Friday, 22 September 2017

The Dramatics- In the rain

It isn't actually raining in Stockport today, as it happens, in fact it was actually quite sunny earlier (!) but, well, you know... we are clearly in Autumn now...

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Bang Bang Machine - Geek Love (original 12" mix)

I was reminded of this record while I was both reading the book Geek Love, and also while I was writing about it for my Between Two Books post.

Last time I went looking for this song on YouTube (which was, admittedly, a few years back now) I couldn't find the full version of it, and the clip that was up was an indie chart Chart Show bootleg that wasn't great quality.

If you've never heard 'Geek Love' before, stick with it because it has a slow start, but once it gets going it just builds and builds and gets better and better... I would still class it as in the top 5 of my favourite singles of all time, probably number 1 favourite single of all time.

As you'll see if you click through to YouTube, this record was self financed by the band and much championed by John Peel upon it's release in 1992. It spent several months hanging around the indie chart top ten, and spent several weeks at number one in the summer of that year I think. It also bagged the number one spot in that years Peel Festive 50, holding off PJ Harvey's mighty 'Sheela-na-gig' by one vote.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Time machine time: The missing Florence review

Back in August 2009 I reviewed the debut Florence + The Machine album, Lungs, for The F-Word, but... it was never published. Why? Because I withdrew it a few months later, fretting that what I'd written was becoming irrelevant as the band's meteoric success became increasingly apparent. I was also waiting for poor Jess McCabe (the F-Word's then editor) to surface from under the pile of reviews she was drowning in, and I wasn't sure how long that would take.

Anyway, I went looking for this lost Florence review last summer, post British Summer Time festival, with the intention of revisiting it and maybe recycling it in some way. But I couldn't find it and assumed I'd binned it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I unearthed it when beginning the unenviable task of trying to tidy up my writing archive, specifically all the punk women research. 

Because I did review both Ceremonials and How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful for The F-Word, I've always regretted pulling the review of Lungs, an album I would still regard as one of the finest of the past ten years. At the time, it seemed a sensible course of action but, reading it back now, it hasn't dated as much as I thought it would. I think what follows is an accurate account of how I felt when I was first discovering both band and album in 2009, and in some ways, I was quite forward thinking with it, so it does still work.

I can't make it look the same as it would have done had it been published on The F-Word, but I will try and make it look nice.

Here it is:

The girl in the headlights: Notes on Florence + The Machine’s Lungs

I have been trying and trying to come up with a series of suitable analogies to describe this album, and time after time I find myself reminded of the opening sequence to the film Heavenly Creatures, and the shock invoked by the raw screaming of a blood spattered Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey as they run through sparse woodland, away from the murder scene. I kind of feel it’s a most inappropriate choice on one hand, the film being based on a true story, but on the other hand this fictionalised scene is the only thing I can think of that invokes the sense of savagery, wildness and beauty this record evokes. There is something very raw, frequently violent and sometimes shockingly emotional about it.

“I want my music to sound like throwing yourself out of a tree, or off a tall building, or as if you’re being sucked down into the ocean and you can’t breathe” Florence Welch has been quoted as saying, on the bands website, “It’s something overwhelming and all encompassing that fills you up, you’re either going to explode with it, or you’re just going to disappear.”

The album opens with the sensory overload that is the single ‘Dog Days Are Over’, a song which makes characteristic use of light and shade, setting a delicate harp against sparse vocals one minute, and pounding percussion and crashing chords against fiercely impassioned words the next. It’s followed by the hit ‘Rabbit Heart (Raise it up)’, a slightly gentler ride, which was written, so the story goes, in response to Island’s request for something they could put out as a single. The resulting song is a critique of the process of negotiation and selling, of being bound to a contract. But Welch and the band take these themes very deep, so that the song becomes an almost Faustian analogy, delivered via references to Alice In Wonderland and Kate Bush. Welch is the rabbit in the headlights, or the girl in the spotlight, frozen in the gaze of the critics and the music industry at large. It’s a song about self-sacrifice that asks “who is the lamb and who is the knife?” while acknowledging that Midas is king and that, firmly in his grasp, she will be turned to gold, or in this case, profit. Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, amongst others, have reflected on the dilemma of selling themselves, or sacrificing themselves in order to be heard (see ‘Young Girls, Happy Endings’) Kenickie touched on it, in passing, during the brief course of ‘Come out 2nite’, not to mention the Clash maintaining that they wanted “complete control”, but rarely is such a common dilemma expressed with such elegance and mesmerising beauty.

‘I’m Not Calling You A Liar’, which follows ‘Rabbit Heart’, is taut and sparse, precise and slightly ghostly in quality, whereas ‘Howl’ is an entrancing shamanistic stream of consciousness that evokes much of the savagery, wildness and otherworldly beauty of the record. Like an aural Angela Carter story, it is crammed full of imagery, blood and wolves. Amongst the very high standard of songs on the album, this is possibly the best.

How did the band go from the raw guitar rock of ‘Kiss With A Fist’ to this? Well, Welch is clearly a girl who knows her Kate Bush from her Tori Amos, her Patti Smith from her Polly Harvey. Like Patrick Wolf, she seems to be an artist who enjoys, and feels comfortable in, a studio environment while being equally comfortable in a live environment. Both songwriters are equally prodigious talents as well as sophisticated and sensitive songwriters so it's a fair comparison.

Florence + The Machine, who are currently comprised of Florence Welch, Rob Ackroyd, Chris Hayden, Isabella Summers and Tom Monger, took the comparatively old fashioned route of gigging a lot before recording, and this shows in the sophistication and confidence of the finished record. ‘Kiss With A Fist’, the bands first single, was written by Florence while she was still at school. It is her young punk song, in which a couple brawl increasingly violently in a bedroom, and the runaway feel of the escalating violence is echoed by the runaway guitars and drums of the song, plus Welch’s increasingly reckless vocals. The song that follows it on the record, ‘Girl With One Eye’ also has violence as a strong theme, and it’s a very tense, menacing song with an air of sexual ambiguity (“I slipped my hand under her skirt. I said don’t worry it’s not going to hurt”) and gothic imagery alluding to cutting out eyeballs and the like, possibly reflecting Welch’s rumoured appreciation of Edgar Allen Poe.

This gothic element is also evident in ‘Drumming Song’, the band’s most recent single. In the video Welch is shown in a black leotard, high heels and cape alongside other black clad girls, dancing in a very white, light, church in Shoreditch. They look slightly bat-like in their costumes, and as the song is quite hot blooded and sexy, as well as very hard and percussive, the mood is intense but swaggery. Welch sings of a sensation that is “sweeter than heaven” and “hotter than hell”, hence the religious imagery, and while the video is eye catching, the song itself is a very strong single, and does the band proud.

By strong contrast to the single is the song ‘Between Two Lungs’, a sparse, eerie and oddly beautiful piece, which has an interesting history. It’s become important to Welch because it signifies the moment when the sound started to come together, and she began to feel comfortable within her own musical skin. She wrote it by pounding on the walls of her friend’s 8-track studio with her hands to make the percussion, and then wrote the melody on piano, an instrument she can’t actually play. The backing vocals were recorded before the lead was, and the experience taught her to be confident in experimenting to achieve the sound she wanted. The song itself is about a kiss, and it’s a sensual, tender moment amidst the emotional rage and passion. 

It is followed by ‘Cosmic Love’, which begins as a delicate swirl of harp, piano and angelic vocals before the drums come crashing in and Welch’s voice becomes more aggressive. This song has that contrast of sweet tenderness and savage violence, and it’s emotive and large in scope and sound, contrasting pain with beauty. The hand of such predecessors as 'Hounds Of Love' and Curve’s Cherry EP can be heard on it, but lightly so.

Perhaps the most subtle song on the album is ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’, a remarkably stripped down and straightforward piece, with a folky-goth sensibility that is reminiscent of both All About Eve and Patrick Wolf circa ‘Wind In The Wires’. It could easily be neglected and passed by by listeners, but whoever picked the running order for this record picked well because, set after the sparse light and shade of ‘Between Two Lungs’ and the crashing emotion of ‘Cosmic Love’ it works very well.

The subtlety of ‘My Boy Builds Coffins’ pre-empts the poppier quality of ‘Hurricane Drunk’, which I would wager on as a future single, if only because it should appeal to what one critic has dubbed “Lily Allen’s school for wayward girls”, it being about going out and getting absolutely slaughtered. It also comes in at just over three minutes, has a buoyant tune and a sing along chorus, though it’s quite deceptive as well because the lyrics are so bleakly masochistic: “I’m going out, I’m gonna drink myself to death, and in the crowd, I see you with someone else.” I feel sure that many of us, whether we happen to be one of Lily’s wayward girls or not, have had at least one night out like that. Welch has said, incidentally, that she writes her best songs when drunk or hungover, which I can’t help but think might cause her problems later on: Disorientated, bewildered, lucid but not really with it = states in which to write good songs apparently. Others would probably agree, but I can’t help but think about the long term implications of this, if only because the (very) public persona of Amy Winehouse hangs over so many young songwriters these days, especially the girls, like a most unedifying vision of the future. In many ways, Florence + The Machine have made life rather more difficult for themselves, musically speaking, by mining a series of deep, powerful and often unpleasant or dangerously euphoric emotions rather than going for the safer subjects, but I don’t think Welch would want it any other way.

The final two tracks on the album, ‘Blinding’ and ‘You’ve Got The Love’ are typical of this drive for perfection. ‘Blinding’, while sharing a number of chromosomes with ‘Drumming Song’, notably its dominant percussion, is a darkly hypnotic track, both bleaker in sound and subject than ‘Drumming Song’, making for a strong, albeit intense, ride. ‘You’ve Got The Love’, a cover of The Source and Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’ is a credible guitar led take on a song that is indisputably a modern classic. The band regularly perform this song as their encore when playing live, and the resulting version holds itself up well without surpassing the original. Welch is pitch perfect in her delivery, suggesting a strong sense of familiarity with the song, and it’s a brave choice of cover, one that reflects the high standards of the band.

In February of this year, Florence + The Machine won the critics choice for most promising rising star at the Brit Awards. This award, and it’s predecessor Best Newcomer, has something of a chequered history, at times being unerringly accurate (such as in 1999 when the public were allowed to vote and chose Belle and Sebastian over Steps) while at other times seeming like the kiss of death (They Might Be Giants in 1991) so its fair to say that it’s led to a certain amount of unhealthy interest in the band, and in Welch. That girls are seemingly in fashion, musically speaking, this year also adds to the sense of both expectation and cynicism, with a recent commentator on a Guardian article (which wasn’t even about Florence + The Machine, but which did happen to mention them) accusing Florence of the cardinal sin of trying “too hard”. This in itself begs a number of questions as regards the metaphorical codebook issued as part of the initiation into the cult of indie, nonetheless being why should trying be a sin, and how can you try “too hard”? Post Brit Award, the band were shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize, but did not win. 

Whatever the future holds for Florence + The Machine, I for one can only hope that Welch makes it through and survives, remaining both sane and unembittered by the process. I also dearly hope that she continues to make startlingly original emotive music that is both exhilarating and ambitious.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

A literary voyager reaches land

Back in March, I took the decision to embark on an epic literary voyage into the unknown by reading, in consecutive order as much as possible, the full list of books read by the Between Two Books online reading group. 

Before we go any further, I feel I should explain a few things:

Firstly, 2017 hadn’t been going particularly well for me at that point and, as such, I was in need of some escapism. 

Secondly, I’d been fascinated by the whole idea of Between Two Books as an entity, ever since I found out about it last summer.

Thirdly, I’m the kind of person who keeps a notebook of books I want to read (I start to fret if the list gets a bit short...) and this is not the first time I’ve followed a literary whim.

Specifically, when I was 15 I made the acquaintance of the infamous Mancunian fanzine writer Dean Talent and, during our brief correspondence and customary exchange of fanzines, he gave me a list of Four Books You Must read. I can still remember them now:

1) Sylvia Plath - The Bell Jar

2) Douglas Coupland - Shampoo Planet

3) Sarah Schulman - Girls, Visions, and Everything

4) Beth Nugent - City of Boys

This was in 1994, when Amazon had only just been invented and the UK had yet to embrace the internet. As such, if you wanted to read a book and the local public library didn’t have it, and you didn’t want to order a copy at Waterstones, (it generally was Waterstones at the time…) you did an Inter Library Loan for it. I think Stockport public libraries had The Bell Jar in stock, but they basically had to buy the Coupland, Schulman and Nugent titles in for me. I waited a good couple of years for the Nugent one, and at least six months for the Schulman book because it had been published by a tiny publisher in the US and, as such, was something of an ordeal to source, supply chain wise.

I can honestly say that I took something from each of the four books, even The Bell Jar (which I didn’t go much on, despite or perhaps because of being a depressed 15 year old at the time…) but that Girls, Visions and Everything was my favourite of the four.

With such a positive experience of literary recommendations to look back on, you can see why I liked the idea of playing catch up with the Between Two Books list of books.

When Between Two Books first started, the books were chosen by Florence Welch but, as time has gone on, it’s become a more fluid process with other musicians, friends, and writers entering the fray and selecting titles, almost in an unconscious chain reaction kind of way, which is cool.

As I draw near the end of the list (so far), I’d like to look back on the past six months of reading and reflect on it. It seems only fair to say that I didn’t enjoy every book I read, but that I did find them all compelling enough to finish. Overall, it’s been a really positive experience that has introduced me to a number of writers I might not have ever read otherwise, as well as reacquainting me with other writers whose earlier works I’d read but whose careers I haven’t followed so closely since. It’s occurred to me along the way that, increasingly, I read a lot of non fiction and, also, (and I was aware of this) I tend to read mainly British novelists. Which isn’t as parochial as you might think, given that I mainly watch Japanese and Korean films.

Anyway, please sit back and enjoy a breathless rollercoaster ride through my reading brain these last six months...

We begin with Gwendoline Riley’s Opposed Positions, a novel I found to be a bit of a masochistic read due to the subject matter. It revolves around destructive family relationships, particularly the relationship of the estranged father with his writer daughter (the narrater). While I was looking forward to reacquainting myself with Riley's work, having previously loved both Cold Water and Sick Notes, I finished the book with the concluding thought that the Gwendoline Riley period of my life has now passed. I was a bit sad about this, but I wasn’t entirely surprised. The two books I’ve mentioned served a purpose for me at the time, in my early/mid twenties, but I’ve since let them lie. In a related note, It’s a bit like listening to ‘Hurricane Drunk’ now (which I can still do, very happily): That was me when I was 22, basically, or a specific night when I was 22 anyway. Which, even now, all these years later, I can still look back at and wince, feeling the same echoing note of baffled, drunken, hurt. 

Second book, Kirsten Reed’s The Ice Age, was a very pleasant surprise, and I think that this has probably been my favourite of all the Between Two Books books so far. From the blurb of the back I was half expecting it to tread similar territory to Emily Prager’s Roger Fishbite (which I also love, but in a different kind of way), in that the central characters are a teenage girl and an older man, on the road together, but it wasn't like that at all. It was a much more ambiguous read, and there was a dreamlike quality to it that contrasted sharply with the violence. It is a mysterious, lucid, and beautiful book that I kept because I knew I’d read it again.

I read Ivana Lowell’s Why Not Say What Happened? out of sync with the rest of the sequence. This was because Stockport Libraries had a copy of it whereas they didn’t have copies of the Riley or Reed books. As such, I read this one first. While I really enjoyed it, it took me quite a while to read, but I didn’t mind that because of the high quality of her authorial voice. It would be simplistic to call it a scandalous tale of the upper crust, a modern day Mitford, but it would also be simplistic to call it a misery memoir or a drugs memoir: It has elements of all three, but ultimately transcends the three genres. It is a compelling read, and she has a nice line in dry humour and self depreciation which I really liked.

It felt apt to follow up the Lowell book with another memoir, in this case, Emma Forrest’s Your Voice In My Head. I grew up with Emma Forrest, or (more specifically), with her early writing career. She was one of a small group of very young female music journalists in the 1990s who, in an abstract sense, could be seen to have served as role models for me, merely by their existence and the fact that they were under 18 and writing about music for the music press and/or the broadsheets at the same time as I was writing my fanzine Aggamengmong Moggie. The other two were Caitlin Moran and Bidisha. Stylistically, I was more influenced by Gina Morris at the NME and Sally Margaret Joy at Melody Maker, but still. Emma Forrest drew on her experiences of the music industry when penning her first novel, Namedropper, and while I loved it at the time, I moved on quite quickly and, despite trying, never really got into her later novels.

Your Voice In My Head is different though, partly because it’s a memoir, but also because it feels like she is going back to her roots. The locations and characters feel more familiar somehow, the story more compelling and honest. It feels like the missing link between Girl, Interrupted and Prozac Nation, it has elements of both. There is the self destructive side, but also the redemptive side, and it works really well.

The next book was something of a literary classic: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it was a pleasant surprise for me in that it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be (ie impenetrably literary). Weirdly, I found myself thinking of Thomas Hardy a lot while reading this, but in a good way (and as someone who has read Hardy at degree level, you won’t find me saying that very often…) in that the set up at the start of the novel, with the return of the heroine and the gossiping neighbours, reminded me vaguely of Return Of The Native. None of the rest of the novel did though (that would have been weird…) although there is tragedy within the book, as well as redemption. I suppose what I really liked was the characterisation and attention to detail, including that it was written in dialect. It made it much more vivid and real, like you were eavesdropping on a secret world.

Young Jean Lee’s Songs Of The Dragons Flying To Heaven And Other Plays, which I read next, was an unusual read. I read it in bed over the course of about a fortnight I think and found it quite hard going but at the same time, oddly moreish. I felt as though I wasn’t really understanding a lot of what I was reading, but the odd bit would leap out at me and I’d find myself liking it. It might be that the plays would make more sense if I saw them performed because it felt as though it was slipping through my fingers like melting ice as I read it, so that any meaning I could gleam from it was gone quite quickly after reading. 

Equally baffling, albeit in a different way, was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy Of Dunces, a book that falls into a category that I call the ‘You should have read me by now!’ book. With that in mind, I was eager to read this one. I’m not sure quite what I was expecting, but I didn’t get it. It is a horribly compelling book, quietly addictive and really, really enjoyable. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on a kind of twilight alternative universe of 1960s New Orleans where very few of the characters are at all likeable, but are fascinating all the same. Bits of it seemed to foreshadow Tales From The City, also the Ballad of Peckham Rye, but you would file it next to Catcher In The Rye ultimately.

Having purchased the soundtrack to The Great Gatsby last year so that I could get ‘Over The Love’, it was probably more than time that I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Because it’s a slim volume, it is easily transportable and, as such, I read it at work on breaks, on the bus, and in bed and got through it very quickly. It was much easier to read than I was anticipating, and I liked it a lot. I could also see how it foreshadowed and paved the way for a favourite novella of mine, Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany's, both in terms of narrative structure and moral ambiguity.

It was a bit of a jolt to go from the Bright Young Things of The Great Gatsby to the 1980s of Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot, but I got over it. Mainly because this is a book to lose yourself in, in the very best sense. As with Dodie Smith's I Capture The Castle, it is stuffed full of literary references, and the characters and their world feel so lovingly, immaculately created in every detail that you can’t help but be thoroughly drawn in. I also loved that he resisted the idealised ending, which ties in with the whole central theme of the 'marriage plot', and didn't tie it all up neatly in a bow at the end. Reading it was a very different experience to reading Eugenides debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, a book I was obsessed with when I was 19 and which, while hauntingly beautiful, definitely deliberately holds you at arms length.

Another book to devour turned out, to my surprise, to be John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids, which I would happily declare a work of dystopian genius. What surprised me the most was both how subtle it was and how little it had dated. I began reading it on my lunch hour at work one Saturday and then, when I got home that evening, I got myself a drink, sat down on the sofa, opened the book… and didn’t move for several hours. I think I had tea at some point, but I don’t remember. I just devoured the book, finishing about midnight. It’s a more ambiguous read than you would think, with believable characters and plausible science to back up the science fiction. It also has a great twist/reveal towards the end. I will probably read this one again at some point.

A lot of the books up until this point had been quite short, but this changed with the next book in the pile: Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch. The Secret History is another book that falls into the ‘You should have read me by now!’ category, and, having heard the reading of it on 4Extra a year or so back, I was looking forward to The Goldfinch. It is another book to lose yourself in and was, unfortunately, the book I was feverishly finishing off on the 23rd May, the morning after the Manchester Arena bombing. It’s one of the many reasons why I didn’t find out that the bombing had happened until 18:50 that evening. (Day off work, devouring really good novel, online but not looking at news sites or social media,  not having the radio on, no smartphone…). Due to the nature of the cataclysmic incident near the start of the story, which goes on to  shape and overshadow the central characters lives, it felt horribly appropriate to be reading this book on that day. It is an amazing book, but will forever be associated with that event for me now. 

It was with this in mind that I was relieved to find that the next book in the pile was Lena Dunham’s Not that kind of girl, a series of essays by the creator of Girls. This meant that I had a largely light dose of relief in what was a bloody awful and very tense week. Heartburn, by Nora Ephron, followed, and is another one of those ‘You should have read me by now!’ titles. Again, it was not what I was expecting (ie, something very thematically heavy with impenetrable prose), instead it was a very funny, quick read, held together by an immensely likeable heroine. Bit like a 1970s comedy of manners, US style, but with more gender politics. I may re-read this one at some point. 

I should confess at this point that I don’t really read poetry. I think the problem lies with me though, rather than with it: I read very quickly as a rule and I don't think this approach is best when you're reading poetry. I think you have to take your time with it and let it soak in. Because I tend to rush at things, I don't soak poetry up very well as a rule. Having said that, I did enjoy Mira Gonzalez’s I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough To Make Us Beautiful Together, just not enough to keep the book. I decided that I wanted to send it back out into the world for someone else to enjoy, rather than hoard it. The Gonzalez book was partnered with Ted Hughes Birthday Letters, the collection of poetry he wrote for Sylvia Plath, and this was one of the few Between Two Books selections that left me largely untouched. Again, I think I read it too fast. But I also think it probably wasn’t for me. 

By strong contrast, I really enjoyed Patti Smith’s Just Kids, which had been on my list of books to read anyway, and not purely for the punk women connection. As a memoir it had a poetic quality, and was very vivid and lucid. It’s unusual because it is a memoir of her relationship with Robert Maplethorpe, not so much a memoir of Patti Smith, and in that context, it really, really works. I got a lot from it. It wasn't a heavy read, it flowed easily and read easily.

By contrast, the dynastic soap opera/tragedy that is Lauren Groff’s Fates & Furies felt like a hard slog initially, in that this was a book that I didn’t really start to enjoy until the second half: I definitely found Mathilde to be a much more interesting character than Lotto. It is worth putting the hours in with this book, I’d say, simply for the thrilling ride that is the second half. It will surprise and shock, it does not go where you think it’s going to go. 

After this late to start but ultimately thrilling ride, it was something of a relief to embark on The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. This was a much gentler affair in a number of ways, despite the sometimes existential subject matter. I found the reading experience with this book to be similar to the one I had with Andrey Kurkov’s The President’s Last Love back in 2007 (a satire on Russian/Ukrainian relations, written before the annexing of Crimea but post Orange revolution). Not because the themes are in any way similar (they aren’t) but because each are long novels with seemingly gently unwinding, meandering plots told through many, many short chapters, that manage to pull themselves tightly together at the end with a series of neat, shocking twists. Perfect bus reading books in both cases.  I did enjoy this one, but I didn’t love it, and I felt quite detached from it while reading it, while still retaining a fond affection for many of the characters, particularly the indomitable May Kasahara. 

The next book, Night Flowers: The Life And Art of Valli Myers by Martin McIntosh and Gemma Jones, proved to be by far and away the hardest of all the Between Two Books choices to track down. I resorted to the Inter Library Loan scheme to get this one, and after a library in the US said no, my library got me a copy of it from a library in Australia. I think it’s out of print, and it’s really, really expensive to buy. Because it arrived earlier than I anticipated, and because it took me ages to read The Goldfinch, it got read out of sequence: I didn’t want to over-keep it and have to ask for a renewal when it had travelled so far to holiday in my book pile. It is a beautiful artefact, with lots of gorgeous images of both Valli and her artwork, and I learnt a lot about Valli Myers from reading it, but it wasn’t one of my favourites. Again, I probably read it too quickly.

To get back to poetry again, the next book was Salt by Nayyirah Waheed, which, for some reason, I just couldn’t get into, and I’m not sure why, other than I probably rushed it. The other book of poetry it was paired with, Bone, by Yrsa Daley-Ward was a book I really liked. Her poetry is almost like prose sometimes in its density of words, and some of the poems felt more like stories or short plays than poems, which might be partly why I was able to enjoy it more. And I kept it as well.

The next book was Tupac Shakur’s posthumously published collection of poetry, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, a book I’ve been aware of for many years, largely because it got reviewed a lot in the music press when it was first published, but also because I think it was around when I was working in public libraries and used to be pushed at teenage boys a lot to try and get them to read more. Given this, I was interested to read it, but... didn’t really engage with it particularly. It was paired with Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, which was published in 1989, three years before the epic Bang Bang Machine single of the same name, and which felt like a particulary twisted bildungsroman crossed with cautionary tale, Frankenstein style. On another level, it also felt like a weirder Armistead Maupin novel. Most importantly though, it was an utterly absorbing read, accessible but strange with a dark, dark heart. On one hand the stuff of nightmares, on the other hand, an offbeat eccentric family story. 

The next book in the pile was Grayson Perry’s The Descent Of Man, which I really enjoyed (though enjoyed is perhaps the wrong word). It was at once easy to read and well worth reading because it makes it’s very serious points in an often entertaining way, but it doesn’t sacrifice the seriousness of the subject matter by doing so. It is structured, and written, in a way that is easy to digest, and given the complex nature of the subject, it is a remarkably short book. Part essay, part plea to the modern man. 

Because The Descent of Man had been the previous choice, it must have made sense to the Between Two Books folk for Grayson Perry to choose the next book. This turned out to be Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise Of Shadows, an essay on aesthetics, written at a time when it was feared that Japanese traditions and ideas of beauty were being undermined by creeping westernisation. It is hard to read, and meanders about a bit, but it’s worth sticking with. I found it a bit of an exercise in mind stretching, but it was worth it I think.

It was followed by Natasha Khan’s (Bat For Lashes) pick, Hubert Selby’s Last Exit To Brooklyn, which is one of those books that comes with a literary health warning, not to mention an introduction by Irvine Welsh. Reading this book, it’s easy to see why he would have been inspired by it, not just thematically, but by Selby’s ear for dialect. I had, weirdly, encountered the infamous gang rape scene before, when it was reproduced in a scouse situationist fanzine called The Scream in 1993, so the shock value of that particular story within the book was slightly neutered for me. On the other hand, reading that scene in context made more sense than reading it alone had. The central sadness at the heart of ‘Strike!’ was the most oddly moving though I think: Yes, he is a repellent character, but… Does he deserve his fate? It is a gritty, often shocking read, but it’s also vivid and sometimes beautiful, like the sun shining through a clear bit of a grimy window. 

While Last Exit To Brooklyn was a short, but demanding, read, Jonathan Safran-Foer’s Here I Am, which was chosen by Nick Cave, was easy to read while being similarly epic in scope to The Goldfinch. It’s an absorbing book that you can inhabit and live inside, and the more apocalyptic elements mean that it feels oddly timely from a sociocultural point of view. I haven’t read any of his other books, but I know he did a 9/11 related one and, as such, the geopolitical aspects of this book shouldn’t come as a surprise. I was reading this book while simultaneously working on my review of the Noga Erez album, which felt very apt given that modern Israel and what it is to be Jewish today are very much at the heart of both pieces of work I’d say. 

The state of the nation Here I Am has been followed by the lyrical The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride, a book I’d been planning to read anyway. I hadn’t been aware before reading it that it was written in what felt, initially, like Irish dialect, which gave way to a very particular literary and dialogue driven idiom. Once I’d got used to this though, it became a much more all encompassing read and I was quickly drawn in. It proved to be a very dark, but also very romantic (in the visceral, compulsive sense, not in the flowers and butterflies sense...) book, and I was really happy that McBride chose to end it the way she did because I thought she was going to do a Hardy on it and make me cry, but she didn't, and the book was even stronger for that decision I think. Why? because it then becomes a novel about strength, about overcoming the dark, destructive stuff life throws at you, rather than being destroyed by it.

And so I drift slowly back to shore, six months on, with rather more to show for my Between Two Books literary excursion than purely an overflowing pile of other, neglected, books, waiting to be read. I would liken this particular literary experience to doing a second English degree, but in a really good way, not just because essays and exams weren't involved (I always liked essays and exams anyway), and despite missing out on discussing the books with other readers. I’ve been introduced to writers and works I probably wouldn’t have read (or necessarily stuck with) otherwise, and I’ve generally had my faith in a good book rekindled, which is always a good thing. A big thank you is due to Between Two Books I feel.

I’ve discovered in the last week or so that I’ve managed to miss a book out, namely Jay Griffiths Tristimania: A Diary of Manic Depression, which I added to my booklist earlier this year in a slightly different context, so no matter: It will be read at some stage.

Between Two Books and their followers have just finished reading, and discussing, Too Much And Not The Mood, a collection of essays by Durga Chew-Bose, which was recommended by Tavi Gevinson.

They are currently reading The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, which is recommended by Florence Welch.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Pink Milk return, with 'Awakening of Laura'

My favourite Scandi goth pop band are back!

For the uninitiated, I am referring to the excellent Pink Milk, aka Maria (vocals and drums) and Edward (guitar and bass), who I first became aware of last year when they released the glacially elegant but ferociously unyielding 'Detroit'. At the time, I likened it to "being engulfed in icy wind and rain, but in a good way", a sentiment I would still stand by. There followed the mighty 'Drömmens skepp’ (Ship Of A Dream)', a track that was commissioned for use on Swedish TV but wasn't used because it was just too unnerving. I've also just now discovered, via the bands Soundcloud, a frankly terrifying rendition of Foreigner's 'I wanna know what love is', which removes every ounce of saccharine sentimentality from the original and drives it screaming past Twin Peaks, Jesus And Marychain and My Bloody Valentine's territory into a sonic abyss from which it emerges ravished and wild eyed, like a Swedish Bang Bang Machine being fronted by Siouxsie Sioux.

'Awakening of Laura', the new single, sounds lighter and sparser in tone, but equally beautiful. It still has that icy brooding quality to it, but there is light amongst the dark, more Cocteau Twins than Banshees. It was inspired by the 1894 ballet The Awakening of Flora, and it heads up the bands debut album, Purple, which is out this autumn.

I am really looking forward to hearing it.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Taking stock

A nice festival moment: The crowd during 'Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)', Florence + The Machine at British Summer Time festival, 2nd July 2016. 

Looking back over this summer from a purely musical perspective (and even then it still means a summer not without tragedy) I find myself wondering if I had any kind of inkling that I was going to devote so much time to thinking about, or writing about, or sourcing secondary material about Women And Music Festivals.

Had I been asked about it in, say, mid June, I would have been very surprised I think.

While I had a grounding in the two basic issues: Lack of women playing music festivals, and the issue of safety for women attending music festivals, it would never have occurred to me to write about them myself due to my lack of personal festival experience. It's amazing where a bit of full on rage, provided by the right stimulus (thank you, once again, BBC World Service), can take you.

A friend of mine attended a large UK festival in about 2010 or so, partly to offer moral support to a (female) musician friend of hers who was performing there that year. They had a bit of a walk about the site afterwards, found a nice woody kind of place to sit and chill out... A couple of days later, after news of a rape at that particular festival had been reported, she thought back to that moment of peace and tranquility and realised that the rape had happened not very far away from the area where they had been chilling out.

It doesn't make you feel safe.

Around the same time period, as I recall, women were being raped in tents in Occupy encampments.

What conclusions do you end up drawing from that as a woman? As a female who is into music? Who is politically engaged? It screams out at you 'This is not for you'.

I mentioned in an earlier post a very positive story that, while it emerged from dark circumstances, showed the concern and care the staff at Glastonbury showed a young woman who attended this years festival. Unfortunately, later in the summer, there was another festival tale, this time from British Summer Time in London, where another young woman had been forced to get staff there to intervene when she caught a man taking up skirt shots of her in the pit. While it did sound like the staff reacted really quickly on that occasion, the police are not prosecuting. The incident has instead inspired a petition to clarify the legal rights of those who find themselves violated in this way.

To look at the musical issue, and the representation issue, I don't want to repeat what I've said in my piece for The F-Word, but what I will say is that we should never be putting our female musicians in a position whereby, at every music festival they perform, they are made to feel as though they carry the expectations of the rest of their sex on their shoulders; that's just too much for anyone to bear. Instead, we should be working towards a situation whereby a female performer at a festival is treated exactly the same as a male performer at a festival, both in terms of bookings, and in terms of respect. She should be judged only on performance, not on her sex, and not on performance purely through a prism and series of expectations defined by her sex.

I found when I was sourcing clips for my series of fantasy festivals that, even when women have performed at the big festivals, such as Glastonbury, there isn't always good quality footage of their performances available online. This is because such performers have often played on the smaller stages, and were not filmed by the BBC. The footage available tends to be patchy at best, often nonexistent.

Consequently, I lowered my expectations and began looking for good quality live clips in general, not necessarily of festival performances. My biggest friends in this quest turned out to be NPR, KEXP and Audiotree, all multimedia US based platforms who recognise the importance of broadcasting and releasing online live music, and who seem to take a particularly strong role in supporting new and emerging artists. Florence + The Machine had BBC Introducing (who have also recently championed Georgia) early on in their career, Overcoats have NPR, KEXP and Audiotree.

This lack of festival footage of female musicians is worrying though. It makes it easier to erase those performances that have happened if they are not filmed, written about, discussed. It means that they don't embed themselves in an audiences psyche, they don't become a seminal musical moment. That they will never, ever appear in one of those dead tree press Greatest Gigs Of All Time lists.

History, increasingly these days, happens online or is not officially happening until it is online. But YouTube clips are ephemeral. What happens to all those memories in a post YouTube world? where can I relive those moments when that platform has gone? Have I really experienced Florence + The Machine at British Summer Time Festival in July 2016 if I haven't since watched the few clips that exist of that gig again and again on YouTube?

These are wider issues, obviously, that I can't solve myself.

But when I spent a Sunday morning in June crawling around the living room floor with bits of paper with different artists names on them, arranging them into embryo fantasy festival bills, I wasn't trying to solve all of those issues. I was just trying to do something, however small, for visibility. I wanted to big up those performers I had listed at the end of my piece for the F-Word. I wanted to tell them that they matter.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Beth Ditto performing "Oo La La" Live on KCRW

Because Beth is still very new, as a solo artist, there's not a lot of live material available of her sans Gossip online. This is a session version of 'Oo La La' live on KCRW from earlier this year. Her performance of 'Fire' on Graham Norton is also worth a watch, and I'd keep an eye out for her live later this year.

For a taste of the full live powerhouse that is Beth Ditto, this clip of her owning the stage at T In The Park with Gossip in 2007 should dispel any doubts.