Archive for January, 2012

Gillian Welch – The Harrow and The Harvest (2011)

Issued some eight years after 2003’s Soul Journey, it would be wrong to describe The Harrow and the Harvest as a hotly anticipated release, a phrase usually reserved for the second album of a promising debutant. Instead, I, like many, had largely forgotten that Welch was still out there in the musical ether, battling against writer’s block to compose a new batch of lazy country numbers with long-time partner and collaborator, David Rawlings (both of whom were heavily involved with Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker).

The Harrow makes no attempts at a new musical direction, nor should it when you are widely regarded as one of the finest roots singers of your generation. Instead, it’s business as usual as Rawlings’ fingers scale the steel strings like an enchanted spider on gentle opener Scarlet Town before giving way to the naked beauty of Welch’s soaring voice on Dark Turn of the Mind. Each song is exemplary and without flaw, and I can think of few finer albums to stick on at a generous volume on a Sunday afternoon while reclining, eyes shut, on the sofa while the woozy charm of classic Americana passes over you. It is a cleansing experience.

By all accounts the duo come into their own during live performances, where familiar songs are treated to new meandering arrangements and I must make a point of seeing a show the next time they are in the UK. Check out the gorgeous clips below. Admittedly, Miss Ohio is not from the new album but it is one of my favourite songs – any excuse etc…

Ryan Adams – Ashes and Fire (2011)

The inclusion of Adam’s 13th studio album on this list (not taking into account his Whiskeytown records, Suicide Handbook, bootlegs etc) is more a reflection on my joy at hearing him put out some decent music for the first time since Cold Roses, a two-disc release from 2005, rather than this being a gold-plated must have. For those not familiar with Adams other than his Wonderwall cover (which Noel Gallagher started to use himself afterwards), to many people he was – for a few fleeting years – the finest musician of his generation who proceeded to waste his prodigious talent on liquor, drugs and dubious musical choices. I can still recall the goose bumps on my arms when I saw him for the first time at a sweaty Bristol Academy in January 2004 (Jesse Malin stood a few feet away from me) –a performance that ended with the wasted Adams deserting his band and playing Nobody Girl on the bar while bumming cigarettes off the ever-obliging and rapturous crowd. Despite his inebriation, the show was a blinder. At his next performance in Liverpool, his luck ran out and he feel off the stage, braking his wrist in the process which hampered his playing for many years.

Ashes and Fire is a welcome move away from the guitar-driven sound of the later Cardinal albums to the country soul/stripped-back sound of Whiskeytown and his masterpiece, Heartbreaker. As with all of Adams’ best records, the guitar playing is simple yet thoughtful and tight, with percussion only- if at all –featuring as gentle back-up, rather than a dominant instrument. Not all of the tracks work: Come Home is a pedestrian non-event and Save Me is – to quote Lars Ulrich in Some Kind of a Monster – undoubtedly ‘stock’. However, the rest of the album is solid fare, with Dirty Rain, the title track and Lucky Now welcome additions to the Adams cannon. You get the feeling listening to Ashes and Fire that this is the sober Adams working out how to write decent music without the sauce – a record as therapy, if you like; fingers-crossed the next ones will see him reach the levels of old.

Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch the Throne (2011)

Jewellery - Primark-chic, as modeled by Kanye

Kanye and ‘The Jigga’s’ 2011 joint offering is the aural equivalent of going full retard – a brazen homage to fame, excess and bathing in the benjamins carried off with the musical and lyrical panache of two commercial rappers at the top of their game. Much has been made of the similarities to Kanye’s excellent Twisted Fantasy album, and it is true that The Throne takes in the layered vocals and eerie synths that dominated Kanye’s last album, although this is a more polished commercial sound designed to rattle the tills.

The pair are at their best delivering solid crowd pleasers such as the Redding sampling Otis, a strong contender for the Cowboy’s wedding playlist (I’d die a happy man after seeing my grandma shake her booty while mouthing “looking like wealth, I’m about to call the paparrazi on myself”), and the dirty slider Niggas in Paris (“fuck that bitch she don’t wanna dance, excuse my French but I’m in France”). Critics of the album cite the leaps in sound between tracks and indeed they don’t all flow, mixing by-numbers Rhianna-flavoured R n’ B with tight James Brown vocal samples. However this is a minor quam.

Personal favourites are Welcome to the Jungle, which shows off Jay-Z at his best, riffing to a mundane yet hypnotic staccato beat, and opener No Church in the Wild, heavy on strings with a predatory bass grove, while Kanye muses on drugs, threesomes and how Jesus ‘laid beats’. An album built on two guys talking about how great they are will to many be a nauseating affair, but I for one enjoyed shuffling on my sofa, vicariously drinking in their glory. It would be a cold man who would begrudge them their right to brag.

John Smith – Eavesdropping (2011)

Those of you who read my post on my most-listened albums of the past decade (https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/) will be aware of Devonian musician, John Smith, one-time school friend of my missus and unsigned by choice. His second and last album Map or Direction was a beauty and is available to all on Spotify – give it a go.

His latest offering was recorded on a whim at his bassist’s house over a one-week period and is, as the album title suggests, a collection of covers taking in mainstream sources as diverse as The Stone Roses, Elton John and Christina Aguilera, as well as lesser-known bands. Smith is a virtuoso guitar player in the mould of John Martyn who was his mentor and with whom he played for a number of years before his passing. Therefore like Martyn, his songs rely heavily on imaginative fret work, dropped-G tuning and groove riddled guitar-slapping. What stands Smith out from other talented singer-songwriters is the depth of his voice which he showcases to good effect on Eavesdropping, in particular the wonderful Elton John cover, That’s Why they Call it the Blues (see below); a voice that hushes and booms from one moment to the next.

Other highlights are This Killer Wave penned by a local band in Liverpool (where Smith now lives) and Jenny Again by obscure folk-act Tuung. The Aguilera cover is Genie in a Bottle, and I feel truly old realising that this was released by the scantily-clad Glitter-fodder in 1999. Smith’s version is a stripped-down plucking affair and I hear that it has recently gained airtime on BBC Radio6, however for me it’s a bit of a non-event and the same applies to Not Over Yet, formerly a dance anthem (yeh man Ibiza bruv innit etc) by Paul Oakenfold, whose face I always thought bore an uncanny resemblance to a compressed pickled scrotum (or rather my projection of one). Clearly, Smith is the kind of musician who likes a cross-spectrum of styles and will never lose the desire to throw in the odd curveball. But these are minor gripes on what is otherwise an excellent interim album, pending his next proper release.

Destroyer – Kaputt (2011)

This was an impulse purchase after a suitably wordy 8.8 Pitchfork review (“the sound casts Bejar’s songs in a very particular light, and reinforces the feeling of the singer as persona” – yup, sure) and therefore I must confess to coming to the record with no prior knowledge of Destroyer or their members’ work.

The most striking thing about the album is the overall tone and sound, which flitters between Roxy Music, Steely Dan and The Pet Shop Boys, with a bit of Talking Heads thrown in (the album’s title track has a similar retro glitchy computer effect to that used in Once in a Lifetime). There is also a sense of film noir to proceedings, and I doubt that the naming of Chinatown and its inclusion as the album’s opener is a coincidence. Songs are cultured out of Casio synth, lazy chord strums, occasional heavy bass hooks and cheesy woodwind; for a moment they catch your ear before drifting off with the breeze.

Indeed, if I was to offer a one-line critique to stick on the front of the album it would probably be “sumptuous porn music by the XX” and I am pretty sure that if you crank up the volume on Blue Eyes and crane your ears to the speakers at 1:58, you can hear the gentle patting of Ron Jeremy’s waist against the buttcheeks of an obliging freshman. Ok, perhaps not but you get the idea.

It is difficult to explain why an album that is so inconsequential and derivative is both fresh and revelatory, but I think it comes down to the simple fact that each song is executed incredibly well. The title track is a good example – a multi-instrument number where deep thought has clearly been given to the timings of the various parts. The result is a rich array of sounds soaring against one another complete with soft male/female harmonies. Closer The Bay of Pigs catches you on the blindside, with a rambling vocal about nothing in particular suddenly brought to life by strings, percussion, harmonies and euphoric hand-clapping. It is a joy. Shit name for a band, though.

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A few of the books enjoyed by the Cowboy in 2011 (not necessarily written in that year):

The End of the Party – The Rise and Fall of New Labour (Andrew Rawnsley)

Following the inevitable plethora of political memoirs that followed new labour’s demise in 2010, it was difficult to determine fact from fiction with each offering spun in favour of the author and his actions, no doubt to the detriment of the truth. Sight alone of Rawnsley’s chronicling of labour’s conduct in office following its second general election victory, suggests that his will be a more satisfactory appraisal, running as it does to 895 pages including 90 pages of references. Readers of The Observer will be familiar with Rawnsley’s concise and informative political commentary and it is this tight style, together with the attention to detail and quality of the sources (Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Powell, Balls, Darling etc), that gives The End its authoritative voice.

I do not consider myself as having more than a passing interest in politics, but I devoured The End in several days, captivated by the punchy, often wry and humorous writing used to describe the many key disagreements that punctuated this mostly shambolic government. The chapters covering the Brown and Blair wars are fascinating, and it is incredible to think that they managed to promote a (largely) united front to the unknowing public for so many years. Brown, in particular, comes across as the most grotesque individual imaginable; an emotionally retarded, yet physical hulk of a man with no concept of how his behaviour affected others:

“‘He was astonishingly rude to people.’ Civil servants were shocked by his habit of abruptly getting up and leaving meetings when officials were in the middle of speaking. He became notorious within the building for shouting at the duty clerks, bawling at the superbly professional staff who manned the Number 10 switchboard and blowing up at the affectionately regarded ‘Garden Girls’, so called because the room from which they provide Downing Street’s secretarial services overlooks the garden. When one of the secretaries was not typing fast enough for an angrily impatient Prime Minister, he turfed the stunned garden girl out of her chair and took over the keyboard himself. Word of these incidents reached the alarmed ears of the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, who was becoming increasingly anxious about the Prime Minister’s behaviour. The Cabinet Secretary was so concerned about the garden girl episode that he made his own inquiries into it. Though the worst excesses of the Prime Minister’s temper were kept hidden, it was inevitable that some accounts began to filter out across Whitehall and then into the media, which reported stories about mobile phones being hurled in fury and the furniture being kicked.

One civil servant who applied for a position at Number 10 was asked at the interview whether he could cope with ‘extreme verbal abuse’ and violence done to objects. The civil servant was so scared by the description of what it could be like to work for the Prime Minister that he withdrew his application.”

Aside from the intrigue of warts-and-all access to our decision makers, what struck me was the draining nature of high politics – the frequent 6am talks, late-night skulduggery, briefings and de-briefings with the individual all the while expected to function as a human being. Family life seldom receives any mention and it is hard to see where moments that we take for granted – a simple Sunday lunch, a pleasant afternoon stroll – could ever feature in a career politician’s schedule packed with issues such as war, internal conflict and the credit crunch. No wonder Cherie turned into a fruit-loop.

Boxer Beetle (Ned Beauman)

“A collector of Nazi memorabilia. A nine-toed gay Jewish boxer. A 1930s aristocrat with a yen for eugenics. Ned Beauman’s time-travelling debut takes the cast list from the film Tarantino never made and adds perhaps the creepiest McGuffin of all time: a swastika-marked beetle, the Anophthalmus Hitleri.”

– Time Out

Whoever wrote the above paragraph that appears on the reverse of Ned Beauman’s entertaining debut novel should receive a stiff pat on the back for services to decent copywriting. It was likely the duel references to a nine-toed gay Jewish boxer and a swastika-marked beetle bearing Hitler’s name that encouraged me to dispense with £7.99 of my hard-earned English wonga. Thankfully, it was a worthwhile punt.

The book travels between the present day and the mid-1930s, with the modern-day narrative tracking the exploits of a Nazi memorabilia collector and the historic chapters dealing with said gay Jewish boxer (Seth ‘Sinner’ Roach) and hapless facist and discoverer of Anophthalmus Hitleri, Philip Erskine. Sinner is a ridiculous creation, an aggressive short-arse who lives for booze, fighting and squalid sexual encounters, barely offering sentences extending beyond one or two words (often a curt, “fuck off”, which reminds me of John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski“shut the fuck up, Donny”). The narrative is fast-paced with hugely enjoyable exchanges between Sinner and the awkward Erksine:

“And just then, as he watched, the beetle shot out of the case with an explosion of glass and soil and flew straight for the opposite table, on which there was a sack of live earthworms that Erksine had ordered from a fishing shop in Richmond. It punctured the bag with a meaty thud and then the bag began to shiver. Erksine screamed.

‘Roach! Roach! Come, for God’s sake!’

Sinner came in and stared at the bag.

‘Get it out!’

‘Get what out?’

‘The beetle. Get it out of there before it gets away. But don’t kill it.’

‘How am I supposed to do that?’

Erksine wasn’t sure.”

The plot is entertaining enough but like a Tarantino film, you get the feeling that the style, development and activities of the characters are what drive the creator, and this is no bad thing. To some extent, Boxer Beetle reminds me of another great character writer – Carl Hiaasen – and in both instances the characters carry the story, rather than the reader avidly page-turning to find out the next plotline twist. While ‘serious’ literature (see The Corrections below, for example) rewards the reader on a traditional emotional level, surreal stylistic outings such as Boxer Beetle too have their place, and long may it continue.

The Celestial Cafe (Stuart Murdoch)

As a big Belle & Sebastian fan, I’ve often read Stuart Murdoch’s gently entertaining blog posts on the band’s website, and The Celestial Cafe is a collection of his diaries from 2002 – 2006 (by way of flavour, Dear Catastrophe Waitress – see my album review here: – https://shanghaicowboy.wordpress.com/2010/01/05/best-albums/ was written in 2003). Anyone familiar with B & S will know not to expect raucous tales of binge-drinking, sexual promiscuity and general rock ‘n roll excess; instead, we read about his struggles on the football field, what makes a good cafe and occasional insights into the background for certain songs.

In terms of musical history, don’t expect nuggets of information about song-writing craft, which is a shame considering the information he must have to pass on. Similarly, discussions about one-time partner of Murdoch and fellow B & S member Isobel Campbell are off-limits, save for a few minor exchanges:

“Katrina asked if I was taking anyone to the dinner. She needed to know for numbers.

‘Is Isobel coming?’ I said.

‘What’s that got to do with it?’

‘I’m just curious. I might have to get a partner.’

‘What? I don’t understand.’

‘I just want… Well, I’m just thinking I might need some sort of…”

Murdoch comes across as a solitary creature during this period, not surprising as the start of the diaries comes soon after Isobel left the band in 2002. However rather than moping, he throws himself into community church projects with his religious faith omnipresent throughout the diaries. His love of the band is also a strong constant and it is clear that this is where his life priorities lie. As with his lyrics, Murdoch is best when making curious observations on modern life:

“I looked for the graffiti in the toilets, ‘PUSH BARman TO OPEN old wounds’ doctored as ‘plEASE don’t put YOUR FEET IN THE SEAts’, but it had disappeared, and I felt old like I always feel old these days. I ranted against the blokes who stand in the middle of dancefloors supping pints, surveying all, like frigging lighthouses, sucking up space, making it impossible to dance.”

The burgeoning Scotland music scene is also represented with enthusiastic praisings of his sometime football partners, Franz Ferdinand (‘they’ve got words, action and groove in all the right places’) and tales of coffee house rendezvous with fellow indie darlings, Camera Obscura. Murdoch also includes some of his participatory blog threads, where he allows his readers to create the content. Here are some of the responses to his poser on things that are sexy without involving sex:

“Clear and malleable unpierced ears. I find them sexy.

– Raquel

I’m a sucker for a boy with protruding veins in his forearms. I’m pretty sure this stems from my first love who played a lot of tennis and had great forearms. This might sound as if I like men with tons of muscles, but that’s not the case, just toned arms with active veins.

– Kristine

Long hair on a man. To keep long hair nice, clean and shiny takes dedication, and if a man can take the time to be that dedicated to his hair, you must wonder what else he could be dedicated to.

– Eve

I work at a university and yesterday there was a girl from the track-and-field team sitting and studying in the coffee shop. She was obviously a sprinter, and the torso of a young sprinter of Scandinavian descent is about as sexy as it gets.

– Ray”

Barney’s Version (Mordecai Richler)

I must confess to coming to this book after watching the recent film adaptation staring Paul Giamatti as the eponymous anti-hero. The trailer hadn’t really caught me, but I’m a sucker for a free Picturehouse screening on a Sunday and still relish Giamatti’s performance in Sideways, so I gave it a whirl. Alas the film was fairly average and failed – I realised after reading the book – to capture Barney’s voice as it appears on page, removing any redeeming feature from his character (the wit doesn’t come through) which allows at least a modicum of connection by the audience.

As is implicit by the novel’s title, the story of Barney’s life as delivered in the novel is but a version of the truth. The narrator is first of all Barney who of course cannot be objective about his own activities. We later learn that Barney has Alzheimer’s disease muddying the water further. The novel is littered with footnotes, which at first we think must be corrections by Barney of his disease-caused memory lapses, however we ultimately find out that [spoiler] these have been added by his son Michael, who finally edits the collected diaries. The footnotes made the book for me, occasionally exposing Barney’s knowing lies to enhance his own reputation, but also adding an air of seriousness to the absurd, thus creating farce. The following example concerns Barney’s decision at his own wedding to “The Second Mrs Panofsky” to pursue his future third wife by fleeing the reception to track her down on a departing train:

“’Please, Barney, don’t embarrass me any further. Get off the train at Montreal West.’

‘If I do, will you agree to have dinner with me in Toronto?’

‘No,’ she said, leaping and grabbing a bag from the overhead rack. ‘Now I’m going to my sleeper and I’m locking the door. Good night.’

‘You’re not being awfully friendly, considering the trouble I’ve gone to.’

‘You’re crazy. Good night.’

‘I did stagger of the train at Montreal West¹…’

¹My doubts about the chronology of these events were confirmed when I discovered that the hockey game, on April 9, 1959, ended at 10:29, but the overnight train to Toronto left at 10:25, which meant that it would have been impossible for my father to learn the final score and still have time to race to Windsor Station and board my mother’s train. However, when I confronted my mother with these troubling details, her lower lip began to tremble. ‘It’s true,’ she said, ‘it’s true.’ And then she began to sob, and I thought it insensitive to pursue the matter further.

I do not doubt my father’s veracity or my mother’s testimony, but I do believe Barney muddled things. Miriam probably left the Ritz at the end of the second period, at 9:41, and my father’s taxi was not tied up in Stanley Cup traffic until he returned from the Montreal West Station. Another possibility is that the departure on the overnight train to Toronto was delayed. I have twice written to Canadian Pacific to ask for the departure time of the overnight train to Toronto, on April 9, 1959, but I am still waiting for a reply.”

In terms of basic structure, the novel is divided into sections dealing with his three wives, the last of whom, Miriam, remains ‘his heart’s desire’. Indeed, even though the other Mrs Panofskys receive dedicated chapters, these are still punctuated by references to Miriam, and he labours under the delusion that he may one day win her back, despite his greater love for liquor and ice hockey. The reader knows, of course, that this will never happen and his efforts are both touching and humerous.

Another particularly enjoyable aspect of Barney’s Version is his regular contretemps with friend-turned-nemesis, Terry McIver. A writer of low-brow literature (in Barney’s eyes, at any rate) it is McIver’s decision to publish his memoirs that prompts Barney to do the same, determined to contradict McIver’s slurs on his character. The exchanges between Barney and McIver are comedy gold and while a small excerpt cannot do justice, below is a taster of the tone from a letter by McIver to Barney, after Barney’s son trashes McIver’s latest work in an American broadsheet:

‘Dear Barney,

To each his own albatross.

From the day of your arrival in Paris, touchingly gauche, ill-educated, pushy, it was abundantly clear to me (and others I could name) that you were consumed with envy for my talent. Nay, obsessed is what you were, ingratiating yourself by feigning friendship. I was not fooled. But I took pity on you and watched.

I have heard that your maternal grandfather was a junk dealer, so it strikes me as altogether fitting, a symmetry of sorts, that you have subsequently become wealthy as a purveyor of TV trash to the ‘hoi polloi’. I was not surprised, given your vengeful nature, that you considered it droll to title an especially prurient series ‘McIver of the RCMP’. Neither was I astonished to see you suffering at the Leacock Auditorium when I recently read to a sell-out audience. But, fool I am, I believed that there was some calumny that even you would not stoop to. Congratulations, Barney.’

I can do little more than recommend this with every feeble fibre of my mortal being.

The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen)

Well, OK – I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m in the final third and enjoying it immensely; lush, rich yet tight prose with characters that are somehow both familiar and slightly over-the-top. It is one of those books which you read around midnight, eyes half closed, willing a natural paragraph break so you can fold the corner and restart tomorrow. An excellent purchase at £2.50 from a second-hand bookshop and I look forward to seeing what the end brings. Sample paragraph below:

“She was naive enough, she told Denise, to think this ended the discussion. She had a good marriage, stably founded on childrearing, eating, and sex. It was true that she and Brian had different class backgrounds, but High Temp Products wasn’t exactly E. I. Du Pont de Nemours, and Robin, holding degrees from two elite schools, wasn’t your typical proletarian. Their few real differences came down to style, and these differences were mostly invisible to Robin, because Brian was a good husband and a nice guy and because, in her cow innocence, Robin couldn’t imagine that style had anything to do with happiness. Her musical tastes ran to John Prine and Etta James, and so Brian played Prine and James at home and saved his Bartok and Defunkt and Flaming Lips and Mission of Burma for blasting on his boom box at High Temp. That Robin dressed like a grad student in white sneakers and a purple nylon shell and oversized round wireframes last worn by fashionable people in 1978 didn’t altogether disappoint Brian, because he along among men got to see her naked. That Robin was high-strung and had a penetrating screechy voice and a kookaburra laugh seemed, likewise, a small price to pay for a heart of gold and an eye-popping streak of lechery and a racing metabolism that kept her movie-actress thin. That Robin never shaved her armpits and too seldom washed her glasses-well, she was the mother of Brian’s children, and as long as he could play his music and tinker with his tensors by himself, he didn’t mind indulging in her the anti-style that liberal women of a certain age wore as a badge of feminist identity. This, at any rate, was how Denise imagined Brian had solved the problem of style until the money from W—— came rolling in.”

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2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,300 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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