘Can’t Deny Me’. It’s definitely Pearl Jam but it’s Pearl Jam sounding more focused and engaged than they have on record for a while, working with Josh Evans had clearly allowed them to take a freer approach to their experimental side in the same way as working with Tchad Blake and Adam Kasper had. If this was a sign of what was to come on Gigaton a) sign me up and b) what’s next? Well, ‘Superblood Wolfmoon’ showed that ‘DOTC’ was a deliberate left-field choice, it was a more straight-ahead song but, again, the band sounding tighter and more ‘on’. From the conversations online I saw, it did the job of shutting up those bemoaning DOTC’s ‘weird’ sound. And then came ‘Quick Escape’ and I new that Gigaton was going to be great:

It’s a belter of a song, guitars to the forefront and a scathing lyric  – “crossed the border to Morocco, Kashmir to Marrakesh, the lengths we had to go to then to find a place Trump hadn’t fucked up yet”. What was I expecting – an album with the experimental textures of Riot Act with the power and engaged lyrics of Pearl Jam. What I got was exactly that and it’s fucking great – even though ‘Buckle Up’ took a lot of listens to not skip.

Since Binaural I’d started to consider Pearl Jam a band of second halves on their albums – from the mid point on things got tastier. ‘Light Years’ through to ‘Parting Ways’, ‘Nothing As It Seems’ through ‘All Or None’, ‘Just Breath’ onwards etc is where you found the juicier cuts of meat. But Gigaton is not only front-loaded, the mid section is dazzling – ‘Seven O’Clock’ is easily Vedder’s wordiest lyric and is powered along by a melody that has the rare distinction of being a ‘Ament, Gossard, McCready, Vedder’ composition, and ‘Take The Long Way’ is one of those great Matt Cameron composition – and closes strong with ‘Comes Then Goes’, ‘Retrograde’ and ‘River Cross’, Vedder’s touching lament on fear and the nature of doubt in life underscored by an antique pump organ (the take used retained from a 2015 demo for the song).

I’ve played this album through so many times this year I’ve lost count – I even picked up the CD too (as Pearl Jam don’t seem to grasp download codes with their vinyl) so I could spin it in the car on my new commute – and am still not tired of it. Pearl Jam haven’t sounded so consistently engaged and willing to ‘go for it’ in pushing their sound for years and it’s a joyous listen that, in a year of turmoil, managed to provide an uplifting soundtrack. It’s an easy choice for me to highlight this as my album of 2020 on so many personal levels.

There’s Only One Danny Garvey – by David F Ross

From the PR: “Danny Garvey was a sixteen-year old footballing prodigy. Professional clubs clamoured to sign him, and a glittering future beckoned.

And yet, his early promise remained unfulfilled, and Danny is back home in the tiny village of Barshaw to manage the struggling junior team he once played for. What’s more, he’s hiding a secret about a tragic night, thirteen years earlier, that changed the course of several lives.

There’s only one Danny Garvey, they once chanted … and that’s the problem. A story of irrational hopes and fevered dreams – of unstoppable passion and unflinching commitment in the face of defeat – There’s Only One Danny Garvey is, above all, an unforgettable tale about finding hope and redemption in the most unexpected of places.”

So, let’s get down to it: There’s Only One Danny Garvey is the fifth novel from David F Ross and if you haven’t read any of his books by now I’ve gotta ask; what’s been keeping you, ya bawbag?! David F Ross is one of the sharpest and funniest writers currently putting ink to page and There’s Only Danny Garvey may just be his best yet.

It’s exceedingly hard to combine an engrossing and well crafted story with genuine laugh-your-arse-off humour and still manage to pack an emotional punch – yet David F Ross seems to have found some secret recipe somewhere and pulls it off superbly in There’s Only One Danny Garvey. That he throws plenty of music and pop culture touch stones in – as per each of his novels to date – only makes it all the more enjoyable for me.

There’s so much to shout about in this one it’s hard to know where to start. This is an unreliable narrator like no other. It’s both razor sharp in its delivery and plot and warm and poignant in the details of the characters and community. It’s at once a poignant and evocative time machine back to a mid-nineties working-class community and a gripping slab of literary fiction. Oh, and it’s really, really fucking good.

While the sport – and the role it plays in the community – is at the heart of the novel, There’s Only One Danny Garvey is about lots more than just ‘the fitba’ and, even then, we’re a long way from the Scottish Premiership here. This is a novel of heart, of troubled pasts and dark secrets. A novel of families strained, tortured souls, loss and attempts at redemption. A novel of broken dreams and broken people, a novel with characters that’ll stay with you long after the final whistle has blown. It’s a touching and engrossing novel with one genuine “holy shit” moment after another when it clicks what’s actually happening and – when it turns that corner – really ups the ante. It’s a novel that’s brilliantly written, paced and bought to life; a game transformed by dazzling footwork, a beautiful pass and a precision shot on target into the back of the net. It’s a novel that really must be read.

My thanks to Karen at Orenda for my copy of There’s Only One Danny Garvey and to Anne Cater for asking me to take part in the blog tour.