Reading - December 2017

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (2008)
I'd forgotten I'd read this until I was a couple of chapters in. Its title is a bit misleading: outliers aren't outliers, not if you examine them in their proper context. The book's subtitle, "The Story Of Success", gives a better sense of the ideas here. The discussions about stand-out individuals like Bill Gates make the same point that I have made for a long time (albeit Gladwell makes it in a more structured, better argued way): people like this are not freakishly gifted in some magical way, they are normally gifted (which is to say, they are almost always exceptional anway) and incredibly lucky - because of when, where and to whom they born. Or to put it another way: you don't hear about the equally gifted individuals who aren't as lucky. Or to put it another way: history is written by the winners.
Guitar Effects Pedals by Dave Hunter (2013)
Despite being subtitled "The Practical Handbook", this fairly weighty book is a history book, user guide and technical manual, and maybe a few other things besides. The one thing it isn't is a handbook, being too big and heavy. That said, it's all very interesting. This time round, I like the final section of interviews with various makers, although a discussion with someone from BOSS/Roland would seem like an obvious addition, so it's a shame that hasn't been done.
The Guitar Magazine (Vol 29 No 04)
Life To The Limit by Jenson Button (2017)
There aren't many autobiographies I'd buy in hardback as soon as they came out, but I've always liked Jenson Button for some reason. His book about his championship year (er, My Championship Year) is a good read and this is too. It's uncomplicated, unpretentious and uncontentious, much like the man himself. That might sound a bit boring, but if you're interested in the subject, it's a well-paced walk through the man's life and racing. There's a couple of interesting points scored; Button found Hamilton a bit off-ish, and although he doesn't quite say so, clearly feels Flavio Briatore is a nasty piece of work (he's right, of course). But in the main, it's about the racing. As always with these kind of books, it's difficult to get a sense of how much sheer effort was and is required to reach these kind of dizzy heights, but in fairness that would make a very dull read.
How To Build A Car by Adrian Newey (2017)
Newey's record as a designer speaks for itself, but it's interesting to have the insight into some of the events from the man himself. For example, at the time, I was very puzzled by his move from McLaren to Red Bull, but his explanation makes sense - basically, Ron Dennis was showing the overly-controlling tendencies that have subsequently shot himself and his team in the feet repeatedly over the last few years. So clearly Newey was right. He also doesn't have much time for the FIA, Max Mosely or Jean Todt. Interestingly, he is fairly quiet about Ecclestone, and he doesn't mention Briatore once, despite making it quite clear he believes Benetton were cheating outright in 1994. However, most of the book is about the cars he's designed, with about the right amount of technical detail for a layman to understand. I would have liked more pictures of the cars, but otherwise it's a good book for the F1 enthusiast.
Private Eye (No. 1459 / 15 - 22 Dec 2017)
I subscribed to Private Eye a long time ago - possibly 20 years ago - but little has changed, either in the layout and feel of the magazine, or, unsurprisingly, in the nature of the content. Parts are funny but my overall feeling on reading it is a sense of helplessness about the scale and persistence of greed, incompetence and stupidity in public and private sector alike. It's that feeling that led me to stop reading it in the first place. I know that only the bad things are worth reporting, and I suppose it's good to know, but blimey, it's a bit depressing!
The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992)
This has been on my list of favourite books for ages now, and yet - assuming my records are correct - I haven't read it for a decade or more. Despite this, it's still really familiar, many of the phrases have stuck with me and the story is superb. It does jump around rather for the first half of the book, switching viewpoints and decades, but it settles down towards the end and becomes more linear, which is more satisfactory to read. Is it still a favourite? I'm not sure actually, but it is still excellent.


Kingdom Of Rust


Last in a quartet of latest (at the time) albums by favourite artists that I bought together (see Invaders Must Die, Yes and No Line On The Horizon), and probably the best of the bunch. Doves had a very distinctive sound and a wonderfully creative approach to what is still, at heart, guitar-based pop/rock.

Lead track "Jetstream" illustrates this very well, packing some cool noises, a great melody and a real sense of dynamics into its five-and-a-half minutes; from the choppy, tremelo-d guitar leading us in, through sublte picking on a guitar, with a kick coming in after two minutes, heavy phase on the hi-hat and some lovely floaty synth sounds, all building beautifully. It's a trick they repeat with the title track, an almost countrified two-step with strings and everything. Great stuff.

Everything here is very identifiably Doves, with hummable melodies and superb sounds. "10:30" stands out for me for its fantastic build and heads down rock in the middle. There's something controlled and yet borderline psychedelic about it which I love, and if I could, this is the kind of music I'd make. The slower tracks are also good, although not my favourite of theirs - I think they sounds very close to Elbow, who do it slightly better.

At the time of writing, Kingdom Of Rust is Doves' last album, which is a shame because all four of their releases are superb. Officially they are "on hiatus", but the three members have all subsequently released albums in separate acts, and given their level of success relative to Doves, I find it hard to believe that if they were happy to work together again that they wouldn't have done so by now.


No Line On The Horizon


First impressions: is this the dullest cover art ever? U2's web site calls it "striking". Er, OK, thanks boys, I'll stick with "boring". Given that U2 had generally been considered to have been going through the motions for several albums before this anyway, it seems like a ... brave choice.

Second impressions: the music isn't immediately striking either. Like another purchase at about the same period, Pet Shop Boys' Yes, this is an album from a band I've loved since my teens that I bought just because it was their latest; and again, it was the last time I did so, probably because the album didn't grab me straight away.

In fact, I was all prepared to write this album off as another from a band past its sell-by date (even one with as long a shelf life as U2), and I'd even written up a whole blog post to say so. But while I was writing it, the songs crept up on me. What U2 do, they do well, and what they do is arena-sized rock. A sense of the epic comes built in. If that's to your taste - and it's always been to mine, since 1984 and the first time I heard the War album - then there's plenty here to like.

I would describe it as mostly mellow, mid-paced rock, although that makes it sound duller than it is. The first two songs, "No Line On The Horizon" and "Magnificent", both have that restless, searching quality that Bono conveys so well when he sings at the top of his range. There's some quieter, moodier moments in "White As Snow" and "Cedars Of Lebanon". There's an inescapable reminder of older, classic U2 moments in many songs ("White As Snow" has definite echoes of "One", for example), but I suppose that's difficult to avoid when you have a full back-catalogue and a distinctive sound.

Sure, there are a couple of cringey moments - "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight" is the kind of meaningless paradox that appeals to shallow minds, while "Get On Your Boots" feels like a bunch of middle-aged men trying to be cool (although Edge's fuzzed-up riffing is pretty cool).

It's not a classic album and I'd be hard-pressed to name or sing the songs unaccompanied. But I'm still enjoying them while they're on. Not such a waste of time as I thought.


Wheels Of Fire


Oh dear

Cream's legacy and reputation is poorly served by their recorded output. The albums are mired in muddy production and marred by shockingly poor quality control. Wheels Of Fire is a case in point. There are a few jewels in the muck here, but they are obscured by period nonsense and self-indulgent wankathons.

What Cream actually did best, nowithstanding their influence on hard rock bands to come, was pop music. Sadly, by the time of this album, they were veering between cod-psychedelia and blues as a competitive sport, and very little comes off well by it. "White Room" is a good enough song to survive, and "Born Under a Bad Sign" is a nice cover. Of the live tracks, "Crossroads" has some stupendous guitar playing and a sense of energy that carries it through.

Everything else is awful, albeit in fairness, different degrees of awful. Tracks like "Sitting On Top Of The World" and "Those Were The Days" are average songs with odd arrangements. On the other hand, Ginger Baker holds responsibility for the two most pungent stinkers, "Pressed Rat And Warthog" - egregious sixties whimsy - and the excruciating "Toad", a fifteen minute drum solo. FFS. No-one should have to experience that.

Quite why this is in Rolling Stones 500 Greatest Albums list is honestly beyond me. Just get a Cream best of and you'll be much happier.



Pet Shop Boys

Clocking on for the day job one more time

This doesn't feel like an album that had to be made, rather just what the boys did to fill in time between other projects. It's very identifiably Pet Shop Boys: Neil's fey, surprisingly weak vocals, the heavily reverbed synths and the tastefully melancholy mood; it's just not very good.

It's all very lush and beautifully produced, but ultimately a little stale and lifeless. Neil Tennant's voice is a taste that I thought I had acquired, but found surprisingly grating this time round, and the rather forced melodies didn't help. Stand out tracks include "Love etc." and "The Way It Used To Be", but only for being a little less meh than everything else.

I have nearly every Pet Shop Boys album up until this one, but this is where the boys lost me. I bought the album when it came out but didn't bother listening to it, and now I've come back to it eight years later, I don't feel like I missed out.


Invaders Must Die

The Prodigy

This is probably one of the last times I bought an album simply because it was the latest by an act I followed. The Fat Of The Land is a classic, and had put The Prodigy into the category of bands whose albums I would automatically get. I must have bought this when it came out, listened to it once or twice and then forgot about it.

Why didn't I listen to it? Well, I think in part because on initial hearing, it's a bit Prodigy-by-numbers. You can play spot-the-similarity through the first few tracks; it sounds like Liam Howlett was deliberately referencing his own back catalogue, particularly tracks like "Smack My Bitch Up" and "Breathe". It's also somewhat monotonous; there's not much light and shade, or variations in tempo and mood - just the crushing, trademark Prodigy beats and crunches, and Keith Flint's unconvincing "edgy" attitude.

However, this time round - nearly nine years later - I gave it more time, and I'm pleased I did. Howlett has a superb ear for sounds and his sense of track structure is excellent. Many of the individual tracks are good, but unfortunately the album structure is less well sorted and as a result, it becomes wearing, like being bludgeoned around the ears for forty minutes.

The first three tracks ("Invaders Must Die", "Omen" and "Thunder") merge into each other with little to distinguish them, although it's a good basic sound and I particularly like the title track. "Omen" comes back later ("Omen - Reprise"), when it's much better: slower and moodier. "Warrior's Dance" also has some nice dynamics. Finally, "Stand Up" closes the album with something a bit different, a slower Big Beat kind of sound. (Oddly, I heard it soundtracking a BBC rugby show only a few days ago.)

What I also understand more this time round is the sheer craft. Having dipped a very tentative toe into making music with computers over the last couple of years, and having watched this great deconstruction of "Smack My Bitch Up", I feel I now have a much better appreciation of the talent, application and persistence involved in making music this way. There's so much going on in these tracks, so many tiny little sounds and samples, each of which is carefully shaped and placed.