Since the triumph of 99.9 Fahrenheit Degrees waaaay back in 1992, Suzanne Vega has seemed to struggle to find a vernacular for her delicate, considered song-stories. Nine Objects of Desire was a watered-down version of 99.9, and 2000′s Songs In Red And Gray seemed lost under a sheen of production, with only a few songs (Penitent, Widow’s Walk and I’ll Never Be Your Maggie May) breaking through the bland. 2007′s slight, thoughtful Beauty and Crime almost seemed an admission of defeat; pleasant enough, but not essential. Now, seven years later, has SV managed to find her mojo again? Well, sort of. Tales From The Realm of the Queen of Pentacles is clearly her best album since 99.9, but it does seem to lack somewhat in the tune department. Now, tunes aren’t the be all and end all, but SV has penned some corkers in her time; do I need to remind anyone of Luka, Tom’s Diner, Marlene on the Wall etc etc. If you can get over that, there is much to enjoy here, and the more you listen the better it gets. SV sounds like she is enjoying herself, from the preposterous prog-tastic title (a shocking mash-up of Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans and the legendary prog nightmare of The Pentateuch of the Cosmonogony) to the clever wordplay and intricate tunes which she is renowned for. Lyrically, there seems to be a tarot thing going on, though I have yet to study the lyrics in any depth. This gives the album a strange, olde-worlde character, a trope SV has used before e.g The Queen and the Soldier from her first album. It’s a clever idea and suits SV well, giving the album an identity lacking her more recent works. Stylistically it’s all over the place, from the familiar folky leanings of opener Crack In The Wall to the grunge rock of I Never Wear White to the impish 50 Cent sampling (so I’m told) of Don’t Uncork What You Can’t Contain. The production is solid, satisfying and extremely pleasing to the ear, though the cheesy trumpet (or whatever it is) on closing track Horizon (There Is A Road) ruins what is otherwise an excellent song, making the plaintive mawkish. Vocally, SV is in fine voice, sounding much as she ever has, except that the edge evident on early songs such as Marlene On The Wall is perhaps understandably absent. This, like the relative lack of pop tunes, matters not one jot. Recommended.
2013 was a pretty important and highly successful year for me. Most significantly, I made a major life change – I gave up alcohol, forever. It wasn’t easy, but once I’d walked away, it has been easy to stay away. In 2013 I also achieved my target of cycling 2000 miles; weirdly enough, my actual total was 2013 miles. I also started running, having never done so before, and from a slow start in October I can now run 3 miles in about 30 minutes, with only brief rests. I should be able to do 5K in a few weeks no problem, and will sign up to the Bristol 10K in May. All this had lead to me losing weight; a year ago I was 21 stone, I am now just over 18 stone. I also started a new job, back in the Civil Service, in the Planning Inspectorate; and am now on a 12-month contract working in Communications, a job I enjoy and which makes best use of my talents (such as they are). As for writing, I have, obviously, done more since chucking in the booze, submitting stories for various anthologies, completing 50,000 words of a novel during NaNoWriMo in November, and moving various other projects onwards and upwards.
So, for 2014, I don’t think I need to make any major resolutions, other than keep on doing what I am already doing. It’s always good to make plans, though, and given the above, my plans for 2014 are thus:
Cycle 3000 miles. And maybe more – review after 6 months. I only really started cycling seriously last year in April after I came off the sauce, so given the ‘extra’ 3 months I have this year, and my increased fitness levels, 3K should be doable.
Run the Bristol half-marathon on 11 May.
Lose more weight and achieve acceptable BMI. Now, according to the BMI charts, I am now, at 18 stone, technically obese. Given my high levels of activity and general health, this is clearly bollocks. I am fitter than many people who are lighter than me. Also according to the BMI charts, to achieve a healthy weight, I need to be 13 stone. This, also, given my height and build, is also clearly bollocks. Or is it? I shall be seeking professional medical advice on this shortly. Suffice to say, I to still need to lose weight, the question is, how much.
Writing: finish the novel, get it read and sent to publishers; and complete various other projects (don’t want to mention them in too much detail, as this is bad writing karma, but I know what they are).
Career: my current job ends in early December, so before then I need to either ascertain if it is going to be made permanent, or not, or find a permanent post, either in the Planning Inspectorate, or another part of the Civil Service, or the public or third sectors.
I think that’ll do for now.
Happy 2014 everyone!
This album is confirmation that Paddy McAloon is one of the greatest songwriters of all time. It’s not immediately apparent; on the first few listens, the cheap production is hard to ignore. The songs have a cloying, muzak sheen, and horns have never sounded so synthetic. You long for Thomas Dolby. On further listens, however, this passes, and the songs – the lyrics, the arrangements – and McAloon’s genius become planet-sized crystal clear.
As an atheist, I was somewhat perturbed by the god-bothering nature of most of the songs on his last album, Let’s Change The World With Music. Thank, er, God (see photo caption) that this time round, McAloon is concerned with the earthly, human activities of love-making and song-making, but is equally if not more lyrical on these subjects.
It kicks off with The Best Jewel Thief In The World, a fantastic song and a hit single in a parallel universe. The music is brisk and bright and the production doesn’t harm it all that much, except for the rather shrill harmonica solo. Lyrically Paddy is as deft and clever as ever, though it is a shock to hear him say ‘what do those assholes know?’ The List of Impossible Things follows, a slower, more considered piece, about the miracle of singing: ‘If your voice is all shot, it’s still the best one you’ve got / You’re a work of art that’s broken.’
Adolescence ‘crimson red’ gives the album its title, and is the most musically experimental track, all burbling brisk electronica and percussion, sounding so 80s it hurts. Here McAloon looks back at his youth and offers these words to sum up the teenage experience: ’Adolescence, what’s it like? / It’s a psychedelic motorbike! / You smash it up ten times a day / Then walk away.’ Somewhat ridiculous, but containing a grain of truth? Grief Built the Taj Mahal is another slow number, and perhaps the least successful song here, though its theme of death and the hereafter is a nice counterpoint to the previous song.
Next up are the two best tracks which form the twin highlights (headlights?) of the album. The Devil Came A Calling is a brisk strum-along, a dark and dusty tale of a meeting with my namesake Old Nick. It is not a stretch to imagine Nick Cave singing this – and, considering that McAloon has often penned songs for others (Cher, Kylie, Momus, Jimmy Nail, etc) this is not at all outside the realms of possibility. It is a shock to hear McAloon say ‘fellatio’ though – wash your mouth out, Paddy! Side 2 (yes, I know) kicks of with Billy, the best song here, and a thing of such immense open-skied joy that it takes the breath away. McAloon sings about falling in love with such unpretentious sincerity that you get swept right up along with it. ’I'm in love with Susan, Bill / Her smile is like a fairground / I’m basking in the glow.’ Some have criticised the cheap synthesised trumpet sound but I think that’s the point. The Dreamer follows, a very dark song, with bleak lyrics about lost dreams – again the sequencing is immaculate, the darkness here in stark contrast to the previous song.
The album closes with a trio of songs about singers and songwriting. The Songs of Danny Galway is about the revered Jimmy Webb, writer of MacArthur Park and Wichita Lineman and many others. The Old Magician is perhaps an autobiographical song, about the failing powers of, well, an old magician – but it’s far too chipper to be melancholy, and contains the clever double meaning ’he’s lost all his illusions now.’ Chipper also perfectly describes the closing Mysterious, the music of which borders on the cheesy, but repeated listens diminish this. It’s all about Bob Dylan, but could easily be about McAloon himself: ’hobo jive on overdrive / Your energy is vast.’ And then it’s over, all too soon.
I hardly dare hope for more. But I do.
- They’re both Doctor Who stories (duh!)
- They both feature the Doctor (it gets better, trust me on this!)
- They both feature more than one Doctor
- The First, Second and Third Doctors appear in both
- They both feature Daleks
- They both feature UNIT
- They both feature a Lethbridge-Stewart
- They both feature a young blonde female companion
- They both feature a horde of menacing second-tier monsters
- They’re both about stopping a war
- In both, the Doctor enjoys a nice relaxed meal before plunging into adventure
- They are both extremely wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey
- They both feature a crazy action sequence with the Doctor and his companion and a cool vehicle
- They both feature a countdown to a detonation
- They both feature a gun-totin’ Doctor
- They both feature an important conference
- They both feature machines other than the TARDIS that can time travel
- Both *appear* to contradict a ‘final’ something (the Daleks’ ‘final end’ in Evil of the Daleks, and Rassilon’s ‘final sanction’ in The End of Time) but don’t really
- Nick Briggs does the Dalek voices in both (if the Special Edition of Day of the Daleks counts)
- Both feature a massive Dalek army (‘a billion billion Daleks!’ in The Day of the Doctor!) but we only see a few
Next: 100 Amazing Similarities Between the Curses of Peladon, Fenric and The Black Spot.
Woozy, bluesy and snoozy, this new album by Mazzy Star is exactly the same as the previous three. The cover has a nice picture of a cat. There is little else you need to know. The interesting thing about this album is the gap between it and Among My Swan. In a year of comebacks (Suede, Bowie, MBV, Prefab Sprout, House of Love) it is appropriate that Mazzy Star should also show up, slouching into the scene late in the year with casual, almost indifferent brilliance. The packaging and title of the album somehow seems almost too Mazzy Star, it verges on self-parody, but the music is solid, though, as stated, no great departure. If you like Mazzy Star then you’ll like this. Hope Sandoval’s vocals and lyrics are as sweet and melancholy as ever, and David Roback’s familiar guitar licks are woven through the album like a thread of tarnished silver. Oh the aching, bruising, beautiful misery. This makes the perfect companion piece to Goldfrapp’s recent similarly wintry album.
Two albums released at almost the same time with striking similarities: both draw on the synthpop of the 1980s, both feature female lead vocals, both have striking covers featuring geometric shapes against a single colour background. And both are brilliant. Chvrches take their cue from Depeche Mode and Yazoo, delivering an album packed with poppy tunes leavened with a generous helping of deliciously dolorous shoegazing. Factory Floor take things to the extreme with an album of what sounds eerily like early New Order b-sides or remixes of Everything’s Gone Green, rather ironic given the band’s name. Chvrches is the most initially appealing of the albums; The Mother We Share, Gun, Lies, Recover and Lungs share a similar staccato-pop template but are each made distinctive by Lauren Mayberry’s strident yet delicate vocals. On two songs, at the end of Sides 1 and 2 respectively (yes I still think in terms of vinyl), Martin Doherty takes over vocals and whilst initially seeming a mis-step these two rather shoegazey songs emerge as things of bruised beauty, especially the woozy, blissed out album closer You Caught The Light. Album highlights are Night Sky, with its Fall-esque sequencer bubble, and Tether, which starts slow and smoky but bursts into this amazing prog synth workout. Factory Floor’s eponymous debut takes more work, again ironically considering the title. It doesn’t really have highlights, it is a relentless hammering of glorious repetition. Singer Nik Colk sounds appropriately lost in the machine, her vocals treated and mangled and mashed by the relentless production line. It might put some off but those into more experimental music and the Ghost Box catalogue will find much to love here.
I approached this with cynicism, as Goldfrapp alternate between the dancefloor and the garret with each release, and after the rather ho-hum Head First, a return to stroky-beard minimalism seemed inevitable. And so it is. But my cynicism has been comprehensibly kicked in the bollocks, hard, by this fantastic album. It is a masterpiece, and easily their best since Felt Mountain (a record so unique that nothing can touch it). Another reason for my initial distrust was the song titles (see above photo). Add to this Alison’s Liz Fraser-like vocal leanings, and it seems Goldfrapp are trying too hard to be the Cocteau Twins, and standing on the shoulders of the best Cocteaus album, Treasure. Again, that’s been kicked in the bollocks. This is almost as good as Treasure. Yes – it’s that good! On initial hearings, however, it barely registers. All but one of the ten tracks are intimate arrangements of plucked acoustic guitar and strings – imagine a whole album of Clowns off of Seventh tree – and at first listen many of them sound alike. So clever and delicate are the tunes that they take several spins before they lodge in the mind. And lodge they do, take root and grow and unfold like a cancerous black rose in your brain. Alison’s voice is very mumbly, so you’ll need the lyric sheet to decipher these ‘tales of us’ which are all about murder, lust, revenge, sex, and gender reassignment; standard fare for Goldfrapp. Another album this recalls is Beth Gibbons’ Out of Season, which has a similar autumnal ambience, but I think this is even better than that. It’s certainly perfect for these darkening October days and will be in its element when the clocks go back. I would normally expect the disco trousers to be back for their next album, but my cynicism is rolling on the floor in agony, so go figure.
Marsheaux are a Greek duo, Marianthi Melitsi and Sophie Sarigiannidou, who produce the most sublime synthpop one could wish for. Their last album Lumineux Noir is their masterpiece – just listen to this! It’ll blow your socks off! Inhale isn’t quite as good – nothing matches the majesty of Ghost – but paradoxically in some ways it is an improvement. The synths are fatter, the beats meatier, the whole thing tighter and more driven-sounding. It barrels along without giving you chance to breathe, from the opening double-whammy of Self Control and the euphoric Secret Place through to the sinister loping of Alone, to the incredible rush that is End Is A New Start, which is one of the best things they have done and almost on a par with Ghost. (Sorry, but I love that song.) Sophie and Marianthi’s dispassionate Euro-diva voices are perfect for this sort of music, cruel ice-maidens singing about love and loss and lust. Some of the lyrics seem daft with perhaps a little lost in translation, but that’s all part of the charm. If there is one criticism of Inhale, it is perhaps a little too one-note for some tastes, but it isn’t a big problem. Marsheaux may have only one sound, and they stick to it ferociously with only the occasional experimental variation, but it is a great sound, and this is a great album.
The quintessential English autumn song. Oh my poor rheumatic back…
From the War of the Worlds soundtrack, this is surely the bleakest, saddest autumn song. You can almost see the falling leaves. Which leads us to…
Typically deadpan slice of mordant whimsy laced with beautiful melancholy.
Melodic, anthemic fare from Blackwood’s finest.
Slow and languid version of a jazz standard. Classy beyond words.
The very embodiment of autumnal melancholy.
The perfect accompaniment to a cold autumn evening by the fire.
Like Forever Autumn, another sad song about love and loss as the days grow darker.
Well, their name does evoke the American word for autumn, and this song – a cover version – is a surprisingly mellow tune about escaping to somewhere sunny, cos, ‘I hate the cold and rain and grey ugh.’
The funkiest tune on the list, to cheer you up after the gloom of all the others!