Ghosts That Sell Memories

There aren’t many artists that get a standing ovation before they’ve started playing. When Tom Waits walked on stage last night, the crowd were on their feet at once. I’m trying to find something more meaningful to say than that, something that’ll explain what this gig was, what it was like, why on earth I would fork out over two hundred quid (including travel expenses etc) to go see him, so bear with me if this is a little incoherent.

I’m very, very fortunate – I’m the only person I know who has seen him live not once, but twice. Firstly in London, for the Real Gone tour in 2004, and then yesterday in Edinburgh as part of his current Glitter and Doom tour.

Real Gone was an album tour, and was focused on that album – he played other stuff, too, but it was very much about that album. Glitter and Doom felt like a career retrospective – his personal favourites of his work, perhaps – at one point, when the crowd were shouting between songs, asking for their particular favourites, he paused and growled “Well, those are all requests – but they’re *your* requests” before getting on with whatever he damn well wanted to play.

And what he wanted to play was damn fine. I particularly enjoyed the way that so many of the songs were reinterpretations of his earlier work – not so heavily different that they felt spoiled, but enough that they felt excitingly fresh and new – not like heaving them for the first time, but enough that if felt like a privilege to be there, to hear these distinct versions of his songs.

Highlights of the night for me were Hoist That Rag, hearing the thumping percussion and listening him to him rasp “The cracked bell rings and the ghost bird sings/The gods go begging here”, the collection of down-and-outs “handcuffed to the bishop and the barbershop liar” in Bottom Of The World, and him inviting the audience to join him on the chorus of “Innocent When You Dream” which has probably taken the lead as the single most touchingly magical gig moment of my life, one that genuinely brought a tear to my eye, and then, during the encore, a track I really didn’t expect him to do, “9th and Hennepin”, because it’s not really a song – it’s a monologue set to some minimal percussion, but it’s that track that probably provides the best explanation of why I would pay 200 quid and trek the length of the country to see him.

You see Waits isn’t just my favourite recording artist, he’s one of my favourite writers, period. He’s got a knack for imagery that very, very few people can match. You can’t read a review of Waits without the writer going on about the world he’s created for his songs to inhabit – this slice of twisted carnival Americana, of three-time losers and late night blues bars, and the reason they all do is because the quality of his writing is so very strong, and doubly so when coupled with his perfectly pitched delivery, and it the imagery he evokes in every song so memorable and lasting.

“Such a crumbling beauty, ah
There’s nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won’t fix
She has that razor sadness that only gets worse
With the clang and the thunder of the Southern Pacific going by
And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet
til you’re full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen…”

And all too soon, off he went, to another standing ovation, his third of the night. I’m honestly not sure what my upper limit for seeing him perform again would be, but it’s certainly higher for him than for any other artist. 200 quid, and worth every penny. Hope he’s back soon.

Book and Album Reviews: Week 21

This Week’s Book: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

I only kind of understand why some people don’t get on with Mieville. He gets two common criticisms: that he doesn’t do happy endings, and that he puts too much of his politics in his work.

Me, I love both those things. I like to feel like an author is saying “this is the way I see the world today” (provided they’ve also backed it up with a good story that works on it’s own merits, and Mieville has, pretty much every time). I don’t believe in engineering a “happy” ending – the story ends, life goes on, and frankly, if the characters have been through the sort of trauma that most sci-fi or fantasy includes, the ending should probably be “and then they all got professional counselling ever after”. So I like his willingness to end with the feeling that the characters are going to be recovering (or not) from this story for a long time to come.

Un Lun Dun, then. His first kids (or rather “Young Adult” as I understand we’re now supposed to call them) book. (He has one for grown ups due this autumn, apparently.) Alice in Wonderland, set in a broken down mirror of modern London. There’s a certain feeling of concsiously kicking against the established tropes of children’s fantasy, but since they get right up my nose too, I don’t mind that sort of thing.

I don’t want to say too much that would spoil this, so I’ll leave it at: this is a succesfull translation of Mieville’s usual style into a work for children – a massive amount of inventive fantasy ideas, urban sprawl, environmental decay, etc etc. If you like his adult works for those things, and can enjoy “Young Adult” work, you will like this.

This Week’s Album: Impeach My Bush by Peaches

I liked her first album, and thought he second was pretty good too. And here we are, on number three. The sound is slightly different – more lush, less minimal, but still basically dirty electro. And lyically? Well, on the one hand, I don’t suppose people want Peaches to change that much. But on the other, well, this is album three of basically the same material. I liked it, but y’know, I’d like to feel like there was something *new* there.

Book and Album Reviews: Weeks 13 and 14

I’m going to get back on top of this, honest – here’s the ultra-high-speed version of the last two weeks, and I’ll try and get this week’s up on Friday. The books this time are from Budgie, and Marysia, and thank you both very much.

Book: Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins

Convergence Culture is broadly, about the impact new media is having on old – the fight to keep details of shows secret, the way corporations cope with fan-fiction (or indeed, fan film), the challenges of storytelling across multiple media. Each capter of the book takes a single media property as a leading example – Survior, American Idol, Star Wars, The Matrix, and so on. Jenkins is one of my favourite media thinkers, because he unashamedly comes at things from a background that is both academic and fan, and his work is very accessible because of it. If you’ve got the slightest interest in the future of the creative economy, he is one of the thinkers you ought to be reading.

Album: Acoustica by Alarm Will Sound

This is an album of classical music covers of the music of The Aphex Twin. It’s actually very good indeed, if a little hard to describe. The general result is a slightly softened version of Richard James’ stuff – it reminds me slightly of Squarepusher’s ep “Budakhan Mindphone”.

Book: The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter

Modern era retelling of classic fairytales, with particular emphasis on subverting the traditional role of women within those tales. Lovely, lovely prose, with a sly wit. Recommended.

Album: Weapons of Grass Destruction by Hayseed Dixie

Well, they started out doing bluegrass/rock covers of classic heavy rock. They’ve since started combining that with original material. I like ’em, but I’ve got a terrible finger-in-the-ear too-rah-lay streak that I can’t seem to do anything about, and this plays into it nicely. Anyway, this is more the same from them, with some particularly fine covers on this one: “Mein Teil” (originally by Rammstein) stands out in particular…

Book and Album reviews: Weeks 11 and 12

Yeah, running late again. So, at speed…

Book: The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

Is that not the finest title for a book you’ve seen all year? I picked this up on whim in a Waterstone’s 3-for-2 sale. (Yeah, I know, it’s astonishing. Some kind of tactical error on their part, I assume – normally, there very careful to ensure that no matter what your tastes, there are only ever two books in the three-for-two that you’d want to read.)

Anyway: this is a meta-pulp. It follows the adventures of Walter Gibson and Lester Dent (the creators of respectively, The Shadow and Doc Savage) and various other pulp writers (like the young L Ron Hubbard and H P Lovecraft) as they get mixed up in, and attempt to avert, the titual threat. It’s a pulp about pulps. And cleverly, the parts of the adventure that involve each writer bear more than a little in common with the pulps they wrote. (The Lovecraftian stuff is my favourite, but perhaps that’s not surprising.) It helps, as well, that most of the pulp writers were pretty interesting eccentrics in thier own right…

If the title grabs you, or like me, you have a fondness for the old pulps, give it a look.

Album: Automatic: Remastered by The Jesus and Mary Chain

It’s Mary Chain. I like them, so I like this (although not perhaps as much as some of their other stuff). They’ve been around long enough that you’ll either have your own opinion, ot they’ll be irrelevant to you.

Book: Tales of Mirth and Woe by Alistair Coleman

The first of my brithday gifts to get a review. (Cheers Dave.) Another book-of-the-blog, this time from the Scaryduck blog. He is funny, to the point where I was actually creased over with laughter on the bus this morning. Neil Gaiman likes him, and wrote the intro – not terribly relevant, but some people are swayed by that sort of thing. I recommend this book.

Album: Sam’s Town by The Killers

And the second gift. (Ta, Andrew.) Well, their first album wasn’t so much an album as a collection of singles. This is definitely an album. And I like it, but I think I liked the first a bit more. This is just a bit too influenced by classic American rock for me. It’s still good, and I’ll be listening to it a lot, don’t get me wrong, but I prefered the influences of the first album.

Book and Album reviews: Week 11

Book: Lucifer: Evensong by Mike Carey et al.

The epilogue volume to Mike Carey’s very fine series about the fallen angel, now sadly at an end. If you’ve never read the series, then I urge you to pick up the first volume, because I’m pretty sure you’ll find yourself hooked. I like it considerable more that I liked it’s parent series, Sandman, and I thoroughly enjoyed Sandman.

Lucifer, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a series about family. I find it amusing that the series main theme – Lucifer’s struggle to define himself on his own terms rather than terms that relate to his creator, is to some extent mirrored in this book’s genesis – spinning off from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, a meandering series with a terribly passive protagonist, this series is almost the polar opposite – Lucifer is too focused and direct to do other than move from point A to point B in the most linear manner he can. Where the Sandman was about the how the protagonist reacted to his changing situation, Lucifer is about how others react to the changes caused by the protagonist’s actions. I like the latter substantially more.

I don’t really want to talk too much about the events of the series, because I wouldn’t want to spoil it for those that haven’t yet read it. Taken as a whole, the series is the single best thing I’ve reviewed so far this year, and I strongly urge you to give it a go.

Album Gorillaz by Gorillaz

Yeah, I’m the last person on earth to buy this. I know. Still not sure what I’d call it. Indie-dub? Well, when it’s good (the tracks everyone knows – “Clint Eastwood” “19-2000” a few others) it’s very, very good. Otherwise, it’s perfectly entertaining, but when I see the heights that the they can hit, I do wonder why they bothered to include the merely adequate. I can’t be bothered with anything longer here, I’m afraid – I’m sure you’ve all already made your own minds up.

In Other News: Ageing Disgracefully

On Sunday, I turn 30. If you’ve been enjoying these series of short reviews of stuff, you might take the excuse to stop by my wishlist, and buy me something you’d like to see reviewed here. It’ll help me get over the terrible shock of ageing, too.

No, I have no shame. Why do you ask?

Book and Album reviews: Week 10

Book: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Y’know, it’s only in comics that Gaiman could be considered even slightly challenging. The more I read his books, that more I think that he’s extremely lightweight. Sub-Pratchett lightweight. Now, that’s not to say that this is a bad thing, but I expected more from this New York Times bestseller, about the sons of Anansi, the trickster spider god. Don’t get me wrong – I had a hard time putting this book down, because it is very engaging – a blurb the back cover calls it Wodehouse-esque, or something like, which is quite over the top, but it does have the sort of gentle english mildly amusing humour in it (without ever approaching Wodehouse’s gift for laugh-out-loud language and metaphor). But still, I think it took me maybe three or four hours total to read this novel. It’s very light, and not even the suggested book club questions at the back could fool me into feel like I was reading something deep or complex.

I’m really damning this with faint praise, aren’t I? Look, it’s good. I liked it. It’s a lot lighter than American Gods (or even Sandman), but on the other hand, it has a protagonist that actaully wants things, and does something about them. If you like Gaiman, or you like stories about Anansi, then go for it.

Album: Grinderman by Grinderman

I’m still making my mind up. Which isn’t terribly helpful in a review, I know. I think it’d probably help if I heard a lot of this live – it’s fast, loud-sounding stuff. But it too, feels very light compared to earlier works. Which is sort of the point of Grinderman as I understand it – a bunch of musicians just having fun rattling this stuff at high speed out without trying to be too clever – an attempt to reach back to their more raucous youth. But aside from the singles – “Get It On” and “No Pussy Blues”, there’s nothing that really jumps out on a first couple of listens.

But y’know, it’s Cave. Even light, he’s still one of the finest songwriters around. Honestly, I don’t think it’s really reaching that far back – Cave’s lyrics are in his more recent style, rather than the expressionist styles of the Birthday Party, and while the music is heavy on the guitars, it lacks the menace of the like of The Mercy Seat.

And yet, as I write this, cutting back and forth between Grinderman and early Bad Seeds (I don’t have any Birthday Party to hand), I hear more commonality in the music than I might have thought, from the overall impression. Maybe it’s just the change in Cave’s lyric writing.

I suspect that this one will grow on me. Even over the course of writing this review, I can feel some of the other tracks on the album making more of an impact. And I remain convinced that some of them will really come into their own live.

So that was no help at all, right?

[Book and Album reviews] Weeks 8 and 9

Book: World War Z by Max Brooks

Optioned to be made into a movie by Brad Pitt’s production company if memory serves, this is a the story of how (some of) humanity survived a Romero-esque zombie apocalypse, and begins to reclaim the planet. The narrative is a presented as a series of interviews with people who survived the “Zombie War”, a collection of linked short stories set against the same background. Not exactly great literature, but very entertaining and hard to put down.

Book: Blood, Sweat and Tea: Real Life Adventures in an Inner-city Ambulance by Tom Reynolds

Taken from the Random Acts of Reality blog, this exactly what it says – excerpts from the the life of a London EMT. If you’ve read the blog, you’ll know what you’re going to get. If you haven’t, then you should, because it’s very good. If I have an criticism of this, it’s only that I don’t think the book contains much if anything that wasn’t on the blog.

Book: I Was Bono’s Doppelganger by Neil McCormick

An extra book, just because I was slack in writing them up. Not actually a U2 biography although they turn up a fair amount, because this is the autobiography of their less successful schoolmate. The book is extremely entertaining in it’s own right, as much because the author is quite willing to admit to his failings, so this does feel like an honest account of what it’s like to have your mates succeed on a staggering scale while your own career goes nowhere. (Well, not nowhere – he’s done alright as a journo, after all, but it’s not what he started out aiming for.)

U2 and Bono come out of it quite well, although there’s enough about their failings (their brief dalliance with a really bizarre Irish Christian cult, for example) to make me think that it’s actually quite accurate about them, and it’s interesting to see that Bono may be rather more self aware than he generally appears in the media.

I got this one free off Dave when he headed off to parts Amerikan, and to be quite honest, as much as I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I’d have felt it was worth it had I paid money for it. Amusing, but *very* light.

Music: At San Quentin / At Folsom Prison by Johnny Cash

Well, yeah. Two classic Johnny Cash albums, that are very deservedly classics. Should have bought them a lot sooner. Don’t know what else there is to say – you probably know yourself whether you like Cash or not already. If you don’t, well, get these and make your mind up.

(I’m cheating a little with the music – I actually went two weeks without buying any new music, but then I fell into Fopp by mistake, and bought 4 CDs the other day.)

[Book and Album reviews] Week 7

Very short reviews this week.

Book : Stop Stealing Sheep and Find Out How Type Works by Erik Spiekermann

A book on typography. Not really easy to review, but if, like me, you want a basic primer on type, you could do a lot worse. Short, clear and to the point.

Music: O2 by Son Of Dave

Mutant blues and beatboxing. It worked for Tom Waits, and it works here for Son of Dave. Really enjoying this one. It’s not Waits – it’s much closer to traditinoal blues, and lacks Wait’s voice and songwriting, but I’d still suggest that if you liked Real Gone, you give this a listen. (Available via Emusic, for those with accounts.)

[Book and Album reviews] Week 6

This week’s book: Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone by Kenneth Cain , Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson

One I nicked of Dave when the AOL mothership took him to parts strange and alien. I loved this, bleak and depressing though it was. By the end of the first section of the book, I was ready to quit my job, and go off and do something worthwhile to improve people’s live in some godforsaken part of the world.

By the end of it, I just couldn’t imagine being able to go through the kind of stuff that the book’s three authors did. There’s still the nagging sebnse that I ought to try anyway, but my sense of enthusiasm for it is completely gone. It’s a stinging crtique of US foreign policy in the final years of (and post) Clinton’s presidency – an account of a moment where it looked like the world’s only superpower was going to step up to it’s responsibilities, only to turn tail and run from an armed streetgang that got lucky. It’s an indictment of UN beauacracy and incompetence.

It’s well worth the time it takes to read it.

This week’s music: Some Loud Thunder by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

I seem to be doing a one-week-hit, one-week-miss with these reviews. I quite liked this one, but I don’t seem myself listening to it a lot. Lots of bits of tracks I liked quite a lot, but as whole it didn’t really make that much impact on me. Dunno. Maybe it’ll grow on me, it kind of has that “maybe I haven’t approached it in the right frame of mind” feeling to it. Doesn’t help that I find the singer’s voice a bit annoying, though.