Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Great Albums 35: The Defenestration of St Martin - Martin Rossiter (2012)

Bit of a turnaround this.  When I first heard this album earlier this year I dismissed it as another effort like Brett Anderson's solo LP - not a patch on the band he'd left behind.  Rossiter's distinctive voice apart, this sounds nothing like Gene, for one thing, and for another it seemed a bit, well, simple.

But Phil Craggs told me I was wrong, and for once he was right.

It needs a few listens, but I'm increasingly coming to think this is a better album than anything Gene ever did.  Which is odd - usually I like complex instrumentation and arch lyrics, whereas this is all piano and the lyric...well the lyrics are deceptively simplistic.  At times it sounds as though Rossiter wrote all these songs singing haphazardly in the bath.  The rhymes are obvious, the vocal tends to follow the piano melody and there's little by way of overdubs. 

But the lyrics often turn out to be layered and pretty bloody clever, if horribly bleak.  Maybe that's the attraction - this is an album as miserable as Beck's 'Sea Change', or Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon'.  It's not an album without humour - check out the glorious choir which appears from nowhere in 'I Must be Jesus' - but even the humour has an element of the downbeat about it ('I must be Jesus' concerns a child reflecting on his pain-filled life), and the opening ten minute ode to a shit, shit father sets a tone which rarely lets up across a handful of tracks which consider child abuse, prostitution, death and lost loves.  It should be one note, it should be earnest, but it's neither.

Instead it feels like a lost Perfume Genius album, only with a better vocalist and longer songs.  Hard to think of a higher recommendation than that.  Give it a listen, then remember it's a grower and play it a few more times - you'll thank me...

Monday, 7 April 2014

Interlude: Bowie and the Riot Squad (1967)

It's a sign of the sheer amount of stuff available nowadays that a song I've been wanting to hear for a decade was released last year and I completely failed to hear about it.  I've James Gent to thank for the heads up, because if he'd not included David Bowie's version of 'Silver Treetop School for Boys' in the imaginary playlist for what would be the best Bowie out-takes box set ever, I'd never have known that Record Day last year included the release of an EP of himself with the Riot Squad back in the last sixties (interestingly, this is presumably at the same time he was recording the Deram David Bowie LP - some of the musical and vocal choices on here are pretty familiar to fans of that great debut album).

It's a shame The Riot Squad are really not very good, though.   Another cover of the Velvets' 'Waiting for the Man', with Bowie really pushing the Lou Reed impersonation is fine, if uninspiring, and listening to Bowie as Lou Reed on perennial bootleg favourite, 'Little Toy Soldier' is never wasted time, but the backing on a solo version of 'Silly Boy Blue' is difficult listening at times - and 'Silver Treetop' is a bit rubbish really.

But skip back a bit.  'Silver Treetop School for Boys', I hear you ask (actually, I probably don't - I imagine that, of my eleven regular readers, about eight will know the track already!) ?  What's that then?

Most obviously it's one of four tracks on the ep , but it's also the 'lost' Bowie track I've most wanted to hear, ever since I picked up a copy of the Beatstalkers' 2007 collection which includes a fabulous tight, fast cover of the track. 

The Beatstalkers - apparently known at the time as the Scottish Beatles - did another couple of Bowie covers (they were managed by Ken Pitt, as was Bowie's manager too at the time) and are well worth seeking out.  The Riot Squad, though, aren't, except for those of us who would buy any new Bowie.  For us, it's worth it - of course it is!

Monday, 31 March 2014

First Men in the Moon - HG Wells (1901)

Month two of Paul and I trawling through A Hundred Years of Paperbacks finds us in England (then the moon) with HG Wells.

And, oh, this is more like it!  Only a single year further on than Jules Verne's 'Castaways of the Flag', but it feels as though some clever soul invented the sf adventure novel somewhere in those twelve months.  Admittedly it’s a very British science fiction – far more obviously the product of a specific country than Verne’s eurobland attempt, but that’s all to the good as it replaces Verne’s leaden and plodding morality tale with Wells’ big, mad, entertaining mass of bonkers science, terrific dangers and brilliantly innovative anglo-saxons. This is a novel which is intended to make the reader laugh as well as think deep(ish) thoughts, and it’s all the better for it.

Of course it Paul says below, that it’s basically Doctor Who - and even more specifically, it’s Peter Cushing in the cinema as scatter-brained old duffer Dr Who, travelling to the Moon with his new companion, Mr Bedford, a forward echo of a slightly more morally dubious Roy Castle or Bernard Cribbins, if ever there was one. It’s all there – science which makes sense in your head if not in reality, an alien society which does much the same, a not particularly clever denouement…I can easily imagine Aaru picking up the rights to this, and giving Roberta Tovey a call to see if she were free… 

As well as Who, the early chapters reminded me of Wodehouse a little – Bedford locked away in the country, just waiting to churn out a novel which will make his fortune feels like it must have some point have been the fate of Bertie Wooster or one of his Drones’ chums.  And Cavor, checked from walking the way he prefers, is exactly the sort of unworldly, eccentric scientist Wodehouse would, I think, have approved of.

Which reminds me of something – at one point Bedford makes mention of Jules Verne.  Wouldn’t it be nice if we could link each of these books to the next in some way, even if the link isn’t always as concrete as an actual reference? (and if we’re doing so, more interesting to link this to Wodehouse via the characterisation than to, say, Kenneth Graham via the metaphysical peculiarities to be found in chapter 20 of ‘First Men’ – like the ‘Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ chapter in  Wind in the Willows, it’s an odd intrusion of melancholy and spirituality, as though there was a quota of such that every author pre-WWI was obliged to fill).

Much better…

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark (Sepctral Press, 2013)

M.R James may not be as well known and excessively collected as a Poe, say, but it's not exactly a quest to find a copy of his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and its sequels - and even less so to find the handful of stories which were filmed for the BBC in the 1970s by Lawrence Gordon Clark for Christmas broadcast.

So it's not for Mr James that you might be tempted to pick up a copy of The Christmas Ghost Stories. I mean, it's a lovely looking volume, and those us who appreciate a book almost as much for the look and feel as for the contents might well shell out just on that basis.

But really, it's the added extras, the sections which relate to LGC rather than James, which will sell this book - and rightly so too. This is where small presses win out over large, where enthusiasts publishing books which they are personally committed to defeat corporate cash-ins. From a foreword by Mark Gattis, through a Basil copper adaptation of Count Magnus and introductory essays by Clark himself, by way of newly unearthed photographs, interviews and storyboards, this is a book packed to the rafters and created by someone who really appreciates his subject - and his audience.

Make no mistake, once you own this book you will never need another about these fabulous adaptations or the man behind them.

(Incidentally, for those of you who are buying just for the ghost stories themselves, these are they: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, A Warning to the Curious, The Ash Tree, Lost Hearts, Casting the Runes, Count Magnus)

Available from now.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Some books - January 2014

My favourite three books read in January (intended as something I'll do every month, but who wants to bet it grinds to a halt round about March?)

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore - Robin Sloan

Sometimes a book is all about the characters or the plot or the clever way in which everyone speaks.  Sometimes it's about the puzzle or the twist or even the macguffin.  And sometimes it's about the ending.

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore is about the ending.  After 250 pages of confident, flowing prose, this glorious novel - ostensibly part Name of the Rose and part Big Bang Theory - ends on the most unexpected of beats, but is all the more perfect for that.  I'll say no more for fear of spoilers, but I loved the final dozen pages more than any ending in a book for ages.

There's a brilliant geek pride on display throughout, too.  Sure, some of the characters - like those in another US sitcom, Friends - are just a wee bit too good at their geek ninja skills, and the fetishisation of Google in particular is slightly vomit inducing, but these are fairly minor complaints about a book which made me grin more than once and which as, at its core, those two most fascinating of obscure pleasures - the history of printing and mega cool places in which to store books.

Recommended to me by Scott, and recommended by me to everyone else.

The Ship that Flew - Hilda Lewis

Another lovely ending, though this one is more bittersweet than happy.  A small boy buys a toy boat which can swell to any size, and travel to any point in time and space. Cue a series of adventures with his brother and two sisters, as they fly to England in the middle ages, meet with Robin Hood, and dodge dubious foreign and home grown bad guys!  The whole story comes together towards the end, and then, like Susan dodging the Last Battle, the children are all grown up and too mature for toy boats…

Written and published in the 30s, I'm forced to agree with the bookseller who pencilled 'Children's Classic - nice edition' inside my copy (which was a present from Paul, incidentally - he accuses me of occasionally forgetting books he bought me this book or that, especially when I happen to recommend the same books to him a few months later ;)

The Company of Friends - Jack Trevor Story

The best writer post-war Sexton Blake ever produced, Jack Trevor Story is an author I discovered via his Albert Argyle trilogy last year.  Witty, seemingly effortless prose (though with a touch of the sort of poorly thought out sexism so beloved of writers who learned their craft in the 50s and 60s), wrapped round a clever plot and peopled by a cast of engaging characters - throw in Blake, Tinker, Paula Dane and the rest and you're surely into a winner.

And so it proved.  Probably the best late Blake I've read.

Other books read this month:

Boys and Girls Forever - Alison Lurie
The Uncollected Sherlock Holmes - Arthur Conan Doyle
Brainrack - Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis
Midnight Folk (abridged) - John Masefield
The Sherlock Holmes Handbook - Ransom Riggs
The Christmas Ghost Stories of Laurence Gordon Clark (separate review to follow)

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Flip Side - Cody Quijano-Schell (Big Finish, 2013)

Right then, an admission.  No, not the one about knowing and having worked with the author, a man I have a great deal of time and fondness for.  Anyone reading this is likely already to know that, and also to know that I'm a big mouthed idiot a fair amount of the time and would not hesitate to say something negative about anyone's work, if I didn't like it.

No, my admission is this - I have only seen one episode of the TV series Dark Shadows.  I know, I know.  I claim to love old telly, and am happiest wittering on about 70s sitcoms and 30s movies, Larry Grayson and Lon Chaney, Paula Wilcox and Louise Brooks, but I'm not what you'd call a major fan of old American telly.   The references are lost on me, the laughter tracks are irritating and it's all too brightly lit.

So I came to 'The Flip Side' almost a DS virgin.  True, I'd seen that one episode, though all it was missing was Joey from Friends, playing Dr Drake Ramory in a 'Days of Our Lives' style.  And I listened to Mark Passmore's (also very enjoyable) preceding DS audio too.  But that's it.

And you know what, dear reader, I loved it.

It helps that the story is self-contained and spooky, obviously, and so no previous knowledge was required.  And obviously - like Mark's earlier audio - it helped no end that it was well written and directed, and moved along at a good pace.  But it was the little things I liked most, the teasing suggestions of the thousands of episodes before this - the Leviathans, a planet covered in sand, parallel times and a jukebox which has played the same handful of songs for decades.  It was evocative without crushing the listener under the weight of continuity, a skilfully rendered tapestry in the background against which an intriguing mystery takes place.

Recommended, even if your experience of Dark Shadows is 20 minutes of two charcaters standing talking in a cemetery...

You can buy it here.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Storyteller - A Found Book

You know how it is.  You're supposed to be writing but all you're actually doing is discussing the lost episodes of Dr Who on some mailing list.  Or you're meant to be researching something important but you're actually playing a game on Facebook or tweeting some terribly amusing play on words.  Prevarication destroys so many good intentions.

But sometimes something good arises from the lackadaisical ashes.

Earlier this year, Nick Campbell posted an image on Facebook of the 'Also Available' page from the back of a book he'd just picked up in a second hand bookshop.  Announcing grandly 'A Full list of Unicorn Books is available on request', it showed a baker's dozen book titles, a couple familiar but most unknown.  Like the spidery handwriting of a handwritten Victorian dedication ('To Margaret, in celebration of the Armistice, November 1918, with affection, Aunt Veronica'), there's something other-worldly and mysterious about books of which you've never heard.  Who were the 'Strangers from the Sea'?  What happened to the Halric, the seal?  Who or what was on the Hanging Tree?

Amongst my friends that sort of thing acts like a strong magnetic pull, and before long there were a group of us talking away on Nick's Facebook page, hovering round the image, laughing at Cav Scott's suggestion that these were the missing titles to stories which didn't exist yet, and which we should write.  That seemed a very Obverse idea, and as it happened Ian Potter and I had been pondering something for a while which, it also seemed to me, this might fit nicely.

In September 2012, Matt Kimpton died due to complications arising from his life-long Cystic Fibrosis (I won't say 'lost his fight' because, even just reading Matt's posts on Facebook during his final stay in hospital, it was obvious that any fight or battle had long since been won by Matt).  Matt was a lovely, enormously funny person and a ferociously talented writer.  If Obverse were to cease to be tomorrow, it would be my major source of pride that we published more fiction by Matt Kimpton than anyone else (pride mixed with anger that this should have been allowed to be the case - that level of talent should have had a far bigger audience).

Anyway, Ian and I wanted to do something in honour of Matt and this - a found book of sorts, a form of outsider art even, created from the detritus of other people's work - felt like something he might appreciate.  Mark Manley was kind enough to create a cover painting using a copy of Matt's husband Tom's favourite picture of him, and Cody Quijano-Schell turned that painting into a book cover.  And lots of excellent writers and friends chose a story title each and wrote a story with it.

And I hope Matt would like that too - a book of all sorts of different stories, without theme or genre or linking text.  I think that's something that the first Chief Skald of Sussex would have enjoyed.

You can pick up a copy and see if you agree for just £1.99 at Obverse Books and Manleigh Books, with all money going to CF charities.