Reading - April 2013

My Booky Wook by Russell Brand (2008)
I'd heard this was good but I abandoned it about three chapters in. Affected and boring if you're not actually interested in Russell Brand.
The Law Of Delay by C. Northcote Parkinson (1970)
Despite being published later than In-Laws And Outlaws, this collection of magazine pieces is much more dated. While occasionally offering valid points about bureaucracy (the Law Of Delay: "delay is the deadliest form of denial") it loses goodwill by postulating that working women are responsible for a lack of respect from youth. Dispensable.
In-Laws And Outlaws by C. Northcote Parkinson (1962)
What starts as a tongue-in-cheek but very out-dated manual for success in the world of business (the would-be executive is advised to determine his - always his - prospective employer's capability by the attractiveness of his secretary) becomes a surprisingly current comment on corporate behaviour. I could quote many passages but here's one towards the end of the book:
Executives are broadly of two kinds, those technically capable of starting something new and those merely able to administer the organisation that exists. Which is the more important - a new product or a smooth procedure? There is usually some lip-service to innovation and progress but the real scale of values is expressed in the salary cheques. Who matters more, the engineer or the accountant, the chemist or the clerk? [...] Where the highest value is placed on routine competence, the process of decay has begun.
This passage reminds me of something - I'll remember what soon, I'm sure ...
May Week Was In June by Clive James (1990)
For some reason this installation of the autobiography took two months. It's still fascinating and the writing is as immaculate as ever, but it becomes a bit breathless. I'm in awe of how much he managed to learn and read while at Cambridge though. It's also a salutary reminder of the benefits of going to Cambridge - he clearly met many, many future contacts there.
Casual Day Has Gone Too Far by Scott Adams (1997)
Funny and easy to read over breakfast.
Dogbert's Top Secret Management Handbook as told to Scott Adams (1998)
Amusing and too accurate satire of inept management. Contains my favourite Dilbert cartoon. "Did our core business change? Or are you saying that every reorg prior to this was a misdirected failure?"
The Effluent Society by Norman Thelwell (1971)
Interesting to see that many current ecological concerns were already in place forty years ago.
Belt Up by Norman Thelwell (1974)
A bit hit and miss, and reflective of its time, particularly so in the jokes about women drivers. Great pictures though. I used to love copying the cars.
Voodoo Histories by David Aaronovitch (2010)
An utterly fascinating and incredibly frustrating recounting and debunking of many of the prime conspiracy theories of our times. Fascinating because of the range of ludicrous notions entertained by idiots down the years; frustrating for exactly the same reason. That otherwise intelligent people are prepared to believe, and continue to believe such arrant nonsense makes me despair.

Happy Sad

Tim Buckley

Almost twenty years ago I came across Jeff Buckley's incomparable Grace in a secondhand record shop in Manchester and it's been one of my favourite albums ever since. Inevitably, any fan of Jeff is going to want to hear more, and that is bound to lead to his father Tim. The result is that I now have quite a few more albums by Buckley Senior than by Buckley Junior; the irony is that, so far, I've never really connected with any of them. I quite like Sefronia (which includes "Dolphins", my favourite Tim Buckley song so far) but that's about it.

Happy Sad is from a few years earlier and I think the most I can say about it is, again, I quite like it. Not loads, just some. As a whole, is has a lazy, hazy late-summer, late-sixties feel which I find appealing. Although notionally "folky" and primarily based on acoustic instruments, it has electric touches here and there, and there's a jazzy influence hovering over most of the tracks too. It's only six songs long, although two of them are over 10 minutes long, so it isn't a short record.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would be "Love From Room 109 At The Islander (On Pacific Coast Highway)", which is a deliciously languorous, melancholic lament for a lost love. I also like the opener, "Strange Feelin'" which reminds me oddly of the "Stairway To Heaven" theme from A Matter Of Life And Death, while "Buzzin' Fly" has a nice little rhythm going. Unfortunately, "Gypsy Woman" is grossly over-indulgent and, at 12 minutes long, dominates and spoils the album for me.

All in all, another mixed bag as far as I'm concerned.


Shoot Speed / Kill Light

Primal Scream

Primal Scream are the chamaeleons of indie rock. Is there a band that can claim the same range, from blissed-out baggy on "Higher Than The Sun" and "Loaded" to brain-melting trance with "Swastika Eyes"? Probably not. Unfortunately, neither can Primal Scream. Their only musical successes are due to having the foresight or luck to choose capable collaborators, and the wisdom to then leave them alone to do what they do best. On their own, Primal Scream revert to a cartoon caricature of a "rock band", complete with parody "attitude", and playing bad rip-offs of early seventies Stones - apparently unaware that the Stones have reserved that right to themselves for many decades now.

I first heard "Shoot Speed / Kill Light" over a pint in The Jekyll & Hyde in Edinburgh, when my friend Keith fished a Walkman out of the depths of his coat and told me, "You'll love this." (Keith, a man with impeccable taste in music, never despaired of improving mine.) He didn't tell me who it was. My first impression was that it sounded like New Order abusing My Bloody Valentine in a Glasgow fetish dungeon. As it turned out, I wasn't far wrong. Recruited for the XTRMNTR album, MBV guitarist and sonic guru Kevin Shields was joined for this track by Bernard Sumner. Whither Primal Scream? I can't hear any evidence that they played on the track, nor are they missed.

The track is superb, a howling, screaming collision of krautrock, Hawkwind and techno, with a classic New Order bass line (presumably played by Mani. I suppose), gusts of patented squawling Shields guitar, topped off with a minimal, heavily processed, vocoder lyric that just recites the title over and over. It is utterly compelling, hypnotic and driven. It's also pretty much unlike anything else on the album.

The rest of XTRMNTR is patchy: "Swastika Eyes" is excellent (in both versions, although I prefer the Jagz Kooner mix), and "Blood Money" is a fun combination of John Barry, sub-Coltrane free jazz and Neu, but too much of the rest is just their default sub-Stones riffage played while doing a Stars In Their Eyes take on The Stooges or MC5. And Bobby Gillespie's voice is probably the most annoying in rock. Yes, even more than Bob Dylan's.

Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties.


Hope There's Someone

Antony & The Johnsons
I Am A Bird Now (2005)

I heard this via a recommendation from an acquaintance. She'd discovered the album by accident (well before its Mercury Music Prize success), but despite being captivated by its unusual sound (Antony's voice is probably an acquired taste), she couldn't persuade any of her friends that it was any good; mostly they laughed at it. In desperation to find someone else who would appreciate it, and knowing my reputation as a man of catholic musical tastes, she almost forced the CD on me one day. Happily, I loved it too.

This is the first track and captures the atmosphere of the album as a whole; a mixture of hope and despair, fragility and strength, uncertainty and courage. It still sounds unlike anything else I can think of and the opposite of most pop or rock, containing only simple, sparse instrumentation. It sounds more like chamber music than pop. And Antony Hegarty's tremulous voice floats over it, also providing an eerie choir of backing vocals. Thought-provoking and beautiful.

Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties.

Here's Little Richard

Little Richard

So far, I've found the classic rock 'n' roll albums from the fifties to be somewhat disappointing. They're so obviously of their time; what sounded so different and revolutionary sixty years ago has been rendered mainstream by their very success and our over-familiarity with the material. Elvis's classic first album for RCA sounds very pedestrian to me, Buddy Holly's is scarcely less so and Fats Domino's This Is Fats is just a little boring.

So it's a delight to find that Here's Little Richard is excellent. The amount of energy he displays in most of the tracks is amazing and his voice is astonishing - and if it sounds so to me now, I can't begin to imagine how alien it sounded at the time. It's also good to find that, as well as the inevitable classics like "Tutti Frutti" and "Long Tall Sally", there are other good album tracks. "Baby" is raw, raucous R&B in which Little Richard sounds almost feminine. "Slippin' And Slidin'" is jumping, good time rock 'n' roll with a great sax solo. "Can't Believe You Wanna Leave" is slower but just as effective.

There's not a lot of variety; it's all fifties R&B and owes a lot to many, including Fats Domino. But Little Richard's energy is irrepressible and his voice is fantastic. Definitely a classic.


One Day Remains

Alter Bridge

Last year, one of my most played albums was Blackbird, Alter Bridge's second album (I think accepted critical practice is to describe it as their "sophomore effort", but I eschew such pretension). On the strength of that, I decided to give this, their debut, a try. Given the reputation of Creed and Mark Tremonti, I had expected it to be full of pedal-to-the-metal, foot-on-the-monitor rawk; hair flying, guitars crunching, voices shrieking and solos shredding and squealing.

There's some of that in evidence, the title track being a particularly enjoyable example, while "Metalingus", unsurprisingly, has some nicely muscular guitar action. However, the album overall is mostly one of two speeds - full volume, albeit mid-paced, stadium-friendly rock like "Open Your Eyes", and hand-wringing balladry, such as "Broken Wings". Some of the songs combine both, using the classic template of a quiet start with loud chorus ("Shed My Skin" is probably my favourite of these).

Myles Kennedy has a classic rock voice that works better at lower registers than the excruciating screech of Bruce Dickenson or balls-in-a-vice squeak of Waxl, and therefore lends itself to the ballads. However, it does get a bit doomy and depressive at this speed ("In Loving Memory" in particular, which is no doubt heartfelt but also downright maudlin). Guitar work throughout is an exemplar demonstration of modern rock technique and feel, while particular mention should be made of the drumming which is outstanding throughout and has me thumping in time on my desk, leg, head or anything else close to hand.

On the whole, it's a good album, albeit not quite up to the standard of Blackbird. The songs aren't quite as memorable, the recording quality and production a touch muddier and the clichés slightly more in evidence.



Seventh Tree, 2008

This is a pretty, pastoral saunter through a sunlit woodland (although I could be influenced by the video here). Er, except isn't she singing about attempting to get someone's attention by committing suicide?

Still, as I have remarked on many occasions, I don't really understand lyrics. It's like trying to understand people: they just don't make sense half of the time, but maybe they're not supposed to.

I love the combination of gentle acoustic instrumentation and low-key electronic burble in the background. I love the slightly other-worldly feel ("pills at work"?). I love the way it builds up to the final chorus, the vulnerability in Alison's voice and the quiet ending. Just beautiful. Even if it is about something horrible.

Back to the complete Best Tracks of the Noughties


McLemore Avenue

Booker T & The M.G.s

This is a bit of an oddity. An album consisting entirely of the songs from Abbey Road, all done as instrumentals (bar the fifteen words of "The End") and covered in a wonderfully cool and relaxed way. Nowadays it would be a tribute to a classic album, but since this was recorded barely six months after The Beatles released the original, this was perhaps a sign of a lack of inspiration?

It's organised as three medleys, not in the original order of songs at all, apart from "Something" which is for reason given its own track. It's lovely, smooth background music, beautifully played and gently funky, if occasionally a bit too lounge - probably because the organ is just that kind of sound - but no less enjoyable for that. If it lacks some of the brilliance and force of the originals, perhaps that's just an indication of how good the original album is.

Everything In Its Right Place

Kid A, 2000

This is an excellent example of why I cannot make snap judgements about music, why I have a stack of unlistened CDs taller than my eldest child and why I can't keep up with new stuff. I've been listening to this song since it came out and I've always loved the warm, claustrophobic atmosphere (no reverb, you see); it feels like taking an illicit peek into someone's thoughts. But for a long time I couldn't really figure out what it was about.

Recently - so, only about twelve years later - I got it.  I think, anyway. It's about OCD. Maybe this is an over-literal interpretation of the title, but I think I'm right. Thom Yorke disagrees apparently, but what does he know? He only wrote it. Maybe he was chanelling.

No, it's definitely about what it feels like inside to have OCD, even if Thommo doesn't realise it (and nor would I know really). It starts by imposing order on some random elements; this goes here, that goes there. "There are two colours in my head" - black and white, presumably - Thom sings. The real world, however, intrudes. The random elements return, the instrumentation starts to fracture, things are not in the right place any more. The echoes and distorted repeats threaten to overwhelm the voice, which sounds increasingly desperate. Order is only restored by a retreat into the womb-like security of your own head, with just the beating heart for company. Live (such as on I Might Be Wrong) this process is made explicit by the more extreme sampling and distorting of the musical elements. It's all very cool and not even spoiled live by the whooping morons attempting to clap along (honestly, ffs).


La Roux

La Roux

I don't follow new music any more (and yes, 2009 does count as "new" for this old fart) but I'm vaguely aware that there have been a number of what I can only call kids around recently who have been inspired by early 80s synthpop. La Roux was what happened to come up in my recent second hand trawl. For them, listening to Yazoo is probably like rediscovering Frank Sinatra's fifties' classics would be for me - this music created ages before they were born and therefore having a retro-cool not apparent to those of us who lived through it the first time.

But actually, the idea of revisiting synthpop appeals to me. Firstly because it's the sound of my youth. Not just the obvious reference points - early Depeche Mode, Human League, Yazoo - but a host of lesser lights, like Howard Jones, Bronski Beat, OMD and many more were my listening as I entered adolescence and they still evoke a wonderful sense of potential. Secondly though, although it might be sacrilege to say it, a genre is often better the second time around. I think a canonical example of this is Oasis. Everyone says they're massively derivative; maybe so, but find me a Beatles or a Faces track that actually sounds as massive as "Slide Away". This is probably because any such revival is not usually a slavish reproduction of the sound of that era (unless you're Denim); it's inevitably informed by more recent innovations, in both subsequent musical genres (house in particular) and technology (all of Oasis' records are much better recorded than most 70s rock - Led Zeppelin's albums are particularly poor).

So it proves with La Roux. It's choc-full of early 80s Casiotone goodness, with some lovely crunchy sawtooth tones, great singing and, most importantly, plenty of superb tunes. My favourite song has changed several times over the two weeks I've had this album and, as has been observed before, this is a sign of a good album. Currently my favourite is "Cover My Eyes", a lovely tune and sweet, sad lyric. I can hear this being covered as a clichéd acoustic guitar version on X-Factor, but here the tinkly electro background (very Vince Clark) adds to the pathos, I think. But at other times my favourite has been variously "In For The Kill", "Bulletproof" and "Tigerlilly". A great find.