Tuesday, 6 December 2022

The Loneliest Time of Year

The Wedding Present are concluding 24 Songs, their 30th anniversary "twelve singles in a year" effort, with a suitably maudlin festive tune. To quote from an interview Gedge has just given Uncut magazine:

"Ah, the old 'Christmas song'," writes bandleader David Gedge. "To be honest, I've kind of been one of those 'bah, humbug' types ever since I realised that the only thing we're really celebrating on 25th December is capitalism! 'Thanks for the list of stuff you want me to buy for you, here's a list of stuff I want you to buy for me.' There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but, for me, one of the most appealing things about the festive season is the way pop songs always seem more poignant when they're also Christmas songs. It's all about heightened expectation and disappointment, perhaps.

"I've had a go myself a couple of times over the years, of course, and it seemed fitting to have another crack at it for the grand finale of '24 Songs'. Hence, 'The Loneliest Time Of Year' has a huge, melancholy chorus, sleigh bells, and an appropriately surreal video.

You won't hear this on Bland FM but I think it's rather lovely. If you agree, well, The Loneliest Time Of Year will be released on Friday December 16th. You can bag the 7" – either individually or as part of the complete box set of all twelve 24 Songs singles – right here. Why not give in to that pesky capitalism and treat yourself to an early Christmas present...?

Thursday, 1 December 2022

Twenty-two in '22: Fairy Tale

I've set myself modest reading targets in each of the last three years and failed every time (I managed 17 books in '19, 11 in '20 and 18 in '21), so I'm determined to read twenty two books in 2022. I'll review them all here.

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

12/22: Fairy Tale by Stephen King

The blurb: Charlie Reade looks like a regular high school kid, great at baseball and football, a decent student. But he carries a heavy load. His mom was killed in a hit-and-run accident when he was seven, and grief drove his dad to drink. Charlie learned how to take care of himself - and his dad. Then, when Charlie is seventeen, he meets a dog named Radar and her ageing master, Howard Bowditch, a recluse in a big house at the top of a big hill, with a locked shed in the backyard. Sometimes strange sounds emerge from it.

Charlie starts doing jobs for Mr. Bowditch and loses his heart to Radar. Then, when Bowditch dies, he leaves Charlie a cassette tape telling a story no one would believe. What Bowditch knows, and has kept secret all his long life, is that inside the shed is a portal to another world.

King's storytelling in Fairy Tale soars. This is a magnificent and terrifying tale about another world than ours, in which good is pitted against overwhelming evil, and a heroic boy - and his dog - must lead the battle.

The review: The dedication at the start of this book reads "Thinking of REH, ERB, and, of course, HPL" and that tells you all you really need to know about what follows. For this is King's homage to the books he consumed in his youth, and the writing of Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs and especially H.P. Lovecraft. Indeed, you could say that Fairy Tale is King's take on Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu. Of course, King being King there are plenty of other fictional touchstones woven in too, from conventional fairytales like Rumpelstiltskin and The Three Little Pigs, to more recent fairytale allegories like Star Wars and The Hunger Games. He even throws in a subtle reference to his own Dark Tower series, for the Constant Readers among us to spot.

Also, King being King, the author has great fun with the fact that all the best fairytales have gruesome aspects. And we know he can do gruesome!

Anyway, I'd better write a review, hadn't I? This is King's umpteenth book, and he's racked up a pajillion sales, so he can write, we all know that. This is no exception: it's an enjoyable page-turner, that I rattled through quicker than anything I've read since ... well, since the last King novel I read. It won't win him many new fans but if you already like his work, you'll like this too. And that ought to be the end of the review, hadn't it? Well, it is, really, except for one observation. Like many of King's novels, Billy Summers being the most recent obvious comparator, this book pivots on a single moment about 30% of the way in; it's in the blurb, so there's no spoiler in me saying that moment is the point at which our hero Charlie goes through the portal in Howard's shed into another world. The world of make-believe, if you like - the land of fairytales. And the simple opinion I want to offer here is that, although the whole book is good, I preferred the section before that pivot, with Charlie rooted in normality, dealing with familial issues, high school issues, helping an old neighbour. It's got to the point, I think, where King is just a better prose fiction novelist than he is a horror/fantasy/supernatural writer. There. I said it. Don't @ me, as the influencers of the world might still say. But do comment, below.

The bottom line: King's take on a modern, yet traditional, fairytale, bears all his hallmarks, whilst also being an homage to those that came before him. Fans will lap it up - I did.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★★☆

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Monday, 14 November 2022

New to NA ... somehow

I went to a party on Saturday, a friend's 50th. They had a DJ, which was a nice surprise, and early in the evening he was playing mostly soul and reggae at a pretty modest volume. Later he would up the ante, playing floor-fillers specifically aimed at the age of the attendees, but early on he was playing what he liked. And it was good.

At some point he played this, and I had to go up and ask him what it was. I was surprised at the answer, not because it's atypical but because I couldn't believe I hadn't heard it before. But there you go, that's what happened. So I'm sure you'll all know and love this slice of rootsy, ska-inflected rocksteady brilliance already, but I'm still getting used to it. And on this utterly shit Monday morning, I need something good. Maybe you do too, so here's Funky Kingston by Toots & The Maytals.

Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Twenty-two in '22: Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North

I've set myself modest reading targets in each of the last three years and failed every time (I managed 17 books in '19, 11 in '20 and 18 in '21), so I'm determined to read twenty two books in 2022. I'll review them all here.

Pies and Prejudice by Stuart Maconie

11/22: Pies and Prejudice: In Search of the North by Stuart Maconie

The blurb: A Northerner in exile, Stuart Maconie goes on a journey in search of the North, attempting to discover where the clich├ęs end and the truth begins. He travels from Wigan Pier to Blackpool Tower and Newcastle's Bigg Market to the Lake District to find his own Northern Soul, encountering along the way an exotic cast of chippy Scousers, pie-eating woollybacks, topless Geordies, mad-for-it Mancs, Yorkshire nationalists and brothers in southern exile.

The bestselling Pies and Prejudice is a hugely enjoyable journey around the north of England.

The review: Of all the many books I've read in recent years, one I've felt most connected to is The Nanny State Made Me, Maconie's paean to the public sector - I wrote about it last year. Add to that Maconie's relaxed, conversational style and my predisposition towards him based on his 6 Music output, and I was ready to enjoy this book. And I did ... just not as much as I had hoped and expected. Let me explain why.

All the Maconie staples are here - the aforementioned conversational tone, the anecdotes, the great dollops of nostalgic recollection and the occasional light dusting of political opinion. And the subject matter - essentially an Englishman abroad, if abroad means everywhere north of the Watford Gap (which, as it turns out, is not where you might think) - is a rich vein for Maconie to mine. The book is successful on many levels, mostly making me want to visit places I haven't been and love places I already love even more. And isn't that the primary aim of this kind of book. Oh, and I even learnt stuff too, always a bonus.

So what's the problem?

Well, it's this. At times Pies and Prejudice feels like a history book. It was only written in 2006 but, given the many social and political upheavals there have been since then, it feels like not just the North but the UK of then was a different country. A better country, for that matter. And this feeling increasingly coloured my enjoyment of the book. That's not Maconie's fault, of course - he couldn't have foreseen the spectacular nosedive pretty much everything in the UK has taken since then, no-one could. But it is a fact for a reader in 2022 - this reader, at least. At one point, Maconie quotes an article a certain B. Johnson wrote in The Spectator, and dismisses it as damaging, inflammatory and ultimately ignorant fluff written by an entitled Southern buffoon. All of which is true, of course, but it made me grind my teeth to read it; I had to set the book aside for a bit, and wonder how we had let things to come to this. Where did it all go wrong?

I'm conscious this isn't much of a review, so I will add that Maconie's prose keeps the pages turning, the subject matter is genuinely interesting, and it's all told in an engaging, often humourous style. It's just that it made me think it should be subtitled "In Search of Albion" instead.

The bottom line: another well-pitched domestic travelogue from Maconie, but feels like a historical document now.

Since everything online is rated these days: ★★★★☆☆

Monday, 7 November 2022

Monday long song(s): two for the price of one

TLDR: I'm about to ramble some complete old guff about two songs that I think could soundtrack death and the afterlife, respectively. For the record, I'm in no hurry for one and don't really believe in the other ... but not everyone will want to read that so if you don't want to read my twaddle, skip the text, just play the songs. They are both excellent, for certain moods. Okay? Okay.

I keep some old magazine cover-mount CDs in the car, sort of like an emergency stash of music. I don't play them very often. That's how I came to forget today's not one but two long songs. They have found their way into my collection (and consciousness) via a CD distributed with MOJO magazine in August 2016, entitled How Soon Is Now? Yes, they really called it that, although they did have the good sense to subtitle it Mojo Presents 15 Tracks Of Modern Independent Music... But I digress. I found myself listening to the CD on a recent longish drive to see my parents. I don't know if it was the mood I was in at the time, or my general state of mind, but these two tracks really struck a chord.

The first is by Ian William Craig, about whom I know nothing. Wikipedia tells me he is a "Canadian musician known for using broken tape machines" and that Rolling Stone described him as "the most exciting experimental composer of 2016". So there's that. All I know is that this is called A Single Hope and is from his 2016 album Centres. It starts with what sounds like radio static through distorted speakers, before a plaintive choral lament starts up, giving the song a definite hymnal quality. Some sparse percussion is added to the mix, and soon enough the whole thing sounds like a symphony in slow shoegaze. But here's the thing; the thought that struck me, chugging down the motorway in perfect isolation, is that this would be a good song to die to; here comes the end but don't be afraid because it's okay, maybe even a release for some. It's a thing of absolute beauty, I think, and I'm amazed it hasn't been scooped up for a soundtrack or two - you know the scene, the hero has just died and his loved ones are distraught but it's okay because he saved the world, that sort of glib nonsense.

So there I was, in the car, having a little bit of a moment to myself, and then the very next track on the CD was this: Logic of a Dream by Explosions in the Sky. Again, I know nothing about them other than what Wikipedia tells me, i.e. that they're a quartet from Texas, playing almost exclusively instrumentals that they describe as "cathartic mini-symphonies", and that this track comes from their 2016 (and final, to date) album Wilderness. And again, here's the thing: the thought that struck me on hearing this is that it would soundtrack an introduction to the afterlife rather well. I should say, at this point, that personally I don't believe in any kind of afterlife, sadly; I'm a rational humanist on that score. It just struck me that Logic of a Dream is the perfect track to follow A Single Hope, and if that's the sound of a "good" death (is there such a thing?) then naturally what follows should be the sound of whatever comes next. At various times, this track sounds like that would be Valhalla, at others heaven, before ending with nirvana.

Sorry, maybe I should just stick to embedding songs, and forget the words. Retrospective apologies.

Monday, 31 October 2022

Still here, just

To show that I haven't completely dropped off the planet, here's a 22-minute YouTube playlist of six vaguely Halloween-y songs, some obvious, some less so. Which carves your pumpkin? And which leaves you ... cold? Mwah-hah-ha-ha, et cetera...