Reading - May 2013

Chocolate Shoes And Wedding Blues by Trisha Ashley (2012)
Clunky but enjoyable romcom. Junk food for the mind.
The Week (27 April 2013 / Issue 917)
Q: The 100 Best Record Covers Of All Time edited by Andrew Harrison (2001)
This is more of a special edition of a magazine than a book. It features some ... unusual choices (for example, Elvis's Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite might be the epitome of kitsch but it's still a thrown-together mess). The book is 12" square though, so the reproductions of the covers are full size. Which is nice.
The Week (4 May 2013 / Issue 918)
Under The Duvet by Marian Keyes (2002)
I picked this up hoping it would be an insight into how she approaches writing (in the vein of Stephen King's superb On Writing), which the blurb implied. There's about a page of this; the rest is throwaway newspaper magazine articles. Dispensable and disposable.
Guitarist (June 2013 / Issue 368)
Walking On Water: The West Pier Story by Fred Gray (1998)
Brief, interesting but ultimately somewhat sad story of Brighton's West Pier, once a thriving resort highlight but now a skeletal relic. We were lucky enough to be able to go on it, supervised and in hard hats, at around the time this book was published and it was in a terrible state - but at least the buildings were mostly intact and there was a very real hope that it could be restored. (Here are some photos from a tour around the same time.) Now this seems unlikely, given that all that remains are the iron pilings, as you can see in a number of superb studies by Chris Wright.
The Chosen by Chaim Potok (1966)
One of the most moving books I know, although I'd be interested to find out if a non-Jew felt the same. I was taken to see the film by my Grandma when I was about 12 or 13, and although I've never seen it since (it's not easy to get hold of), the book is a firm favourite.
One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night by Christopher Brookmyre (1999)
Classic Brookmyre romp through school reunions.
The Week (11 May 2013 / Issue 919)
The Week (18 May 2013 / Issue 920)
100 Best Album Covers by Storm Thorgerson & Aubrey Powell (2001)
Another interesting collection of covers, spoiled by the inclusion of not a little art school pretension (nobody can seriously pretend that Bob Dylan's Self Portrait artwork is anything other than incompetent) and by a layout that reduces the printed size of the very item under discussion and sometimes completely ruins it by printing it across the binding.
Thelwell Goes West by Norman Thelwell (1975)
Gentle horsey humour for a spare ten minutes.
The Manual (How To Have A Number One The Easy Way) by The Timelords (1988)
Badly dated in places, timeless in others, very funny overall. Essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in pop music.
The Week (25 May 2013 / Issue 921)
Guitarist (July 2013 / Issue 369)
Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo (1998)
Common sense masquerading as mystical claptrap. No doubt it stimulates and inspires some people to consider the connectedness of all things and to ponder the sound of one hand clapping and all that bollocks, but not me. What this boils down to is: keep practising, be patient, keep learning. And now you don't have to read it.
American Gods (author's preferred text) by Neil Gaiman (2011)
This is a very long book and I only made it half way through. It was reasonably enjoyable but I got distracted after about a week and didn't really feel compelled to come back to find out what happened. I felt like the story was supposed to be about something important but I couldn't decipher what. And I have a suspicion of "author's preferred text" versions of anything anyway; authors are rarely their own best editors (e.g. Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix) and a novel that is 12,000 words longer than the original edited version isn't a good sign.


Almost Blue

Elvis Costello & The Attractions

Country music is and has always been unfashionable in the UK, but it doesn't sound like inverse cultural one-upmanship was the driving factor in Elvis's choice to record an album consisting entirely of covers of country songs. All the cliches are present and correct: the swooping pedal steel, the sweet background vocals, the two-step rhythm; but it all seems to be done with genuine feeling, and I can understand the attraction, for a songwriter, of the classic melodies and story telling tradition in the music.

Costello's thin, reedy voice is unexpectedly suited to the slower ballads; the prime example being the peerless "A Good Year For The Roses", but also heard to good effect on "Sweet Dreams", "I'm Your Toy" and "How Much I Lied". He's less convincing on the rockier songs. "Honey Hush" is particularly anodyne compared to Johnny Burnette's version (and, as a prototype rockabilly tune, it's an odd inclusion here), while the opener "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used To Do)" is mercifully short. Why someone capable of a track as powerful as "Pump It Up" should falter on the harder-edged tracks here I don't know.

Country music isn't my favourite but any album that includes something as superb as "A Good Year For The Roses" can't be all bad, it has some very memorable tunes (often the way with country), and it hangs together better as an album than Armed Forces. And it has a wonderful cover, even if it is a (deliberate) rip-off of Reid Miles's seminal sixties work for Blue Note.


Armed Forces

Elvis Costello & The Attractions

I've found this a little hard to get into, despite the presence of heavy-weight Costello classics "Accidents Will Happen", "Oliver's Army" and "Green Shirt" (plus CD bonus track "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love And Understanding"). It's very close in feel and sound to the previous album, the excellent This Year's Model, except not quite so memorable.

Other than the singles, tracks I've enjoyed are, um ... well, there was the one that sounded a bit like "Night Rally" ("Goon Squad") ... oh, and I quite liked the song that reminded me of "Alison" crossed with Abbey Road's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" ("Party Girl"). The only track I can remember the name of is "Moods For Moderns", which is a decent melody.

This being Costello, I'm sure the lyrics have some meaning but none that I can penetrate. Not a classic.

Update: I've just listened to This Year's Model again and it is so much better than Armed Forces.


American Beauty

Grateful Dead

So, what do I know about Grateful Dead? Not much. They were going for ages (still are, in some incarnations); they played extended, heavily improvised rock; they were best live; and they were one of the world's biggest cult bands ("a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac"). So far, so hoopy, and therefore, armed with my minimal knowledge, I wasn't expecting this: a hokey, countrified, ballad-heavy album, with gentle, mostly acoustic instrumentation and camp-fire harmonies.

My first impressions of this album were that it was a poor copy of Crosby, Stills & Nash's first album (from 1968); the harmonies aren't quite as precise, the playing a little more sloppy. This is thrown into even more sharp contrast by side-by-side listens with CSNY's far superior 1970 album Déjà Vu. It's just not as accomplished.

Perhaps that's an unfair comparison. Déjà Vu is a timeless classic, whereas American Beauty sits very much in the late-sixties, combining a "hello clouds, hello sky" kind of hippy-ness with a bluegrass feel that I guess was becoming very current, what with the Byrds and Gram Parsons. This could be a bit wearing but thankfully it has plenty of pleasant tunes, and after a few plays they've started becoming memorable. Opener "Box Of Rain" has a slow, plaintive melody and keening guitar that reminds me a little of that in Richard & Linda Thompson's wonderful "When I Get To The Border". "Operator" reminds me of a Monkees song, unexpectedly, although I can't place which one right now. "Sugar Magnolia sounds a bit like Little Feat.

All of these things I'm reminded of are, for me, better than this. I'm a bit lukewarm about American Beauty. Another album whose place in the list of "greatest" is not justified, in my opinion.




This is an odd mixture, an album of two halves.

The first is dominated by the reputation-forming title track, which is worth the money all by itself. It's ground-breaking synthesized proto-house, in the mould of Georgio Morodor's classic productions for Donna Summer - more machine-like than the standard disco template of Philly soul strings and four-on-the-floor beat, but more human than Kraftwerk. It's a fantastic groove. Fun fact: the eco-aware lyrics were by Lena Lovich!

The following two tracks, "Sweet Drums" and "In The Smoke" (sometimes included as part of the "extended version" of "Supernature") both remind me of Jean-Michel Jarre's Oxygène (from the same year and country as Cerrone); analogue synthesis in excelsis. It all sounds futuristic and surprisingly undated.

The second half is very different, being much more typical disco in the Salsoul vein; strings, prominent bass groove, female chorus, songs about love. Fun in a cheesy way (it's very well executed, and I do love disco), but it puts me strangely in mind of half-remembered Seaside Special performances, particularly "Love Is Here".