Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Henry Green - Stay Here


I love this song. It has that wintry 'I just want to stay under the bed covers feeling safe' kind of vibe to it while being utterly sonically gorgeous.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Jump up and down music

A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of some very hectic personal circumstances, I somehow managed to find time to review Pyro, the debut album by alt rock/punk pop band Rews. I knew it was going to be good because both 'Miss you in the dark' (which features in November's F-Word playlist incidentally) and 'Shine' were fantastic singles, fast and furious, with solid guitars and a professional sheen that didn't get in the way of their musicianship.

What I didn't bank on was just how good it was going to be.

You know when you put an album on and you're expecting it to be OK, and it turns out to be way, way better than you expect? It was like that.

I found myself drawn, incessantly, to rock cliché when writing the review, meaning that I quickly dashed off 800 words, thought it was quite good, then looked at it two days later and went 'No, no, no...' Amended it a bit, sent it off for it's editing, and got it back from Ania at the F-Word with an email along the lines of "Come on now, you can do better than this..." and some suggestions as to how this could be achieved. Which I was very thankful for because, reading it back again, I could see I'd written the sort of thing I used to write for Record Collector and that what was needed was a much more inventive approach.

It is hard to write about very guitar orientated music sometimes when you don't play guitar. I always fret a bit that I'm using words like 'chord', 'riff' and 'hooks' in the wrong context. Not being a musician, I tend to write reviews based on how the music makes me respond emotionally or physically or, failing that, I rely on description of how the actual sound comes across to me. I remember when I wrote fanzines in the riot grrrl period I had a particular series of words I would use to describe the guitar sound on riot grrrl and post riot grrrl records. I think 'skittery' was one, or I'd actually try to write the sound of the riff (?) phonetically sometimes if 'skittery' didn't do it justice. My friend Helen Wray, who wrote Dancing Chicks fanzine in the late nineties before moving to London, becoming a journalist and a London Rollergirl, once memorably described Sleater-Kinney's Hot Rock album as being "Less raaah!" than their previous albums, and I knew exactly what she meant.

Because I was reviewing Rews for The F-Word, not Record Collector, the vernacular and description required did turn out to be much closer to the sort of thing I would write for Aggamengmong Moggie in the mid nineties than for Record Collector in the 2000's, and I think I had a lot more fun with the second draft of the review as a result of that.



Monday, 13 November 2017

Louder Than Words, 2017

Friday:

For the second year in a row, I had a works leaving do immediately before Louder Than Words. As such, I headed into Manchester around quarter to five ish on the 191, got off at MMU, and headed over to Sand Bar for the leaving do. There then followed a quick pit stop at 8th Day for food at 6pm, then over to the Principal hotel for the festival.

Chandelier in the Principal hotel, near the post room
I had a slight mix up over where to collect my wristband from, but a lovely volunteer fetched it for me while I waited by the Directors Suite. The anteroom was filled with people drinking wine and I had a nice chat with Bob Follen of Bob Art Models and his partner. He showed me a new drawing he'd done of Siouxsie, which I really liked it.

Karren Ablaze! arrived and we went down the front to wait for Jah Wobble, who was running later having been discombobulated by the Oxford Road Bus gate and the fact that he can no longer drive his car down Oxford Road.

When he did arrive, he was on fine form. Roisin Dwyer was interviewing him but he's such a raconteur that all you really need to do is set him off then try, generally fruitlessly, to steer the conversation back to specific anchors. I found him very funny, and good at creating pictures in my head. He'd recently done a documentary on Sid Vicious in which he tried to get behind the myth and discover the real person, and he made a lot of amusing and pointed comments about Brexit. There was also a surreal but very funny anecdote about being in a Japanese restaurant with Ginger Baker, both eating English desserts, and Ginger Baker going postal because he'd been given treacle tart instead of rhubarb and custard. He also called Jools Holland a "wax faced cunt" which amused me out of all proportion to the original comment.

Karren and I really enjoyed it, and were enthusing to each other at the end. The school kids from Hull on the other side of the room seemed less enamoured. On the way out, I got stuck in the middle of a massing throng of them, and heard one of them exclaim, with the true frustration of someone who's had to sit still for too long, "That was so boring" before being frantically hushed by their teacher. I was trying to keep a straight face at this point because I could imagine the teenage Wobble, having been taken to see some speaker talking about a cultural moment that happened twenty five* years before he was born, being equally bored. Would I have been bored had I been taken to see Jah Wobble do a talk when I was 15? Possibly not because I was into seventies punk by then, even though it was the mid 1990s, plus I am only one generation away from punk, not two, so the experiences are more relatable to. That said, I bet a lot of my friends at the time would have been bored.

After Wobble, I stayed on to see John Robb interview Paul 'Smiler' Anderson about mod. I wasn't sure if I was going to enjoy this talk as I don't have any special interest in mod, but I was pleasantly surprised. As someone very interested in cultural discussions around Britain's Lost Decade (1945-1955) and how the post war generation reacted against the social mores of the wartime generation (this applies to punk as well, incidentally, from what my interviewees have told me), he had a lot to say that interested me. He also touched on Brexit, pointing out that it symbolised the continuation of that cultural battle: A lot of people in their eighties voted Brexit. These are the people who, after WWII, had no truck with the French, Germans, Italians and Americans. Their children, meanwhile, were very happy to embrace French tailoring, Italian scooters and black American music. His thesis falls down a little given that a lot of people in their fifties and sixties also voted for Brexit, but it's an interesting point nonetheless and references what the Economist newspaper would term the new political divide: Not Left or Right but Open or Closed. Jah Wobble predicts a return to greyness, tedium, narrow horizons and spam after Brexit. Surely the definition of Closed.

Anderson was also good as regards discussing the long term view of mod, including the mod revival in the eighties via bands like The Jam. He really brought alive the precise, particular, exclusive nature of mod and the escapism of mod in 1984 under Thatcher when wearing three button suits and listening to rare groove was considerably more attractive to him than engaging with modern day realities or dancing to Wham!

Saturday:

The two 10am/10:15am events were a writing panel discussion, which I figured would be more aimed at popular music studies/journalism students than me, and an Unconvention discussion on the theme of good music/making the world a better place, which I had thought about going to but decided against. I did attend one of the Unconvention discussions two years ago and found it all a bit hardcore and, on a personal level, slightly frustrating in that that years discussion ('Is The Enemy Really Free' on the theme of unpaid work and being ripped off in the music industry) had gone in a different direction than I expected, leaving me with lots to say but no way of getting to say it. I wrote a blog post about it all in the end instead. On this occasion, I opted for a lie in.

It was 10am by the time I finally got out of the flat, and onto a 192 where the heating/air conditioning was making a noise like a whistling kettle and I had a bus mutterer on the seat in front. The combination of the two was a bit nails down a blackboard, to the extent that I considered getting off at the Apollo and taking the scenic route down Booth Street to the Principal, but somehow managed to hold on for three more stops. It was worth it for the moment when I was walking down Whitworth Street and someone threw open the windows of their tower block apartment and called out  in a light tenor: 'GOOD MORNING MANCHESTER!' in a tone somewhat nearer to the 'Who will buy?' musical sequence from Oliver! but with the overall spirit of Good Morning Vietnam.

I had originally intended to go to 'Vinyl Revival and the shops that made it happen' at 12:15 but I had an epiphany while sitting in the room that it wasn't going to be for me, and headed off to 'Eye Witness Punk Power' instead. This was David Nolan, Jonh Ingham and Mick O'Shea talking to John Robb about punk. I was feeling a bit punked out, but this was a good discussion - very funny at times and good on local scenes, outside London. I could tell that Ingham, as an Australian who had been at the heart of the London scene in 1976, was gently bemused by the whole area of discussion that boiled down to rest of the UK vs London, but he went along with it. As someone who has done a lot of research into punk, I didn't come away from this having really learnt anything, and if you want to learn about the Manchester punk scene then one of the best ways to find out about it is to put in the hours at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford with the (almost) entire run of City Fun (also available via MDMDA), but I did find the discussions around the whole area of authenticity interesting.

Old and new Oxford Road scenery, side by side
After the punk panel, I went to 8th Day and had dinner, passing, for the second year running, small but very noticeable groups of (mainly) young women dressed like female characters from Japanese anime/manga. Which begs the question: Is there an annual manga/anime convention that coincides with Louder Than Words each year? (Google says 'Yes, it is the Doki Doki festival which takes place at Sudden Sports Hall') If so, is there some kind of mash up event potential? In a Kamikaze Girls kind've style? No, just me then...

After that, I headed back to the Principal and met up with a seething Karren Ablaze! who was peeved that the women and subcultures panel clashed with Paul Morley, and that there was a distinct lack of women on panels at Louder Than Words. She'd been at the MDMA discussion on Black Female Voices vis a vis the Manchester scene, and while enjoying it, had come away with the horrible feeling that all of the black women at the festival had been gathered together in one room as a sort of ghettoization. It would be nice to think this had happened by accident rather than design, but it wasn't a good feeling.

Personally, I definitely feel that the women and subcultures panel discussion was a better choice than Paul Morley, and this was borne out for me by the fact that, despite taking place in the smallest room, venue wise, the room was so packed that volunteers had to keep on bringing in more and more chairs to seat everybody. Clearly this was an event, and a subject, people really wanted to see discussed. I spotted Daniel Rachel in the front row, and Maxine Peake a couple of rows back.

The discussion was chaired by Lucy O'Brien, and she had with her Chardine Taylor Stone of Big Joanie and Celeste Bell, Poly Styrene's daughter. Because female representation in subcultures gets so  little space or discussion, culturally, I feel that this was a very important moment, Louder Than Words wise, and I'd dearly love to see more of this kind of programming as I tend to get more out of events that I feel a personal connection to in terms of experience, as I did with this one. This doesn't mean I'm not capable of enjoying and listening to people talk about scenes and bands beyond my personal experience as well (and God knows, I'd go to precious few cultural events if that weren't the case), but it is nice to feel catered for all the same.

What I especially liked was that Chardine talked about her experiences as a black working class woman within the punk and rockabilly scenes in the 2000's, and that this dovetailed with the kind of battles Poly Styrene had faced in the 1970's. I liked this simply because I don't feel that these issues get discussed enough, God knows women and subcultures barely get discussed anywhere, so it's almost like every other variation and complication of the Woman Question doesn't even get a look in. There were some good examples provided by Chardine and Celeste of black punk activism and decolonisation, which I'd definitely check out. Afropunk and Decolonise Fest, along with Chardine's Black Girls Picnic (inspired by Ladyfest) particularly. I also felt Chardine handled the (these days inevitable) question about riot grrrl being too white and too middle class well, by pointing to Kathleen Hanna's love of bell hooks and Audre Lorde, and how it was weird for her, as a young black woman, to be being introduced to black feminism by white riot grrrls.

I probably should have joined in on the Q&A but I was enjoying the discussion too much to want to.

It was back to the world of seventies punk after this, and upstairs to the Directors Suite where Jordan (as I had to explain to Paul on the bus the other week, "No, not THAT Jordan!") was talking to John Robb. She is going to be writing her memoir soon, and she talked very sensitively about her relationship with Adam Ant, who she managed in the early day of Adam and the Ants, and with Derek Jarmon. I knew Jordan had been in Jubilee, but I hadn't realised she'd been in Sebastiane as well. I liked the bits where she was talking about ballet and how it had impacted not just in terms of how she carried herself, but also in terms of her style - she wore a lot of leotards and tights for example, and there was a great image on the screen of her wearing a tutu and block ballet shoes, but with her full punk makeup and hair, staring right at the camera in a nail you to the wall kind of way.

Celeste Bell was in the Directors Suite after Jordan, talking about the film and book she and Zoe Howe are making about Poly Styrene. I'd seen the trailer already, but it was still a lovely thrill to see it again. Unfortunately the talk was rather poorly attended, but Celeste talked very movingly about her mother and her life. There was a lot of interesting stuff around the theme of mother daughter relationships across three generations. Zoe had been originally intended to be Celeste's interviewer but she was ill so Roisin Dwyer stepped in and, despite being fairly last minute, did a wonderful job.



Sunday:

I dragged myself out of bed at half seven, had a prolonged fight with a bottle of cider vinegar while making honeygar, had my porridge, put my makeup on, and was out of the flat just after 9am. I stood at the bus stop crying involuntarily because I'd managed to get powder foundation in my eye. I had decided that morning, following on from a day and a half of listening to festival attendees and the occasional panel member bemoaning the state of modern music, that I was going to do a slight 'Fuck you' on this theme by wearing my Florence + The Machine t-shirt to Sunday's events. I don't think anyone noticed, but I felt better for dong so.

I got in relatively early as there wasn't much traffic, just a more or less empty bus and no interesting street theatre.

Pop and Politics was the first panel of the day, chaired by Roisin Dwyer and comprised of Daniel Rachel, Lucy O'Brien, Chardine Taylor Stone, and Dave Randall. I liked this panel a lot, it was like all my favourite people were in one room on one panel. I think the strength of this panel came from the four panellists having a wealth of different experiences across different eras, and that two of them (Rachel and Randall) had written books specifically about music and protest. It meant that a wide area of music and eras could be covered and discussed expertly, from a number of different perspectives, drawing on a range of different personal experiences.  Chardine Taylor Stone spoke about Solange's A seat at the table, Dave Randall spoke about the personal impact 'Free Nelson Mandela' had had on him, and about the debates around Beyoncé's nod to Black Lives Matter with 'Foundation'. The cultural boycotts of South Africa and Israel were discussed, in regard to the 1980s and Paul Simon's Graceland album, and more recently bands refusing, or not refusing, to play in Tel Aviv. Daniel Rachel spoke about Rock Against Racism, he, Dave Randall and Lucy O'Brien spoke about Red Wedge and Chardine Taylor Stone spoke about #GrimeforCorbyn. Lucy was asked about sexism in the music industry in the context of the Harvey Weinstein uncovering and fallout, which led on to brief mention of Kesha and the horrific situation she is in, work wise.

I had intended to ask a question about the re-invigoration of the protest song in the age of Donald Trump, but I didn't in the end, mainly because I could see Karren had a whole series of things she wanted to say about issues such as quotas, safe spaces, and how these issues related to Louder Than Words itself. It was noted at this point that this was a panel of two women and two men, with a female chair, which is very unusual.

I sympathise with Karren's take on it, and we discussed it at length throughout the weekend. I began to wonder why I wasn't angrier about feeling unrepresented at Louder Than Words and, having thought about it since, I've realised that part of it is that I've got used to moving in areas of the music industry where I'm thoroughly unrepresented and, while not at all happy about that state of affairs, I have a really long list of cultural battles that I'm fighting, some on my behalf, some on the behalf of women who have come before me, and I simply do not have the time or the mental resources to fight all of those really important battles all at the same time, continuously. As such, I do perhaps choose to pick my battles a bit more than I maybe feel I should. It is a compromise, and not necessarily a happy one. Some of the issues Karren raised relate to the music industry at large, also to academia (as another person at the music and protest Q&A pointed out, very eloquently) and I have, in a way, written about issues of gender, representation and the music industry at length a few times now, most notably in my piece for The F-Word on women and the UK music press in 2012, and more recently in summer 2017 on the theme of women and music festivals, an issue regular readers of my blog will know I did a lot of work on this summer. The whole range of related issues of hidden histories, cultural representation, and alternative cultural narratives are, inevitably, at the heart of a lot of my writing work. And will no doubt continue to drive it.

I wasn't sure what to do with myself for most of the rest of Sunday as there wasn't really anything else on the bill that day that I had strong feelings about attending. This worked out quite well in the end in that I spent a lot of time in conversation with various people and actually only attended two other events, the first of which was The Unsung.

For some reason, I'd got it into my head that The Unsung was going to be an Unthanks esque gentle folk affair, but it wasn't at all. Instead, this "funeral party for the forgotten fallen heroes of music" was a spoken word performance by Genevieve Carver and her band. The concept is brilliant: Poems celebrating the lives of those forgotten men and women who have died in music related circumstances. From Sandor Feher, a musician on the Costa Concordia ferry who helped passengers escape when it was sinking but drowned when he went back to try and rescue his violin, to Asumi Nagakiya, a steel pan player who was raped and murdered during or after Carnival in Trinidad, to Scott Johnson, a drum technician working for Radiohead in 2012 who died when the stage he was working on collapsed on top of him. I think the two strongest pieces, for me, were 'The Eagles of Death', for the 89 victims of the Bataclan concert attack in November 2015, and 'The Unsung' for the victims of the live music ban in Mali, 2012-13.



In a lot of ways, some of these pieces chimed quite nicely with both Dave Randall's book and with wider debates around music and protest, also with the treatment of women in music: 'The Lady In The Car' tells the story of Anne Naismith, a concert pianist who, much like Alan Bennett's Lady In The Van, fled her life to live in her car. Similarly, Lina Prokofiev, much mistreated wife of the composer, is the subject of 'The Fiery Angel'.

I was very impressed by The Unsung, it's a neat and innovative concept, beautifully executed and well researched.

My final talk of the day was Malcolm Boyle talking about Hoppy, aka John Hopkins of sixties counterculture and UFO fame. He is making a film about him, and showed lots of clips of the almost finished film to illustrate the talk, which is always a good way to add an extra vivid edge to a talk. The film does look really good and I found out quite a few things about the London countercultural scene that I hadn't known before, which is always nice.

I think I may have been the second youngest person in the room (there was a bloke there who looked younger than me), but I do have a gleaming of the counterculture, as I've read up on it at particular times, particularly recently as I had to do a lot of reading up on the underground press for my punk women and fanzines chapter for MUP. That said, neither of my parents were involved in the counterculture (though I suspect my mum might have quite liked to have been) and my main idea of UFO, I confess, probably comes from reading Jenny Fabian's Groupie when I was fifteen.

At the time, I thought that book was fiction, it was only about three years later when it was re-issued and Fabian was interviewed about the book that I realised it was thinly disguised fly on the wall. That said, even when I thought it was fiction, I still had enough awareness of the sixties counterculture to know it was based in fact, I just didn't appreciate how much. My friend Sara, who is much more clued up on that scene, got it immediately when she read it, and reported back at the end of chapter one "I just knew it was Syd Barrett". For the record, while I have since worked out who most of the cast of Groupie are, I still don't know who the pot bellied journalist she shags is. A quick google search seems to suggest Fabian is still with us and, while I'm hesitant to see women represented in cultural discussions purely as groupies, I do still really, really want to know who that bloke was, so maybe Louder Than Words could book Fabian to talk about her book and I could find out?

I could probably come up with a list of other suggestions for speakers and events, just as I could definitely compile a reading list as regards the whole massive issue of women and subcultures. I might do that. Off the top of my head, things I would have liked to have seen at Louder Than Words this year would have included a discussion of the nineties Glasgow scene, as documented in this years film Lost In France, and Helen McCookerybook and Gina Birch talking about their film Stories from the She Punks. I think both would have pulled in a big enough crowd, having seen Helen and Gina pack out the British Library conference centre last year for their talk on it, and Lost In France had a pretty sizeable Scottish premiere earlier this year, plus screenings around the country.

I'm not sure how much the literary link is enforced when booking people for Louder Than Words, and it's possible Lost In France may or may not qualify, but there's enough literary links to the She Punks project for that one to qualify.


*In my original posting, this said '40 years before he was born'. That would have made the kid 0 not 15, hence correction!


Sunday, 12 November 2017

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Playlisting

It's been a bit of a hectic few months here.

Back in late July I agreed to take on my old job of editing the music section over at The F-Word. It will be for six months initially while regular music editor Jo Whitehead takes her turn as the F-Word's rotating editor, then we'll see what happens.

I've already had the pleasure of commissioning some very talented writers, have been showered with promo emails, and have now compiled two playlists for the site.

Given that I have a strong tendency to deploy music (and books, and films, and radio...) to try and make sense of what feels like an increasingly horrific world, it should come as no surprise to discover that I used this approach when compiling both the August playlist and the November playlist.

This approach goes beyond music as a form of protest (though I have used some of the music in both playlists in that context) and more towards music as an intelligent and therapeutic soundtrack to the distressing realities of everyday life.

I hope you enjoy both playlists, as I feel they can be listened to without being aware of the wider socio-political context in which they were created, even though there is that extra dimension to them as well.

Making a playlist will never change the world, but if it helps people to try and make sense of things, and draw strength, inspiration and courage from music, then it's a good thing.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Ferris & Sylvester - The Room (Official Video)





A very timely song, with a deceptively simple but very effective video. Understated and stylish.

Ferris and Sylvester are Issy Ferris and Archie Sylvester. As the song suggests, they are a London based duo and they will be playing some London dates this month, which you can find out about at their website. 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Overcoats - I Don't Believe In Us (Official Video)



Hanna and JJ are back with a new song! Yay!

'I Don't Believe In Us' features on the deluxe version of their debut album Young, which is out now. The pair are currently touring the US and the tour dates are available on their website.

Small tip: Were it not for the XX's I See You, Overcoats Young would definitely have been my album of the year.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Sound System: The Political Power Of Music

Dave Randall's book Sound System: The Political Power Of Music was published by Pluto Books back in April. It is a very timely, and necessary, book.

Randall isn't the first to write about music, politics and protest, in fact, you could say that, following on from Dorian Lynskey's 33 Revolutions Per Minute in 2011, and his blog of the same name, Matthew Collin's collected works (most recently Pop Grenade, a series of essays from 2016) and Daniel Rachel's Walls Come Tumbling Down (also from 2016), that it's a growth area, publishing wise.

But Sound System is different.

Firstly, it was published as part of the Left Book Club, a new initiative in left wing publishing stemming (as is so often the case these days) from an initiative that began life in 1930s Britain.

Secondly, it is quite a slim book, which is particularly remarkable given the complex nature of the subject matter, and the timescale covered.

Thirdly, it is written by someone who is a professional musician (Randall has been a member of Faithless, records his own music under the name Slovo, and has also played with Sinead O'Connor and Dido) as well as a writer and activist, and who isn't afraid to be candid about the realities of life as a working musician, including some of the more surreal, absurd, damaging and exploitative bits. For example, he outlines some interesting statistics as regards those working in his profession:
US government statistics recently revealed that 11.5 per cent of adults working in the 'arts, entertainment and recreation' sector report heavy drinking in the last month. That's above all the other sectors except 'accommodation and food services' (11.8 per cent), construction (16.5 per cent) and mining (17.5 per cent). I suspect that if our category was narrowed to 'touring musicians and crew', we would top the chart.
What's interesting about this quote is that it's not being used to promote some stereotype of the freewheelin', binge drinkin', coke snortin', shag anything with a pulse rock'n'roll god, instead it is being used to support Randall's claim that music is often about conveying feelings of estrangement and alienation.

He eloquently explores the idea that everyday life for the touring musician can be a dichotomy. On one hand there is a clear expectation that the performer will go out on stage and make the audience feel fantastic every night, whether they happen to feel fantastic themselves or not, and that connected to this is the twin expectation that the performer will make it all look easy, desirable, alluring and a lifestyle to be coveted and envied, even if they are dreadfully homesick, suffering from flu and their house is about to be repossessed.

As Randall points out, the day to day reality of the touring artist is often lonely, repetitive, involves a lot of waiting around, exiles you to a weird bubble for two years at a time, which in turn separates you from your friends and family for two years at a time, and is not the glamorous fairytale mythologists and propagandists would have us believe.

Which is not to say he's moaning, because he is equally eloquent when it comes to discussing the amazing highs and giddy moments of joy attached to being a working musician and makes it clear that it's worth doing. His point is more that what can make you a really great musician and garner success can also be what really screws you up as a fully functioning human being.

Randall isn't the first to discuss the downside, but he's probably the first to say it so eloquently and explicitly while still living that lifestyle. (It's different if you're a retired rock star because, as with any profession, once you've retired you can say what you like about your former employers and profession) The suggestion that Randall doesn't belong to the mythology school of rock'n'roll writing is refreshing and gives his book an edge it wouldn't have otherwise.

It's also worth pointing out that, despite covering a certain amount of critical theory and a dizzying range of geography and history, Sound System is always coherant, concise and readable and that this is not a book that treads the well trod narrative of Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan to The Clash and Billy Bragg, The End. Not only does he go right up to the present day, he also begins his tale centuries back, pre Peasants Revolt and, as with Lynskey's book, doesn't focus purely on the western world.

From the origins of carnival in Trinidad and Tobago and how what began as resistance music led, ultimately, to the Notting Hill Carnival, to the co-option and censuring of previously radical musical styles and subcultures by the state (rave and disco being but two comparatively recent examples), to the subversive impact of the Beatles in Cold War era USSR, to soul in 1960s West Africa, colonialism, apartheid in South Africa and todays cultural boycott of Israel. He also pinpoints particular radical flash points, such as Rock Against Racism, Beyoncé and Black Lives Matter, and the impact of social media and smartphones as regards the spread of the music of the Arab Revolutions.

In a more wide reaching and insidious sense, he also discusses the role of advertising and sponsorship as regards musicians and decisions about personal integrity, as well as the acknowledgement that, particularly in the UK, musicians are not operating on a level playing field in the first place, with issues such as racism, sexism and classism having an impact on who gets the breaks, who gets to be heard, who is promoted and pushed.

The book concludes with what can be regarded as an open letter to fellow musicians: The Rebel Music Manifesto, which I won't spoil by trying to summarise.

It is to be hoped that this book will be read by as many musicians and music fans as possible, because it has a lot to say about music and the social-cultural scene in 2017. There may be a lot of history in this book, but it wears it lightly without treating it lightly. It's also a book that speaks very much of, and to, now. As such, it should be devoured enthusiastically and be much recommended.

Dave Randall made a visit to Salford's Working Class Movement Library in July to talk about Sound System and the the political power of music. Not only did he charm the audience, but he was engaging, interesting and energetic. He will next be appearing at Louder Than Words, "the UK's biggest music based literature festival", in Manchester over the weekend of the 10th-12th November at the Principal Hotel on Oxford Road. Both of these visits might suggest Dave to be a northern boy but he is in fact resident in Brixton.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Magnificent in Purple

What strikes you most while listening to Purple, the debut album by Gothenburg's Pink Milk, is that these are not so much songs as experiments in sound. Free form compositions that sound as though they were crafted from the elements as much as from conventional drums and guitars. 

This is probably an example of an album being sonically imbued by it's surroundings, for Purple was recorded on the isolated Swedish island of Gotland and mixed and produced by the band themselves. As such, there is a strong sense of sparseness and isolation to the finished album.

Pink Milk are Maria (vocals/drums) and Edward (guitar/vocals), and they have been going for two years now. Their first three singles, 'Detroit', 'Kill 4 U' and 'Awakening of Laura' are all here, along with their unnerving and doomed composition for Swedish television, 'Drömmens Skepp', and their initial sonic calling card; the frankly terrifying rendition of Foreigner's 'I Wanna Know What Love Is'.

As such, good things are expected from this album and the opening track, 'River Phoenix' certainly hits the spot and grabs the attention. A jagged guitar scythes through the silence, eerily, menacingly... It sounds very filmic, like the opening scenes of a gothic western or dark screwball fantasy based around some intangible idea of reckoning. It broods magnificently, achieving atmospheric wonders with guitar and reverb alone. 

As 'Awakening of Laura' has shown, the band are capable of doing light as well as shade, but their strengths are jagged guitar work and brooding vocals, the sonic equivalent of lacerating wind and icy rain. These elements are strong on 'Muscles' and 'Sushi Dreams (Flesh & Blood)' but both 'Awakening of Laura' and the light and almost synthy 'Sans Toi' show that there is another side to them, the latter track sounding almost wistful, swirling around you like a cat made of fog. It sparkles like icicles. 

This is a strong debut album for the band, and it has the air of a sonic manifesto, suggesting very much that this is just part one for them. That they will be back with more sonic landscapes in the future.

I can't wait.

Purple is out now on Black Hair Records 


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Noga Erez - BALKADA (Official Video)



The woman of the moment is back!

This is Noga's new single, and she's currently touring the UK, stopping off at the following venues.

October 21st: Bristol Simple Things Festival
October 22nd: Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Think Tank Underground
October 23rd: Glasgow The Hug And Pint
October 24th: Leeds Headrow House
October 25th: Brighton The Joker
October 26th: London Corsica Studios
October 27th: Cambridge The Blue Moon
October 29th: Bedford Esquires

I do recommend you check her out.

For European readers, Noga hits France on October 30th and will be playing Lille, Bordeaux, Paris before continuing across Europe to Martigny, Brussels, Utrecht, Berlin, Hamburg, Heidelberg, Erlangen, Munich, Zurich, Dudingden, Vienna and Rome between October 30th and December 9th. Look out for her.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Pre-Code Hollywood - Shake It Out



I'm not entirely sure who it was who originally introduced me to this mash up, but I think it was my friend Michelle Drury who combines her encyclopediac knowledge of all things Fall, Doctor Who, Radiophonic Workshop and Wars of the Roses with a similar degree of knowledge of all things Pre Code Hollywood and silent film.

This mash up is pretty apt given that the official promo video for 'Shake It Out' is very 1930s glamour anyway. This particular take on it never fails to cheer me up, as did Florence Welch's very emphatic disowning of the Conservative Party's unauthorised use of the Florence + The Machine's version of 'You've Got The Love' at their recent party conference in Manchester. I didn't make it to the customary anti-Conference march this year because I had a horrific migraine, but I gather it went well.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Pale Honey - Get These Things Out Of My Head (Official Video)



Gothenburg band Pale Honey are currently touring with our friends Pink Milk (whose album I now have!) in Sweden, but will be playing a London show at The Old Blue Last on November 7. Their second album, Devotion, is out now and this single, 'Get These Things Out Of My Head' captures life on the road for the band, as well as providing a taster of the album. It is, in their words, 'Heavy', but is also an exhilarating ride.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Wolf Alice - Beautifully Unconventional in the Live Lounge




I'm posting the live session version rather than the promo video to this single because I really don't like the promo at all, and feel it undermines (what I understand to be) the message of the song. That is to say, there's nothing innately offensive about using the well trod big white dress, blonde wig Monroe/Debbie Harry circa Parallel Lines schtick but, Ye Gods is it tired... There are some promo videos that you watch and feel really disappointed by. Not just because the idea is tired, but because it doesn't even seem to be the right tired idea to fit the image/sound of the band in question. It feels weird. Like you're watching that video of the the Waitresses 'I know what boys like' with the Kirsty MacColl version of 'They Don't Know' dubbed over the top of it.

'Beautifully Unconventional' isn't the new 'Rebel Girl' by any means, but it has a nice affirmative female solidarity message all the same. Not so much 'Rebel Girl' as 'She's Amazing'. The album, Visions Of A Life, is out now, and it's really, really good and definitely lives up to the hype. It should consolidate the momentum the band are building up around themselves and has all the hallmarks of an indie rock classic.

On that theme, Wolf Alice are the band at the heart of Michael Winterbottom's new film, On The Road, which follows the band as they tour the UK. The film weaves fictional characters and situations in and out of the day to day activities of the touring band. An unusual concept, which seems to have garnered a positive response, critically, so far.


Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Miya Folick - God Is A Woman - Live at London Calling



Along with Daughter's 'Burn It Down', this is my current song that I'm obsessed with. On 'God Is A Woman' we find Miya in a brooding, contemplative mood and, as such, this song isn't as guitar orientated as most of her work, or as angry/self lacerating.  It's a bit of a quiet recording, but it's also the only clip of 'God is a woman' that there is on YouTube so 'twill have to do.

'God Is A Woman' is available through Spotify and other streaming sites though, if you want to follow up by listening to the excellent recorded version

Friday, 29 September 2017

"I'm not right...inside": Wild Ones' return with classic new album

Wild Ones by Jeremy Hernandez
US band Wild Ones are due to release a new album of sparkling slightly skewed electro pop at the beginning of October. The title, Mirror Touch, refers to the medical condition mirror touch synesthesia and to the "physiological experience of empathy. How can you know yourself when in public you become everyone else?" It's this sense of contradiction and disorientation that runs through the album.

From a musical perspective, the band grew up on Cocteau Twins and En Vogue, and this knowledge provides you with a good bit of context when it comes to approaching their sound. On one hand there is a dark synthy element to a lot of the songs but this sits alongside the more evident bouncy electro pop and R&B elements.

Opening track 'Paresthesia' is all crashing electro chords, heavy synths and insistent, nagging percussive urgency. Singer Danielle Sullivan's vocals are reminiscent of Visions era Grimes, and are similarly sweetly endearing. This is a very bouncy track but in an offbeat way; wonky pop at it's best, with a great hook and chorus. It's a real ear worm, not to mention being a strong contender for song of the year. Sublime, euphoric and blissful despite it's dark lyrics.

The synth led 'Do you really' is a less urgent piece, but has similarly great hooks and bridge. More Naked And The Famous or Metric than Grimes, it's very sing along to. It's followed by the bouncy electro pop of 'They're not me', and the emotive and sweet electro ballad 'Invite Me In', which seems a good cousin to our friends Overcoats and their more electro orientated work. The most recent single, the soft and gorgeous lullaby 'Standing in The Back at Your Show', is similarly lovely.

Perhaps the most subversive track here though (aside from 'Parasthesia') is 'Wanna be your man', which follows the sad piano, crashing drums and swooping guitar of the instrumental 'Night Shift'. This is a laconic slice of electro pop that comes across like early Sugababes via Blondie and is just too good. This is woman as sexual pursuer, the swaggerer, the aggressive one. It has all the hallmarks of a pop classic and sits nicely along recent works by Gothic Tropic and Overcoats.

It's followed by the big song with big emotion that is 'Love + Loathing', in which brooding verses contrast with the emotional explosion of the chorus."Infatuation is so hard to hide"acknowledges Sullivan. There is a similar urgency to 'Forgetting Rock'N'Roll', with its pounding drums, swaggery synths and blurred and disoriented backing vocals, all making for good post disco electro pop.

The album ends with the bouncy but lyrically outspoken, shouty chorus fuelled 'No Money', which is another slice of classic electro pop. "Another hundred billion dollars gets me closer to God" snarls Sullivan in what is a (probably) unintentional nod to Nine Inch Nails, a reference only enhanced by the excellent insistent and unyielding drums at the end.

A perfect wonky pop album then, intelligent and innovative, also catchy as hell.

Mirror Touch is out on Topshelf on 6 October

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Daughter - "Burn It Down"



I heard this by chance on Lamacq on 6music on Monday and it quite literally stopped me in my tracks... It is currently haunting me and, my God does it feel so 2017...

Friday, 22 September 2017

The Dramatics- In the rain





It isn't actually raining in Stockport today, as it happens, in fact it was actually quite sunny earlier (!) but, well, you know... we are clearly in Autumn now...

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Bang Bang Machine - Geek Love (original 12" mix)



I was reminded of this record while I was both reading the book Geek Love, and also while I was writing about it for my Between Two Books post.

Last time I went looking for this song on YouTube (which was, admittedly, a few years back now) I couldn't find the full version of it, and the clip that was up was an indie chart Chart Show bootleg that wasn't great quality.

If you've never heard 'Geek Love' before, stick with it because it has a slow start, but once it gets going it just builds and builds and gets better and better... I would still class it as in the top 5 of my favourite singles of all time, probably number 1 favourite single of all time.

As you'll see if you click through to YouTube, this record was self financed by the band and much championed by John Peel upon it's release in 1992. It spent several months hanging around the indie chart top ten, and spent several weeks at number one in the summer of that year I think. It also bagged the number one spot in that years Peel Festive 50, holding off PJ Harvey's mighty 'Sheela-na-gig' by one vote.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Time machine time: The missing Florence review

Back in August 2009 I reviewed the debut Florence + The Machine album, Lungs, for The F-Word, but... it was never published. Why? Because I withdrew it a few months later, fretting that what I'd written was becoming irrelevant as the band's meteoric success became increasingly apparent. I was also waiting for poor Jess McCabe (the F-Word's then editor) to surface from under the pile of reviews she was drowning in, and I wasn't sure how long that would take.

Anyway, I went looking for this lost Florence review last summer, post British Summer Time festival, with the intention of revisiting it and maybe recycling it in some way. But I couldn't find it and assumed I'd binned it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I unearthed it when beginning the unenviable task of trying to tidy up my writing archive, specifically all the punk women research. 

Because I did review both Ceremonials and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful for The F-Word, I've always regretted pulling the review of Lungs, an album I would still regard as one of the finest of the past ten years. At the time, it seemed a sensible course of action but, reading it back now, it hasn't dated as much as I thought it would. I think what follows is an accurate account of how I felt when I was first discovering both band and album in 2009, and in some ways, I was quite forward thinking with it, so it does still work.

I can't make it look the same as it would have done had it been published on The F-Word, but I will try and make it look nice.

Here it is:

The girl in the headlights: Notes on Florence + The Machine’s Lungs

I have been trying and trying to come up with a series of suitable analogies to describe this album, and time after time I find myself reminded of the opening sequence to the film Heavenly Creatures, and the shock invoked by the raw screaming of a blood spattered Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as they run through sparse woodland, away from the murder scene. I kind of feel it’s a most inappropriate choice on one hand, the film being based on a true story, but on the other hand this fictionalised scene is the only thing I can think of that invokes the sense of savagery, wildness and beauty this record evokes. There is something very raw, frequently violent and sometimes shockingly emotional about it.

“I want my music to sound like throwing yourself out of a tree, or off a tall building, or as if you’re being sucked down into the ocean and you can’t breathe” Florence Welch has been quoted as saying, on the bands website, “It’s something overwhelming and all encompassing that fills you up, you’re either going to explode with it, or you’re just going to disappear.”

The album opens with the sensory overload that is the single ‘Dog Days Are Over’, a song which makes characteristic use of light and shade, setting a delicate harp against sparse vocals one minute, and pounding percussion and crashing chords against fiercely impassioned words the next. It’s followed by the hit ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise it up)’, a slightly gentler ride, which was written, so the story goes, in response to Island’s request for something they could put out as a single. The resulting song is a critique of the process of negotiation and selling, of being bound to a contract. But Welch and the band take these themes very deep, so that the song becomes an almost Faustian analogy, delivered via references to Alice In Wonderland and Kate Bush. Welch is the rabbit in the headlights, or the girl in the spotlight, frozen in the gaze of the critics and the music industry at large. It’s a song about self-sacrifice that asks “who is the lamb and who is the knife?” while acknowledging that Midas is king and that, firmly in his grasp, she will be turned to gold, or in this case, profit. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, amongst others, have reflected on the dilemma of selling themselves, or sacrificing themselves in order to be heard (see ‘Young Girls, Happy Endings’) Kenickie touched on it, in passing, during the brief course of ‘Come out 2nite’, not to mention the Clash maintaining that they wanted “complete control”, but rarely is such a common dilemma expressed with such elegance and mesmerising beauty.




‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’, which follows ‘Rabbit Heart’, is taut and sparse, precise and slightly ghostly in quality, whereas ‘Howl’ is an entrancing shamanistic stream of consciousness that evokes much of the savagery, wildness and otherworldly beauty of the record. Like an aural Angela Carter story, it is crammed full of imagery, blood and wolves. Amongst the very high standard of songs on the album, this is possibly the best.

How did the band go from the raw guitar rock of ‘Kiss With A Fist’ to this? Well, Welch is clearly a girl who knows her Kate Bush from her Tori Amos, her Patti Smith from her Polly Harvey. Like Patrick Wolf, she seems to be an artist who enjoys, and feels comfortable in, a studio environment while being equally comfortable in a live environment. Both songwriters are equally prodigious talents as well as sophisticated and sensitive songwriters so it's a fair comparison.

Florence + The Machine, who are currently comprised of Florence Welch, Rob Ackroyd, Chris Hayden, Isabella Summers and Tom Monger, took the comparatively old fashioned route of gigging a lot before recording, and this shows in the sophistication and confidence of the finished record. ‘Kiss With A Fist’, the bands first single, was written by Florence while she was still at school. It is her young punk song, in which a couple brawl increasingly violently in a bedroom, and the runaway feel of the escalating violence is echoed by the runaway guitars and drums of the song, plus Welch’s increasingly reckless vocals. The song that follows it on the record, ‘Girl With One Eye’ also has violence as a strong theme, and it’s a very tense, menacing song with an air of sexual ambiguity (“I slipped my hand under her skirt. I said don’t worry it’s not going to hurt”) and gothic imagery alluding to cutting out eyeballs and the like, possibly reflecting Welch’s rumoured appreciation of Edgar Allen Poe.

This gothic element is also evident in ‘Drumming Song’, the band’s most recent single. In the video Welch is shown in a black leotard, high heels and cape alongside other black clad girls, dancing in a very white, light, church in Shoreditch. They look slightly bat-like in their costumes, and as the song is quite hot blooded and sexy, as well as very hard and percussive, the mood is intense but swaggery. Welch sings of a sensation that is “sweeter than heaven” and “hotter than hell”, hence the religious imagery, and while the video is eye catching, the song itself is a very strong single, and does the band proud.




By strong contrast to the single is the song ‘Between Two Lungs’, a sparse, eerie and oddly beautiful piece, which has an interesting history. It’s become important to Welch because it signifies the moment when the sound started to come together, and she began to feel comfortable within her own musical skin. She wrote it by pounding on the walls of her friend’s 8-track studio with her hands to make the percussion, and then wrote the melody on piano, an instrument she can’t actually play. The backing vocals were recorded before the lead was, and the experience taught her to be confident in experimenting to achieve the sound she wanted. The song itself is about a kiss, and it’s a sensual, tender moment amidst the emotional rage and passion. 

It is followed by ‘Cosmic Love’, which begins as a delicate swirl of harp, piano and angelic vocals before the drums come crashing in and Welch’s voice becomes more aggressive. This song has that contrast of sweet tenderness and savage violence, and it’s emotive and large in scope and sound, contrasting pain with beauty. The hand of such predecessors as 'Hounds Of Love' and Curve’s Cherry EP can be heard on it, but lightly so.

Perhaps the most subtle song on the album is ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’, a remarkably stripped down and straightforward piece, with a folky-goth sensibility that is reminiscent of both All About Eve and Patrick Wolf circa ‘Wind In The Wires’. It could easily be neglected and passed by by listeners, but whoever picked the running order for this record picked well because, set after the sparse light and shade of ‘Between Two Lungs’ and the crashing emotion of ‘Cosmic Love’ it works very well.

The subtlety of ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’ pre-empts the poppier quality of ‘Hurricane Drunk’, which I would wager on as a future single, if only because it should appeal to what one critic has dubbed “Lily Allen’s school for wayward girls”, it being about going out and getting absolutely slaughtered. It also comes in at just over three minutes, has a buoyant tune and a sing along chorus, though it’s quite deceptive as well because the lyrics are so bleakly masochistic: “I’m going out, I’m gonna drink myself to death, and in the crowd, I see you with someone else.” I feel sure that many of us, whether we happen to be one of Lily’s wayward girls or not, have had at least one night out like that. Welch has said, incidentally, that she writes her best songs when drunk or hungover, which I can’t help but think might cause her problems later on: Disorientated, bewildered, lucid but not really with it = states in which to write good songs apparently. Others would probably agree, but I can’t help but think about the long term implications of this, if only because the (very) public persona of Amy Winehouse hangs over so many young songwriters these days, especially the girls, like a most unedifying vision of the future. In many ways, Florence + The Machine have made life rather more difficult for themselves, musically speaking, by mining a series of deep, powerful and often unpleasant or dangerously euphoric emotions rather than going for the safer subjects, but I don’t think Welch would want it any other way.

The final two tracks on the album, ‘Blinding’ and ‘You’ve Got The Love’ are typical of this drive for perfection. ‘Blinding’, while sharing a number of chromosomes with ‘Drumming Song’, notably its dominant percussion, is a darkly hypnotic track, both bleaker in sound and subject than ‘Drumming Song’, making for a strong, albeit intense, ride. ‘You’ve Got The Love’, a cover of The Source and Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’ is a credible guitar led take on a song that is indisputably a modern classic. The band regularly perform this song as their encore when playing live, and the resulting version holds itself up well without surpassing the original. Welch is pitch perfect in her delivery, suggesting a strong sense of familiarity with the song, and it’s a brave choice of cover, one that reflects the high standards of the band.

In February of this year, Florence + The Machine won the critics choice for most promising rising star at the Brit Awards. This award, and it’s predecessor Best Newcomer, has something of a chequered history, at times being unerringly accurate (such as in 1999 when the public were allowed to vote and chose Belle and Sebastian over Steps) while at other times seeming like the kiss of death (They Might Be Giants in 1991) so its fair to say that it’s led to a certain amount of unhealthy interest in the band, and in Welch. That girls are seemingly in fashion, musically speaking, this year also adds to the sense of both expectation and cynicism, with a recent commentator on a Guardian article (which wasn’t even about Florence + The Machine, but which did happen to mention them) accusing Florence of the cardinal sin of trying “too hard”. This in itself begs a number of questions as regards the metaphorical codebook issued as part of the initiation into the cult of indie, nonetheless being why should trying be a sin, and how can you try “too hard”? Post Brit Award, the band were shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize, but did not win. 

Whatever the future holds for Florence + The Machine, I for one can only hope that Welch makes it through and survives, remaining both sane and unembittered by the process. I also dearly hope that she continues to make startlingly original emotive music that is both exhilarating and ambitious.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A literary voyager reaches land

Back in March, I took the decision to embark on an epic literary voyage into the unknown by reading, in consecutive order as much as possible, the full list of books read by the Between Two Books online reading group. 

Before we go any further, I feel I should explain a few things:

Firstly, 2017 hadn’t been going particularly well for me at that point and, as such, I was in need of some escapism. 

Secondly, I’d been fascinated by the whole idea of Between Two Books as an entity, ever since I found out about it last summer.

Thirdly, I’m the kind of person who keeps a notebook of books I want to read (I start to fret if the list gets a bit short...) and this is not the first time I’ve followed a literary whim.

Specifically, when I was 15 I made the acquaintance of the infamous Mancunian fanzine writer Dean Talent and, during our brief correspondence and customary exchange of fanzines, he gave me a list of Four Books You Must read. I can still remember them now:

1) Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar

2) Douglas Coupland - Shampoo Planet

3) Sarah Schulman - Girls, Visions, and Everything

4) Beth Nugent - City of Boys

This was in 1994, when Amazon had only just been invented and the UK had yet to embrace the internet. As such, if you wanted to read a book and the local public library didn’t have it, and you didn’t want to order a copy at Waterstones, (it generally was Waterstones at the time…) you did an Inter Library Loan for it. I think Stockport public libraries had The Bell Jar in stock, but they basically had to buy the Coupland, Schulman and Nugent titles in for me. I waited a good couple of years for the Nugent one, and at least six months for the Schulman book because it had been published by a tiny publisher in the US and, as such, was something of an ordeal to source, supply chain wise.

I can honestly say that I took something from each of the four books, even The Bell Jar (which I didn’t go much on, despite or perhaps because of being a depressed 15 year old at the time…) but that Girls, Visions and Everything was my favourite of the four.

With such a positive experience of literary recommendations to look back on, you can see why I liked the idea of playing catch up with the Between Two Books list of books.

When Between Two Books first started, the books were chosen by Florence Welch but, as time has gone on, it’s become a more fluid process with other musicians, friends, and writers entering the fray and selecting titles, almost in an unconscious chain reaction kind of way, which is cool.

As I draw near the end of the list (so far), I’d like to look back on the past six months of reading and reflect on it. It seems only fair to say that I didn’t enjoy every book I read, but that I did find them all compelling enough to finish. Overall, it’s been a really positive experience that has introduced me to a number of writers I might not have ever read otherwise, as well as reacquainting me with other writers whose earlier works I’d read but whose careers I haven’t followed so closely since. It’s occurred to me along the way that, increasingly, I read a lot of non fiction and, also, (and I was aware of this) I tend to read mainly British novelists. Which isn’t as parochial as you might think, given that I mainly watch Japanese and Korean films.

Anyway, please sit back and enjoy a breathless rollercoaster ride through my reading brain these last six months...

We begin with Gwendoline Riley’s Opposed Positions, a novel I found to be a bit of a masochistic read due to the subject matter. It revolves around destructive family relationships, particularly the relationship of the estranged father with his writer daughter (the narrater). While I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with Riley's work, having previously loved both Cold Water and Sick Notes, I finished the book with the concluding thought that the Gwendoline Riley period of my life has now passed. I was a bit sad about this, but I wasn’t entirely surprised. The two books I’ve mentioned served a purpose for me at the time, in my early/mid twenties, but I’ve since let them lie. In a related note, It’s a bit like listening to ‘Hurricane Drunk’ now (which I can still do, very happily): That was me when I was 22, basically, or a specific night when I was 22 anyway. Which, even now, all these years later, I can still look back at and wince, feeling the same echoing note of baffled, drunken, hurt. 

Second book, Kirsten Reed’s The Ice Age, was a very pleasant surprise, and I think that this has probably been my favourite of all the Between Two Books books so far. From the blurb of the back I was half expecting it to tread similar territory to Emily Prager’s Roger Fishbite (which I also love, but in a different kind of way), in that the central characters are a teenage girl and an older man, on the road together, but it wasn't like that at all. It was a much more ambiguous read, and there was a dreamlike quality to it that contrasted sharply with the violence. It is a mysterious, lucid, and beautiful book that I kept because I knew I’d read it again.



I read Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? out of sync with the rest of the sequence. This was because Stockport Libraries had a copy of it whereas they didn’t have copies of the Riley or Reed books. As such, I read this one first. While I really enjoyed it, it took me quite a while to read, but I didn’t mind that because of the high quality of her authorial voice. It would be simplistic to call it a scandalous tale of the upper crust, a modern day Mitford, but it would also be simplistic to call it a misery memoir or a drugs memoir: It has elements of all three, but ultimately transcends the three genres. It is a compelling read, and she has a nice line in dry humour and self depreciation which I really liked.

It felt apt to follow up the Lowell book with another memoir, in this case, Emma Forrest’s Your Voice In My Head. I grew up with Emma Forrest, or (more specifically), with her early writing career. She was one of a small group of very young female music journalists in the 1990s who, in an abstract sense, could be seen to have served as role models for me, merely by their existence and the fact that they were under 18 and writing about music for the music press and/or the broadsheets at the same time as I was writing my fanzine Aggamengmong Moggie. The other two were Caitlin Moran and Bidisha. Stylistically, I was more influenced by Gina Morris at the NME and Sally Margaret Joy at Melody Maker, but still. Emma Forrest drew on her experiences of the music industry when penning her first novel, Namedropper, and while I loved it at the time, I moved on quite quickly and, despite trying, never really got into her later novels.

Your Voice In My Head is different though, partly because it’s a memoir, but also because it feels like she is going back to her roots. The locations and characters feel more familiar somehow, the story more compelling and honest. It feels like the missing link between Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation, it has elements of both. There is the self destructive side, but also the redemptive side, and it works really well.

The next book was something of a literary classic: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it was a pleasant surprise for me in that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be (ie impenetrably literary). Weirdly, I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy a lot while reading this, but in a good way (and as someone who has read Hardy at degree level, you won’t find me saying that very often…) in that the set up at the start of the novel, with the return of the heroine and the gossiping neighbours, reminded me vaguely of Return Of The Native. None of the rest of the novel did though (that would have been weird…) although there is tragedy within the book, as well as redemption. I suppose what I really liked was the characterisation and attention to detail, including that it was written in dialect. It made it much more vivid and real, like you were eavesdropping on a secret world.

Young Jean Lee’s Songs Of The Dragons Flying To Heaven And Other Plays, which I read next, was an unusual read. I read it in bed over the course of about a fortnight I think and found it quite hard going but at the same time, oddly moreish. I felt as though I wasn’t really understanding a lot of what I was reading, but the odd bit would leap out at me and I’d find myself liking it. It might be that the plays would make more sense if I saw them performed because it felt as though it was slipping through my fingers like melting ice as I read it, so that any meaning I could gleam from it was gone quite quickly after reading. 

Equally baffling, albeit in a different way, was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces, a book that falls into a category that I call the ‘You should have read me by now!’ book. With that in mind, I was eager to read this one. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but I didn’t get it. It is a horribly compelling book, quietly addictive and really, really enjoyable. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on a kind of twilight alternative universe of 1960s New Orleans where very few of the characters are at all likeable, but are fascinating all the same. Bits of it seemed to foreshadow Tales From The City, also the Ballad of Peckham Rye, but you would file it next to Catcher In The Rye ultimately.

Having purchased the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby last year so that I could get ‘Over The Love’, it was probably more than time that I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Because it’s a slim volume, it is easily transportable and, as such, I read it at work on breaks, on the bus, and in bed and got through it very quickly. It was much easier to read than I was anticipating, and I liked it a lot. I could also see how it foreshadowed and paved the way for a favourite novella of mine, Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany's, both in terms of narrative structure and moral ambiguity.

It was a bit of a jolt to go from the Bright Young Things of The Great Gatsby to the 1980s of Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot, but I got over it. Mainly because this is a book to lose yourself in, in the very best sense. As with Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle, it is stuffed full of literary references, and the characters and their world feel so lovingly, immaculately created in every detail that you can’t help but be thoroughly drawn in. I also loved that he resisted the idealised ending, which ties in with the whole central theme of the 'marriage plot', and didn't tie it all up neatly in a bow at the end. Reading it was a very different experience to reading Eugenides debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, a book I was obsessed with when I was 19 and which, while hauntingly beautiful, definitely deliberately holds you at arms length.

Another book to devour turned out, to my surprise, to be John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids, which I would happily declare a work of dystopian genius. What surprised me the most was both how subtle it was and how little it had dated. I began reading it on my lunch hour at work one Saturday and then, when I got home that evening, I got myself a drink, sat down on the sofa, opened the book… and didn’t move for several hours. I think I had tea at some point, but I don’t remember. I just devoured the book, finishing about midnight. It’s a more ambiguous read than you would think, with believable characters and plausible science to back up the science fiction. It also has a great twist/reveal towards the end. I will probably read this one again at some point.

A lot of the books up until this point had been quite short, but this changed with the next book in the pile: Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch. The Secret History is another book that falls into the ‘You should have read me by now!’ category, and, having heard the reading of it on 4Extra a year or so back, I was looking forward to The Goldfinch. It is another book to lose yourself in and was, unfortunately, the book I was feverishly finishing off on the 23rd May, the morning after the Manchester Arena bombing. It’s one of the many reasons why I didn’t find out that the bombing had happened until 18:50 that evening. (Day off work, devouring really good novel, online but not looking at news sites or social media,  not having the radio on, no smartphone…). Due to the nature of the cataclysmic incident near the start of the story, which goes on to  shape and overshadow the central characters lives, it felt horribly appropriate to be reading this book on that day. It is an amazing book, but will forever be associated with that event for me now. 

It was with this in mind that I was relieved to find that the next book in the pile was Lena Dunham’s Not that kind of girl, a series of essays by the creator of Girls. This meant that I had a largely light dose of relief in what was a bloody awful and very tense week. Heartburn, by Nora Ephron, followed, and is another one of those ‘You should have read me by now!’ titles. Again, it was not what I was expecting (ie, something very thematically heavy with impenetrable prose), instead it was a very funny, quick read, held together by an immensely likeable heroine. Bit like a 1970s comedy of manners, US style, but with more gender politics. I may re-read this one at some point. 

I should confess at this point that I don’t really read poetry. I think the problem lies with me though, rather than with it: I read very quickly as a rule and I don't think this approach is best when you're reading poetry. I think you have to take your time with it and let it soak in. Because I tend to rush at things, I don't soak poetry up very well as a rule. Having said that, I did enjoy Mira Gonzalez’s I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough To Make Us Beautiful Together, just not enough to keep the book. I decided that I wanted to send it back out into the world for someone else to enjoy, rather than hoard it. The Gonzalez book was partnered with Ted Hughes Birthday Letters, the collection of poetry he wrote for Sylvia Plath, and this was one of the few Between Two Books selections that left me largely untouched. Again, I think I read it too fast. But I also think it probably wasn’t for me. 

By strong contrast, I really enjoyed Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which had been on my list of books to read anyway, and not purely for the punk women connection. As a memoir it had a poetic quality, and was very vivid and lucid. It’s unusual because it is a memoir of her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe, not so much a memoir of Patti Smith, and in that context, it really, really works. I got a lot from it. It wasn't a heavy read, it flowed easily and read easily.

By contrast, the dynastic soap opera/tragedy that is Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies felt like a hard slog initially, in that this was a book that I didn’t really start to enjoy until the second half: I definitely found Mathilde to be a much more interesting character than Lotto. It is worth putting the hours in with this book, I’d say, simply for the thrilling ride that is the second half. It will surprise and shock, it does not go where you think it’s going to go. 

After this late to start but ultimately thrilling ride, it was something of a relief to embark on The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This was a much gentler affair in a number of ways, despite the sometimes existential subject matter. I found the reading experience with this book to be similar to the one I had with Andrey Kurkov’s The President’s Last Love back in 2007 (a satire on Russian/Ukrainian relations, written before the annexing of Crimea but post Orange revolution). Not because the themes are in any way similar (they aren’t) but because each are long novels with seemingly gently unwinding, meandering plots told through many, many short chapters, that manage to pull themselves tightly together at the end with a series of neat, shocking twists. Perfect bus reading books in both cases.  I did enjoy this one, but I didn’t love it, and I felt quite detached from it while reading it, while still retaining a fond affection for many of the characters, particularly the indomitable May Kasahara. 

The next book, Night Flowers: The Life And Art of Valli Myers by Martin McIntosh and Gemma Jones, proved to be by far and away the hardest of all the Between Two Books choices to track down. I resorted to the Inter Library Loan scheme to get this one, and after a library in the US said no, my library got me a copy of it from a library in Australia. I think it’s out of print, and it’s really, really expensive to buy. Because it arrived earlier than I anticipated, and because it took me ages to read The Goldfinch, it got read out of sequence: I didn’t want to over-keep it and have to ask for a renewal when it had travelled so far to holiday in my book pile. It is a beautiful artefact, with lots of gorgeous images of both Valli and her artwork, and I learnt a lot about Valli Myers from reading it, but it wasn’t one of my favourites. Again, I probably read it too quickly.

To get back to poetry again, the next book was Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, which, for some reason, I just couldn’t get into, and I’m not sure why, other than I probably rushed it. The other book of poetry it was paired with, Bone, by Yrsa Daley-Ward was a book I really liked. Her poetry is almost like prose sometimes in its density of words, and some of the poems felt more like stories or short plays than poems, which might be partly why I was able to enjoy it more. And I kept it as well.

The next book was Tupac Shakur’s posthumously published collection of poetry, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, a book I’ve been aware of for many years, largely because it got reviewed a lot in the music press when it was first published, but also because I think it was around when I was working in public libraries and used to be pushed at teenage boys a lot to try and get them to read more. Given this, I was interested to read it, but... didn’t really engage with it particularly. It was paired with Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, which was published in 1989, three years before the epic Bang Bang Machine single of the same name, and which felt like a particulary twisted bildungsroman crossed with cautionary tale, Frankenstein style. On another level, it also felt like a weirder Armistead Maupin novel. Most importantly though, it was an utterly absorbing read, accessible but strange with a dark, dark heart. On one hand the stuff of nightmares, on the other hand, an offbeat eccentric family story. 

The next book in the pile was Grayson Perry’s The Descent Of Man, which I really enjoyed (though enjoyed is perhaps the wrong word). It was at once easy to read and well worth reading because it makes it’s very serious points in an often entertaining way, but it doesn’t sacrifice the seriousness of the subject matter by doing so. It is structured, and written, in a way that is easy to digest, and given the complex nature of the subject, it is a remarkably short book. Part essay, part plea to the modern man. 

Because The Descent of Man had been the previous choice, it must have made sense to the Between Two Books folk for Grayson Perry to choose the next book. This turned out to be Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise Of Shadows, an essay on aesthetics, written at a time when it was feared that Japanese traditions and ideas of beauty were being undermined by creeping westernisation. It is hard to read, and meanders about a bit, but it’s worth sticking with. I found it a bit of an exercise in mind stretching, but it was worth it I think.

It was followed by Natasha Khan’s (Bat For Lashes) pick, Hubert Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, which is one of those books that comes with a literary health warning, not to mention an introduction by Irvine Welsh. Reading this book, it’s easy to see why he would have been inspired by it, not just thematically, but by Selby’s ear for dialect. I had, weirdly, encountered the infamous gang rape scene before, when it was reproduced in a scouse situationist fanzine called The Scream in 1993, so the shock value of that particular story within the book was slightly neutered for me. On the other hand, reading that scene in context made more sense than reading it alone had. The central sadness at the heart of ‘Strike!’ was the most oddly moving though I think: Yes, he is a repellent character, but… Does he deserve his fate? It is a gritty, often shocking read, but it’s also vivid and sometimes beautiful, like the sun shining through a clear bit of a grimy window. 

While Last Exit To Brooklyn was a short, but demanding, read, Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Here I Am, which was chosen by Nick Cave, was easy to read while being similarly epic in scope to The Goldfinch. It’s an absorbing book that you can inhabit and live inside, and the more apocalyptic elements mean that it feels oddly timely from a sociocultural point of view. I haven’t read any of his other books, but I know he did a 9/11 related one and, as such, the geopolitical aspects of this book shouldn’t come as a surprise. I was reading this book while simultaneously working on my review of the Noga Erez album, which felt very apt given that modern Israel and what it is to be Jewish today are very much at the heart of both pieces of work I’d say. 

The state of the nation Here I Am has been followed by the lyrical The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, a book I’d been planning to read anyway. I hadn’t been aware before reading it that it was written in what felt, initially, like Irish dialect, which gave way to a very particular literary and dialogue driven idiom. Once I’d got used to this though, it became a much more all encompassing read and I was quickly drawn in. It proved to be a very dark, but also very romantic (in the visceral, compulsive sense, not in the flowers and butterflies sense...) book, and I was really happy that McBride chose to end it the way she did because I thought she was going to do a Hardy on it and make me cry, but she didn't, and the book was even stronger for that decision I think. Why? because it then becomes a novel about strength, about overcoming the dark, destructive stuff life throws at you, rather than being destroyed by it.

And so I drift slowly back to shore, six months on, with rather more to show for my Between Two Books literary excursion than purely an overflowing pile of other, neglected, books, waiting to be read. I would liken this particular literary experience to doing a second English degree, but in a really good way, not just because essays and exams weren't involved (I always liked essays and exams anyway), and despite missing out on discussing the books with other readers. I’ve been introduced to writers and works I probably wouldn’t have read (or necessarily stuck with) otherwise, and I’ve generally had my faith in a good book rekindled, which is always a good thing. A big thank you is due to Between Two Books I feel.


I’ve discovered in the last week or so that I’ve managed to miss a book out, namely Jay Griffiths Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, which I added to my booklist earlier this year in a slightly different context, so no matter: It will be read at some stage.

Between Two Books and their followers have just finished reading, and discussing, Too Much And Not The Mood, a collection of essays by Durga Chew-Bose, which was recommended by Tavi Gevinson.

They are currently reading The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, which is recommended by Florence Welch.