Reading - September 2013

Everyday Maths For Grown-Ups by Kjartan Poskitt (2010)
Does exactly what it says on the tin. It didn't tell me much I didn't know - the maths goes up to maybe the first year or two of secondary school - but it covers a number of techniques that are taught now, as opposed to those I was taught, so it was useful from that point of view.
Lori's Little Secret by Christine Rimmer (2006)
Romantic consequences arising from a fairly unbelievable premise, although no less likely than other books or films. I thought the hero was a bit mean sometimes and I didn't like that.
The Week (7 September 2013 / Issue 936)
The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (1906)
An amusing and occasionally very sharp, cynical take on a dictionary. I read Project Gutenberg's online edition, using my mobile phone in spare moments, most usually (TMI alert!!) when on the loo at work. Full of excellent quotes, such as the definition of a dentist: "A prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket." Additionally, a great source of band names; see the definition for "regalia". I bagsy "Sons Of The South Star".
The Firm by John Grisham (1991)
An old favourite. Grisham was company during the long, lonely weekends in Boston during my stay there in '98 (actually it was only about 8 weeks and it wasn't that bad; I don't mind my own company, although you can have too much of a good thing). I'm not quite sure why I like the story so much, but it is well told.
The Week (14 September 2013 / Issue 937)
The Week (21 September 2013 / Issue 938)
Guitarist (October 2013 / Issue 373)
The Chariot Makers by Steve Matchett (2000)
A useful primer on the inner workings of the modern Grand Prix car, written by a former Benetton mechanic. Despite being thirteen years old - more, presumably, if you take into account when it was written rather than its publication date - it is only dated in details, which says something about the ossification of Formula 1. I'm not sure about the narrative structure placed around the technical details, but it serves a purpose, I suppose.
Dilbert And The Way Of The Weasel by Scott Adams (2002)
Amusing but over-long exposition of how most people get through their days in pointless office jobs. A charity shop purchase which will go back now I've read it.
Get Fit Cycling by Dave Smith (2005)
Excellent introduction to cycling, and, while brief, manages to contain useful sections on stretches and weight training too. I would have liked a little more information at times, but overall, helpful.
Guitar Electronics For Musicians by Donald Brosnac (1983)
This began life as a ring bound, privately published, amateur publication, and it shows. Brosnac has a good reputation in guitar circles, and there's lots of useful information in the book - somewhere. Unfortunately it is obscured by an atrocious structure, so that descriptions of similar aspects of circuitry are in completely different chapters. It reads more like a scrap book of notes, clippings and articles that the author assembled over several years and then published as-is. It is also very out-of-date, although this matters slightly less because guitar electronics has moved on little, in general, in the thirty years since this was published.
Life In The Fast Lane by Steve Matchett (1995)
An insider's view of the 1994 season at Benetton Grand Prix - the year Schumacher won his first world championship - written by one of the team mechanics. This was Steve Matchett's first book and originated as a diary, and the fact that he was not - at the time, anyway - a writer is sometimes quite clear. It is unfortunately a little fragmented in places, and some of the detail will be dull unless you are really, really interested in Formula 1. Luckily, I am.
The Olivetti Chronicles by John Peel (2008)
The Week (28 September 2013 / Issue 939)


Sail Away

Randy Newman

One of the things I really like about listening to albums from the seventies is that they are so short. None of that fifteen songs, 75 minutes of "value" that we were cursed with from the mid-nineties on. Sail Away is half an hour of excellent songwriting that hasn't taken me several weeks to get to grips with.

Randy Newman has a number of similarities with Bob Dylan: both known for their songwriting skills, and frequently covered by other artsists; both possessed of, um, unusual singing voices; and both lyrically some way away from "moon/June" lyrical laziness. (Not that I really care about lyrics, as I've said a number of times before.) However, unlike Dylan (who I can't stand), Newman hasn't made the mistake of assuming that good lyrics (for some definition of "good") can carry a poor song. Newman is an accomplished musician and all the tracks here have good tunes, superb arrangements and distinct identities. I also rather like his singing voice, despite its obvious limitations.

I'm surprised by the number of songs I recognise - in particular "You Can Leave Your Hat On", which I only knew from The Full Monty (I know, a pop anorak really should be better informed), but is better here. Alan Price covered "Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear" and "Political Science", is on an Old Grey Whistle Test DVD. All are good. I also rather like "Last Night I Had A Dream", mainly for its tune and atmosphere.


One World

John Martyn

Having previously nominated 1977 as a year zero for modern rock music (and not because of punk, I hasten to add), I've been listening to some of its other releases. Obviously, my theory doesn't stand up to any rigorous analysis, but that's OK because I wasn't planning on analyzing it.

Despite having owned One World for several years I've never properly listened to it before. It shows obvious progression from Martyn's previous albums, particularly his classic trio of Bless The Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out - each getting more experimental, less obviously folk-influenced and less song-based. Here, the songs are mostly reduced to languorous, liquid grooves, over which he weaves his distinctive vocal and guitar. "Big Muff", "Dealer" and "Smiling Stranger" all work like this, and very satisfactorily so; the tracks are built from some wonderfully organic sounds and feel nicely rounded. In fact, the most conventional song, "Certain Surprise", is probably the weakest.

We're also offered a fascinating chance to compare the progress of production techniques with "Couldn't Love You More". Here it's typical mid-period Martyn acoustic ballad, all growling double bass, delicate finger picked guitar and decorative chimes. Four years later, he revisited it on the album Glorious Fool, where it is "treated" to a Face Value-era Phil Collins production, in which you can almost hear the Armani jacket sleeves being rolled up as the fretless bass winds its rubbery way around the gated drums.

Anyway, back to 1977 and One World, which finishes with the beautifully insubstantial "Small Hours", recorded outside apparently (and accompanied by a few roll-ups, no doubt). The album sets a very agreeable mood overall and if it doesn't reach the heights of previous works, is still superb. Ooh - and another knocked off the 1001 Albums list!


The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society

The Kinks

For rock music, I think the key decade since the birth of rock'n'roll is the seventies. The developments in style and recording techniques during that time mean that while anything prior to it sounds irrevocably dated, anything post about 1977 (stylistic considerations aside) sounds almost, if not actually, modern.

As a case in point, here's The Village Green Preservation Society; all tinkly, faintly awkward English sub-psychedelia, it could not have come from any other time than the late sixties. It was even released in mono, for goodness sake! A mere nine years later and you can choose from the air-brushed, silken sheen of, say, Rumours or Aja, either of which sound like they could have been released last year, or the professional punch of Never Mind The Bollocks or News Of The World, guitar rock that has been constantly referenced since.

Anyway, this is an album of its time, then, and very reminiscent of others of its era. "Do You Remember Walter" sounds like the more whimsical bits of early Floyd. "Big Sky", probably my favourite track, could have come off Ogden's Nut Gone Flake or Jack Bruce's Songs For A Tailor. As  you'd expect from Ray Davies, decent tunes are in good supply, although a few sound somewhat contrived. The Village Green Preservation Society is a concept album, clearly (anything titled "<band name> are <something else>" can't be anything but) but I'm struggling to detect the concept. Musically, it sounds like a collection of pop songs - nothing more, nothing less.

As you might gather, I haven't been blown away. Nice enough, very evocative of a certain period, but I'd rather listen to Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.


Here Come The Warm Jets

Brian Eno

Somehow I have managed to avoid hearing Eno's debut album before, although several friends have mentioned how much they like it. I'm not so convinced. It has a certain playful and whimsical charm in places, but it's a dated curiosity, full of self-consciously quirky songs, singing, playing and subjects.

I like the title track, which is a Neu-esque blast with harmonising fuzz guitars, and was clearly an inspiration for one of my favourite instrumentals, Teenage Fanclub's "Is This Music?". Other tracks have some pleasant melodies, some silly lyrics and some ear-catching moments, but nothing that really stands out.


Hymns Of The 49th Parallel

k.d. lang

This is, I think, k.d. lang's second album consisting primarily of covers, the first being Drag (1997). Such an undertaking strikes me as unusual these days, where much value is put on originality, and harks back to past times, when Ella Fitzgerald or Frank Sinatra earned their reputations as interpreters of classics. Given lang's ability to transform an established song - "So In Love" on Red Hot + Blue is a masterpiece - and the incredible control and power of her voice, it makes absolute sense that she should choose this route.

The theme here is Canadian writers. In some cases, the songs are very well known, such as Neil Young's "Helpless", or Leonard Cohen's "Bird On A Wire". Covers of classics are always going to suffer from comparisons. In the first case, CSN&Y's original version is (almost) definitive; in the second, there are already superb recordings to compete with. And anyone who covers a Joni Mitchell song ("A Case Of You") does so at their own risk.

Risky it may be, but in all cases, she claims the tracks for herself. Perhaps we could have done without yet another version of "Hallelujah", to which she can add little (or improve on Jeff Buckley's recording), but "After The Gold Rush" is a much improved listening experience over the original. The ebb and flow on "Fallen" (Ron Sexsmith) is immaculately executed. The touch of desperation as she sings "you're chickening out, aren't you?" on Jane Siberry's "Love Is Everything" brings tears to my eyes.

Hymns Of The 49th Parallel is a masterful, beautiful album, understated and tasteful. It develops gradually over repeated listens (it's taken a solid two weeks for me to really appreciate it); the layers of orchestration and arrangement reveal themselves slowly. It is a very grown up, controlled record, and some would probably consider it the epitome of supper club blandness. I think the perfectly judged accompaniment raises it above this; but most of all, the supreme majesty of k.d. lang's superlative phrasing astonishes anew each time through - her performance is in a league apart.

The Olivetti Chronicles

John Peel

The short article is a difficult form to master, or even manage tolerably, if the evidence of books in my collection is anything to go by. Reaching the economy of expression of Clive James' wonderful columns of TV criticism in the 70s takes practice, and if it's not your main occupation, you won't achieve it.

I think it's fair to say John Peel was not a natural writer. Margrave Of The Marshes is good - or, at least, the first half is, which is the bit Peel wrote - but it's clear that he developed slowly as a writer. Some of the later pieces here are fine, and there are amusing one-liners from all periods; he nails my opinion of Springsteen, in 1975, by observing that he "[...] offers us an enjoyable supper-club pastiche of rock's brief history, served up in West Side Story-styled tat". However, too many of the articles are rambling and inconclusive. Still, an easy read and enjoyable in parts.