Reading - January 2013

The Importance Of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895)
Always a joy. And the first book I have ever read electronically, on a tablet.
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die by Robert Dimery (editor) (2008)
A monster of a book, very interesting but flawed. It took me over a year to finish. See my review.
The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie (1943)
Describing any book with murders in it as "charming" seems wrong and yet that's what this brief period piece is. Notwithstanding the deaths, it's a rather sweet story and has a gentle romance element too (which I'm always a sucker for).
Good 'n' Mad by Albert B. Feldstein (editor) (1963)
I used to subscribe to Mad magazine when I was younger and although I don't have the back catalogue any more - I wish I did - I still have some books. Some of the material it is very dated - unsurprisingly for a book that is fifty years old - but some is surprisingly current. Too small a format to properly appreciate the artwork though, which is often fantastically detailed.
Falling Towards England by Clive James (1985)
Why would anyone be interested in the brief period of Clive James's life in between coming to England and going up to Cambridge? By his own admission, he did little and that badly. The reason would be the writing, which is as sharp as anything of his I've read - and that's saying something. He is a master of concision and remarkably frank. Very enjoyable. (I'm also quite chuffed I spotted that "Bruce Jennings" was in fact Barry Humphries.)
The Sacred Art Of Stealing by Christopher Brookmyre (2002)
Anyone (is there anyone?) reading these notes of the books I get through will notice that I read a lot of Brookmyre. This is the first one I came across (thanks George!) and still one of my favourites. A superb combination of plotting, comedy, characterisation and thrill. Anyone who isn't a complete prude or ludicrously easily offended should read it.
Unreliable Memoirs by Clive James (1980)
I've had this for ages and yet never read it. Now I'm not sure why not. It is superb, and the writing is as good as any of his that I have read. However, although it's a short book, it took me a while to finish it. The prose is like a good chocolate mousse; rich but so filling that you can only take a little at a time.


Back Country Suite

Mose Allison

Polite, white jazz-blues that enjoyed a surprising following amongst sixties rockers, The Who going so far as to include a cover of "Blues" (as "Young Man Blues") on Live At Leeds. Why this should be so is less than clear to me. The music is uninspiring and pedestrian and Mose Allison's voice is, well, polite and white; fey, body-less and bordering on anodyne.

"In Salah", singled out in reviews I've read for particular attention, sounds to me like a dead ringer for "A Night In Tunisia". The album as a whole is very much of its time; pleasant enough in the background and is nicely short at a touch over half an hour.

Once again, as I have found with albums of a similar age by Fats Domino and Elvis Presley, what this album represents is historical value; it was ground-breaking; it now is run-of-the-mill. If it took a white man to impart a "respectability" that was perceived to be lacking in the music performed by black musicians for a decade or two, then great. But on its own merits, in the 21st century, it's distinctly unimpressive.


1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die

Robert Dimery (editor)

You could argue that the best writing about music - whether your preference is for the academic analysis of Ian MacDonald (Revolution In The Head), the cultural collation of Charles Shaar Murray (Crosstown Traffic) or the scattershot impressionism of Lester Bangs (Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung) - transcends its source and becomes valid art in itself. Irrelevant, I say; if I am not inspired to listen to the song, album or artist described, then it can only be deemed a failure.

This book has many flaws but it has unquestionably brought new music to me, and so can only be judged a success. It has taken me over a year to finish, but it has been worth it. I already owned about 350 of the albums in here, but clearly that has left many more waiting to be heard, and for every one of these for which the description was off-putting, there were five that I was keen to find. I've already made a start, albeit a slow one.

That said, it's not perfect. I'm not going to criticise the album choices; this is subjective and therefore argument is pointless. Of course I would have included some and discarded others. I also think that you need to leave at least ten years before you can really judge an album place in history, so all inclusions after 1998 are suspect (Klaxons? purlease). But that's just my opinion.

No, there are other issues with the book. For one thing, the lavish illustrations and quality printing come at a price, and that price is a weight that means I'm constantly worrying about the damage it would do if I dropped it on my foot. I would have swapped the full colour album covers for something that was easier to actually lift.

Clearly a massive undertaking like this is too much for one man, but having almost one hundred contributors leads inevitably to a woeful inconsistency. I consider myself reasonably well-read in the field of music journalism and criticism, but I have only heard of three of these writers. That doesn't bode well, and so it proves. The real problem with this book is the quality of the writing. There are silly proofing errors, like billing Fever To Tell by Yeah Yeah Yeahs as Forever To Tell. There are illiterate mistakes, like the dogs on the front of Blur's Parklife being described as "toothsome" (which doesn't actually mean "possessing lots of teeth", I'm afraid). There are factual mistakes, like crediting Richard Oakes with the guitar on Suede's Dog Man Star (he joined after the album had been recorded).

Worst of all, there are reams of low-grade inkie-speak, the kind I thought I'd left behind when I discarded NME and Melody Maker. Here's the first paragraph from the piece about U2's The Joshua Tree:
The Joshua Tree marks the point in U2's long and gloriously inconsistent career at which they woke up to the possibilities of studio technology, expanded their sounds from a post-punk chug and found grandeur, abstraction and finesse. Many in U2's enormous fanbase were converted to the cause by the arch wit of their post-Achtung Baby reawakening, but an older, possibly less sophisticated stratum of followers were grabbed by the landscaped songs of The Joshua Tree.
Bear in mind that, given its inclusion in the book, this is supposed to be explaining why this is a good album. Witness the classic third-rate music writer's tricks:

  • random impressive-sounding adjectives - music can be abstract, but this isn't;
  • implicit elevation of one's self above the hoi polloi - pity those poor "less sophisticated" losers who were dumb enough to like U2 following this album;
  • lazy received wisdom - Achtung Baby is always described as witty, ironic or post-modern, when a casual listen easily disproves this;
  • ignorant assertion masquerading as superior knowledge - describing, say, War as a post-punk chug just proves this writer hasn't listened to it; U2 really discovered the studio an album earlier, on The Unforgettable Fire; and they always aspired to grandeur, so to say they only discovered it now is plain wrong.

I think we can surmise from this that the writer - one Joel McIver - doesn't like U2, has never listened to their earlier albums and generally considers himself above such mass-market dross. What a snob. I'm not cross because it's one of my favourite albums, I'm cross because it's a stupid, inaccurate, lazy article.

This drop in standard starts to really kick in when we get to the nineties. My guess is that most of the writers are too young to have experienced the classic albums of earlier decades for themselves, and so their opinions are more balanced. Come 1990, the pieces start to become more shrill and overloaded with pointless adjectives. There are too many occurrences of the phrase "it really is that good" - a typical indication of over-enthusiasm and inarticulacy, usually evoked right before moving onto the next big thing. Reviewers start to assume that they have unique insight into the artist's motives. Then there's the sniffy dismissal of commercial music.

In summary, I'm glad I've read it and I'm really looking forward to hearing the albums mentioned, but if all you really want is some suggestions for music to listen to, do your brain a favour, save some money and just work from the list.


Visual Audio Sensory Theater


I came across VAST in 2000, when I bought their single "Free" for no reason other than it was cheap. At the time I was working in Edinburgh, and it became a regular Monday lunchtime activity, often with my new friend Keith, to wander down to the big HMV on Princes Street, see what new singles were on offer, and maybe take a bit of a punt on a few singles unknown (to me) that were only a pound or two.

The success rate was surprisingly high; via this method I came across a number of gems I wouldn't have heard otherwise, such as "Anorak Lou" by Genelab, Bush's "The Chemicals Between Us", "It's A Girl Thing" by My Life Story, "Miss Parker" by Morgan, "Sweet Sensation" by Shaboom ... I could go on. "Free" was one of these on-spec purchases, but for some reason, despite loving the single (it's in my "Best Of The Noughties" run down), I didn't follow up by buying the parent album, Music For People, for over ten years.

This isn't that album. Visual Audio Sensory Theater (crap title, sorry guys) is VAST's first and I thought this would be the better place to start. I'll get on Music For People soon, but on the first few listens, I prefer this. Much of the album is good, solid techno-rock, sounding a bit like a rock version of Moby's Play. One of the other things that I'm reminded of is Enigma's "Sadeness (Part 1)", with a similar looped, heavily reverbed monk chant type of thing running through all chord changes. It's pretty effective but possibly over-used.

A better use of the same concept occurs in my favourite songs, "Touched", "Dirty Hole" and "Pretty When You Cry", which all have a eastern-sounding vocal riffs running all the way through, and some nicely crunchy guitars layered on top. In general, the album's at its best when its the guitars are on eleven and the pace is upped.

Lyrically - not that I pay much attention to this aspect - it seems all a bit anguished. "I'm Dying" is fairly easy to understand; "How many men have died in your dirty hole?" (from, er, "Dirty Hole") is interpretable a few ways but none are very cheery. Still, no matter, the music is good enough for me. Enjoyable rocky, although none of it as good as "Free".


Love Is The Thing

Nat King Cole

Listening to this album today, and in particular having just listened to Frank Sinatra's emotional switchback duo of In The Wee Small Hours and Songs For Swingin' Lovers!, it's easy to assume Love Is The Thing was Nat King Cole's attempt at a similar concept. The big, sweeping string arrangements and the classic songs are all present and correct. Probably, though, this is just the kind of album that many singers were releasing, except we don't get to hear the also-rans sixty years later.

So why has this one endured? (And endure it has - it went platinum 35 years after its release). It's tempting to ascribe some of the album's longevity to its most famous track. "When I Fall In Love" is, of course, a timeless classic, but anyone who wants that can choose from a million compilations. People buying this album are looking for something more, albeit maybe more of the same, and that's what they'll get. There are other well-known songs, such as "Love Letters", and "It's All In The Game" in the same style. The whole album is a long soak in a lovely warm bath - listening to Cole's silky smooth voice is like luxuriating in a million bubbles - and the tempo never raises your pulse.

In some respects this is an easier listen than the Sinatra albums (C prefers it), but I think it is ultimately less rewarding. I do like it and Cole never lapse into cliché or sounds forced. But the arrangements tend towards the overly-sweet and the whole borders on inoffensive and is ideal background music.


Songs For Swingin' Lovers!

Frank Sinatra

Right here is where Sinatra cements his reputation and formulates his signature clichés, both of which would sustain him for the rest of his life. "You Make Me Feel So Young", which starts the album with a blast of brass, swings so irresistibly that your fingers start clicking automatically, while Frank booms his through words like "moon" and "balloon". And here's possibly the definitive performance of "I've Got You Under My Skin"; starting with quietly honking sax and building in shrillness and intensity to a fever pitch before fading back down right at the end. The classic Sinatra arrangement.

Listening to this straight after In The Wee Small Hours, it sounds very much like an attempt to reproduce the concept of the earlier album - except that instead of losers in love, this is for winners. As a result, it is a much brasher, less subtle affair. It is also a less consistently-themed whole, but the famous songs - including those mentioned above, along with "It Happened In Monterey", and "Makin' Whoopie" (an entire song about sex! In the fifties!) - are so well-known that this is probably the more famous album. I think that's a shame.

Not that this isn't also excellent, but repetition of the same clichés spoils it a touch. The way that Sinatra slides up to notes is uniquely his, of course, but he does it so much - and clearly deliberately, because it's not hard to hear that he can hit a note dead on when he wants - and with such foghorn-like tonality, that it does start to wear thin. He sounds strained when going for the big notes and the joviality can sound forced. I think he's much better at quiet songs.

In The Wee Small Hours

Frank Sinatra

The first concept album? Given what we now understand by the term, this doesn't really qualify. It doesn't even have a cover by Roger Dean, for goodness' sake, just a slightly odd painting of Frank looking lonely (although the picture did inspire a legendary advertising campaign, all by itself). It is, however, a wonderfully moody set of performances, which rather than having a little bit of everything for everyone, concentrates on the mournful. So there's a definite theme.

My guess is that something so downcast, without a sprinkling of livelier numbers, could only have been attempted by someone with Sinatra's commercial and artistic clout. It's unusual now and probably was at the time, men preferring to leave lovelorn ballads to women. Alpha males don't like giving the impression of vulnerability or of having been cast aside by a girl.

Full marks to all concerned then, because it is superb. Sustaining a melancholy mood without boring the listener must be a difficult trick; here the arrangements provide enough light and shade while leaving the vocals centre stage. And Sinatra is uniquely identifiable, of course, the sonorous, dolorous richness of his voice suiting the material perfectly. Somehow the album never drags, even though it is fifty minutes long and contains sixteen tracks.

It is a very solitary pleasure though. I can't really imagine having this on in the background while friends are over. Luckily I listen to a lot of music by myself. The tracks I'll come back to in particular would be "What Is This Thing Called Love", "When Your Lover Has Gone" and "This Love Of Mine", but really the album needs to be listened to as a whole. So maybe it does qualify as a concept album after all.


Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley

So it's a classic from tip of its iconic cover to the bottom of its blue suede shoes (track 1 here). But by today's standards it sounds very tame, although the best tracks - "Blue Suede Shoes", "Just Because" - are, of course, vastly influential. There's a lot more of the slow crooners than you might expect if you just knew of the album's reputation as one of the first rock 'n' roll discs. The inclusion of covers of then-current hits like "Tutti Frutti" and "I Got A Woman" might have been cutting edge at the time, but now they just sound inferior to the now very well known originals.

My favourite Elvis songs are not on this album - although the CD version includes "Heartbreak Hotel" - and, really, I think anyone who isn't obsessive about Presley would be better off with a greatest hits collection. I've got The Fifty Greatest Hits and there is hardly any filler - something you can't say about this album.


The Genius Of Ray Charles

Ray Charles

I can't think of a better start to an album than "Let The Good Times Roll" - horns blaring, bass and drums swinging. OK, it's a straight copy of the Louis Jordan original but it is better recorded and performed, to my mind.

The rest of the album is a tiny bit of a let down after such an outstanding start. It consists primarily of standards and was presumably intended to showcase Charles' ability as a singer and interpreter of acceptable tunes. My guess is that, by the standards of the day, this was the best option in order to ensure a career in music. Rock 'n' roll was barely a toddler and the soul music that Ray Charles pioneered wasn't even out of nappies (metaphor being stretched). No-one expected that there was money to be made in these new forms of music. But a black Sinatra - Nat King Cole notwithstanding - well, there was mileage in that. Hence the choice of songs and the overblown album title.

That's not to say that it's not a very good album or that there aren't other excellent tracks on here. "Deed I Do" and "Alexander's Ragtime Band" are both very good. Both are from the first side of the album. The second half - side - is a bit syrupy, laden as it is with strings. But still, "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying" is very good - not for the arrangement so much as the singing, which is sublime.


Four Freshmen And Five Trombones

Four Freshmen

A kind of barbershop quartet close harmony that actually reminds me of nothing so much as Ted's band in Scrubs. Excellent of its type, and famous for being an influence on The Beach Boys, but I find the constant harmonised singing to be a little wearing after a couple of songs. In particular, the high falsetto always sounds slightly flat - very annoying after a while.

In contrast, something like doo wop uses extensive harmonies but as a backdrop - another instrument, really - to a solo singer, and is more listenable as a result.

I think this style suits slower songs better, where it sounds lush and romantic. I particularly like "Angel Eyes" and "You Stepped Out Of A Dream", both very evocative of their time. Great for unusual compilations. Faster songs sound more like novelties.


Tragic Songs Of Life

The Louvin Brothers

Apparently this is a pioneering work in the country and bluegrass category, but I found it something of an acquired taste. I can see the appeal; the voices are clear (if somewhat nasal), the harmonies pretty, the music upbeat and cheerful. The lyrics, on the other hand, are unremittingly depressing - although the album's title does offer a bit of a clue here, to be fair.

Some are just maudlin. "Kentucky" seems like a cheerful ode the beauties of, well, Kentucky, until you realise it's about dying. "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight" is a curiosity that wouldn't happen today, I think. It's written from the perspective of a woman, who is watching the man she loves marry another. More to the point, it's sung from that perspective. Which makes it sound like the Louvin Brothers are gay. Whether they were or not is irrelevant, it just seems out of character for a very traditional genre.

Some songs are darker. "Knoxville Girl" is particularly unpleasant, describing as it does, in gruesome and extended first person detail, how a man murdered the girl he loved, although at no point does it offer an explanation. All this is set to a jaunty bluegrass beat and tune. Why this was considered suitable or even desirable subject material is beyond me, but clearly it has been very influential.

This isn't something I'd listen to regularly, or even ever again, to be honest. It sounds nice enough, but as soon as you start listening to the lyrics, it's really depressing - both because of the subject matter and that some people actually (presumably) enjoy such subjects. I'm pleased I know it but off it goes!


Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Cole Porter Songbook

Ella Fitzgerald

You shouldn't need me to tell you that Cole Porter wrote wonderful songs. Nor do you need me to tell you that Ella Fitzgerald was an amazing singer. So this album kind of recommends itself. If you're looking for classic performances of Porter's songbook, you really can't do better.

And yet ... this is beautifully sung, arranged and recorded, and truly timeless - and strangely bloodless. I was pondering the use of "definitive" in the previous paragraph, but the versions here are not. Partly I think this is because they are too polite and contain no passion. Despite the quality of the performances - and they really are all top-notch; this is a lovely album to listen to - I don't find they linger in the mind. There's nothing to catch my attention.

My introduction to Cole Porter was via the superb Red Hot + Blue album, which contains some wonderful reinterpretations of these songs. Contrast the upbeat swoon of Fitzgerald's reading of "So In Love" with k.d. lang's doom-laden resignation on the same song (possibly her finest single moment); or  her lightly swinging "Night And Day" with U2's dramatic, muscular take.