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.

A time of wanting but not really knowing…

My lapsed blogger status seems to have become a reality, it would seem. My new role keeping me at “off my tits” busy level. As such I didn’t find opportunity to do a “Best of” “Looking Back at” post for the last year and now that we’re almost nearing the end of January Part 2 it would be pretty pointless.

But there is one album I want to talk about and it kind of bridges a gap between best last year, this year and 1992. I’ll explain…

There were some great re-releases last year. A lot of hype went to Thommy and his  mates’ magnum opus but one of my favourites flew a little under the radar: Buffalo Tom’s  Let Me Come Over – 25th Anniversary Edition. I’ve written of BT before so won’t go too deep on the history of (one of, at least) Boston’s finest but Let Me Come Over was a breakthrough for them in terms of songwriting, contained some of their best songs and – with Tailllights Fade – almost saw them crack through into the mainstream.

Last year’s re-release didn’t add a great deal – there’s no exhaustive combing of the vaults for versions where the guitar was tuned slightly differently or the inclusion of b-sides. Instead there’s a fantastic 17 song live set on the second disc (well, 10 on the vinyl with the full lot on the digital) that sees the three-piece add more power and guitar tone to album (and career) highlights in concert up at the University of London’s student union.

Already one of my favorite albums, the reissued Let Me Come Over got a lot of plays last year, and would usually be the one album I point to as their career-best. But… but BUT: then along comes something new.

In a couple of weeks Buffalo Tom will drop Quiet and Peace. However, as an early backer on Pledge Music, I’ve been able to have this album playing in my car since December and I don’t think a week has gone by where I haven’t listened to it at least once.

I don’t think – judging by the press reviews that are starting to appear – I’m alone in saying that, 25 years after their previous such effort, Buffalo Tom have made another career highlight in Quiet and Peace.

It’s both rousing and reflective, channeling the maturity and seriousness that set them aside from other college rock bands in the early 90s, into a beautifully warm, almost autumnal feel. Sample lyric: “Now my time behind is greater than my time ahead” from ‘All Be Gone’.

When I first go into Buffalo Tom it was on the back of 2000’s Asides From compilation that marked the commencement of a hiatus for the band. It would be seven years until they got it back together. Quiet and Peace is the third album since they reconvened and, not to bag on Three Easy Peices or Skins, it’s easily the best they’ve done since and easily has had more plays than some of their latter post-hiatus records too. There’s a cohesiveness to it (perhaps down to mixing from John Agnello  – Kurt Vile, Sonic Youth, The Hold Steady.. and Buffalo Tom – or Dave Minehan’s production) and the songs sound just that little bit more well-brewed. Or maybe it was just an alignment in the cosmos or something, who knows how it happens but the ten new songs on Quiet and Peace – and the closing over of ‘Only Living Boy In New York City – make for one of Buffalo Tom’s finest collections to date, their new best record released just after celebrating the birthday of their previous one.

There’s precious little I can share in terms of songs or videos from it at the moment but keep an eye out for it in early March – Quiet and Peace is a belter of an album.

 

Revisiting: 14 Songs

Background:

I got into The Replacements too late. I had to, really, they split up before I was eleven… What I mean is that they’re one of those bands that when I finally did get into them I hungrily devoured the lot and couldn’t believe that I’d left it so long to be hearing these songs. They’re a band that cast a long shadow and I’d heard more about them and their influence before I’d even heard a note of their music.

In fact, my first introduction was via the two Paul Westerberg solo tracks on the Singles soundtrack*. Having made the connection between singer and former band I went back, then forward into Westerberg’s solo discography.

14_songs_paul_westerberg_album_-_cover_artConsidered by many as pioneers of the alt-rock scene and with a legacy that’s at odds with the success they achieved during their run, The Replacements blew out of Minneapolis in 1979 as punk rock band whose début album, Sorry Ma, Forgot To Take Out The Trash, was a raw, raucous affair but, by the release of the follow up, Hootenany, the band was quickly evolving and songs like ‘Within Your Reach‘ marked the way forward as elements of blues, folk and chiming pop were bought to the fore along with Westerberg’s insightful and maturing song-writing skills. The difference between ‘Kids Don’t Follow‘ and the beautiful ‘Achin’ To Be‘ was massive.

Success wasn’t to be theirs, though. As much as they may have been at the forefront of the alt-rock scene, the self-destructive nature of the band meant that by the time the world started to pay attention, they were already imploding and they’re remembered more for potential than for breaking through. Poor production, famously disastrous live shows and TV appearances and internal strife meant that 1990’s All Shook Down would be their final album. That album was originally intended to be Paul Westerberg’s first solo album and, as such, features predominantly session musicians. The label talked him into making it a Replacements album. It would be three years before his first solo album would arrive…

The band (well, Tommy Stinson and Paul Westerberg) would reform 22 years later for a series of live shows, a victory lap for the praise and recognition they’d received after their split. There were a few abortive attempts at recording but Westerberg’s heart wasn’t in it and during the final shows he’d decorate his t-shirts with giant letters, eventually spelling out the missive: I HAVE ALWAYS LOVED YOU. NOW I MUST WHORE MY PAST.

14 Songs:

So, on a bit of a Bruce break**, I flicked as randomly as possible through my iTunes and landed on the brilliant ‘Runaway Wind’ from 14 Songs, which lead to digging out the CD and spending a few days with it in the car for the first time in a long time.

While it’s not exactly a masterpiece, it’s bloody good and starts with a run of four great songs, kicking off with a highlight, ‘Knockin’ On Mine’:

Don Was was a big fan of this album and would play it daily while recording The Rolling Stones’ Voodoo Lounge. I can get that, I love the guitar tones on this album and there’s a few on here that are clearly indebted to the Stones – this, the loose grove of ‘Dice Behind Your Shades’ and ‘Silver Naked Ladies‘ whose great instrumentation, bluesy guitar, honky-tonk piano (courtesy of Ian McLagan) and outright Jagger impression are so obvious I’d lay money on Westerberg having done a Jagger Shuffle*** dance in the studio. It’s a shame the lyrics are on the cack side. Don Was would produce Westerberg’s third solo effort and told him that Keith Richards would spend each morning cranking ‘Knockin’ On Mine’ out at full volume.

It’s assumed that ‘World Class Fad’ is about Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain… There’s an oft-commented upon similarity between the pair’s bands and Courtney Love was a big Replacements fan, her band often murdering covering ‘Unsatisfied‘. Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes**** had said “Yeah, Nevermind is a great Replacements record” which must’ve really cheesed Cobain. In the liner notes to the Westerberg’s Best Of (the brilliantly titled Besterberg) he slyly comments that “someone very famous thought it was about him” neither denying or confirming that it was… if that’s the case then “You wax poetic about things pathetic, as long as you look so cute” must have stung a bit. It’s a great tune though.

There was always a dichotomy in The Replacements between the soft and the hard. Westerberg has surmised it as “Sometimes you just love the little acoustic songs, and other times you want to crank the goddamn amp up, and those two parts of me are forever entwined.” That meant songs like ‘Here Comes A Regular’ rubbed shoulders with ‘Bastards of Young’ on Tim and the same is true in his early solo work though, free from the burden of being in a ‘punk’ band, there’s not so much hesitancy to bring out the acoustics or slower material.

‘Runaway Wind’ – for example is a great tune. Originally written for and turned down by Robin Zander, it’s vocal was recorded in just one take and features a brilliant Westerberg lyric: “You trade your telescope for a keyhole, Make way for the grey that’s in your brown, as dreams make way for plans, see ya watch life from the stands.”

Elsewhere tracks like ‘Even Here We Are’ and ‘Black Eyed Susan‘ are delicate, gentle acoustic numbers whose lo-fi production choices make them sound like lost, dusted-off gems sandwiched as they are between glossier sounding tunes and ‘Things’ is a delightfully sloppy yet endearing number. ‘Black Eyed Susan’ was recorded in Westerberg’s kitchen and the sound and lack of success in capturing a better take meant it made the album while ‘Things’ showed that even in his romantic tunes, Westerberg could add a tinge of sadness: “I could use some breathing room but I’m still in love with you.”

Even the best Replacements albums had some outright howlers buried in amongst the gold (I really don’t think anyone is going to make a case for ‘Lay It Down Clown’) and on 14 Songs that particular number is ‘A Few Minutes Of Silence’ – if the album had been called 13 Songs the track wouldn’t have been missed.

With the comic, cynical take on plastic surgery, ‘Mannequin Shop‘ (“You look bitching you look taut, I`m a itchin’ to know what was bought?”) oddly sequenced between the harder, more straight-ahead and solid rockers ‘Something Was Me’ and ‘Down Love’ I can’t help but think that, with better attention to the running order and a tiny bit more selectiveness on the tunes, 14 Songs would’ve gone from being bloody good to great in no time. It’s got a real band dynamic that’s often missing on singer-songwriter albums, a relaxed vibe and finds just the right balance between the two-sides of Westerberg’s writing, wrapping up his romanticism, wry lyrics and self-depreciating humour in a very strong collection of songs.

It wasn’t to be, though. Much like his former band, the album generated some strong reviews but failed to catch on commercially. By the time he released his solo record, the bands who he had influenced and shared listing with on the Singles soundtrack were getting the attention. From here there would be two more major-label albums before he’d ditch working with producers and go the home-recording route where he’d go on to pen some of his best work, even if not so many heard it (see 2008’s 49:00, if you can) before, following the 2012-15 Replacements reunion,  forming The I Don’t Cares with Juliana Hatfield. Their album, Wild Stab, is well worth a listen, too and I’ll finish off with a tune from it…. “Dreams I had before are now too bored to even show up.”

 

*If we’re talking best movie soundtracks (which I probably will one day) then this one will be way up the top of the list.

**It’s a lot of fun but I’m now about to hit the Top Five (which means I’ve already cleared fifteen) and could do with cleansing my aural palate a bit.

***We’ve all done it. I even had ‘Mixed Emotions’ played at my wedding so I could make use of the wooden dance floor this way.

****Is this really the first time I’ve mentioned The Black Crowes here? Given how near-perfect those first three albums were I’m very surprised…

Least to Most: Bruce – Wrecking Ball

“After the crash of 2008, I was furious at what had been done by a handful of trading companies on Wall Street. Wrecking Ball was a shot of anger at the injustice that continues on and has widened with deregulation, dysfunctional regulatory agencies and capitalism gone wild at the expense of hardworking Americans.”

After the relative mid-tempo doze that was his last studio album, a few years passed before a new effort from Mr Springsteen arrived and he certainly seemed more fired up and focused for the break. According the The Boss, it was on a drive home from a local bar that “Easy Money” came to him and the muse materialised for most of the material that would appear on this, his seventeenth studio album.

wreckingballI don’t necessarily dislike Wrecking Ball. There’s some very strong songs on here and it’s great to hear a change, sonically, in Bruce’s material. It’s hard to put my finger on what it is that doesn’t push this album higher up in my favourites and I’m not alone here, even Bruce mused “Wrecking Ball was received with a lot less fanfare than I thought it would be. I was sure I had it. I still think I do and did. Maybe my voice has been compromised by my own success, but I don’t think so.”

Personally, I think it’s down to the production. I think Bruce perhaps lost his nerve when it came to producing his own music – he’s said himself that when he initially tried recording something with the E Street Band post-reunion, the results were flat – hence calling Brendan O’Brien for The Rising. Unfortunately, he later called Ron Aniello and began a partnership that has resulted in some of my least favourite output.

The songs that make up Wrecking Ball are strong and gritty. The first half of the album specifically tackles the economic blight that followed the 2008 crash. Yet rather than give these songs a good, gritty recording or even bare-bones them and let the lyrics speak for themselves, they’re covered in ‘ticks and gimmicks’ – IMHO.

I know that he’d just produced Patti Scialfa’s Play It Where It Lays but I still to this day wonder what it was about his back catalogue (Lifehouse, Jars of Clay, Candlebox) that made Bruce place his music in Ron’s hands. The stapled-on soul / gospel parts of ‘Shackled and Drawn’ (“I want everybody to stand up and be counted tonight, you know we got to praaaay together”) and ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ rub the wrong way, as does the overly prevalent use of drum machines / loops. It seems to jolt too much with the force of the more organic sounding music that tears along like some pumped, stadium-ready, celtic folk-rock dervish and suits the anger that Bruce is trying to convey.

Take the kick-off ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, does it need the echo on his voice?

This album more than any since shows the influence of the Seegar Sessions in terms of instrumentation – there’s a real Celtic lean to a the opening clutch of songs but with a lot more punch and wallop. At times it brings to mind the Dropkick Murphys – ‘Death To My Hometown’ especially – and he sings with a lot more urgency and earnestness than he had on Working On A Dream.

Regarding the choice of music Bruce said he “used a lot of music from the 1800s and the 1930s to show these things are cyclical. The album is resonant with history.”

Resonant with history is a good choice of phrase. There’s some of his own on here with the revisiting of ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’* and the recasting of ‘Wrecking Ball’ into an album track.

Now… this is something that a lot of people have raised issue with and I kinda understand their points. ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ has been slighted in its handling. Yes, it’s Bruce’s song and up to him to do as he sees fit with it but; this was an E Street Band song, 14 years old at the point it was recorded and had been a staple of almost every show since the reunion tour on which it made its début . Steven Van Zandt considered it “a wonderful reintroduction of what has become a very different E Street Band. We just opened with it the other night, and the whole fucking stadium took off.”

Live it was a sprawling epic, a soulful, uplifting song of hope – it’s also my go-to first play if I haven’t picked up my guitar for a bit – and I admit I did often wonder what it would sound like if the band recorded under a producer willing to tighten the bolts up a bit. Unfortunately the band didn’t record it. Only two members feature, with the remaining parts played by Bruce and Ron and session drummer Matt Chamberlain replaces Max Weinberg. Given that they’d played it nightly for over a decade prior and then had to play it on the subsequent tour, I can’t help but wonder how the band felt on that one. Max thumps the shit out of the drums on this live, especially. Then it was decided to fade it in and out around more ‘stapled-on’ gospel singers (I have nothing against gospel our soul singers, if I need to make that clear) singing parts of “People Get Ready”. To me it was as if Bruce was trying too hard to frame his music / emphasis the points it was trying to make.

Here’s both versions for comparison:

Those that did make the cut were Van Zandt’s mandolin and Clarence Clemons, which brings me to another point…It was while recording Wrecking Ball that Bruce had been trying to reach Clarence to arrange a recording session. Specifically the sax solo on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’. When Clarence did get back to Bruce he was feeling ill and it became the first and only time in which the Big Man bowed out of a scheduled session. No worries.. we’ll pick it up when you’re feeling stronger. Bruce went away on holiday with his wife and it was then that he got the call that Clarence had suffered a massive stroke. He passed not long after, something Bruce refers to as “like losing the rain.”

In the period that followed Ron Aneillo assembled the sax part on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ from recordings of the live version. When Bruce heard it he said it was though Clarence was in the room. It remains the song’s highlight. I just feel it was a missed opportunity to capture the punch that the band bring to it.

Wrecking Ball‘ was the other ‘old’ song to grace the album it gave it its title to. It had been written on the eve of the E Street Band’s final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009, after which it was to be tore down. As such it was a ‘road song’ written for the band. To quote Mr Van Zandt again: “They tend to take on a very comfortable arrangement because they’re being written for the live band and with the live band. It’s not like he’s going home in between and writing it and demo’ing it and showing it to the band later. He’s playing us the song backstage on his acoustic guitar, just like the old days. Songs like that take on a different sort of immediacy because they’re literally being worked up at soundcheck”.

It’s a strong song that’s become about much more – facing the hard shit that life can throw and actually daring it to bring it on. It’s the closest to the E Street Band playing as you’ll find – though Van Zandt himself doesn’t feature. I think at this point he was likely busy with ‘Lilyhammer’ (a show I do wish would make a return).

I mention the lack of E Streeters for a couple of reasons. First is that I think with Wrecking Ball, Bruce found the key to making ‘rock’ music with musicians outside of the band and still having it been accepted by his audience. That key being; feature some of them on a couple of tracks and tour the album with them. There’s no Garry Tallent or Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren found his plectrums half-inched by Tom Morello. They’d all play the arse off of them on the following tour though.

The other reason is that Bruce has a new album in the works – well, it’s been delayed by the steady expansion of the current E Street tour in support of The River‘s box set. Both Bruce and Jon Landau have been at pains to point out that it’s a solo album and not an acoustic one, that it is “in fact, a very expansive record, a very rich record. It’s one of Bruce’s very creative efforts”. Given that he’s also been working with Ron Aniello (sigh) on it, Wrecking Ball‘s sound and lineup perhaps serve as the biggest indicator as to what, sonically, we might be in for.

Some criticism lobbed at Wrecking Ball accused it of being top-heavy and sonically uninteresting. For me the album gets better after ‘Jack of All Trades‘ (tepid, Bruce by numbers with added Morello). Aside from those already mentioned, songs from this point are solid – ‘Rocky Ground’ brings to mind the groove he mastered with ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ and features a Springsteen-penned rap, ‘This Depression’  originally considered to reference the economical could now be seen as Bruce praising Pati during the large depression of his own he was going through and the strange, ode to the dead that is ‘We Are Alive’:  “A party filled with ghosts. It’s a party filled with the dead, but whose voices and spirit and ideas remain with us.”

For my money – lose ‘Easy Money’, ‘Shackled and Drawn’, cut some of the effects and promote ‘Swallowed Up (In The Belly of a Whale)’ and  ‘American Land’ from bonus to full-album track and you’d have an absolute belter of an album with more of a sonic palette and a real barn-storming closer. Indeed, it’s how it plays on my iPod. But, then; everyone’s a critic….

Highlights: ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, ‘Death To My Hometown’, ‘Wrecking Ball’, ‘Rocky Ground’, ‘This Depression’, ‘We Are Alive’ and the bonus tracks

Not-so Highlights: ‘Jack of all Trades’

*’Land of Hope and Dreams’ was one of two new songs featured on the reunion tour Live In NYC album alongside ‘American Skin (41 Shots)’. The newer studio version of the latter was also cut during Wrecking Ball sessions and would later have Tom Morello dubbed onto it for release on High Hopes. Bruce, at the time, said that he wanted to give these live staples a more ‘official’ release but these are both songs that, I think, were better left – like ‘Seeds’ – in their original versions.

Least to Most: Bruce – Working On A Dream

I’m gonna take a bet that of this album’s fans, Steven Van Zandt (“I’m a pop-rock-band guy. That’s all I am”) is one of the biggest. He’s stated that he sees this – the last Bruce Springsteen and E-Street album to date – as the logical end of a trilogy that started with The Rising with “a projection more toward the pop-rock form” achieved more completely on Working On A Dream.

working_on_a_dreamI might be quoting more heavily on Mr Van Zandt than anyone else but that’s because Bruce is somewhat quiet about Working On A Dream in hindsight. Even in his own book it got just a fleeting mention. Perhaps he – like quite a few – consider it one without real staying power. Perhaps it was sheer timing that meant that Working On A Dream, the third-and-final album with Van Zandt & co would also be the least rewarding. Let’s face it; in the ten years preceeding its release Bruce had reunited the band and embarked on a huge tour, released The Rising, Magic, Devils & Dust, The Seegar Sessions, an anniversary edition of Born To Run, released The Essential compilation, toured the globe tirelessly and stepped into the political arena with the Vote For Change tour. A whirl of activity that by far eclipsed that of Bruce’s previous decade. It was probably time to take a break.

Instead, struck by inspiration and a writing spell that carried through from the final recording sessions for Magic, Bruce returned to the studio with Brendan O’Brien (one last time) and a core band of Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan and Garry Tallent (other members would be bought in to add their parts later) to catch, as he said, the “energy of the band fresh off the road from some of the most exciting shows we’ve ever done.”

One could argue that, with a Superbowl concert on the horizon the need for product was in mind and this one was perhaps a little under-cooked. One could argue that… could…

See, there are some songs here that I simply cannot connect to no matter how I try. The title track has never clicked. Yeah; it’s nice and pleasant but it just seems to lack spark or real weight and I think he’s tackled the theme better elsewhere (on Lucky Town especially). ‘Queen of the Supermarket’ simply should never have been and I had to wonder what a champion lyricist like Bruce was thinking with ‘Life Itself’ – “We met down in the valley where the wine of love and destruction flowed, there in that curve of darkness where the flowers of temptation grow”… do what, mate?

But. But. ButIt’s not fair, though, to write it off or brush over it completely because this is Bruce Springsteen and (with the rare exception) you only tend to have to wait a second for a belter of a song to reveal itself and there is a lot to enjoy on Working On A Dream.

Take the opener; ‘Outlaw Pete’. I know it gets a bit of slack for being a bit overblown and borderline self-parody, but I still enjoy it (granted, I wouldn’t listen to it everyday) and I don’t think Bruce is exactly taking himself seriously with it. Yes it’s daft (“by six months old he’d done three months in jail”), yes it may well have borrowed from another song but it sets the scene – I really think that at this point it was a case that, rather than sweating over everything too much, the mood was “you know what? Fuck it, let’s give it a go”.  Not to mention that when played live (though I don’t think it’s been touched since) Steve – a much underused player on stage these days – got to play the lead.

Right on it’s heals – ‘My Lucky Day‘ is another fast, blistering tune that, again, sounds like a blast was had recording it. Its fast, rawer sound almost at odds with the layers of overdubs and lush, huge 60’s sound that drapes so much of the album. Step past the next couple of momentum stallers and you get to the great sonic backdrop of ‘What Love Can Do’ and the swampy, blues-stomp of ‘Good Eye‘ a nice enough (though nothing that special) couple of tunes that sandwich ‘This Life’ – a more obvious Beach Boys’ aping sound you’d be hard pushed to find:

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ jangles along quickly and without much to hang on to, as does ‘Surprise Surprise’. ‘Kingdom of Days’ is a genuinely warm one about love and ageing. The album’s most affecting track though is saved for last (if we exclude – still very good – ‘The Wrestler’ tacked on as a bonus).

‘The Last Carnival’ is seen by many as a follow up to ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ from The Wild The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. It is, more importantly, for Danny Federici who passed away in April 2008, the first member of the E Street Band to do so having played with Bruce for forty years. Danny had appeared with the band briefly over the previous Magic tour and did so last less than a month before his death. Bruce asked him what song he wanted to play – it was, of course, ‘Sandy’. In his book it’s clear that while Danny Federici was the only member of the band to drive him to violent rage, Bruce had a genuine love for the organ player and his death certainly rocked him, as he said in the eulogy: “After a lifetime of watching a man perform his miracle for you, night after night, it feels an awful lot like love.”

‘The Last Carnival’ is a beautiful send off. An immensely affecting farewell to a fallen brother. After opening to Jason Federici’s accordion, Bruce sings at the bottom of his range in a barely-suppressed choke and hush against minimal accompaniment “Where have you gone my handsome Billy?” before layered voices swell to a choir. It’s a moving send-off and ending to the last album featuring the full E Street Band*.

A couple of clunkers aside, while there’s nothing wrong with the majority of Working On A Dream it perhaps lacks the sharpness and punch of its immediate predecessor. That being said, in amongst some of the most ambitious production of his career (Rolling Stone gave it the default 5 star review, though none of its songs made their 100 Best Springsteen Songs list, wetting their knickers over its lush sound), Bruce was still capable of crafting a fair few beauties so that the good by far outweighed the bad.

Highlights: My Lucky Day, Kingdom of Days, The Last Carnival

Lowlights: Queen of the Supermarket

*Certainly their last full album. Songs that didn’t make the cut on this or its immediate predecessors and featured E Street (and Danny Federici) included High Hopes highlights ‘Down In The Hall’ and ‘The Wall’.

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

In 1989 after touring behind Bug, escalating tensions and frustrations lead to Lou Barlow being booted out of Dinosaur Jr. He should have seen it coming; when the group first played together they were called Mogo and the seemingly shy and reticent guitar-shredder Mascis wasn’t upfront, the frontman was Charlie Nakajima who lasted precisely one show after using that stage as a platform for a lengthy anti-police tirade. Appalled by Nakajima’s actions but “too wimpy to kick him out” (J’s words not mine), Mascis instead asked drummer Murph and bassist Barlow to form a new band without Nakajima.

dinosaur-jr-new-song-goin-down-give-a-glimpse-of-what-yer-not-jools-holland-640x640Despite his slacker vocals and aforementioned demeanour, Mascis was something of a control-freak with whom communication was a continual burr. By the time of Barlow’s dismissal they’d created a trilogy of legend-forming and hugely influential albums and had begun to scratch at commercial success with songs like Freak Scene and their cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven. What followed for Dinosaur Jr was a major-label deal, the subsequent change in mix/production dynamics with lyrics and vocals being pushed higher in the sound, getting caught up and buoyed forward by the changed landscape formed by Nirvana’s Nevermind, the departure of drummer Murph, their most commercially successful album and song in Without A Sound and Feel The Pain before the seemingly inevitable drop-off in sales, major-label disinterest and J’s retiring of the band name in 1997.

After a few solo Mascis records (under the name J Mascis and The Fog) and Barlow taking swipes at J in numerous Sebadoh songs, the unexpected happened; the “classic” line-up reformed in 2005 for a tour promoting the reissue of their first three albums. Even more unexpectedly; the reunion held all the way to the studio for release of the first album of Dinosaur Jr’s Third Act; Beyond. Whether it be down to the mellowing out that time, age and even parenthood bring, better communications or just the ease in pressure that comes from realising they’re not expected to make a “Smash Hit Album” but they’ve now outlived both their first ‘classic’ run of ’84-’89 and the band’s major label period of ’90-’97 and are still going strong.

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not – as with the three albums that have preceded it – makes a formidable mix of the band’s early heaviness and the tighter, song-oriented structure that came with the major label sound to create a perfect balance off fuzz-heavy riffs and deft melodies all underpinned by J’s trademark soloing and softly-spoken, stoner-like vocals.

Stripping back a touch on the spread of sound featured on 2012’s I Bet On Sky, Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not is a much taughter and fiercer sounding affair. Opener Goin’ Down tears through at break-neck pace and the following Tiny rips along at a cracking pace and clocks in at just 3:12 of precise intent – cramming in heavy riffs, rolling bass lines, thundering drums and J’s solo without an inch to spare.

Those Mascis solos do take the spotlight throughout but with due cause and never sounding too heavy-handed in their placing. When I mumbled about I Bet On Sky I mentioned that albums of Dinosaur Jr Act 3 are of a formula, with anticipation for the inevitable guitar break but that “his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.” This still holds; Mascis’ guitar is still the star attraction on Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not, especially on I Walk For Miles and I Told Everyone.

In the interests of democracy or as proof as to how far they’ve come in terms of dissipating tensions – Barlow gets a couple of his tracks on each of the band’s latest albums. Here Love Is… stands out as the strongest, it’s structure calling to mind Led Zep’s III era folkiness before giving way to Mascis’ guitar while it and the album closer Left/Right are both stronger, more comfortable-sounding tunes than any of his which have graced albums since Beyond. Whereas on previous albums they’ve been something of a sore thumb and almost halted the flow, here they slip in gel more cohesively than every before.

The band are clearly getting on well and working together better than ever before and while the ‘if it ain’t broke’ adage can certainly apply to many of the tracks here, songs such as Lost All Day and, particularly, the changing dynamics of Knocked Around show that Dinosaur Jr remains a band willing to stretch its sound and try new ground rather than generate a few more tracks to drop in between Forget The Swan and Lung during the payolah tours.

I’ve yet to catch them live – I wondered recently how they tackle the subject of playing those songs recorded during Barlow and Murph’s absence from the band. Do they include them or do they go the Van Halen route of pretending a huge part of the band’s history and it’s most commercially successful and wider-known tracks don’t exist (in my mind and a little off-topic I’d call this route as stupid a decision as getting Roth back in the fold in the first place was but then the idea of Diamond Dave trying Right Now is as farcical as any part of his hammy vaudeville act) or do they let bygones be bygones and go for the crowd-pleasers? I was very glad then, to see, thanks to SetListFM, that their set lists from recent tours include a good mix of old, mid and new era tracks. I suppose it’s further testament to just how well they’re getting on.

I digress…

I’ve had this album for just a couple of days now but it hasn’t left my CD player since then (I’ll have to wait a little longer for the vinyl) and cannot see a way this doesn’t make the Best Of 2016 list.

 

 

Tracks: Round-Eye Blues

Last night I closed my eyes and watched the tracers fly
Through the jungle trees
Like fireflies on a windy night, pulled up and onward by the breeze…

 

Kids In Philly remains a high water mark for Marah, and it was only their second album. Marah are one of those bands that shoulda, woulda, coulda been so much more but, following their second album, they were dogged by line-up changes and the ever-diminishing press interest and promotion that comes from a band that sign to a seeming merry-go-round of record labels. Back in 2000, though, the band with the Bielanko Brothers Serge and David at its core were coming off the enthusiastic critical response to their début Let’s Cut The Crap & Hook Up Later on Tonight – which saw them signed to Steve Earle’s now-defunct label – when they released Kids In Philly. The response was hugely positive.

Upon release critics lauded the band and the album for its originality and recasting of musical touch stones. References to Springsteen abounded along with phrases such as “imagine The Clash taking on Born to Run” documenting the album’s energy and lyrical call outs. Calling the album relentlessly infectious, AllMusic calls it stunning “in its diversity, and even more stunning in its ambition. The album forges its own confident, note-perfect rock & roll sound, while practising the type of effortless stylistic hopping that hadn’t been executed to such wonderful effect since the heyday of the Fab Four.”

Kids In Philly is an absolute blinder of an album and one that makes my own Essential 100 list (which I’m still miles from returning to let alone completing). It’s not only compellingly addictive in its urgency and song-writing craft but the lyrics come across as hugely authentic and miles away from the phoned-in, play-acting that was rife in so music at the time – 2000 was peak landfill-indie on the radio. Rolling Stone cited how the album “lives and breathes the streets where it was made.”

I found it, as with so much music at the time, via one of Uncut Magazine’s Unconditionally Guaranteed cds glued to the cover (I wonder if I ought to start buying that magazine again). I’ve got an odd soft-spot for these war story songs (Goodnight Saigon serves as another example and even Stand Ridgway’s Camoflauge for other reasons) that try and put something so inhuman into a human context. It’s tricky, though, to get it right – find the balance between affective lyrics, a good tunes and a song that works in its own right. In that respect Round-Eye Blues exemplifies everything that makes the album it’s from great; instantly catchy, full of hook, biting lyrics and great craftsmanship in both the tune and the lyrics.

Somehow these guys manage to make a bitter tune sung from the point of view of a Vietnam vet (another little nod to Bruce) convincingly genuine despite the fact that they would only have been in their early 20’s at the time  – “But late at night I could still hear the cries of three black guys I seen take it in the face, I think about them sweet Motown girls they left behind and the assholes that took their place.”

From here it was a bit of a stalling, down hill tumble for Marah. Their follow-up was made by Owen Morris (who was known for producing Oasis so Be Here Now should have served as a red-flag in terms of suitability), the over-produced (so much so that they later released a “de-constructed” version) and aimless Float Away With The Friday Night Gods failed to capitalise on the doors opened by Kids In Philly (or the practically-buried cameo from Springsteen himself) and led to the previously mentioned label-hopping and line-up changes. I stuck around for a few more albums hoping for a return to form but, while they remained capable of turning out the odd little reminder of their song-writing charm the energy and urgency of Kids In Philly eluded them and lack of effective record distribution made it harder to get hold of their work. Still, I understand that they’ve since ‘reformed’ to celebrate the album’s 15th anniversary so who knows.

The Evolution of Fear

Clay arched his back, lined up the man’s head, and with every joule of energy he could summon, whipped his neck forward.

Clay’s forehead made contact with the man’s nose. The cartilage collapsed as if it were raw cauliflower.

Just shy of three months after the events The Abrupt Physics of Dying and Paul E Hardisty’s Claymore Straker is again fighting for his life within paragraphs of the start of The Evolution of Fear.

IMG_8434Since The Abrupt Physics… Clay has been in hiding – there’s a price on his head and he’s wanted by the CIA for acts of terrorism. However, his hiding in Cornwall is short-lived following the discovery that Rania, the woman he loves, has disappeared, his friend has been brutally murdered and the arrival of mercenaries out to claim the reward on his head means there’s nowhere to hide.

Betrayed, hunted and desperate to find Rania before those hunting him get to her, Clay makes his way to Istanbul (via an expertly detailed sea crossing) and then on to Cyrpus. This isn’t a pleasure cruise, though. Far from it; soon Clay is entangled in a complex and increasingly dangerous web of power-play, political subterfuge and land-grabbing involving some genuinely corrupt and abhorrent figures, the Russian mafia, an old enemy out to settle scores and some sea turtles. Yes, sea turtles; just as the heart that beat at the centre of The Abrupt Physics.. was about the impact of such corporate greed on the local environs and innocents, here too we’re shown to just how extreme and bloodthirsty a length power can corrupt.

The plot is incredibly well thought-out and complex – given that it’s set in 1994 I often found myself wondering if I wasn’t reading fact over fiction. There is everything in here from the aforementioned political corruption and land-grabbing to flashbacks to past war crimes and emotional drama all with twists and counter twists, yet at no point does it feel over-stuffed; Hardisty does a wonderful job of giving you just enough information at the right time to keep it detailed without bogging down in redundant trivia, thus maintaining a pace that rips along like a great thriller should.

Action sequences abound, yet here they’re great, dirty and gritty scenes – think Bourne over Ethan Hunt – compelling and convincing. The locations are described vividly enough to immerse you in them, characters are strong and well fleshed-out and Hardisty writes with an expertise when it comes to the settings and the facts around which the events are choreographed.

The thriller genre is a crowded one and stuffed to its bindings with action set-pieces and broody sods as lead characters. What elevates Haridsty above the pack is the sheer quality of his writing, the intelligence and complexity of the plot and the strong, brilliantly crafted character of Claymore Straker.

Straker is a man beset with demons and riddled with guilt over his past. Not many lead characters are as affectingly human as Clay. Yes, he’s a tough bloke and one you’d want on your side in a scrap. Yes he has a violent and morally questionable past, but – and here’s why you care about the character – Clay is trying, really trying, to do the right thing and become the honourable guy he wants to be, even at risk to his own life. Haunted by his actions in South Africa, Clay is terrified that he’s driven by the same motives of his compatriot – the brilliantly drawn Crowbar – who simply loves to kill. It’s that struggle to do the right thing, against increasingly stacked odds, that makes Clay Straker a memorable character to root for.

There’s a quote on the cover of The Evolution of Fear from Lee Child: “A solid, meaty thriller – Hardisty is a fine writer and Straker is a great lead character”.

Nobody would want to argue with the man behind Jack Reacher and on the strength of both The Abrupt Physics of Dying and The Evolution of Fear it’s impossible to do so – in fact I’m going to state outright that Mr Child has some serious competition here; Straker well and truly holds his ground against that one-man army. It beggars belief that this is only Paul E. Hardisty’s second book – this is as tough, taut, high-octane and powerful as the best and with a level of intelligence that pulls it heads and shoulders above the pack.

Once again, if stars were to be sat at the bottom of my reviews there’d be five of them right here. Sequels / second instalments are a tough act to get right, The Evolution of Fear picks up where the first book left off and turns everything up louder.

The blog tour for The Evolution of Fear is reaching its end and I’m very grateful to Karen at Orenda for asking me to take part and recommend checking out those entries that have preceded my stop as well as tomorrow’s with CrimeBookJunkie – and getting hold of this fantastic book.

Evolution of Fear Blog tour 2

The Defenceless

There’s a statement on the cover of The Defenceless, Kati Hiekkapelto’s second novel to feature police investigator Anna Fekete: “Best Finnish Crime Novel 2014”. I’ve not read a Finnish crime novel before nor have I yet read this book’s predecessor, The Hummingbird, but, and let’s get straight to the point here: The Defenceless is one hell of a good book. Great, in fact.

CMd78rFWgAEcd-vAt the centre of The Defenceless lies a mystery – an old man (Vilho Karppinen) dies, presumably, at the hands of a drug dealer, only for his death to be pinned on an Hungarian au-pair. Two girls stumble onto an alarmingly fresh crime scene in a forest – snow soaked in human blood, tyre tracks leading from the trees and a knife found at the scene – but missing the vital ingredient; a body. Then, one of Karppinen’s neighbours, goes missing. Is there a connection? Is it her who’s body is missing from the murder scene? Is a killer prowling the streets of this Finnish town?

Given that we’re witness to Karppinen’s demise you may be forgiven for wondering where the police investigation into his death is going at first, chiefly because it looks as though, to all intents and purposes, he died at the hands of a drug dealer in an argument over noise. It’s almost a case of waiting to see how long it takes for the Hungarian au-pair to be cleared. Yet as the story develops, Hiekkapelto skilfully weaves in more mystery and plot twists, adding intertwining sub-plots involving gangs, corruption, drugs and social commentary into an addictive, compelling novel with more questions building with each page turn; are the killings related to the violent gang that’s trying to establish itself in Finland that Fekete’s partner, Esko, is trying to snuff out? How is that gang related to the drug dealer? Are they behind the murder scene? How are the Hell’s Angels involved? Is the au-pair all that she seems?

There is a lot going on in The Defenceless, a world of story lines packed into less than 300 pages. Rubbing ink with the main case and Esko’s investigations (not to mention the ticking-clock of his health) is Anna’s own sense of isolation and removal from a homeland that no longer exists, her brother’s battle with alcohol, family illness and, of course, Sammi.

Sammi is a refugee from Pakistan, now in hiding and living rough following the rejection of his asylum claim and facing deportation to a country in which he faces persecution and death for his beliefs. Desperation leads him to increasingly extreme measures in his attempts to remain in Finland. There’s no heavy hand here, no resorting to the didactic in telling Sammi’s side of the story and the futility of his fight against blind bureaucracy, just a talented author using her art form to affectively shine light on an increasingly absurd system (one not unique to Finland) that differentiates between people and their rights to basic human existence according to the particular piece of this Earth that chance happened to place their birth. The message couldn’t be more pertinent given the humanitarian crisis facing the world today and it’s the conclusion (or non-conclusion) of that story which will stay with you beyond the final page.

With The Defenceless you’re so caught up in the characters, the sub plots and the hunt for what appears to be a brutal killer that when the killer’s identity and motive are revealed it comes like a bolt from the blue. It brings to (my) mind the reveal in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. I do hope that doesn’t serve as a spoiler, more as a nod to another gripping Scandi-noir detective series.

There’s a growing number of crime novels with a conscience out there and this ranks up there with the best, leading the charge with a heady blend of mystery, suspense and social drama that hooks from the off and doesn’t let go even when the last page is turned.

A sign of a good novelist is not seeing them in the text, if you follow me. A writer needs to disappear, to allow their characters to take centre stage, become real and express themselves rather than parroting the views and sensibilities of the author. It’s not the easiest of tasks but it’s one which Kati Hiekkapelto pulls off nicely.  The Defenceless is populated by characters who are not only engrossing and fully realised but, when the narrative shifts to them, tell the story in their own way without filter – especially so in the case of the oh-so-politically-correct Esko who’s passages are so vociferous with their racial hate as to be at polar-like odds with those of the empathetic Fekete.

The translation – by David Hackston – should also receive the strongest nod of approval; at no point in reading The Defenceless was there any indication that this was anything other than the language the novel was written in and the deft translation ensures that the novel’s momentum and feel flows uninterpreted across the language transition.

While The Defenceless is the second Anna Fekete I’ve not yet read  The Hummingbird and I don’t believe it’s essential to have done so to enjoy this novel – another plus – which manages to stand brilliantly on its own. That being said, it does mean that, for me, The Hummingbird is an essential ‘to read’ and I’ll now go about getting my hands on it while eagerly awaiting the next instalment from Kati Hiekkapelto – clearly an author to watch.

I was, again, delighted to be sent this book by Karen at Orenda Books (a publisher who’s first year has certainly cemented it as a purveyor of quality, original fiction) and be asked to take part in the Blog Tour. Check out the other stops and keep an eye on Crime Thriller Girl for tomorrow’s stop and – of course – read The Defenceless.

Defenceless Blog Tour

The Dust That Falls from Dreams

91e3i+vVdTLI go back a bit with Louis de Bernières. Well, I say that – like most I started reading him thanks to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – the first few lines of which were used as discussion point in an A-level English class in – I’d guess – ’97. The perfectly self-contained opening chapter, a beautifully written piece of charming prose, a (what I know now to be) typical de Bernières style light-hearted slice-of-life scene setter with a fantastic description of an inner ear as “an aural orifice more dank, be-lichened, and stalagmitic even than the Drogarati cave”.

I took the print outs containing that first chapter (Dr Iannis Commences his History and is Frustrated) home, passed it to my father and the book was soon in our home and passed into my hands following his. It’s a novel well-known, commented upon, discussed and dissected. As such I won’t here.

There followed the discovery of and lapping up of de Bernières’ South American Trilogy, earlier novellas and plays, the stop-gap Red Dog and, my personal favourite Birds Without Wings. 

Birds Without Wings arrived some ten years after the publication of de Bernières’ previous novel. But he isn’t a writer of small books; his novels are of epic proportion and scope.

It’s not too surprising, then, that The Dust That Falls From Dreams arrived another ten years after the publication of Birds... Not that he was idle. Between times there was A Partisan’s Daughter a (somewhat smaller though nonetheless impressive) novel set in more contemporary times and familiar locales and, in 2009, Notwithstanding – a charming, if non-consequential collection of semi-linked short stories all set in an English village of a certain southern England type and charm, populated by characters of a particular eccentricity.

Perhaps, in hindsight, those stories within Notwithstanding were perhaps something of an exercise. I’m inclined to see them as de Bernières – known for novels set in Greece, Latin America and Turkey – setting out his stall in ‘middle England’, gaining confidence in the styles and character types that would populate his next saga for, as we’re now aware, The Dust That Falls From Dreams is the first of a planned trilogy.

And so, to it.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is every bit the opus I’ve been waiting for as a fan of de Bernières. Yes, some will complain that he’s switched a setting like Cephalonia or Cochadebajo de los Gatos for Kent, but arseholes to them. This is a novel of epic proportions and every bit as “de Bernières” as his previous five “big” novels.

Kicking off with death of Queen Victoria and the commencement of the Edwardian era, we’re introduced to the McCosh family as they hold a belated coronation party with their neighbours. With a sudden time-jump we’re off to the Georgian era and slap bang on the doorstep of the First World War.

Of all the writers to task themselves with chronicling this most heinous of periods, the upheaval and destruction it wrought, there are few who could do so as well as de Bernières (Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is, of course, another exemplary example) – bringing all too real the events both home and abroad that bought an end to an era and threw individuals into a torrid world where the sense of the individual was lost.

CJAjyIFWcAEeatZIn The Dust That Falls From Dreams de Bernières is at his best. The plot and author play with our fears and guesses and – as those familiar with the author will expect – deliver both uproariously funny and uplifting moments with one chapter before just as skilfully delivering gut-wrenching emotional blows to the heart in the next (this is the Great War, after all). I won’t dwell and deliver spoilers as to who de Bernières casts asunder but will say I felt the final one, unrelated to any ‘cast’ member was a little uneccessary and particularly crushing, especially after the soul hitting account of the Folkestone bombings. Though, in hindsight, this too shows the author’s mastery at engaging a reader and rendering you completely spellbound.

The McCosh girls’ visit to a local medium and the scenes that unfold add a welcome touch of the fantastical, hearkening back to the author’s Latin American Trilogy, and well-chosen historical references help set a thoroughly well realised setting in both time and place, home and abroad.

At times the characters could perhaps be considered a little two-dimensional (though I don’t recall too many layers being attributed to Don Emmanuel) but this is the start of a trilogy and I have little doubt that as the whole saga of the McCosh family unfolds in de Bernières’ magnificent style, all will become fully rounded and developed.

The Dust That Falls From Dreams is a saga that encompasses three families at one of the most dramatic times the World faced. It deals with a vast array of subjects beyond the core of love and death, picking up the politics of class and gender, religion and industrialisation as it goes.

While not quite up there with Birds Without Wings this may well be the start of something amazing as the saga continues and should well be considered a fantastic novel in its own right. I await the next instalment with high expectations.

On a side note; why do we get lumped with such a cack cover image in the UK compared to the more attractive cover design they get in US?

9781101946480